MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: The Odd Couple, Warm Bodies; A Good Day to Die Hard; Identity Thief


THE ODD COUPLE (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)

U. S.; Gene Saks, 1968 (Paramount)

Nervous, punctilious white collar fussbudget Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon) and wise-cracking slob sports writer Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau) are long time poker buddies thrown together as temporary roomies in Oscar’s N.Y.C. apartment, thanks to Felix’s marital troubles.  Can these two mismatched friends, with several failed (or failing) relationships between them, survive their own semi-conjugal non-bliss together? Or will Felix  clamor for a divorce, when the magnitude of Oscar’s laissez-faire housekeeping problems sink in?

Art Carney and Matthau had played Felix and Oscar in “The Odd Couple”  on the Broadway stage, under Mike Nichols‘ spot-on direction, and those two  had really seemed perfect in their parts. But in between the play and the movie, Matthau found his own more-than-perfect kvetcher of a costar when he and  Lemmon teamed up in one of Billy Wilder‘s last great comedies, The Fortune Cookie (1966). The cynical sharpies Matthau often played and the fast-talking, neurotic, often sentimental guys  that were a Lemmon specialty: they were made for each other.  Jack and Walter became each other’s best comic partner, and each other’s best straight man too — and off-screen pals as well.  And they went on to make movies together, at intervals, for the rest of their lives.

Those movies weren’t always as well-written as  The Fortune Cookie or The Odd Couple.  Odd Couple was one of Neil Simon’s best plays,, and his funniest.  and one of the funniest of all modern American stage comedies — though Simon never really did solve that last act. (Comedy expert Simon had troubles with the play’s Act Three throughout the writing, and the rehearsals, and afterwards, and it still lacks the inevitability and flawless humor of the rest of the play.) Gene Saks’ direction is pedestrian but okay and he’s good with all the actors; Felix and Oscar’s poker partners are all aces (John Fiedler, Herb Edelman, David Sheiner and Larry Haines) and Monica Evans and Carole Shelley  are ripping as those lascivious Brits, the Pigeon Sisters.

It’s a shame though that Lemmon and Matthau’s third musketeer, Billy Wilder couldn’t have directed prime material like this with his two best acting buddies. He wanted to, but screenwriter Simon was leery of the changes Wilder always made in his stage adaptations, and Paramount was leery of his big salary. (Simon’s instincts were right; Billy would have changed it. But then again, he might have solved the last act.)

WARM BODIES (Blu-ray) (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Jonathan Levine, 2013 (Lionsgate)

Warm Bodies is an attempt to do for zombie movies at least part of what the “Twilight” series did for vampire and werewolf pictures — mix them up promiscuously with teen romance — as well as to attract at least part of that huge teen and twenty audience out there with something funnier and hipper and (what‘s the word?) edgier. In some ways it does, especially when Warm Bodies turns its undead hero into a vinyl album Bob Dylan/Bruce Springsteen fan, playing “Shelter from the Storm“ and “Hungry Heart.”.

That hero is a spookily handsome zombie-boy of the future, named R because he can’t remember the rest, and played by Nicholas Hoult, the one time child star of About a Boy, and more recently s sensitive tall Robert Pattinson type. The heroine is a very pretty live-human girl, named Julie (Teresa Palmer), whose father is a zombie-hating militia leader, General Grigio (John Malkovich, at his gun-craziest ). These two culture-crossed lovers meet in the semi-ruins of a city shot in Montreal, where rival packs of zombies and humans rove the streets and try to stay alive — after R captures Julie’s boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco), and eats his brain. (Talk about edgy.)

Something about Julie appeals to R however, and he only pretends to kill her ( to fool his zombie fellow rovers). He leaves her brain alone and takes her to his digs, an abandoned plane where he plays his vinyl record collection and love blossoms. R has a zombie buddy called M (Rob Corddry) and Julie has a human gal pal  called Nora (Analiegh Tipton), and they try help the lovers build their bridge over bloody waters:  perhapsm erasing the gulf between the living and the  undead, except for those even worse zombies called “boneys.” Boneys roam the deadly city, killing indiscriminately, and they’re impervious to the charms of vinyl and Romeo and Juliet stories.

All this is told to us by R, who narrates the tale with unusual recall and literacy for somebody who’s undead and has a poor memory. But it’s the spirit that counts. Obviously, there are analogies here — and the bridge being built is also between outsiders or misfits, and “normal” people. Warm Bodies is a tenderer and smarter movie than most teen-slanted shows — certainly than most zombie movies — and it has better dialogue and livelier scenes than we’re used to. The acting is better than the norm, especially Corddry, Palmer and Tipton — and Malkovich, of course. The visuals are both realistic and fantastic, cast in bluish, cool tones by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe.

