Posts Tagged ‘James Spader’

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I know I’ve got a well-deserved reputation as a movie and comic book curmudgeon, but believe it or not I also possess a sentimental side, and I thought I’d let you lucky readers have a rare glimpse of it here, on this most romantic of holidays.

Yes, friends, love is in the air, and while the cynical among you might think that Valentine’s Day is nothing but a twisted exercise perpetrated by florists and greeting card companies to torture single people since most couples end up forgetting about it altogether, rest assured that nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, all of us married guys damn well better not forget to buy some flowers, chocolates, a card, and a gift, or it’s gonna be a cold night out on the couch. A dinner reservation and a romantic movie might not hurt, either, fellas, so do keep that in mind. It seems that Deadpool is destined to be the big Valentine’s weekend box-office draw here in 2014, but in a simpler, more romantic age — say, back in 1981 — the meaning of this day had yet to be buried under a wave of crass commercialization and ultra-violent bluster, and the flick of choice for couples everywhere that year was Franco Zeffirelli’s Endless Love.

Based on the runaway best-selling novel of the same name by Scott Spencer and given the Tinseltown treatment by then-“hot”  screenwriting talent Judith Rascoe, this movie would seem to have everything lovebirds in the early-’80s could hope for : a pedigreed director (he’d done Romeo And Juliet, for Christ’s sake! Who could possibly doubt his credentials?), Hollywood’s most bankable young female lead, semi-risque subject matter, and a schamltzy, over-wrought theme song courtesy of Diana Ross and Lionel Ritchie. I can only imagine the pressure most folks who were paired up at the time felt to live up to the relationship standard set by Endless Love.

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Or, ya know, maybe not. After all, this isn’t so much about a love affair as it is about a doomed love affair — and doomed for good reason. Well-heeled 15-year-old rich girl Jade Butterfield (played by Brooke Shields at the height of her fame and popularity) is introduced by her brother to a dashing, but somewhat mysterious, fella named David Axelrod (Martin Hewitt) who’s two years her senior, they fall madly in love instantly, and her loving but over-protective parents, Ann (Shirley Knight) and Hugh (Don Murray) disapprove either passively and with a hint of jealousy (in Mom’s case) or near-violently (in Dad’s). They conspire to do everything in their power to keep the star-crossed young lovers apart — not that their efforts are entirely successful given that David does, in fact, manage to “de-flower” their precious little rosebud — but all this meddling comes with a heavy price : when the heartbreak of not being able to see Jade gets to be too much,  you see,  David goes and burns their fucking house down. And you thought you had some psycho exes —

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Cue a nice long stint in a mental hospital for our “hero,” but he still can’t get that jailbait out of his mind, and the minute he’s a free man he has only one objective — to win back his lady-love,  despite the fact that they have both supposedly “moved on” with their lives,  and to rekindle that special magic that made a forlorn pyromaniac out of him. At this point, the only thing that has any chance of keeping them apart is if one or both of them recognize what everyone in the audience already has — that maybe they’re really not all that good for each other after all, and that love and obsession are two very different things. Good luck with that, kids.

As melodramatic and frankly absurd as all this sounds, my understanding is that Spencer’s novel is even more unbelievable : set in the ’60s rather than the (then-)present, the Butterfields in their printed-page iteration are actual hippies rather than well-to-do ex– hippies, and take their “free love” pretty seriously — Jade’s mom, for instance, goes so far as to pull up a seat and watch her daughter have sex with David, and the night the house burns down the entire clan is tripping on acid together as some sort of “familial bonding” exercise administered by dear old dad. Zefirelli and Roscoe were probably wise to chuck all that, but they threw the baby out with the bathwater,  since the book definitely made David out to be an unhinged, and quite dangerous, stalker (back before they were even called that) who Jade was enamored with at first, sure, but came to fear pretty quickly. In the film, all that’s been swapped out in favor of a rather milquetoast “over-enthusiatic young love” depiction of their relationship that’s hell-bent on insisting that she’s every bit as unhealthily fixated on him as he is on her. Besides, whether we’re talking about Play Misty For Me or Fatal Attraction, if there’s one thing Hollywood’s taught us it’s that the stereotypical “scorned female” is always the one you have to watch out for when it comes to the whole “stalker phenomenon” — never mind that way too many newspaper headlines and pretty much every reputable sociological study on the subject has shown us that just the opposite is usually the case.

