Love, Gilda


Gilda and Gene as a couple were amazingly cute.

(2018) Documentary (Magnolia) Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, Chevy Chase, Laraine Newman, Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lorne Michaels, Michael F. Radner, Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, Paul Shaffer, Stephen Schwartz, Alan Zweibel, Robin Zweibel, Rosie Shuster, Cecily Strong, Andrew Alexander, Janis Hirsch, Anne Beatts. Directed by Lisa DaPolito

 

It’s not taking a controversial stance by declaring that Gilda Radner was one of the greatest comedians of her era and one of the greatest ever. Although she passed away at a too-young 43 in 1989, her best work on Saturday Night Live still holds up even now, 40 years later.

It’s hard to believe but for most people under 30 she’s been gone their entire lifetime. Fortunately there’s a documentary that will not only play on the nostalgic chords of baby boomers and others who are middle aged, it may introduce her to a whole new generation that didn’t get to be captivated by her amazing smile, who didn’t get to enjoy her compelling characters or laugh at her gentle humor.

The documentary is mostly told in Radner’s own words as we hear excerpts of her audio recordings that she used while writing her autobiography It’s Always Something which would be published two weeks after her death. She was also an insatiable diarist and we get to hear some of her most intimate thoughts read by modern comedians (and SNL alumni themselves) like Bill Hader, Melissa McCarthy and Amy Poehler.

We also get to see plenty of home movies of her youth, backstage footage from her debut performance in Godspell in Toronto as well as from her one-woman Broadway show after her stint on SNL came to an end (but strangely, very little backstage or rehearsal footage from SNL itself). There are also some home movies from her brief but fulfilling marriage to Gene Wilder, some of it taken during cancer treatments during the last years of her life. Even though she remained optimistic despite the advanced stages of her ovarian cancer when it was detected, there came a point when she knew she wasn’t going to survive and she confessed as much to some of her closest friends. She faced the end with grace and humor as you might expect.

Radner was never a radical feminist but she did a lot of trailblazing for women particularly in the field of comedy which was then definitely a boys club (and is still so to a lesser but still profound effect today). Female comics revere her and rightfully so for that reason. She made inroads not by demonstrating but by doing; she wasn’t the sort to get in anyone’s face and scream. She knew there was discrimination against women but in her own non-confrontational way she fought against it. It didn’t hurt that nobody could deny she wasn’t as hysterically funny as her male counterparts, maybe more so in a lot of cases.

Given the amount of personal information and observations that the filmmakers were privy to, some aspects of her life seem to have little flesh on them when displayed here. We get that she spent most of her life looking for true love and being devastated when her latest boyfriend or husband (Wilder was her third marriage) didn’t work out. She wanted to be adored, but was intrinsically shy and preferred privacy even as she loved being in front of people, perhaps less than being with people. At least, that’s what I can glean from what is shown here; I may be way off-base. That’s the problem with documentary movies; the filmmaker has an hour and a half to dig into a life so often we are just left with the highlights and not so much with the blanks being filled in. I really wanted DaPolito to spend more time on her relationship with Wilder but we really didn’t get much more than we could glean from reading contemporary accounts in People magazine.

Radner’s fans will likely love the stroll down memory lane but be disappointed by the insight of which there could have been a lot more. I also found it surprising that the only members of the original cast to appear in the documentary were Newman and Chase; Aykroyd, Curtin and Morris are not to be seen nor is Bill Murray and his brother Brian (both of whom dated Radner at separate times back in the day) from the second season. That’s a shame to me and I don’t know why the missing members declined to appear (if indeed they did) or why DaPolito failed to ask them (if she didn’t).

Still, it is a worthy tribute to one of the most iconic performers of her era, one whose influence still resonates in the comedy business today. Even if it isn’t entirely satisfying from one hoping to gain more insight into what made her tick, I think for most people this is another – or maybe a first – opportunity to love Gilda.

REASONS TO GO: The excerpts from classic SNL sketches still hold up well. The journal entries are both poignant and illuminating.
REASONS TO STAY: The section on her relationship with Gene Wilder could have used some fleshing out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Radner based her Emily Litella character on her nanny whom she considered her second mom.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Painless

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Deli Man: The Movie


Ziggy Gruber works hard at cooking with love.

