Ghost Writer, The

By , May 27, 2010 12:33 pm

Prime Minister Lang emerges from coalition talks with the Liberal Democrats; Mrs. Lang further befuddled by Cleggmania.

Roman Polanski’s revenge on Tony Blair and the American justice system.  Ewan MacGregor is the Ghost Writer, the type who helps celebrities fulfill book deals by turning lumps of pabulum into semi-readable best-sellers.  The former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) has, apparently, written the equivalent of My Life, but whose handlers had the good sense and the balls to tell him it needs a rewrite.  Lang was a phenomenon—a charismatic, hope-peddling dim bulb—until he dragged the UK into an illegal American war and authorized the torture of British citizens.  And his wife (Olivia Williams) looks like a MILFier version Cherie Blair

So, where to go if you’re on the lamb from the International Criminal Court?  Massachusetts!  Specifically, Martha’s Vineyard, where the PM, his wife, and his hot secretary (Kim Cattrall with a not-embarrassing accent) have holed up to avoid extradition to The Hague.  The political point is obvious:  The United States is a banana republic that openly tortures prisoners, operating outside the law.  The movie was filmed before Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland, so I’m loathe make an autobiographical connection.  Still, if The Queen captured the greatness of Blair, The Ghost Writer writes the epitaph. 

The problem is that the film devolves into a chase thriller rather than becoming a psychological thriller.  The ghost writer pieces together clues after being shuttered into the room of his predecessor, a longtime Lang assistant who was beginning to piece together his sordid past.  This leads us down dark roads into colonial shacks and backwoods mansions of Ivy league professors with giant pianos in the private library.  The best parts of the film are much more claustrophobic; the media and some angry British citizens (noticeably absent are any Americans) have boxed Team Lang in, created much untoward tension in the house.  Framed against a glass house overlooking the grey beaches of New England, we see storms brewing on the horizons, wind blown trees bending but not breaking, and furious splatters of rain pounding for hours.  The whole house becomes a confessional booth until Lang makes his escape to London, leaving his wife and the ghost writer behind.  Too bad, because Polanski had set up the house as the glass prison of a man imprisoned by his own naked ambition who didn’t quite have the courage of his liberal convictions.  

The Pitch:

2 The 39 Steps

2 The 39 Steps







1 Tony Blair







3 The Ghost Writer

3 The Ghost Writer

3 The Ghost Writer

Summer Movie Preview, June 2010

By , May 19, 2010 7:31 am

Not the A-Team, no hot tub time machine

June 4th 

Killers:  Two pseudo-stars in a “marriage is like war, look we’re shooting at each other” movie.  Mr. and Mrs. Smith worked, if it did, because you had two genuine big stars with big personalities (Brad Pitt in non-romantic leads counts).  Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher simply don’t move the needle, no matter how much shooting and making out making out while their shooting they’re going to do in this movie.  The only hope is that Tom Selleck walks away with the movie in a supporting role as Heigl’s dad.  Who doesn’t want to watch Selleck give Ashton Kutcher the DeNiro/Stiller treatment, but with more hard-ass old-guy butt-stomping?–Steve

Marmaduke:  I understand that we should be sensitive about Owen Wilson and all, but looking back on Bottle Rocket, was there any clue that it would end up like this?  Owen trying to kill himself before playing the lead in Marmaduke, and a doughy Luke pitching cell phone coverage in sweat pants?–Steve   

Splice:  Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley are rebellious (and hot) young scientists who splice together human and animal DNA.  It doesn’t go as planned.  Brody has been very questionable since The Pianist (his best work is probably struttin’ to Lyrics Born in this Michel Gondry-directed Diet Coke commercial), and Sarah Polley hasn’t had a role of note in years.  Still, I’ll give Splice the benefit of the doubt only because Polley directed, at the age of 28, the best film ever made about Alzheimer’s:  Away From Her, for which Julie Christie was nominated for an Oscar.  That hasn’t nothing to do with Splice, but hey, handing over your hard-earned cash for a movie is about trust, and I trust Sarah Polley.  What can I say?—Steve

