The Movie Binge

September 2006

Review: Beerfest

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Have you seen Super-Troopers? I fair of my friends have, and the way they talk about it in fairly glowing terms leads me to believe it's got some cult cachet. I don't think my friends'll be doing the same for Beerfest. The mostly empty theater, in just its first week in distribution, lends to that sinking feeling of mediocrity. Lots of respect to the couple that brought in their squalling infant though; the baby squeals did their share of filling up the room with ambient noise.

Let's dispatch with the plot shall we? A couple second generation Americans, Wolfhauses, from German stock head to the motherland to dispatch with Grandpa's ashes. They are humiliated by nasty nasty Germans and just about everyone else. Vowing revenge, they dredge up freaks/friends/whomever they don't seem to be that friendly with each other from their past in order to win the competition. Will they? That's not the point, the point is...

Holy shit, take a look at those knockers!

Yeah, that's what watching this movie was like. A morass of unimportant plot twists, spiked by the occasional pair of fake boobs and just maybe a joke. Too bad, because when Beerfest aimed for total absurdity it was on the mark. I laughed out loud three times, no gut busters, but three solid laughs. The rest of the time we're talking about silly wordplay and making fun of accents.

The movie hits its high points at the beginning and at the end, when the immediacy and chaos of Beerfest is fully exploited. Also worth mentioning is Cloris Leachman as Great Gam Gam, the Wolfhause Twins' besmirched grandmother. Don't get me wrong, her accent is one of the noncomedic prime offenders, but she is gifted with the finest line in this movie. It's a line that contains the wisdom the rest of Beerfest works so hard to avoid, "We're all whores in some way, Mr. Finkelstein."

Unless you're a dedicated Super Troopers freak, give this one a pass.

We're Soldiering On!

For those who have been following along, you've likely noted that Labor Day was the official end to the Movie Binge. How'd we do? Well, we still have another 9 reviews to crank out and we'll be finished! If all goes as planned, you should get those this week. We'll also be posting our thoughts on the proccess next week.

What now? After some deliberation, we decided this was too much fun to quit now. We're going to keep reviewing movies, hitting all the major releases as they come out. The count in the top right corner will stay with our original set of films until we finish the reviews and then move on to the fall releases (Oscar season!). In fact, if you look at the movie calendar on your right or on the calendar page, you'll see we have September's films up already. We'll be filling it in with October through December soon.

You can also expect to see some other new features and general improvements on the site over the next couple weeks. Since the original plan was to end on Labor Day, we need to move things around a bit. If you have any suggestions, feel free to post a comment.

Finally, we're looking for a couple good people to write reviews. Interested? Shoot us an email or post something in the comments and we'll get a hold of you.

We're glad you've stuck with us this long and we're excited for what's ahead, even if that means seeing The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause. [*Shudder*]

Review: Crank

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The end of summer sees a lot of dreck, scroll through The Binge and have a looksee to get my drift. Crank is no different, except in one way, it's truly top of the line dreck, the kind that feels like a two hour lobotomy. It feels great, a little desensitizing, but great.

Crank's Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) is your typical anti-hero. A hired killer/professional asshole who wakes up one day to find that he's been bushwhacked by another thug. In his veins is some brutal Chinese chemical cocktail that will kill him in about an hour, unless he stays amped. By running around like a freak, he'll live just a little bit longer.

He gets a raw deal, but you kind of feel that a murderer's got it coming...still, Chev is winning, the anithesis of the brooding soulful killer. A bad attitude all hopped up on cocaine, redbull, nasal spray, what have you, there are more than a few laughs to be had in Chev's bullheaded approach to each situation.

It works, because where a typical action movie might substitute sappy familial renderings or dwell on the motives of a tortured druglord, Crank substitutes laughs. I'm not going to ruin the jokes, because they're what gives this movie its sublime moments.

Lest we forget, Crank is an action movie. No getting around that. People lose limbs, bullets fly and wounds are received and promptly ignored. For the record its nice to see an action star, a manly man, sport some chest hair. Just saying.

