The Movie Binge

August 2006

Review: Scoop

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Going on its loopy premise, one would reasonably assume that Scoop might be another late period bust for Woody Allen, a la Small Time Crooks or The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, but luckily for Allen cultists, it's a reasonably solid farce that plays up Woody's old school comedic chops.

Scarlett Johansson, who spends most of her time playing sullen, sexy young women with monotone voices, seems to have a lot of fun with her role as a goofy novice reporter, obviously relishing this opportunity to play against type and modulate her voice a bit. Though there are some creaky moments here and there, she's a decent foil for Allen. Their chemistry is a bit like a low key nebbishy version of Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa, and the film is at its best when they are bantering with each other, or playing their obliviousness to class off of stodgy aristocrats.

Oh, well, that's not exactly true – the most fun parts of the movie happen when Ian McShane, who I will refer to as Al Swearengen for the remainder of this review, appears on screen as a ghost of a recently deceased reporter who is guiding Johansson and Allen through the murder mystery plot. Swearengen exudes charisma like few other actors working today, and his broad characterization is ideal for a comedy as silly as Scoop. His character is the least plausible in the film, but somehow it's way easier to imagine this guy scamming his way out of death than totally buying into stone fox Scarlett Johannson as a mousy nerd. (Though in fairness, no one in the film pretends that she's anything other than a total knockout. She may be in Diane Keaton drag for a lot of the movie, but it's sort of fetishistic in the same way that, say, a black latex catsuit or a schoolgirl outfit might be in something else.)

Scoop moves along with an appealing, lighthearted grace, and simply goes about its business of uncomplicated entertainment. The gags are consistently funny, but never quite hilarious. The plot is involving, but not particularly memorable. Swearengen earns the best laughs, but I like the guy better when he takes a swan dive into the deep end of the vulgarity pool, as when he's in the middle of one of his signature blowjob soliloquys on Deadwood. If you're a total dork, there's a great scene toward the end which features both the guy who played Wolverine in the X-Men movies AND the guy who played Giles on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but it's rather brief. Hugh Jackman is perfectly fine in this movie, and looks very pretty with Johannson, but man, I can't help but wonder how much better this thing could have been if Anthony Stewart Head switched parts with the guy.

Review: Little Miss Sunshine

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I'll be honest, I saw this film over two months ago and didn't bother to write a review then. That being said, I think it may have worked to my benefit. At the time, I wasn't impressed with the movie; it tried too hard. Now, after seeing a whole bunch of shlock, I think it's one of the better films of the summer. I guess it's all about perspective.

Little Miss Sunshine, the movie, centers around Olive (Abigail Breslin) and her quest to win Little Miss Sunshine, the children's beauty contest. She qualifies for the national pageant when the girl in front of her drops out and her screwball family must pile into their VW bus to get her there. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is of the dirty-old-man variety, but is great with Olive. Richard and Cheryl (Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette) play Olive's parents, who are at odds because of Richard's motivational book/shtick called "Refuse to Lose". Finally there's Frank (Steve Carrell), who had just tried to off himself, and Dwayne (Paul Dano), Olive's older brother who has taken a vow of silence until he gets into the Air Force.

What follows is a series of gaffs and failures that nearly keeps the wacky bunch from making it to California. While you always know something else is bound to go wrong, it's rarely in the way you expect. The script is punctuated by the spectacular performance of this ensemble, particularly those of Paul Dano and Alan Arkin. I love the idea of a heroin-snorting, tail-chasing grandfather teaching his granddaughter a talent routine for a beauty pageant, especially when the pay off at the end of the film is so entertaining.

At this point, I was going to discuss the shortcomings of the film, but I can't seem to recall what got me so riled up in the first place. The best I can think up is that the story arc was a bit too predictable -- a potentially peaceful adventure devolves into complete disorder, only to be overcome by the strength of the human spirit. While the overarching theme may be a bit trite, the details made the movie shine. The directors (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) took a stock storyline and beefed it up with standout performances and memorable moments. Instead of being hung up on the big picture, the stoic yet expressive responses from Dwayne and Olive's deadpan delivery stand out in my mind.

I'm not sure if this means that Little Miss Sunshine was a great film or just a memorable one, but does it really matter? If a film leaves an impression over two months later, it should be worth a viewing in the theater so you can find out yourself.

Review: Time To Leave

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So: I will freely admit that it’s grotesquely unfair to say this, but having spent the least few months plowing through all five seasons of Six Feet Under on DVD, the similarly themed Time To Leave came off as a bit of a disappointment. I can't deny that it's an advantage in TV's favor to have dozens of hours of screen-time in which to develop one’s themes and characters, and years of real-time in which to build a connection to the audience; but I was surprised by how emotionally distant I was from the film, despite my conscious attempts to identify with the lead, Romain, a young photographer (played by Melvil Poupaud) who learns that he is suffering from malignant and inoperable cancer. Romain, it bears noting, is (like SFU’s Nate Fisher) a nearly irredeemable asshole, but the film unsurprisingly challenges you to sympathize with him nonetheless. Writer/director Ozon stops short – but just barely -- of an entirely clichéd “redemption” arc, but there’s an infuriating overreliance on childhood imagery that seeks to wring an emotional connection out of the audience based on the character’s past innocence, though you continue to watch him badly mistreat others as an adult who should know better. It’s a tricky line to straddle, and in certain scenes the film manages to pull it off – most notably, when Romain visits his grandmother, played with typically French zest by Jeanne Moreau, the only other human being he seems able to open himself to (for, of course, selfish and vaguely repellent reasons). But an entire subplot featuring the admittedly compelling Valerie Bruni-Tedeschi (who embodies a kind of continental Gillian Anderson vibe) as a waitress who solicits Romain to father a child for her doesn’t provide much insight into Romain’s character, beyond a certain impishness and callousness (it’s difficult to describe what I mean here without spoilers, so I’m forced to leave this somewhat undeveloped) that we could already intuit was there.

There’s also an… “homage” is perhaps a generous word… to Visconti’s adaptation of Death In Venice that leaves something to be desired in the originality sweepstakes; and when coupled with the frustrating sentimentalism of the repeated childhood motif and a handful of other stock moments -- in particular, Romain’s last encounter with his sister -- the film winds up feeling insufficiently imaginative. The only other Ozon movie I’ve seen is 8 Women, and if there’s one thing that can be said for that film, it’s that it is unique; but Time To Leave’s occasional blandness begged me to make the ultimately unfavorable comparison with SFU that admittedly may have prevented me from giving it more of a fair shake. It’s far from a bad film, but it’s not the quietly wrenching gem that seems to have been intended.

Review: The Night Listener

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It’s difficult to watch The Night Listener and not think of JT Leroy despite the fact that the Armistead Maupin’s autobiographical story, on which the film is based, occurred years before the San Francisco writer appeared. In it, a gay radio short story writer named Gabriel Noone (a surprisingly subdued Robin Williams) is going through a painful break up with his lover of 10 years, played by Bobby Cannavale.

A colleague gives the depressed Gabriel a copy of a manuscript he’s considering publishing by a young boy subjected to horrific abuse at the hands of his parents. Apparently this boy, Pete Logand (Rory Culkin) is a huge fan of Gabriel’s work, and the two begin a phone friendship. But elements begin to not add up about Pete, and when the ex points out how similar his voice is to his adoptive caretaker Donna, Gabriel starts to doubt the boy’s existence. Gabriel then decides to take his amateur sleuthing on the road, snooping around Donna and Pete's tiny Midwestern town with near disastrous results.

