The Movie Binge

The 11th Hour

Well, if Hollywood hadn't polluted the atmosphere enough already this summer, who but Titanic's own Leonardo DiCaprio has come along to blow hot air all over the silver screen in his new self-produced film "The Eleventh Hour". DiCaprio and his band of anti-democratic crybabies have cooked up enough horror stories to make Rob Zombie look like Shel Silverstein.

Sure, it's scary stuff, but when was the last time you believed someone holding a sign that says: "THE END IS NEAR" ? These limousine liberals are just trying to make eco-jobs for their green friends, trying to squeeze a buck out of this great planet just like the rest of us. It really makes me "green" with sickness that so many poor defenseless Americans are being duped by this kind of conservationist conspiracy. I mean, yes, gas prices are higher, but that's not because oil is running out, it's because terrorists own all the gas, of course they're going to start charging more to people they hate. And yes, temperatures are rising worldwide and huge weather changes reflect that and are getting worse, but that's not because of burning fossil fuels and clearcutting! It just doesn't make sense! Think about it, what's the hottest places in the world? Desert, right? So, think of it like leaving the oven open; that's why we have warming seas, The Sahara is being left undeveloped! Put some air-conditioned townhomes in there, I think you'll see a BIG difference. So yeah, go see this movie, if only to re-inforce how wrong they are and how right we are.

The above was also my entry in the "Write for the Colbert Report" Sweepstakes sponsored by Gatorade Fierce and Nestle. Fingers crossed! In seriousness, I'm so glad that little lectures like this are getting made. They'll make very little money, but hopefully they'll make at least a little difference. Thinking about the whole problem, it just feels like ultimately it's a solitary venture, like it's somehow up to me to decrease the world's temperature by a degree. Like every time I recycle an orange juice bottle it's like planting a tree. There needs to be a much clearer cause-effect relationship for me, otherwise I get so lost in the faith of it.

The Invasion

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Why remake? I guess it can go either way, really. Either you feel you have something interesting or creative to add to an existing work, or your studio has a hole in your late-summer release schedule that needs plugging and you have millions of dollars to throw at already-rich-as-hell movie stars. The Invasion, a pale imitation of its uneven predecessors (all of which are based on the 1955 serialized novel The Body Snatchers), falls completely into the latter, and decidedly crappier, category of remake ideology.

The first film was entertaining in that whole Twilight Zone way where it's ridiculous, but still kitschy fun. What worked best about it was that one could draw out a clear political message at work in the notion of the emotionless, inhuman replacements unstoppably proliferating. Critics still disagree whether or not the pod people were supposed to represent blind Communist conformity or the American, Red-Scare-perpetrating McCarthyist opposition, but everyone can make a solid argument because at least the pod people had a unified, clear-cut agenda. Unlike the 1956 version, the 2007 version tries to be political by showing characters watch news channels and having people briefly mention current wars, but the political message, if there actually is one, is so muddled that it's completely irrelevant, and what could just as easily have been a time-sensitive examination of the evils of thoughtlessly carrying out an oppressive conservative ideology--both Bushism or Jihadism, take your pick--turns into a rather boring, plodding, by-the-numbers, procedural crap fest.

Most alarming (or laughable, depending on your take) is how well things seem to be going for the planet under alien rule. Once the better part of the human populace has become infected by the alien virus (instead of replaced by pod people, the only reasonable update on this sci-fi classic), the news stations triumph the birth of peace around the globe. Digitally altered footage shows Bush signing peace accords with Chavez. Sectarian violence in the Middle East and Pakistan ceases. A new age of peace and prosperity seems to be in store for humanity, which makes Nicole Kidman's shrill protestations against her infected pursuers all the more ridiculous. Granted, they're trying to kill her child, an irritating little scamp that seems to be immune to the virus, which, of course, makes him a potential "cure" for this "plague." It's like the filmmakers realized they'd developed a too-likable enemy, so they threw in the kid (some test audience probably implored them, "think of the children!") to generate some sympathy for Kidman's character who was obviously losing it. However, I'm going to go on record saying that alien totalitarian mind control and the death of a pathetic urchin are a small price to pay for the best thing that's ever happened to humanity. There's a short debate early on in the film, which may as well have had a subtitle scroll across proclaiming "THE MESSAGE," where Kidman's character and some Russian diplomat discuss what the true nature of humanity is. Is it violence and greed? Is it striving for progress? Kidman argues that humans have come a long way and that she has high hopes for the future, but if this film is any indication of the kind of miserable dreck we as a species are capable of, then she's wrong and we're doomed. I say bring on the alien overlords!

