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Films I Neglected To Review: Super-Bad
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Alleluia," "Fidelio: Alice's Odyssey," "Mr. Holmes," "Southpaw" and "Staten Island Summer."

The strange case of Raymond Fernandez & Martha Beck, who were dubbed The Lonely Hearts Killers after a crime spree that found them murdering up to twenty women that they met through lonely hearts ads in the newspapers between 1947 and 1949, has inspired a number of films over the years, the best-known of the bunch being the 1969 cult favorite "The Honeymoon Killers." Therefore, anyone daring to do a new cinematic exploration of their grisly endeavors had best better find a new angle to approach the story if it is to have any chance to succeed. Alas, other than upping the gore quotient considerably, "Alleluia," a French riff on the tale from writer-director Fabrice Du Wetz, fails to do that and as a result, the entire film never manages to justify its existence. Here, lonely single mother Gloria (Lola Duenas) has what should have been a one-night stand with flirtatious con man Michel (Laurent Lucas) but she is so besotted that she willingly gives up her kid in order to go off with him and serve as his partner in crime, among other things. The only trouble is that many of his crimes involving seducing rich and vulnerable women--not exactly the thing that the increasingly jealous and possessive Gloria is keen on--and things quickly go sideways in exceptionally gruesome ways.

As someone who is a huge fan of "The Honeymoon Killers" (which started off as one of Martin Scorsese's first features until he was fired a couple of days into filming), it could be argued that I am prejudiced against the notion of another film based on the same material. However, even if that film had never existed, I still would have had trouble with "Alleluia" because while Du Wetz does a pretty good job of creating an increasingly creepy atmosphere and some especially grotesque imagery (the high (or low) point being the scene where Gloria kicks in with an honest-to-goodness musical number before beginning the disposal of a victim with a hacksaw. However, while this film is certainly slicker than "The Honeymoon Killers," that one did a better job of creating a convincing relationship between its two main characters that did a good job of understanding how those two people came together to do the horrible things they did. Here, there is no real insight into what makes them tick and both Duenas and Lucas are reduced to shouting their lines in hopes of making them seem more dramatic than they are. Sadly, I cannot recommend "Alleluia" as anything other than a curiosity to fans of the earlier films but if you are somehow compelled to go, try not to go and see it while on a first date.

There have been many stories about sailors who are torn between the pleasures and adventures to be had on the seas and the comfort to be had back home with a loved one but the French import "Fidelio: Alice's Odyssey" is perhaps the only one that I can easily recall in which the sailor in question is a woman. She is Alice (Ariane Labed) and as the story begins, she is spending time with her lover (Anders Danielsen Lie) before shipping out to sea for several weeks as a marine mechanic on the aging freighter Fidelio (and yes, I think that name is meant to be symbolic). There, she endures the initial leers and condescension that come with being the only woman in an otherwise all-male crew but she quickly asserts herself that she is not their to be ogled or trifled with. What does complicate matters is that the captain of the boat (Melville Poupard) is someone from her own past that she had an affair with back when she was just a cadet. Needless to say, things get very complicated as she finds herself torn between two different men and, more importantly, two very different ways in which to approach life.

While this description might make the film sound like just another dopey romantic triangle, it turns out that director Lucie Borleteau has far more in mind than just that. The film is more concerned with the emotional complexities of Alice and her situation as well as showing contemporary gender politics through an unusual set of circumstances than in presenting an empty-headed sex romp--this is the kind of film where the sex scenes are anything but gratuitous. The results are smart, touching, funny, thoughtful and yes, fairly sexy to boot. All of those adjectives could also be used to describe the highly effective performance given by Labed, who takes a character that could have simply been an empty-headed sex bomb and gives her a heart and soul that she gets to bare along with her body. Obviously "Fidelio: Alice's Odyssey" is a specialty item that is unlikely to break beyond the art-house circuit in America but if you do have the opportunity to see it, you really should check it out.

"Mr. Holmes" is a film that answers the question "What would happen if an aging Sherlock Homes looked back on the one case that he couldn't bring to a satisfactory conclusion and befriended an adorable little kid and in the process of both learned to become a better and more empathetic person at long last?" but never quite gets around to answering the more pressing question of why anyone--especially fans of Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary creation--would want to see such a thing in the first place. Set in post-war England, Holmes (Ian McKellen), who has long been separated from Watson, who made him famous through the stories inspired by their cases, has been struggling to write his own book about his last case, a seemingly ordinary one involving a husband trying to figure out what is going on with his wife that went very badly and which sent him into retirement. With the encouragement of (), the young son of his caretaker (Laura Linney), he begins to understand that while he is a genius at uncovering and interpreting information, he is not quite as good as understanding people themselves and it is this handicap that has ultimately held him back in life.