Get Him to the Greek: Nothing made me hate Hollywood more than the rumor from a few years ago that MTV Films was going to “re-imagine (or suck the life out of) “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” with Russell Brand in the Tim Curry role. Is there anything duller than a “cringe comedian” who thinks talking about heroine and his abs is shocking? Oh, I know: A film that presents such a comedian as daring and edgy is duller than that. “Get Him to the Greek” is (not) a sequel to “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, a great film with some weaknesses. Like Russell Brand. Here Jonah Hill – who isn’t playing the same creepy loser from “Sarah Marshall” – plays a creepy loser who has to babysit some audacious rock star. With Judd Apatow’s star beginning to fade, hanging his hat on someone like Brand seems to be a good way to land a film where Leslie Mann is the biggest name. What I am saying is I hate Russell Brand.–James 

June 11th

The A-Team:  This was always going to happen, it was just a matter of finding the right B.A.  Thankfully, the emergence of MMA made that possible.  Alas, Joe Carnahan, who gave us the amoral shoot-em-up Smokin’ Aces, may not be the sophisticated ironist necessary to elevate The A-Team beyond forgettable one-weekend blockbuster.   You see, in Smokin’ Aces, the target of the hit men was named Aces, and they were trying to smoke him.  This premise requires a more refined sense of humor…somebody to convince Liam Neeson that the only way to play Hannibal is as if he’s really leading a reconnaissance squadron, and that Bradley Cooper needs to be so arrogant that his arrogance is charming.  For Murdock, I was hoping for the same kind of marriage to actor and role that Matthew Lillard brought to Shaggy.  The guy from District 9 doesn’t have a track record, so we’ll see.—Steve

The Karate Kid: Beware! Will Smith is starting to franchise. Little Jaden Smith takes over for Ralph Macchio (or perhaps for Hillary “The Next Karate Kid” Swank) as the fish-out-of-water who has to take on the Art of Jackie Chan in order to beat up the Mean Kids, be Popular, and to Learn Life’s Important Lessons. Like back-end profit sharing (Thanks, pops!). For all of you holding on to some sort of misplaced nostalgia, remember this: (1) The first one stunk so get over it. (2) This story has been done so many times anyway they could have called it “The Bad News Bears Step It Up While Suffering Varsity Blues” and no one would have cared. In fact, they could have called it “Karate Kid: The Next Generation” and made it a straight-to-video sequel without anyone complaining about remaking “classics”. (3) No one has a VCR to play their “Karate Kid” video tape anymore.  So just go see it already.–James 

June 18th

Toy Story 3:  This is the true test of 3-D.  I’m in the Ebert camp.  I don’t really care for it—I’m wowed by special effects when they help tell a story, not when they try to wow me with special effects.  If Pixar can’t pull off a decent “I-MAX 3-D Experience,” consider it a fad.–Steve

Jonah Hex:  A comic book movie western with Megan Fox as the saloon girl and John Malkovich as the bad guy.  Is there any way to redeem this, and if so, is the director of Horton Hears a Who the guy to do it?  Godspeed, Josh Brolin.  We won’t forget that you’re on an incredible run in your non-Megan Fox movies (Grindhouse, No Country for Old Men, In the Valley of Elah, W., and Milk).  If you’re interested in a Josh Brolin western, the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit is a much better bet.  I have a feeling that there may be less “upholding the rule of law” and more “the badge justifies vigilantism” in that one.  Oh, was I supposed to be talking about Jonah Hex?  Sorry about that.–Steve

June 25th

Grown Ups:  Since none of the Happy Madison crew can carry a film by themselves anymore, Sandler’s solution is to throw them all in a movie at once—as if ten thirty watt bulbs can light up a stage better than one klieg light.  Seriously, they’re all here, clear down to Colin Quinn.  I will admit that I’m cheering for Kevin James, who has been anointed the fat-guy replacement for Chris Farley.  Don’t get me wrong, Farley is Premiere League to James’ MLS, but Paul Blart’s grace on a Segway was something to behold.  Still, this movie has no hope—the majesty of Hot Tub Time Machine casts a long shadow.  They’re going to need more than a fat guy on a rope and Rob Schneider making out with old ladies.–Steve

