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No. 6: “The Princess Bride” (1987)

“She is alive, or was an hour ago. If she is otherwise when I find her I shall be very put out.” ~~Prince Humperdinck

Giants and monsters and evil wayward kings, sword fights, gallant gentlmen on noble steeds, lovely damsels awaiting rescue, perfectly magical kisses and the prospect of love everlasting — it’s enough to put a person’s gag reflex to the ultimate test. But let not your esophagus revolt and your stomach turn, for “The Princess Bride” is not that sort of fairy tale. Not in the least. Oh, sure, Rob Reiner’s absurdly clever film about the courtship of Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright Penn) and lowly stablehand Westley (Cary Elwes) contains all these expected elements. But every single one of them gets a little tweak, a shot of sly wit that blasts off the dust and cobwebs of yore and makes “The Princess Bride” the kind of feisty creation that feels fresher and funnier with every viewing. 

So how, exactly, does this “Extreme Makeover: Fairy Tale Edition” play out? How can it enrapture and intrigue us in ways that don’t feel like a quirky rehash of “Cinderella”? For starters, there are the characters, who fill the standard roles but refuse to play to type. Princess Buttercup, though lovelorn, isn’t quite the garden-variety lady-in-distress. She’s got a mouth on her, a temper and a brain too — and she’s not shy about using them all. Westley’s neither a boorish Healthcliff nor a mindless Prince Charming. He’s more apt to shred his foes with “you warhog-faced buffoon” than cry about lost love. There are sidekicks, but they do not serve merely as boring spacefillers; Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and Fezzik (Andre the Giant) have enough issues to get Freud’s head spinning. And the villains, including Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) and Count Tyrone (Christopher Guest), spend as much time being droll — who but a perfect scoundrel could pull off “please consider me as an alternative to suicide”? — as they do plotting evil deeds. Everyone who shows up in “The Princess Bride” has a distinctive personality that’s just a shade left of center, just enough to subvert our expectations.

Based on William Goldman’s equally fantastic book, the story itself, though, supplies intrigue aplenty. “The Princess Bride” employs that story-within-a-story method, with a wiseacre grandfather (Peter Falk) reading to his sick young grandson (Fred Savage), who’s really worried there will be too much smooching and not enough sword fights. There’s plenty of both in the tale Grandpa reads, an entertaining yarn about Westley and Buttercup, lovers separated by his quest to seek fortune on the seas. Prince Humperdinck takes the heartbroken Buttercup as his bride-to-be (he has his own motives, and all of them are unsavory), but there are hiccups in the sneaky prince’s plot, not least of which is Buttercup’s kidnapping by Inigo, Fezzik and their shrill employer Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and the appearance of the mysterious Man in Black/Dread Pirate Roberts. Throw in an impending mawwage*, a life-sucking torture machine and a miracle man (Billy Crystal) with the power to rise the Nearly Dead, and you’ve got yourself a story so interwoven in its complexity that it makes “Syriana” seem like “Son-in-Law.”

By now we’ve covered what catapults “The Princess Bride” leaps and bounds above other fairy tales. Wa-hoo. But why does this movie deserve a place on our shelves and in our hearts? There’s no easy answer to that question. The script is full of piquant wit and infinitely quotable quips like “I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder” and “You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles.” Maybe it’s because the likes of Patinkin’s damaged but resilient Inigo Montoya, set on avenging his father’s death, and Fezzik, a sad pariah plucked for a dreadful life of unemployment in Greenland, feel sweetly and surprisingly real to us. Or perhaps we return to “The Princess Bride” again and again because there’s some deep, primal, frightfully uncynical part of us that wants to believe in the happy ending, the world in balance, the magic.

And if there are a few Rodents of Unusual Size thrown in? Well, that just sweetens the deal.

*It’s what brings us togevuh today.

Tyler Perry’s “I Can Do Bad” a (surprisingly) good character study

Taraji P. Henson is the heart and soul of Tyler Perry's above-average "I Can Do Bad All by Myself."

Taraji P. Henson is the heart and soul of Tyler Perry's mostly above-average "I Can Do Bad All by Myself."

Above all else, Tyler Perry’s poignant “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” is a movie about people who have fallen through what Pastor Brian (Marvin Winans) calls “the crevices of life.” Nobody’s as familiar with this predicament as April Sullivan (Taraji P. Henson), a nightclub singer who pretends she’s perfectly happy sleeping with married sleazeball Randy (Brian J. White) and waking up every morning with a raging hangover. Trouble is, April’s smart enough to know better. She just doesn’t see much reason to try to be better. 

This is where Perry succeeds: He explores — much as he did in the uplifting “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” — the ways in which other people more and less fortunate than the closed-down April try to hoist her off the bottom. There’s Sandino (Adam Rodriguez), a Colombian immigrant living as a boarder in April’s basement. Still more people offer help: Tanya (Mary J. Blige), the nightclub bartender whom we suspect has survived rougher times than April; Pastor Brian; and Wilma (Gladys Knight), a churchgoer whose faith in her God and herself never wavers. Though April mistrusts their kindness, pushes them away, they keep showing up. Characters like this, so willing to be completely present for someone bent on self-destruction, give “I Can Do Bad” the kind of real emotional heft (not sap) and heart that most of Perry’s movies lack.

