Saturday, March 29, 2014


A film like Maladies will have a hard time finding an audience. It was made in 2012, but not released until this week in 2014. I suspect it sat on the proverbial shelf for two years because distributors didn't know what to do with it in an era where even Noah is dressed as a super hero. Even the more discriminating film goers who enjoy smaller films are really looking for something cozy to do on a Sunday afternoon, something like Frances Ha, not a strange film like this one that jerks us around. That it stars James Franco, whose name has become shorthand for squandered talents, and is directed by someone known only as "Carter," probably made it a harder sell. But I'll say this: I liked it. In an era that doesn't appreciate experimentation, it dares to be different.

Franco is James, a former actor who now wants to write a novel and may be going a little crazy.  He lives with his friend Catherine (Catherine Keener), who paints what appear to be Rorschach tests,  and his sister Patricia (Fallon Goodson), who smokes a lot and may be a little crazy, too.  James is paranoid, hears voices in his head, can't stand to to be touched, and can only calm himself by listening to the dial tone on a telephone. The voice in his head sometimes taunts him, sometimes engages him in a sort of philosophical argument. Sometimes, in an interesting touch, the voice in his head actually narrates the tale ("James is feeling bad now..."). There's a lonely gay neighbor named Delmar (David Strathairn) who worships James but doesn't dare do anything about it. He seems happy to just be James' neighbor.

Some reviewers have tried to link Delmar with the plays of Tennessee Williams, but I think Maladies owes more to the plays of Sam Shepard, the early ones when Sam was high on pills and writing six plays per week in Patti Smith's attic. Some of  Shepard's old work, which was like Sam Beckett on speed,  is embodied here in Carter's screenplay, as characters engage in weird conversations, repeat themselves, try on new personas, and occasionally go entirely off the rails. James, for instance, meets a blind woman, and then decides to write the rest of his novel in braille. That's a Shepardism, which is ok with me.

Life for James is growing increasingly difficult. He struggles to walk down a hallway, he spills things in stores, he's always on the verge of completely embarrassing himself. He wants to be a writer, and spends a lot of time expounding on the importance of his work, yet he can't decide whether to write with a pen or pencil. He's the sort of talkative idiot who likes the idea of being a writer but never sets anything down on paper. Meanwhile, Catherine has her own problems, including her compulsion to wear men's clothing and draw a pencil mustache on herself.   

The film, though, for all of its gender bending and gay neighbors, is strangely asexual. It's as if everyone in the film is just too damned weird to think about sex. Delmar, for instance, may worship James, but he's too old to approach him as a lover. Catherine may dress like a man, but as Patricia tells her, it looks more like a costume than an organic expression of her inner self. James hates physical contact. There is a heartbreaking scene where everyone starts dancing to an old R&B tune, and Delmar can only look on, his eyes moistening. Is he weeping because he can never have James? I imagine that is so, but it doesn't matter. The scene is moving without needing an explanation.

This sort of movie isn't for everyone. It bounces around in time - it appears to be set in the 1970s, but also looks like the early 1960s. It doesn't have any discernible plot, unless it's about the disintegration of a man's mind, and there's a lot of talk that doesn't seem to go anywhere. Yet, it's strangely affecting, partly because Franco is a charismatic actor, and partly because Carter does what a good filmmaker does - he creates a world with its own rhythms and dramas, and we accept it. Or we don't, depending on the viewer.

To be sure, Carter comes perilously close to  being weird for the sake of being weird. Some of the experiments in narrative don't work.  Some of the thoughts expressed in the film seem banal. But there's something in Maladies that lingers. The cinematography by Doug Chamberlain is beautiful, particularly when James is walking on the beach, or staring at a sunset. Chamberlain captures the coldness in the air, and it feels like the coldness in the characters. Maybe that's not enough for most people. Maybe most viewers will dismiss it as another of Franco's oddball career choices. But some may see the film as a good effort, something about people groping towards an ideal, and collapsing from the effort.

Friday, March 28, 2014

DVD Dumpster Diving: The Sack of Rome, and The Snake God

When Franco Nero rails at God, you can almost imagine that God hears him. ("Is that Nero yelling again? What did I do now?") While watching The Sack of Rome (1993), an Italian production which features a good amount of Nero’s skyward beefing, I tried to imagine an American actor playing such a part. I couldn't think of many. Even a pair of scenery chewers like Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster would seem too urbane. I’d give Japan’s Toshiro Mifune a shot at reaching God’s ear, but only if Akira Kurosawa was directing him. Daniel Day Lewis could get God’s attention, but he’s not American. The problem, of course, is that American actors haven't had many chances to shout at the heavens. In American movies you can yell at your boss, or your spouse, and you can shoot people in the head, but you don’t get many opportunities to yell at God. This is true now more than ever, for contemporary actors aren't asked to do much beyond work on their pecs and whiten their teeth. Can you imagine Channing Tatum or Shia LaBeouf railing at God? That's why Nero's performance in The Sack of Rome is so impressive. Compared to Nero, American actors seem twitchy and neurotic, as pampered as a bunch of models at a Victoria’s Secret shoot. Nero? I’m tempted to say it’s just the Italian language that makes him seem so explosive, but even when Nero's not talking, he's simmering. He’s an actor not given his due.

The film takes place in 1527 when mercenaries invaded Rome and began a horrific course of looting and destruction. Nero plays Gabriele da Poppi, an artist who feels above it all. Gabriele believes artists are immune during times of war. He lives like a 16th century rock star, buffered from the outside world by a kind of grand opulence. He saunters about his enormous estate looking as glittery and well-fed as one of Rembrandt's noblemen. He lives with Gesuina, his lover and model (the angelic Vittoria Belvedere, a young woman whose perspiration looks like it would go well over flapjacks) and her little punk of a brother. Gabriele calls this teen duo his "beasts." They bathe together and play games in what seems like an indoor Eden. Suddenly, Gabriele’s idyllic life is upended when the soldiers raid his mansion, destroy his artwork, and kill Gesuina’s brother. 

The head of the mercenaries holds Gabriele and Gesuina captive in their own home, demanding Gabriele paint a portrait of him. Gabriele, however, suffers a kind of psychotic meltdown after seeing his beloved city turned to rubble. All he can paint are bizarre images of salamanders and flowers. His sleep is troubled by nightmares. He wonders if debauched lives like his own contributed to Rome's fall. He also feels guilty over not getting Gesuina to safety when he had the chance. The worst of his fears, though, is that the sacking of Rome may mean the end of previous concepts of art and beauty.