ENDLESS LOVE, Brooke Shields, 1981. ©Universal Pictures

Still, there’s nothing wrong with Endless Love that a couple of semi-believable lead performances couldn’t save, right? I mean, if Hewitt and Shields can really “sell us” on the idea of their all-consuming passion, then logic and reason can go right out the window and we’ll take their bait no questions asked. Unfortunately, they’re both ridiculously bland and one-dimensional and you get the overwhelming sense that not only were their lives somehow “incomplete” before they met each other, they literally had nothing else to do prior to their first, fateful encounter. All of Zeffirelli’s artful staging can’t change the simple fact that when two beautiful but boring people meet, all you’re gonna get is a beautiful but boring “love” story. And honestly, for all the technical bravado he brings along to the party,  the director seems as coldly disengaged with the proceedings here on an emotional level as his listless young stars are (plus the talents of Richard Kiley and Beatrice Straight are wasted in throwaway roles as David’s parents — but be on the lookout for a very young James Spader and an even younger Ian Ziering as his brothers!), and it almost seems as though he feels that adapting a trashy grocery store check-out aisle “romance” novel for the screen is too big a “come-down” after Shakespeare (which, let’s be honest, it is) for him to give it much by way of effort.

So, yeah — all in all, Endless Love just isn’t all that great. But take heart, all you romantics out there — Hollywood would give the same story another go in 2014. Would it make this film look like amateur hour or Masterpiece Theater by comparison? I’m sure that you probably already know the answer, but we’ll confirm your biases for you in our next review anyway.

 

 

 

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Like many an armchair movie critic, once I decide that I’m gonna review a particular film, I browse the web for some pictures of said film to include within the body of my write-up/rant so that you, faithful reader, aren’t just confronted with a “wall of text” if I’m fortunate enough to have your attention long enough to read whatever shit I’ve decided to blather on about. I usually opt to include four or five images with a standard-length review — sometimes more, sometimes less, but generally I find that four or five spaces things out nicely and gives a review a good “look.”

What’s this boring “behind the scenes” info got to do with Avengers : Age Of Ultron? Simply this : when I did a Google image search for pics related to writer/director Joss Whedon’s latest Marvel Studios mega-blockbuster, it was virtually impossible to tell actual film stills (which I prefer to use) apart from  heavily-airbrushed, digitized promotional art issued by Dis/Mar and/or fan-made photoshop art. Seriously. Try this yourself and tell me I’m not wrong — go to Google image search, type in “Avengers Age Of Ultron” and see if you can tell the difference. Even if you’ve seen the movie, I’m tellin’ ya, in many cases you can’t. I know that all film — yes, even documentaries to some degree — is artifice, but seriously : when you can’t discern an “actual” movie still from a promo mock-up, it seems to me that we’ve silently crossed some sort of line and are in new and uncharted territory. How many actual “sets” were used in Whedon’s CGI “epic”  vs. how much was shot entirely in front of a blue-or green-screen I couldn’t say you with any certainty, but, as with last summer’s Guardian Of The Galaxy, which saw Vin Diesel credited as one of the flick’s “stars” simply for doing the equivalent of animation voice-over work, here James Spader is credited prominently for “starring” as the villainous Ultron despite never actually, ya know, appearing on screen at all.

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Now, if you’re at all familiar with my previous appraisals of so-called “MCU” movies, this is probably the point at which you expect me to launch into some diatribe about what a piece of shit this thing is. It’s no secret that, apart from Joe Johnston’s Captain America : The First Avenger, I really haven’t liked many of these at all. I find them to be dull, predictable, repetitious, uninvolving, way too heavy on spectacle at the expense of characterization, you name it. And while Avengers : Age Of Ultron is certainly guilty of all those things, let me let you in on a little secret even though it may threaten to completely ruin my reputation as a loud-mouthed cinematic contrarian — I really didn’t hate this flick as much as I did the last several Marvel offerings and, in fact, I may not have even hated it at all.

Which isn’t to say that I really liked it either — I’m still getting all that sorted out in my head, but this is by no stretch of the imagination a good movie. Maybe I’ve just given up (finally), accepted these things for what they are, and am willing to make some kind of peace with the fact that the public at large seems to really dig the hell out something that I don’t. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it won’t be the last. But who knows?  Maybe — just maybe — this movie is, in fact, marginally better than the rest of its brain-dead ilk. It’s a possibility I’m willing to at least consider.