As a professional journalist, I actually came in contact a number of times with JT Leroy, the San Francisco novelist whose stories of childhood abuse, sexual confusion and a truck-stop hooker mother led to notoriety and fame. Like Pete, Leroy also primarily communicated with his editors, supporters and celebrity friends over the phone, only appearing in person dressed in sunglasses and obviously bad wigs. Until of course, he was exposed as a concoction of a San Francisco couple who posed as his caretakers, earlier this year.

I spoke to Leroy quite a few times on the phone for stories he was writing at the magazine where I worked and like Gabriel Noone with Pete, I assumed, as did my fellow editors, that he was who he said. While I never had an emotional connection with JT or became friends with him, we did chat conspiratorially. He was funny and masculinely raunchy, despite his oddly high-pitched voice. Maybe it seems obvious in retrospect that his work was too good to be true based on his age and education level, but I know first hand how easy it is to be drawn in someone who’s charismatic and understandable to want to believe in apparent writing talent.

Williams does a nice job in the film of depicting Gabriel’s loneliness and the subsequent fascination with this young boy’s difficult childhood and his talents as a writer. I prefer this subdued and thoughtful Williams to the manic one, hopefully he’ll continue to do these types of roles as he ages. Also, it’s always refreshing to see a moderately mainstream movie deal with homosexual relationships in such a matter of a fact way. The gayness of the characters is very present, but it’s not the only thing happening and thus it fades as a mere detail to the thriller plot. Without giving too much away on that front, Toni Collette as the caretaker Donna is excellent. Between this and Little Miss Sunshine, both movies she made a while ago but which happen to be hitting theaters around the same time, it’s clear Collette is one of our most versatile actresses.

Review: John Tucker Must Die

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I'm a fan of bad cinema. When I say bad cinema, I don't mean Plan 9 from Outer Space bad, but 10 Things I Hate About You bad. It's nice to sit and let the nonsense roll over you. John Tucker wanted to be 10 Things, but it wasn't that kind of bad; it was the real bad. It was the kind of bad that makes you wonder why you agreed to see so many fucking movies this summer.

The movie isn't really worth reviewing, but I'm pretty sure I've nailed down why this didn't succeed in being a dirtier, older, funny-not-cute version of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. The key to that film, which others have tried to copy, was the chemistry of the four girls. JTMD also has four girls, but zero chemistry (well, except for the chemistry class). I felt nothing for these four girls, partly because John Tucker seemed kinda awesome and partly because they were painfully annoying. If your goal is to have a feel-good movie where a group of kids band together, you shouldn't make their nemesis the most likable person in the film.*

At this point it seems I need to tell you some of the plot, even though I swore I wouldn't subject another person to the pain and suffering that is Jeff Lowell's script. See, the story is about JT's three girlfriends and their desire to "kill" him (i.e., ruin his life). They enlist Kate (Snow's character) -- who is a sweet, invisible girl -- to seduce JT and then drop him, just like he did to this mind-numbing trio. Generally, I frown upon alpha-males who ruin the lives of innocent girls, but if they all go after girls like this then I've had them all wrong. I'm happy to let the alpha-males have the hot girls if they're all completely vapid and devoid of charisma. This is why I am considering buying the rights to this film, changing the name to John Tucker Must Live and recutting it to show that men like John Tucker are clearing the way for normal guys like me to get the interesting women.

I'm curious to know if it's just my perspective that makes this film seem like it's doing the opposite of what it intends. Is it possible that an attractive yet vapid, charisma-less teenage girl would love this film? For this, I turn to the message boards for the MySpace-based website for JTMD. Here's what K-La, a 17 year-old from North Carolina, had to say:**

I thought it was sooo cute! But being a teenage girl this movie was targeted at my generation of girls..Typical beautiful people with their so called drama..but i loved it to say the least!!!

Totes! Well, I guess my theory was correct. The movie has made $29 million and, more importantly, it has 140,310 MySpace friends, which translates to something like $500 million.

The lesson learned is that JTMD's creators couldn't give two shits about me and my film-loving friends. They knew there would be a few million lobotomized teens who would see this movie because of John Tucker's pretty face and they are richer as a result. To spare the girls who think Jesse Metcalf is delicious but have no desire to this film anymore, I have provided a picture of him to ogle below. Enjoy.

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* To be fair, I almost liked the female lead (played by Brittany Snow). Brittany played the role well, even up to the end when her character became lame.

** although she is a teenager and possibly vapid or charisma-less, i will leave her level of hotness up to males under the age of 18, thank you.

Review: Miami Vice

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Oh, Miami Vice. How your teaser trailer seduced me! As just about anybody who’s been anywhere near me in the last three months knows, I felt that the initial announcement trailer for this movie was pretty much scientifically proven to be the greatest trailer of all time. It contained absolutely nothing but shots of boats, planes, cars, expensive lighting, boats exploding, cars exploding, and beautiful women dancing, all set to flawlessly-chosen music (Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s “Numb / Encore” – it’s techno! It’s hip-hop! Lowbrow people think it’s cutting-edge! Cutting-edge people think it’s lowbrow!) and garnished with a single line of dialogue. And oh, what a line of dialogue it was! “You understand the meaning of the word ‘foreboding’?” asks Colin Farrell, his sensational mustache quivering, expensive cellphone to his ear. “As in badness is happening, right now.” It’s like a Zen koan in its brutal absurdity: memorable, quotable, and vaguely retarded. The line, like the trailer, set the tone for the film immediately: consumed by stylization and hopped-up on uncut drama.

Unfortunately, that line didn’t make it into the final cut of the movie (and believe you me, I was watching for it). The exploding boats did, though, as did the planes and the women dancing and just about every song on the soundtrack (sometimes more than once). But while I’ve got few real complaints about the film overall, I just can’t shake the feeling that the teaser trailer was a more satisfying aesthetic experience. Why do in two-plus hours what you can do in a minute and a half? The frantic lifestyle-porn of the teaser is actually played down a bit in the film, demanding more of a focus on the professional lives of Crockett and Tubbs (played competently, if coolly, more in the emotionally-distant way and not the socially-admirable way, by Farrell and Jamie Foxx), at which point things get a little dicey in terms of believability. The bill for these guys’ hair-care products and salsa dancing lessons alone would bankrupt the Miami-Dade Police Department, putting aside the cost of a vehicle and accessory lineup that would make your average Batman action figure jealous. It’s certainly both fun and interesting to think that vice agents like this exist and are doing this job every day, but the unfortunate reality is that they are most likely doing it with busted-ass equipment, receding hairlines, and stress-induced beer bellies. While Miami-Dade is lavishing all this cash on Crockett and Tubbs, however, it might not hurt to get Crockett, i.e. Farrell, some kissing lessons – there’s an intriguing desperation in both the emotional and physical content of his relationship with Gong Li’s Chinese narcotics operator, but as a make-out artist, the dude seems like he could use some work.

Miami Vice is nothing if not competent, and there are certainly thrills and surprises to be had from both the plot and the filmmaking, but the buzz overall is much mellower than the crystal-meth-dissolved-in-Red-Bull vibe of that glorious, glorious teaser. It’s a respectable addition to Michael Mann’s oeuvre, but ultimately it blends right into that oeuvre, when something with a slightly different tone might have wound up being a lot more… well, fun.

Review: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

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Much like the writers and cast of Arrested Development (who I have mentioned for a third time on this site because that series undoubtedly represents the gold standard of comedy in this decade), Will Ferrell and Adam McKay recognize that even when it's going after the lofty artistic goals of satire, cinematic comedy is all about function, ie, making the audience laugh. Talladega Nights is jam packed full of gags; so many that you may miss many of them on the first viewing. The dialogue is insanely quotable, perhaps even moreso than that of Ferrell and McKay's previous feature length collaboration, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Simply put, Talladega Nights is a ruthless laugh-producing machine.