If only the writer-producer-direct-actor could have stopped there, he’d have made a good movie, possibly even a really good one. But since he’s Tyler Perry, he insists on interrupting the important scenes with what we’ve come to call “Madea Moments.” These moments, as per usual, are little more than crazed rants by the unhinged Madea, that homicidal nutjob who outlived her usefulness shortly after “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” wrapped. Why Perry insists on hanging onto this woman — who, yes, made him a name but now serves merely as a loud nuisance — is a mystery. He’s better than this.

Fortunately, the Madea Moments are few and far-between. This is a blessing that gives us time to get good and involved in the meat of “I Can Do Bad”: April’s reaction to the discovery she’s the only living relative of her late sister’s three children, brought to her house by an enraged Madea after they attempted to steal her VCR. April has no room in her life for anything but booze, cigarettes and Randy, who claims to hate kids but looks a bit forgetful of this every time he eyes 16-year-old Jennifer (Hope Olaide Wilson). Sandino’s appearance complicates things even more because he feels sorry for the children and tries to make them feel welcome in a home where it’s crystal clear they’re not wanted.

Because this is a Perry movie, certain things must happen. Why else would “I Can Do Bad” have such a rushed, pat ending that barely fits with the 70-plus insightful minutes that came before it? Tradition. But other Perry staples work nicely, particularly musical numbers — the best being Mary J. Blige’s blistering-good “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” — that underscore the characters’ emotional states. And Madea does have one funny scene involving a convoluted Bible tale involving Noah and (no kidding) the St. Louis Arch.

It’s the people, though, that separate “I Can Do Bad” from the pack. Blige doesn’t have a huge part, but she brings a strong, no-B.S. energy to the screen. Rodriguez, mostly here to look pretty, continues to radiate that surprising mix of warmth and vulnerability he supplies on (stop laughing) “CSI: Miami.” And when an Oscar nominee like Taraji P. Henson shows up in Perry production, rest assured the big guns have been called. She does not disappoint as April, making her a woman who turned hard young out of emotional necessity but kept it up because being numb and bitter became comfortable. She’s the emotional core that makes “I Can Do Bad” the strongest movie Perry’s ever made … which is more of a compliment than you’d think.

Grade: B-

10 great antiheroes


Charles Foster Kane proves money and good intentions do not a hero make.

There’s nothing I love more than a really sneaky, unpredictable, hateful and delightfully ee-viyill* villain. Unless we’re talking about antiheroes. And if we are, well, that’s a horse — or should I say jackass? — of an entirely different color.

Few things are more intriguing than characters who do that wavering, drunken dance on the line between good and bad and seem to stumble onto both sides equally at random. Those are the people, the warts-and-all sorts, we root for because they are human in their imperfections. They are us, and us real-life dwellers can’t seem to resist seeing a bit of ourselves magnified and flung up on the silver screen.

Here’s a list of 10 antiheroes who’ve made me laugh, cry and feel guilty about liking them (just a tiny bit):

1. Charles Foster Kane, “Citizen Kane” — There are many who would argue that Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) is most certainly a champion of the common man. Look again. Whatever good Kane achieves, there’s always an ulterior motive lurking in the corner: greed, the desire for control, arrogance. His ability to wrap these flaws in the cloak of good intentions makes him the quintessential, iconic antihero.

2. Alex, “A Clockwork Orange” — C.F. Kane may be an antihero for the ages, but Alex (Malcolm McDowell), the focus of Stanley Kubrick’s highly disturbing “A Clockwork Orange,” is nipping right at his heels. Or pointing a gun to the back of his head, more like. A rakehell who swigs drugged milk and patrols the streets of futuristic Britain raping women and revelling in mayhem — what’s to like about a guy like this? Alex has a few redeeming qualities that nudge him away from “villain,” but not so many that they make him good. He’s an antihero for the annals.


There are nicer people than Dee Dee -- we call them "losers."

3. Dee Dee Truitt, “The Opposite of Sex” — When a narrator describes her mother as “a loser bitch” and seduces her gay brother’s boy toy, you know you’re not in for a heart-warming tale. Savage wit, anything-but-good intentions and snarky condescension are all we get from the unflappable Dee Dee Truitt (Christina Ricci), one of the pluckiest, snidest and most irresistible characters ever created.

4. Rob Gordon, “High Fidelity” — What can you say about a bitter, broke leading man (John Cusack) so self-absorbed he’d rather stew about failed relationships than pay attention to the woman who loves him? It wouldn’t be incorrect to use words like “conceited jerk” or even “rampaging jackass” to describe Rob, a record store owner who elevates wallowing in self pity into an art. He’s not a nice guy, or even a halfway decent one, but that’s exactly why he’s such a compelling character.