The source of Warm Bodies is a novel by Isaac Marion, and the adaptation is by director-writer Jonathan Levine, who’s made one hip, funny urban high-school romance, The Wackness (on which I was mixed) and one comedy-drama of illness, death, friendship and love, 50/50 (which I liked very much ). I liked Warm Bodies too — or at least part of it — though I thought it needed a tad more sharpness, darkness and cynicism to set off  the tenderness and romance. Something more than a jolt or two and scary stuff from those damned boneys.  Of course, it’s hard to top brain-eating for dramatic contrast.

A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (Also Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Combo); (Two Stars)

U.S.: John Moore, 2013 (20th Century Fox)

A Good Day to Die Hard is the fifth of the Bruce Willis Die Hard movies — and it’s obviously, irretrievably, die-hardishly one too many. It’s not that the franchise has worn out its welcome (though many seem to think so), or that Willis (in his signature role of tough, hard-bitten, never say die NYPD cop John McClane) has worn out his. Nor is Willis’ age (57) any impediment to our enjoyment, or at least to mine. (I was more put off by the relative youngster, Jai Courtney of “Spartacus,” whom they brought in to play McClane’s long-estranged son.)  But this movie — its script, its ideas, its characters and its over-packed, over-violent, under-thought action sequences —  is toomuch, too loud, too everything-we’ve-seen-before.

It’s a stinker. It’s no exaggeration to say  that A Good Day to Die Hard is the worst of the McClane pictures, the one that should have died quick, and disappeared. What can you say? Time passes. Bruce Willis got old. Arnold got old. Sylvester Stallone got old. So we recently got Old Arnold in The Last Stand, and Old Sly in The Expendables and Bullet in the Head — and now we get Sort of Old Bruce Willis in a spy saga piece of recycled mayhem, insanely overblown  action and drecky scriptwriting  disguised as a Die Hard movie.

The earlier shows in that series were, some of the time,  entertaining and exciting — and occasionally ridiculous. This new movie is just ridiculous. We get McClane, and McClane’s son Jack —  the younger McClane absent from the series till now, though he has risen though the C. I. A. far enough to be entrusted with the fate of the world. The two are up against the Russian government and the police and massive firepower and assorted crooks and a billionaire Russian dissident scientist (Yuri Komarov, played  by Sebastian Koch of The Lives of Others) whom they’re trying to spirit out of the country.

Some of the reasons the original Die Hard  worked is that there was a story of some interest in between the action scenes,  and  antagonism of some snap between Willis‘s working class New Jersey cop McClane and Alan Rickman as the  snobby terrorist. A Good Day to Die Hard has a superficial international intrigue plot going, but, as usual with lots of today‘s action movies, it has empty characters,  spritless dialogue and (here we go again) it makes no sense.

Except in box-office formula terms. In the movie, because it’s necessary to bring on a younger co-hero to satisfy the demographics  marketing gang, McClane has been supplied with this two-fisted C. I. A. son Jack (Jai Courtney), seemingly incommunicado with his dad for decades. But McClane has been recently afflicted with fatherly twinges (at a shooting range, yet) and  he decides to visit son Jack in Russia.

By an amazing coincidence, the first of many, John shows up at a Russian courtroom at just about the time that C. I. A Jack is escaping with the renegade billionaire Komarov. And Johne tags along as the bunch flees through Moscow , crashing and banging and trading fire — but arousing no reaction we can see among the drivers of all those endangered vehicles, even during full collision.

At that moment, in that chase, with the older McClane bouncing blithely off the car roofs, the movie lost me, never to return — mostly because it was nonsensical, but humorless. Director John Moore (who made Behind Enemy Lines and the remakes of The Flight of the Phoenix and The Omen) and writer Skip Woods (who wrote The A-Team and Swordfish) don’t seem to have humor of any kind in their bags of tricks this time. Meanwhile….Crash! Bang! Kerplunk! On and on they come, defying traffic laws, defying world history and current events, defying sanity, defying the very legacy of Die Hard and its die-hard  characters.  It’s as if the entire countrycity of Moscow had been forsaken by everybody except the good guys, the bad guys and a lot of innocent bystanders, milling around, wondering when they get to say something, growing old — and maybe dying hard.

IDENTITY THIEF (Also Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Combo) (One and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Seth Gordon, 2013 (Universal).

