MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

MW on DVDs: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Chaplin at Keystone, Moulin Rouge … and more


Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Three Stars)

U.S.; Edgar Wright, 2010

Oh, to be a kid again. To feel the juices and saps running madly, to get wildly excited about comic books and top ten hit-lists and about the last good new teen movie you saw (the whole canon from A Hard Day’s Night to Superbad) and maybe even a (No! Whoa!) video game or two. To fall in love every ten minutes or so, to wake up in a new bed now and then (now, now, pray God), to feel possibilities churning out of every flashy half-cynical gizmo that contempo-pop culture spews up at you, to anticipate sort of breathlessly every new load of possible super-stuff you can’t afford, blazing like neon from the record shelves or bookshelves or videoshelves, or the video/DVD rows, offering possible (non-cannabis, you Republicans) highs or potential mind-blasts waiting, it seems, around every street corner.

It isn’t great? It isn‘t good? Isn’t that four bleepin’ stars? Well, wait another day. Something may happen. Something always happens. If not a “Hey Jude,“ then maybe a “Happy Together.” If not a Citizen Kane, then maybe a Chinatown. If not a Nosferatu, then maybe a Shaun of the Dead. Zow! Bam! Zonk! R-I-I-I-ng!

Maybe I’m just getting a little, uh gee, jaded and old. But Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World — which is definitely the most inventive and entertaining new DVD out this week (okay, maybe even this month) — pleased me, but didn’t really fill me with joy and chuckles, as it probably will some (maybe a lot of) audiences. Liked, not loved. Dug, not devastated. Good, not great. Pow, not Wow! But that may be good enough. It’s only this week’s top new-release DVD movie, after all. That’s all it has to be. At least, it made me appreciate Michael Cera again, and, truth to tell, I was getting a little sick of him.

You see, Michael Cera — with his elongated elfin looks, and his dirty little smile, his sweetly dragged-out shnook-moves and sneaky-quick reactions, his Peter Pan hipsterism and trembling-on-falsetto nasal geek-squeak of a voice — had begun to seem to me like his generation’s prime example of “Who is that guy?!?”

You remember. Whatever sex or sexual preference you are. (Change gender or adjust fantasy in the following, if you prefer.) You’re walking down the street, and you see some girl you’ve had a crush on for a while — the one with the great smile and the great walk and the swing-loose-and-steal-your-heart hair — the one you fantasize and dream about, and you look at the guy she’s walking with, laughing with, maybe even just woke up with, and you say to yourself, “Who is that guy?!?”

To yourself, stricken, you sotto-voce: “Where the almighty hell did he come from?” “Hey, why does he rate?” “Why does he have that smile on his face, dammit?“ And it spoils your day, for ten minutes or so. (If you stop and talk to them, maybe the smile goes off his face, but just for a second.)

That’s Michael Cera. Who is that guy? He plays the role to perfection, because Cera can always kid himself. He doesn’t have the usual kind of actor’s vanity, and, before we can get sarcastic, he beats us to the punch. He isn’t ashamed to act like a dork, because, hey, he’s walking down the street, behind the camera, and he’s the one with that great-looking girl beside him. Eat your hearts out, you jealous a–holes.

Here, in this ad-campaign-certified “epic of epicness,” based on a graphic novel by Canadian Bryan Lee O’Malley, and smartly helmed by Wright ( the guy who made the mother of all zombie comedies, Shaun…Dead) (see above), Cera is playing, to kind-of-perfection, a goony-but-cute 22-year-old garage band bass player named Scott Pilgrim (Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim’s grand-nephew?), who plays with a band called Sex-Bob-Omb, and lives (and shares an apparently half-chaste mattress) with a cool gay roommate named Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin) and W.W.‘s various steadies. Scott’s other Sex-Bob bandmates are Kim the gal drummer (Alison Pill, the epitome of cute-snide), Young Neil (Johnny Simmons) and Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) — and though they’re sure as hell no Buffalo Springfield, I say “Love the One You’re With.”