Ziggy Gruber works hard at cooking with love.

(2014) Documentary (Cohen Media Group) Ziggy Gruber, Jerry Stiller, Larry King, Freddie Klein, Dennis Howard, Jay Parker, Fyvush Finkel, Mimi Gruber, J. Mackye Gruber, Freddie Roman, Zane Caplansky, Jane Ziegelman, Michael Wex, Adam Caslow, Alan Dershowitz. Directed by Erik Anjou

In their heyday, there were more than 1500 kosher Jewish delis in New York City alone. Now, there’s a tenth of that in all of North America. The great Jewish deli, once a mainstay of American culture, is slowly dying out.

This is a movie celebrating the deli and they choose for their spokesman David “Ziggy” Gruber, a genial man with a bit of a pot belly and an engaging grin. He also has a genuine passion for delis, having grown up essentially in the business; his grandfather founded the legendary Rialto Deli in Manhattan while his dad owned Long Island’s Woodrow Deli. He was stuffing cabbages as a pre-teen.

He would get himself to the Cordon Bleu Institute in England to learn to be a chef, but it was in the deli that his heart belonged. After going to a meeting of Deli Owners and discovering to his shock that nearly all of the owners were in their 70s and 80s and had nobody taking over for them when they retired, he felt that it was up to him to keep the culture alive and so he founded a deli of his own – in Houston.

Don’t laugh. There is a fairly large Jewish population there, as there is in many big American cities. In any case, his business took off and became a huge hit, to the point where he has been opening new restaurants although to date Kenny and Ziggy’s remains his only deli.

The film centers on Ziggy although it talks to various Deli Men from around North America including men from such legendary places as Cantor’s and Nate ‘n’ Al’s in Los Angeles, 2nd Avenue Deli and Carnegie Deli in New York, Kaplansky’s in Toronto and Manny’s in Chicago. They all admit given the labor-intensive nature of deli food and due to the high price of meat (deli tends to be meat-centric) the low return on investments that are modern delicatessens.

Part of why there are so few delis left is simply attrition. The Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, from where the initial flood of Jewish immigrants came to New York, were all for the most part wiped out in the Holocaust. There are no new immigrants coming to America from that region or at least very few and the children of those who are here aren’t interested in taking over a deli when they could be a doctor or a lawyer. Thus, the recipes for some of these dishes are fast disappearing – Ziggy bemoans that his grandfather’s gravy recipe died with him and that while he can get close, he can’t quite duplicate the taste. It’s easy to understand, given the grueling work schedule of the deli owner, why a lot of modern kids shy away from the business as a career.

The story of the delicatessen is also the story of the Jewish community in America; delis were places that they would gather to eat and became de facto cultural centers for the Jewish faith. For many, it was a taste of home, bringing with it the recipes of the old country – I’ll bet you didn’t know that pastrami was a Romanian invention despite the Italian-sounding name. However, with less and less people coming from the old country, the nostalgia factor has become less compelling and even in Jewish homes the meals that later generations grew up with became more Americanized.

We also see Ziggy, who had been married to his calling more or less, find someone who is willing to accept that – his massage therapist/acupuncturist Mimi. When the two decide to tie the knot, he insists on doing it in Budapest, Hungary in the synagogue where his grandfather had his bar mitzvah. If the site of Ziggy, tears streaming down his face, listening to the rabbi speak about the full circle of the grandchild coming to the temple where he breathes the air his grandfather breathed doesn’t make you misty-eyed, well, you are made of sterner stuff than I. I found him an engaging man, one who his brother said, not unkindly, that he was an 80-year-old Jew even as a child. He definitely seems to be an old soul and I’d love to sit down with him for an hour and just chat but I’d be willing to bet that it is a rare thing that he has an hour to spare for such pastimes.

Critic Sean Howley advised me not to see this hungry and it is sound advice. At the very least you will be jonesing for some good deli sandwiches after seeing this and the very next day I headed over to TooJays, our local deli. Matzoh Ball soup, pastrami on rye, carrot cake and a Dr. Brown’s celery soda. Oy vey it was delicious!