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Detailed plot recaps of these things aren’t really necessary, of course, because Marvel movies don’t have detailed plots, but if you must know the basics here they are : Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Scarlett Johannsson’s Black Widow, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, and  Murk Ruffalo’s Hulk all return as “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes!” to battle a problem of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner’s own creation, a power-mad artificial intelligence “virus” called Ultron that inhabits a bunch of robotic bodies and wants to save the world by — yawn! — destroying it. Newcomers Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and her twin brother, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) — who can officially appear in Marvel Studios product now that it’s been revealed that they’re not Magneto’s kids and therefore don’t fall under the umbrella of the X-Men properties owned, cinematically speaking, by Fox —switch sides about halfway through the action and join the team, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury all pop up later to varying degrees when the obviously lily-white (okay, and green) makeup of the main team becomes so obvious that even Marvel can’t ignore it anymore, and Paul Bettany gets to graduate from a disembodied voice to an actual character when a variation of the Jarvis A.I. program he’s been dubbing in lines for takes on  physical (albeit android) form as the MCU’s version of The Vision.

The final outcome of the decidedly non-dramatic “drama” here is never, of course, in doubt — one way or another The Avengers are bound to win — but what I at least found somewhat noteworthy is that between the film’s frankly stupid-as-shit first act and predictably bombastic third, Whedon manages to squeeze in a second act that almost threatens to be actually interesting at times.

From what I gather, it’s this second act that a lot of hard-core Marvel fans have problems with, given that The Vision’s origin is basically nothing like its printed-page progenitor, Hawkeye is given a completely different backstory to the one that’s been established for him in the comics, and the Black Widow/Hulk romance that’s introduced here is a wholecloth invention on Whedon’s part. For my part, I felt most of this was rather plausible enough — okay, apart from the origin for The Vision, which is just plain staggeringly dumb — and certainly found this section of the film to be of far more interest than the CGI extravaganza that both precedes and usurps it, but is it enough to make Age Of Ultron something I’d actually watch a second time? I gotta admit, probably not — but at least it kept me from completely tuning it out the first time I saw it.

Of course, in addition to over-reliance on special effects, many of the same problems from the first Avengers flick are still on glaring display here — Johansson is the least-convincing Russian spy ever and exudes a kind of “negative charisma” as The Black Widow that literally sucks out whatever scant traces of life most of the scenes she appears in might have; we get way too many shots of Downey inside his Iron Man helmet; Ruffalo’s facial expressions run the shortest gamut you can possibly imagine (his looks can best be described as “concerned as shit” and “self-pitying plus concerned as shit”); and at the end of the day the only remotely sympathetic character (Tony Stark, incidentally, graduates from “more or less and asshole” to “complete asshole” as events unfold here) of the bunch is Renner’s Hawkeye. But whatever. As far as two-dimensional ciphers go, Hemsworth and Evans at least appear to be having fun as Thor and Captain America, respectively, and I’ll give Spader some credit for sounding suitably menacing and nuts in his “turn” as Ultron.

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In the end, though, Avengers : Age Of Ultron‘s greatest success in an entirely inadvertent one : the Ultron character him/itself is, you see, a pretty effective metaphor for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Think about it — like the robotic bad guy here, these movies exist not so much to be themselves, but to replicate themselves. An astonishing amount of time in this flick is devoted to foreshadowing/set-up for the forthcoming (and apparently two-part) next Avengers extravaganza, which will finally see them  fighting Jim Starlin’s Thanos character for control of the so-called “Infinity Gems.” And you can bet that once that conflagration takes place, it will be loaded with “hints” about the next big Avengers “spectacular” slated to follow it. And whatever that ends up being will probably be weighed down with “spoilers” for the next. And the next. And the next —

And so it goes. Look, I’m not a sucker (at least, I don’t like to think that I am).  I might have found Avengers : Age Of Ultron to be marginally more to my liking than both its predecessor and most of its “sister” films — and it was nice to see Jack Kirby’s name displayed prominently in the credits this time (even if Stan Lee’s, as always, comes first) — but the creative bankruptcy of Marvel Studios as a whole, as well as the overtly cynical nature of their cash-grabbing ways, are as plain to see as ever here. These aren’t movies that even give a shit about being good, they’re movies that are designed to get you to keep on coming back for more. Fans might argue that “well, if they weren’t so good in the first place, people wouldn’t be coming back for more, so you’re negating your own point, asshole!,” but I don’t buy it. All the public really wants from these films is a sort of easily-digestible, not-too-taxing status quo. Marvel has been succeeding at giving them just that in the pages of their comics ever since true visionaries like the aforementioned Mr. Kirby, Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, and (a little bit later) Steve Gerber left the fold and succeeding generations of “fan creators” with no greater ambition than to tell bigger, noisier versions of the same stories they loved as a kid took over. Now the same thing is happening on celluloid, with bigger bucks behind it and bigger audiences consuming it, but the basic hustle remains the same. As “Stan the Man” himself might put it in that nauseating faux-Shakespearian way of his that people insist is “charming” and “fun” : ’twas ever thus, and so it shall remain.