Scott also has a cutie of a high-school girlfriend named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong, a living doll). But he nevertheless falls hard for a lavender-haired (sometimes), poker-faced punk charmer named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who can really stab you with her eyes). I would have stuck with Knives anyway, but those deadpan dolls really mess up your mind when you’re teen or twenty-something. (You figure they know something you don’t, and maybe they do.)

But guess what? To win Ramona’s heart (such as it is) and her bod (admittedly a killer) and her soul (Who knows?), Scott has to vanquish the dread Seven Exes — a snarling or smirking septet of former Ramona boyfriends (and one ex-girlfriend, and two twins), who show up, every ten minutes or so, and preoccupy her mind and this movie.

Who are these guys? Over and over, Scott gets challenged by the Mag Seven. So he gets this determined Michael Cera look on his kisser, gets down to some kick-ass Jackie Chan action, and, if he kicks their asses (they range from Jason Schwartzman as the smiling smug boss-man of your nightmares to Chris Evans as a blond Brit action star with an Eastwood growl), those defeated studs dissolve into coins, ready for the next video game match.

That’s all there is. There ain’t no more. Oh wait, there’s also a rock band showdown/contest (There always is), with Sex-Bob-Omb taking on all comers. You’ve seen it all before, except maybe for that over-occupied mattress in Scott‘s room. (Can‘t these roomies find a thrift store somewhere?) But not quite like this.

Director Edgar Wright (who made the killer Shaun, and the okay Hot Fuzz) has a new idea every ten seconds or so, sometimes faster. Some of the gags are the old TV “Batman” this-is-a-comic-book ‘60s shtick, cranked up ten notches or so. Some of them are would-be sub-Stan Lee smart-assery. But a lot of them work. When lovers kiss, hearts spray at you. When a video-store vixen cusses, she’s bleeped. The movie splits up into comic panels. When Scott hits a guitar note, the screen goes “D-D-D.” Edgar Wright has his tongue so far and so constantly into his cheek, you sometimes worry that he’ll strangle on his own whimsy. Every ten minutes or so.

But the movie makes you laugh. It made me laugh. I bet even you guys out there who didn’t like it much, or got nervous because of Wallace on the mattress, half-snickered every now and then. “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World” fulfills its mission, at least if you’ve ever played a video game (I haven‘t), read a comic book or “graphic novel” (guilty) or lusted for a deadpan doll (God, guilty, guilty). It’s a sharp movie that gets sweet at the climax.

There are worse ways to spend your time and stupider ways to drop your coins. Michael Cera, you lucky dog you, enjoy it while it lasts. And I have just one thing to say about Edgar (Zombie Man) Wright.

Who is that guy?



Chaplin at Keystone (Four Stars)

U.S.; Charles Chaplin, Mack Sennett and others, 1914 (Flicker Alley)

Charlie Chaplin was 25 when he signed with the Keystone movie studio in December of 1913. He was a short, unusually agile young Britisher, with an unusually radiant smile, hailing from the slums of London, and fresh out of Fred Karno’s touring comedy troupe. And he had just contracted to make a year’s worth of two-reelers for Hollywood‘s reigning master of slapstick movie comedy, Keystone’s head laughmeister, Mack Sennett. Chaplin — or Charlie, as he was soon to be known almost everywhere on the planet — thought making a few movies would be good publicity for his stage act.

But soon the young comic’s movie career had far surpassed his old theatrical one. Chaplin was a meteor. No, make that a storm of meteors, a hurricane of wildly successful hyphenates. He acted in his first two-reeler, Making a Living (produced by Sennett) in February of 1914. It wasn’t too good. Then he began to write, and to direct.

By the end of 1914, working almost non-stop, he had acted in 35 comedies for Keystone, including the first-ever silent comedy feature, Tillie’s Punctured Romance. He had written and directed (or co-directed) 18 of those pictures, and already made some of his first classics (Dough and Dynamite, Laughing Gas, The Masquerader, The New Janitor, The Rounders). He had created, refined — and even thrown together the costume and false mustache for — the character, The Little Tramp, who would become the 20th Century’s most universally recognized symbol of laughter, tears, helpless love, and kicks in the ass.