Review: Invincible

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They say you gotta strike while the iron's hot. I think three football movies in a month (this one, Gridiron Gang and Facing the Giants) is an indication that the movie industry gets it. Three could be overkill, but I'm keeping an open mind since there have been some decent football movies in recent years (Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights). While Invincible isn't on the caliber of those two films, it does feature a wee Dirk Diggler running full speed with huge men following behind, trying to clobber him.

While clobbering plays a large role in this movie, Disney puts the emphasis on your easily manipulated heartstrings. Vince Papale is a nobody from South Philly with a deep love for the Eagles. The movie is set in the mid-seventies where Vince and his buddies are struggling to make ends meet and having a crappy football team is just making things worse. Dick Vermeil, the Eagles new coach, calls for open tryouts and our man Vince gives it a go. He dies in the first tryout. Okay, so he makes it to training camp and eventually earns a roster spot on the team. While his first game is rough, he has a game-winning touchdown in addition to some key tackles. Cue the credits.

Yep, that's the end of the movie, the big crescendo. The sudden ending is jarring, especially because Invincible focused heavily on the characters' tribulations up until the last 15 minutes when it was all about football. Whalberg had great chemistry with Elizabeth Banks, who played his love interest, but they just left us hanging at the end. Yes, they had a sloppy make out session before his big games but that was the only payoff. I would have preferred a sappy white picket fence ending to the unceremonious run to glory.

This story arc has been done a million times to great effect and Disney dropped the ball. Disney was so confident that the infallible story arc could drive the film that they assigned a first time director (Ericson Core) and no name writer (Brad Gann) to the film. Unfortunately, they couldn't come through. I didn't have high expectations, but if all you want is for some goosebumps and a forbidden tear from your typically manly husband, you're better off with Remember the Titans. It's only $14 from Amazon.

Review: Hollywoodland

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Hollywoodland wishes it could be grander than it is. From its old timey title, insider lingo and shiny production values, it wants to soar high above the cliffs of tinsel-town like L.A. Confidential and swoop down into its underbelly like Chinatown. But it doesn't. Which is not to say that as an early fall movie it's not passable entertainment, it just ain't art.

Leading the charge for artistic redemption is Hollywood's favorite whipping boy, Ben Affleck. He plays George Reeves, the B list actor best known for his TV role as the original Man O' Steel and for mysteriously ending up with a bullet in his head at 45. His mama doesn't believe her son would kill himself and so hires two bit private detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) to nose about the case. Simo discovers, and we see through glossy flashback, that Reeves was the kept man of industry wife Toni Mannix (Diane Lane). Her husband (Bob Hoskins) a big wig producer one step shy of a gangster and also dabbling on the side, Toni finds with George a sweet report, despite the fact that her checkbook gives her the pants in their relationship.

Some of the best moments in the movie are in the initial seduction scenes between Lane and Affleck. Lane has a talent which only burns more brightly as she gets older. She easily communicates both Toni's knowing sexiness and her desperation as her beauty fades from age. Affleck's performance is also all about conveying former glory through a waning exterior, though in his case, that project is conveniently meta. Just as Reeves thinks he never got a fair deal from the film industry after being typecast as the kiddie super-hero, Superman, Affleck's career has also been hobbled, by tabloid scrutiny and stinkers like Gigli. Hopefully, this decent performance marks the beginning of more complex roles for Affleck, because it does seem that he can do a certain amount on screen.

The part where this movie really disappoints is in its slickness and wishy washiness. The film's loving production design while impressive in its attention to period detail, comes across as merely fancy surface. Any substantial emotional resonance, like the attempts made with Louis's strained relationship to his son, are one note. Superman is a real man, even though Louis's son only sees him on TV, not like his absent Daddy. Can we get more obvious in our symbolism? Unfortunately the train pulls out of Obvious Town when it comes to the murder mystery plot. Because really, who likes their famous mysteries solved by fiction films? Isn't it much better to leave it all open ended and laden with cliche psychology? Director Allen Coulter, a first timer in the feature film arena, sadly seems to think so.