Though it's clearly engineered for maximum pleasure, Talladega Nights is not lacking in soul, and though it relentlessly goofs on Nascar and redneck culture, it's not heartless either. The actors obviously do not disrespect their characters, and commit whole-heartedly to their strange passions and odd perspectives. Every principal actor in the film brings their A-game to Talladega Nights, most especially the understated Amy Adams, the increasingly Peter Sellers-ish Sasha Baron Cohen, and John C. Reilly, whose comedic chops are so impressive in this film that he ought to never waste his talent on a drama ever again.

Ferrell himself is at the height of his powers in this film, as he riffs on a variation of his George W. Bush impression from Saturday Night Live. As the extremely myopic race car driver Ricky Bobby, he keeps the idiot-cowboy subtext of his Bush characterization intact, while also freeing himself from the limitations of that context, or at least enough to indulge in scenes where he can stab himself in the leg, get mauled by a cougar named Karen, or get in a heated argument about his preference for baby Jesus to all of Christ's other incarnations.

Seriously, just go see it. There's not much more I can say about this film without resorting to fanboy gushing, or filling entire paragraphs with exclamation points.

Review: Monster House

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It figures that the best movie I see all summer is a kid flick. Monster House made me wish I was ten years old again, so I could derive a few extra drops of pleasure from its animation, scares and laughs.

To sum up, a crabby old man by the name of Nebbercracker, terrorizes neighborhood children from his front lawn, stealing whatever lands on his property. DJ, from across the street has an obsession with the bug that's up the old man's ass. It distracts him from the turmoil of puberty, the "hair down there" syndrome. When he and his friend Chowder cause old man to have one conniption too many, he short circuits and goes to a big white building with doctors in it. The house, during old man's absence, assumes a malign life of its own. Shenanigans.

Oh, and it was scary. Children under seven or eight years of age will probably be freaked out by the gnashing of teeth, skeletons and fever dream in the beginning of the film. There were a few just under five in the theater I was in, don't know what the fuck their parents were thinking.

I think this movie is notable for a couple of reasons. It marks the first time for me that I've seen an honest to god animated hipster, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Zee. It's all there people, asymetrical bangs, surly self-interest, devotion to an obscure band, strategically placed rips in her clothing, wouldn't let me sniff her panties...it's all there folks.

Most of the comic relief comes from Chowder, who can't help but be based somewhat on Chunk from Goonies. I'm thinking the producers gave him the movie for research and just nodded and winked. This is not to their detriment at all, Chowder is the emphatically entertaining element to DJ's neurotic earnestness. Jenny, the prep-school member of the tween trifecta, is whipsmart and beguiling as well as on her way to one of the seven sisters.

Look for John Heder as Skull. I want to play Thou Art Dead.

In summation, Monster House was entertaining, really. There were laughs and there were chills, and a nice little lesson about not judging a book by its cover.

P.S. Have you seen the headshots for the 15 year olds in this film? Check it out on imdb. Now that's creepy.

Review: Brothers of the Head

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This movie is about punk the same way that Velvet Goldmine was about glam, tangentially, as it explores the dynamic between two pretty young men and the world around them. This is the punk version. It's all about rejection. Yeah, rejection of the world that rejected them, because Tom and Barry Howe are freaks, conjoined twins and you'll never understand their tortured genius.

Starts out promisingly enough as Tom and Barry Howe are sold to a rich entrepreneur who wants to cash in on their freakiness. He doesn't count on them getting caught in the zeitgeist of the times and turning out raw angsty music that catches the imaginations of the youngsters and not the oldsters. I was hoping for a geek scene, with some chickens, but mainly its rock and roll. Indeed there is a whole lot of rocking in this movie. Almost too much, but it seems pretty right on, and the crowds present have worked themselves into a proper frenzy...so that works.

The faux-documentary feels like a cheap gimmick. Whenever a bit of exposition is needed, cut to a crusty old hasbeen who recounts how this was that way and that was this way. There is also a weak subplot with a possible third brother, dead at birth, possibly within Barry. And that's what makes him so nuts. Finally, while the rise of the brothers is documented well, their fall is given a bit of the short shrift, leaving us, the crusty old saps, their exposition and headscratching.

I felt it was strange that so much of the film is 1975, and young revolt, and no other acts at the time are namechecked or cited. Like the bros created punk in a vacuum.

All in all, the flick was a decent and a worthy effort, but save your ten dollars.

Review: The Ant Bully

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Animated features attract bad writing like MySpacians attract stupid hair cuts. This is probably why I have a hard time convincing my fellow Bingers to see movies like The Ant Bully. These films are geared towards pre-teens (or younger) and the studios figure that good writing would be wasted on them. Pixar has proven this theory wrong on several occasions, but I'm guessing it's cheaper/easier to write schlock. So I can't blame my compatriots for fearing this film, but I'm glad I bit the bullet and saw The Ant Bully; it wasn't half bad.

The story follows in the tradition of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, as a young boy (Lucas) is shrunk by a member of an ant colony who views him as "the Destroyer" due to his tension-relieving outbursts on their ant hill. While shrunk to the size of an ant, Lucas must learn to live like his captors or be eaten by them (I think Bush offered this scenario to the Iraqis). Through the help of Hova (Julia Roberts), Lucas sees that these talking ants are alright and manages to help save them from the exterminator (Paul Giamatti).

The plot was a little plain jane, but that was the way to go. Instead of trying to make up for a simple storyline with zany characters and poop jokes (okay, there was one poop joke but it was funny), writers John A. Davis and John Nickle stayed strong and told a pleasant story. Immediately, I felt empathy for both Lucas and the colony, hoping that the boy would learn the value of teamwork and importance of self-confidence so he could overcome the neighborhood bully, allowing the colonists to continue their bustling lifestyle. Contrast this with Barnyard and it's endless barrage of dumb jokes and a plot barely suited for a 30 minute program (a full review is coming tomorrow), and you'll realize that Ant Bully's a pretty darn good movie.

Unfortunately, the rating of "pretty darn good" is an average of two scores -- the ones I'd assign for adult and kid audiences. While I think 10-12 year olds will absolutely love this movie, I don't know how many of my friends would appreciate it. Sure, it's well written and the characters are easy to love, but it's just not designed for people over the age of fifteen. I have no problem with that, in fact it's slightly refreshing (but that's probably because many say I have the emotional age of a 13 year old). In the end, I'm thankful for any film that can hold my full attention for 90 minutes and The Ant Bully makes it look easy.

Review: Barnyard

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Yesterday, I said that The Ant Bully is a great movie for pre-teens. There was a solid storyline and it didn't rely on stupid jokes. Barnyard decided to go the opposite route. The movie is a constant onslaught of gags and only a few of them stick. What's worse, the jokes are clearly geared towards five year olds, which is a little young for me even. This begs the question of why I'm reviewing this film if I'm more than twenty years older than the target audience. And based on the five year olds laughing in the audience, it's a valid one.

Barnyard is about Otis, a cow teenager, who is a bit of a rebel. He does what he wants, when he wants. When his dad, who is the leader of the farm animals, is killed by coyotes, Otis must grow up fast and learn to lead his friends and protect them from danger. Really, the movie consists mostly of jokes about how crazy it is that animals can talk. The same joke is made about three or four, maybe five thousand times. Just like my review thus far, it's overkill.

