The Movie Binge

July 2006

Review: Click

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As a (very) lapsed Catholic, I feel I must confess, and make penance for, the fact that this review is being published over a week after the movie's release; I've broken one of The Movie Binge's informal rules. And as a strictly moral fellow, I must confess another sin as well: The reason this review is late is because I was trying, desperately, to avoid having to see this film in a theatre, and therefore financially reward its existence. Yes, dear readers, I admit it: I looked for torrents, I looked for bootlegged DVDs (and found one, though unfortunately I was in way too much of a hurry at the time to stop and buy it); but in the end, both my logistical failure and my inherent decency demanded that I watch the movie through legal, MPAA-approved means. Boy, did I get what I paid for.

So yes, as you might expect, Click is not particularly good, though it is not the worst movie I've seen this summer (paging Ethan Green). But there's plenty to object to. There's the distinctly non-witty script, which forces toilet humor on a premise that requires absolutely none (and which goes back to the well for the same damn jokes over and over). There's the utterly bewildering casting, wherein none of the children in the film could even remotely, under any circumstance, be considered to be the children of their on-screen parents, nor could the child who played the young Adam Sandler be considered by anyone with functioning eyes to resemble Adam Sandler. And just what the hell is Kate Beckinsale's deal, anyway? Why would one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood choose to appear in this wretched, brainless film? Lord knows with her past choice of roles, I shouldn't be so surprised (role call: Underworld! Pearl Harbor! Van Helsing!), but compounding the insult is the film's profound sexism.

Honestly, I thought movies this sexist weren't legal anymore. Beckinsale is given nothing to do but wear sexy pajamas and fight half-heartedly with Sandler (and immediately kiss him and have make-up sex with him afterward), while every other woman in the film is a leggy blonde in a mini-skirt whose function is to open doors for men and take jokes about being "the office slut" (Rachel Dratch plays Sandler's secretary, who, because she is not a leggy blonde in a miniskirt, is made the butt of a sex-change joke later in the film; before this, however, she is at least given what might be the film's only genuinely good gag to execute). At the same time, we're expected to laugh along with Sandler as he insists on a burqa-like dress code for his daughter. Ha ha! Fathers don't want their daughters to be sluts, but fathers like sluts themselves! Oh, what a cutting observation.

This toxic moral stew (see this intriguing New York Times article for a further interesting point, interrogating the notion of just how deeply we're actually supposed to feel the "come-uppance" scenes in quasi-morality tales like this one) could at least be leavened by some genuine comedy, but sadly, it isn't. Dratch does what she can in her brief role, but Walken's attempt at a zanily off-kilter performance doesn't come off, and Sandler is his usual late-period schlubby self, with none of the impish glee that made him legitimately funny in admittedly non-highbrow fare like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. That impish glee was contingent on a certain cruelty built into his characters that might've been funny coming from a younger man, who you would've hoped had time to change; but watching a forty-year-old literally do violence to children and repeatedly kick another grown man in the groin is much less funny and much more, well, antisocially psychotic. It is, however, both amusing and slightly disturbing to watch old-age makeup transform Sandler into an eerie simulacrum of the week's other big Jewish star, Leonard Cohen; it's a positive association that can only help you appreciate his otherwise reprehensible character.

Again, I'm sure it's not a message that needed to be sent to anyone who isn't contractually obligated (or at least obligated under the threat of Latin Snakebite) to see this film, but: don't bother. Really, please, don't bother. They've already made ten dollars more than I wish they had.

Review: The Great New Wonderful

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I guess it's okay to have a movie about 9/11 now. We had United 93 released a couple months ago and World Trade Center is coming out on August 9th, which is on top of the documentaries and TV movies out there. Personally, I'm okay with all this as everyone has their grieving process and no film has made a mockery of the painful day, yet.

Okay, I won't leave you hanging long at all. The Great New Wonderful is a good film and honors the spirit of New Yorkers in the months and years after 9/11. The story follows several different New Yorkers and never mentions the terrorist attack directly; instead we watch as the characters break down and build themselves back up again. The five stories focus on the white middle and upper class, but are varied enough to avert potential boredom. The tales range from two hard-nosed cake decorators (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Edie Falco) battling for an elite client and an elderly couple struggling with the monotony of growing old together. Each story was distinct and addressed how a major event in one's life can alter your universe and force you to think or act differently.

While it could have been cheesy, it wasn't. The score was tasteful, the editing style was subdued and the only visual cues were shots of planes crossing the sky. The filmmakers did an excellent job of getting out of the way of the story.

What I enjoyed most was the sense of impending doom throughout the film. As these planes crossed the sky intermittently and the the tension rose in each of the scenes, I grew anxious. It felt as if something major would happen, but it never did. For me, that's how much of life after 9/11 has felt. There have been times where the fear of an unknown, future terror attack have raised blood pressures and The Great New Wonderful captured that. The prevailing theme was that time is not to be wasted so don't wait for life to happen to you.

