MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. The Rest. Take Me Home Tonight, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Amelie, Skidoo

Take Me Home Tonight (Also Blu-ray) (Two Discs) (Two Stars)
U.S.; Michael Dowse, 2011 (20th Century Fox)

Hyphenates of the world, arise! Topher Grace has just executive produced a movie, directed by Michael Dowse (FUBAR) from a story Topher Grace co-wrote, in which Topher Grace plays Matt Franklin, a 1984 L. A. underachiever who works at Suncoast Video, and dreams of being a character in a John Hughes or Cameron Crowe movie.

One fine day Topher, excuse me Matt (what a charmer), sees his all-time high school dream girl supercrush, Tori Frederking (sexy Aussie Teresa Palmer, what a babe). (She was Number Six). Wow! Tori, or “The Frederking” as Topher/Matt calls her when he wants to sound cool, is now in banking and she suggests they meet at a cool party, so he lies and tells her he works for Goldman, Sachs.

Then Matt and his eccentric/comic best buddy, wild and crazy goofball-in-a-suit Barry Nathan (Dan Fogler of Fanboys and that Spelling Bee play), heist a cool car, and go to the party with Matt’s prodigy sister Wendy (Anna Faris), who’s dating a jerk named Kyle, what a loser (Chris Pratt). And there was coke in the stolen car, so the guys do coke and sneeze coke and get coke thrown all over themselves when a car-bag inappropriately opens. And, oh yeah, people fall into swimming pools. (People always fall into swimming pools.) And everybody wants to get laid, and nearly everybody does get laid, and the guys are arrested by Matt’s dad the cop (Michael Biehn), which is the scene you saw in the trailer.

Topher, excuse me Matt, finally shows what a mensch he really is by…Wait a minute. I’ve got some notes scribbled here, but I can’t believe what I’m reading. Holy shit! That’s how the movie ended? Really? Somebody wrote that? Somebodt shot that? No. Way. No. Way. No, that must have been in some other Phil Dick alternative world. Not this one.

One problem about movies like this. Take Me Home Tonight acts like these are sort of underprivileged kids because Topher/Matt — a guy who went to college and whose sister is going to college, paid for by their policeman father — works at Suncoast and isn’t an investment banker. Hey, I don‘t care how many copies of Sixteen Candles he can’t sell, or how many racks of videos Dan Fogler knocks over while ineptly trying to get a date, or how hard it is to get the phone number of The Frederking, Teresa Palmer (what a babe), these are not underprivileged kids. Not remotely.

And, by the way, one problem about nostalgia for the ’80s. The ’80s sucked. The ‘80s blew. The ‘80s were horrible. Despite John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, despite The Breakfast Club and Say Anything, despite Brazil and Fanny and Alexander and Raging Bull, most of those ‘80s movies, let me tell you, were Dreck City. Dreckerino. Dreck cubed. Dreck to the fifteenth power of Dreck. Trust me. I don’t care how young you were, or how much coke was in the glove compartment.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. “Take Me Home Tonight?” Not on your life.

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” (Three Stars)
U.K.; Mark Herman, 2009 (Miramax/Lionsgate)
    A movie adapted from a children’s book set in the Holocaust sounds like a risky proposition – though teenager Anne Frank’s Diary remains our best-loved chronicle of that tragic, bloody period. But Mark Herman’s film of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas dodges most of the traps, wins most of its bets. The film shines a light upon a significant area of that awful darkness.
   It’s an engrossing, sometimes powerful work. Not too sentimental, not too horrific, it suggest the enormity of a whole cultural bloodbath by keeping us mostly at the edges, on the perimeter, observing the horrors of an Auschwitz through the eyes of an innocent: an inquisitive but “protected“ boy, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), ten year-old son of the camp commander (David Thewlis).
    Bruno is an adventurous boy who doesn’t realize the significance of much of what he sees — the haggard, bullied prisoner named Pavel (David Heyman) who works in his father’s kitchen and says he used to be a doctor, the tall wire fence behind which he sees another sad little boy his own age named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), the billowing black smoke which rises behind the fences, consuming unseen other innocents, other children and adults, part of the community of six million victims in the World War 2 Hitlerite orgy of  hatred.
     The Boy in the Striped Pajamas brings that home. In the film, we first see Bruno running free and playing with his friends in the Berlin streets, peeking at a party with his grandpa (Richard Johnson) and outspoken grandma (Sheila Hancock), then moving to the isolated camp wit his parents and older sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) an impressionable girl who meets there a handsome young lieutenant named Kotter (Rupert Friend) and becomes fertile soil for the Nazi propaganda spewed by their tutor. Bruno meanwhile meets Shmuel, whom he first sees sitting near the wire, head shaven and down, clothes dirty, taking a rest from the day’s toil.
     The boy actors are both excellent and their friendship is emotionally convincing. No one else Bruno sees is his age. And Shmuel, and the world behind the wire, begin fascinate him.

     We see almost everything in the film, until the furiously intercut, near D. W. Griffith-like climax, through Bruno’s eyes. And that mean’s we’re screened in a way from the horror. Bruno’s parents (Thewlis and the equally fine Vera Farmiga) are to a degree monsters, the father accepting the butchery he supervises as necessary and patriotic, the mother concerned mostly because of its possible deleterious effect on her children. (Not the Shmuels.) But because we see them through Bruno’s eyes, she appears nurturing and rebellious, he seems stern but good. Bruno’s friendship with Shmuel continues because he doesn’t talk about it, protecting himself. Finally comes the ending — stark, shattering, at least partly inevitable.