The movie was a bore for me and my movie companion, but there were a gaggle of kids who kept on laughing. They weren't laughing the whole time, but they stayed in their seats and didn't lose attention. Impressive, I suppose. I wished it wasn't creepy to walk up to kids and ask them questions because I really wanted to hear what they thought. Was this better than Cars? What about Ice Age? Unless there are some young kids reading this blog, I doubt I'll ever know.

Barnyard was a weak attempt at an animated feature. There was nothing original or unique about the film. In fact, it felt derivative of nearly every other animated film. There was the slightly wacky but kinda lovable main character and his sweet love interest. There was the zany, weird sidekick. There was the wise old sage who helped our leading cow find his way. I may have laughed a few times, but the movie was a waste of time. Would this movie be good for anybody? I think I could only recommend this to parents who have kids who won't shut up and happen to be within arms reach of the Barnyard DVD.

Review: Half Nelson

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Here in New York, the most popular hipster summer activity has been attending concerts at the renovated McCarren Park Pool in Williamsburg. They've been offering a mix of free shows featuring small bands and ticketed concerts with big name headliners, and every ironic mustached dude and bed headed chick in town turns up. This Sunday past, the best performance was from local outfit, Beirut, which is actually a 20-year-old kid with a ukulele, a trumpet, a soulful voice and an eclectic backing band. He mixes a cacophony of influences into something really beautiful and unique. Watching him rock this huge crowd of unwashed irony, I couldn't help but think like a proud mother hen, This Is Indie Rock At Its Finest. I mention all of this because I felt the same swelling of pride at my screening of Half Nelson, another homegrown Brooklyn product that rocks the silver screen with serious indie joie de vivre.

Directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden on the streets of Brooklyn last summer for a pittance, Half Nelson stars Ryan Gosling as Dan Dunne, a middle school history teacher. By day, Dan inspires his predominantly African American students with examples from history who created social change but by night, he feeds a serious hard drug habit. One afternoon after coaching a game for the girl's basketball team, one of his students, Drey (the phenomenal newcomer Shareeka Epps) discovers a high Dan passed out on the bathroom floor, crack pipe still in hand. From this incident an unlikely and at times inappropriate friendship develops between Dan and Drey, as both struggle like wrestlers in an uncomfortable choke-hold to "do the right thing." (Pssst, Spike Lee, first films, and Brooklyn references in that phrase are all intentional.)

Perhaps the most exhilarating part of Half Nelson is that at every moment where the film could devolve into After School Special territory, it strikes off into brand new, cliché-free vistas. Gosling plays a huge part in this, as his performance makes Dan both incredibly likable and yet still despicable. Also his depiction of drug stupor and the stasis of a life with only the goal to make it to the next high seems very believable. Another aspect Fleck and Boden completely nail is the building of their character's worlds with shades of detail. How did Dan end up this way? A dinner party scene with his heavily social drinking parents gives an inkling. Why doesn't hunky Dan have a girlfriend? An encounter with an old flame who used to be a user too begins to fill this in. Why doesn't Drey's family know what's going on with her? A chat on the couch with her EMT Mom gives an idea. None of these moments beat you over the head with psychological causality, yet they add so much to the whole experience of watching this movie.

Sometimes being young, living in a certain place and not feeling any of the pressures to be mainstream can lead to beautiful art. With no one telling these artists what is expected, they can express what's most real inside them. It seems that Beirut, Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden and even arguably, Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps, have stumbled on this magic formula. Their work bursts with originality and heart. They make me happy to believe in the possibility of being indie.

Review: The Descent

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You can chill Sarah, it's over. Please, chill. Please?

As a horror aficionado, I'm quick to admit that a good scream is hard to come by. You'd think it's easy to get a kid to jump out of his seat with some jerky camera movements, loud music and a ghoulish beast, but there has to be some tension built up or no one's gonna budge. I experienced this with The Omen at the beginning of the summer. People jumped the first couple times (if you're coming to a horror film you probably want to jump) but they got tired of it eventually and just let it wash over them.

In the case of The Descent, there was a ton of promise. In fact, the first 75% of the film was incredibly suspenseful, but a lot of that was wasted on a gross-out fest and out-of-character reactions in the closing minutes. In hindsight, going bonkers is probably the more realistic response to bat-like humans who eat anything that moves, but it made for a disappointing close to an otherwise fantastic film.

Not to be mistaken for The Cave, The Descent begins with a family of three and a couple of friends on a rafting trip. The family hops in the SUV to return home, but meets an unfortunate fate when they hit another car head-on. Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), the mom, loses her husband and daughter in one fell swoop. Cut to a couple years later when Sarah and her five best friends reunite to go caving in an undocumented cavern in an effort to help Sarah experience some normalcy (no, really).

The descent (and The Descent) is exciting from the get-go, as the women must eek their way through tight spaces, narrowly avoiding death on several occasions. After Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) suffers a gruesomely broken leg, the group bands together to make it through to the other side. It was around now that we start seeing signs that not all is right, unless you consider man-eating creatures right.

When these man-bats (as I shall now call them) first appear, it's exciting; director Neil Marshall shows only flashes of the beasts and you're forced to imagine the worst. Even when you can get a full view and there are several onscreen at once, it's still pretty frickin' scary (the prospect of being eaten alive fits neatly between death by extreme torture and a repeat viewing of John Tucker Must Die). Things start to fall apart when the tension is incredibly thick but a few plot lines are lacking closure. Instead of gracefully working through the issues between the friends and the mounting threat of the man-bats, shit goes bananas. Sarah becomes a cross-section of Lara Croft and Carrie, killing everything in sight. Yes, there's even the requisite covered-in-blood-now-you're-in-trouble scene.

By this point in the film (there was about twenty minutes left), the crowd seemed to lose interest. When we were supposed to be frightened, people laughed. In the end I was much more scared of Sarah than the man-bats. I guess I'm just disappointed by the disparate amount of creativity in the final act; it just didn't feel like the same movie. Maybe Marshall felt Sarah's insanity was warranted if not necessary, but the mood of the audience clearly shifted. It reminded me of those meaningless splotches of color that you stare at for a while until your eyes focus and you see a 3-D image. I could see that 3-D elephant for an hour and twenty minutes, but suddenly I lost him and saw just a jumble of colors.

Review: World Trade Center

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I was 15 years old when I walked out of a movie theater showing Oliver Stone's JFK. While I don't know if, like Pauline Kael, I "lost it" that day at the movies I certainly felt something. It was biggest rush of a movie-going experience I'd ever experienced. I was dizzy and nauseous and confused as hell and all I wanted to do was see it again and again. So I'm an Ollie Stone fan is what I'm trying to say. Yeah he's a maniac and off his rocker and all that but damn it if he doesn't know how to arrest your senses like no one else. So for a Nixon/JFK/U-Turn groupie like me, the recent years have been tough to say the least.

I had to see Ollie suck it up and channel his considerable talents into a football movie (a football movie?!?) and to add insult to injury it resulted in Ollie's biggest commercial success to date. More recently I sat back and watched from afar the embarrassment that was Alexander. I still haven't sat all the way through that one. Ollie lost me. And it wasn't just Colin Farrell's hair.

I wish I could say now that, having seen World Trade Center, all is forgiven and that one of the silver screen's most skilled practitioners is back in all his glory. I wish I could say that a profound event like 9/11 has once again galvanized Ollie and brought focus and clarity to a mind that can at times become a little deliciously scattershot.