The Nanny Diaries

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The Nanny Diaries wants very badly to be this summer's answer to The Devil Wears Prada, but it fails to hit its mark in several crucial ways.

1) Whereas The Devil Wears Prada embraced and amplified the glamorized angst and wish-fulfillment thrills of "chick lit," The Nanny Diaries is only successful in translating the genre's worst tics -- unfunny comedy, plodding plots, stale stock characters, gossamer-thin pretensions towards intelligence and sophistication, and a bizarre, contradictory attitude towards the relationship of money and happiness that is more confused than complicated. Prada was able to makes its viewers forgive its shortcomings and equally baffling ideas about wealth by being silly, slick, and frivolous, but Nanny is a chore to sit through, and even when it goes out of its way to be light-hearted and whimsical, the resulting footage more closely resembles a television ad for a bank than an enjoyable movie.

2) Though half the fun of Prada was getting to see Anne Hathaway dolled up in a variety of cute outfits, the plot of the Nanny Diaries calls for Scarlett Johansson to wear a succession of frumpy ensembles in order to achieve some level of verisimilitude and to sell the viewer on the notion that blandly handsome Ivy League dudes are totally out of her character's league despite the actress' well-deserved reputation for being an unattainable boob goddess.

3) Laura Linney's rich-bitch boss character utterly lacks the gravitas and pathos of Meryl Streep's Anna Wintour analog. This is mainly due to the poor quality of the writing, but also, c'mon, no disrespect to Linney, but she's no Meryl Streep. A lot of the reason Prada worked was because of Streep's presence, and that the actress' reputation as The Greatest Actress Ever was helpful in establishing a shorthand for her character's intimidating stature in the film.

The Nanny Diaries attempts to say something about the trouble of privileged white women having their children raised by strangers who are treated like slaves and are forced to abandon their own families, and also something about how Johansson's educated, middle-class character is wrong to be slumming in a position that is apparently best left to immigrants and minorities, but it's all too garbled to come out as anything other than "hey, rich people can be such jerks, but it's okay, because they have feelings too." Like Prada, the film fetishizes wealth, but shuns the ambition necessary to attain it, and ends on a note that tries to have it every way at once -- the young girl triumphs over the rich people by...um, being middle class and thus morally superior by virtue of having somewhat fewer corrupting influences? She abandons a career path that could lead to accruing her own fabulous wealth, but gloms onto the rich pretty boy and presumably has a billion of his babies because she's now decided that little kids are the best thing ever. So basically, she's going to marry rich, have some kids, and avoid work, just like her nemesis. Way to go, right? Girl power!

Hannah Takes The Stairs

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"Everybody's in love with the wrong person and nobody actually hears what anybody else is saying."

I love Andrew Bujalski, I really do, but I kinda want to smack him in the face for coining the term "mumblecore," if just because it seems to diminish the value of his two excellent features, and lumps him in with peers contemporaries such as Joe Swanberg who make films that ape his style, but lack his work's depth and wit. I understand that these sort of words are helpful for marketers, curators, and journalists, but I really don't think we need to come up with 00s synonyms for "slacker."