5. Lester Burnham, “American Beauty” — Kevin Spacey has made a great and acclaimed career out of playing himself playing people who, uh, seem a whole lot like Kevin Spacey. Lester Burnham, a lumpish, discontent and disengaged spectator in his own life, is no exception, but he is one of the sharpest characters Spacey’s put his sarcastic stamp on. When Lester finally jolts out of his coma, we’re cheering his efforts to embrace life. Or least buy a dime bag.

5. Danny Balint, “The Believer” — “Conflicted” hardly begins to describe Danny (Ryan Gosling, fearless in his quest to take difficult parts), a violent young man who turns on his Jewish upbringing to become a fiercely antisemitic KKK member. And herein lies the contradiction: Brutish as he is, Danny’s also an educated man capable of kindness and intelligent, rational thought. It’s hard to like a character like this, but it’s equally as hard not to find him truly fascinating. 

Good and bad do battle in Gerd Wiesler.

Good and bad do battle in Gerd Wiesler.

6. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, “The Lives of Others” — Nations that call themselves “Democratic Republics” tend to be anything but, so it seems that a man (Ulrich Mühe) who rises through the ranks of the Stasi, the German Democratic Republic’s secret police, would qualify as a villain. But the rigid, grim Gerd Wiesler finds humanity in the couple he’s ordered to survail, and soon his own humanity emerges.

7. Ray Elwood, “Buffalo Soldiers” — It’s no secret I’m mad for Joaquin Phoenix in most anything, but resistance is futile when he plays men like the manipulative, shrewd and morally flexible Ray Elwood, who tolerates other people only as long as he can use them for something. He’s a real cad, to be sure, though there are moments where flashes of real feeling peek through, and those keep us coming back for more.

8. Sherry, “SherryBaby” — As a rule Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn’t sign on for parts that have less than 37 layers of complexity, but she outdoes herself here as Sherry, a fresh-out-of-prison ex-heroin addict working to get custody of the daughter she hasn’t seen in years. She’s rude, immature, brash, selfish and confrontational, and her love for her daughter is tainted by a sense of entitlement — Sherry’s hardly her child’s beacon of hope. Yet we cannot write her off because she sees herself clearly and tries, in her small way, to change. That’s my kind of woman: a real one.

The only thing Bernie's good at? Losing. Hard.

The only thing Bernie's good at? Losing. Hard.

9. Bernie Lootz, “The Cooler” — Look up synonyms for “pathetic” in Merriam-Webster and you’ll likely find photos of Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) beside every single word. He’s unlucky to a fault, and what’s worse is that his bad luck is contagious — so much so that casino bosses use him to “cool off” gamblers on a hot streak. Yikes. There are many moments where you wonder what there is to like about this wimpy, hapless sadsack, but it all boils down to Macy, who plays Bernie as a man who accepts his faults and means well. Sometimes, that’s enough. 

10. Dawn Weiner, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” — Todd Solondz doesn’t really people his movies with “happy,” or even marginally cheery, characters, but Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo) may be a new low even for the guy who made “Happiness.” Dawn’s a clueless nerd, the target of frequent and vicious bullying, which might endear her to us if she weren’t so dismally dull, whiny and downright cruel. She’s the girl you feel sorry for, No. 3 on this list might say, “but in real life you wouldn’t be sitting next to her either.”

*Hedley Lamar-approved pronunciation
Honorable mentions: Luke (“Cool Hand Luke”); Miles (“Sideways”); Jim McAllister (“Election”); Ruth (“Citizen Ruth”)

10 dastardly movie villains

Little Bill Daggett: a villain unlike any other.

Little Bill Daggett: a villain unlike any other.

I’m a villain girl.

Yes, I know the history of cinema is filled with do-gooder types who rob from the rich, give to the poor, cuff up the bad guys and try, in their kind-hearted ways, to rid the world of wrongdoing. I even know that these men and women usually end up celebrating with pints while the other guys rot in prison cells or asylums or push up daisies. These characters, the good guys with honorable intentions and clean consciences, they have their shining moments.

But the villains? Well, the villains are way more interesting.

Twisty and edgy and scary, they do it for me. Always have. To be fair, though, who doesn’t love a great villain? There’s something about the vicarious thrill of watching the bad eggs do all the things we don’t have the guts to do. And the really crazy ones — the Norman Bates types, the killers and the maniacs — they fascinate us too. The dark side of human nature, the cobweb-covered hidden parts of the psyche, draw us in. 

So how’s about I initiate a little celebration of villainy (the good guys get enough press, if you ask me) with this list of 10 awesomely mean-spirited, wily and just plain evil villains:

1. Little Bill Daggett, “Unforgiven” — “You have never hated anyone in your entire life as much as you hate Gene Hackman in this movie” insists my friend Jason the Comedian, and damn if he isn’t right. There’s no villain more hateful than the amoral, swaggering, ruthless Little Bill Daggett in Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” He is the human embodiment of villainy, evil incarnate, and he eyes everyone he meets the way a lioness sizes up a limping gazelle. Emotions don’t concern him; people mean nothing; murder merits not a second thought. Bill’s stunning lack of humanity solidifies his spot as the meanest bad guy of all-time.