He was well on his way to becoming the most popular comedian, or actor of any kind, in the world.

Quite a year. And it’s all here: restored, preserved, presented and beautifully annotated in this magnificent comedy collection from Flicker Alley: 32 of the Keystone films, and two fragments, with only one short film, His Friend, the Bandit (written and directed by Sennett), still completely missing and unaccounted for. But never give up, as the Tramp would tell us. After all, one of the films excerpted here, A Thief Catcher, was found, and announced, just this year, in 2010.

What the Flicker Alley set documents and displays is one of the screen’s great comic creations, as it progresses step by step, skip by skip, to hilarious fruition. Chaplin’s Tramp — with his ill-fitting clothes (the jacket too tight, the pants too large, the derby perched tippily but unfallingly on his brow), his nose-length smudge of a mustache (a style which that satanic rat Hitler was gauche enough to steal), his disastrous flopping shoes, his lewdly flipping and slashing cane, his quick shifts between an incandescent smile and stunned gloom, his resourceful kicks and whirls and leaps and bouncing skittering hop-hop-hop right turns — that was Charlie’s prize persona, his mother-lode, his comic crown jewel, his fortune.

Chaplin created many other characters as well that first year, including a gallery of marvelously sleazy gigolos, villains, and rakes, some pitch-perfect park leches and mashers, one of the screen’s great inebriates, a few wittily henpecked and mischievous middle-class husbands, a clutch of inexhaustibly energetic working class misfits and scamps (mad movie studio prop men, daffy dental assistants, and bomb-throwing bakers), and even, briefly, one of the Keystone’s celebrated, hopelessly inept Kops.

But The Tramp was the “little fellow” whom the world always laughed at and loved, equally. And we see him here, growing and accumulating in comic stature, in his gloriously shabby black-and-white mish-mash of a costume and all the Charlie-ish tics and tricks of behavior, from his very first appearance in the costume, as a camera-hogging snot and devilish scene-vandal, in only his second film, the improvised docu-comedy Kid Auto Races at Venice — even though his sort-of-official crystallization and apotheosis as the character was not until next year, at a new studio, Essanay, with The Tramp.

The Keystone films, great though they are, have often been relatively neglected in Chaplin‘s short-film canon, ranked almost automatically behind the exuberant Essanays and the splendid Mutuals, seen in fuzzy prints, with gaps. But this set restores the balance. 1914 for Charlie was not back-seat slapstick. It was one of the prime creative years of Chaplin’s entire career, yanking him from relative obscurity to growing world-wide fame and near adoration (like, later the Beatles), in one swift kick in the pants.

It was a wonderful life; and, in later years, he would lament the loss of the old days at Keystone, when they would take Mabel Normand and a camera out to Echo Park and its trees and lake, and come back with a movie. A fine year, a glorious year, Heaven. Suffering a few sub par directors at the start, Chaplin worked with great or highly gifted colleagues — producer-director-writer Sennett, saucy little costar-codirector Mabel, and grand fellow clowns Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Charley Parrott (a.k. a. Chase), Mack Swain, Chester (“I am Mr. Walrus”) Conklin, mug-happy Ford Sterling (the Keystone lead comedian whom Charlie replaced) and his “Tillie” Partner, Marie Dressler, a Broadway empress who had to wait for talkies to became a superstar. (You’ll see why.) And he worked with them all well and generously, with full appreciation of their comic gifts and of how to use them, and with seeming utter lack of scene-stealing malice — though of course, he could steal a scene from anyone, if he really wanted to.

What was Chaplin’s special magic? So wild and crazy, so subtle and delicate, so cruel and loving, so immaculate and rowdy, so real and so fantastic, it tends to escape most anyone who puts on a derby, twirls a cane, and tries to duplicate it or to catch Charlie, even Robert Downey Jr. (who made a wonderful try) in “Chaplin.” “A goddamned ballet dancer!” W. C. Fields muttered about him, in sheer frustration. “The best director in the world,” his supreme directorial colleague Jean Renoir insisted. “A genius,” said many, said most. “The best of us all,” claimed his top rival as silent movie comedian-creator, the great Buster Keaton — the friend with whom Charlie was happy later to share the Limelight.