Clearly, the moral was far from groundbreaking but I enjoyed seeing it in this context. With the fear and doom of the other two 9/11 films released this year I'm thankful for a film that paints another picture. While thinking about what happened on one of the flights or at one of the towers is a worthy exercise, very few New Yorkers experienced that. Our lack of knowing may give validation to those efforts, but there is a place for a film like The Great New Wonderful in our history and Danny Leiner, the director the film, did a fine job telling the story.

Review: The Devil Wears Prada

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Building up to the release of The Devil Wears Prada, the movie adaptation of Lauren Weisberger's whiny roman à clef about life in the couture trenches, there was a lot of breathy popular journalism stories about evil bosses. Articles about "Do You Have One?" and "What To Do To Cope" etc. However, despite the universality of working for someone you loathe and fear, this movie neglects to actually depict a terror in Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly, editor of the fictional Runway magazine. Rather the delightful Streep as Priestly comes across as demanding, at times a touch capricious, even complimentary and someone the fluffy Anne Hathaway as the assistant Andy admires. Hardly the tell-all unloading on a tyrant that you'd expect. Streep even manages to steal a final scene from Hathaway with a mere toss of her eyebrows. It's no wonder Streep is one of our most celebrated actresses, she's got the goods, designer or no.

Manhattan is a town run on the backs of young, talented, economically-challenged, brow-beaten assistants, so it's not surprising that one of them would broker a book deal with some choice insider dirt. The big problem with Weisberger's was that despite the meanness of her boss, her narrator came off as the most entitled of snobs. She went to Brown; she should be working at the New Yorker not fetching scarves or walking the dog. Over and over, it was drilled into the minds of the reader that Andy was much too Ivy League educated for this garbage. However, dues paying is what rarified industries like publishing are about and hardly seemed worth that much elaborate bitching.

Interestingly, that bitter tone has been down-played in the film resulting in a more likable Miranda and a more hard-working Andy. While there is the requisite montage of Andy running around town picking up Miranda's car and procuring her red meat lunch served on fine china, the lasting impression from the film is Hathaway's make-over story. Even though the film jokes about how Hathaway's healthy frame is considered "fat" in the fashion world (coining the bitingly clever phrase, "size 6 is the new 14"), the camera relishes in how well Andy cleans up. Fashionista costumer Patricia Field puts Hathaway in some adorable looks and her shiny hair with the lush brown eyes is particularly fetching. Of course this supposed pilfering of the fashion closet for Miranda-approved looks is highly unrealistic but that and the footage at the real Paris couture shows are some of the most satisfying in the movie.

One theory banded about since the film's release has been that the more positive spin on the Miranda character and the slightly unknown quality to the fashions (they're surprisingly free of easily identifiable "name" looks) are because of the specter of Anna Wintour, Weisberger's former boss. People in the biz don't really want to piss off the doyen in the bob because she will crush their puny little lives. Devil Wears Prada tries to allude to this fascinating power structure in this multi-million dollar business but ultimately falls short. Certain people in the business world are really that formidable. To get a taste of what makes them tick, you'd be actually quite lucky to pick up their dry cleaning. It might not be fun per se, but in the case of Andy, you'd look hot doing it.

Review: Who Killed The Electric Car?

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While it's a zippy and pleasant film to watch, there's also an infuriating smugness to Who Killed The Electric Car? that's rather difficult to ignore. During the sequences in which the electric car in question (specifically, the General Motors Saturn EV-1; other contemporaneous models are mentioned, but given less focus) is introduced to the audience, there's an undeniable thrill as the camera lingers on its remarkable design and its admirable speed (the speedometer, shooting above 70 and 80 mph with mythbusting frequency, is pointedly placed front and center during many of the action shots), and you really do find yourself thinking "Why did I never get a chance to buy this car?" But like any ideological documentary, the film has a point to make, and there's a lot of information that needs to be kept out of the shot to get there. While the film is basically open about the car's limited geographic range (somewhere between 80 and 120 miles on a single charge; various experts spout inconsistent numbers throughout the film that are never backgrounded against any kind of authoritative data), justifiably pointing out the fact that such a range is more than sufficient for the majority of drivers, other crucial details are glossed over entirely. A brief mention of recurring battery-failure problems in the initial release of EV-1s is brushed aside with the claim that GM could have used better batteries if it had wanted to, rather than pausing for any discussion of what was actually happening inside those batteries and whether or not those failures were rooted in design or manufacturing; and a sequence about the limited mechanical service needs of the EV-1 castigates "the automobile industry" for overreliance on the profit chain of spare-parts manufacture, while glibly ignoring the fact that an entire service economy that employs thousands would collapse if such cars became widespread.

Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing in the long run if a better alternative is legitimately available, but the film's relentless boosterism has no time for serious analysis of just what the wholesale adoption of the electric car really would have meant for the auto industry and the culture at large, beyond "cleaner air" and a sense that those fat-cats in Detroit really deserve to have it stuck to 'em. If one takes a moment to think about what a seismic shift the truly ubiquitous electric automobile would cause not only in the automobile industry, but in the entire world economy, then it's hardly surprising that GM and the oil industry worked so hard, if so short-sightedly, to kill it! The film is certainly convincing in showing the methods that GM used to sabotage the adoption of its own product, and the filmmakers and activists portrayed are entirely right to be perturbed by the crippling of a clearly important technological innovation, but the smarmy tone that both adopt is off-putting not only to their adversaries but to a thinking audience as well. A little less righteous indignation and a little more serious analysis would have done the film a world of good, as it has successfully identified what could have been a watershed in the history of Western industry and American politics, but the filmmakers' heavy hands fumbled the delicate work of fully exposing the issue in order to conjure up an ostensibly charming David-vs.-Goliath narrative. The one exception, which keeps the film's second half from slipping entirely into empty posturing, is a smart and substantive explanation of why hydrogen fuel cell technology is a non-starter in the automotive industry's attempts to grab environmental credibility. More time spent addressing issues like that would've made for a much stronger documentary, but I guess all of us angry liberals like our rabble-rousing a bit too much to take the time...

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man's Chest

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Bom•bast
Pronunciation: 'bäm-"bast
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English bombast cotton padding: pretentious inflated speech or writing, POMPOUS, OVERBLOWN

Almost three years ago to the day, Cinecultist rethought all of our previous assumptions about movies based on Disney theme park rides and fell for the ballsy bombast of Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. When a movie like this comes out of nowhere with verve, pacing and spot-on performances it's such a joy for the jaded summer movie goer. While the sequel—a part two in what is planned to be three planned installments thus far—still has the swagger of cinematic cojones, they've lost the element of surprise. Over-the-topness is still the watchword of the day for Verbinski's part deux, but the joy of his baroque action sequences in outlandish set designs is tempered by disappointment from a eye-crossingly complex plot and general bloatedness. I'm not entirely sold that even summer blockbusters should be this HUGE and I definitely know they shouldn't run 145 minutes.

Some bits I did like, in no particular order: Bill Nighy and Stellan Skarsgard's dueling gross-out CGI'd costumes. Seeing Naomie Harris, who was fab as the pretentious Fassbinder-loving assistant in Tristram Shandy, with red eyes and black teeth. The fact that the cannibals' dialogue didn't merit subtitles. Three way sword-fights, and all the sexual innuendo that implies. The krakken's circular set of teeth. Johnny Depp's eyeball face paint. Keira Knightley in a sexy buccaneer's cap.

And finally: The screening where I saw this was an advance all media put on by Disney at the Ziegfeld and it was packed to the gills (bad pun intended). With some 1660 seats filled with NYC media types for free, you get this exaggerated feeling that there surely can't be anyone else in the city left to see this movie, but still it did over $132 million in box office last weekend. Guess bigger is indeed better.

Review: The Motel

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I've been afraid to admit this in the past, but I'm going to come clean today. I am not Asian. Many of you are probably shocked right now but you'll come to terms with this, just as I have. My not being Asian became crystal clear while watching Michael Kang's feature film directorial debut, The Motel. I very much enjoyed the film, but I left some potential enjoyment on the table since I didn't grow up in an Asian household.

The Motel follows Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau), his mother and his sister, who run a motel that seems to be off a tiny highway in the middle of nowhere. Ernest is a Chinese thirteen year-old struggling with the early stages of pubescence in a world were pubescence and depravity run rampant. Sam (Sung Kang) is a hotel guest who takes on a fraternal role with Ernest while dealing with a separation from his wife (which means sleeping with hookers and drinking boatloads of JD between and during his buddy sessions with Ernest). The rest plays out as you'd expect, with Ernest trying some new things, getting shot down, disobeying his mother and generally growing up.

Sam and Ernest were the driving force throughout the film as I was often getting sidetracked by poor acting or continuity errors. In fact, the package was far from glossy and even may have been dropped a few times during delivery. Despite this, Sam and Ernest shined through. I was thoroughly wrapped up in the plot and can still visualize many of the best scenes a week and a half later. Ernest's mother, played by Jade Wu, played a stock version of a Chinese-American mother, but had a few great moments. I especially enjoyed her stare down with Ernest near the end of the film.