Bujalski is in Hannah Takes The Stairs, but it's Swanberg and Greta Gerwig's movie. The two are adept at mimicking the superficial qualities of Bujalski's films -- it's basically an hour and a half of chatty though mostly inarticulate well-to-do twentysomethings kinda sorta getting together and then kinda not -- but its characters are not especially interesting or likeable, and though it obviously wants to say something about the way crushes set people up for disappointments when they don't allow themselves to make real emotional connections, the execution is clumsy and the point is weak. Whereas Bujalski's films make understated though very insightful comments on the passivity and deferred adulthood of a generation of educated young adults, Swanberg and Gerwig are content to dress up garden variety indie relationship-movie blahness in a hip new aesthetic or two. (Unsurpisingly, a good chunk of Hannah kinda looks like an American Apparel ad, and the casual yet obviously exhibitionistic nudity of some scenes recall the work of Ryan McGinley and his ilk.)

Bujalski's presence as a lead actor elevates most of his scenes -- there's a particularly great moment involving him making out with Gerwig's Hannah then kinda shrugging it off that takes full advantage of both his weirdly anti-sexual demeanor and his dry comedic timing -- but the rest of the actors lack the charisma necessary to make their characters more than just a collection of nervous tics. Everyone seems natural, but no one comes across as being a particularly smart or interesting person. Hannah frequently complains about her suitors being so devastatingly witty that she cannot compete with them in conversation, but none of the major characters ever seems to be intentionally funny. It's hard to tell whether Gerwig and Swanberg meant for their cast to seem rather dull, or if they simply went too far with the "mumblecore" formula and that was the unfortunate result.

Underdog

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How to wear adorable little clothes in big people company (and enjoy it!)

Let me get this out of the way. I am not a "dog person," and I really can't identify with those of you who aspire to be "dog people," particular if you live in an apartment in Manhattan and don't have the money stacks necessary for like a private rooftop doggy playground or some sort of robotic laser poop slayer. I would like to note that I don't actually hate dogs, I just feel sorry for the lifestyle choices they have made for themselves. Your stereotypical dog is so embarrassingly ingratiating, all servile, slobbering licking and woofing and wagging. The fact that they put up this public face for just about anyone shows just how insincere and toadying your average dog is, and I'm hard-pressed to describe this behavior as actual affection or love. The lowest common denominator is a floppy, drooly tongue licking the filth off your wingtips. Kind of like what most Hollywood films attempt to do, come to think of it.

Underdog, is, by its very nature, a grovelling, sycophantic film, aimed at pleasing the lowest common denominator, children, or Hollywood's version of what children are. Real children are a lot more imaginative and dare I say perverse than a movie like Underdog would have you believe. I would hope that, in addition to me, there were several scheming, dark kids in the audience secretly or loudly cheering for the scenery-chewing Dr. Simon Bar Sinister (Peter Dinklage!) and to enslave the super-powered mutt (voiced by Jason Lee) and put an end to the menace of Jim Belushi once and for all. Now those are goals to aspire to - to conquer the limitations you were born with (e.g., being a dwarf) and rise to become the tops of your profession, even if the main facets of your profession mean treating animals just slightly better than Michael Vick and being a gloating tool to security guards.

But instead the damn kids were probably absorbing all these crazy and dangerous ideas about believing in yourself. And that, my friends, is a harmful message for a child, particularly when the main character's only apparent problems are that his mommy died and his dad has taken an embarrassing job and is Jim Belushi. It's not like those are serious obstacles to overcome, Disney. He's not a child camel jockey or one of the Jena six. Now those kids could use a punning, flying beagle to pal around with. This kid is just a little sad and needs to be told he's special in order for him to be able to like talk to a girl or something. I'm not sure what actual problems he was having other than being sort of a dick around Jim Belushi, but who could blame him?