Whatever it was, it was a magic, born at Keystone, that lasted though most of Chaplin’s life, through the days of the Little Fellow of the Essanays, the Mutuals, the First Nationals, and through the Tramp, Tramp of Shoulder Arms, The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights and Modern Times through the little barber and his doppelganger, the tyrant of Tomania, Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator, through Monsieur Verdoux, Cavallero in Limelight and the King in New York — until his very last scene, in his very last movie (what a long, mostly happy path it was from that first bright day in Kid Auto Races in Venice) as an elderly seasick waiter on a tippy luxury liner, in A Countess from Hong Kong.

We were mean to him, we Americans. We forgot all the laughs and revels and great good times Charlie gave us (and will keep on giving us forever) — and in the darkest era of that bully McCarthy, we (or some of us) called him a Communist, called him a rapist, called him a secret traitorous Jew — just as, in earlier days, they called Mabel (unfairly) a whore and Fatty (dubiously) a murderer.

We let our Attorney General fatuously demand that Chaplin prove his “moral worth.” We reviled Chaplin in the press, we took away his papers, and we kicked him out on his ass in 1952. Don’t kid yourself: If the head Tea Partiers had been around then, they would have led the charge. If Charlie were around now, they’d boycott his movies. They‘d damn the Tramp and his tales as propaganda for a Homeless program, and they’d throw him to the wolves — and Glenn Beck.

I saw all these movies, some again, most for the first time, over four wonderful days, and it was like being bathed in smiles, in light and laughter. It was silent movie bliss. And it all happened first in 1914, in the Keystone Studio, in Mack Sennett’s place, in that eternal spring and summer of Los Angeles, California before World War I. Hey Mabel…It’s a sunny day. Let’s take a camera, a cameraman and Mack Swain out to Echo Park, and let’s all make a movie together. (Silent movies, with intertitles and musical scores.)

Films in the list below of special interest, are designated with one asterisk, and films of unusual artistry and distinction with two. (Yeah, I thought they were almost all of special interest.) All movies are 1914 U.S. productions, produced by Mack Sennett.

Includes (First Disc): *Making a Living (D: Henry Lehrman, 1914.) Charlie’s first film. He’s a sneaky would-be reporter, with fancy clothes and large mustache. Lehrman costars. *Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. (Lehrman, 1914). Shot off the cuff at the actual races in Venice, with Charlie instructed to interfere ad lib with the filming and make himself obnoxious, this film marks the first appearance on screen of the Tramp mustache and costume, thrown together by Chaplin from the wardrobes of fellow comedians, like Ford Sterling. *Mabel‘s Strange Predicament (Mabel Normand, 1915). This film was shot first though (and released afterwards), so it makes the real debut of The Tramp costume. Charlie is a drunk harassing Mabel, Chester Conklin her husband. Between Showers (Lehrman, 1914). The Tramp, rain-soaked streets, a girl, a cop (Chester Conklin).

*A Film Johnnie (George Nichols, 1914). The Tramp wreaks havoc backstage at Keystone. With cameos by Lehrman, Sterling and Fatty Arbuckle. *Tango Tangles (Mack Sennett, 1914). Chaos at Venice Dance Hall. Chaplin does his peerless drunk act, with Sterling and Arbuckle. *His Favorite Pastime (Nichols, 1914). The Tramp, drunk, gets in woman trouble (Peggy Pearce). Weak film, but the gorgeous Pearce was Charlie’s first Hollywood girlfriend. Cruel, Cruel Love (Nichols, 1914). Upper-class non-Tramp Charlie botches a poison suicide attempt. With Minta Durfee. The Star Boarder (Nichols, 1914). Non-tramp Charlie gets caught on camera, flirting with landlady (Durfee). With Edgar Kennedy. Mabel at the Wheel (Normand/Sennett, 1914). Goateed fashion plate Charlie is villain at the Vanderbilt Cup road race, with Mabel a contestant, Sennett a boorish audience member. Shot at the actual race. *20 Minutes of Love (Joseph Maddern/Charles Chaplin, 1914). Charlie’s debut as writer and co-director: a park comedy, with Tramp, in Westlake Park. *Caught in a Cabaret (Normand/Chaplin). Lovelorn waiter Charlie pursues Mabel to high society party.

