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Somebody get the hell out: (l-r) Vaughn and Aniston in The Break-Up.

By Laura Leon

The Break-Up

Directed by Peyton Reed

Forget about whether Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston are a real-life item. The Break-Up, their first cinematic teaming, is notable only as (probably) the first and only romantic comedy in which a character cleans his ears. With a pocket handkerchief. In mid-conversation. The character in question, Dennis Grobowski (Vincent D’Onofrio), is the socially inept older brother of Gary (Vaughn); they, with their younger brother Lupus (Cole Hauser), run a Chicago tour-bus company. But that’s neither here nor there, really. The point is that D’Onofrio, perhaps desperate to find something of a character within Dennis, found it necessary to resort to this decidedly off-putting gesture while dispensing romantic advice, and director Peyton Reed saw fit to keep it in.

What does the ear cleaning have to do with Gary’s breakup with Brooke (Aniston), and the subsequent battling over who gets to do what with their shared—and, in real-estate terms, highly prized—condo? Nothing, except that it’s the kind of thing that screenwriters Jay Lavender and Jeremy Garelick feel compelled to insert throughout the movie. Instead of giving the audience any clue as to how Gary and Brooke come to the point, very early in the movie, at which they chuck their relationship out with the proverbial bathwater, the script relies on instant comic relief by a host of talented supporting actors.

Think back to when you walked in on your parents fighting or having sex, and how one of them created a host of diversionary tactics to get you to forget what you just saw. In The Break-Up, every one of Gary’s and Brooke’s post-breakup tiffs or retaliatory gestures is followed by a scene in which one of their friends steals the show with funny, well-delivered dialogue.

But that doesn’t get us any closer to liking Gary or Brooke, and it certainly doesn’t make us see why they should stay together. Reed uses a highly annoying technique with the camera, whereby it repeatedly ping-pongs between Gary and Brooke. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to remember a scene in which the two characters appear in the same frame. The result further complicates the basic problem of this movie, which is that it just doesn’t feel like a breakup—at least not the kind in which we’re invested in a reunion.

Vaughn is his usual funny self, but more than in past outings, he seems eager to pounce on every opportunity to deliver a verbal barrage that, no matter how humorous, does not a fully fleshed character make. Aniston, in the more likeable role, does her lip biting and nose twitching thing to perfection, especially when Brooke reacts with frustration whenever one of her silly attempts to get Gary’s attention—getting him thrown off the bowling team, dating different guys—blows up in her face. A big problem here is we’re not sure what Brooke wants; she says it’s an apology, but do we really think that an apology will result in Gary’s doing the dishes, picking up his dirty underwear off the floor, or taking Brooke to the ballet? And why, for that matter, does the advice of friends, played by the likes of Joey Lauren Adams and Jon Favreau, veer in all directions from one scene to the next?

Strangely enough, given the wildly uneven nature of the story, the ending is unsatisfying but realistic. Perhaps this is because Vaughn and Aniston, despite the script’s shortcomings, have revealed enough that is likeable and recognizable in their characters, that we hope for them what we’d wish for ourselves. The movie is punctuated by some very funny moments, as when Brooke’s brother (John Michael Higgins) commandeers a dinner party for an impromptu a capella concert, and when Favreau’s character dreamily advises Gary about offing a certain ex. But overall, it plays like an old episode of SNL in which the really good skits alternate with ones that just don’t work. More important, in this case, the thing that doesn’t work is the central relationship and its uncoupling.

That Old Black Magic

The Omen

Directed by John Moore

Fox has nothing to apologize for. The date “6/6/6” comes but once a century, and releasing a remake of The Omen on such a fortuitous occasion was a matter of corporate necessity. Paramount used to time Jason Voorhees’ multiplex visits to correspond with both the 13th day of the month and a Friday; in the middle of World War II, Warner Bros. saw an international conference in Morocco as ideal publicity for an awkwardly titled melodrama with Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains. It’s showbiz, people.

But even more uncharacteristically—when it comes to content—Fox has nothing to apologize for. The Omen is a deliciously creepy revisiting of familiar material, and improves on the original. (Interesting, because David Seltzer wrote the screenplays for both versions.)

The Omen is the old story of the Antichrist. You know, mark of the beast, 666, Armageddon, yadda yadda yadda. Dramatizing how an American ambassador (Liev Schreiber) and his wife (Julia Stiles) end up parenting Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), spawn of Satan, is part of the fun; let’s just say that every Roman Catholic priest bearing good news isn’t to be trusted. The film builds a more interesting tension in the banal terrors and uncertainties of parenting, as the power couple ponder the unthinkable: What if the “little monster” really is a monster?

Example: When a nanny sacrifices herself for Damien, papa suggests not replacing her; shouldn’t mommy “bond” with the child instead? Stiles’ reaction is telling, pure upper-class defensiveness with a hint of loathing.

Like the original, the casting is unusually (for a horror film) upscale. Schreiber is a neurotic, agnostic live wire as the dad; Stiles is the embodiment of WASP certainty shaken by the uncontrollable. Schreiber travels the unhappy path as convincingly as Gregory Peck did; Stiles has more to work with than Lee Remick did. David Thewlis and Pete Postlethwaite bring the British gravitas, while the presence of Mia Farrow evokes memories of satanic-themed films past.