Gastronomy aside, the movie is surprisingly informative but doesn’t ever condescend. There are a number of Yiddish terms sprinkled throughout but they are thoughtfully defined with on-screen graphics in case you don’t speak it or haven’t been around it. There is a joy in what these deli men do, and even if they sometimes shake their heads in wonder at their own insanity it is clear that they feel what they do is not just a living but a calling. Not everyone feels the call as fervently as Ziggy does but all of them understand that what they are doing is not just piling a sandwich high with corned beef – they’re preserving a lifestyle and a culture that is in danger of disappearing. That makes the case that every time you head out to your local deli to pick up a sandwich, a bowl of soup or a loaf of bread, you are doing more than sating your appetite; you’re helping them preserve something precious. Who knew that grabbing a knish could be so important?

REASONS TO GO: Ziggy makes an ideal face for delicatessens. Informational without being boring and entertaining without being disrespectful. Merges cultural aspects and foodie aspects nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Will make you hungry. Doesn’t really delve into why delis declined other than the financial.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of cussing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ziggy was once a line cook under Gordon Ramsay.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Search for General Tso
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Wild Card

What If (2014)


Indie cute OD.

Indie cute OD.

(2014) Romantic Comedy (CBS) Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Rafe Spall, Megan Park, Mackenzie Davis, Lucius Hoyos, Jemima Rooper, Tommie-Amber Pirie, Meghan Heffern, Jonathan Cherry, Rebecca Northan, Jordan Hayes, Oona Chaplin, Adam Fergus, Sam Moses, Ennis Esmer, Mike Wilmot, George Tchortov, Tamara Duarte, Vanessa Matsui. Directed by Michael Dowse

Finding The One is a matter not only of chemistry but of timing. Both of you have to be in the right place to be able to accept someone into that kind of intimacy. Both of you have to be available. It would help a lot if you’re both as attractive, cool and hip as Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan.

Wallace (Radcliffe) is a medical school dropout who has had his heart broken one too many times. He lives in his sister’s (Rooper) attic as a kind of live-in babysitter to her son (Hoyos) and spends a lot of time sitting on the roof of his sister’s house gazing soulfully at the Toronto skyline.

His cynical friend Allan (Driver) gets him to go to a party where he meets Chantry (Kazan). The two hit it off right away and spend much of the evening talking. To Wallace’s surprise (and perhaps disgust) Allan has hooked up with Nicole (Davis) and those two are going at it like sailors on a 24 hour pass in a brothel. Not much chance of that happening with Wallace and Chantry though – she has a boyfriend named Ben (Spall) who is a pretty decent fellow who works for the U.N. Kind of a rough challenge for an unemployed medical school dropout to take on, y’know.

 

Nonetheless Wallace and Chantry become the best of friends and when Ben’s work takes him to Dublin for six months, the opportunity is there although Wallace – something of a wimp – shies away from it even though it is clear to everyone who knows him that he’s hopelessly smitten by the comely young Chantry. And for her part, Chantry’s friends suspect she likes Wallace a lot more than she’s letting on, although she lets her somewhat slutty sister Dalia (Park) take a crack at Wallace which ends up pretty disastrously. However as Chantry begins to question her relationship with Ben and a major opportunity knocks for her which might send her halfway around the world. Wallace has the choice of doing the right thing, or…but what is the right thing in this situation, anyway?

This Canadian-made rom com based on a stage play has the advantage of having some attractive leads but the disadvantage of fairly bland personalities for the both of them. Sure, Chantry is an animator whose scribblings occasionally come to life but this contributes to a cuter-than-thou vibe that over-sweetens this concoction like someone dumping a whole jar of refined sugar into a glass of tea. The animations really add nothing to the movie other than to be a distraction reflecting Chantry’s occasional melancholy. Sure Wallace comes off as cooler than the average bear but with a sweet sensitive side that is apt to get all the indie gals in their vintage dresses and fuchsia hair misty-eyed.

Radcliffe, now a grown-up after we watched him grow up in the Harry Potter movies, is an engaging romantic lead, not conventionally handsome like a Hugh Grant but having the same tripping-over-his-own-feet awkwardness that Grant made into a trademark in the 90s. His character here has little in the way of backbone and tries so hard to do the right thing that he ends up making everybody around him miserable. Sometimes doing the wrong thing is the right thing.