Knight and Day: The summer’s second “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” rip-off.  Everyone who dismisses Tom Cruise as “crazy” forgets that anyone who pretends to be other people for a living can’t be totally “with it.” Whatever we may think of him, Cruise may have found a second, comedic wind with his explosive performance in “Tropic Thunder.” Cameron Diaz seems washed-up, though she has somehow developed a reputation as a “funny actress” (despite Sir Hitchens’ theory about the fairer sex) while remaining sexy and alluring. Plus, someone who was the lead in two films last year is hardly running on empty. As a couple, they will bat their eyes and flirt as they bounce around the globe and see things go “boom” around them. Hopefully writer-director James Mangold can give this enough weigh to keep it floating off the screen.  Oh…but the haters will still have their day.–James

What We Know About Elena Kagan

By , May 17, 2010 3:44 pm

Elena Kagan giving it the ol' wide stance, if you know what I mean.

Gay activists are outraged that the Wall Street Journal ran this photo of the Supreme Court nominee on its front page, presumably because it’s supposed to “prove” that Elena Kagan is gay.  But what does it really prove?  Not to play the “I have friends” card, but I’ve played softball with Harvard softball players (hi Rachel!).  Beyond all doubt, they most certainly do not hit like this.  First, Kagan is choked up way too far on the bat.  Second, she’s got way too much weight on her front foot.  Third, she’s playing in a buttoned shirt with a collar. 

If we want to be frank about it, this picture tells us, in no uncertain terms, that Elena Kagan cannot play softball.  She’s the chick on your co-ed team you bat ninth and hide at catcher and hope she doesn’t get hit in the face on a throw home.  That’s what this picture tells us.  Gay?  Who knows?  Still, in this political environment, you get the sense that if the Bush Administration picked the national women’s basketball coach, he’d pass over Geno Auriemma and Pat Summit for Robin Pingeton to placate his base. 

If the Arizona Immigration Law Didn’t Legalize Racial Profiling, There Would Be No Point to the Arizona Immigration Law

By , May 16, 2010 9:17 pm

So let’s take a look at the original Arizona SB 1070, shall we?  There’s a lot of stuff here, but let’s focus specifically on the part about when you can ask somebody for their proof of citizenship or legal immigration status.  The law says that an officer verify immigration status upon “lawful contact” with a person.  In legal language, what does that mean?

There are several different categories of contact an officer can have with a person; the relevant ones here are:  “probable cause” that you committed a crime, “reasonable suspicion” that you have or may commit a crime, or, in the language of the Arizona bill, “lawful contact.”  In simplified terms, reasonable suspicion includes instances when an officer arrests a person, detains him for probable cause that he’s committed a crime, or stops him when the officer has reasonable suspicion that he has or may commit a crime (known as a “Terry Stop”).

Lawful contact is not a legal term of art, but we can assume that if the legislature meant “reasonable suspicion,” they would have said “reasonable suspicion.”   So what’s an example of “lawful contact”?  There’s nothing illegal about an officer just coming up to you and asking you some questions—that seems like “lawful contact,” doesn’t it?  It’s not illegal, so it must be lawful.  Obviously, this is a lesser standard than reasonable suspicion, which requires articulable evidence that you have, are, or may commit a crime. 

Now, a bunch of conservative commentators are saying, no, the law says that the person needs to be suspected of committing a crime to have his papers checked.  This is false—otherwise, the law would plainly say that an officer needs “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has or may be committed to ask for papers.  That’s not what they want officers to do.  They want officers to be able to stop anybody at any time to ask for papers.

How do we know this?  Because if you’re under reasonable suspicion, you can already ask for driver’s license, papers, etc.  So, there would be absolutely no point to this stipulation if it didn’t mean “Officers can ask anybody they want for his papers.”

That’s precisely why the Arizona legislature had to go back and change that language in the bill from “lawful contact” to “lawful stop, detention, or arrest.”  In other words, reasonable suspicion.  In other words, the new Arizona law commands officers to do what they were already able to do. 