Col. Landa speaks softly, but he carries a big pipe.

Col. Landa speaks softly, but he carries a big pipe.

2. Colonel Hans Landa, “Inglourious Basterds” — In the process of writing, directing and producing one of the best films of 2009, that brainy sicko genius Quentin Tarantino created Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a smooth-talking Jew hunter possessed of probing intellect, unbelievable cunning and lacerating wit. This wily chap, who treats everything as a social experiment, takes such pure delight in seeking out and devouring weakness it’s impossible not to laugh along with him. Just don’t lie to him. Ever.

3. Max Cady, “Cape Fear” — What makes Max Cady (Robert Mitchum in ’62, DeNiro in ’91) such an iconic villain is his pure, unyielding relentlessness. Single-minded to the point of murder, he refuses to stop his mission to rain down a vengeance storm upon the lawyer who put him in prison. His determination — which leads to a most unsettling, nightmare-inducing car trip — makes him practically invincible. And everyone knows that there’s nothing scarier than evil you just can’t kill.


Disrespect Chigurh's bob at your own peril...

4. Anton Chigurh, “No Country for Old Men” — Before the Coen brothers’ eerily calm, otherworldly assassin Anton Chigurh strolled into our lives, we never had any reason to fear cattle guns, Buster Brown coiffures or coin tosses. Now we can’t pick stray pennies off the ground without shuddering. Writer Cormac McCarthy created this iconic figurehead of evil, but Javier Bardem brings him to wicked, freaky life in Oscar-worthy ways. Chigurh’s the kind of baddie you won’t soon forget.

5. The Joker (Heath Ledger), “The Dark Knight” — If it’s true there’s nothing scarier than a bad guy who refuses to die, it’s also true that nothing inspires a mean case of the wiggins like a villain who has no logical reason for anything he does. In his role as The Joker, the late Ledger went to dank, unsavory depths to create a character so raving mad he lights mountainous heaps of cash on fire and drives pencils in the craniums of hardened goodfellas. The Joker’s beyond reason, and that makes him one seriously terrifying mischief-maker.

6. Annie Wilkes, “Misery” — For some reason, the really frightening movie villains always seem to be male, or non-human, or both. Not so with Kathy Bates’ startling turn as disturbed psycho fan Annie, a character so creepy she probably lurks in the mind of every writer who hits the NY Times best-seller list. Bates makes us feel (figuratively and literally) the hammer blows of Annie’s rage. Then, in a flash, she turns sweet, accomodating and gentle … and that’s when the real chills come calling.

7. Keyser Soze, “The Usual Suspects” — Something tells me Bryan Singer had no idea the mysterious bad guy who wielded immeasurable power in 1995’s film noir hit would become such a pop-culture icon. After all, how can we fear a villain who has no face? It has everything to do with the “things you don’t see are scarier than the things you do” principle. The fact we don’t see him only heightens the anxiety. There’s not much more horrifying than a bad guy who’s everywhere and nowhere all at once. 


When Hopkins is done with you, you'll never drink Chianti again.

8. Dr. Hannibal Lecter, “The Silence of the Lambs” — No list of iconic evildoers would be complete without the name “Hannibal Lecter” on it, but that’s not why he merits inclusion. Lecter’s scare power, as played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, comes from his uncanny ability to read people’s darkest secrets and use them to get exactly what he wants (there’s a bit of Lecter in Col. Landa, it seems). That he’s also a cannibalistic serial killer is almost beside the point — he rips into human frailty like a plate of fava beans. How tasty and terrifying.

9. Casanova Frankenstein, “Mystery Men” — Sometimes villains don’t have to be scary to make a big impression on us. Nobody knows that better than Geoffrey Rush, who makes being bad look so effortlessly cool as Casanova Frankenstein, the glib, supersmart supervillain (he invented a cholorform-deploying portable enticement snare!) out for the blood of the dim Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear). He’s witty, charming and deliciously mean-spirited. Who needs murder and mayhem, again?

10. Joan Crawford, “Mommie Dearest” — Moms, according to our collective human consciousness, are supposed to be kind, warm and comforting. So when a movie mom goes off the grid — in the all-noble way Faye Dunaway does in “Mommie Dearest” — it’s the stuff of paralyzing night terrors. Also, there’s a very good reason wire hangers have fallen out of fashion. Watch this movie if you’re screaming to know why.

Honorable mentions: Loren Visser (“Blood Simple”); Norman Bates (“Psycho”); Lester Long (“Clay Pigeons”); Commodus (“Gladiator”)

Review: “The Graduate” (1967)

The_GraduateSometimes we choose the films we watch, but the most important ones seem to choose us. And so it was with “The Graduate,” one of those timeless classics I kept meaning to see but never did. This always seemed a grave error in judgment, waiting so long to meet Benjamin Braddock. Then “The Graduate” finally cycled up from its lowly queue ranking, I watched it, at age 28, and I knew. I saw this movie at precisely the right time.