Like a few other critics, I found the relationship between Allan and Nicole far more interesting and would have appreciated much more insight into their relationship, even though they do pull a few dick moves during the movie. Their characters seemed more realistic and more alive than the sometimes walking cliches that are Wallace and Chantry.

That’s not to say that the relationship between the two leads doesn’t have its moments. There’s the slapstick sequence that sends Ben out of a window during a disastrous dinner party but sadly there isn’t enough of that. When late in the movie the two of them “break up” as friends due to an issue that could have been resolved simply with a phone call and seems blown way out of proportion in order to manufacture conflict, I could feel my eyes rolling into the back of my head. This is one of the most egregious of rom-com cliches of the 21st century.

This is basically a movie that has a lot of potential but tries too hard to be charming in a Bohemian way, sort of like Toronto doing the East Village and realizing far too late that they’re far too polite and less pretentious to make that work effectively. I liked Radcliffe and Driver, with a hint of Davis and Spall but after that there is much less to love.

REASONS TO GO: Daniel Radcliffe is awfully engaging.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too cute. A surfeit of indie rom-com cliches.

FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of sexual references including some brief partial nudity and not an inconsequential amount of profanity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Casey Affleck and Mary Elizabeth Winstead were originally cast as the leads but the producers decided they wanted to go with younger actors instead which is ironic since Zoe Kazan is in fact older than Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: When Harry Met Sally

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Bellflower

Stories We Tell


Veracity may fade with time but love never does.

Veracity may fade with time but love never does.

(2013) Documentary (Roadside Attractions) Sarah Polley, Michael Polley, Diane Polley, John Buchan, Harry Gulkin, Mark Polley, Geoffrey Bowes, Joanna Polley, Susy Buchan, Cathy Gulkin, Anne Tait, Claire Walker, Marie Murphy, Mort Ransen, Pixie Bigelow, Robert Macmillan, Tom Butler, Deirdre Bowen, Rebecca Jenkins, Peter Evans, Alex Hatz, Mairtin O’Carrigan. Directed by Sarah Polley   

 

There is a maxim in law enforcement that eyewitness testimony is generally unreliable. That is because human memory is generally unreliable; it is shaded too much by our perceptions of things and people. A liberal for example will have a different point of view of President Barack Obama than a conservative would and not just politically – the man as a person as well.

This also goes for our personal memories. Oscar-nominated director Sarah Polley (Away From Her, a movie that you definitely should check out) turns the cameras on her own family. Her mother Diane passed away when Sarah was only 11 but remained a huge presence in her life. Her family members and family friends describe Diane as a “Good time Charley,” someone who loves to dance and be around people, whose heavy walk would cause records to skip.

Her four children – Sarah and Mark, along with John and Susy who were Diane’s children from a first marriage – clearly adored her but the more that everyone talks about Diane the more clear it becomes that nobody truly knew her well.

We get bits and pieces of the story – her marriage to Michael, a stage actor in Toronto who shared a stage with her and eventually a life – and how truly mis-matched they were as a couple, with Michael preferring solitude and self-reflection, her first marriage to an abusive husband who eventually divorced her and the consequences of her actions. How both Diane and Michael gave up acting to raise a family, although Diane later returned to it.

On paper, this sounds fairly boring and self-indulgent. Trust me, it is far from that. Like most people, Diane harbored secrets (although at least one of her friends stated with absolute certainty that she was so open that she kept no secrets) and some of them are shockers. A Google search will reveal some of them but I urge you not to if you intend to see the movie – the film is far more effective that way.

The movie isn’t so much about Sarah but about the persistence of memory. It is about her family yes but inasmuch as her family are characters in the story. The story may change from teller to teller but it is essentially all part of a larger truth. One of the interviewees (Polley calls them “interrogations” which I suppose is accurate) is loathe to have others tell this story, because he feels that only the two main characters who were involved in it really can get at the truth (he refers to it as hitting bottom) but that’s not quite true – things have a way of creating a ripple effect and affecting more than just the people immediately involved.

