MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. The Rest: Larry Crowne, Bellflower, The Trip, Despair, Phaedra


“Larry Crowne” (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Tom Hanks, 2011

In Larry Crowne — a romantic comedy with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts that should have been a timely, funny show, but isn’t — Hanks plays the title character, an up-from-working-class managerial guy suddenly cut adrift from his life, and forced to try to find a new one. Casting around at a local community college, he takes a class from Roberts, as a discontented teacher who can maybe help Larry, if she can first straighten out her own problems: alcohol and a worthless husband. After a while, Larry looks better and better to her

This is the kind of role Hanks seems perfect for: a hard-working, decent, smart middle-American guy, a likable Ordinary Joe coping with severe, but all-American, problems. It’s a role he actually dreamed up and wrote for himself. Hanks not only directed and produced this movie; he co-wrote the script, with Nia Vardalos, the writer-star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding (which Hanks and wife Rita Wilson produced).

Larry Crowe, is a longtime U. S. Navy veteran (a cook), who got his job at U-Mart — which sounds like a Wal-Mart knockoff, but apparently sells big boxes — right after military service. He has been there ever since, working his way up the U-Mart ladder and he’s become a well-liked manager who wins scads of Best Employee prizes. Suddenly, the door is slammed in his face. Summoned to talk to his bosses (who include Dale Dye, the military advisor on Forrest Gump), Larry is told that his lack of a college degree means that he can’t rise any higher in the organization, and therefore has to be let go. (Larry, the poor schmo, thought he’d been summoned to pick up another Best Employee award.) It’s a pretty ridiculous pretext for a firing at a big box store — surely the company has known about Larry’s school record ever since he arrived — and we suspect that one of his bosses, a jerky-looking one-time worker who was promoted ahead of Larry, may have been politicking. But it doesn’t matter. In a matter of minutes, Larry is gone.
I think he should have sued U-Mart, for unjust firing, for ageism and for promoting softie easily manipulated little supporting-actors ahead of him — or at least he should have thought about it. But affable Larry, instead, enrolls at a local community college, the fictitious East Valley C. C. — and there he meets Julia Roberts as discontented Mercedes Tainot. Beautiful, discontent, borderline alcoholic, she’s the teacher (in public speaking), who may change his life, or at least provide the classy romantic comedy we’re all waiting for.
There are other colorful East Valley students and teachers around too: prickly economics Professor Matsutani (played, in a John Houseman mood, by Star Trek‘s George Takei) and a batch of multi-ethnic fellow students, all young, plus a motor scooter club Larry joins at the behest of the sensationally cute Tali (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), to the consternation of her sometimes friendly, sometimes surly boyfriend Dell Gordo (Wilmer Valderrama). Also there is Larry’s philosophical neighbor Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer) and Lamar’s wife B’Ella (Taraji P. Henson), who always seem to have a yard sale going — though Cedric/Lamar has too much furniture and not enough jokes.
You can tell where this story is going almost as soon as Larry gets fired. But that’s not really the big problem with the movie. Most of us probably want Larry to start putting his life together again, and most of us probably also want him to end up with Julia — though apparently Hanks had qualms about the older guy-younger women romances and had to be coaxed into it.  The problem with Larry Crowne is that it just isn’t well-written, or surprising, or funny, or compelling, or moving enough, though God and Gump know, it tries to be. Hanks sometimes nails those qualities with his direction — which is, as you’d expect, affable and easy and generous. The show’s heart is in the right place, but not its mind or its funnybone. It’s nice but dull — and it’s way too obvious.
Larry Crowne
, I think, also makes a big narrative blunder, from which it never recovers, in painting Mercy’s husband Dean (Bryan Cranston) as a failed writer and self-pitying disheveled loser, who spends his days surfing for porn on the Internet — and then compounds that mistake by showing us Dean‘s (or the movie’s) idea of pornography, which consists of bikini bathing beauty shots that look as if they came from a Sports Illustrated layout.
To be blunt, having Dean be such a walking stubble-faced horny catastrophe diminishes our sympathy for Mercy. And it deprives Larry of what could have been the slick, classist, nasty antagonist he needs here and just doesn’t have. The movie could have used say, a Jason Bateman-style smug stud (or Cranston in that kind of role), someone who sees Larry as a loser, and is probably cheating on Mercy.  A cliche? Maybe. But a cliché that works is better than a weird new innovation (like bikini porn) that doesn’t. And anyway, some of the best romantic comedies, including the oft-cited ones by Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, George Cukor or Howard Hawks, or even Splash and Sleepless in Seattle are often movies that use seeming clichés and then bend and reshape them and make them believable.

