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Goodbye, Prison Mike

I know that M. Carter @ the Movies is, well, a movie blog, but sometimes non-movie issues crop up that must be addressed. Today, Thursday, April 28, is one of those times. Because today, Thursday, April 28, is none other than a terrible, no-good, very-bad, very-sad day. It marks Steve Carell’s exit from “The Office.”

In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a big deal. Bosses come and go. But any readers who have invested their whole hearts into a TV show might understand my position. My romance with “The Office” — which has lasted six years — is the longest and most fulfilling relationship I’ve ever had. (Yes, I’m thoroughly aware how pathetic that is.) There have been happy times (Michael’s romance with Holly; Pam and Jim’s wedding; the Superbowl episode heard ’round the world) and times where I wanted to throw up my hands, yell in frustration and walk away (most of season 4 and numerous parts of season 6). I’ve been wildly in love with Michael Scott (sometimes it was more “in like); more often than not I’ve been frustrated with him, and angry at his beef-headed choices and immaturity, and then stunned at his compassion, his vulnerability and his supreme business acumen/negotiating skills. Steve Carell took what could have been a minor character, a complete dolt with no social skills and less maturity, and turned him into the kind of flawed Everyboss we could root for. What he’s done with the role is beyond words. It’s incalculacable.

But now might be the time for a quiet but happy exit. Michael Scott has gone as far as he can at Dunder-Mifflin, and now he will move on into a new life — a life with his goofy soulmate, Holly, a life that signals now he can see beyond his own needs and make compromises, sacrifices. Though I suspect he’ll never lose touch with his inner child (he is, after all, “LittleKidLover”), Michael has become an adult.

But in my heart, he’ll always be Prison Mike. And I’ll miss him sorely.

Films A-Z

A day late, a dollar short and wearing a brand-new shirt with a food stain on it — that’s my life story and I’m sticking to it. So naturally on the heels of so many other movie bloggers, I decided to participate in the A-Z film lists.

Enjoy…

A is for “Apocalypse Now”

 

 

B is for “Blazing Saddles”

 

 

C is for “Clueless”

 

 

D is for “Dead Man Walking”

 

 

E is for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

 

 

F is for “The Fall”

 

 

G is for “Gojira”

 

 

H is for “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”

 

 

I is for “Idiocracy”

 

 

J is for “Jindabyne”

  

K is for “Key Largo”

 

 

L is for “Lars and the Real Girl”

 

 

M is for “The Maltese Falcon”

 

 

N is for “No Country for Old Men”

 

 

O is for “Out of the Past”

 

 

P is for “Plan 9 from Outer Space”

 

 

Q is for “Quills”

 

 

R is for “The Rules of Attraction”

 

 

S is for “Secretary”

 

 

T is for “12 Angry Men”

 

 

U is for “Unforgiven”

 

 

V is for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”

  

W is for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

  

X is for “XXX” (a.k.a. “That Movie Where Vin Diesel Was Not Shirtless Often Enough”)

  

Y is for “Young Frankenstein”

  

Z is for “Zoolander”

My thought on today

Review: “Saved!” (2004)

American Eagle Christian School — could there be a more perfect name for the central location of a sharp-toothed satire about the highly sanctimonious? Doubtful. Somehow name-dropping an ace seller of artfully preppy attire signals the ride director Brian Dannelly intends to take us on. For “Saved!” is full of people (adults included) who devote themselves full-time to crafting perfect-looking Christian lives. Queen bee Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), in fact, could make praising Jesus while insulting someone’s outfit an Olympic sport. She’s a mean girl wearing a cross pin.

The thing that keeps “Saved!” from seeming wholly hateful and mean-spirited is the abundance of unfake people. The film’s heroine, the aptly named Mary (the supremely talented Jena Malone), possesses none of Hilary Faye’s venom. She’s simply a Christian girl enjoying her walk with God and her life. She has a considerate boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust); a hip-but-still-parental mom (Mary-Louise Parker); and a group of what she believes are kind-hearted friends (Moore, Elizabeth Thai). Then, during an innocent pool-side game of telling secrets, Dean lowers the boom: He’s gay. Mary bolts out of the water, knocking herself unconscious on the pool ladder, and has a vision of Jesus (actually the burly pool guy who saves her from drowning). She is to help Dean become ungay, and she knows only one way: sex. This leads to Mary staring down the barrel of a definitively positive pregnancy test. It’s a life interruption she didn’t account for, and it shakes her faith.