Her father Michael does the narration, much of it from a recording studio and from his own memoirs. That is fitting enough and he makes a charming narrator. The love Sarah has for her dad is clear and unequivocal. However, it should be pointed out that her second love is filmmaking and the movie is about that too – we see her setting up shots, taking part in interviews, a kind of in-movie “Making of” feature that we usually have to wait for the home video edition to come out in order to see. While family home movies and photos add to the film, Polley also re-creates some home movies on Super 8 with actors playing her family members in the 60s and 70s which are integrated seamlessly into the movie.

Early on in the film one of Sarah’s siblings asks “Why would anyone be interested in our family?” and the question hangs over much of the first part of the movie, particularly during the slow moving first reel when Diane is being reminisced about. I think Sarah’s aim was to provide as complete a background of who Diane was in order to provide some context for the rest of the film, but it does go on a bit longer than I thought it should.

By the end of the movie however the question becomes more or less moot. All of us can look at our family and find a story there – maybe one not quite like this one, but one nevertheless as interesting and vital to ourselves as the Polley story is to their family. It would be quite an interesting exercise to do something similar in your own family – take a story well known to all and quiz different members of the family on what happened. The results might surprise you and change your own outlook on things that happened to you – and grant you a new understanding of who you are and where you came from.

REASONS TO GO: Appeals to head as well as heart. Illustrates how events and outlook change with the witness.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be a hair too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes here are pretty adult; there is some sexuality and some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors playing Frances’ parents are actually actress Greta Gerwig’s parents.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100; thus far one of the best-reviewed movies of the year.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rashomon

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: A Dangerous Method

Limelight (2011)


To some, New York club culture was more of a religion.

To some, New York club culture was more of a religion.

(2009) Documentary (Magnolia) Peter Gatien, Michael Alig, 50 Cent, Jay-Z, Moby, Ed Koch, Howard Safir, Sean Kirkham, Michael Caruso, Edgar Oliver, Frank Owen, Steve Lewis, Benjamin Brafman. Directed by Billy Corben

Once upon in New York City there was a club scene like no other. It was in the late 80s, early 90s and it just about put Studio 54-era discos to shame. Four of them – The Limelight, Tunnel, Club USA and the Palladium – were run by the same guy.

His name was Peter Gatien and he was notorious in his day. He was a Canadian, Ontario-born (although it was said he rooted for the Montreal Canadiens which was not unlike a native of the Bronx being a lifelong Red Sox fan) and wore a buccaneer-like eyepatch which was, contrary to popular rumor, not an affectation. He’d lost an eye playing hockey as a youth.

His clubs were like nothing else seen before or since; full of pulsating music and lights, sweaty bodies and essentially a place where new music was created. Moby has been quoted as saying that without these clubs there would have been no techno. These places were like stationary raves and in a sense were incubators for youth culture which has affected popular culture to this day.

It wasn’t always easy. Gatien started out selling jeans and after his hockey accident used the money to open his own nightclub in Ontario, which he parlayed into a club in Atlanta and then four in New York. In his heyday he was the toast of New York, name-checked by the Fun Loving Cannibals and THE man to know if you wanted to be somebody in that town.

But with notoriety like that comes attention, some of it of the negative sort. Drugs were rampant in Gatien’s clubs and they were sold to the point where some referred to the Palladium as a “drug supermarket.” Mayor Rudy Giuliani used Gatien’s clubs as a focal point for his anti-crime campaign and eventually after failing to pin any drug-related arrests on Gatien, nailed him for failing to pay his taxes (well after the clubs began to shut down) and had him deported back to Canada with only $500 in his pocket.

This after making millions from his cash cows. It was a precipitous fall after a remarkable climb. Gatien remains an engaging character and he’s surprisingly forthcoming in his interviews here. Many of those who were around Gatien – managers, bartenders, DJs and such – all have something to say. Most have never attained the pinnacle of hip that they achieved during those years and they still carry that borderline arrogance that comes from being Somebody.

One of those interviewed here is the notorious Michael Alig, who in a drug-induced haze murdered and dismembered fellow Limelight scenester Angel Melendez. Alig ran several parties at Gatien’s clubs and in fact Gatien was an early suspect in Melendez’s murder.

Corben peppers the documentary with animations and psychedelic images which I imagine gives you more of a feeling of being in an altered state as you watch. The movie is really a rise and fall affair with the beginning on Gatien’s meteoric rise much more interesting than the details of his ignoble fall. And yes while I get that “the higher the rise the further the fall” lesson, that’s essentially a story we’ve seen literally thousands of times, some in more compelling ways.

