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The Girl on the Train

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I was wary of the trailers alone. “The Girl on the Train” movie is based on the bestselling novel of the same name, by Paula Hawkins. And, apparently, it’s been read by every suburban housewife in the country–another blaring warning sign. “Gone Girl”, a 2014 David Fincher film, based on the book by Gillian Flynn, had the exact same vibe–and I didn’t very much like that thriller. “The Girl on the Train” adaptation is even worse. Not even Emily Blunt can save it–but I applaud her for giving it her all. Given the way director Tate Taylor directs this trash, it was an Sisyphean task.

The plot lies heavily on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”, except this time the witness to a crime is a female commuter named Rachel (Ms. Blunt…solid), who is voyeuring people in their homes, as her train passes them on the nearby tracks. Oh, and maybe Rachel drinks a little. Or a lot. Also, her spying just happens to be on her old neighborhood, and folks that she actually knows. One is her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), along with his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). Another are former neighbors Scott (Luke Evans) and Megan (Haley Bennett). And then…something happens. Could Rachel have reliably witnessed it?

How convoluted and convenient this screenplay (by Erin Cressida Wilson) is. Also, it stalls on more than one occasion, before barreling into outright ridiculousness. Lukewarm narration, an overbaked story, impossibly pretty people–who bought this shit? Real human beings just don’t behave like this. I’m told it works better on the page…okay. Then I’ll place a good deal of blame on the limited director, Mr. Taylor. His instincts are all wrong, as proved by his other hit book adaptation (2011’s “The Help”). He zigs, when he should zag, and he throws wildly, when he should hold back. Ms. Blunt, and the cast, deserves better.

Grade:  C-

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Critic Bite #3

“I go to a movie just to be entertained”.

This one, of course, intended to be a catch-all, with the express purpose of excusing any piece of garbage someone just paid to see. You see, snooty critics, want everything to be “Citizen Kane” or “Lawrence of Arabia”, is the thought process employed here. So, every cheapo horror remake, any recent Adam Sandler vehicle, the “Transformers” franchise–any ticket bought for this detritus can be filed under: “wanted to be entertained”. Yeah…me too. But that shit certainly isn’t going to do it.

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Critic Bite #2

“I don’t listen to critics, I decide for myself”.

This one, of course, implies that anyone who researches what film critics say, is some type of automaton, and doesn’t think for oneself. Bullshit. There are roughly one thousand films released each calendar year. Does anyone see ALL of them? Of course not. Critics are a guide. At this point, I know which ones I can usually trust. Are they 100% on-the-money? Umm–who is? But the better ones keep you away from the crap. In other words…I think for myself too, bozo. But I’m not all-knowing and all-seeing! 

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Critic Bite #1

“It’s a GREAT movie!”.

Often labeling something that never was, or could ever be, a GREAT movie. Language should be diverse. Movies are good. Movies are so-so. Movies are not-so-hot, but contain an exceptional performance. Some movies are awful. And yes, there is an upper echelon, that are GREAT. “Taxi Driver” is great. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is great. “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” is great. Are you honestly giving that silly rom-com, and/or that lazy, over-earnest Oscar bait, the designation of “GREAT”? Please…use more discretion.


Critic Bites

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This idea has been pressing on me for a while. So, with less then a month until the new year hits–it’s time to unveil a new feature. But first, a brief introduction. I’ve been a film critic, in one form or another, approaching a quarter-of-a-century now. I’ve been writing this blog for nearly five years, and I’ve also been the regular film essayist on a national radio program (in over 70 cities!) for more than two years. Reviews, retrospectives, features–it’s my wheelhouse. But I often cringe, or roll my eyes, or feel steam coming out of my ears, regarding the nonsense and inanities that are thrown at me on a regular basis. Concerning movies, of course. And some of them DRIVE ME NUTS! If anything, because they are usually so wildly inaccurate. Or just plain wrong. Here’s the answer! I’ll let you know about it! Critic Bites can pop up at any time here on the blog. They will be random, short, and to-the-point. Hey, I’ve been known to rant on occasion. The way I see it–why should I suffer in silence? I’m looking forward to Critic Bites, and I expect them to be plentiful. Some will be stronger than others, but I would expect a mixture of informative and sardonic on a regular basis. I’m going to dissect and denounce, some of the loopy things I have to hear people say. And I encourage your comments. This, is going to be fun.

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KUBRICK @Feature #7: 1964’s Dr. Strangelove

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This will be my only credit abbreviation. But what Kubrick fan worth his precious bodily fluids, doesn’t realize that the full onscreen title reads: “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”? I remember folks telling me decades ago, that this film was meant to be taken seriously, but unintentionally supplied laughter, so they labeled it a satire. Not certain if that counts as myth, bullshit, or both–but I never bought it. I mean, the setup for the damn joke is presented as soon as the damn opening scroll! But Stanley was probably the subject of more urban legends than most. For instance, I’m sure we’ll get to that faked moon-landing nonsense before long.

I’m almost certain that I’m approaching ten viewings of this. Scattershot ones, at the very least. I have childhood images in my brain of adults trying to show me Slim Pickens riding that hydrogen bomb to his doom–all of our doom. Funny? It disturbed me then, it disturbs me now. And at 51, as well as just weeks removed from my country’s Presidential Election, it’s disturbing me again for an all new variety of reasons. Oh, and Fidel Castro passed away within this week! Everything old is new again. I understand that Peter George’s novel Red Alert (the basis for “Dr. Strangelove”) is all about serious. Kubrick, on the other hand, made a black comedy out of the material. And talk about black as pitch.