UMKC constitutional law professor Kris Kobach has been the go-to guy on this law, claiming to help draft it and has been its most vocal supporter in the media.  He’s also totally misconstruing this law.  This op-ed for the New York Times claims that “reasonable suspicion” is a completely reasonable standard that won’t be used to racially profile.  The is bunk on two counts:  1)  I used to write these prosecutor’s memos; you can always find reasonable suspicion for an officer, and 2) the law doesn’t say you need reasonable suspicion; you only need “lawful contact”—that’s a completely different thing.  Apparently, professor, even the Arizona legislature disagreed with you.

Look, you can probably discern how I feel about this law.  But what really bothers me is when lawyers willfully and intentionally misconstrue precise legal language to mislead the public.  I’ve heard so many people say “what’s wrong with asking a jaywalker for his papers” that it’s obvious the public doesn’t really know what this says.  Or, they absolutely do and don’t care because they’re not likely to be asked for their papers, based on the color of their skin.  If that’s the case, one class of Americans is in favor of creating a second class of American citizen, where people are pre-judged by the color of their skin.  If you think this is ok because, hey, we’re fighting illegal immigration, you don’t really care what the Constitution says about Equal Protection under the law.   This is not an argument that no illegal aliens should be arrested and deported; it’s an argument that we should not attempt to constiutionalize the harrassment of American citizens based solely on the color of their skin.

Letters to Juliet

By , May 15, 2010 10:29 am

When the moment was right, they were ready.

This movie is based on the real-life wall in Verona where lonesome and lovestruck women write letters to Juliet, asking for relationship advice.  This strikes me as imprudent.  After all, Miss Capulet turned down the rich handsome bachelor Paris sight unseen, let a night of flirting with the cute but overwrought Romeo become a hasty marriage, hid said marriage from her parents, gave herself over to Friar Laurence’s unlikely and complicated sleeping potion plan, and eventually killed herself when it all went wrong. 

Nevertheless, women flock to Juliet’s wall to leave notes, which are answered by the Secretaries of Juliet—local volunteers who pen advice in response to each and every letter.  So, when Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is ditched on her pre-honeymoon (?) with wunderkind New York chef Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), she walks right into the secretaries’ den and starts answering letters.  The set-up, I guess, is that this modern-day Juliet got engaged to the self-absorbed Paris, and now needs to find her Romeo.  Or something like that.  I’m not willing to give the writers credit for attempting some sort of Shakespeare criticism because this movie is pseudo-literary.  That is, it wants to have things that real movies and books have, like “symbolism” and “metaphor,” but lacks a talent for subtlety.

For instance, Sophie has one of those impossible, only-in-the-movies jobs—she’s a fact-checker for The New Yorker.  You see, there are facts, and there are feelings.  Calculated, prudent judgments about who to love never work out; only the heart knows what it wants.  Which is why Sophie needs to make the jump from lowly fact-checker to full-on Orlean.  She gets it—so much, in fact, that her response to a lost-in-the-bricks letter provokes a grandmother to seek her long lost love.  Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) shows up in Verona with her cantankerous British grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) to meet Sophie, and they’re so smitten with each other (Sophie and Claire, that is) that they embark on an Italian road trip to find the mysterious Lorenzo Bartolini. 

If you don’t already see where this is going, then you’ve never had your hands greased by multiplex popcorn.  Rest assured, there’s no twist you don’t see coming, and the back stories are meticulously constructed for maximum heart-tugging.  But, if we’re grading on a curve, give Letters to Juliet credit for trying—if you’re needing a chick flick fix, this is eons better than any Kate Hudson/Beckinsale/et al rom-com.  Vanessa Redgrave is a portrait of aged grace, and she develops a connection to Seyfried that helps lift the young actress above the material.  Bernal is franticly charming—we don’t see him as a a-hole, but a passionate man who simply doesn’t realize that he wants to make love to his pasta colander rather than his beautiful fiancé.  Egan is a little bit too harsh to be likeable, but whatever.  It’s not supposed to be Shakespeare, not with Amanda Seyfried continuing her bid to be the younger version of Amy Adams.