What I missed here was more of a look at how Gatien’s clubs affected pop culture and their lasting impact on modern society. Really what this turns out to be is a movie made more for the people who were there in that time and place. While I wasn’t a part of the New York club scene, I was part of a club scene in a different city at roughly the same time so some of it is recognizable to me. Fortunately I didn’t see the same kind of drug use and trade to the extent that it was here in my part of the world, although that could partly be ascribed to my own personal naiveté as well as that most people don’t want to transact drugs in front of a journalist.

Be that as it may, this is probably more of interest to those who clubbed in the late 80s and early 90s in general and in New York City in particular. It was an era that has come and gone, and will never return. So in that sense the movie has nostalgia value and on that level works like a charm. Gatien is an interesting enough subject that at least for the first part of the movie his engaging character is worthwhile. It’s only when the story of his downfall starts that your attention will start to wander. Gatien (and by extension the filmmaker) blames many of his troubles on a vindictive government but he’s only partly right – Gatien allowed that rampant drug use and sales to take place in his clubs. They were HIS clubs as he is quick to tell you and thus his responsibility. He has to shoulder at least some blame for his fall – and you get the sense he doesn’t see it that way. That might be the most tragic element of this story.

WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating look at maybe the nadir of all club scenes. Gatien is a fascinating character.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The second half spends far too much time on the legal battles that went on, less time on the lasting impact of the scene.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language and alcohol and drug use depicted.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the producers is Gatien’s own daughter, Jen.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60,335 on an unreported production budget; might have made money but more likely just broken even or lost money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Party Monster

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Eastern Promises

Killshot


Killshot

Diane Lane wonders why she doesn't get more roles in romantic comedies, while Thomas Jane ponders why their names both rhyme.

(Weinstein) Diane Lane, Mickey Rourke, Thomas Jane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Hal Holbrook, Don McManus, Aldred Wesley Montoya. Directed by John Madden

One of the most notable writers of “hard-boiled” fiction in the history of the genre is Elmore Leonard. He’s right up there with guys like Dash Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. Among the novels written by Leonard that have been adapted for the screen are Get Shorty and Out of Sight. He’s also written a number of westerns, as well as screenplays of his own. He’s considered one of the better writers of the latter half of the 20th century to come out of the United States, and even today, well into his 80s, continues to write at a respectable clip.

For awhile, it was fashionable to option his material by the various studios and one of those snatched up by them was this novel, which at one time had names like John Travolta, Sandra Bullock and Viggo Mortensen attached to the property. However, as Leonard’s work which is full of colorful characters, vicious violence and complex plots, many studios found it was very difficult and sometimes impossible to translate his work to the screen.

After nearly a decade in development hell and more than four years after filming wrapped on the project, the movie has finally seen the light of day. Usually that’s a pretty sure sign that the movie is nigh on unwatchable. So is that the case here?

Blackbird (Rourke) is a Native American hitman for the Toronto mob who apparently couldn’t find any Native Canadians. He has survived due to his coolness in chaotic situations, and because he never ever leaves a witness who can identify him. During a routine hit on a rival Mafiosi, he is forced to cap the girlfriend of the victim because she has seen his face. This doesn’t sit well with his employers and Blackbird is forced on the lam, returning to his native Michigan to perhaps get out of the game for good (since his erstwhile employers know nothing about who Blackbird really is).

There, he falls in with a small-time crook named Johnny Nix (Gordon-Levitt), a brash and arrogant sort with a real anger management problem, coupled with an impulse control issue which makes life around him rather interesting. Johnny also has a sexually frustrated girlfriend named Donna (Dawson) who, while suspicious of Blackbird, also takes a bit of a liking to him. Nix plans to blackmail a wealthy real estate agent Nelson Davies (McManus) and takes Blackbird along as intimidation.

Working for Davies is Carmen Colson (Lane), whose marriage to her husband Wayne (Jane) is disintegrating. Wayne is actually dropping some paperwork off for Carmen at her office when Nix and Blackbird come to pay Davies a visit; Davies, aware of what’s happening, has arranged to be far away and neglected to tell Carmen to do the same. The somewhat dim Nix mistakes Wayne for a wealthy real-estate agent, but Wayne doesn’t take kindly to being threatened and tosses Nix out of a plate glass window. Carmen manages to alert the authorities, but not before catching a full glimpse of Blackbird’s face through the window, which Blackbird is fully aware of.

