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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: The Five Year Engagement; High School; Child’s Play (1972)

THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Nicholas Stoller, 2012 (Universal)
The Five-Year Engagement, latest from the Judd Apatow bunch, is a romantic comedy that would probably be annoyed if you called it a rom-com. Directed and co-written by Nicholas Stoller (who made the very entertaining buddy road comedy Get Him to the Greek), it’s a smart film about smart people who get into a dumb situation: a seemingly endlessly protracted engagement that keeps getting extended because, even though they love each other honestly, truly, this engaged couple — psychology grad student Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt) and trendy sous chef Tom Solomon (Jason Segel, who’s also the co-writer ) — can’t solve their geography problem or make their opposing career tracks jell.
Tom works in Birch, one of San Francisco‘s hippest modernist restaurants. Violet wants to go to grad school at Berkeley, but she’s rejected — before getting a positive offer from the University of Michigan. So Tom — such a nice, unthreatening chap that he’s wearing a pink bunny suit when they first meet — plays super-nice guy and agrees to put off their wedding and accompany her to Ann Arbor for a couple of years (they think). What a prince! (What a bunny!) But…once they get to Ann Arbor, Tom can’t find a decent chef job, and he winds up hand-crafting sandwiches in Zingerman’s deli, for an eccentric,  foot-in-mouth deli guy named Tarquin (Brian Posehn). And Violet finds herself the romantic target of her sly, persistent faculty advisor, academic superstar and horny schmuck Prof. Winton Childs (Rhys Ifans).

Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, Tom’s somewhat dopey-seeming best pal Alex Eihauer (played with a grin by Chris Pratt), gets the main chef job at Birch for which Tom was slated, marries Violet’s somewhat kooky sister Suzie (Alison Brie) and settles down to the great career and family life that is now nightmarishly eluding his best buddy. Nice guy Tom, who just wanted to do the right thing for Violet, and maybe rack up some good conduct points for the marriage ahead, seems to have done only the wrong things for himself.

Berkeley, Berkeley, shame on you. That perfect wedding, which seemed so close, so inevitable, now seems increasingly elusive, unreachable, and the The Very Long Engagement (Jean-Pierre Jeunet got that title first) seems to be stretching into infinity. Tom settles down to a ridiculous life with his bizarre new Midwestern companions Tarquin and another faculty husband, the very peculiar Bill (Chris Parnell). Violet, by contrast, becomes a Michigan mini-star. She gets into a friendly fellowship competition with three multi-comicalpsych grads — Mindy Kaling as tart Kaneetha, Randall Park as brainy Ming and Kevin Hart as uninhibited Doug, who thinks the answer to anything is masturbation — while super-prof  Winton keeps after Violet, slyly, persistently. Will the marriage happen? Will the romance survive? We have five years (or two hours) to find out.

Most of the things that go wrong with most Hollywood romantic comedies, are done right here. The Five-Year Engagement isn’t a glamorous showcase for a bunch of glam-kids trading double-entendres, but an honest (but also funny) investigation into modern relationships and their quirks and pitfalls. The cast is a first-class, heavy-duty comic ensemble, and the genuinely amusing script has lots of good moments for lots of funny people — especially the stars, Segel and Blunt. The writing — a collaboration between Segel and Stoller (who worked together before in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) — is hip and perceptive and sometimes hilarious.

The Five-Year Engagement seems to be taking place, at least partly, in a real world — albeit a frustrating and comically exaggerated one — with problems that really matter.  The movie touches us because it’s about something real: the dilemma of modern couples trying to juggle careers and marriages (or engagements). We can feel sympathy for Tom and Violet because they’re such an attractive movie couple — though not too attractive. Both of them are also expert comedians; if there’s a laugh somewhere, they’ll get it. Emily Blunt is  both ravishing and intellectually spry. And Segel is a very, very funny guy who is also  almost insanely likable. Most of the supporting cast, especially Ifans as the crafty advisor-on-the-make, are funny as well.

I liked Engagement — but I didn’t love it.  And some things in the script, and pretty important things, just hit me with a clang. I spent many years in Madison, Wisconsin — home of the University of Wisconsin and a college town very like Ann Arbor — and I couldn’t believe for a minute (make that a second), that a guy with chef credentials and a personality like Tom’s could move into a city like that and get an immediate cold shoulder from all the restaurants. (Maybe Prof. Childs should have secretly sabotaged him.)

There’s one gag that should have been scrapped: the scene where Tom lets Alex and and Suzie’s little daughter wander off, and she finds a crossbow and shoots Violet in the leg with it. It’s not funny, and I don’t see any way you could make it funny, or even make it unannoying, except in some other kind of movie. (The Three Stooges, maybe.) I also may have missed the reason why Violet and Tom don’t do the obvious thing and get married before they go to Ann Arbor. (Of course, you don’t have a movie if they do.)