 There should have been more political/dramatic content in Larry Crowne — since it’s about an ordinary guy getting screwed over by the establishment, and colleges are exactly where, in our lives, we tend to be most political (because there are so many people to be political with). Is it Hanks’ celebrated good guy disposition that makes him, at least in this case, shy away from politics — say, from making the scooter club less of a Mild Bunch and something more community-minded or cause-oriented?

 Did his nice-guy approach also tilt Hanks against creating a real antagonist or effective mean heavy working against Larry throughout? Hey, those heavies exist in real life. A lot of them look down on common people, or worse, don‘t even think they exist, don‘t even care. Too many of the bosses among them fire good workers or threaten their livelihood and life’s work every day, and they’re spending tons of money right now to make sure that the Larry Crowns of this country, and many people in far worse shape, stay screwed. Whatever, whether I’m right or not, this movie suffers for not having a stronger viewpoint. So do all too many other romantic comedies these days, even though their lovers are fashionably, “correctly,” young.

“Bellflower” (Two Discs) (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Evan Glodell, 2011
Bellflower — a Sundance sensation reportedly shot for only $17,000 by first time writer-director-costar-co-editor Evan Glodell — introduces us to a couple of dudes, Woodrow from Wisconsin (first-timer Glodell) and Aiden from the neighborhood (first-timer Tyler Dawson) who live north of L. A. and are obsessed with Mad Max, the coming apocalypse, muscle cars, WMDs and two hotties named Milly and Courtney (Jessie Wiseman and Rebekah Brandes). They all meet up at a barroom cricket-eating contest, which Milly wins. They dally awhile. Then Bellflower pulls us down into screaming ink-black, bloody macho-creepo pathology-drenched hell.
The movie fakes us out. At first it looks as if it’s going to be a funny-sad romantic comedy about twenty-somethings on the fringe, with a lot of bar scenes, four-letter talk and onscreen sex, and then it descends into road warrior-ish, violent, over-the-edge fantasies.
I didn’t like it all that much, or at least as much as a lot of other critics. I found it entertaining but a little light on depth or truth or imagination, and often as obsessed with movie fantasies as its main dudes. Things began to strike me as odd, the moment that Milly, on their first date, said she wanted to be taken to a really grungy, dangerous eatery, and Woodrow suggested one in Texas, and she said sure, and they took off.