In other words, "Mr. Holmes" is another one of those stories in which someone gets the bright idea to do a Sherlock Holmes story that includes the things that Doyle left out of his original stories in order to humanize his main character without quite realizing that it was precisely because of the lack of those elements that has made the character so fascinating to generations of readers. Although the movie never quite sinks to the demented depths of such idiocies as "Young Sherlock Holmes," watching the machine-like Holmes break down into sobbing regret about what his single-minded pursuit of the truth has inspired in collateral damage is anything but inspiring and watching him buddy up with the twerpy little boy is less than that. If "Mr. Holmes" works at all, it is almost entirely due to the efforts of Ian McKellen in the title role--even when the story threatens to become ridiculously mawkish, he comes close to actually selling it with his strong and focused work. The idea of playing Sherlock Holmes must have seemed like a natural to him but why he would chose to do it in a film this minor and nonsensical is a mystery to me.

If you are wondering if "Southpaw" is going to be a subtle and low-key character study or a grandiose, cliche-filled melodrama, consider the fact that within the first minute of the film, we learn that Jake Gyllenhaal is playing a character named Billy Hope. (You can almost hear screenwriter Kurt Sutter thinking "You don't think that is too subtle, do you? You don't think people are going to hear that name and not get the significance?" Billy Hope is the light-middleweight boxing champion and as the story opens, he has everything a man in his position could possibly want--a 43-0 record, millions of dollars, a beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams) and an adorable young daughter (Oona Laurence). Thanks to a combination of tragedy, bad luck, troubles with anger management and financial chicanery (well, what do you expect when the man controlling your money is played by the currently-bankrupt Curtis "Can-I-Borrow-50 Cent" Jackson), Billy Hope loses everything that gave his life meaning and finally hits rock bottom. He winds up in a ratty gym under the supervision of former trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker) and struggles to put his life back together by embarking on a path that once again lands him back in the ring for a fight that could change his life forever or destroy whatever drive he has left inside of him.

Fusing together elements from practically every boxing movie ever made save for "Matilda," "Southpaw" serves up one cliche after another--even the ones you thought had been long retired are trotted out once again, right down to the adorable orphan kid destined to meet a tragic fate. Now the thing about cliches is that when they are used well and the film is working, one is usually willing to overlook their deployment but that is not the case here. You keep waiting for some kind of twist to the familiar that will goose the story into new and uncharted areas or, barring that, at least explain why actors such as Gyllenhaal, McAdams and Whitaker chose to sign on--that never happens and while the actors turn in performances as professional as one could hope for, not even they can breathe much life into the proceedings. Then again, boxing fanatics might get something out of it after all because to stick with the sport during its sad and protracted decline suggests that they have long since made peace with accepting the mediocre.

With "Staten Island Summer," Lorne Michaels at long last gets back to his first love--producing abysmal comedies for his assorted minions to appear on during the "SNL" summer hiatus. This time, the prime benefactor of his largesse is Colin Jost, who wrote this desperately unfunny coming-of-age comedy about two longtime best friends--shy and skinny Danny (Graham Phillips) and fat and abrasive Frank (Zack Pearlman)--are facing their last weekend before Danny goes away to Harvard and eventually stumbles into (and during) "Weekend Update." Most of the action takes place around the local pool where they both work and where Danny pines for the Mob princess who used to babysit him (Ashley Greene), Frank tries to score pot to impress his would-be conquest and the rest of the gang (including Cecily Strong, Fred Armisen, Kate McKinnon, Will Forte and Bobby Moynihan, cast against type as a loud and obnoxious pothead) try to pull off an end-of-the-season blowout under the nose of their creepy boss (Michael Patrick O'Brien). If this sounds a little similar to "Superbad" to you, you are mistaken--it is almost exactly like "Superbad" right down to the minute details--where the earlier film had co-writer Seth Rogen turn up in a supporting role as a party-hearty cop, this one has Jost play the exact same part. (This is where the film is most like "SNL"--Jost turns up in the middle for a few minutes of misfired jokes and awkward silences before returning to the other misfired jokes and awkward silences.) There are a couple of differences, to be sure--"Superbad" had a lot of big laughs and a surprising degree of heart while this one eschews those ho-hum elements for unlikable characters, dud joke and story lines that make one pine for the complexities of the various "Meatballs" sequels. Okay, it also offers the not-inconsiderable sight of Ashley Greene in a bikini but even that is unable to help save this wretchedness from its all-but-inevitable future in the bowels of basic cable programming purgatory.

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originally posted: 07/25/15 01:22:55
last updated: 07/27/15 14:56:44
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