The Sack of Rome is hard to follow at times. Still, there's an undeniable passion in the film, boiling under every scene. Director Fabio Bonzi is telling a story about the passing of an age, and he tells it with just a handful of characters. When Gabriele sees Gesuina in bed with their captor, he mourns the ending of an epoch, yet, he marvels that the hell they're in has actually made his muse more beautiful. These scenes are wrenching because Nero uses only his face and eyes to convey Gabriele's profound regret. Later, as their abductor lay eviscerated, Gabriele doesn’t celebrate. His life has changed too quickly and violently. The young girl he once playfully sniffed before her bath has become hardened. Even the soldiers outside are bracing for the future like the aging outlaws in The Wild Bunch, exchanging their swords in favor of primitive firearms. Murder will become abstract, less personal. "The golden age," Gabriele says, "is over."

Although The Sack of Rome boasts a couple of mildly erotic scenes, the new DVD from One7Movies is a change from a company that usually focuses on European erotica. For those wondering about such things, the only bonus feature is a gallery of stills, and the movie is presented in full screen rather than widescreen; it looks scratchy in places, and seems older than a film from ‘93. Still, it's a beautiful movie with impressive costumes and set decoration. (If you search for the film on the IMDB, use the Italian title, Zoloto.) I can’t vouch for the film’s historical accuracy, but it’s worth a look, particularly for Nero's performance. When he lets it rip, few can touch him.

“All of my films have a sexual theme. I'm a sex maniac, so why not?" So says director Piero Vivarelli, interviewed in the new Mondo Macabro DVD of his 1970 feature, The Snake God (Il Dio Serpente). You don't have to take his word for it. Just a glance at the movie tells you he was a kinky son of a gun.

Paola (the beautiful Nadia Cassini) is a young bride brought to the Caribbean by her wealthy, older husband. She enjoys the luxury, but she's a little bored. Hubby, you see, keeps taking off for business meetings, leaving Paola with nothing to do but laze around on the beach and perspire. She befriends a young black woman named Stella (Beryl Cunningham, Vivarelli's real life wife), a sexy school teacher who seems to have a carefree lifestyle. Paola is envious after seeing Stella cavorting on the beach with her hunky boyfriend, but Stella acts indifferent. "My boyfriend is fun," Stella says, "But he's stupid." Stella has more pressing interests involving local tribal customs, namely, those involving a mysterious snake god. Quicker than you can say I Walked With A Zombie, Stella introduces Paola to voodoo. At one point in the film Paola attends an island ritual and ends up thrashing on the ground with Stella as if they’re both possessed by evil spirits. Paola is a clean-cut European girl, so this scary island atmosphere is all new and exotic to her. By the film's end, Paola has given herself to Djamballa, the snake god. Isn't that always the way? 

Vivarelli was a genre bouncer, moving easily from rock & roll musicals, to comic book adventures. He earned his bones writing screenplays for directors like Lucio Fulci and Sergio Corbucci, and even after directing several of his own features, Vivarelli was often called upon to punch up someone else's screenplay. That's why you'll see his name on everything from spaghetti westerns to soft-core porn. He had an interest in songwriting, too, often contributing musical ideas to his films. Hence, Vivarelli's features were usually highlighted by vibrant scores, chockfull of brass and fuzz guitars. Even The Snake God, which is heavy on mind-numbing tribal beats, features a nice electric bass line that could've been lifted from an old Ventures album. 

Vivarelli, who died in 2010, was a rebellious soul who often chided the movie business for its hypocrisy. In the DVD's "about the film" section there's a lot of verbiage about how he was a communist, and a pot smoker, and how The Snake God was his statement about colonization. Gee, I thought the film's message was something about not leaving your younger wife alone, because there's usually a snake god out there waiting to show her a good time. To paraphrase something Vivarelli said during the interview, once you've been in the sheets with a snake god, you don't go back to mortal men. 

The Snake God isn't Vivarelli's best work. Many of the ritualistic scenes go on far too long in an effort to pad out a thin story, and despite all of Vivarelli's close-ups of bare asses and breasts, there's not much of an erotic charge here. The racial theme is also a bit heavy handed, with the black characters depicted as earthy and raw, while the white folks are shown as naïve and uptight (a theme familiar to anyone who has enjoyed the films of Whoopie Goldberg). Also, there was a period of time in cinema history when screen couples gazed into each other's eyes while eating citrus fruit, as if fruit juice dripping down someone's chin really jacked up the pheromones. If interracial fruit sucking is your bag, there's a fair amount of it here. 

The DVD is quite beautiful, though, courtesy of a new anamorphic transfer. The Caribbean looks breathtaking, and the sunlight bouncing off the ocean is nearly blinding. Kudos to Mondo Macabro for displaying Benito Frattari's cinematography in such sharp detail, for Frattari's camera work is the best part of a slow, dullish film. Do you like snake movies? Go find Cobra Woman with Maria Montez and Sabu. You'll be better off. 

(The Snake God is 95 minutes long, and presented in widescreen (2.35:1/16:9). The DVD includes a handful of special features, such as the interview with Vivarelli, extensive production notes, newly created English subtitles, a trailer, and previews of other Mondo Macabro titles.)

These two reviews originally appeared on the Cinema Retro website. For the very best site of its type, go to:

Monday, March 24, 2014


I've always wanted to know more about Travis Bickle. As Roger Ebert wrote in his original review of the film in1976, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver is "a brilliant nightmare and like all nightmares it doesn't tell us half of what we want to know."

It's as if every ounce of Travis' life before getting his hack license was pared away in the editing room.  We see that he's living in a hovel, driving long shifts through what looks like a Hellish 42nd Street, and  growing paranoid about the ugly street life he sees around him. He meets a 12-year-old hooker. He wants to rescue her. He doesn't want her for himself, he wants to return her to her family. Of course, he also considers shooting a presidential candidate.  In the end, he rescues the young girl and becomes a hero. I still don't know much about him.

I've read bits and pieces over the years hoping to find clues. I learned that screenwriter Paul Schrader wrote the script based  on his own experiences in Los Angeles. He'd left his wife and, with no direction to his career,  found himself living in his car for several weeks with no one to talk to. "I was locked in this iron coffin," he says in the  DVD commentary, "wandering around in this nightmarish world." Schrader ended up with an ulcer. When he got out of the hospital he wrote the script in either 10 days or 15 days, depending on when he's telling the story. (The more recent the article, the fewer days it seemed to take; in a few more years he'll say he wrote it in a day.)He's never been too forthcoming about it, just to say "it was written from the gut," or, "it sprang from my head like an animal." 