Oops. Was that too crunchy, maybe too reflective? Absolutely. Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) would hate it. He’s not that reflective, lives mostly inside his mind. So why should I wax all philosophical? Refer back to “precisely the right time.” Bittersweet and poignant, “The Graduate” is a film best enjoyed after the angst of the early 20s — OK, the whole of one’s 20s — has passed. In those youthful moments where The Future and all its infinite possibilities are terrifying, perspective doesn’t exist. All that does is fear, the kind that doesn’t go away until you stop feeding it and it wanders away.  

In Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate,” we don’t get to see that transition for Benjamin. Right on. Benjamin, in Hoffman’s estimation, is the listless owner of some unnamed of bachelor’s degree and one of those real-world useless fellowship accolades with a name no one can keep straight. Back in his parents’ California home, he’s forced into one party after another in his honor, and each one makes him more and more uncomfortable. Everyone has big opinions about what Benjamin should do with his life (one word: “Plastics”), but he hasn’t the slightest clue. All his frustrations — “I’m worried about my future” he says pointedly — are ignored, and this only magnifies his anxiety. 

Then comes the summer-long Affair Heard ‘Round the World (it lives on in infamy through Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”) with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), a confident, attractive, overtly sexual friend of Benjamin’s parents. In a dumber film, Mrs. Robinson would play teacher and impart scads of life lessons to the shy, inexperienced Benjamin, who’d gobble them up and grow into a mature, successful businessman. But who wants to see that movie? Certainly not Nichols; thus, the affair serves mostly to exacerbate Benjamin’s confusion, mixes up the concepts of dreams and sexual desires in his brain. Not good for a regular 20something guy, let alone one who’s as rudderless as Benjamin. Then things get worse: He falls for Mrs. Robinson’s young daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). This is an odd plot point, one that could be a little soap opera-esque without Nichols’ knack for finding the right pitch (helped along by Simon and Garfunkel’s deceptively peppy score).

So the web of Benjamin’s world is, ahem, decidedly tangled. Sex tends to do that, particularly if it happens with the best looking of all your parents’ friends. (Eek.) Yet these entanglements don’t matter nearly as much as the way they affect Benjamin. “The Graduate” is first and foremost a coming-of-age film, for though Benjamin’s technically an adult his emotional development hasn’t come close to catching up with his age. And the strange escapades in his life don’t produce the effects we might predict. To a degree, his affair with Mrs. Robinson does enlighten him — he taps into his sexuality in a way he hasn’t yet. But Benjamin thinks his affair with Mrs. Robinson will mean something. She’s bored and wants sex. (Bancroft does a wonderful job of not backing away from Mrs. Robinson’s palpable sexuality.) Then he believes his love — however misplaced and desperate — for Elaine will give him purpose. We get the idea that Benjamin’s seeking the right things; he’s just looking in the wrong places.

This much becomes clear in the ending (one of the best in cinematic history), and in Hoffman’s distracted performance. Hoffman closes down his face and shrinks his shoulders to play Benjamin, who’s separated himself from reality. He’s spinning around with no sense of direction until the end. Even then, when he’s learned something, he doesn’t seem to know what. Neither do we … and that’s just as it should be.

Grade: A

What’s a little ambiguity among flixsters?

Perhaps unwittingly, I think that Darren, that movie blogger paragon of nerditude and film erudition, has created a brilliant idea for a doctoral thesis with his clever and flawlessly argued post on the ambiguous ending of “The Usual Suspects.” Now that’s a paper — and even a book! — I’d fight off a few patrons at the local library to read. Probably better see about copyrighting that great idea, Darren, or UCLA’s film school is going to see a puzzling influx of “Usual Suspects”-themed theses. Turnitin.com will go wild.

But back to Darren’s post. He has crafted a most excellent argument, a real thinker that forces us to re-examine our assumptions of the film’s ending based on actual hard evidence — of which, you’ll have to admit, there’s not much. Or any, really. That’s a fairly revolutionary notion when you’ve spent heaps of time walking around all puffed up and certain — in that slightly demoralizing “Sixth Sense” way — about the movie’s last 10 minutes. His suggestion that we look closer at what’s really there has opened up “The Usual Suspects” in ways I didn’t think were possible. It’s like a new movie again.  

So long story short, give the post a gander and formulate your own opinions about who Keyser Soze really is. Just remember, though, that in the end? No matter who he is, he’s always the guy that’s gonna get ya.

No. 5: “Apocalypse Now” (1979)

“I used to think if I died in an evil place then my soul wouldn’t make it to heaven. Well, fuck. I don’t care where it goes as long it ain’t here.” ~~Chef

There’s a moment lurking in the soul-deadening “Apocalypse Now,” a moment nearly muted by the hum of machine gun fire, that seems thoroughly unremarkable: In the chaotic trenches outside the deep Vietnamese jungle, Cpt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), crawling on hands and knees in the dirt, asks who’s in charge. Wild-eyed, the closest soldier, reloading his gun, spits out: “Ain’t you?” 