But it just isn't so. WTC hits its marks alright but I for one wasn't interested in what it was aiming for. Ollie and screenwriter Andrea Berloff have chosen to tell a story so narrow and essentially simple-minded that it's hard to give yourself over to it fully. There's little nuance in WTC and for a time that's okay. The opening scenes of ordinary men and women going about their daily lives are profound in their banality. We know what's to come and Ollie recreates NYC that morning in such soft and loving tones that it's hard not to get misty-eyed at the start.

But when it goes down into the hole the story lost me. WTC tells a very specific story of course – that of two Port Authority cops who were buried underneath the unimaginable rubble of the World Trade Center. It's an amazing tale of survival in the face of tragedy and undoubtedly it reads on paper as inspiring. But even Stone can't make a movie out of an inspiring 9/11 footnote. Cutting back and forth from the two cops (admirably played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena) to their worried families the film falls into, yes, a TV-movie kind of a rut. It is what it is — mawkish, heavy-handed, and just too much. Only the small touches work in the end, fine casting of rescue workers like Stephen Dorff and Frank Whaley and a bevy of familiar New York actors who have probably all appeared on Law & Order at one point, and a bizarre story of an ex-Marine whose focus on 9/11 is at turns inspiring and a little disturbing.

His story feels like the kind of thing that old Ollie of my youth could have gotten behind. Instead WTC comes off as a by the numbers feel good flick that could have been directed by one of dozens of studio hacks, not the man who who found a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions in the life of Richard Nixon.

Review: Zoom

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Sometimes a movie is just so god awful it fails across the board. It's not funny, nor visually impressive, nor emotionally touching, and doesn't even make much sense. Zoom is one of those movies. Tim Allen, continuing his string of kid-friendly pap, is Jack/Zoom an ex-superhero curmudgeon playing out the string. He's recruited by the government to train a bunch of super-misfits into recognizing their powers and...uhh, stopping his evil brother from destroying the world?

I think that's what team Hewitt tried to get across, but all that registered was a bunch of kiddie hijinx montages. Sandwiched in between the montages are scenes of authority figures chewing Jack out for not training the kids properly and being a grouch, then back to the montages. When all that nonsense is over, there's a fight scene, a boring non-sensical fight scene, with a pat resolution. Everyone eats milk and cookies.

I'm clearly not the target audience for this flick, that would be five year olds, but even for the kids in attendance the pickings were slim. Zoom fell short in both the gross out humor and action category. I counted one big laugh from the sparsely populated theater...it involved boogers.

Rip Torn, Chevy Chase and Courtney Cox assure themselves of a few mortgage payments by appearing in Zoom. I just want my eleven dollars (UA Union Square Theater) back. Ugh.

Review: Step Up

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When we acquiesce to see bad movies, on some level we hope that they turn out to be like Step Up – hopelessly flawed but essentially inoffensive fluff that is consistently entertaining and invites (intentionally or not) the audience to complete the viewing experience with their own quips and “wtf?” mugging. Watching Step Up in solitude would be a chore, but catching it with some friends with a high tolerance for camp and a talent for inspired heckling is a gift from the cinema gods.

Channing Tatum stars as buff, somewhat thuggish white boy Tyler Gage, who is quickly established as a dance-happy Federline-esque lothario prone to picking fights with gun-toting black dudes. After nearly getting shot, Tyler and his two best friends (both of whom are black, it is worth noting – the film makes a solid effort to present an integrated cast, though on-screen miscegenation is apparently off-limits) end up breaking into a private school for the arts and trash the drama department for cheap kicks. The boys are caught, and noble Tyler takes the fall for his friends, and finds himself sentenced to 200 hours of community service at the school. A few quick plot points later, Tyler becomes the interim dance partner of the super cute and mildly ambitious Nora, who comes from an upper middle class background obviously at odds with his ghetto roots. From this point onward, the movie proceeds to earnestly carry out every cliché that it can, cheerfully refusing to avoid any Hollywood inevitability while also functioning within its own bizarro world logic.

Though there were certainly moments when I wish I could have hijacked the film and had scenes play out in a more ridiculous manner (for example, in my version of Step Up, when Tyler's pals first visit him on the campus, they would have gone on another inexplicable rampage, mowing down students in their busted old car and breaking the windows of the school with chains, all without any direct repercussions), the by-the-book storyline is ideal for audience participation, since it allows us to pick up on telegraphed plot points and find ourselves gleefully rooting for the demise of Tyler's best friend's little brother, who is pretty much marked for death from the very first scene. The predictability also allows us to be surprised by the film's more peculiar moments, such as when Tyler discovers that his young foster siblings are also pretty rad dancers, which in context is a completely random and superfluous development.

Barring a few early scenes which were apparently shot on location in the Rhythm Nation, Step Up is set in Baltimore, which suits the film's narrative in terms of presenting its peculiar socio-economic and racial divide, though the movie only ever makes half-hearted gestures in regards to any possible racial and class tensions that do not involve the poor characters being mildly resentful of their privileged counterparts. Drugs apparently aren't even a factor in this version of Baltimore, which is clearly not the case in our reality, or the one presented in HBO's brilliant series The Wire, though it is sort of fun to pretend that the movie is set in that show's universe since Diedre “Asst. State's Atty. Rhonda Pearlman” Lovejoy stars as Nora's stuffy mother, and a key scene is set at “Omar's party.” I was slightly let down when that kid met his unavoidable doom at the hand of gang members, and they didn't turn out to be part of Stringer Bell's drug ring.

Lovejoy's fellow HBO alum Rachel Griffiths is also slumming in the film in a larger role as the stern but kindly headmistress of the school. Though she lends her role a certain unlikely warmth, Griffiths stubbornly insists on giving a performance that is perhaps a bit too rich for the material, making her seem vaguely silly when she delivers her lines in a strangely imperious, 'luuded-out version of her “Brenda” voice from Six Feet Under. There's nothing vague about her appearance at the end of the film, as she's decked out in a highly questionable suit and sporting an unfortunate hairstyle that makes her resemble Jack Nicholson as The Joker when she's bathed in the white light of a spotlight on stage.

For a film about dancing, Step Up is curiously lacking in sexuality, and stuck in a state of near constant gay panic. Just as there are no references to drugs in the movie, there is likewise no mention of sex at all, whatsoever, even in spite of clear sexual tension and some suggestive dance moves. Tyler is apparently the world's most chaste and chivalrous thug, and much of the movie enforces a strict crypto-conservative social order. When Tyler arrives at the school, he comes across as the rugged alpha male savior of an institution populated entirely by effete, feminine boys who are obviously unfit for hotties like Nora, who is initially involved with the school's closest approximation of a “big man on campus”: an arrogant backstabbing metrosexual Justin Timberlake wannabe who we are meant to distrust at least in part for his relative femininity. In a particularly memorable scene, she auditions a succession of tiny, timid young men who dodge her moves and strain to lift her tiny body before Tyler steps in to provide some much-needed hyper-masculinity.

Everything about the film -- including the severe “bros before hos” stance of Tyler's best friend Mac, who erupts in an overwrought fit of jealousy when he discovers that Tyler has been ditching him for a girl (of all things!) in spite of some very homophobic remarks early in the movie – is in support of a version of reality that seems like an elitist conception of an inner-city utopia in which upper class white culture is capable of rehabilitating any hardened street kid entirely on its own terms. Naturally, this notion is hilarious, and so is this movie.

(This review is dedicated to the memory of Skinny Carter, 1991 – 2006. R.I.P, buddy.)

Review: Snakes on a Plane

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Most of the snakes are much bigger, but this guy is awesome

Many of you have been waiting weeks for this film. Pretty much everyone else is wondering why it exists. Last night I took the plunge and I am here to say, Snakes on a Plane is muthafuckin' awesome. When a studio chooses not to screen a film beforehand, there is cause for alarm, but the muthafuckin' snakes lived up to my expectations.