In Mary Pat Kelly's 'Martin Scorsese: A Journey,' Schrader described Travis as "sort of a young man who wandered from the snowy waste of the Midwest into an overheated New York cathedral."  To Film Comment in 1976, Schrader described Taxi Driver as, "a very rich piece of juvenilia, but it is juvenilia, it is an adolescent, immature mind struggling to identify itself." About Travis, he said, "He should be killing himself instead of these other people," and "Travis is me without my brains."  He also likes to say that in trying to kill both a political figure and a pimp, Travis was killing the father figures of the women in his life, and that the theme of the film wasn't loneliness, but self-imposed loneliness.

Well, that's poetic and all, but it didn't help me in my quest to learn more about Travis.

At the time of the film's release, Schrader told the Chicago Sun-Times that he'd purposely left Travis' life a blank slate:

"I wrote it that way after thinking about the way they handled In Cold Blood. They tell you all about Perry Smith's background, how he developed his problems, and immediately it becomes less interesting because his problems aren't your problems, but his symptoms are your symptoms."

Fair enough. And, I'll admit, a good strategy. Had Schrader told us anything too specific about Travis' past, he risked us not relating to his main character. We gather that Travis is a Vietnam veteran, but he barely makes note of it in the movie.  "His psychopathy was created by himself," Schrader said. "He didn't need Vietnam to create it." By focusing on Travis' loneliness, Schrader cast a wider net. Still, I'd like to know a little something, anything. For instance, Schrader, a Midwest Calvinist landed in LA because he wanted to work in Hollywood. What the hell is Travis doing in New York?

I'm also familiar with the film buff's folklore about Taxi Driver being patterned after John Ford's The Searchers, a film where John Wayne kills a  bunch of Indians to rescue his young niece, who has been living quite happily with an Indian named "Scar." Maybe there's something to that. Wayne's character was a Civil War veteran, Travis a Vietnam veteran. Travis wears western boots, and wants to rescue a young girl from a pimp who wears an Indian headband. The pimp also wears his hair long like an Indian in an old Hollywood western. Still, that doesn't give me much to go on, other than Schrader's admiration for John Ford.  Wayne's just a hothead who hates Indians, while Travis seems insane. They're both loners, and I'd guess they're both unloved, but Travis is a decidedly modern character, just screwy enough to be dangerous, but competent enough to hold down a job.

Schrader has also labeled Travis as "uneducated," and "racist," someone so far down on the societal totem pole that he lashes out at the African-Americans he sees on 42nd Street, blaming them for his misery and isolation. The original script was much more blatant about this than the resulting film. For instance, the pimp and his friends were originally to be black characters, but it was Scorsese who suggested they be changed to white characters.

Travis Bickle's story also seemed pulled from the diary of Arthur Bremer, the screwjob who shot Alabama governor George Wallace in 1972. Bremer did have some similarities to Travis Bickle (same number of syllables in his name, too). He was awkward around women, and although he wasn't entangled with a teen prostitute, he did have a fixation on a 16-year-old high school girl.  Still, the surface similarities between Bremer and Bickle were never quite enough for me. Bremer was just another anti-social misfit craving attention. Travis Bickle, meanwhile, seemed to be working on a frequency not of this earth.

Part of the reason for Travis' otherness was that he was played by Robert De Niro, who played Travis as if he had no center - he was charming one minute, then a borderline imbecile, and then a seething avenger, determined to rid the streets of filth.  Schrader at one point claimed De Niro "knows more about Travis than I do," but De Niro, notoriously averse to talking about his work, has never said anything profound about Bickle, other than that he was an interesting character. Schrader let a cat of some sort out of the bag in 1976 when he told Film Comment about a script De Niro had once tried to write. It was about a boy in New York who carried a gun and daydreamed about shooting someone of importance.  De Niro never finished it, but upon reading Schrader's script for Taxi Driver, felt his thoughts had been captured. "The gun is your talent," Schrader told De Niro.

Scorsese has never given me much to go by, either, only that great pains were taken to film Travis in ways to emphasize his isolation. Scorsese tries to find the suffering Catholic in every character. On the DVD commentary, Scorsese says that one of the reasons he liked Travis was because, "He feels in his heart that he's doing right, like a religious zealot."  There was even a scene filmed where Travis flogs himself with a towel, as if doing penance. Scorsese eventually cut it from the final version because it "looked forced."

Scorsese was asked by Ebert in '76 about Travis' past. Scorsese responded, "we don't tell you where he comes from, or what his story is. Obviously, he comes from somewhere and he picked up these problems along the way."  He added that his film was his own version of feminism:

"Because it takes macho to its logical conclusion. The better man is the man who can kill you. This one shows that kind of thinking, shows the kinds of problems some men have, bouncing back and forth between the goddesses and whores. The whole movie is based, visually, on one shot where the guy is being turned down on the telephone by the girl, and the camera actually pans away from him. It's too painful to see that rejection."

Like most rejected men, Travis is confused. Other men, from presidential candidates to pimps, seem to have what he wants. Not only that, but they get it easily. As Ebert wrote in his original review of the film, "Travis has been shut out so systematically, so often, from a piece of the action that eventually he has to hit back somehow." But Travis doesn't do it randomly. He needs to build up to it. He prowls 42nd Street, the X-rated neighborhood he most despises, returning to it night after night, trying build up his rage. As he says more than once in the film, he's thinking about doing bad things. His jaunts down 42nd Street are a crazy kind of foreplay for him, leading to the film's climactic bloodbath where he guns down Iris' pimp and his buddies in, as Pauline Kael wrote, "the only real orgasm he can have.” But was Travis' saga, as many critics, mostly female, have opined, just a case of a man's sexual frustration that manifested in a gun battle over a little girl?

I've never appreciated kneejerk Freudian interpretations, but it's fascinating to me how so many highly regarded female critics rely on the old saw about "guns as phallic symbols."  If Travis bought a box of plain donuts, would Kael say they represented vaginas? I doubt it.

Full confession: part of my fascination with Travis Bickle comes from my own time as an isolated young man living in a big city. I've lived in that same hovel, a barren place with holes in the wall filled with newspapers to block out the winter chill. I worked those late nights, not as a cabbie, but in a post office.  I remember going to Chinatown and buying a switchblade, thinking I might have to use it for protection. I remember practicing in my apartment, seeing how fast I could get it out of my pocket and into a dude's heart.  One winter, when I had no money but needed a coat, I went to an Army-Navy store and bought an oversized green Army jacket, similar to the one worn by De Niro in the film. My friends would see me and say, 'Here comes Travis.' I took it as an odd compliment. Little did they know my couch was ripped and torn from where I had been practicing my stabbing techniques.

While I never knew any teen prostitutes, I certainly knew some disturbed young women, and I was convinced I could rescue them from whatever their problem happened to be. Sometimes I succeeded. Sometimes I got kicked in the teeth for my trouble.

