Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: we launched a new recurring feature that’s me jotting down capsule-sized notes about not-new movies I catch at home. In this batch of Stuff I Recently Watched: two recent horror DVDs that were given to me for free, just in time for Halloween; one Shakespearean adaptation with a most unusual costuming approach; and one period-piece/biopic featuring an actor whose biggest starring role yet was just announced earlier today with much delightful fanfare.
* Vacancy: It’s nice when relatives want to give you free DVDs, but I didn’t read the back of the box closely. Despite onetime stars like Luke Wilson, Kate Beckinsale, and, well, Frank Whaley counts, and, uh, was Ethan Embry ever a thing? What I thought would be Hitchcockian suspense turned out to be depressing sludge that wants to be a motor-inn-killer thriller like Psycho but lands closer to Motel Hell or Mountaintop Motel Massacre, with a sadistic detour through Joel Schumacher’s 8mm. Couple gets stranded, motel seems convenient, previous guests were killed and caught on tape, stabbing ensues. Director Nimrod Antal’s first English-language film was a poor start in 2007, but he eventually worked his way up to stronger popcorn fare like Predators, which I’d much rather recommend as a Halloween pick. And when a DVD’s featured extras include “Extended Snuff Films”…well, the important moral here is that sometimes it’s a smart idea to refuse a freebie.
* Bug: If you thought Michael Shannon was disturbing in Take Shelter or a volume-to-11 madman in Man of Steel, you haven’t seen truly frightening Michael Shannon till you’ve caught this 2006 nightmare from William Friedkin, the man who traumatized us more than enough with The Exorcist. Based on a play by Tracy Letts (the same playwright responsible for the far less bloody August: Osage County), Bug casts Shannon (who was also in the stage version for years) as a seemingly meek veteran who strikes up an awkward friendship with a beleaguered, bereaved mom (Ashley Judd, who nearly keeps up with Shannon). Then he sees a bug. Then more bugs. Then maybe she sees them too, or maybe not. Annoyance leads to cleaning leads to infestation leads to conspiracies leads to Shannon’s escalated histrionics making me want to hide behind my couch, and Judd wasn’t far behind him in paranoia and pitch. Not even the combined forces of shirtless Harry Connick Jr. or Lynn Collins (the love interest from X-Men Origins: Wolverine) can stand in their way as these two dig themselves into a rabbit hole as deep as oblivion. And yes, there is tinfoil. Definitely not for children or a lot of adults.
* Coriolanus: A modern-day adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy about a soldier who reacts to being called “traitor” as badly as Marty McFly reacts to being called “chicken”. Actor/director Ralph Fiennes and his crew transform the setting into “A place calling itself Rome”, which in a bit of creative reimagining is not unlike 21st-century, war-shattered Eastern Europe, where it was largely staffed and shot. Fiennes is the victorious war general Coriolanus, who sides with the 1%, oppresses the 99%, but detests the idea of public service for the 100%. A righteously furious Gerard Butler is his staunch nemesis Aufidius, who would lead the revolution and save the day. They fight and fight and fight, and then there’s grand Shakespearean posturing to relish, and then vicissitudes shift and suddenly Coriolanus is out of favor and the two former foes unite against a common enemy. And then things get even worse.
Fiennes’ manly tantrums as the titular oppressor are scarier yet more believable than anything he did inside his Voldemort husk, while Butler restrains himself a tad and doesn’t once yell, “THIS! IS! ROME!” As the mother who loves having an ultra-patriotic warmonger for a son, Vanessa Redgrave gives as good as the rest in the screamed-soliloquy department, while Jessica Chastain as Mrs. Coriolanus tries to stay out of her way and prays for the best. I also recognized James Nesbitt (Bofur from The Hobbit trilogy) as one of the tribunes who ruin everything, and the untrusting DS Gray from the BBC’s Luther pops up in one scene as a TV pundit. This gritty war story was given a last-minute Oscar-bait limited release with zero promotion and missed the Academy’s radar, but I found it in a discount Blu-ray bin at Best Buy, alone and unloved. Recommended for anyone who thinks Shakespeare is boring on principle and could use a stern, outsize example to the contrary.
* 42: I just watched this last week because I figured no one else would care to watch it with me. I’m not a sports fan, but I liked what I’d seen of Chadwick Boseman in the short-lived NBC ensemble drama Persons Unknown, which was so poorly rated that the final two episodes aired as online-only exclusives. I liked the idea of Boseman as the Jackie Robinson. I’d liked the work of Oscar-winning writer/director Brian Helgeland, who was nominated for writing/adapting Mystic River and won for writing/adapting L.A. Confidential. There was a short time frame in my childhood when I began reading up on baseball, and that temporary fascination left impressions of numerous big names, among whom Robinson was far from least. Most helpful: I liked what I heard and saw in the trailer. I was in, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Boseman is surrounded by an A-plus cast fronted by Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers manager who wanted Robinson on his team partly for his skills and partly for ticket sales. Ford pulls off an accent, heavy makeup, and Rickey’s no-nonsense demeanor with a sort of twinkle I haven’t seen in his eye in years. As Mrs. Robinson, a pre-famous Nicole Beharie (Sleepy Hollow!) is more than a patient-wife placeholder. Heroic anti-racists include NCIS New Orleans‘ Lucas Black as shortstop Pee-Wee Reese and L&O:SVU‘s Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, whose sins off the field took him out of play and removed one of Robinson’s lines of defense. Meanwhile on the sidelines, Scrubs‘ John C. McGinley is the living reincarnation of every old-time sports announcer ever, from staccato monotone to obsession with describing extraneous scenery details for the listeners at home.
The film has no shortage of screaming racists, but their MVP (Most Venomous Provocateur) is Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk as Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who wields the N-word like a mace and then deflects any criticisms because in his mind it’s, y’know, all in the game, even if “the game” grates Robinson down to his very, very last nerve. On a smaller scale, blink and you’ll miss Babylon 5‘s Peter Jurasik as a hotelier who denies service to an entire baseball team because of the one black man.
Boseman does everything and then some to honor the memory of that celebrated player who helped make racial barriers obsolete, whose skills and tremendous patience barely kept his sanity intact against the whites-only country-club mentality that haunted him at every game, who held on to his dignity through all the tribulations, and who fought hard against this fanatical ferocity that set the poisonous standard for some of today’s worst internet debates. When 42 was released, I noted a few critics who nitpicked the film because Boseman didn’t show us any of Robinson’s flaws or deficiencies, as if it’s wrong to show us what a good man looks like, as if Robinson’s story is somehow boring because he’s not an antihero.
To me, that’s kind of the point. The movie’s not about his flaws and what he needed to change. Not in the least.
Not even a week after I watched 42, Boseman’s name popped up in my view again, now as the officially signed star of Marvel’s film version of the Black Panther. As a Panther fan (I loved the Christopher Priest version), as a frequent Marvel customer, and as someone who sees great things ahead for Boseman, and hopefully not just super-hero things…heck, yeah, I’m in.