20060818snakesgirl.jpgBefore I continue, here's a caveat: see this film in the theaters as soon as possible. I'm not saying this because it is a critical entry into the American film canon, but because your enjoyment of this film will be directly tied to the quality of your audience. Seeing this at home, alone and on cable in two years will return a worthless experience. You'd miss out on people hissing whenever there was a mention of snakes, or cheering the title sequence. This movie was built to be seen with raucous teenagers so I implore you to see this film as soon as possible.

As for the quality of the film, it was a b-movie with crappy dialogue, painful acting and an average-at-best plotline. It was perfect. Like Step Up, this movie's so bad it's good. The difference here is that they know it's bad and they ham it up. Yes, there are gratuitous scenes that got thrown in purely because they're gratuitous, but that's awesome. If they hadn't done those reshoots the movie wouldn't have been as much fun. The one character I truly enjoyed was the snake expert, Dr. Steven Price, played by Todd Louiso. He and his FBI counterpart were a hoot to watch.

I could detail all the ins and outs of the plot but it's not worth it. Just go into the theater ready to yell and scream and have a good time and you will. There are more than enough high points in the film to make it worth it and the big payoff was excellent. Of course, it won't be if you wait to see this film on HBO. As my final endorsement of Muthafuckin' Snakes on a Muthafuckin' Plane I offer you this video clip that found its way into my hands. It should do the selling for me.

Review: Quinceanera

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Just to get it out of the way: Quinceañera does not resemble, in any way, the most repellent show on television (and that's quite a competition), My Super Sweet Sixteen, which we do have to give the credit for making the term "quinceañera" familiar to white America in the first place — though it does bear noting that a Hummer limo is a plot point. But if you (like, for example, my roommate) are a fan of that latest iteration of MTV's full-frontal assault against the glue that holds our culture together1, then consider yourself warned going in.

But I do urge you to go in nonetheless, because Quinceañera is a perfectly good little movie. The first hour in particular is excellent: sporting an appealingly unflashy and naturalistic approach to pace and dialogue, and an intriguing combination of both amateurish and superb acting, the film unfolds with a refreshing sense of portraying "real" life — which is a despicably overused and vacant term, certainly, but it's the easiest way to describe the sensation that the action on the screen is not dictated by a determination to express a machine-like plot or a didactic theme. Indeed, the central concern of the plot is revealed only in fits and spurts, all the while retaining a compelling feeling of mystery and ambiguity.

Unfortunately, by the film's end, a line gets crossed and the "maudlin" button gets pressed, turning a pleasantly unconventional film into an almost surprisingly conventional one (if anything "conventional" can ever be described as "surprising"), but thankfully by that point the film has done its work well enough to keep you feeling connected to the characters and invested in the resolutions they arrive at. While that's a testament to the nimble writing and directing of Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland, it's also largely the gifts of the three core actors (Emily Rios as 14-year-old Magdalena, Jesse Garcia as her gay-gangbanger cousin Carlos, and Chalo Gonzalez as their grandfather-figure Tio Thomas) that keep the movie afloat through the more saccharine moments.

While I can't shake the feeling that it could have been a deeply remarkable film instead of a simply enjoyable one if only it had relied a little less on stock plotting, there's more than enough here to set Quinceañera apart from the crop of festival-friendly feel-good "ethnic" films that generally crowd New York cinemas. Pop it into your Netflix queue and be pleasantly surprised when it arrives, won't you?

(1) I never thought I could become such a grown-up-sounding fuddy-duddy, but the more I think about it (and I urge you to do so as well), the more I realize that the broadcast history of the last dozen years of MTV really has been about systematically and vigorously rewarding destructively antisocial impulses on the part of spoiled, sub-human morons. And no, I'm not just bitter because they don't play videos anymore. But that does bug me too.

Review: House of Sand

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Monotony kills. Of all the films released this summer, approximately 96% were comedies, action or some combination thereof. That might be a slight overstatement, but summer certainly isn't the time for a slow-moving drama; it's built for excitement, laughter and good times. So a foreign film that spans 60 years in the sand dunes of Brazil beginning in the 1910s is doomed to fail, right? Unfortunately yes, but it doesn't have to be that way. Studios assume people don't want a movie like The House of Sand during a happy-go-lucky summer, so the film's marketing budget matches that attitude and results in a $6,281 per-screen average (note: that's not so great). I'm here to tell you that there is always room for a quality film like House of Sand, especially during a summer packed with soulless crap.

The movie begins as you'd expect, with a house in the sand (but not made of sand). Áurea and her mother are forced to move into the sand dunes of Brazil by Áurea's crazy husband. He finds death quickly and the two women beg Massu (Seu Jorge), one of the few locals, to help them escape. Since civilization doesn't make it's way into the desert all that often, the pregnant Áurea is forced to build a proper home and have her child there. For approximately ten years, Áurea makes every effort to leave and find a life elsewhere. After realizing all hope was lost, she shacks up with Massu and makes a life in the dunes. The story continues on for another fifty years, as Áurea's daughter Maria leaves their home and eventually returns as an old woman.

The story ends there. You probably noticed that there are few noteworthy moments in the sixty years covered, which poses the question of whether or not this is an acceptable way to live. Áurea believed that her time in the desert was a complete waste during the first ten years while her mother said she'd never been happier. The characters' beliefs flip-flopped throughout the film, but the act of staying in the desert the full time provided validation for those who choose to live a simple life. As support for this, the two hour run time of this film flew by despite a complete lack of pyrotechnics and only their attempts at survival in the desert as fodder. Making the minutiae of their lives captivating is a difficult task in its own right, but having it also be the answer to the film's central question was truly impressive.

Continuity of story and style was the key to The House of Sand's success, but the beautiful production design and cinematography would have been enough. Of course the crew made sure the look of the film jived with the story, but I would have been happy to watch Áurea and her family do nothing at all for the duration of the film. The fact that there was a delightfully poignant moral was icing on the cake; it turned House of Sand from a beautiful piece of art into one of the best films of the year.

Review: Pulse

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"Is anyone still watching?" "..." "Hello?"

At the beginning of the summer, Latin Snake spoke with us a bit about the editorial guidelines for our reviews, and he provided us with the important caveat that some films simply might not merit more than a paragraph of write-up. Until this moment I hadn’t encountered one, but I should have known it would happen before the summer dragged to its end. So yes, ladies and gentlemen, if I wanted to I could review Pulse in two words and two words only, which is the question that was foremost in my mind when I walked out of the theatre: “Why bother?”

But I’ll expand on that question a bit, and in so doing, start a second paragraph, which frankly I didn’t intend to do when I sat down to start a-typing. It should be obvious from the tone of the above that Pulse (or more precisely, Pulse, Brought To You By Motorola) was not a very good movie, and that said question was posed in two directions: the first to myself, interrogating my motives for ever having sat through it (motive: Nobody else on staff would do it), and the second to the filmmakers and production company responsible. Seriously, why bother? If you’re going to make a horror movie, shouldn’t it at least be scary? If you’re going to make a movie about the apocalypse, shouldn’t the apocalyptic bits look different from the shots where someone’s walking down the street in broad daylight? (The visual style for the film is horrendously monotone, rendering moments that should be creepy flat and rendering moments that should be flat, well, even flatter). If you’re going to film in goddamn Romania, are you really going to have the balls to try to pass off a Soviet bloc cityscape as Columbus, Ohio? If you’re going to set up an internal logic as to how the “monsters” (are they ghosts? Are they monsters? What are they? The film never bothers to explain) travel, shouldn’t you also try to follow it, even a little bit, so that the film bears some kind of passing resemblance to reality and can therefore be even slightly disturbing? Had they sent me on the press junket (not that they probably splashed out for one, since the budget was so thin that they filmed in – I’ll say it again – goddamn Romania, and apparently lost the bidding war for Ashanti to John Tucker Must Die and were forced to settle for Christina Milian), I’m sure I would’ve embarrassed a few people with these questions. Before being swiftly ejected.