Of course, I was bright enough to know you didn't bring a woman to a porn movie on the first date, as Travis did with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). That scene, as much as any, shows how disconnected Travis is from reality. That disconnection is the part of Travis that I've wanted to solve. Schrader once said that Travis' interest in porn movies came from his own time in LA. Porn palaces were the only place open at 2:00 AM, and they were a place to get warm. But Travis isn't there to get warm.  He doesn't seem to be there for thrills, either. Why is he there?  Travis seems strangely sexless. He thinks of Betsy as a beautiful blond goddess, and seems happy to just sit opposite her at the coffee shop. This scene is always bittersweet for me to watch, because Travis has actually charmed her, and seems just a click away from maybe getting her to really like him. He's so close! (Bremer, the Alabama nutcase, was said to have shown his 16-year-old female friend some porn, which turned her off. But in reading about Bremer, he comes off as a dumb pervert who liked showing dirty pictures. Travis just seems oblivious to reality.) But even if he succeeded in getting Betsy past their first date, could Travis actually have anything like a normal relationship with a woman? Or is he destined to be, to borrow a phrase from the movie, "God's lonely man?"

I recently consulted the Taxi Driver movie tie-in paperback. Remember those? Maybe you don't. Back in the 1970s, it was common for movie studios to hire a novelist to write a "novelization" of the screenplay, particularly if the studio heads felt the film might be popular, and especially if it was popular among kids, who always wanted to continue their experience of the movie. These books would be sold in supermarkets and bookstores, with some cover art resembling the movie. I recall Rocky being given such a treatment, and Star Wars, and Halloween, and many others from that era. The films chosen for novelization were usually love stories, or horror movies, or films geared towards children. That's why I was startled to learn that Taxi Driver had been given the "novelization" treatment. 

The Taxi Driver novelization is a slim thing, even by the standards of cheapo film novelizations. What intrigued me was that 1) Schrader's name was front and center, for it was his screenplay being used by novelist Richard Elman, and 2) It was standard for the first draft of a screenplay to be used as the basis for these books, which is why novelizations often include things that aren't in the film, and also why some things in the film don't appear in the book. I'd hoped  the novelization would reveal Travis Bickle in his earliest form, before Scorsese and De Niro started adding their own wrinkles to him. 

Writing in a sparse, first person narrative to resemble Travis' narration in the film, Elman sticks closely to the main storyline, but there are some minor things added along the way that caught my attention, namely that Travis mentions having a woman in his past, an older woman who loved him more than he loved her. He eventually left her because he'd grown tired of her, and then heard that she had performed an abortion on herself with a coat hanger. It doesn't sound much like Travis, but it did remind me a bit of the flashback scenes in  Midnight Cowboy, another novel (and film) about a young man who found himself alone in New York, surrounded by the city's seedy sex industry.  Midnight Cowboy had been one of the most popular films of 1969. Schrader wrote Taxi Driver in 1971. The earlier movie was bound to be an influence in Schrader's early draft, even if just to a small degree.  On the other hand, I can't be absolutely positive that Travis' ex-girlfriend wasn't inserted by Elman, just to add a little body to the story. I have no way of asking Elman, for he died in 1997.

There are other interesting bits: Travis hums dirty limericks to himself while driving his cab, and is particularly enamored of the word "cunt," using it as often as possible, even inserting it into old childhood songs; in his scene with Betsy at the coffee shop, he does not use the term "organazized," which leads me to believe that was De Niro's contribution;  the bits between Shepherd and Albert Brooks at the Palantine headquarters are not in the book; Travis mentions Kalamazoo as his home town; he shaves his head much earlier in the novelization, and is actually wearing his mohawk when he first meets Iris; the film's most famous scene, where Travis looks in the mirror and says "Are you talking to me?" is not in the book, which didn't surprise me. Those lines are actually from George Stevens' classic western Shane, and that scene was improvised by De Niro and Scorsese, simply because they had a little time on their hands. (Schrader has clamed the "Are you talking to me?" line was actually borrowed from a New York comic, popular in Greenwich Village at the time.)

There's a lot of trite stuff in the novelization about Travis wanting to be famous, to put himself in the history books, which sounds like it was lifted from Bremer, a sad sack misanthrope who wanted to be famous. Iris and Betsy are just stick figures of no particular interest (that they are so memorable in the film is a tribute to Jodie Foster and Cybill Shepherd).

There are some small things in the novelization that intrigued me, though. At one point, Travis is driving along and sees a man leaping to his death from a skyscraper. The image of the falling man stays in Travis' mind for several more scenes. Sometimes he refers to himself as the man on the ledge. I can see why this idea wasn't used in the film - it's too otherworldly. Travis is earthbound, stuck to the street, where the action boils. Having him look upward, during the daylight hours, isn't where Scorsese's vision rested. Still, it was an interesting idea.

Also, at the end of the story when Travis is back in his cab and seems to have returned to normalcy, he picks up Betsy. The scene in the novelization runs pretty much as it does in the film, with one glaring exception. When Betsy steps out of the cab, she shouts to Travis as he drives away, "Call me up sometime, huh?" 

Travis responds, "Sure. Sure I will."

And Travis drives away smiling.

Did Elman get this from Schrader's screenplay? Had Schrader intended the film to have a happy ending, where Betsy and Travis might have a future together? The novelization ends with Travis being philosophical, and feeling sorry for Betsy, acknowledging that it is difficult for everyone to make friends in this world.

If this was Schrader's original intention, then I'm intrigued. Travis was originally a more racist character, but also more upbeat by the story's end, almost optimistic. In the film he's less racist and more existential.

"He's certainly not cured by the end of the picture," Scorsese said on the DVD commentary track. "He's still a time bomb, ticking away. I don't know if that's clear, but it doesn't have to be." He added, "I used to think there was a bit of Travis in all of us, but now I don't know. He goes over the edge. He's acting out his fantasies...who knows what his background is...he just wants his power to be known."

I used to think there was a bit of Travis in me, too, but now I don't think so. After watching the film again, and reading up on it, I realized the difference. Travis was out of touch with reality. I was just a scared kid, pumping myself up with the idea that I might be whacko, too.  Being crazy was better than being scared, and it looks better on the resume.

I no longer live in a big city. I've moved to a beach town that is bustling with tourists in the summer, deader than a doornail in the winter. Recently, I sat in a corner booth of my town's lone pizza place, thumbing the Taxi Driver paperback, watching the waves slap at the beach.  I realized suddenly that the pizza shop was empty, except for me.

I may not be in the city, but not much has changed.