 But I‘ve got to admit, Bellflower is an incredible achievement for a Z-budget indie. (If it was iteded partly an audition tape for Hollywood, it should be a successful one.) Glodell and his cinematographer, Joel Hodge, get a strong visual style; they shoot their Valley scenes with a custom-built (by Glodell and guys) digital camera that makes everything look smeary and hot and dirty. The actors simultaneously play their scenes sort of Cassavetes-real and B-Movie-overblown, and there’s a scary, edgy feel to it all, that makes you uneasy and uncomfortable.
In the first part of Bellflower (the name of a street where part of it the picture is set), the main story is a quadrangle, or a pentangle, surrounded by slackerisms. Woodrow loves Milly, who cheats on him and splits with Mike (co-editor Vincent Grashaw), and so the distraught Woodrow takes up with Courtney, who’s the big crush of Aiden.
Aiden meanwhile, seems to love Woodrow as much as his muscle car. He devotes himself to building and fine-tuning that custom baby for his best bud (a black hipmobile with “Medusa” slash-painted on the side) and also to exotic weaponry (including a flamethrower). Since Glodell and his company apparently rebuilt the custom cars and the custom cameras and maybe even the flamethrower, we can see why this movie is so hipped on outlaw technology — especially technology that has a cult movie source, like Mad Max.
The unease we feel though is not always pleasurable. Some of the last act of Bellflower is so bloody-violent and misogynistic that a number of Bellflowers’ partisans (the yey-sayers were the majority of the reviewers) and especially the ones hailing the film as a work of genius (Godard and Linklater crossed with George Miller), have felt compelled to explain or excuse the gory, nutty-seeming climax by saying that it’s all a fantasy (a dream sequence brought on by trauma maybe, like the one in Du Barry was a Lady) and not really happening. Maybe. I hope so. 
Anyway, it occurs to me that a movie about a bunch of Valley guys making a low-budget indie movie like Bellflower, and with the writer-director-star maybe using that film as part-revenge for a bad relationship, might have been really interesting. Maybe that would have been the masterpiece. But I’m always glad when somebody makes an American indie breakthrough — or a foreign indie breakthrough for that matter. More power to Glodell and his gang. I’d be astonished if this movie doesn’t get him bigger chances and higher budgets, and he deserves them.
Of course it would be hard not to muster more of a budget than $17,000. Or to get more production value out of it than they do here. This movie’s credits list fourteen producers, four camera people (cinematographer Hodge, a camera operator, an assistant camera and a steadi-cam operator), a Foley artist, six mixers, a sound effects editor, a boom operator and a digital visual effects artist. All that, and more, and a cast, and the fixes on the camera and car, and maybe a little catering from Fatburger, for $17,000?  Maybe they just meant the initial pre-post-production budget. Or the pre-production budget. Maybe Glodell is a genius. At any rate, he’s certainly a guy with a big future, maybe in chop-shops and accounting as well as in movies.
Extras: Documentary, Featurette, Out-takes; Original trailer.
The Trip (Three and a Half Stars)
U.K.: Michael Winterbottom, 2011 (MPI)
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon — or very clever comic facsimiles of them — take a road trip through provincial England to gather material for a compendium and analysis of England’s finest off-the-beaten-path restaurants. The food looks  good, the roads are long and winding, and the scenery is  green and pleasant. But what results is more like a compendium of England’s finest Michael Caine impressions.
 Not that that’s a bad thing. Coogan and Brydon (whatever their deficiencies as drivers and as loyal uncomplaining friends) are killer comic gabbers, inspired improvisers, superb impressionists and absolute masters of humorous insult. In addition, neither of them drool while they eat, a crucial point for this film, which has more conversation while sitting and dining,  than in any other motion picture of my memory since My Dinner with Andre. And, most important of all, both stars do a mean Michael Caine imitation.
Try it yourself after you watch the movie. Caine’s accent is not exactly straight Cockney, and there are hints of Stanley Holloway and Terence Stamp and even Julie Andrews in the first act of My Fair Lady. Actually, I think Brydon’s Caine is a little better than Coogan’s, even though Coogan is richer and more famous, and taller, than his little buddy. But they’re both impressive. I don’t think that even Michael Caine does himself quite as well. Sean Connery: he’s a different story. To do Connery, or to do Caine doing Connery (which is even tougher), you’ve got to bite off the Cockney and gargle the Liverpool and mix it up with great growling gobs of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and then spit a Scottish burr though your teeth. “Connery. Sean Connery.”
The film that these two jokers — Coogan and Brydon that is — make, or make up, with the help of director Michael Winterbottom (no relation, unfortunately), is definitely one of the funniest out this year. Or of the last two years. Or at least since last Wednesday. And, compared to the screenplays for those idiotic, vacuous so-called comedy movies they keep shoving at us unashamedly every week for review, I bet this script cost zilch. If there was a script. Which I frankly doubt.
 Meanwhile, I can’t wait for The Trip Two. It may mean nothing to you, but I really want to hear Coogan’s or Brydon’s impression of Sean Connery doing Michael Caine,  or, if they prefer, of Connery doing Caine, or of both of them doing Elvis, or of Peter Sellers doing Robert De Niro doing Al Pacino, or of Margaret Thatcher trying to do Winston Churchill. Or of Winston Churchill singing “Zip a Dee Doo Dah.” One other thing you should know about this movie, though: it makes you very hungry. If I were the multi-plexes playing The Trip (a vain ambition), I’d stock up on English food — on shepherd’s pie, and bangers and mash, and fish and chips — for the concession stands whenever The Trip plays.  And I’d plan to have at least one Michael Caine-imitators-sing-“Alfie”  karaoke contest in the lobby. I tell you, he isn’t easy.