That’s it, right there: the point of no return, the panicked realization that order and purpose have gone belly-up and taken hope right along with them. For in Francis Ford Coppola’s somber, haunting epic exploration of war and the shadowy places it drives men to, there is no hope. There’s just sweat mixed with the smell of napalm and dirty jungle water gone crimson with blood. Hope, Coppola informs us, left Vietnam long ago.

That abject despair — the kind that seeps down into your bones and slopes your shoulders — is what makes “Apocalypse Now” a masterpiece, a fearless and complex work of art that demands to be remembered as one of the greatest stories ever put to celluloid. Coppola’s masterwork is something that must be looked at and felt simultaneously, but the experience takes a piece out of us every time.

The way Sheen looks through the camera, though, it’s not hard to see “Apocalypse Now” demanded that same kind of intense emotional commitment from everyone involved in the production. Sheen, in particular, fills the screen with Cpt. Willard’s weariness. He’s been worn down by the violence, pared down from a whole person into a shell who hates war but can’t stomach peace, either. His decision to accept an odd mission — hunt down Col. Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), an A.W.O.L. Army Special Forces soldier who’s playing God somewhere deep in the jungles of Vietnam — changes not only his life but the lives of the men, who are mostly young and stupid and wholly unprepared, unfortunate enough to be part of the crew ferrying him up the Nung River. Willard knows what he’s in for but has no interest in playing father to a bunch of kids who treat the war as some kind of grand adventure. They’re in for a hell of a lesson, but Willard’s not exactly the sort to savor teaching moments.

In fact, part of the dark beauty of “Apocalypse Now” is the way Coppola showscases what warfare does to the human spirit. There’s a wrenching scene — one of the most unnerving in the entire movie — where Chef (Frederick Forrest) boards a civilian boat to search for supplies, and one false move leads Clean (Laurence Fishburne), the definition of green around the gills, to blow apart every unarmed person. Willard’s matter-of-fact dispatchment of the only survivor is most chilling, and that moment shifts the balance of emotion; it’s a loud, clear move from the bliss of ignorance to the weighty horror of realization. By the time Willard makes it to Kurtz’s outpost, the remaining soldiers can scarcely function as human beings, let alone killers. They stumble about with eyes that can’t focus because they don’t want to see anything anymore.

And here is where “Apocalypse Now,” so dynamic and huge in scope, succeeds on a surprisingly intimate level: There are characters we get to know, not anonymous faces bound for body bags. Forrest’s Chef is particularly frightening as we watch madness descend on him like a bell jar, while the fear behind Clean’s shoot-anything-that-moves approach gnaws at us. We get the sense that Robert Duvall’s Lt. Col. Kilgore’s has hardened his disbelief into an ardent belief that victory is possible (or maybe he’s just that crazy). And though Brando does fine work creating a man driven purely mad by what he’s seen, it’s Sheen who perfectly captures how war mutes the spirit and deadens the mind, how it shines unwelcome light on the dark corners of the soul.

This, I believe, is where Coppola succeeds: He understands that war wastes all men, and he creates a movie that does the same to us.

“Jennifer’s Body” a witty, surreal teen comedy

Amanda Seyfried weathers flesh-eating demons, whiny indie bands and poof sleeves in "Jennifer's Body."

Amanda Seyfried weathers flesh-eating demons, whiny indie bands and poof sleeves in "Jennifer's Body."

I knew it. I knew it. I knew that if I hoped and prayed and wished and waited a long, long time that the Bizarro Alternate World would take over and the unthinkable would happen. And in “Jennifer’s Body,” the unthinkable has become reality: The brunette’s dicing up male hearts like room-temperature butter, and her mousy blonde friend — who wears tortoise-shell glasses! — is nothing but a mopey, fraidy-cat sidekick.


It turns out this is not Bizzaro Alternate World so much as just the warped plot of the Diablo Cody-penned wittier-than-thou “Jennifer’s Body,” a pointless but way fun horror comedy that lampoons teen movie cliches with wicked glee. And since this is, you know, Diablo Cody, all the fun is wrapped up in dialogue so sharp and self-conciously urbane that you have shredded murder victims described as “lasagna with teeth” and an indie band frontman (Adam Brody) who yearns to “reach out to fans in the shitty areas, too.”  