The Pitch:

1 1/2 Amy Adams

1 1/2 Amy Adams









1 Susan Orlean









2 1/2 Letters to Juliet

2 1/2 Letters to Juliet

2 1/2 Letters to Juliet

Summer Movie Preview, May 2010

By , May 13, 2010 8:02 pm


Movie Fans, I’ve got a bunch of new material for you over the next week or so.  Reviews of the newest releases, a layman’s analysis of the Arizona Immigration Law, a breakdown of Elena Kagan’s softball stance, and my favorite thing all year:  The Summer Movie Preview.  For such a big occasion, I thought it might be fun to get the band back together.  That’s right–James Owen, my partner from the glorious and groundbreaking (yeah, why not) is back in the fold!  He graciously offered to help dish out some trash talk on this summer’s newest remakes, reimaginings, sequels, and blowing-stuff-ups.  James will also be contributing to Movie Day at the Court, so you’ll be getting twice the content for the same low price of free.  And who says the internet is killing real journalism?  So, let’s get to the movies!

May 7th

Iron Man 2: I know…I know. You’ve already seen it. Even though, by Deadline Hollywood Daily standards, the $130 million it grossed opening weekend makes it a “disappointment”. Because these days, if you don’t gross “Avatar”’s global numbers by the Saturday matinees…your movie totally sucks! Anyway, what you already know is that Capitalism’s has an answer to the selfless, patriotic, not-for-profit Superman/Clark Kent hero.  His name is Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), who returns to the heavy suit not to fight for world peace or to handle inner demons, but to struggle with Sam Rockwell over a defense contract and to deal with rote Daddy issues. Perhaps the infusion of a morally conflicted bad guy would have made the film as dynamic as the first. Instead, we get Mickey Rourke with his “moose and sqeerrel” routine and Scarlett Johansson as some ill-defined mystery woman whose interesting bits (easy there!) seems to be saved for “Iron Man 3”. At least this keeps director Jon Favreau away from teaming up with Vince Vaughn. Blech!–James

Babies:  Have you ever seen some funny YouTube video in an email sent by your weird aunt and thought: I wish this had better production values and I could spend eight dollars at the local art house to watch this while I drank overpriced mirco-brews? Well, “Babies” is the answer to your prayers! 
Oscar-hunting documentarians follow the first year of an infant’s life in various cultures around the globe.  But seriously, it is very cute and, if you didn’t take your mom to see this on Mother’s Day, you are a movie-hating Communist.–James

May 14th

Robin Hood: As though I’ve died and gone to Heaven, director Ridley Scott and leading man Russell Crowe have teamed up for another helping of epic craziness. We’ve gone a long way from Scott’s “Body of Lies” where fat ole Russell sat at his kid’s soccer game as he let Leonardo DiCaprio go into dangerous Middle East situations until he’s tortured as though he were living out a Mel Gibson fever dream. Whew! Excuse me. Anyway, our Dynamic Duo is back to do some sort of “origins” story about the famous bandit and Sheriff Nottingham’s dastardly plot to bring him down. Seemingly, when this was announced, this story was going to tell the legendary tale from Nottingham’s view. Perhaps the marketing is being sneaky but, in the AIG and Goldman Sachs era, even Ridley couldn’t make that work. Besides, this is the Robin Hood we’ve been waiting for since enduring Kevin Costner’s “accent”, Kevin Costner’s “mullet”, and Bryan Adams “singing” at the mall multiplex back twenty years ago or so. It also stars Cate Blanchett and that’s never a bad thing.–James  

May 21st

Shrek Forever After: Paramount, having pillaged the Dreamworks stable until there’s nothing left except for horse tears, goes back to the “Shrek” well to revisit our green ogre (voiced by Mike Myers who  is probably just relieved he hasn’t been dropped from the contract for being impossible to work with) trying to get back to being his normal self. But, after striking a nasty deal with Rumpelstiltskin, he somehow lands in an “It’s a Wonderful Life” scenario where he sees what Never, Never Land would look like if….oh has anyone really cared since “Shrek 2”? Did anyone really care about that except for Antonio Banderas channeling Zorro the Gay Blade into the voice of Garfield? I didn’t. But, hey, you’ve got kids and can’t take them to “The Human Centipede”.  (Please don’t take your children to “The Human Centipede”).–James