Disc Two: *Caught in the Rain (Chaplin, 1914). Chaplin’s first film as solo writer-director: drunken Charlie copes with rain, ledges and sleepwalking neighbors. *A Busy Day (Sennett, 1914). Charlie in drag, disrupts parade; Sennett plays a documentary director. *The Fatal Mallet (Sennett, 1914). Unusually brutal, head-bopping park comedy, costarring Tramp Charlie, Normand, Swain and Sennett. *The Knockout (Sennett, 1914). A Fatty Arbuckle comedy, with Fatty as a demented boxer, Edgar Kennedy as his irascible opponent, and Charlie, in a cameo, as the hapless referee. *Mabel’s Busy Day (Sennett, 1914). A truly cynical comedy: Beleaguered hot dog vendor Mabel, is persecuted at the race track, by heartless thief and miscreant Charlie. *Mabel’s Married Life (Sennett, 1914). A sharp park comedy, with Mabel torn between top-hatted hubby Charlie and lecherous Swain.

**Laughing Gas (Chaplin, 1914). Chaplin takes over solo writer-director chores for good, in this boisterous farce about a painless dentist and his painful assistant (Charlie). *The Property Man (Chaplin, 1914). Extremely rowdy Chaplin comedy about a hilariously incompetent prop man (Charlie) in a vaudeville house, who almost succeeds in destroying the show and drowning the audience. *The Face on the Barroom Floor (Chaplin, 1914). The famous Hugh Antoine d’Arcy poem about an artist-turned-tragic-drunk, is recited by Tramp Charlie in a bar, but his memories don’t match the lines. Recreation (Chaplin, 1914). Very poor, incomplete print (the only bad one in the set) of a Chaplin park comedy.

Disc Three: **The Masquerader (Chaplin, 1914). Excellent Chaplin comedy set at Keystone, with Charlie appearing as himself (sans mustache), in his Tramp outfit to shoot a film, and, after he’s fired for missing cues, returning in a terrific drag act, as a flirty female studio visitor. Arbuckle has a marvelous cameo with Charlie at the makeup table. **His New Profession (Chaplin, 1914). Charlie at his most unsentimental. Charley Chase (aka Parrott) hires drunkard Charlie to tend his wheelchair-bound dad; mayhem follows on Venice and Ocean Park pier. ** “The Rounders” (Chaplin, 1914). Chaplin and Arbuckle in a great double-drunk act (you won‘t see a better stoned routine anywhere), as two soused husbands fleeing their wives. **The New Janitor (Chaplin, 1914). Another great one: Charlie is an inept janitor turned surprise hero. *Those Love Pangs (Chaplin, 1914), The fair sex are relentlessly pursued by Charlie and Chester (Conklin), climaxing in a bumptious nickelodeon mashing scene.

**Dough and Dynamite (Chaplin, 1914). A real comedy classic. Political too. Anti-Unionists Beware: A baker’s strike thrusts Charlie and Chester into baker’s hats and baking duties in the basement. But the angry strikers have secreted dynamite in the bread. Howlingly funny and one of the biggest early silent comedy hits. *Gentleman of Nerve (Chaplin, 1914). Charlie misbehaving at Picot Park Speedway. **His Musical Career (Chaplin, 1914). Charlie and Swain as piano-movers of questionable competence, stymied by transposed address numbers. His Trysting Places (Chaplin, 1914). One of the best park comedies. Two couples (Charlie and Mabel, Swain and Phyllis Allen are thrown into chaos, when the men accidentally swap jackets, and the letters in their pockets now appear compromising. One of the best park comedies.