While I couldn't quite catch all of the goodness in The Motel due to my non-Asian-ness, I was engaged throughout, which is a testament to the film. Many race-oriented comedies tend to be all about inside jokes and snappy one-liners, but Kang is clearly trying to do more. As he says in his director's statement:

Though this is an "Asian American" film, I think what was always most important to me was the idea that the narrative had to be solid in its craft. I have seen too many "ethnic" films that become didactic or forsake story for politics (or worse the story is the politics!). The Motel strives for a similar aesthetic and balance as films like Star Maps and Smoke Signals. Though the film is unapologetic ally culturally specific, it is only as successful as it is rooted in showing complex characters and telling a complete story.

The last line of his statement sums it up for me. The story's complexity allows it to be accessible to everyone while providing an extra bonus for those who grew up in this world. Basically, The Motel doesn't rely on stupid gags and decided to have a rock-solid story instead. The short yet dense plot is easily strong enough to make you forget the production gaffs and lose track of each of the seventy-five minutes of the movie. Hopefully the film will get a true release so you won't have to wait for the DVD.

Two Asides: You should check out Michael Kang's blog, Puberty Sucks and the amazing poster created for the film, which I'd love to know more about.

Review: A Scanner Darkly

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And so my summer of Keanu has come to an end. And to think it featured nary a "woah" or even a glimpse of black latex and Laurence Fishburne in shades. But it did feature a magical mailbox (see The Lake House—actually don't, oh never mind it was alright) and with A Scanner Darkly it features a groovily interesting mind-bending time at the movies.

If you're reading this you likely fall into one of two categories. You know Philip K. Dick like I do—ie. you've never read a lick of his stuff but enjoyed everything from Blade Runner to Total Recall and Minority Report (he said...conveniently leaving out John Woo's Paycheck) or you KNOW Philip K. Dick and you've savored his work and probably been salivating for some time for this flick.

From my illiterate vantage point, A Scanner Darkly succeeds in what it seems to be setting out to do—to be a trippy series of extended conversations on paranoia, surveillance, and addiction. In a nutshell our story concerns Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) an undercover narc soooo deep undercover that he may not even be sure who he really is anymore. He's trying to track down the source of a dangerously addictive drug called Substance D. But don't be fooled by descriptions of cops and drug busts, this is nearly as talky a pic as director Richard Linklater has done (okay not Before Sunrise/Sunset talky but still).

A Scanner Darkly turns out to be like My Dinner with Andre on acid or probably more clearly like Linklater's other rotoscoping animated excursion Waking Life with a splash of sci-fi. As for this technology Linklater's clearly found a love for, it works here far better than it did in his first effort. The jittery, constantly fluid movements of these characters suits them and the story of addicts and paranoids who can't sit still even as all they do is hole up in a house sitting still.

As you probably know the fun loving supporting cast includes Winona Ryder (oh Winona just come back to us already and make another go at this career thing!), Woody Harrelson, and Robert Downey Jr. The latter, in nervy manic mode, has never been more charmingly bizarre. And that’s saying a lot. Just check out his Australian reporter turn in Natural Born Killers to see him turned up to eleven.

A Scanner Darkly isn’t the most riveting trip through the imaginative mind of Philip K. Dick but it might be the most emotionally resonant in the end. It’s a film I’ve thought about more than I thought I would back when I was sipping my diet coke thanking God I wasn’t watching Johnny Mnemonic.

Review: The Oh In Ohio

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Sitting down to a screening of the small indie The Oh In Ohio over this horribly humid weekend in New York, that familiar post-feminist refrain kept running through my head. You know the one, it even has an acronym. W.W.B.F.D? Or for the lay(wo)men not caught up in conflicting 21st century gender roles, What Would Betty Friedan Do? See, Oh is all about an uptight married woman (Parker Posey) whose husband (Paul Rudd) decides to leave after 10 years of marriage because he can never give his wife orgasms. She's frigid but happy, though this makes the manly yet sensitive hubby unhappy. A real man makes his wife come, and thus, the bearded high school biology teacher with the most beat-up Volvo ever committed to film, is no man. Our N.O.W.-ie sense is tingling from this plot, we just know it.

Maybe it would be better if I could turn off that analytical part of my brain and just enjoy this movie as it is—a moderately amusing comedy with mildly winning performances from a bunch of actors who deserve more, like Posey and Rudd. As for the bold faced supporting cast, (Mischa Barton, Danny Devito, and Heather Graham), we've seen them do better and we've seen them do worse. The only participant we'd give more props to than the rest would have to be the brief cameo by Liza Minnelli as a self-help guru, but only because she wears a sparkly pink caftan with "masturbation" emblazoned in glitter on the back. Now that look is one that takes balls. But frankly despite our best intentions to be entertained, our eye-rolling reflex at the lame plot points and lamer dialogue made it tough to keep an open mind.