Identity Thief  apparenty made the mass audience laugh. But for me, it was one of those  movies that went  wrong early and never got itself right. It’s a glossy, messy comedy about identity theft, starring Jason Bateman as the victim Sandy Bigelow Patterson, and Melissa McCarthy as his nemesis “Sandy Bigelow Patterson“ — the mysterious woman who‘s spending all his money, maxing all his credits cards and ruining his whole damn life.

The movie was directed by Seth Gordon, who guided Bateman in another ridiculous and mean-spirited comedy, Horrible Bosses. And, despite a good cast (especially McCarthy) and a capable crew, it’s a stinker. The script is predictable and  senseless. The visual gags are dopey and garish, and they come at you like a storm of whoopee cushions. At one point, a snake crawls down Bateman/Sandy’s pants, maybe looking for some good lines.  McCarthy/Sandy has a misbegotten hotel orgy with Eric Stonestreet as the rowdy, big-bellied “Big Chuck.”  And, through all this certifiable inanity, the two Sandys mop up clichés on the road, where they’re mysteriously joined by two hit-persons (played by T. P.  a.k.a. Tip Harris, and Genesis Rodriguez)  and a violent skip tracer (Robert Patrick), all waving guns.

But, if Identity Thief the movie is almost hysterically awful, the actors — Bateman, McCarthy, Stonestreet  and several of the others — somewhat redeem it. (That’s a big somewhat, though.) If Melissa McCarty didn’t exist, she’s probably have to be invented: She’s close to the ultimate brassy, bouncy, comical tough gal and a half, a triumph of hard-edged personality over the usual vacuous movie prettiness.

In Bridesmaids, a movie where everyone was good, McCarthy still managed to heist a hefty chunk  of the  picture, by giving writer-star Kristen Wiig‘s maladjusted maid of honor a lesson in chutzpah. In Life is 40, she out-funnied any two 20s you can name. Here, McCarthy steps out of supporting buddyhood for a while to take a lead, though it’s not really a romantic lead. (It’s a John Candy-style lead). And she plays her part as well as it could be played — which is no huge achievement.

The movie begins with that falsely promising scene when Diana calls up Bateman‘s pushover business  guy, Sandy, in Denver (Diana is in Winter Park, Florida) and artfully pretends to be an anti-identity thief operative, thereby snookering him out of his social security number. The phony Sandy  then goes on a shopaholic’s rampage, just at the touchy moment when the real Sandy is driven  to leave his old corporation (partly run by Jon Favreau as a smirking, bonus-happy Ayn Rand fan named Cornish) in order to help start a new one, at the behest of  Daniel Casey (John Cho).

Suddenly Sandy‘s world goes ka-flooey. When his alter-ego’s shopping spree (plus a violent altercation and arrest) comes to light, the cops show up at his new company (led by Morris Chestnut as Detective Reilly). Suddenly Sandy goes from six figure salary business wunderkind, to a schmo-in-dutch with a bunch of maxed and worthless Visa and Mastercards, all thanks to Diana and his own dopey indiscretion.

Up to that point, Identity Thief  looks as if it might be a good movie, or  at least a bad funny one.  But then, in a bewildering, mind-numbing  plot twist that bewilders and mind-numbs me still, natty Denver Detective Reilly  explains that his hands are tied, that these cases take forever, and he can’t somehow co-operate with the Florida cops (or the credit card companies) to stop Diana  running wild with Sandy’s card. Instead, Sandy, one of the last guys you’d want to send on a cross-country pickup of a psychopath, drives off, in all his obvious street-unwisdom, to  find the credit swindler, bring her back, and get her to confess to his bosses.

This bizarre twist and what went on before has the effect of making the police look ridiculous and the credit industry impotent. But it does allow screenwriter  Craig Mazin (who has committed a couple of Scary Movies and The Hangover 2) to turn the whole thing into a cross-country road comedy — swiping from, among others, Midnight Ride and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Indeed, Mazin and Gordon jam in so much laughlessly derivative humor, pseudo-sentiment, mean gags and bursts of phony schmaltz that the movie almost always seems like some other movie that just wandered in, spewing  imitations of the Farrelly Brothers or their imitators on a bad day.  The ending, both shmaltzy and cynical, is as wrong-headed as everything else.

But, bad as this script and movie are  — and they’re so bad, they almost make The Guilt Trip look good —  the actors sometimes pump it up and squeeze out some laughs, especially McCarthy, with her screaming pink cupcake of a house, her loud trumpeting laughs, her nonstop cons and her favorite maneuver when hassled: a quick mama-chop to the throat. With the right script, or evn with the worng one,  McCarthy is an actress who steals shows, effortlessly. She’s a classic loud , brassy comedienne, and Bateman may be a classic straight man.  Identity Thief  meanwhile is a classic fiasco. A screaming pink one.

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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