Yep, “Jennifer’s Body” is that kind of movie, another hip reinvention of the teen horror movie that ends up completely farfetched but also completely enjoyable. Part of that trashy fun stems from Megan Fox’s rather impressive performance as Jennifer Check, the resident hottie at Devil’s Kettle High School who spends her post-cheer practice time consuming male flesh. (She’s not killing people, you understand; she’s “killing boys.” There’s a difference.) There’s Brilliant Subversion No. 2 — a girl who’s not the victim, who is, in fact, making mincemeat out of boys? Love it. Standing petrified on the sidelines is Anita “Needy” Lesnicky (the insanely talented Amanda Seyfried), who suspects her more socially desirable B.F.F. — “sandbox love never dies” Needy offers up as reasoning for their unlikely friendship — is a killer. Too bad Needy can’t get her sensitive, Strokes haircut-sporting boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) to believe her. But she has to try real hard because if not The Big Dance will become (he he) an “all-you-can-eat buffet.”

That’s what I love most about “Jennifer’s Body,” lines like that. These words bear no resemblance to the way people actually talk, though if they do it’s probably because everybody saw “Juno,” figured it was the new “Clueless” and started a flip pad of jargon. (Come to think of it, that isn’t a half-bad idea, starting a log of Diablo Cody-isms. She’s so hot these days.) There are other killers so funny it’s nearly impossible to laugh at them. Needy and Jennifer’s pet names for each other? Monastat and Vagisil. Jennifer is “actually evil, not high-school evil.” When Chip’s mom begs him to carry pepper spray to the dance, he responds: “I can take care of myself. I’ve been using the Bowflex.” And there’s a bit about Thai food and sex that might cause public consumption of pad Thai to go up or down depending.

This whimsical absurdism bleeds (pardon the pun) into much of “Jennifer’s Body,” which means there’s not much substance — unless you count the characters. Fox does more than what’s expected of her — she proved she had comedic chops in “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” but, really, who saw this coming? — and has a lot of fun with Jennifer. Her delivery’s just right, though it’s doubtful any man in attendance will notice. With the way Fox fills out her teeny heart hoodies, ushers should have buckets handy to catch the drool. But enough about Fox. Why use too many words for her when there’s a better, meatier part played by a better actress with more range? Given her own fair looks, it’s shocking to see Amanda Seyfried plain-Jane it up as Needy, but she looks every inch the meek friend. There’s a sadness to Needy that Seyfried’s not afraid to explore, and later a looming darkness that’s unnerving, not the least bit cutsey. This is why Seyfried will become a household name — she’s got such talent you can’t help but like her in anything.

Jennifer may be the body, see, but Needy’s the soul. And hey, someone’s got to do the real heavy lifting while Megan Fox makes sexy.

Grade: B-

Damon grounds Soderbergh’s gnarly, screwball “The Informant!”

Agent 007, listen up: You got nothin' on Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), who blows the whistle on corporate price fixing in "The Informant!"

Agent 007, listen up: You got nothin' on Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), who blows the whistle on corporate price fixing in "The Informant!"

Matt Damon, it would seem, is on a mission to make Trey Parker and Matt Stone chow down on some crow — big, heapin’ pie shells full of it. Since 2004, when “Team America” gave us the Matt Damon puppet, the Oscar winner has headlined two more “Ocean’s” movies, another Bourne thriller and mind-benders like “The Departed” and “Syriana.” And now he’s gone and tackled Mark Whitacre, that squirrelly fellow who blew the lid off a huge price-fixing scheme perpetrated by lysine development conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), in the mid-1990s.

How does Damon fare, you wonder? Let’s just say Trey and Matt might need to rifle their utensil drawers for some big ole’ wooden spoons. Damon is flat-out fantastic in Soderbergh’s twisty, witty corporate thriller, finding comedy in Whitacre’s delusions — he’s 0014, he insists, because he’s “twice as smart as 007” — but also the boredom and unhappiness that puddle at the roots. This is a whopper of a performance, sad and humorous and disturbing, but so subtle that it probably won’t earn Damon any nominations. But acting this good is a triumph in itself.

Soderbergh, who seems to have some innate softness for whistle-blowers (“Erin Brockovich,” “The Insider”), lets Damon stand at the center of Scott Burns’ adapted screenplay. That’s a wise decision, considering it gives “The Informant!” a dose of humanity to offset the air of whimsy, the pretzel-like script and the dementedly chirpy score (direct all praise to composer Marvin Hamlisch). Whitacre’s an ambitious man looking to ascend the ranks at ADM, so he’s none too happy when his wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) forces him to detail ADM’s global price-fixing plot to FBI Special Agent Brian Shepherd (Scott Bakula, playing the bemused straight man). The feds get involved — including Special Agent Bob Herndon (Joel McHale, who’s sold out and probably can’t keep at it with that “Talk Soup” gig much longer) — and Whitacre ends up sporting wires, orchestrating clandestine meetings and, eventually, narcing on pretty much everyone who signs his sizable paychecks. And yet there’s so much more to the story, including a complex subplot involving a $9 million embezzlement scheme so mind-boggling in its flagrant stupidity that the feds don’t think to look for it.