Although teen pregnancy is involved, “Saved!” does not head into Lifetime Movie Network territory. Considering it’s a film that revolves around teens, “Saved!” is unexpectedly witty, good-hearted and intricate. Writers Dannelly and Michael Urban do not pander; nor do they proselytize, either, despite the obvious parallels between Mary and the Virgin Mary. The writers are more interested into navigating the murky, perilous waters of high school life, which looks the same at every high school. The outsiders, not surprisingly, are the most interesting characters. Cassandra (Eva Amurri), the only Jew — called “a Jewish” — at American Eagle, is a foul-mouthed, hard-living smoker, but she also has a good heart. She accepts people as they are. Hilary Faye’s brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin, delightfully sardonic), confined to a wheelchair, hovers on the outskirts as well. New kid Patrick (Patrick Fugit), son of terminally clueless principal Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan), is low-key about his faith, and he admires Mary for having the guts to question hers openly. These students, not Hilary Faye and her minions, are the ones who rally for Mary; they offer her support and kindness she doesn’t ask for but desperately needs. They also see through Hilary Faye’s phony piety to her bitter soul, and they help Mary see it, too.

As teen satires go, “Saved!” is not exactly “Heathers” or “Clueless,” but it doesn’t retract its fangs. Dannelly and Urban aren’t afraid to venture into potential blasphemy to drive home their points. For devout Christians, the most controversial scene, no doubt, is Mary’s showdown with the giant cross on a church building. Faced with an uncertain future, she curses at the cross, daring God to react. There is blasphemy in this scene, but that’s what makes it so powerful. It is a poignant depiction of one woman’s crisis of faith, her need for some kind of solution to the mess she’s gotten herself into. Both her anger and her demand for answers are near-universal. And certainly Malone’s performance lends immense depth to “Saved!” — not shocking considering Malone is a major talent. She is never melodramatic or whiny; she finds the right tone.

So do Parker and Donovan, invaluable character actors playing uncertain lovers. Amurri, an actress with crackerjack comedic timing, and Culkin serve up plenty of great one-liners, but there’s an edge of earnesty to both characters. Moore proves she can be nasty (“I am filled with Christ’s love!” she screams at Mary, hurling a Bible at her back) and take shots at her squeaky-clean image. For all the good-natured ribbing, though, it’s through Hilary Faye that we get the clearest message: The people who yell the loudest have darkness to hide.  

Grade: A-

Review: “Monster” (2003)

“I’m one who seriously hates human life and would kill again.”
~~Aileen Wuornos

Aileen Wuornos never had a chance. All the arguments of creating fate and making good choices in the midst of bad situations wither in the face of Wuornos’ awful circumstances. Her life started out bad and got worse. Born to a 15-year-old mother and a child molester father, she was raised by abusive, alcoholic grandparents. Her grandfather beat her regularly; she got pregnant at 13; she and her brother were farmed out to foster care; she was kicked out of the house she was 15. She became a prostitute to support herself. Prostitution made her feel trapped and angry, and it taught her to hate.

Patty Jenkins’ morally complex “Monster” sticks with this line of thinking about Wuornos, the female serial killer who murdered seven men in Florida from 1989-90. Before her Death Row execution in 2002, Wuornos changed her story so many times — the johns raped her and she shot them in self-defense; she killed because she wanted to — it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. So Jenkins elects to paint a decidedly sympathetic portrait of a serial killer that predates Showtime’s series “Dexter.” Charlize Theron, camouflaged in dumpy clothes and transformed by make-up, goes along with this view. In a truly outstanding performance, she gives humanity to the woman painted as a monster and falsely christened the “first female serial killer.” Theron, in fact, is so good that we never think to sneer at the actress for going ugly to win an Oscar. Purely on the strength of her acting she earns all the praise. She also rewards the leap of faith required to believe an actress so comely could become a woman so homely and beaten-down. Theron is a revelation.