The best thing about the film, other than Peter Dinklage's classic example of dwarfsploitation, is the fact that the tag line of the film, the call back line we're all supposed to remember, the "I'll be back" or "Make my day," is the brilliant "This will only hurt...a LOT!" You know it is totally payback time when you get to spit that little bon mot back in the face of the dude who originally chortled it while shooting you up with genetically engineered goo. Other than that, I would only recommend seeing Underdog if you are a fan of rhyming doggerel or really, really want to hear the Underdog theme performed in classic 2000s nu-metal style.

2 Days In Paris

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Julie Delpy is a funny lady. I'm not sure why that surprises me -- I knew that she was very involved in the writing of Before Sunset, and that's a smart and funny movie despite, y'know, Ethan Hawke. I know I didn't think of her as being humorless or at all untalented, but it just never occurred to me that she may have been the one who made that film as good as it was.

2 Days In Paris is Delpy's show -- she wrote it, directed it, plays the female lead, edited it, composed the music. You might think that she's overextending herself, but you'd be wrong -- she delivers strong work in every category, and as a result, the film's aesthetic is fluid and seamless. It's a comedy, but its humor is sporadic and diffuse, giving plenty of room for her to meditate on the dissolving relationship of her leads, or spend time taking in the scenery.

Delpy makes a point of presenting Paris as a living city rather than a romantic idea, pulling the viewer through crowded tourist traps, mundane housing, unspectacular residential streets, and giving equal time to crappy fast food spots and organic markets. She clearly has an affection for her home city, but is intent to contrast the realities of the place with the quaint image that her male lead is obsessed with capturing with his digital camera at every available moment. At its core, her film is essentially about the difference between an idealized image and its day to day realities, and the trouble we can have in resolving the differences, and getting over dashed expectations. If anything, her depiction of Paris is a parallel for the way her leads discover how unworkable their relationship has become once they've gotten to really know one another, even after a few years of being together. The path to that realization alternates between super-dry deadpan comedy and lowbrow farce, but when it comes, the scene is utterly heartbreaking without seeming even remotely at odds with the film's goofier moments.

The King of Kong

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[Ed. note: Consider this the unintentional second quirk review in a short series, following Erik's Rocket Science review from yesterday morning.]

Welcome to the saturation phase of quirky documentaries. The ouvre previously covered spelling bees, Scrabble, crossworld puzzles, ballroom dancing and countless other topics, but the onslaught has just begun. The latest victim is video games, and it's not even an original subject &mdash High Score, like King of Kong, is also about two men competing for the best score in a classic arcade game (Missile Command is the playground in that case). Having watched both films, and many other quirky documentaries, I think I've got a handle on why King of Kong succeeds so gloriously.

In essence, all of these films are real life Christopher Guest stories, except they don't have the luxury of creating their own characters. For Kong, the cast of characters are better than the fruits of any writer's mind. Steve Wiebe is a good American boy who poured his efforts in Donkey Kong after losing his job at Boeing. He has a history of coming up short — Steve was a gifted athlete who threw out his arm — and has a sweet disposition that only Beelzebub himself could ignore. Billy Mitchell has held the Donkey Kong world record, and records for several other games, for the last 25 years and is a cocky son-of-a-bitch. He has a mane of black hair, a "hot" wife, a hot sauce business and is never, never, ever wrong. Even better, he has a protegé and a posse (his lawyer friend and the folks who run Twin Galaxies, classic arcade record keepers). His protegé Brian Kuh is basically Billy's man servent, and worse than any band groupie, as he hilariously spies on Wiebe and secrets away to give Billy updates, all the while growing frustrated that Wiebe got to the kill screen first. What's amazing is that this is just a slight peak into their world are there are still three more people who are equally hilarious.

While this crew is entertaining enough on its own, the dramatic story arc makes King of Kong a real winner. Wiebe comes from nowhere to break Billy's long-standing record, showing his wife that he's not a worthless good-for-nothin', only to have it taken away because Billy's long-time nemesis provided Wiebe with a new motherboard (which is obviously a no-no). Then, when Wiebe breaks the record in front of the Twin Galaxies nerd crew, Brian the underling proudly produces a tape of Billy topping Steve's 10 minute old score. Best of all is that Billy refuses to be in the same room as Steve. Steve is the sweetest man in the world but Billy and his crew treats him like a radical insurgent.