Certainly there’s enough mayhem in Burns’ screenplay — adapted from Kurt Eichenwald’s book — to keep viewers occupied for days. How could ADM keep a scam this big going so long? How many people were really involved, and how many had dirt on their hands? And the biggest question: Why would a man netting well over $300,000 a year even think of making a peep? The beauty of “The Informant!” is that we get few answers, and we get no answer at all to the last question. It’s all buildup and almost no release, no spoon-fed conclusion or resolution to settle that slightly sick feeling in our stomachs. While it’s plain fact that ADM faced stiff fines — to the tune of $100 million — and a few top execs did light jail time, Whitacre spent more than eight years in federal prison on those embezzlement charges. He did a public service, sure, but he paid handsomely for it. We’re left wondering uneasily: Did the real crooks get away because the informant had a few stacks of cash in his closet?

The way Damon plays him, no one can tell. He gives away nothing about Whitacre’s motivations (think Chris Cooper in “Breach”), providing us only with a surprisingly nuanced portrait of a man living so far inside his own head it’s a wonder he could hear people when they spoke to him. He spins wild yarns while acting cooperative, then retreats into his inner stream-of-consciousness monologue. Damon reveals more humanity in these moments than we expect — just watch the scene where his wife (Lynskey’s marvelous here) and Shepherd (Bakula has depth too) catch him in his last lie. The emotions — exhaustion and fear and resignation — that play on Damon’s face will twist your heart painfully. That’s what sticks with us when the music fades and the jokes dry up. Somehow the words “Matt Damon” don’t ring quite so funny. 

Grade: B+

No. 4: “Harold and Maude” (1971)

“A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they are not dead, really. They’re just backing away from life.” ~~Maude Chardin

Director Hal Ashby announces his intentions for “Harold and Maude” in the opening scene, and those intentions are, shall we say, a bit impish: Rich, purposeless 20-something Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) swings from a noose while his mother (Vivian Pickles) can’t be bothered to end her phone call. Staged suicides, we learn, are common in the palatial Chasen homestead and no cause for alarm — just annoying interruptions in mom’s quest to marry off her son. Those young adults, the things they do to stave off ennui.

And so begins “Harold and Maude,” an unconventional romantic comedy where the pursuit of life trumps all that mushy love stuff (yippee). But perhaps “unconventional” isn’t the right word to describe Ashby’s movie, for it hardly captures all the wild weirdness that makes the movie — based on Colin Higgins’ novel — such a strangely moving affirmation of life.

First there’s the mishmash of bizarreness to muddle through. It’s no wonder everyone calls this one a “cult classic”; “Love Story” it ain’t. (Chorus from Broken Record Girl: yippee.) Harold’s got absolutely no interest in life. But he’s cheeks over teacups in love with death, or at least the idea of it, so he spends his time staging elaborate suicides (the human torch bit is a personal favorite) and attending random funerals. It’s there, in a graveyard, that he meets Maude Chardin (Ruth Gordon), a 79-year-old widow with an irrepressibly optimistic worldview and a knack for lifting cars. She senses Harold’s stuck in limbo, so she befriends him, slowly wearing down his resistance. At first Harold is simply a tagalong in Maude’s madcap adventures — including the liberation of a potted tree that ends in a side-splitting car chase — but gradually he becomes a participant. The shift is subtle, but when you do take notice it’s so powerful that it almost knocks you over.

Which is true of “Harold and Maude” as a whole. At its core the film is a beautiful message movie, a retelling of that time-honored “carpe diem” speech. It’s the unusual script, however, that makes the message seem fresh. Higgins’ novel dials down the sentamentality and avoids cliches, and so, too, does Ashby’s film. Ashby elects to bury the insights underneath all the blackly funny suicides and Maude’s antics. (The scene where she plays war protestor to Harold’s gung-ho recruit? Priceless.) Instead, Ashby lets the insights emerge in quieter moments, like the one where Maude, desperate to save that potted tree from its stifling life of city servitude, tells Harold: “Grab the shovel.” It’s a little scene, a throwaway little line, but what punch it has. “Harold and Maude” is jam-packed with these kinds of brilliant moments. And like any truly great movie, there’s just no end to them.

Those moments probably wouldn’t mean much without Cort and Gordon, who turn in wonderful performances as good today as they were in 1971. It’s a tricky dance, shifting from dark comedy to drama and back, but these two do it beautifully. Cort’s Harold is a strange creature, a boy who can’t fully embrace life but lacks the guts to commit suicide, and that is off-putting at first. But there’s a deep current of fear in Harold that Cort makes painfully real. “I haven’t lived. I’ve died a few times,” he says. What 20-year-old, staring into that void between youth and adulthood, hasn’t felt the same? Gordon plays nicely off that negative energy, making Maude less a lover (though there’s a scene that suggests she is) than a teacher. She wants to reach Harold, show him what it means to take that fear and use it, channel it. But she’s no soapbox preacher. She couldn’t give a fig about morality: “It’s best not to be too moral. You cheat yourself out of too much life.”

That, you see, is Maude’s gift to Harold and Ashby’s gift to us: the reminder that backing away from life is its own kind of suicide. Call me sentimental, but when that truth’s hidden in a film this haunting, poignant, comical and original? I’ll fall for it every time.