Mostly this movie just made me sad. Don't girls in the Midwest read Our Bodies, Ourselves when they're 14? Are we still a nation filled with dysfunctional sexual relationships, despite all of the best intentions of our no-holds-barred, shock 'em honesty? Guess so. I hope the ghost of Betty Friedan doesn't attend small indie cinema, she'd not be pleased.

Review: You, Me, and Dupree

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I came into You, Me, and Dupree with the notion that Owen Wilson ought to stop slumming in so many mediocre Hollywood films and get back to doing more inspired work, preferably stuff that he would write himself, or with a collaborator such as Wes Anderson. But the thing of it is, I'm starting to think that he's actually better off lending his infinite charisma and singular comedic style to the sort of entertainingly middling films that you stumble into viewing on cable, rent on a whim, or watch on a long flight. Wilson has a knack for elevating these films; he brings moments of pure joy and inspiration to small stakes movies that otherwise hedge every conceivable bet.

You, Me, and Dupree is tailor-made for the stock character that Wilson has developed over his filmography – fun-loving, gentle, whimsical, and self-serving though utterly devoid of malice. In this film, he's the wacky house guest who just won't leave. He's well-meaning and intensely loyal to his best friend (Matt Dillon, poorly cast in his role), whose new wife (Kate Hudson, bland but likeable and cute) has difficulty coping with Wilson's free spirited antics, particularly when his absent-mindedness leads to rather pricey property damage. The film is far better as it reverses that dynamic in its second act, and Dillon's character becomes paranoid that Wilson is attempting to usurp him after he bonds with his wife and domineering father-in-law/boss. Dillon awkwardly does his version of Ben Stiller's impotent rage shtick, but it works anyway if just for the contrast with Wilson's airhead nonchalance.

For a film that is ostensibly a comedy, Dupree is curiously light on jokes. This is not to say that it is full of unfunny gags – when it's trying for laughs, it generally scores, if only in a modest chuckling sort of way – but rather that the filmmakers seem focused on a few setpiece routines, and spend rather large portions of the film without even attempting to make the audience laugh. Though Dillon gets some comedic moments here and there, everyone else seems resigned to let Wilson carry the humor, so whenever he's not in a scene, you find yourself stuck watching a weirdly neutral dramedy. This is especially strange given that Dupree was directed by Anthony and Joseph Russo, who both directed several episodes of Arrested Development, a television show in which any given episode is so insanely dense with jokes that it's practically the funniest thing ever by default. Owen Wilson may be fine bringing life to ho-hum mainstream cinema, but the Russo brothers really ought to be doing better work than this.

Review: Once in a Lifetime

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Thank God for World Cup Fever. Really, those involved in Once in a Lifetime should be saying that and not me since it probably helped ticket sales quite a bit. In my case, the world's favorite tournament made me curious about the dirty underbelly of soccer and Lifetime was waiting in the wings to answer the question I wouldn't have thought to ask a month earlier.

In the early 1970s, very few people in the United States knew or cared about soccer. If media mogul Steve Ross hadn't turned the New York Cosmos into an international spectacle, Americans might still think of soccer as the sport they played in other countries. Ross had two employees he didn't want to lose and they wouldn't stay unless Ross was able to bring soccer to the United States. Since Ross is a way ballsier, more exciting man than me (and almost certainly you), he took up their challenge, bought the Cosmos and bulked up the team with international stars like Pele. This brought other soccer phenoms from around the globe to the North American Soccer League and the Cosmos started selling out Giants Stadium.

The global atmosphere of the team and the league resulted in quite a few entertaining story lines. The rift between Giorgio Chinaglia and, well, everybody was the best. That guy managed to piss off the entire league while scoring a ton of goals for the Cosmos. Not a single interviewee had something nice to say about him but he didn't seem to be bothered one bit.

The story is unbelievable as Ross managed to create a new sport in the eyes of Americans. What should seen more believable at this point is that Once in a Lifetime was a lot of fun to watch. The film was carried by interviews with the colorful members of the Cosmos and the men who worked behind the scenes. I loved hearing from the players who happened to be on the Cosmos before they became a global powerhouse. These are regular joes who are capable soccer players, but would never have made the team later on and it's clear that they feel damn lucky to have been a part of it all.

I was most impressed with the fun-natured editing. The directors (Paul Crowder and John Dower) and producers must have realized this was a happy, upbeat story and kept the editing snappy and took advantage of their fantastic comedic timing. Personally, I was smiling the whole time. I've said this a bunch of ways already, but this film is just plain fun. It goes by quickly and is better than most of schlock you'll wait in line to see on a Friday night. Do yourself a favor and give this one a chance, even if your World Cup fever was waned a bit.