In case you were wondering, this movie has nothing to do with the 1967 Roger Corman film The Trip, starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern, and Dean Stockwell, and allegedly written by Jack Nicholson, supposedly while at least partially on LSD. Nor does it have any connection whatsoever with Easy Rider, which Hopper, Fonda, and Nicholson made in 1969, while, some say, under the influence of marijuana, or something very like it. Nonetheless, I hear Fonda does a great Dennis Hopper impression (rest in peace),  and Nicholson does a truly wicked Roger Corman. None of them though, are worth two shits as Michael Caine.
Extras: Deleted Scenes; “Making of” Featurette; Behind the scenes footage; Trailer; Excerpts from long-lost Michael Caine film “Steve Coogan isn’t Worth Two Shits as Me, Either.”  
Despair (Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
Germany: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978 (Olive)
R. W. Fassbinder made Despair — an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel about a candy manufacturer in ’30s Germany who’s going crazy and thinks he’s found his doppleganger — in the middle of his greatest period, 1978-1982, the time of The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lili Marleen and Fassbinder’s masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz. But, it’s not as strong as those pictures, and for a movie set in Germany during the rise of Hitler, it sometimes seems unsettlingly disengaged. It wasn’t the English language breakthrough he wanted. 
It’s a very good film anyway: an intelligent, high-style examination, of  decadent lives and a civilization about to plunge into Fascism and madness too. In a way, Despair is an hommage to Luchino Visconti, another gay art film master, and to the movie Fassbinder once named as his all-time favorite, Visconti’s 1969 epic of moral and social collapse The Damned — whose star Dirk Bogarde here stars for Fassbinder as the deranged candy man Hermann Hermann. (Shades of Humbert Humbert in “Lolita.”) With Andrea Ferreoll, Volker Spengler, Peter Kern and Bernhard Wicki (who directed the classic German anti-war film The Bridge).  Photographed, smashingly, by Michael Ballhaus.
Extras: Documentary The Cinema and its Double (U.S.: Robert Fischer, 2011). With Interviews with Fassbinder, Stoppard, Ballhaus, Ferreol and others.
Phaedra (Two and a Half Stars) 
Greece: Jules Dassin, 1962 (MGM Limited Editions)
In 1962, Jules Dassin — whose resume included such film noir classics as Rififi, Brute Force and Night at the City, the lusty Greek romantic comedy Never on Sunday, and the much-praised political drama He Who Must Die (adapted from Nikos Kazantakis’  great novel “The Greek Passion”) — seemingly decided to make a complete fool of himself by adapting Euripides’ classic play “Hippolytus,” resetting it in modern day Greece, and casting his wife, Melina Mercouri  as faithless wife Phaedra and Anthony Perkins as her stepson lover Alexis. (Raf Vallone plays Phaedra’s lusty husband, Greek shipbuilder Thanos — an Anthony Quinn sort of part, with more than a few nods to the already legendary modern day shipbuilder Aristotle Onassis.)
Dassin was then at the peak of his fame and power, both retrieved from the near-wreckage of his black list years, and consolidated by the huge worldwide box office and critical success of his jewel-heist masterpiece Rififi. He was also directing as well as he ever had or would. But Dassin made a strange, strange choice with Phaedra. He had already played an American boob infatuated with the cheerful prostitute played by Mercouri in Never on Sunday, shaking her hips to music by Mikis Theodorakis — who also scored Phaedra and later, wrote the even more famous melodies for Michael Cacoyannis’  film of Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek, starring the two actors, Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates, who, with Mercouri, might have made Phaedra work.
 Now Dassin seems to be playing (offscreen) an American boob infatuated with Euripides. Though the movie is beautifully shot (by Jacques Natteau), the great Greek tragedian seems to be making an ass of the American expatriate.  
It seems almost incomprehensible that Mercouri’s Phaedra wood pick Tony Perkins’ Alexis over the earthy, virile  Italian actor Vallone, who had played opposite Sophila Loren in 1961’s Two Women — especially given the hysterical performance Perkions puts on here: a display of lovelorn chaos and mad guilt that makes Norman Bates’ tantrums in Psycho look almost rational. At the end, after the big disinheriting scene,  Tony hurtles his sports car along a coastal mountain road while screaming  distraught cries of romantic or familial anguish that suggest he thinks he’s ready for “Oedipus Rex,” at the very least. You keep waiting, hoping for the car to crash.)  
Mercouri plays Phaedra with a glum discontent that suggests she’s caught in some awful trap. And she is: the movie itself. It’s a mercy Dassin didn’t cast himself this time as the shipbuilder, or Phaedra might really have sailed off into some starry nutty realm of cuckold’s camp. As it is, Dassin stayed in Greece, made another lighter-hearted classic heist thriller (Topkapi, with Mercouri, Max Schell and Peter Ustinov), and then got pretentious again, though he left the filmed tragedies to Cacoyannis (Elektra, Trojan Women, Iphigenia). I wish the exiled Dassin had instead come back to the U.S. and made a few more noirs (Uptight, his 1968 black revolutionary remake of Ford’s The Informer, might have come close.)  But one Rififi is worth five Phaedras.   And one great noir can trump a dozen black lists. No extras. Made on demand, available from online vendors. Browse
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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