Now things are really in a mess. Nix wants nothing more than to make Wayne pay for all his humiliation and suffering, but Blackbird has bigger fish to fry. Not only can Carmen identify him, she can also bring the Toronto mob right to his doorstep. They will need to eliminate the couple, but on their first attempt they botch the job, which captures the FBI’s attention. The two are promptly put in a witness relocation program and flee to Missouri and, with only each other to rely on, actually begin to make progress in repairing their marriage. However, Blackbird cleverly fakes his own death, bringing the two of them back home where he and Nix plan to finish what they started.

As I mentioned earlier on, the movie has had a checkered past of shelf time, pushed-back release dates and much re-cutting and re-shooting. Director Madden, who previously helmed Shakespeare in Love and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin hasn’t had a lot of experience with this kind of pulp novel background (although he’s done some TV mysteries in his native England) and it shows here. The violence needed to be notched up a level or two; it would have suited the material better.

As you would expect with a movie that has been reshot and re-edited several times, the flow of the film doesn’t always work. At times the pacing is stodgy and slow, at other times it moves at breakneck speed. It’s like a sportscar whose transmission needs work; you expect something a little faster out of a sleek little number like this.

The casting is pretty marvelous, with Rourke doing a nice turn as the regretful and world-weary Blackbird, who is simultaneously cold and pragmatic. Rourke is ideally cast here; he excels with roles that are multi-faceted and thoughtful but with a hard edge on the outside. His work alone is worth the price of a rental here.

Surprisingly, Lane and Jane elevate the movie further. Jane, who has taken a lot of critical heat for his post-Punisher performances, plays Wayne as a man who has made a mess of his marriage and knows it, but still has deep feelings for his wife. He plays a man who is lost without his wife, but not paralyzed; when push comes to shove he is willing to fight not only for his life and that of his wife, but also for his marriage as well. Lane, who has settled into a series of roles of dissatisfied middle-aged wives, is always an interesting actress, even if her part here is somewhat cliché.  

Unfortunately, this property has been mismanaged and it shows in the final product. The studio never seemed to have much faith in it, which is surprising considering the level of talent both before and behind the camera. This is one of Leonard’s more simple plotlines which would have made it easier to adapt but for whatever reason it didn’t turn out the way it should have. Chalk it up as one more failed adaptation, but at least there is enough about it that’s compelling to make it worth a look if you want to watch something different.

WHY RENT THIS: Rourke does a terrific job as he has been lately. The chemistry between Jane and Lane is genuine and their difficulties with their marriage elevate this from the run-of-the-mill thriller.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It’s been edited and re-edited several times and you can tell; the movie is a bit of a pastiche that at times doesn’t flow real well.

FAMILY VALUES: If “adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel” isn’t enough for you, try lots of violence, a great deal of foul language and a bit of nudity, all hallmarks of Elmore Leonard novels.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: It took nearly four years from the completion of shooting until a meager five-screen release by the studio, which originally inherited the property as one of those that they received when the Weinsteins sold their interest in Miramax to Disney (1408 and Lucky Number Slevin were other movies that Weinstein also received). In the meantime, the role of a corrupt cop played by Johnny Knoxville was completely cut from the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.9M on an unreported production budget that I’d estimate to be about $10M; either way the movie is a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Brothers at War

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World


Michael Cera

Game on, Michael Cera!

(Universal) Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Alison Pill, Ellen Wong, Mark Webber, Johnny Simmons, Anna Kendrick, Jason Schwartzman, Brandon Routh, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Evans, Brie Larson, Mae Whitman, Bill Hader (voice). Directed by Edgar Wright

There’s something about videogames that appeals to most of us; the clear delineation between good and evil, the use of skill and deduction to be successful, the ability to explore amazing places and live vicariously through the characters in the game. We can become anyone, defeat anything, but we can’t escape love.