It’s safer to call “Monster” a movie inspired by true events than a biopic, since Wuornos’ history is so malleable. She changed her stories with such frequency that even she couldn’t keep them straight. Jenkins provides a bit of back story but zeroes in primarily on Aileen’s romantic relationship with Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), reminiscent of the real Wuornos’ partnership with Tyria Moore. Down to her last $5, Aileen strikes a deal with God: She’ll spend the cash and then commit suicide. At a gay bar, she meets young Selby, who’s eager for companionship. Despite a rocky beginning, the two form a fragile friendship that turns into a tentative, then fiercely codependent romance. Selby wants Aileen to whisk her away from her judgmental aunt (Annie Corley) and into a life of freedom. But that sort of life takes money, and Aileen has to hook to get it. After one john (Vincent Corey) beats, rapes and tortures Aileen, she manages to untie her hands and shoot him. The murder is cathartic; she howls in pain and anger, the screams of a wounded animal. The incident unhinges her, unleashes the rage and bitterness she’s swallowed since childhood. And so the transformation from prey to predator begins. She kills more johns, including an undercover cop (Marco St. John) and a kind man (Scott Wilson) who only wants to help her. But by that final murder, Aileen is beyond kindness, help. She can’t go back.

Nearly all of the characters in “Monster” are secondary to Theron and Ricci, who perfectly capture the nuances of a dangerously unstable relationship. Bruce Dern has a small role as Aileen’s only friend, Thomas, a Vietnam vet who understands her alienation. Ricci does a fine job with a role that demands she play a naïve, needy teen who willfully blinds herself to Aileen’s reality. Mostly “Monster” is a showcase for Theron’s gifts as a serious actress willing to go far outside herself for a part. Aileen Wuornos is about as far from Theron as it’s possible to get, yet Theron’s performance wholly fascinates and absorbs us. Rather than seeming like a pretty girl in ugly clothes, she embodies Aileen completely. Theron gives Aileen the voice she never felt she had, and she makes us feel the abject hopelessness and desperation of Aileen’s life. Through Theron, we understand how the simple act of living in such a miserable reality can bankrupt the soul.

Grade: A-

My thought on today

“Your Highness” marks new low for David Gordon Green

Portman, McBride, Franco and Deschanel marvel at just how bad "Your Highness" really is.

It’s a simple question not of weight ratios, but of the law of averages. After a string of successes, director David Gordon Green was due for a miss. “Your Highness,” Danny McBride and Ben Best’s surprisingly unoriginal and unfunny attempt at a medieval spoof, is certainly a miss. In fact, considering that Green directed the wonderful indie gem “All the Real Girls” and the hysterical pot comedy “Pineapple Express,” this film is a Trojan Rabbit of a miss. A miss so large that an African swallow and a European swallow working in tandem could not carry it. Not even Ahchoo’s Air Jordans could help Gordon run away from it.

These “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” allusions are unfair. No film has topped “Holy Grail” in its madcap send-up of medieval culture. And McBride and Best do not try to model “Your Highness” after this comedy classic, so comparison is unwanted. But I don’t care. Given the creativity of Best and McBride’s “The Foot Fist Way” and McBride’s genius line delivery, there’s no excuse for this kind of aimlessness. Even aimlessness could be excused if “Your Highness” had a little satire or more than, say, three scenes that induced more than a polite chuckle. But the film is curiously stale, flat, unfunny and uninspired — a lethal combination. A greater crime than any of these is the general listlessness of the performances. Only Natalie Portman, as a fierce, vengeance-obsessed female warrior, and Justin Theroux, as an articulate sorcerer with outrageous hair, register a pulse. Franco’s acting is on par with his recent performance (or non-performance) at the Academy Awards. McBride, who made magic (and a lot of roaches) with Franco and Seth Rogen in “Pineapple Express,” couldn’t look more disinterested. He sleepwalks through the entire movie, which is cause for concern. If the prospect of making out with Natalie Portman dressed as Xena: Warrior Princess can’t put some pep in a guy’s step, he’s beyond help. Or dead.

The plot of “Your Highness,” however, is not totally beyond help, though it isn’t particularly earth-shattering. McBride and Franco play Thadeous and Fabious, respectively, the very different sons of King Tallious (Charles Dance). It’s a dichotomy as old as time: Little brother Thadeous is a scoundrel and a layabout, while Fabious is a handsome, dashing warrior beloved by all. During his latest quest, Fabious rescued a winsome virgin named Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel, who, as usual, appears really, really bored) that he plans to marry and promptly deflower. But malevolent sorcerer Leezar (Theroux) has plans for a grand “fuckening” of his own and kidnaps Belladonna, forcing Thadeous, his effeminate squire (oh! a girly squire! how original!) Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker) and Fabious on a hasty quest to rescue Belladonna. Along the way, they encounter Isabel (Portman), a tough-talking fighter out to kill Leezar for murdering her family. Portman is intense enough that she seems somewhat out of place in “Your Highness,” though every zany romp — even bad ones — needs a good straight man. It helps if the straight man has dainty cleavage.