Review: Little Man

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Well, United Artists Court St. Theater, you're oh for two. At least last time I was able to walk away with a good story. Little Man provided me with nothing but pain and suffering, in every sense of the word.

I'll briefly explain the plot, in hopes that it will scare most of you away. Little Man is a Wayans brothers film (wait, let me at least finish the sentence) about a midget who's left jail and is looking to make a buck stealing a huge diamond with his friend (played by Tracy Morgan, who is the funniest man in the movie). He has to ditch the diamond in a hot lady's purse and decides to dress up as a baby to infiltrate her house and steal the diamond. He sticks around for a weekend and hilarity events ensue. Oh, and the body of the midget is played by one man while the head is played by Marlon Wayans (now you can leave).

You know how a good SNL skit is sometimes made into a movie? Well, I think this hour and a half movie might make a decent SNL skit, but nothing more. Despite attempting to pack in about 600 jokes in 90 minutes, there are only about three to four minutes of this film that don't make me want to vomit in my mouth. I'll admit, it's funny seeing Marlon Wayans' head on a tiny person's body, but it's also fun to use photoshop to put George Bush's head on the body of a monkey.

This movie redefines awful. I would rather have witnessed a homeless man pooping on my stoop or a bald eagle being gutted and eaten by a pack of school children. "Look, you chose to see every single movie; we didn't tell you to do it," you say. Yes, you are right and I expect no sympathy. But. For the entirity of the film, the air conditioning was not working. Yes, I had to watch this pile of garbage in a packed theater with no air circulation and a temperature of about eighty-five degrees.

If you like dick and fart jokes and are willing to sit through 90 minutes of garbage for a few laughs, then this movie is for you. Also, if you are that person, I request you never talk to me ever.

Review: Lady in the Water

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A mind-numbing work of staggering hubris, M. Night Shyamalan's Lady In The Water may be the most uniquely awful film of 2006. Though other painfully bad movies based on obnoxious, hackish formulae may come and go, Lady In The Water is almost innovative in its terribleness, and as a result it is most likely doomed to being used an example of how not to write a film in screenwriting classes for the rest of eternity. For one thing, the movie is at least 97% exposition, as Shyamalan's cast of characters attempt to understand a garbled fairy tale that has apparently come to life in an apartment complex on the outskirts of Philadelphia. In spite of the film's extreme, unrelenting pedanticism (it often seems like an annoying, condescending teenage boy attempting to explain the arcane rules of a dreary roleplaying game), the exposition fails to actually expose much of anything aside from the fact that this tale has no logic, emotional resonsance, or allegorical value, and is basically the most boring thing ever.

Making matters worse — far, far, far, far, far worse — is that Shyamalan has ditched his usual twist-ending shtick in favor of ham-fisted meta narratives that reveal him to be not only the most self-important and deluded filmmaker of his generation, but also the most petulant and vain. (And yes, I would consider Vincent Gallo to be of the same generation.) Not only does he cast himself as a writer whose words are fated to inspire a great and benevolent leader and photographs himself so reverently that he never appears onscreen looking anything less than heroic and wise, he indulges in a graceless, cringe-inducing diatribe against critics only tangentally related to the themes of the script. Bob Balaban, who to his credit is the most Balabantastic thing about this otherwise dire film, plays the critic, who is apparently meant to be unsympathetic, though this only seems to be established by the fact that he's a bit smug and complains about the loudness of his neighbors. After some terrible bit of dialogue taking his character to task for presuming to predict the actions of other people, Balaban is dispatched in the third act in a scene so embarrassingly on-the-nose in its verbalization of horror tropes that, entirely by accident, it is terrifying for all the wrong reasons.

Frustratingly, Balaban's cynical old critic is the closest thing to a believable human character in the entire film. Overstuffed with over the top twee oddballs who exist only as cutesy collections of quirks and seem entirely removed from recognizable human motivations, Lady In The Water shares much in common with Miranda July's similarly self-aggrandizing and critic-bashing Me And You And Everyone We Know. Shyamalan desperately wants the viewer to find his cast of weirdos charming and funny, but the man is utterly witless, and thus the characters come off as the result of forced eccentricity. Paul Giamatti sleepwalks through his starring role, going through the motions of his typical sad sack routine and unconvincingly playing the part of the hero. It's never quite understood why we are meant to expect that a lonely, shlubby widower who stumbles upon a pretty naked girl who fawns all over him and tries to cuddle at every opportunity would show absolutely zero sexual interest in her, and it's even weirder that no one ever stops for a moment to consider that maybe she's not a “nymph” and might actually just be some totally insane raver girl. For a cast of characters called upon to do some pretty weird things, no one ever calls into question the ridiculousness of the situation.