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One of the fun things about doing these horror movie round-ups ever October is re-visiting old favorites and seeing how well (or not) they’ve held up over the ensuing years/decades. Sometimes they turn out to be hopelessly dated and offer little beyond garden-variety nostalgia value of the “ya know,  I guess I can see why I kinda liked this back in the day” variety, while on other occasions they can seem at least as relevant as ever, if not even moreso, when looked at through older, jaded eyes that possess at least some understanding of how goddamn tough it can be just to get a movie a made in the first place, never mind how much more difficult it is to  have the finished product   turn out to be at least semi-watchable.

One thing you can say for director Rowdy Herrington — even when the movies he makes are lousy, they’re at least entertainingly lousy. Road House is all the evidence one needs to back up that assertion. But occasionally he could serve up an actual, honest-to-whatever-you-believe-in good serving of celluloid, as well, and for my money his best is still the flick he came right outta the gate with, 1988 slasher/supernatural thriller Jack’s Back, which I’m pleased to say has recently been added to the Netflix instant streaming queue and is definitely worth another look — or a first one, if you haven’t seen it before.

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Fair enough, the proceedings are more than a little little busy here, with James Spader doing the dual-role bit as good and bad identical twin brothers John and Rick Wesford, one of whom is a bleeding-heart young doctor-in-residence out to administer free health care to the homeless while the other just might be the reincarnation of Jack The Ripper himself — and wouldn’t ya know it’s the nice-guy sibling who’s  suspected of the crimes perpetrated by the bad apple (well, until he turns up dead himself, that is) and Cynthia Gibb on board as the requisite quasi-love interest, and even more requistite not-so-quasi-damsel in distress, and yeah, the soundtrack music and LA-area location work and not-even-subtle social concerns and much of the dialogue are all a bit hokey and dated, but what of it? Anything and everything is a product of its time and surroundings — not to mention its surroundings at the time — and if half  ofthe “horror thrillers” being cranked out today stand on their own merits a quarter-century down the line as well as this one has, then future generations will have a lot to thank today’s movie-makers for.

Much of that is down to Spader’s performance(s), of course. He flat-out excels on both sides of the coin, and next time whoever’s hired to revamp the Batman franchise for Warner Brothers needs somebody to play Harvey Dent/Two-Face, this is the first guy he (or she) should call.  From nervous ninny to coolly menacing, he can run the gamut without even breaking a sweat. In the hands of a lesser actor, this flick would have sunk like a rock, but the best pure thespian of the so-called “Brat Pack” (sorry, Robert Downey Jr., but essentially playing yourself every time out just doesn’t cut it) really delivers the goods here and elevates a sometimes corny and confused script well above its printed-page roots. He really is the movie, and an early turn (or pair of turns, as the case may be) of this magnitude is almost enough for me to forgive him for slumming and wasting his obvious talents on the brain-dead Boston Legal for all those years. Almost. At any rate, they tell me The Blacklist  is pretty good stuff —

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Herrington manages to get out of the way and let his leading man do most of the heavy lifting pretty successfully, to his credit, while knowing just when, where, and how to ramp up the suspense on his own end. It’s all fairly conventional “Directing 101” stuff, sure, but at least it works, and he wisely eschews the impulse to do Michael Mann-on-a-budget that was so popular at the time. Props for knowing his limitations as well as his strengths and playing to both of them.

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I’m not gonna kid you and say that Jack’s Back is some kind of neglected masterpiece or even that it necessarily meets all the criteria for being even a “forgotten gem,” but it’s solid and effective — if rather unimaginative — “thriller” film-making that has stood the test of time surprisingly well. I was more than glad to give it another shot lo, these many years later, and if you find yourself game to do the same, I think you’ll also walk away quite pleased yourself.