Unanswered questions are what we expect in most contemporary rom-coms, along with all the phony characters and bad lines and the obsession with glamour above personality, and money above sense. From true romantic comedies about people honestly in love, like The Awful Truth or The Shop Around the Corner or Adam’s Rib or The Apartment or When Harry Met Sally or Annie Hall, we expect a mix of gorgeous, hilarious people and sincerity and humanity and shrewd craftsmanship. And laughs. In the best of The Five-Year Engagement (a lousy title, by the way), we get them — honestly, humanly. Just don’t call it a rom-com…

HIGH SCHOOL (Two  Stars)

U.S.: John Stalberg, 2010 (Starz/Anchor Bay)

High School MovieThe movie title “High School” is a pun of course — “High,“ ya dig — and it  refers to the effects of marijuana on the student body and a few teachers at Stereotype High School, U. S. A.  But it’s not a very clever pun, since you can look at the titleor hear it and still not be sure that it’s not a reference to a Frederick Wiseman documentary.

If only it were. Instead, this particular High School is a  mediocre stoner comedy with lots of grass in-jokes, but few laughs — a joyless little pot farce about how a nutty school superintendent, Dr, Leslie Gordon (Michael Chiklis), goes on an anti-pot crusade, and runs up against the detemined sabotage of would-be valedictorian Henry Burke (Matt Bush) and his stoner pal Travis Breaux (Sean Marquette). Gordon, who looks and talks like the mad doctor in a second-rate British horror show, triggers the eventual chaos when he institutes mass school drug testing after the school‘s Vietnamese spelling bee champion turns up stoned at the bee: a mass test that could well smoke the M.I.T. college scholarship plans of Henry, who was slipped a little weed by Travis fairly recently and will test positive, as will Travis and maybe a few others.

Travis‘ incredibly idiotic plan to deal with this: Muck up the drug test results by lacing the school bake sale brownies with cannabis and getting everyone (including the teachers) high, so none of the tests will seem valid. Hmmm. Even worse, Travis plans to steal the cannabiz he uses for this hare-brained scheme from the local thoroughly paranoid multi-tattooed drug dealer Psycho Ed (Adrien Brody) — who will then, to nobody’s surprise, pursue them to hell and gone. Now, I could picture the illegally smiling pothaead played by James Franco in Pineapple Express, making the thought processes behind all that seem logical, but not the kids here.

For the rest of the movie, all kinds of people — including Henry, Travis, Dr. Gordon, a hip teacher played by Colin Hanks — and various other Morgan High scholars and philosophers get accidentally (or not) stoned and act stupid, as the movie tries to meld the comic styles of John Hughes and Cheech and Chong, and misses both. This show is so grating and paranoid — and the people on pot behave so foolishly and unfunnily, that I think Richard Corlisss may be right wehen he suggests that High School plays less like a Cheech and Chong or a high Americab Pie and more like a latter-day Reefer Madness, a cautionary tale gone loco. Also, unusually for this kind of guy show, the love or sex interest (Alicia Sixtos as Sharky Ovante, I believe) seems barely present. Maybe director  John Stalberg and fellow writers Erik Linthorst and Stephen Susco thought the pot was sexier. They were wrong.

High School’s one big plus, or film coup, or contact high, is Brody’s Psycho Ed, a memorable ganja demon. Though Brody will never win another Oscar for stuff like this (to match the one he got for  The Pianist), maybe he’ll get something more appropriate, like The Golden Roachclip or the Bogart Joint or whatever.

Child’s Play (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)

U.S.: Sidney Lumet, 1972 (Olive/Paramount)

James Mason and Robert Preston are rival teachers at a Catholic boys’ school plagued by weird outbreaks of sadism and violence; Beau Bridges is the new teacher, and ex-student, torn between them. The two teachers are polar opposites. Mason is an old-fashioned traditionalist and Latin teacher; Preston is a back-slapping coach and student’s pal. And they hate each other.

Based on the Robert Marasco play (produced on Broadway by David Merrick), this is a very strange movie, and a deeply unpleasant one, with a partly atonal score that frays your nerves, and a schoolful of menacing boys who look like prep school zombies.  But, since  Sidney Lumet  is direting, Child’s Play has superlative acting, especially by Mason and Preston. Mason, one of Lumet’s favorite actors,  was second runner-up for Best Actor from the New York Film Critics’ Circle that year, and his competition included Marlon Brando in The Godfather.



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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