There’s also a smattering of sorta-amusing secondary characters, like Julie (Toby Jones), a devious little person hiding absolutely nothing in his trousers, and Boremount (Damian Lewis), Fabious’ right-hand man who is furious that he’s been replaced by the cowardly Thadeous. (It would not be considered a spoiler to reveal that Boremount is, like, so gay for Fabious, because who didn’t see that coming? Anyone?) Not to be outdone is Timotay Dungeon Master (Tobias Winter), who presides over a Roman-esque legion of forest warriors and commands an atrociously rendered CGI dragon creature — all while sporting a Flock of Seagulls ‘do and an adult diaper. He’s bizarre enough to draw a few laughs, but most of the film’s genuine humor belongs to Theroux. He milks his role as Leezar for all it’s worth, spouting off lines like “magic, motherfucker” and leering impressively. Without Theroux, aside from the odd sight gag (take note of Thadeous’ unorthodox quest trophy), there wouldn’t be many reasons to laugh in “Your Highness.” If anything, when we consider “Your Highness” as a waste of Gordon Green’s talent, suicidal depression is far more likely.

Grade: D

Review: “Jesus Camp” (2006)

No matter what a viewer’s faith may be, there’s something unsettling about the image of 5- and 6-year-old children weeping, repenting for their sins and collapsing to the ground. Sure, this is a generalization; after all, the evangelical Christians appearing in the documentary “Jesus Camp” view such a scene as a triumph. Still, the concept of a children’s minister berating elementary schoolers for being sinners and “phony Christians” has to disturb somebody. Yet “Jesus Camp,” directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, does not take the stance that this approach to child rearing is child abuse. The directors allow their subjects — including evangelical minister Becky Fischer, evangelical families home-schooling their children and Mike Papantonio, a liberal Christian radio host — to guide the film. And the results, though sometimes ill-edited and uncertain, are never less than completely thought-provoking. 

“Jesus Camp” offers several viewpoints on the evangelical Christian movement in America. Those who oppose these believers, like Papantonio, who views them as militant and angry, are given a voice too. The documentary’s primary focus is Fischer and her ministry, which often feels more like indoctrination than teaching God’s word. Fischer runs a popular summer camp for evangelical children in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. This is not the average summer camp. There is no arts-and-crafts hour where kids make crosses from nails and twine or friendship bracelets; Fischer’s camp is more like basic training for the soul. Her campers spend their days crying and speaking in tongues, giving testimonies about how they want God to cleanse them of sin. Fischer rails against the evils of Harry Potter (“In Old Testament times, he would have been put to death!” she shouts). She also urges her youngsters to crusade against abortion; a guest speaker even brings in models of tiny fetuses. In the strangest scene, Fischer has the campers lay hands on a cardboard cutout of George Bush — whom Fischer credits with singlehandedly reuniting church and state — and pray over him. The suggestion of idol worship is frightening.

Interspersed with these riveting camp scenes are interviews with evangelical children and parents and clips from Papantonio’s radio show. Particular attention is paid to Levi, a Missouri youth who claims he got saved at age 5 because he “just wanted more of life,” and Rachel, who spends part of an outing to the bowling alley obeying God’s command that she approach a stranger and talk to her about God’s love. Levi appears curious and comfortable with his faith, while Rachel is twitchy and nervous. Most alarming is the look in her eyes; despite her youth, her eyes look overburdened, with a tinge of mania. She could be the poster child for Papantonio’s worries about the evangelical movement and what it means for children raised to be warriors in the battle against Satan and for American government (mixing religion and government is dangerous in his view). Fischer and Papantonio’s portions of the film intersect during a radio interview, when she makes no bones about supporting religious indoctrination of children. She wants to get to kids while they’re young because their minds and morals are moldable. They can be “used in Christianity,” she says. She doesn’t mean this to sound sinister or strange; it’s simply her truth.