MacGruber: I must admit to being very intrigued.  If Lorne Michaels and crew go after some sort of combination Die Hard parody with MacGruber has Jack Bauer in an 80’s style vest, they could be onto something.  Really, if Cheney-ite Republicans insist that the ticking time bomb scenario justifies torture, then they deserve to have this idea mocked by Will Forte and Kristin Wiig.  If Val Kilmer waterboards Christopher Hitchens, I’ll nominate it for Best Picture at the KCFCC Awards in January.  And it’s got a bunch of non-The Rock wrestlers, including Chris Jericho, whose appearances on “I Love the 80’s” merit more mainstream tv time.–Steve

May 28th

Prince of Persia:  The Sands of Time:  Nothing makes me laugh more than when people talk smack on the new Jerry Bruckheimer Awesome Machine © by saying it looks like a poor man’s “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Sure, because nothing trumps a movie based on a video game like a movie based on a THEME PARK RIDE! Yes, it’s loud and incoherent. But that never stopped anyone from seeing a movie on Memorial Day. What might stop them is any attempt to make Jake Gyllenhaal into an action star. That’s almost as crazy as attempts to make his sister Maggie attractive. Hey-o! Burned her!  But it’s the same wham-bam excitement you would expect from Mike Newell, the director of “Four Weddings and Funeral” and “Pushing Tin”. Oh and he also did one of the “Harry Potter” movies. So, no hate mail about how mis-accurate I am.–James

Sex and the City 2: So I figured Candace Bushnell’s tactic of taking placing crude, sexist stereotypes in trite situations with other cartoonish, under-developed characters, then spouting off “truisms” and “insight” that would make the characters in an 80’s sitcom groan, would have died out with the HBO finale. (I tend to think of “Sex and the City” like “Entourage” for women with no Ari Gold-type character keeping the proceedings from being a total, vapid bore.) But then, appletini-fueled audiences pushed the film version into blockbuster status, so those sassy gals Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Charlotte (Kristin Davis), and Mae West (Kim Cattrell) all come together to obsess over irrelevant fashion and even more irrelevant men. I hear ladies say this doesn’t look as good as the first. How they can tell is beyond me.–James

Survival of the Dead: Maybe you’d prefer to spend this holiday getting another heaping of George A. Romero’s paranoia riffing on the military-industrial complex through blood and guts. This time, Romero drops his brain-loving zombies in the middle of a family feud that’s been going on decades. The trailer mixes period costumes and art direction suggesting some sort of historical or social ambition. But that’s really confusing, so let’s just say it’s about Afghanistan and the zombies are…Allied troops? Sure.   It stars no one and looks like it will be subjected to the art house ghetto. Summertime!–James


By , May 12, 2010 5:39 pm

Nic Cage tries to pay off a mortgage by craigslisting some leftover automatic weapons from Bruckheimer movies.

The premise seems innocent enough:  A high school dork is sick of getting mugged, so he decides to order a costume, do some pushups, watch a martial arts training video online, and take to the streets to start superheroing.  He gets his butt kicked pretty good by some common streets thugs, but he holds his own against a mugger, and has the good fortune of becoming a youtube sensation.  Kick-Ass is born.

Had this been played for satire, the film might have become a darkly humorous rebuke to vigilantism.  Instead, Kick-Ass celebrates vigilantism, as if this movie were some sort of Icon Productions how-to video for young Mel Gibsons.  Nic Cage plays a dad who spent time behind bars and has dedicated his life to seeking revenge.  So, long story short, he regains custody of his daughter, who he turns into something like a combination of Dora the Ruthless Murderer—a pint sized Chow Yun Fat.  The film’s set pieces feature the little girls dispatching baddies like The Bride in Kill Bill, with Tarantino’s eye for streams of blood and lopped body parts. 

It’s one thing for Quentin Tarantino to unleash his kind of metacognitive b-movie violence, but it’s a whole other thing to involve kids.  There’s absolutely no meditation on violence and death—you kill because they stand in between you and the crime boss.  Really, the film peddles a kind of child pornography:  If we think of children as little adults, there’s nothing that separates what’s appropriate for adults and what’s appropriate for children.  The film takes pain to ensure realism—these are real people who are really shot and whose brains really splatter.  You can’t have it both ways—you can’t at once say that this is a cartoon and also be thrilled by the authenticity of carnage. 

The Pitch:

1/2 Wanted






0 Star Wars Kid







1/2 Kick-Ass

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