God's lonely men are everywhere.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


There's good and bad to report about Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac Volume II.  Bad news first: it's not as good as Volume One. The good news: there is no Volume III.

Von Trier remains inscrutable, which appeals to some people, and has a few singing his praises. For some, he's this era's art house riddler, an exotic import who can't quite entertain but can certainly baffle. I'd hate to think he will turn out to be this era's Bergman or Fellini, although a generation weened on Marvel Comics movies may find something intriguing about his gigantic but dreary canvases. There's nothing cinematic to enjoy here, for his scenes are static, his dialog heavy-handed and stilted, and  his actors wander from scene to scene like sleepwalkers. There is the occasional closeup of a male or female sex organ, some violence, and the occasional tease that something might actually happen, but it all adds up to nothing. There's a joke of an ending that some may find funny, but any thinking person will find it painful to sit through such a turgid four hour non-epic only to have the payoff be a crude gag that was barely funny when Woody Allen used it in Play It Again Sam (yes, the one about being turned down by a nympho).

The first volume was a meandering mess, but featured some good performances, and was at times carried along by the mere novelty of its own audacity. One expected Vol. II to change course and offer something different - the previews tacked onto the end of Vol. 1 promised as much - but it's more of the same. The only difference is that now our protagonist Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is at the point where she can't feel anything in her sexual encounters. The result is that she basically repeats all of the same riffs of Vol. 1, but now she can't enjoy herself.  Poor girl!

In Vol. II we see flashbacks to Joe's childhood when she had spontaneous orgasms and religious visions, and a remembrance of when her beloved father (Christian Slater) took her for a walk in the woods where they noticed that bare trees resembled human souls. Such poetic groping is minimal, though, for this belabored second act follows Joe in her journey to reclaim her dead vagina. She does this by engaging in three-ways with black men, and then submitting herself to the local sadist who whips her with a riding crop. The whipping scenes are interminably long, and Von Trier imagines we're shocked by seeing Joe's ass cheek's splitting open with each lash. The effect, though, is like listening to some old timer trying to spook us; we nod out of politeness, but it's a tale we've heard a dozen times and no longer has any power. (It was more interesting to see an earlier scene of Joe flogging her suddenly unresponsive groin with a wet towel, her desperation familiar to any man who has found himself in the same situation.)

Joe has a child with her old beau Jerome (Shi LaBeouf) but the child ends up in an orphanage, given up by Jerome because Joe can't curb her strange lust. Joe later attends a meeting for sex addicts, but feels too rebellious to go through with any sort of therapy. In the film's most unlikely twist, Joe finds herself working for a collection agency, and then acting as a mentor for a 15-year-old girl with a deformed ear. Joe and her little protege fall in love,  but just when it appears Joe has found something real that might be good for her, there is one more betrayal to come. The film ends with Joe vowing to rid herself of all sexuality.

Vol. II doesn't stand on its own as a film. While sitting through Vol. II, I found myself longing for Vol. 1, back in that golden era of last weekend, before Von Trier trotted out such old, hackneyed tropes as interracial sex, riding crops, and lesbianism. What is this? 1922? Von Trier may think he's pushing the envelope here, but his ideas seem lifted from his granddad's old stag films.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac Vol 1 clocks in at approximately two hours, but it would've been a much tidier 90 minutes if his characters didn't speak so bloody slowly. Nearly every cast member is guilty, but Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the teen and middle-aged version of the title character are the worst culprits. It's difficult to say who is worse - Gainsbourg narrates the story, and she does so with a halting, out of breath voice; Martin sounds as if she's weak from anemia.  I can almost imagine Lars telling them, "Slower! Speak slower! Dis iz only volume one, and I vant dis film to be 10 hours long!" 

They play Joe, a self-hating nympho who is found nearly beaten to death in an alley.  When we first see her, it looks as if she's been dropped onto the concrete from a high place. She would probably die there if not for the help of Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a kindly fellow who enjoys fishing and reading the works of Edgar Allen Poe. He asks her if she needs anything. She replies, "A cup of tea." Joking that tea isn't served in alleys, he brings her to his home where she recovers from her injuries and tells the long, sordid story of her life-long nymphomania. She starts her tale in childhood, recalling her  aloof mother and gentle, kind-hearted father. When the mother grows impatient as young Joe is masturbating in the bathroom, papa merely shrugs and says to leave the girl alone. From there, Joe takes to climbing ropes at school, enjoying what she calls "the sensation." By the time she's a teen, she's joined a sort of Hellfire club for sluts, vowing to never fall in love, but to enjoy as much sexual pleasure as possible.

You would think such a story might involve a few laughs, but there aren't many here. The film, unlike Joe's vagina, is quite dry. Seligman occasionally interrupts Joe to relate some fishing tale that he feels compliments her story, and while he's amusing in his attempts to relate, he's only slowing things down. He tries to cheer her - she feels guilty about ruining so many lives with her reckless lust - but for all his attempts to convince her she's not a bad person, she's determined to hate herself and her cock-sucking ways.

Her casual use of vulgar language and the open carnality of her story is possibly meant to shock Seligman, but he's rather worldly in his own quiet way, and although we suspect he's spent more time on fishing trips than bedding down women, he absorbs most of her story without so much as a flinch. For that matter, neither did I, for even though the film has been trumpeted as the latest incarnation of "the candid sex film," it comes off as a slightly dull, soft core porn flick you might stumble across on Showtime at a late hour on Saturday night, neither erotic enough to titillate, or interesting enough to hold your attention. Films of this type, as in mainstream films that try to push the allowable boundaries of sexuality, whether Showgirls, 9 1/2 Weeks, or Last Tango in Paris, are all dreary in the same way. The characters all seem strangely overheated and a little dumb, and their couplings come off as unintentionally funny. I think I saw actual penetration in a scene late in the film, which neither added or detracted from what is essentially a slow, overwrought movie which I suppose Von Trier would tell you isn't about sex at all, but about the impossibility of communication, or some other pompous subject that he thought could be told best by showing some dick.

Charlotte Gainsbourg is an interesting actress. She looks like a cross between Patti Smith and Aerosmith's Joe Perry, and I think there should be a biopic of Smith in her future. Gainsbourg looks the part, and Smith deserves the big screen treatment. I felt sorry for Gainsbourg in this movie, not because of the character she played, but because she's stuck with some heavy lines that not even she could sell, pretentious stuff about lust versus love, and her character's inability to feel anything. Her bruised eyes and puffy lips make her look pathetic, and there are moments when she allows herself to look humble in Seligman's little bed, as if she's a morbid Goldilocks and has finally found a comfortable spot to die. I wish the film had been about a crazy middle-aged woman and a lonely older man, without the histrionic sperm count. Gainsbourg and Skarsgård could have pulled it off beautifully. Instead, they are stuck in the film's dullest roles, as evidenced by how easily the other actors steal their scenes. Uma Thurman, for instance, is riveting as "Mrs. H," the wife of one of Joe's lovers.  The film is almost worth seeing for Thurman alone. 

