shen done him wrong: day two

day two was a bit of a mixed bag, with a batch of flawed films with varying degrees of silver lining. we start with the runt of the litter, rob reiner's north (1994).

everyone's favorite goggle-eyed tear factory makes his second appearance this week as the titular prodigy, north. he is a textbook overachiever but he gains no satisfaction from being a renaissance boy, as he feels neglected by his parents. his solution is to hire jon lovitz as his attorney and sue his parents to become a free agent. ok, let's stop right there. this is one of those ideas that i'm sure sounded hilarious when alan zweibel, who wrote both the screenplay and the novel it was based on, was kicking this around the kitchen table. sometimes you need a friend to step in, though, when you start investing this many hours in an idea like this. you need someone to tell you that this is not nearly as funny as you think it is. because this was not funny. north wins his lawsuit and leaves the shire in search of the perfect family. along the way he meets dan ackroyd, who, if you've seen his recent work in the ufology field, was obviously well on his way to nuts by this point, an eskimo kathy bates(!) and the governor of hawaii whose marketing misstep leads to the unfortunate instance of elijah saying "my crack!!" about fifty million times. george and elaine, who were apparently married before they were on seinfeld, eventually videotape a plea for north to return home and bruce willis tries on a number of crazy outfits as north's guardian angel before finally settling on his "return of bruno" character and driving north into the waiting arms of his parents. did i mention that there was a hoot of a subplot that involved a mafioso trying to kill north. he literally chased a child through the park, shooting at him, a real knee-slapper. they also played the ol' "it was all a dream card", stealing from the wizard of oz (1939) (or dallas), as well as alfred hitchcock and orson welles in other places. what a weirdly unappealing kid's movie.

the silver lining: vitagraph favorite, alan arkin as judge buckle. man, i love that guy. i would like to qualify this by saying it seemed like his best lines were ad-libs. i credit zweibel for nothing.

next, martin scorsese's sprawling, brawling gangs of new york (2002).

scorsese tried for almost thirty years to bring this to the screen. it's in his favor that it took long enough that he was able to get daniel day-lewis for the production. it the story of america's birth, in a fashion. that is, it is the story of the stillborn america lying in the fetid mud of the squalid five points slum. hard to imagine that the framers of the constitution were grandfathers to the generation of men and women who fought on these bloodsoaked streets. by the 1840s, this area of new york was one of the most degenerate places on earth. chaotic violence was a way of life and corruption was the coin of the realm. daniel day-lewis plays bill "the butcher" cutting, the leader of "the natives", a gang dedicated to whatever mayhem fills their coffers and eradicates what they consider the blight of immigrants washing up on american shores daily. the film opens with a monumental battle between his gang and the "dead rabbits", mostly immigrant, mostly irish. in the melee, cutting eliminates priest vallon, the leader of the rival faction, making an orphan of his son, a loose end which will come up again, no doubt. the bad news, for me, is that the son grows up to be leonardo dicaprio. i will never understand why scorsese has hitched his wagon so thoroughly to dicaprio's star. he never fails to look like a little boy playing dress-up when he puts on any period costume. he always looks like he has daddy's clothes on, every suit two sizes too big. takes me right out of the picture every time he is on screen. unfortunately, the bulk of the film is split between him working his way into bill's inner circle to get close enough to exact his revenge and him pursuing the equally disbelief-inducing cameron diaz. you need someone that swings a lot more weight for your protagonist in an epic this ambitious, especially when your villain is so overwhelming. the inevitable conclusion is deeply dissatisfying as a result. when bill speaks so eloquently and admirably about leo's father being the only man he killed worth remembering it just serves to underscore how unworthy an instrument of retribution leo is. i feel cheated by leo's survival. this is one of those films that always raises the question with me about judging each film on an individual basis and whether it's fair to hold a director to a previously-established standard. if it wasn't scorsese, would i have been more impressed by this?

the silver lining: there are two that figure prominently. daniel day-lewis is obviously the first one. among his generation, he is without peer. he is terrifying and thoroughly charming. as reprehensible as he is, he is completely magnetic. you cannot take your eyes off of him, and you very well shouldn't. he more than makes up for the other two lightweight points of the triangle. the other one is the incredible production design. the work that went into recreating an inhabitable version of the five points is staggering. remove leo and cameron and you have a completely immersive experience. tammany hall, lower broadway, the east river waterfront - it really is astounding.

rounding out the program we have rick bieber's crazy (2008).

it's a music biopic of hank garland with all the attendant problems of the genre. garland was a hotshot nashville guitarist that rose to prominence in the fifties and eventually recorded with the likes of patsy cline, roy orbison and elvis presley, among many others. the story that unfolds here is pretty much par for the course - rise to stardom, young love, domestic troubles take root when work casts too long a shadow, tragedy strikes (this time in the form of a car accident and subsequent shock therapy), triumph over adversity and a tearful return to the stage years later. 98% of these films will always look, smell and taste like made-for-tv movies. it's inescapable. the same beats, the same editing rhythms, the same color palettes and the same crisp, pedestrian photography. worst of all, the same painful attempts to convince me that these performers are capable of playing the music i "see" them making. they can stop that anytime they like.

the silver lining: it will introduce more people to hank garland. the cat could play. it's nice to see one of these biopics that doesn't focus on a superstar. he may have been an arrogant pain in the ass, obsessive about music and rubbed a lot of people the wrong way but there was a lot about him that was worthwhile. he was an incredible musician, innovative and ahead of his time. he wasn't much for unnecessarily standing on ceremony, a trait i admire a great deal, and the racial divide so prominent in his era and the social circles he traveled in meant little to him. now, if he'd just quit waving that gun around. honorable silver lining mention for ali larter. you know how i am about girls with tired eyes.

ok, so not as captivating as yesterday, overall, but some high points here and there. that's alright. tomorrow looks like it's going to be good.

and bad. and weird.

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