Disc Four: **Getting Acquainted (Chaplin, 1914). Another top-of-the-lake park comedy with the scrambled couples Charlie and Mabel and Mack and Phyllis enjoying sylvan mishaps and sunlit mayhem. *His Prehistoric Past (Chaplin, 1914). Charlie dreaming himself into the Stone Age. With Swain as a rival cave man, and Charlie‘s brother, Sydney Chaplin, as a modern-day cop. **Tillie’s Punctured Romance (Sennett, 1914). This slapstick vehicle for the huge (and we do mean huge) Broadway star Marie Dressler, with Marie playing the hot-tempered cornball heiress Tillie, also stars Charlie in one of his lounge lizard roles, as Tillie’s suave seducer, and Mabel as that gigolo’s sexy babe. It’s done in Sennett’s best knockabout style, and it was a huge (and we do mean huge) commercial hit, one of the American cinema’s biggest grossers before Birth of a Nation. You can see why Chaplin was so unique in his time and ours when you compare his subtly controlled, ingenious, endlessly inventive slapstick with Dressler’s frantic blow-you-down mugging as Tillie. She was a favorite colleague of Chaplin’s, and came delightfully into her own as a great movie character actress in the talkie era, in movies like Dinner at Eight and Anna Christie. But here she seems to be playing full-steam to the back of the balcony, while Charlie and Mabel more quietly and effortlessly catch the crowd. Of course, Mack Sennett wasn’t the subtlest director around. But when he had Charlie, he put greatness on screen.

Extras: Excerpt from another Chaplin Keystone film, A Thief Catcher (Lehrman, 1914) (See above); Charlie et sa belle (Charlie’s White Elephant), a 1916 French cartoon, with animated Chaplin figure; Inside the Keystone Project, featurette on the Lobster Films-Flicker Alley project; Silent Traces: The Keystone Locations, a featurette revisiting the real-life outdoor settings of Charlie‘s Keystone films; Rare Image Gallery; Booklet with a Jeffrey Vance essay on Chaplin, and Vance’s valuable notes on the films.



Moulin Rouge (Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

U.S.-Australia: Baz Luhrmann, 2001 (20th Century Fox)

We’re in Paris, at the Moulin Rouge, during the heyday of Toulouse-Lautrec — but we’re really in movie musical paradise, the land of lovers and dreamers and dancers, or artifice and melody, where anything can happen. And will.

My favorite musical of the 2000s, even though it doesn’t have any great singers or hoofers, and uses a partly borrowed score (from Elton John’s “Your Song,” to Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” to Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy,” to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” to Madonna‘s “Material Girl”) . But it does have incredible visuals, swoony décor, and explosive editing and a cast that includes Nicole Kidman as the beauty and Ewan McGregor as the poet, Jim Broadbent as the boss-impresario, Richard Roxburgh as the villainous Duke, and John Leguizamo as Toulouse — terrific actors, all doing their own singing and dancing. “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn…”

Extras: Commentary by Luhrmann and others, Featurettes and interviews.



Grown Ups (Two Stars)

U.S.; Dennis Dugan, 2010

Adam Sandler, who produced, co-wrote and stars in the amiable, raunchy 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 is 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’d missed.) So, speaking as an old bench warmer, who had one fleeting moment of glory, I would have liked 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.

Love Ranch (Two and a Half Stars)

U. S.; Taylor Hackford, 2010

This should have been better, but it’s not bad: a pungent fictionalized drama about the Mustang Ranch shooting, when Oscar Bonavena, the boxer-lover of Sally Conforte, wife and partner of Mustang owner, Joe Conforte, was killed on the premise. The Mustang is the famous legal whorehouse outside Reno, Nevada. The movie, which doesn’t claim to be too accurate, changes the Confortes to the Bontempos, Charlie and Grace (Joe Pesci and Helen Mirren), and Oscar to “Armando Bruza,“ (played by Sergio Peris-Mencheta) a Brazilian boxer with a head injury — and it centers the story around the doomed love affair of Grace and Armando, and Charlie’s crazed jealousy.