There's so much more that is bad about this movie, but it's hardly worth getting into. The pacing and editing is ponderous and entirely lacking in suspense; the cinematography is often poorly considered or flat-out hideous; there's a suspension-of-disbelief shattering sequence in which Giamatti spends about seven consecutive minutes underwater without any sort of breathing aparatus; Bryce Dallas Howard is forced to spout such awful jargon-packed lines of dialogue that you begin to think that Natalie Portman had it easier doing her Star Wars films. I could go on, but I fear that listing off all of Lady In The Water's numerous peculiarities may give you the impression that it could actually be an interesting film, which it only could be if you are fascinated by ego-fueled disasters.

Review: My Super Ex-Girlfriend

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I think the above production still of Uma Thurman with a chain saw from My Super Ex-Girlfriend would make a great Myspace profile picture. In fact, if I could get my hands on a pair of really cool sunglasses like that and of course, a large orange chain saw, I would totally try to recreate it with one of my photographer friends. There's something completely hilarious and not just a little bit menacing about Uma in this shot that I think it very sexy. She's taken a hold of the reigns and is riding her star persona as a statuesque, goddess-like unattainable object all the way to the bank. It's applause worthy.

Unfortunately then that My Super Ex as a movie isn't really worth quite such an ovation. As a premise—that neurotic chick you just dumped turns out to have amazing super powers—it's comic gold but in execution, the movie's a bit slow and boring. Boy meets girl, boy sleeps with girl, boy discovers girl touched a weird radiating asteroid and gets irrationally jealous when dumped shouldn't take as long as it does to get set up. In some of his past movies director Ivan Reitman has shown he has serious comedic chops (Ghostbusters, Legal Eagles, Stripes) but here, some of the best bits seem to just lie on the screen like a dead fish. A better version of this movie would have faster paced, smarter editing and more room for brilliant supporting players like Anna Faris and Eddie Izzard to shine. The weakest link regarding the performances is actually Luke Wilson, who seems to have lost whatever ordinary dude charm he exhibited in Bottle Rocket, for the worst kind of beige screen presence. His acting makes us sleepy and lethargic just thinking about him again.

As for Uma, her talents and performances are mixed. For every The Truth About Cats and Dogs or Prime that she appears in, she seems determined to also lend her assets to such dreck as a Be Cool or Batman and Robin. It's perplexing. She has the capacity to poke fun at herself, be completely emotionally believable and heave a gnashing shark through a plate glass window. Surely there should be nothing cinematic she can't conquer.

Review: The Groomsmen

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Hugging and crying. Hugging and crying. You know who likes hugging and crying? Ed Burns. It's pretty much the cure for all that ills the not-so-hard-ups in The Groomsmen. There's something to be said for living a charmed life, but I don't think it has anything to do with saying something interesting.

There are five friends in The Groomsmen who reunite for Paulie's (Burns) wedding, presumably to wish their friend well. Jay Mohr as Mike, the man—child who lives with daddy. John Leguizamo as TC, the saintly homo. Donal Logue as Jimbo, the alcoholic philandering piece of shit. Matthew Lillard as the Wing Commander, no really he's in this but I'm not sure what his role is. Hum drum guy? Let's call him the hum drum guy.

So all these fine characters get together to celebrate Paulie's wedding and each is forced to confront his or her unresolved issues. No, wait a minute, there is no her. This movie is about grooms-MEN. In this movie, women throw tantrums (hormones don't you know) or provide succor, but they're mainly window dressing. Brittany Murphy and Julianna cry, pace and occasionally laugh, but their main role is to let the boys be boys.

As the 30-year-old truants trundle about town, a town all but one have never left, they do a maturity check and find that many of them are lacking. Where could maturity be? What does it mean to be a man? Inevitably, after some searching they each in their own special way realize that it's important to be happy with what they have and be responsible. That's it. Wisdom of the ancients. Really.

Oh, and the gays are OK too, because sometimes your friends turn out to be gay.

And if you're a total prick, just shed a few tears, people will understand you've been under some pressure. Real pressure, because it takes a lot to make a man cry.

I guess I shouldn't expect a whole lot from Mr. Burns. Spending a lifetime as a famously good-looking guy, with a dream job and a supermodel wife would make me feel happy with my place in the universe as well. Maybe he should just leave it at that and start funding someone with an axe to grind.

The word for The Groomsmen is milquetoast.

Review: Clerks II

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Oh my lord Kevin, what have you done?!? I know Jersey Girl was a mess, but I did not see this coming. Oh who am I kidding, I kinda did see this coming but I prayed you'd be able to right the ship and make a comeback. Instead, I think I'm done with you. Yes, it's that bad. Sigh.