Scott Pilgrim (Cera) is a 22-year-old slacker who has broken up with his girlfriend Envy Adams (Larson) for some time and hasn’t really gotten over her. He’s dating a 17-year-old high school Asian chick named Knives Chau (Wong) who worships the ground the Scott walks on. He’s also playing bass in a trio known as Sex Bob-omb along with fellow slackers Steven Stills (Webber), drummer Kim Pine (Pill) who Scott once dated and Young Neil (Simmons), who subs for Scott on bass when he isn’t in the mood to play. Knives also worships the ground they rock on.

Then, into Scott’s life comes Ramona Flowers (Winstead), a lively red/blue/green-headed hipster who recently moved to Toronto from New York City. Scott falls immediately and implacably in love with her, much to the disgust of his sister Stacey (Kendrick) and gay roommate Wallace Wells (Culkin). At first, things are a little rough between Scott and Ramona; she’s getting over some fairly rough times and is inclined not to trust anyone. Gradually, Scott’s charm wins her over.

That’s when Scott’s problems really begin. It turns out that Ramona has seven evil exes, people she dated with super powers and evil intentions. Scott will need not only to fight all seven of them, he’ll have to defeat them in order to win the hand of the woman he loves.

It’s a simple enough concept, but under the guidance of director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) the execution is imaginative and clever. You know from the 8-bit version of the iconic opening of Universal Studios that you’re in for something special. Videogame conceits order the action, from the onscreen graphics to the extra lives to even the look of the movie.

There are a lot of homages to various classic and current videogames, from Pac-Man to Dance Dance Revolution to Mortal Kombat to Sonic the Hedgehog. There are also lots of pop culture references, from the graphic novel culture from where this project originated, but also the indie music and movie scene as well. However it is videogames that are the primary inspiration for this movie and those who aren’t at least aware of some of the conventions of videogames aren’t going to be able to follow the movie very well, or at least get some of the humor.

Much of the movie rests on the skinny shoulders of Everytwerp Michael Cera. I have never been a huge fan of his mainly because of what I perceive as a sameness of the characters he plays in movies like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Juno and Superbad not to mention his role in the cable series “Arrested Development.” Cera tends to speak in the same annoying, mousy tones and plays guys who get women way out of their leagues. Here, he has a bit more of a crafty undertone to him; we find out during the course of the movie that he’s a little bit of a player when it comes to women.

Most of the critical brickbats have focused in on Winstead’s Ramona Flowers and I can understand some of the criticism. She’s a bit aloof emotionally (as is Cera’s Scott to a very large extent) and that creates a bit of a gulf between the audience and the action. It’s hard to want a relationship to succeed if you aren’t feeling that the love is genuine; Cera and Winstead never convince that there’s a real deep emotional bond between Scott and Ramona.

That’s what keeps me from giving the movie a higher score, but the clever visuals and the frenetic pacing are what elevate the movie to something better than standard summer action fare. The fight sequences are some of the best I’ve seen in a movie that didn’t come from Asia, and the humor throughout appeals not just to the videogame crowd but for general audiences as well. This is one of those movies that seem much shorter than it is; you’re enjoying yourself so much you don’t notice how time is passing by.

My son Jacob has been looking forward to the movie for eons. He is a big fan of the original graphic novel which I haven’t read yet; he is also a nutcase about videogames. This is HIS movie, and these are HIS people. The movie speaks to him and his friends in ways I can’t; it relates to him in ways I won’t either. It speaks his language and knows his shorthand. I suspect this will be a cultural touchstone for him and his generation for years to come.

REASONS TO GO: A pop culture icon for the digital generation. Cleverly designed and executed, the movie moves along at a frenetic pace.

REASONS TO STAY: There are times when the characters get a little hipper-than-thou, and Cera is playing yet another Michael Cera role, so if you don’t like Michael Cera you won’t like him any better here.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some stylized videogame-like violence and a few bad words here and there. There are also some sexuality and drug references. Pretty much okay for everyone, although parents may want to decide if it’s suitable for their younger children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whitman, who plays one of the evil exes here, previously played the girlfriend of Michael Cera’s character in “Arrested Development.”

HOME OR THEATER: This should be seen in a theater with a bunch of cheering fans, but if you can’t get there, a roomful of videogame addicts at home will do just as well.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Drillbit Taylor