The acting by the central trio is superb. But the script, by journalist Mark Jacobson, is a little too obvious. Ultimately, I didn’t really believe the story, and I felt Jacobson was pushing points too hard and sometimes playing a little too automatic/romantic and politically correct. You can’t do better than Mirren (Mrs. Hackford) and Pesci though, and it’s a kick in the head to see the genius psycho of Goodfellas back again. You think he’s funny? Yeah!

Charlie St. Cloud (Two Stars)

U.S.; Burt Steers, 2010

Mystical love stories about star-crossed teen lovers, and baseball-mitt pounding kid brothers from beyond the grave, aren’t my cup of saccharine-laced tea. But if you have to look at something like that, you could perhaps do worse than Charlie St. Cloud. It’s a ridiculous movie, but it’s also good looking, well shot in Pacific Northwest coast forests and shorelines. Its star/lovers are hot-looking too and also likeably flirtatious.

Professional cutie-pie Zac Efron (of the awful High School Musical movies and the very good but sadly ignored Me and Orson Welles) plays the title character: guilt-plagued Charlie McCloud. Amanda Crew is svelte and spunky boating enthusiast Tess Carroll. And that baseball-heaving ghostly kid brother, young Sam McCloud, is smashingly played by Charlie Tahan, a good kid actor who looks a bit like a youthful Steve Zahn, repainted by Norman Rockwell.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a movie that makes a lick of sense or impinges on the real world in any meaningful way, you‘re better off going back to Inception for another shot at the labyrinth, or waiting for some new ultra-realistic American indie.

Charlie St. Cloud is based on a novel by Ben Sherwood called The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, and it plays like something that might have slipped away from Nicholas Sparks on an off day. The movie begins with the brothers McCloud, poorer kids mingling with the smug smart-ass rich kids, winning a sailboat race and jumping and hugging each other in sunny freeze-frames.


It’s too sweet to last. Soon we’re introduced to their pretty single mom, Kim Basinger as Claire St. Cloud. And, all too soon, the brothers have driven off together in the night (Sam insisted on tagging along, which is a real danger sign), and gotten involved in a horrendous car-car-truck accident, one fatality and the temporary flat-lining of Charlie. He‘s saved by gabby paramedic Florio Ferrente (Ray Liotta).

But Sam isn’t gone. His spirit lingers on, pounding his baseball mitt in the nearby forest, and waiting for faithful Charlie, who has promised to meet his dead little brother every day for a game of catch and a catch-up confab. Nobody else can see Sam of course, which eventually leaves them wondering why Charlie is babbling so fervently to the air and the trees. (“I talk to the trees, but they don’t listen to me,“ as Clint Eastwood once memorably sang in Paint Your Wagon.)

Eventually, five years pass. Mom Claire has left Charlie and relocated. (I really wondered about her readiness to leave both her dead son and the living one.) And Charlie has gotten a job at the local cemetery so he can be near Sam and any other stray spirits who might materialize. He has a nearly incomprehensible Brit buddy named Alistair (Augustus Prew), and a crush on a fetching lass who shows up: a Kate Beckinsale-ish ex-classmate and dish named Tess (Amanda Crew), who makes a fuss about the cemetery flower arrangements. Waiting in the wings, is paramedic Florio, who has a message for Charlie

You may wonder why Charlie has been able to show up every day for that game of catch for all that time. I wondered myself. No sickness? No pressing engagements? No thunderstorms? What will the poor guy do when Tess on her boat gets predictably lost in a storm? Take a rain check?


Will love survive the grave? Will we ever see a marquee pairing of Amanda Crew and Augustus Prew? Will Success Spoil Zac Efron?

Tune in tomorrow. Meanwhile, with Efron, staring mooningly at Tess and the camera, Charlie St. Cloud may please teen or ‘tweens still in full squeal over Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner, and ready for a Zac attack or two — even if the guy isn’t a vampire, or even a werewolf. Boating enthusiasts and devotees of loves beyond the grave may also brush away a tear or two.

But how much can you expect of a movie with a paramedic named Florio Ferrente and a ghost with a baseball mitt named Sam?

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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