The same does not appear to be true for Ted Haggard, who appears in the final 1/3 when the campers take a trip to his church in Colorado Springs. (After the film was released, he resigned due to a sex/drug scandal involving a male escort.) Haggard’s asides to the camera are wholly insincere and, well, sinister. There’s no other word to describe the man: he is creepy. Even as Haggard talks with Levi, who clearly idolizes the pastor, his words reverberate with fakeness. Haggard’s portion of the documentary is a counterpoint to Fischer’s scenes. While she is a genuine believer, someone who practices what she preaches, Haggard oozes insincerity. Somewhere in the middle is Papantonio, reminding listeners that Christ was not a solider but a peaceful man. In presenting all sides of this growing movement, Ewing and Grady succeed in creating a film (albeit an imperfect one) that does not cower in the face of some complex and tough issues.

Grade: A-

My thought on today

Review: “Roger Dodger” (2002)

People who think they have any part of life — money, sex, parenthood — figured out are twice as clueless as the rest of us. Which means that Roger Swanson (Campbell Scott) is in for a ruder awakening than the average smug bastard because he’s so self-assured that he takes on a pupil: his nerdy teen nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) as a pupil. Roger will spread his delusion to the next generation. This is the sort of familiar movie predicament that has two possible outcomes: Student absorbs the lesson and surpasses the teacher, or teacher learns something unexpected from the student.

The breezy pace and bitterly funny, vivid dialogue, though, prevent Dylan Kidd’s “Roger Dodger” from seeming that stale and predictable. The film also has Scott, an actor not usually given particularly substantial roles. Given the strength of his brutally frank, acerbic performance here, it’s hard to explain why he’s not better known — or, at the very least, a shoe-in to play more characters like Roger Swanson. Scott is every millimeter the caustic cynic, a Manhattan copywriter with a somewhat sadistic approach to his career. “You can’t sell a product without first making people feel bad,” he contends, insisting “it’s a substitution game.” This is how he approaches his love life, too. But Roger’s bravado backfires when his lover Joyce (Isabella Rossellini) — who’s also his boss — dumps him. Roger can’t quite accept that his tactics could be flawed, can’t quite accept that he’s hoodwinked himself, so he crashes a work function and confronts Joyce. Her rebuff is as succinct as it is chilly. When Roger’s 16-year-old nephew shows up at his office unannounced, Roger sees a prime opportunity to channel (misdirect, really) his frustration and exact an odd sort of revenge. Nick, a virgin of the never-been-kissed ilk, proves to be the perfect blank canvas: thoroughly naïve and eager. He’s perfectly happy to let Roger take him on a tour of Manhattan’s bars, which, after 3 a.m., all start to look the same.

Bar-hopping and one short-lived jaunt to a strip club ultimately amount to the sum total of “action” in “Roger Dodger.” But the lack of action is no problem because action merely would detract from Kidd’s script, which crackles with stinging one-liners and prickly, fast-paced banter. (The script on its own would make for quite a lively read.) “Roger Dodger” is one of those uncommon films where the flow of words — because Roger never stops talking, nor do we want him to — is enough to keep the atmosphere lively and the momentum speedy. Pay close attention to Scott’s terrific opening monologue, a comic and telling introduction to a man whose speeches are so entertaining his listeners don’t see the catastrophe he’s leading them to. Roger is the modern (and male) equivalent of a siren, using his words to enchant and then destroy. Bitter humor is a requirement for the part, but Scott brings something more to it. He locates a core of rage and pain that Roger’s protecting, which makes him seem less villainous even though he’s clearly manipulating (not to mention misleading) the well-intentioned Nick. (Interesting tidbit: Eisenberg essentially reprised this role for 2009’s “Solitary Man.”) Eisenberg has a gift for seeming as raw and impressionable as a high schooler — despite the fact that he was nearly 20 during filming.

For a male-centric film, “Roger Dodger” also has a trio of strong female performances, with two of them coming out of nowhere (“Flashdance” and “Showgirls” ring any bells?). Rossellini, as a strong-willed, matter-of-fact careerwoman, is the stressor that pushes Roger over the edge, and she more than matches Scott’s cynicism. She cannot be snared in his webs of words. Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley register as more than disposable playthings as Sophie and Andrea, who tag along on Roger and Nick’s escapades because they find Nick’s sincerity likable. In a way, he takes them back to the days of sweetly nervous first kisses, not sleazy pickup lines and grabby hands in ill-lit bars. They want to preserve that innocence and sense — there’s that female intuition Roger can’t pin down — Roger’s out to destroy it. The magic of “Roger Dodger,” though, is that even Roger can’t be pegged that easily.

Grade: A