I would be a lot more forgiving if you had put forth some kind of effort. Instead, in an attempt to show the grown up side of Dante and Randall you created a clichéd love story with no subtlety or originality. The characters were animatronic shells of their former selves and it seemed like this was more of a reunion for the players than an effort to improve on the first film. Thankfully, Cinecultist was there to witness the horror with me and managed to succinctly explain why the first one was great and this one was not:

Walking out of the theater completely dejected, [Cinecultist] realized KS doesn't really understand why the first Clerks works, because the sequel does wrong everything that the original got right. Clerks takes a tiny premise (a day in the life of two dudes in going nowhere jobs) but adds complex, real characters with heart and culturally resonant banter. The camera work is static but like a play on screen, the important thing is the dialogue getting to ramble on with impunity. There the film can show its point of view and it's a delight.

Bingo. Whenever a film is about complex characters that love to talk, the camera should move as little as possible. Odds are that Kevin Smith's cinematic repertoire wasn't as large ten years ago, but that definitely worked to his benefit. In this case, he felt it was necessary to use a 360 shot1, much faster editing and, as Cinecultist also pointed out, a crane shot at the end of a dance number (which is another problem all together).

I could detail the plot for you, but I won't. Just know that nearly everything in this film was second rate. The only positive thing we could agree on was the performance of Tevor Fehrman, who played Elias wonderfully. I laughed out loud a bunch of times, but most of the film was spent turning to my right and making the, "did you just see that?" face.

After a few days to mull it over, this is the worst film of the summer. It may have had more to it than Little Man, but that film had zero aspirations. Clerks II didn't attempt to be the next Citizen Kane, but a sequel to a good film should provide an experience similar to or better than the first one and this failed on every level. What's worse is that a director/writer I once respected has cashed in all of his goodwill and is going to have a tough time winning it back.

1 It's the one where the camera circles around the actors during a heated argument to show you their supremely intense anger (I realize this is probably not its real name). It is my least favorite camera shot and used almost exclusively in crappy movies.

Review: Peaceful Warrior

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It may perhaps surprise you to learn that Peaceful Warrior is the worst super-hero film of the summer. “Bwuh?” You are perhaps thinking. “I was under the impression that it was a trenchant and richly philosophical inspirational character piece.” To which I would respond “Perhaps that’s the film you thought you were making, Mr. Salva,” (since he, i.e. you, would be the only person on the planet so generous in their appraisal) “but in fact you’ve wound up with a turgid, overlong sad-sack of a film that embraces the YOU CAN DOOO EEET! mentality to an absolutely ludicrous extent, playing fast and loose with the laws of the mind, body, and external reality for virtually no reason beyond dramatic expedience.”

All of that is a long-winded way to say that Peaceful Warrior was really kinda stupid. Dan Millman’s novel, which I have not read, appears to be a sort of low-rent magic-realist Karate Kid, blending Millman’s own true story of Olympic gymnastic competition with a rather fanciful account of the wonders of his mentor, “Socrates,” a service-station proprietor who taught him wonderful lessons about life, the soul, etc. etc. while seemingly performing fantastic feats of physical and spiritual prowess (One of the partner reviews on the Amazon listing for the novel describes the patently unrealistic character of Socrates as "drawn from emotional rather than factual memory," which I'm prepared to accept as a valid artistic decision under certain conditions, but we'll get to that in a second). As a story, it’s frankly the worst kind of wish-fulfillment claptrap, using the hoary chestnuts of “Believe in yourself!” and “Know what’s inside you!” to justify why a character who is in just about every way a toxic douchebag should merit the admiration of his peers, the accolades of the professional world, and the love of a beautiful woman. But the entirely ridiculous nature of Socrates’ accomplishments – fifteen-foot vertical leaps, near-telepathic reflexes, the power to induce visions – come off as just plain silly, as the film’s tone is consistently awkward, making every moment that violates the laws of physics feel either obnoxiously overblown or puzzlingly de rigeur.

Something interesting could’ve been done with a premise so clearly unhinged from the norm, but these filmmakers simply weren’t up to the task – the script is riddled with clichés, from the teeth-gnashingly awful deep proclamations (“It’s about the journey!”) to the audaciously contrived plotting (“It was all a dream!” That one comes into play more than once, I’m sad to report), all depressingly mundane notes that manage to make the story feel as if it is not unhinged from the norm, but is in fact an entirely by-the-numbers athletic-inspiration film wearing the makeup of a more ambitious movie. It’s a pleasure to see Nick Nolte perform with some gravitas and a marked lack of scenery-chewing (since my last Nolte exposure was in Ang Lee’s Hulk, you’ll forgive me if I was peering through covered eyes when he first appeared on screen), and he does bring more than a few moments of dignity to the otherwise less-than-stellar material, but he can’t save a film that has nothing particularly memorable to say about any of the subjects it engages. Imagine the bastard child of Stick It and Waking Life, without the half-retarded glee of the former and the inventive visuals of the latter, and you’re halfway there.

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