So yes, I pose the question to you now, dear reader: Why bother? Do not see Pulse (no matter how much you love Veronica Mars – yes, I’m looking at you, fellow nerds). Going to see it crowded out the time and money I would’ve spent on The Descent, which I hear is legitimately both scary and satisfying; please, learn from my wretched example.

Review: Accepted

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If the producers of Accepted had angled for an R rating rather than a toothless yet more profitable PG-13, there's some remote possibility that the film could have been marginally more entertaining, or at least could have failed in a less embarrassing way. The movie hints at raunchiness, but is constantly held back, and there is simply nothing else to fill the void aside from incredibly inept attempts at humor, perfunctory "slobs vs. snobs" posturing, barely competent editing, and a cast that is almost completely devoid of charisma. The characters are uniformly witless in a way that seems frighteningly true to life — if the producers had actually hired a bunch of ordinary kids, the resulting film would have been just as unimaginative and deeply unfunny. Accepted has all the flaws that come from rampant puerility, but absolutely none of its pleasures.

Obnoxious Apple pitchman Justin Long plays the movie's lead in spite of being ten years older than the character, and essentially comes off as the poor man's Zach Braff. Surely there are fewer more damning descriptions in Hollywood, but nevertheless, the filmmakers hammer this point by including an unironic homage to Braff's dreadful Garden State somewhere around the middle of the film. In fairness, Long was working with very poor material, but channeling the comedic timing of Braff and the similarly annoying Jimmy Fallon does him few favors, and when he's emo-ing it up in his compulsory romantic subplot, he somehow manages to be more punchable than Braff and Fallon combined.

Lewis Black, a comedian who can be quite funny when he's performing his own material or appearing on The Daily Show, does his irate loose cannon shtick in his supporting role, but does not merit a single laugh in Accepted. Of course, no one else was funny either, but at least he had some expectations to live up to — virtually everyone else in the cast is a total unknown. Maria Thayer, best known to audiences as being Jerri Blank's perky red-headed pal Tammi Littlenut on Strangers With Candy, has a small supporting role, but I can't imagine anyone expects too much of her when her performance on that show mainly required her to be cute and innocent and oblivious to Jerri's sexual harassment. Well, at least she's cute in this — that alone made her far less difficult to watch than most everyone else in this dire mess of a comedy.

Review: Material Girls

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Walking into see Material Girls, I couldn't help but think about that puerile but sort of biting Pink song, "Stupid Girls." While the tune itself is pretty dopey, its intent as social commentary on this trend in pop culture for young women to market their sexuality, rather than any other attribute like their smarts, kindness or verve, is quite spot on. "What happened to the dreams of a girl president/ She's dancing in the video next to 50 Cent." While Pink didn't dress up as teen poptart Hilary Duff in her accompanying music video for this song, the rouge one's critique of that vapidity rings pretty true for this new movie of Hil's, which also co-stars her older sister, Haylie. In it, Hilary and Haylie plays heiress socialite sisters who lose their cosmetic fortunes when a scandal breaks.

While I never watched a lot of Hilary's Disney pre-teen TV show, Lizzie McGuire, I did like the concept of her character, a smart, socially awkward girl who doesn't get how totally adorable she actually is. Hilary really sold me on being that type of cool, admirable young chick. But unfortunately, her noticeable weight loss as she's entered adulthood has corresponded directly with her equal loss in gravitas, believability and even likability. This movie was so bad and Hilary so bad in it, I literally wanted to gauge my eyes out. It's lucky I didn't have anything sharp in my handbag while watching this movie because I really might have done myself bodily harm. Seriously.

Hilary has little charisma here and her sister even less. Even though they are sisters in real life, their relationship on screen felt forced and awkwardly constructed. Also, for a pre-teen movie about Los Angeles socialites, their clothes were remarkably ugly. Why is it lately that movies which seem to be so much about fashion can not seem to dress their stars in clothes that are both trendy and flattering? In one scene Hilary goes to a fancy party wearing a silk slip, a shrug and a newsboy cap. The slip she was actually wearing as a nightgown in the scene prior and besides, shrugs and newsie hats are so 2003 I could barely contain myself. Even Patricia Field wouldn't stoop so low.

The rest of the movie is hardly less contrived than this seemingly minor quibble. There was nary an aspect of it that I could compliment. The plot pay off feels like a bad episode of Scooby Do, the production design looks like it cost about 47 cents and gawky, skeevy Lukas Haas is the least likely romantic foil for Haylie than you could ever imagine. When those two were on screen together their chemistry was so stilted, I wanted to crawl under my seat to die. I can only hope that the reason why the inimitable Anjelica Huston agreed to appear in this flick as Hil and Hay's sort of nemesis was a life threatening financial crisis. Otherwise this level of slumming on her part, in what was probably the worst movie I've seen this summer, would be criminal.

Review: The Quiet

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Overloaded with cliché, but blessed with an above-average cast and a decent cinematographer, The Quiet is a film which is unfortunately trapped in a limbo somewhere between a typical highly stylized "there are dark, dark secrets in the suburbs!" indie flick, and an especially bleak Lifetime tv movie. Though the writers lay it on a bit thick with the hateful teenagers, pill-popping, and incest, the film is surprisingly watchable, though it isn't terribly involving. The tone is stuck in neutral for the entire duration, and so even its most over-the-top moments wash over the audience like the dull blue lighting in most of the scenes taking place within the home of the core characters.

The plot of The Quiet is both predictable and mildly inscrutable. The level of scorn heaped upon its lead — a deaf mute orphan played by Camilla Belle — is more than a little unlikely, especially given the fact that she also happens to be exceptionally good looking. 24's Elisha Cuthbert, who is credited as a co-producer on the film, is better than you might expect in her role despite being saddled with lots of weak "bitchy cheerleader" dialogue. Unfortunately, she is stuck in too many scenes opposite Martin Donovon sleepwalking through his "creepy dad" role, and the truly abysmal Katy Mixon as her vacuous and slutty best friend to build up much momentum. Edie Falco turns in a typically great performance as the zoned-out "pillaholic" mom if you're able to ignore the inexplicable decision that her character makes in the final act, and shut off the part of your mind that will inevitably think "Hey look, it's Carmella Soprano!"

Since it makes no firm commitment to either being Oscar bait or trashy cheese, it's a bit tricky to isolate exactly why the film does not work, since it helps to understand a project's goals before deeming it a failure. Regardless, its twists are telegraphed too far in advance of reveals that are not particularly interesting, or executed in a satisfyingly dramatic way. At its best, The Quiet seems like a rough draft in need of at least one more rewrite, and at its worst, an unimaginative work with delusions of grandeur.

Review: Factotum

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It's probably safe to say that Factotum is not the feel good movie of the summer. In fact it may be the most wrist-slashing flick I've seen thus far, though I make that comment without a pejorative tinge. There's been plenty of movies I've really loved, which also made me want to throw myself under a bus after walking out of the theater. Factotum is like this, even as it's incredibly depressing, it's also exhilarating with its gritty vignettes, naturalistic performances and subtle cinematography. Also, this could be the best performance of Matt Dillon's career, and that's with taking into consideration such disparate entries as The Outsiders, Something About Mary and Wild Things.