     The film’s opening sections seem to me faultless, even though the German characters are largely played by Britons and Americans, speaking with “Masterpiece Theater“ accents. That’s a reflection of the filmmakers’ origins. Director Herman, who made the irresistible critical hit Brassed Off, is British and John Boyne, the original author, is from Dublin. (He claims there’s no intended metaphoric hint of British-Irish division and “troubles” in his portrayal of the young friends.) There is a problem with the ending, which is, in a way, almost too horrific, too melodramatic, for the rest of the story. I‘m sure though that that ending and its undeniable excitement help contribute to the film‘s high popularity overseas. 
    I don’t look at this lightly, or from a distance. My father’s relatives were largely German and Hungarian Jews and gypsies, so many of them probably were interred or died in the camps too. (Divorced from my mother and living in another city, he never discussed it with me.) Yet I confess I feel a fascination for Holocaust films — for Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Eroica, Night and Fog, Fateless, Korczak, and the others — probably because of their “There but for the grace of God” effect. How can almost any problem, however injurious, be worse than this nightmare of “No Exit” anonymous persecution? How can we reconcile the fact that Holocaust deniers still exist, that wars still rage and that anti-Semitism and dozens of other irrational, brutal bigotries still survive and thrive?
     We are not innocents any more. We are, like Bruno and Shmuel, living in the shadow of the horror. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, reveals it again, makes us face it undisguised, pulls us with terror and pity into the presence of evil.

“Amelie” (Also Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)

 France: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001 (Miramax/Lionsgate)

 Buoyant, irreverent, and madly charming, this international crowd-pleaser from Jean-Pierre Jeunet creates a magical Paris not in a French movie studio or through special effects (Jeunet’s blithe strategies in film fantasies like Delicatessen and City of Lost Children), but in the real streets and sidewalks and cafes and shops of Paris today (or 2001), which Jeunet turns into a carousel of whirling people and gorgeous colors and sumptuous sights and sounds.

In a way, it’s Jeunet’s riff on both  Zazie dans le Metro and Breathless. But here the central character is not a child or an American adventuress but a delightfully generous and piquant young Montmartre waitress (Audrey Tautou), who pursues happiness for herself and others in hilariously unexpected ways. Amelie’s cohorts and comrades include Mathieu Kassovitz (the love interest), Yolande Moreau, Rufus and Dominique Pinon. This is a film in the tradition of ’30s Rene Clair, the French New Wave (Truffaut, Godard, Demy and Malle) and also of  the madcap Swinging ’60s high jinks of Richard Lester and the Beatles. Written by Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Featurettes, Chat with Jeunet; Q&A with Jeunet and cast; Auditions; Storyboards.

“Skidoo” (Two Stars)

U.S.: Otto Preminger, 1968 (Olive)

Skidoo is generally regarded as Otto Preminger’s worst movie, and it’s hard to argue — though it’s the kind of bad movie that’s fun to watch, and hard to forget, if impossible to excuse. The plot is truly ridiculous: A gangster named Tony Banks (Jackie Gleason), who’s ordered by the mob to break into jail and kill an old pal and  possible snitch (Mickey Rooney), also sees his wife (Carol Channing) bedding down with a mob prince (Frankie Avalon), while Banks’s daughter (Alexandra Hall) runs off with a hippie (John Phillip Law) and his “Tune in-Turn on” brood. Acid may be somewhere on the premises: in the jail as well as in the hippie haven.

Preminger has been sometimes unfairly dissed by his critics. It was Mort Sahl who stalked out of the New York Premiere of Preminger’s Exodus (a good movie about the founding of Israel), yelling “Otto! Let my people go!” Skidoo though, has few defenses, except perhaps a plea of insanity. Indeed, the whole cast seems to have been assembled in a madhouse lottery or a bad dream: The others include Burgess Meredith, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Peter Lawford, Austin Pendleton, Frank Gorshin, Fred Clark, and, in the final indignity and his last movie performance, Groucho Marx as God, a lecherous, cigar-smoking gang boss. (Unfortunately Chico and Harpo weren’t around to play The Son and The Holy Ghost.)  As you’d suspect, almost every single role is close to a career nadir. The song score by Harry Nilsson is not bad, but very annoyingly staged. The title number “Skidoo”, sung by Channing, is not just an embarrassment, but a howling embarrassment. 

 Skidoo’s script was by a young ’60s counter-culture writer named Doran William Cannon who perhaps impressed Preminger with his extensive research; he seems no stranger to acid (LSD). The movie, to put it mildly, was not a career-booster for anyone, except possibly Nilsson. But screenwriter Cannon, a few years later, had a success of sorts with a similar script. He wrote Brester McCloud for Robert Altman. Altman, of course, encourages improvisation in his casts. Perhaps Altman also had a soft spot for Preminger; two years after Skidoo, and one year before Brewster McCloud, Otto’s brother, Ingo Preminger, produced M*A*S*H.

At the end of the movie, under the credits, we can hear someone almost yelling off camera. It’s Preminger. Who can blame him?  Otto, let your people go!

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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