Fierce Anticipation: March 27-29


a blogumn by Ryan Dixon


YOU going to see Duplicity and The Great Buck Howard

duplicity_ver2The complaint never goes away: movie studios are so consumed with churning out product that appeals to those (mostly males) 25 and under that they ignore everyone else.

A glance at any weekly movie listing will tell you that this is, of course, only half true.

There are indeed plenty of films targeted for those who have more than a quarter century of life under their belts, but the reason for this perceived paucity is that very few of these films are actually any fun. One can only take so many quirk-addled indies or Oscar bait like the putrid Revolutionary Road or somewhat gripping, but still medicinal Doubt without falling into a cinematonic coma.

It is thus a minor miracle that Duplicity and The Great Buck Howard (both released last weekend) are not only films targeted for those of us old enough to rent a car, but are also  a hoot to watch.

The reviews for Duplicity have mostly all been positive, despite some odd quibbles that the film is hard to understand (for whom I’m not sure) and the critical consensus is indeed correct. Duplicity is a perfect example of the subtitle Graham Greene gave to his novels that weren’t bathed in Catholic guilt and were instead intended to do nothing more than thrill the reader and provide them with a side dish of some lighthearted satire or philosophy: “an entertainment.”

In addition to its pristine script and direction, one of the more subtle examples of Duplicity’s genius lies in the casting. Take away the all-around excellent lead performances of Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti and you will find lurking right below the title an ensemble filled out with wonderful character actors who look and act like true artistic simulacrums of real people. Nowhere to be found is there an improvising Apatowian heckling hacker or blond bombshell C++ programmer*. Of course, the pleasure of watching sexagenarian Tony Award nominee Kathleen Chalfant hit a grand slam in the role of a tough-as-nails corporate counter intelligence expert is dimmed somewhat by the depressing realization that without the artistic control wielded by writer/director Tony Gilroy– fresh from a multitude of Michael Clayton Oscar nominations– the role surely would have been played by just another inchoate actress whose only other credit probably would have been being ranked as Maxim Magazine’s 56th sexiest woman of 2006. Consider ourselves very lucky that Chalfant was given the chance to take a vacation away from the more traditional cinematic roles forced upon actresses of her age not named Meryl Streep: grandmothers, secretaries and the corpse in the casket.

greatbuckhowardposterWhile absolutely different in almost every way from Duplicity, The Great Buck Howard leaves you with that same fizzy feeling of being both thoroughly entertained and having your intelligence respected rather than insulted. It is a small surprise of a movie that fits snugly into the low rent showbiz story, a sub-sub-genre to which Ed Wood and My Favorite Year head up any inaugural Hall-of-Fame class. Although it’s currently only in art house theaters — before hopefully getting the expansion it deserves — the film is bereft of any faux facial hair-addled angst, jittery camera angles or bed-wetting pop soundtrack. Instead, the audience is provided with two wonderful central performances (Colin Hanks as the audience surrogate and John Malkovich in the title role), an abundance of supporting ones and a bevy of memorable, touching and very funny scenes that add up to a movie whose residual side effects will cause the viewer to re-watch it whenever it appears in its sure-to-be-eternal cable afterlife.


*Being a computer genius may equal many things, but good looks is not one of them. There’s a reason that Playboy Magazine voted my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon, and its “top five in the nationcomputer science program as having the 2nd ugliest student body in the nation.

Now in Theaters


Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory by Stacy Horn

unbelieveablestacyhornMy standing advice for anyone having difficulty in figuring out a career is always the same: become a parapsychologist. Parapsychology (according to Wikipedia “a discipline that seeks to investigate the existence and causes of psychic abilities and life after death using the scientific method”) is a business that defies economic downturns and besides, ghosts seem to be making a comeback (as if they ever really went away). Aside from the usual  host of TV shows and horror films (both “real” and fictional) revolving around the search for our transdimensional neighbors, we have the upcoming release of a Ghostbusters video game in June and the third part of that movie series is currently being written. More importantly, ghost sightings seem to be on upswing. Take for example, my home city of Pittsburgh; in the past year the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has reported on not one, but two confirmed hauntings.