Dillon plays Henry Chinaski, a Charles Bukowski alter-ego who appeared in a number of his novels, including Factotum which this script draws from, in addition to a number of Bukowski short stories. Chinaski is a factotum, a man who does many jobs, all of which he does barely half-heartedly and mostly as a time filler between his drinking, womanizing, gambling and writing. Hank isn't a man who lives to work, he works once in a while, maybe, to get by. The script co-written by Norwegian director Bent Hamer and Jim Stark, a frequent collaborator of Jim Jarmusch's, plays up the episodic nature of Hank's lifestyle in an almost Don Quixote-esque manner. Like Cervantes' hero, Hank has more ideals than follow through and he finds temporary Sancho Panzas for his adventures in his lady friends, played memorably by Lili Taylor and Marisa Tomei, and briefly a work buddy, Fisher Stevens.

All of these excellent performers give nuanced performances, revealing this life on the edge as hardly glamorous. Their lives seems so tough living from one meager paycheck to another rough, cheap night cap, that they can barely speak without evident pain. All of their dialogue is spoken through clenched jaws and half mast eyes. They're tough to watch because they all evoke such empathy. But there's also humor in the movie, for instance in the almost slapstick sequence when an unfortunate Henry comes down with a mean case of the crabs and doesn't heed the doctor's advice on application duration for his medication. There's a glee and yet a tenderness in the way that Taylor wraps ups Dillon's aching balls, that makes for a classic exchange.

There are no real happy endings in Bukowski's world or Hamer's movie, though it does seem that Hank will finally get some stories published that he's been diligently submitting to literary magazines. This movie would rather dwell on the snatches of poetics which can be glimpsed by an artist in this down and out world. Words and their expression are all. They are necessary things. The man who knows this understands that in life "there's only one judge, and that is the writer."

Review: Conversations with Other Women

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Conversations with Other Women tries really hard. This is by far my preference as movies that make zero attempt (ahem, Little Man) never stand a chance. Of course, if you try too hard then that is distracting at the very least. Conversations falls in this camp and leaves me grasping for something concrete to hold onto. It's not that director Hans Canosa's attempts failed, it's that the two main gimmicks were just that, gimmicks. I'll discuss both below, but take note that the second one will contain spoilers, so stop reading now if that's a problem.

Conversations begins the film with a split screen. You're watching the familiar but still entertaining events of a wedding unfold. After the titles, the focus settles on a man and a woman (Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter) conversing for the first time in a hallway. They exchanged several lines of dialogue when I realized the action wasn't going to be occupying the full screen. Nope, this gimmick that made me think another preview had begun when the movie started would continue for the entirety of the film. While I grew comfortable with it later, I couldn't help but focus on the style when I should have focused on the first words they were exchanging. At times the technique was interesting — it let us view flashbacks in one pane while the current events were taking place in the other — but in the end it was nothing more than a gimmick. It didn't add enough to Canosa's storytelling to make it worthwhile, especially considering that it was ever present.

(Spoilers begin here)

The dual screens' proved most effective in obfuscating the couple's relationship. From the get go, it's clear the man wants to get in the girl's pants, but we only learn a little bit about them at a time. In fact, even the film's IMDb page lists the characters as "Man" and "Woman". As the story builds, we learn they have quite a history. First we think they're strangers, then really old friends, then occasional lovers, and finally (big spoiler) we discover they were once married. While the film effectively disguises this fact, it brings into question they're motives. The safe guess is that they use this false story as both a defense mechanism and a sexual game — who knows how many times they've done this — but I just didn't buy it. While I might just be slightly sheltered, it seems unlikely that anyone, especially sane people, would do this in the real world.

So that's the rub, really. Dual screens + ridiculous story = crazy confounding.* To this day I still don't have a firm grip on my feelings about this film (saw it last week). In the end, the confusion in this film makes it forgettable. It felt more like a playground for Hans Conosa than a fully realized movie.

* I have hereby lifted the statute of limitations on Lazy Sunday jokes.

Review: The Illusionist

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It's been a while since a movie managed to put me convincingly in another time and place. Maybe it's just because I don't seek out those Merchant Ivory productions, the one widows watch to make their cobwebbed loins glow. Oh that Anthony Hopkins, so bold!

Anyhow, The Illusionist does succeed in putting the viewer into the softly lit, elegant atmosphere of Vienna (as played by Prague). As the movie unwraps sumptuous scenes, plotting and skullduggery it impresses most for what it refrains from doing.

Edward Norton as Eisenheim the Illusionist has more than a few tricks up his sleeve as a man who has spent the last fifteen years learning secrets of Asia Minor. Why did he go to the ends of the world to learn the secret arts of pulling rabbits out of hats? For love, for Sophie, Jessica Biel, a childhood romance that reignites when a grown Eisenheim has a performance stint in Vienna.

The movie loses no steam when it chases the love story between Jessica Biel as Sophie and Eisenheim, their chemistry is both believable and played just right. No crying or screaming in the rain.

Director, Neil Burger, runs a tight ship. Not a scene is wasted or extraneous and he resists the temptation to find a sappy subplot that would diminish the pervasive sense of yearning. No adorable moppet is a big plus in my book. I'll settle for an adorable Jessica Biel. Oh my, she acted the shit out of those riding pants.

The one place where The Illusionist trips up, only slightly, is at the end of the movie. Burger can't resist explaining how clever Eisenheim is, thereby robbing the movie of some mystic allure, but more than enough is left to leave the viewer satisfied.

Review: Idlewild

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It's rather troubling that the only truly remarkable scene in the nearly two and a half hour duration of Idlewild is essentially a music video tacked on after the movie has ended and the credits are rolling, but given the skill set of its lead performers and director, it's not even remotely surprising. Idlewild is Bryan Barber's first feature after directing several videos, mainly for Outkast, who star in this occasionally whimsical Prohibition-era tale of two close friends from opposites sides of the proverbial tracks who both find themselves facing a crossroads in their lives. In spite of some inspired musical numbers and some special effects-driven visual quirks, the story itself is not tremendously interesting, and suffers from questionable pacing and a lack of narrative focus. As a result, the film never earns its big emotional moments, which fall flat, and sometimes seem random and haphazard.

A lot of the problem with Idlewild stems from the mistaken notion that because Andre 3000 and Big Boi are extremely charismatic performers, that they would obviously be great actors. They aren't bad actors by any stretch of the imagination, but their level of skill as thespians relative to their prowess as musicians is analogous to Michael Jordan's record as a baseball player in comparison to his history in the NBA. When the two perform their songs in the movie, they are magnetic and the film is given a jolt of life, but they are otherwise simply competent, though Andre is the sort of man that demands an audience's full attention even in his dullest moments on screen.

Though the film is being released simultaneously with a lengthy soundtrack album, nearly all of the songs prominently featured in Idlewild are selections from either their bestselling double LP Speakerboxx/The Love Below or the tracks recorded especially for their 2001 greatest hits record. Curiously, the lyrics of the songs are inconsistently reworked in the interest of avoiding lines that are inappropriate to the narrative, so that, for instance “The Rooster” randomly omits an anachronistic reference to tapes and cds in its chorus, but for some reason Andre 3000 still finds himself singing “She Lives In My Lap” to the corpse of his love interest. It's very puzzling and makes a scene that ought to be tragic seem unintentionally uncomfortable and creepy.

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