Had I still been a naïve teenager obsessed with the mythos of ancient volcanic disasters, a movie like “Pompeii” would have provided one hell of a visual wet dream. Here is an ambitious production mounted in the tradition of old Hollywood epics, stretched beyond the scale of a mere screen, and hitched to that dependable staple of disaster films that seek to show us an array of grandiose visions that are both terrible and awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, time and experience often separates us from simpler pleasures, relegating our measurements of entertainment to comparisons of other, more sophisticated endeavors. A read-through of the premise immediately conjures up all those conventional comparisons: among other things, the story contains a main character obsessed with revenge while fighting for his own life in public arenas (“Gladiator”), ancient roman political intrigue (“Troy”) and a blossoming romance between young faces that are separated by class divides (“Titanic”), all set in the foreground of a catastrophe looming in the distance (any number of well-known blockbusters of the past thirty years). Take away all those call-backs, and what you are left with is basically a competent action picture that retreads to the safety of its formulas, primarily because it doesn’t have the desire, much less the thought, to pursue more challenging avenues.
During a schmaltzy greeting card monologue in the opening scenes of “Dirty Love,” the heroine informs us that “love is unreal,” before launching into a scene of hysteria after she has discovered the love of her life in bed with another woman. Most people scarred by that sort of discovery, at least in a comedy, would usually plot some sort of devious revenge. Rebecca (Jenny McCarthy) opts to make her grief an incompetent public spectacle, which will include her approaching sex workers for job applications, showing up to public gatherings on the arms of awkward losers, and avoiding run-ins with her ex in various locales, like a grocery store while she is tripping over her own menstrual blood. Are you still listening to this? These are the sight gags of a filmmaker who has watched a plethora of outrageous comedies but has only memorized out-of-context punchlines, relegating everything that he does to a one-note show of languid showmanship. Even then, most narrow concepts could be forgiven if they produce laughs, however shallow. John Asher’s junkyard of a film, unfortunately, only inspires the sorts of groans usually reserved for painful indigestion.
Forget, for a moment, all the dreadful things you have heard about “The Lonely Lady.” Dismiss the conventional criticisms that peg it as one of the more pronounced turkeys of its time, ranging from the shoddy acting to the implausible premise. Absolve yourself of any knowledge of Pia Zadora’s strange rise to fame, or how her entire participation in this mess came to be. Resist the urge to read through some of the cringe-inducing dialogue, avoid the temptation to blame shoddy makeup or inept scene staging, and ignore all attempts at understanding the long and notorious back-story. Those notions will only color your view. Oh, an exhaustive list of problems could be assembled about the movie in question, and few of them would be arguable, but those traits in themselves do not quantify all the reasons this film endures so vividly. Something more precise, more glaring, had to be wrong with what was on screen. After lumbering through a recent viewing, I believe I finally deciphered the key distinction: that this may be the most shamelessly evasive drama ever written.
Any teenage boy who owns a pair of binoculars is destined to see himself as a private investigator. He uses them like an infallible window into the unknown, a dagger that pierces a hole through comfortable exteriors to study the inner workings of people with seedy private lives. Hitchcock used this ideology to fuel the voyeuristic tendencies of his hero in “Rear Window,” and now young Davey Armstrong adopts it while he spies shamelessly on his neighbors during the warm nights in “Summer of 84.” His first glimpse is innocent: harboring a crush on the girl next door, the lenses provide him a bird’s eye view of her upstairs bedroom, usually while she is in various stages of undress. Later, after news breaks that the disappearance of a dozen young boys in the county is linked to a single culprit, they become the instrument that will guide his quest against the cop across the street, whom he suspects may be the serial killer in question. The key difference, perhaps, is that voyeurs are content to watch without involvement., whereas Davey turns his endeavor into a quest that includes stalking the outer perimeter of a man’s house, going through the trashcans and even digging up a backyard in search of corpses.
Aficionados of Noah Baumbach’s eccentric brand of hard-hitting family comedies will find themselves right at home in “Marriage Story,” the latest in his resume of accessible mainstream opuses. The rest of us would argue it could have used three key additives: a better script, more focus on the pain, and less insufferable leads. That is not to discredit or undermine the abilities of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, who are competent in the material, but to emphasize the corner they are painted into. Here are two likable actors swimming upstream in a current that wants to drown them in detestable melodrama, and for nearly every scene they occupy shared space, we find ourselves praying for psychological intervention. They are cloying, arrogant, and deluded. Towards the middle act, well before the two come to a head in a heated exchange about unresolved feelings, they are offered advice from brutally honest lawyers as to what steps to take in maintaining custody of their young son. The more proactive argument ought to have been obvious: why do either of them deserve to supervise a goldfish, much less an impressionable kid?