Then there's Shia Labeouf as the man Joe wants to love. Shia (performing without a bag over his head) gives a surprisingly strong performance as a man who doesn't care much about Joe, but is angry that she plays head games with him. He pops up in Joe's life so many times (she lost her virginity to him years earlier) that even Seligman starts doubting the honesty of her story. (Much of her story is hard to believe, but maybe that's done on purpose, to amke the story seem more like a fable.) Christian Slater is also very good as Joe's father, especially in a death bed scene.  The good performances, though, are only place holders in between Joe's sexcapades. Even as her dad is on life support, she sneaks out for an encounter with an orderly. We get it - she's an addict, and sex for her is like stepping outside for a snort of cocaine. There's also a very long scene where she describes how one man is simply not enough, for no man is a complete lover. She appreciates what her various lovers bring - she likes the fat nerd who wants to bathe her, she likes the hairy guy who bangs her from behind, and she likes the idea of falling in love with someone, even if it goes against her basic belief that love is just lust lined with jealousy. When she begins to suspect that lust combined with love is the ideal, she begins a headlong pursuit of Shia's character, a cocky Brit who dresses nicely and seems to travel a lot. Unfortunately,  by the time she gets to him the damage has been done. She can't feel anything, mentally, emotionally, or physically. As the boys in the neighborhood used to say so indelicately, she's all used up. 

The sex scenes are surprisingly anti-septic. Joe's memories are airbrushed to the point where the bed sheets are always immaculate, there are no scars or blemishes to be seen, and even when Joe is getting pounded in a public toilet, the stall looks impossibly clean. This film was obviously not made in America. For that matter, its actual location is unclear. It was filmed in Belgium and Germany, but it seems to take place in an arid, no-man's land where people speak dully, sharing banal philosophies like high schoolers who've just gotten their first whiff of Nietzche.

No doubt you've heard that the movie is controversial, and some have angrily labeled it as porn, while others have written it off as Von Trier being his usual slightly calculating self. Von Trier has said that he finds some of the film humorous, but I think he's being coy. I think, deep in his little filmmaker's mind,  he's secretly hoping to be hailed a genius. Why else would someone make a two part movie that lasts over four hours? As a joke? To paraphrase something Norman Mailer once said, the epic is the creation of the small man. I have enjoyed some of Von Trier's work, but his movies get longer and longer, as if he's trying to hit a five run homer. He's still waiting for that pat on the head. There is, of course, the small chance that he's being perverse here, tantalizing us with a story about a sex addict's progress, and making it as un-sexy as possible, which is why he giggles and smirks during interviews. If that's the case, he's succeeded. But here's the punchline - somewhere within this messy trash heap were some characters I liked.

I will wait now for Vol. 2. It is apparently about Joe's entanglement with some criminals.  We know this because as the closing credits for Vol. 1 roll, we see clips of Vol 2, accompanied by some heavy sounding death metal. It's as if we've been watching Kill Bill all along. Perhaps that's why Von Trier laughs.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


A mother drives her two teen daughters to their new home. She's full of good cheer and tries to put an optimistic spin on the new environs, even though the girls are openly mocking her. What we don't know is that the mother has a serious drinking problem and can't hold a job. She also has a history of bringing home men who harass the girls and climb into bed with them. The girls have plans for mama, though. To snip a quote from a better movie, they are mad as hell and are not going to take it, anymore.

Stanley M. Brooks' Perfect Sisters stars Mira Sorvino as Linda, the pitiful mother of the scheming pair. She's the sort of single mom we know from movies and real life, brittle, still trying to be attractive in order to land a man who might take care of her, but slowly losing the battle with age and the bottle. She's immature and irresponsible, and at times it's her older daughter Sandra (Abigail Breslin), who seems the most mature member of the family, helping mom take baths and cheering her up after one of her endless drinking binges. Younger daughter Beth (Georgie Henley) likes to wear heavy black eyeliner and make snotty comments, but underneath her bold front she's a delicate soul who also needs to be protected by her big sister.After Beth is attacked by mom's latest boyfriend (played with heelish perfection by the always nasty James Russo), the girls begin seriously talking about eliminating mom from their lives. There's insurance money to collect, after all, and who needs to be felt up by mom's loser boyfriends?

The plan involves drowning mom in a bathtub, and making it look like she simply passed out while drunk. It's not a bad plan. They're always helping her bathe, anyway, and according to an item they find on the internet, it takes only four minutes to get the job done. They enlist a couple of friends from school to act as moral support, and spend weeks putting the plan into effect, or at least mustering up the courage to carry it out. When they finally bump mom off, they feel liberated. But the hidden lives of murderers have a way of surfacing, and Sandra starts showing signs of being a bit like Linda, drinking too much and running her mouth. It's  only a matter of time before the sisters' ugly secret is revealed.

Perfect Sisters is based on a true case from 2003, and at times it feels like every true story of this type, where two people, either friends, or sisters, or brothers, conspire to kill someone. Sandra and Beth flip flop constantly as to who actually wields the power in their relationship, much like Dick and Perry from In Cold Blood, with Sandra seeming the tougher and smarter of the pair, and Beth seeming more conniving. Yet, once the deed is done, it's Beth who retains her composure, while Sandra  loses her cool. Another true case similar to this one was turned into a film by Peter Jackson in 1994, Heavenly Creatures, which starred Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey as a pair of teen friends who kill one of their mothers after she tries to separate them. The girls in that film reminded me a bit of the sisters in Perfect Sisters, in that they were motivated by the sort of over-sized emotional life that exists only in children. The difference was that the mother in Jackson's film was a mean old bat - you're tempted to cheer when the girls beat her to death with a brick - but Sorvino as Linda never seems deliberately cruel. She's just a pathetic drunk.

Sorvino is two decades removed from her heyday as an Oscar winner for Mighty Aphrodite (1995) and her biggest hit, Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion (1997). Now in her late 40s,  she still looks as bright and lovely as ever, but is convincing as a slightly careworn, middle-aged drunk. Somehow, although she's worked steadily, Sorvino's films have fallen way below the radar. This is a film that could possibly lead to more work, but then again, it may just lead to more troubled mom roles. There are scenes  where the girls fantasize about Linda in a variety of mom guises, and  Sorvino has fun with the different mom archetypes: the brownie making super homemaker mom; the hip yoga mom; and even some kind of rad rocker mom. There's another mom character that the girls fantasize about, perhaps a sort of reasonable mom that they know they'll never have. In these scenes, a suddenly sober Linda appears like an angel and speaks calmly to the girls, assuring them that she loves them. The fantasy scenes don't work to any great effect, not because Sorvino doesn't pull them off, but because they don't really fit the film. 