Two full watches of “Dr. Strangelove” this time around, via my spanking new Criterion Collection Blu-ray. It looks smashing. From truncated television views, to multiple VHS experiences, to this. And I can’t get over how prescient it is. Also, for all the (deserved) plaudits heaped upon the triptych of performances from the brilliant Peter Sellers, holy-freaking-cow concerning George C. Scott and Slim Pickens! In fact, General Buck Turgidson could be my favorite George C. performance–although I imagine that should prompt me to look at “Patton” again to confirm. And if you feel that Slim had a career-long shtick that almost never deviated–I won’t argue. But damn, it was probably never executed more perfectly than here.

Now, about Mr. Sellers. Three wildly diverse roles, calibrated to perfection–and there was supposed to be a fourth. Mr. Sellers was originally set to play Major T. J. “King” Kong, instead of Mr. Pickens–until an on set injury ended the attempt for a quad. You shouldn’t feel cheated in the slightest. Peter Sellers will always be regarded as a genius, and Slim Pickens will always be remembered as the iconic “cowboy on the bomb”. So, win win. Sterling Hayden as General Jack D. Ripper, and all his ramblings about the fluoridation of water. Keenan Wynn as Colonel Bat Guano, and his warning about answering to the Coca-Cola company. Marvelous. Oh, those names…I know. A bit over-the-top (there’s even a reference to a Premier Kissoff), but it bizarrely works.

Now, this is a movie about accidental nuclear annihilation, and it was a hit with the critics, and at the box office. Its January 1964 release date was uncomfortably close, to the assassination of JFK. So, a line was deleted, and rerecorded, to say “Vegas” instead of “Dallas”. Also, this satirical motion picture must have been something to see, so soon after the very real Cuban Missile Crisis of late 1962. And Mr. Sellers as President Merkin Muffley, chatting on the war room phone with the unheard Premier Dimitri Kissoff (“Do you suppose you could turn the music down just a little?”), is seriously some of the most deliriously satisfying film acting you’ll ever witness. I could watch that conversation for hours on end. And do you realize that the original filmed ending to “Dr. Strangelove” was a pie fight in the War Room? Evidence exists, if you are in doubt.

Ken (James Bond designer) Adams created unforgettable sets–especially the incredible War Room. And the airplane scenes, inside and out, are remarkable. The cockpit stuff for feeling unquestionably real, and the flying representations for expertly straddling that edge of phony. This feature sports the film debut of James Earl Jones as the B-52’s bombardier, years ahead of being immortalized for flying otherworldly instruments of death. Call it a warmup. Tracy Reed is dead sexy, and spot on, as Turgidson’s mistress and secretary, Miss Scott…as well as a former Playboy centerfold, Miss Foreign Affairs. And that opening mid-air refueling scene! Is it sexual? Is it Oedipal? Maternal? Fondness for this work is a “Strange love”, isn’t it?

Yeah, “Dr. Strangelove” is a Kubrick masterpiece. Every time I return to it, it makes that opinion/fact clear, very early one. It received four Oscar nominations, by the way. For Picture and Director, along with one for Sellers’ acting, and for the screenplay from Peter George, Terry Southern, and Stanley himself. Outside of the obvious technology advancements, I don’t expect this one to “age” any time soon. I’ll even entertain the argument that this is Kubrick’s finest work. It’s not a bad call. I’m betting that I’ll watch this again and again, and continuously find new things to love. Ten films to cover after this, but methinks this is the first masterpiece, of the three I’ve chronicled, so far. More of those on the way, is a no-brainer.

Grade:  A+

KUBRICK coming in December: the roll of ten has been completed, and the winner is Stanley’s swan song. His 13th, and final, feature film, 1999’s “Eyes Wide Shut”


The Legend of Tarzan

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It’s half good. I’m willing to bet that a lot of us grew up watching Tarzan movies. Johnny Weissmuller, Gordon Scott, Christopher Lambert in “Greystoke”…each of us had a favorite. So, I had a certain level of anticipation, when this feature was slated for release. Then…a sizable number of the “big” critics savaged it. They are half right. For a good deal of its running time, “The Legend of Tarzan” is leaden, stagnant, sports a terrible performance from sex symbol, Margot Robbie, plus an over-the top one from Samuel L. Jackson. However, the other portion is lively, inspired, with a superb performance from Alexander Skarsgard…and an over-the-top one from Samuel L. Jackson.

Listen, the film mines some magic from both the Lord Greystoke stuff, and the jungle romp. There’s typical Hollywood bad guy doings, as Tarzan (Mr. Skarsgard) is summoned back to the wild, after a stay in civilization. The bad guy is after some rare diamonds, or something. Who cares? Oh, but Christoph Waltz is the bad guy, and that usually works out okay. It does here. Unfortunately, Margot Robbie as Jane, seems completely bewildered by what tone to reach. It’s the worst I’ve seen her. Hopefully, she’s not just another pretty face.

“The Legend of Tarzan” certainly resembles 1984’s “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes”…and that works in its favor. But where it fails is in the occasional stilted dialogue, and an over-reliance on CGI-generated jungle beasts. “Harry Potter” veteran, David Yates, directs with a good deal of flair, but he’s still created a mixed bag. It ain’t awful, it’s certainly flawed, but I admire its ambition. In other words, you could do much worse.

Grade:  C+