The remake faces its most glaring obstacle, however, with a disarming nonchalance. In 1976, when the original came out, the average moviegoer was unlikely to know the ins and outs of Biblical apocalypse. Now, in a film-fan environment where the particulars of flesh-eating zombie mythology are water-cooler conversation—and end-times Christians are as ubiquitous as dandelions—the secrets of the book of Revelation are old hat. The new Omen waves off details with a wave of British actor Michael Gambon’s hands. As a Vatican archeologist, Gambon’s demeanor and dialogue comically registers as “He’s the Antichrist, moron, kill him.”

What’s satisfying about the film is its (relative) intelligence. What’s interesting about The Omen is the way it offsets audience expectations. Everyone knows Damien is evil, and the filmmakers aren’t coy about his motives; this puts the audience in the discomfiting position of rooting for the death of a child. In its most subversive moment, little Damien, knife at his belly, begs for mercy—and there isn’t a damp eye in the house.

—Shawn Stone

Hold Your Fire

Down in the Valley

Directed by David Jacobson

Before I went to see Down in the Valley a friend expressed some hesitation about star Edward Norton. “He’s like Dustin Hoffman,” he said, with some disdain. “He never lets the movie get in the way of his performance.” It’s a fair criticism. Norton, though talented, does have an annoying way of warping the entirety of a flick around his role. He needs to be directed with a whip and chair—and if there’s any truth to rumors about his behind-the-scenes meddling, he needs to be kept away from the script with equal agression. Sadly, Down in the Valley, which Norton coproduced, received inadequate protection.

And it is sad, because there’s stuff to like in this flick: It begins as an appealingly rueful study of four characters living in California’s San Fernando Valley. Evan Rachel Wood plays Tobe, a typically rebellious teen living with her single father, Wade (David Morse), and her adopted younger brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin). This trio of actors do a very nice job creating a believably tense working-class family, dysfunctional and clumsily loving. (Morse is always good; and if you can get a Culkin before the age of 15 or so they’re all surprisingly adept.) A chance meeting links Tobe with Norton’s character, a self-proclaimed cowboy with the appropriately dusty, 19th-century name of Harlan Fairfax Caruthers. Harlan is working at a gas station when the two hook up; it’s harder than it once was to get ranch work—his usual “line”—in the valley. From the get-go it’s clear to everyone but needy Tobe and impressionable Lonnie that Harlan is not quite what he claims.

Harlan’s doomed attempts at personal mythmaking—and Tobe’s and Lonnie’s self-serving complicity—is touching, almost heartbreaking. There are some funny giveaways (I loved the glimpse of Harlan’s completely incongruous tattoo of punk-band Black Flag’s logo); and some parallels drawn between characters cleverly suggest the ever-presence of such invention. I, myself, am a sucker for Midnight Cowboy-style depictions of truly stupid and self-deluding characters whose plain humanity makes them noble. But then the movie goes and gets all macho. We swap Joe Buck for Travis Bickle (complete with “Are you talking to me?”-type mirror-scene homage), and from there out the movie is just stupid.

In what seems like blatant pandering to the star’s ego, Harlan is transformed mid-movie from endearingly pathetic to dramatically psychotic. The movie switches from a sweet-and-sad character study to dopey shootout, one that strains all credibility. And for no good or apparent reason other than to allow Norton to act—and to put a gunfighting advisor on the payroll.

—John Rodat

One You Can Refuse

The Proposition

Directed by John Hillcoat

The Proposition, set in the Australian outback of the 1880s, is one mean, bloody western. Overwhelmingly bloody, in fact: There’s a whipping scene that will test most moviegoers’ intestinal fortitude. It’s a bracing return to the genre’s halcyon days of the 1960s, when cinematic giants like Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah stripped the elements of the western—and western “heroes”—down to the basic components of lust, greed, violence and a yearning for freedom, and set these against the backdrop of an indifferent, unforgiving natural environment.

Too bad, then, that the picture comes up short, both as art and entertainment.

If this film is to be believed, the outback is an even more miserable, godforsaken hell than Texas. Brutal killers roam freely; would-be civilizing forces are dishonest or ineffectual; and the sun shines bright enough to blind and burn anyone dumb enough to challenge it. The people who live there aren’t any more nasty than anyone in Texas, however.

The story is simple: Captain Stanley (an imposing, utterly convincing Ray Winstone) figures that the only way to catch a sadistic murderer (an unusually effective Danny Huston) is to blackmail the killer’s brother into doing the tracking and catching. While this is clearly the smartest course of action, the dumb-as-rocks locals don’t understand, and the namby-pamby government official is too petty to see past the importance (impotence) of his own authority. The conflicts are vivid, and vividly depicted.

The film owes a lot to the aforementioned Peckinpah. The opening shootout, which ends in the capture of outlaw brothers Charlie (an enigmatic Guy Pearce) and Mikey Burns (Richard Wilson), is a direct lift from—an homage to?—a pivotal early scene in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Most of the characters (like the loquacious bounty hunter exuberantly played by John Hurt) seem to have walked straight out of Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Wild Bunch, Major Dundee or Straw Dogs. And the excellent dialogue, written by black-hearted musician-composer Nick Cave, is of the blunt, straightforward-yet-poetic variety Peckinpah favored.

Still, The Proposition falls flat because, unfortunately, what the filmmakers didn’t borrow from the master was his sense of action and pace: The Proposition is way too pretty, and disappointingly static both within each image and in the editing. This makes the tonal shifts between scenes unnecessarily jarring, and mucks up the development of the story. Too bad—otherwise, The Proposition isn’t a bad deal.

—Shawn Stone


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