Brooks, making his debut as a director after many years as a producer, moves unsteadily between one tone and another, trying to make too many types of film in one. At times the film has a kind of loopy, happy-go-lucky rhythm, at others it's bleak and morbid. When the girls make their beds, it's done in a kind of fast-motion silent film style, which adds nothing to the story. Another weakness in the film is that Breslin and Henley are simply too urbane to be entirely believable as a couple of dumb teen killers. Crimes of this nature are committed by naive people who don't understand the consequences to come.  I never believed these sisters possessed the vacant, soulless demeanor required to pull off a matricide. Brooks shows them as being a little bitchy, that's all. At the film's end, when security guards separate them at the courthouse after the girls learn they are going to prison and aren't to be in contact for the duration of their sentences, the sisters begin kicking and screaming, as if they can't bear to be apart. This is meant to be an emotional scene, and Breslin and Henley give it their best shot, but since we'd never cared much for them in the first place, it's hard to care about them when they're separated.  

More could have been done with the bleak Winnipeg landscape, and we could have been given a greater sense that the girls were simply a pair of sociopaths. As is, Brooks is too smitten with the idea that these glib, charming kids murdered their mom. There's even a scene where the girls go to a counselor to complain about Linda, but are told they don't have enough evidence, as if the murder of Linda was somehow the fault of a screwed up social services system. There's plenty of internet surfing and text messages, but rather than chilling us with how easy it is to learn the art of murder by searching on-line, it just feels like a generic movie about contemporary kids. Brooks certainly had the horses, though. Sorvino does a lot here, creating a full character even though she's asked only to look stupid and cry. Breslin, too, rises above the script. As the conflicted Sandra, she has the juiciest role in the movie, torn between pitying her mom's condition, and wanting to get rid of her. Like a typical girl in bloom, Sandra wants to be pretty (she has an excellent scene where she grills an admirer into telling her how beautiful she is, and seems genuinely stunned when he willingly plays along), but her simple trajectory into young adulthood is waylaid by the knowledge that killing aint easy.

Monday, March 10, 2014


Alan Partridge, as played by Steve Coogan, is one of my favorite characters. He's the sort of third rate celebrity that always makes me giggle, utterly full of himself, slightly dumb, yet bright enough to keep himself in an ever diminishing spotlight. In a way, he's a hybrid of  Ted Knight's old Ted Baxter character on the Mary Tyler Moore show, and Ricky Gervais' David Brent of The Office.  I prefer Partridge to those other characters because, unlike Knight and Brent, Partridge is actually a bit talented and suave, yet completely oblivious to most things going on around him. Coogan has played him on British television off and on for years, and in Declan Lowney's excellent Alan Partridge, we find that not only has Partridge not matured or gained any wisdom now that he's in his mid-50s, but is just as much of a snake as he's always been. I wouldn't want Partridge any other way.

The film finds has-been TV presenter Partridge still working as a disc jockey in a small market radio station in Norwich, which looks about as bleak and empty as a middle American mill town. But even Partridge's little radio station is in the clutches of those who would try to modernize it and capture a younger audience. The result is that another DJ is sacked. Pat (Colm Meaney), the victim, is the sort of DJ who talks about farm reports and and opens his daily program with 'Roll out The Barrel.' It's no wonder he's replaced by a couple of loud-mouthed younger DJs. Pat isn't one to take his layoff lightly, though. He arrives one night at the station with an arsenal and takes the place hostage. While he takes over, the police send in Partridge to help defuse the situation.

Ultimately, the movie plays out like a padded-out episode of Coogan's old show, and one could say there's too much  emphasis on the siege dramatics and not enough Partridge-like comedy. Partridge has some fantasy sequences where he imagines himself a hero, but they're jarring, rather than funny. The film works best when Partridge, who had a hand in the sacking of Pat, tries to speak calmly to him and keep him from opening fire. The film loses a little steam as it goes along, but ends with Pat in prison, and Partridge back at his DJ's desk. A more interesting film might have seen Partridge being fired, or dealing with being an older man in a younger man's field, but maybe we'll get that someday. Coogan is smart. Partridge is his masterpiece. I'm sure there's more of the story to come.

Eugenio Mira's Grand Piano is the sort of well-intentioned fluff that can almost fool you into thinking it better than it is.  Elijah Wood plays a famous concert pianist suffering from nerves as he attempts his first concert in years. As he fumbles through his sheet music, he sees that someone has written threatening messages to him along the lines of I AM GOING TO SHOOT YOU IF YOU MAKE A MISTAKE.  Since the pianist is known for flubs, this is supposed to create for viewers an Alfred Hitchcock type of suspense. And it would, if not for the film being so dumb. I could list a number of silly contrivances, but the most basic one is that we're supposed to believe that a world famous pianist is known for flubs. That's like a world famous chef being known for burning stuff.

Wood has a nervous, rat-like demeanor which makes his character believable as a paranoid wreck (but less believable as someone married to a beautiful, world famous actress played by Kerry Bishe, which is another odd, not especially compelling plot point). John Cusack, in what feels like the 10th movie I've seen of his this week, gives a nice, rough edge to the would-be assassin. There are some fairly well-directed fight scenes high up in the concert hall, with Cusack and Wood slugging it out, and the film has a beautiful, red velvet, art deco design, but ultimately, Grand Piano feels like Hitchcock for pre-schoolers. If you don't think Miro and screenwriter Damien Chazelle have a jones on for Hitch, consider that Woods' name in the movie is Selznick, a likely nod to David O. Selznick, the producer of Hitchcock's first American film Rebecca.  Oh well, at least these guys are paying homage to Hitch, rather than aping Michael Bay or some other comic book/disaster guru. For that, we should be a bit grateful, eh?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

U Want Me 2 Kill Him?

U Want Me 2 Kill Him?  begins like an old fashioned noir film, with a gullible young male falling under the spell of a woman in peril. In this case, it's  Mark (Jamie Blackley) a  British 16-year-old who is popular with the females at school, enjoys cyber sex, and imagines himself a bit of a martial arts buff. He practices with his father's antique samurai sword, gets into the occasional schoolyard brawl, and fantasizes about one day living "a mad life," where people would look at him and say, "I wonder what he'll do next?" For the most part, his life is not much different than any British teenager's, made up of soccer games and quick rolls in the sack with cuties from his class, but when he meets a woman online who tells him she's in the witness protection program and her boyfriend is a gangster who beats her, he begins to think his dreams of being a man of action are about to come true.