Director Steve Gordon must have shit himself when he started getting everyone on tape, because all he had to do was not mess it up. Steve, you sure as hell did not mess this up. In between the hilarious banter there's great information on the history of competitive gaming, which fills in holes for people less nerdy than myself. I'm sure Billy isn't quite as evil as he's portrayed, but the good vs. bad shtick was well-played and I wouldn't have had it any other way. Most impressively, he only belittled his subjects when they were worthy of it and never looked down on the sport.

Even the least nerdy and most jaded corners of my brain ached with delight throughout the film. If you do have any nerd up in that noggin', you owe it to yourself to feed the beast. This film is not to be missed.

Rocket Science

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As a culture, we are inundated with quirk. The situation has reached such serious levels that the Onion is making jokes out of what was once so unpopular as to easily avoid mainstream attention and criticism. Ira Glass and what This American Life have wrought are a useful frame of reference when delving into an analysis of the film Rocket Science, so laden with a comfortably knowing voice-over and quirkily idiosyncratic caricatures that one's surprised by the lack of Glass's name in the production credits.

In his first film since also quirky and highly entertaining documentary Spellbound, and his first dramatic film altogether, writer-director Jeffrey Blitz returns to the world of cutthroat, eruditely pubescent competition and frames his story around a debate team in a New Jersey high school. Ginny, a no-nonsense, lightspeed-talking champion debater is looking for a new teammate after her previous partner's mid-finals meltdown. For speciously curious reasons, perhaps for nothing more than the sake of quirk, she decides that Hal Hefner, a troubled freshman whose parents just divorced is a prime candidate. Her decision is speciously curious because, get this, he stutters. Pathetic-child written all over his face, a broken home AND a nervous, socially-preventive pathology?! Quirkcore gold! Naturally, Hal falls in love with Ginny (or just becomes obsessed with her; hard to tell with teenage boys), awkwardly gropes at her, earnestly attempts to overcome his stutter, fails, is betrayed by her and eventually tries to beat her in competition by using her old teammate as a ringer. All set to the quirky filmscoring shorthand of the nearly anachronistic Violent Femmes.

It's not that this is a bad movie. I found it entertaining and non-offensive in that public radio kind of way. It's almost a strange doppleganger for movies like Superbad, which deal with essentially the same issues (writ largely, Dealing with the Tribulations of Puberty), although this film trades in crass for class. An extended middle finger is as racy as it gets, which, given the zeitgeist for public filth, is almost endearingly quaint in its tepidness. There is much to recommend in the film. The mostly unknown actors play their humble parts well, the touch of sentimentality is mostly justified, and there is a good deal of fresh comic timing in the pacing and delivery of quirky non-sequitirs. But for all the parts deserving of accolade, the cultural implications of this addition to a rising pantheon of lovable losers and cringe-inducing awkwardness—increasingly a stand-in for emotional relevance—guarantee that Rocket Science, a film trying so hard to come off as unassuming, will sink in the widening sea of its own hip quirkiness.

ENOUGH WITH THE QUIRK ALREADY!!!

Death at a Funeral

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Okay, imagine you are like a teacher for a literacy company, or something (are those called schools?) and you're trying to help these ten year old kids be creative. So you decide your teaching moment for today is to explain to them what a farce is, except when you get to the nuances of how amazing it is sometimes to watch the most tightly wound people unbraid and unbraid and unbraid, as you get to saying that the kids are definitely waning, and one of them kind of punches the one next to him, and your co-teacher (who is doing something horrible like I don't know phonics) shoots you this look. God, I thought we could date when we both started here but he's just really turned out to be a tool, you know?