So, for any budding parapsychologists out there — or any of us who enjoy a literary excursion into the unknown — NPR reporter Stacy Horn’s new book Unbelievable should be required reading. Presenting a skeptical history of the Rhine Research Center Institute for Parapsychology— the foremost institute on paranormal studies in the U.S. (formerly affiliated with Duke University)– and its many bizarre cases, the book promises to be a fun and easy way to take your thoughts away from our dire economy and focus instead on more important matters like ectoplasm.

In Bookstores Now


12 Rounds

When I worked at the WWE, I was given the unenviable task of finding a fashion designer for the female wrestlers-cum-models collectively known as the Divas. While eventually finding success, I still have nightmares of trying to explain to the heads of various haute couture labels about how the majority of the WWE’s audience were educated members of our society and not banjo-picking, anal-raping rednecks.

In fact, the WWE sees itself as much of a family friendly universal brand as Disney does. And in the hopes of growing said brand, WWE Films, the film development branch of the company, has recently and rather smoothly segued from R-rated crap like See No Evil to PG and PG-13 crap like this weekend’s newly released 12 Rounds where WWE “superstar” John Cena portrays a detective who must complete twelve challenges in order to rescue his girlfriend.

Instead of delving into the myriad ways as to why this film should have bought a nice double wide in the Straight-to-DVD trailer park as opposed to trying to move into a movie theater with an aesthetic mortgage it obviously can’t afford, I will posit only two: Renny Harlin.

Aside from Joel Schumacher*, I cannot think of one single director who has been given free rein to create so many terrible mainstream studio movies (although to be fair, I have a certain fondness for two Harlin films: Cliffhanger and Deep Blue Sea). However, what is particularly strange about Mr. Harlin’s career is that he seems to have seamlessly avoided being burdened with the blame for one of the all time biggest Hollywood disasters. A movie, much like Mr. Harlin, that doesn’t get nearly the infamy it deserves.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Let’s take a step back in time…

You are the president of production at Carolco Pictures and it is the early 1990’s, the Götterdämmerung of movie making self-indulgence. Lunch is not yet South Beach sausage and cheese or sushi, but a healthy dose of cocaine, whores and, well, cocaine. However, Carolco’s once filthy rich money troth is running dry and you can now only give the greenlight to one of two blockbusters to be:

A. Crusade. An epic, rousing and bloody 11th Century tale of the crusades starring Arnold Schwarzenegger — fresh from mega hits Total Recall and Terminator 2 — and directed by Carolco’s own hitmaker Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall and Basic Instinct).

B. Cutthroat Island starring Geena Davis and Michael Douglas…. No wait. Michael Douglas says, “Screw the $15 million” and drops out. You subsequently offer the role to Tom Cruise and Daniel Day-Lewis, both of whom say “Thanks, but no thanks.”  Then, Jeff Bridges, Michael Keaton, Charlie Sheen (Charlie Sheen!!!!), Liam Neeson and Tim Robbins decline $7 million to star in the film. As the smell of desperation waffles through the office, the script is rewritten so Geena Davis becomes the star and you’re finally able to snare… wait for it… wait for it… Mathew Modine (Yes, that Matthew Modine) into accepting the smaller sized male lead. Now, you have a $100 million dollar pirate movie starring Geena Davis, Matthew Modine and a pre-Frost/Nixon post-Masters of the Universe Frank Langella as the villain.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, which movie do you choose?

Times up. Pencils down.

For those of you who answered “B”: Congratulations. Aside from giving the cold shoulder to the future Governator at the height of his box office omnipotence, you have just greenlit a movie that will become the biggest flop in box office history (Cutthroat Island would go on to gross a whopping $10 million dollars) and lead directly to the demise of Carolco Pictures.

Of course, nowadays if you were working for AIG, you would get a multi-million dollar bonus for such a decision.

*As much as Joel Schumacher has now become an adjective for unbelievably bad movies, we do owe him this: Without the excrement he gave the world in the form of Batman and Robin we probably never would have had Chris Nolan’s superlative Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

Now in Theaters