Most males would be happy enough being Mark that there'd be no need for heroic fantasies. He has the easy sort of charisma that eludes most of us, and women are drawn to him. That he grows dangerously fascinated by some strange woman who invites him to masturbate via the internet, to the point where he's willing to kill for her, is what makes him such an intriguing and realistic character. In a lesser film he'd be a lonely soul with no social life and no future. But this film is based on a true story, and the truth is not only stranger than fiction, it's also more complicated and a lot less predictable. 

The woman asks Mark to do her a favor and keep an eye on her younger brother, an introverted boy named John (Toby Regbo). John is having a difficult time in school and needs a friend, she says. Willing to do anything for this mysterious woman, Mark befriends John, and the two become unlikely buddies. Despite Mark being the school's dashing soccer hero, and John being a lonely misfit, the boy's share a mutual interest in the morbid: John entertains Mark with stories about Russian gangsters who kill Somalian pirates for the fun of it and hang their heads on the wall like hunting trophies. He also tells a tale about being kidnapped as a child. "You lead a mad life," Mark says approvingly.  When John's sister dies in what seems a suicide, Mark suspects her gangster boyfriend murdered her and enlists John in a plan to find the gangster and kill him.  

From there, the story takes a number of twists, until Mark finds himself under the spell of another woman online, this time a woman who claims to work for the government and involves Mark in a plan to stop a possible terrorist movement. If this sounds a bit much, it actually makes for some riveting drama. The plot is expertly doled out by director Andrew Douglas, who is best known in America for a dreary and unnecessary  remake of The Amityville Horror (2005). U Want Me 2 Kill Him? is a such an engrossing, well-executed movie, from a screenplay by an even lesser known writer named Mike Walden (based on an article in Vanity Fair), that I hope we don't have another seven year gap between films from Douglas. The film, incidentally, was produced by Bryan Singer, who before he was making bloated comic book movies was making tight little suspense films like this one. 

Douglas even finds a way to make people engaging in online chats interesting. These scenes are usually dreadfully dull in movies - who wants to watch people typing? But since much of the movie takes place online, Douglas comes up with a neat way to keep it lively - he has the actors recite what they're typing, so it seems as if an actual conversation is taking place, rather than a bunch of texts. As we move into a culture that exists as much online as off, I dread a future of movies where people are constantly sending text messages. But if filmmakers follow Douglas' idea, these scenes will at least be palatable.

The performances from Blackely and Regbo are spot on.  It could be because they're British actors and haven't been brainwashed by the twitchy, self-conscious American style of the past 20 years, but they seem like real people having real conversations. Their developing friendship would've been an interesting movie in itself, even without the dark murder plot. Regbo is vulnerable and pathetic as John, but carefully reveals a mean streak just under his surface, as well as a peculiar death wish. Blackely has an equally complex role, having to appear cockily comfortable in his own skin, yet naive enough to believe there's a place for him in the world of secret agents and terrorist plots.  

Why do young men want to be heroic? Why, even when they're lives are going well, do they feel the need to gamble everything on something dramatic? In U Want Me 2 Kill Him?, it's pretty clear they do it for the approval of women. Maybe it's something in the DNA that reaches back to when we lived in caves. The problem is that someone like Mark isn't sophisticated enough to know when he's being manipulated. Some men want to be the knight in shining armor so badly that they'll seek out any distressed damsel,  even those in the darkest corners of the Internet.

Saturday, March 1, 2014


I almost felt sorry for HairBrained.  Here's a movie that wants very much to be like other movies. It wants to be like Rushmore, and Napoleon Dynamite. It also wants to be Revenge of the Nerds, and Meatballs.   Its childlike folk-pop soundtrack sounded like the music of Juno. The movie, which is harmless and mildly entertaining,  is like a person without a personality who thinks he can get by in the world if only he can dress like his favorite movie star. HairBrained is so desperate to belong that it almost reminded me of, well, its own lead character, Eli Pettifog, a 13-year-old genius nerd who wishes desperately to go to Harvard. It's never made clear why Eli prefers Harvard to, say, Yale, or Princeton, but like most everything else in this movie, his love of Harvard is just plopped in our laps and we have to accept it.

We also have to accept that when Eli is accepted to a much smaller college, he's befriended by Leo Searly, a 41-year-old goof who has gone back to college for no particular reason, either. We eventually learn that Leo is divorced, estranged from his daughter, and was once a degenerate gambler who blew a lot of money. He occupies the dorm room across the hall from Eli and coaches him through such things as dealing with a hangover, and how to be confidant around girls. Sure, maybe there's a point here about the oldest and the youngest students at the school relying on each other, but it happens out of the blue and never really feels realistic.

Long story short, Eli is humiliated by some snotty Harvard kids, and deals with his heartbreak by vowing to get even. He does so by joining his school's "mastermind competition," and leading them to the finals where he'll face off with the Harvard baddies in the finals and  blow them away with his sheer intellect. In between, Eli kisses some girls, fends off bullies, and learns some valuable lessons about himself, as kids in these sort of movies usually do. I kept wondering how he knew Harvard was going to be there at the finals, and not, perhaps, lose to Cornell along the way. Then again, Eli's a genius, not me, so maybe he knew something.

The movie has a lot wrong with it, namely  unfunny dialog, scenes that start with potential but end too quickly, and characters that seem cute or interesting only to remain undeveloped. I particularly liked the girl at the school's mail room. She was funny and bright, but we only saw her fleetingly. Where did she go? As Eli,  Alex Wolf has a quiet charisma and bushed out hair like late-60s Bob Dylan. Wolf does what he can with a derivative script and gamely rises above it. He's very funny when he's not playing the genius part of Eli, and instead plays Eli as a shy, nervous kid (he's funny in a scene where he refuses to look at an older girl's breasts). Brendan Fraser plays Leo without working up a sweat. I guess the writers needed someone to drive the van so the kids can get from one Mastermind show to the next. The rest of the cast members are either overly cheerful or overly dumb,  cartoon versions of characters we know too well from other college movies.

That the film is so blandly derivative of other movies is a shame because director Billy Kent does have a great visual sense. He uses Wolf's mop of crazy hair to great effect, often in silhouette, and the splashes of color throughout the film are eye-catching. At times the movie  has an innocent beauty, something like a supermarket gumball machine, or a bag of shiny marbles. I only wish the jokes had been funnier, and the situations less hackneyed.