So you're like okay, let's cut to the chase, let's make a list of the funniest things in the world, and for some reason the first one on the list is "funerals" and the second one on the list is "British people" and then things just start to snowball and before you know it you're in the middle of this just deluge of statements like "and then you know what would be funny is if he had some DRUGS!!!" only they don't even know quite what drugs are so they're like "it's a drug that is X crossed with K crossed with UNICORNS and it makes you NAKED" "WAIT WHAT IF (indoor voices please) wait what if one of THE GUYS DIED AFTER JUMPING UP AND DOWN" and at this point you're kind of thrilled that they're so into this and not hitting each other anymore but also, like, this isn't what you meant it to be when you drew up the lesson plan and what if their parents walk in? But the kids keep going on and on, like "diarrhea!!" "homoerotic statues!!!" "old people!!" "sixty-nining!!" (that kid has seen too much, you think) "in-laws?" "diarrhea!!!" (again, I know)

Against your better judgment you do try to get this on track briefly and you say, "Well, what if there was a case of mistaken identity, or some sort of conflict within the family that is so blown out of proportion that by the conclusion of it everyone just realizes how silly it is to fight? Wouldn't that be a way to keep the farce grounded just enough so that at the end of the movie your audience doesn't just feel like you were out of mouthwash and used flat orange soda this morning?" At that point the kid who said "sixty-nining" actually gives the kid next to him a bloody nose with his mind. I mean, actually with his mind.

That's about all you can take for the day so you lock the kids in the classroom and ride your bike home. The faster you ride, the faster your tears will dry, and maybe no one will see when you stop for that bodega-born Vitamin Water, maybe nobody will see that you have really just been inventing hope this whole time, that you never expected a completely dated premise like this one to get you any farther than a gig at Kaplan. I mean: it is days like today you doubt the existence of comedy at all.

Rush Hour 3

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Brett Ratner could have called the third installment in this series Rush Hour 3: The Search for a Plot. or MacGuffinfest or Money is just Paper. The first two films were tolerable popcorn movies, but this newest film feels like a clips episode of the never-aired Rush Hour television series. As friends pointed out last night, it is not shocking that Michael Scott loves Rush Hour.

The movie supposedly centers around mysterious Chinese Triad gangs and their willingness to kill anyone to protect their identities. While we find out early that Inspector Lee's (Jackie Chan) brother is a key member of the Triad, I wasn't sure until the very end that he was the Bad Guy. Detective work leads them to Paris, which is best known as the homebase of all international crime groups (and a chance to use the Eifel Tower in a fight scene). Unsurprisingly, Lee's brother, a hot girl and a painfully large hotel room greet the dynamic duo. They fight, they win, etc.

It wasn't until the last fifteen minutes, when I had realized this was the plot, that I became really disappointed. I admit, I had expected more from this film and I've learned my lesson. What truly amazed me was Ratner's insistence that I never suspend disbelief. Jumping out of windows and arresting beautiful ladies for dates are things I'm willing to accept, but I'll never understand how a L.A. cop owns vintage Corvettes and rents out $3000/night hotel suites. Oh, and the evil henchmen only noticed our heroes when it was convenient. "Hey, who are those guys in the burlesque show? It looks like Lee and Carter, but it couldn't be them. Move on!"

Still, my favorite and most ridiculous aspect of the film was George the cab driver. He always showed up out of the blue and at exactly the right time. He seemed to hate America, but was really supressing his desire to be a spy. At the very end of the film, he was the one to save the day. He was the MacGuffin-man.

Rush Hour 3 is a lazy mess. Chris Tucker definitely knows how to deliver a punchline, but that was the film's only redeeming trait. If you're looking for a chase-the-bad-guys-and-blow-things-up movie, go see Bourne Ultimatum.

What Is This?

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the Movie Binge team will watch every major movie released. Are we crazy? Stupid? Attractive? The answer is always yes. Follow along as we try to watch all 89 films.

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