Review: Sherrybaby

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Dreamcatcher? You have GOT to be kidding me.

[Although he will get an official introduction soon, Todd is one of our new writers and this is his first review. Show him some love. Oh, and visit his personal site, thefaceknife.org — Ed.]

Sherrybaby is a film about a compulsive personality — someone who wants what she wants when she wants it (the "it" in this case being mostly heroin, but also sex, being the center of attention, and the love of her child) — set adrift in a world that only sometimes conforms to her whims. As such, I identify. I mean, I am not now nor have ever been a junkie, outside of my addictions to fried foods, gambling, internet pornography, Glade air freshener and cockfighting, but I sometimes fall prey to an irresistible urge I just can't stifle, no matter what the cost to others. You don't have to take my word for it, because the urge I'm trying very hard to suppress is to type out a handful of wrathful sentences that may totally spoil this movie for you.

But hold on — maybe I can conquer my baser urges, stick to the straight and narrow for the length of this, my first ever Movie Binge review. If filmmaker Laurie Collyer wants us to believe that there's hope for former teen stripper/junkie/thief Sherry Swanson (Maggie Gyllenhaal), even after a stint behind bars, maybe I can hold out some hope for my own redemption. I'm going to try really hard and I hope you have faith in me not to screw this up. Cue treacly, recovery-oriented soundtrack tune NOW.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is one of the most appealing actresses working in American film today, and I don't say this just because I admire her willingness to get naked, get spanked and sing offkey onscreen. There is something about those round eyes and that overbite that charm the hell out of me, even when she's playing a hardbitten narcissist whose day-to-day world includes the necessity to spit out lines like "I'll suck your dick for the job I want." Her performance as the title character in this film is a wonderful series of braless grace notes, even when the writing totally destroys any enjoyment I could possibly get from the film.

The other performances are topnotch as well, particularly Danny Trejo (a very familiar face to fans of the cinema of Robert Rodriguez) as a friend Sherry makes in AA/NA who turns out to be more that just a source of immediate gratification. Although, the scene of him burning sage in a little bowl to cleanse Sherry of the evil heroin spirits is a bit much to take in a portrayal of a Native American character. Fuck, he's even got a DREAMCATCHER hanging from the rear-view mirror of his Caddy, a vehicle that Sherry ends up deciding to appropriate for her own whims after the generous Dean lends it to her.

The film is structured around a series of physical boundaries that Sherry successively violates. As a recent parolee, Sherry's movements are restricted first to the state, then to the little unlockable room in the halfway house, then to her hotel room. These various illicit border crossings are a metaphor for Sherry's continued failure, even if now "clean", to recognize and respect other people's boundaries — her brother and sister-in-law, who have been caring for her daughter while she was locked up, being the most egregious victims. The structure works quite nicely as we see Sherry unable to cope with her own boundaries being crossed, like when some dude bumps into her as she gets off the bus from prison, or when her parole officer is unexpectedly waiting for her in her hotel room, or...

Where the movie goes horribly off the rails is to dump a possible "root cause" for all of Sherry's issues into our laps, and even in the annals of bad drama "reveals" this scene reaches some new lows. It leaves no question, no ambiguity as to how the filmmaker wants us to regard to the predicament Sherry's in, and results in (a) an immediate transfusion of largely unwarranted sympathy by the audience to this somewhat unlikable character and (b) a ridiculous sequence where Sherry flees the scene, runs through a variety of neighborhoods until an appropriately druggified one is reached, and spends the rest of the night first snorting then shooting her poison of choice in a sort of comical binge.

As you've probably gathered, this "root cause" is the shocking spoiler I'm jonesing to spill, but maybe it will just suffice to say why I hated the scene so much. There is a premium placed on psychological exposition in American film that I despise. This sort of writing is routinely praised as deep and insightful and more or less determines the way character-based dramas are structured, and I feel it is completely reductive and entirely disrespectful of the characters. As Ryan Gosling's character says in the far superior Half Nelson, "One thing don't make a man," but apparently audiences or movie studios believe just that — that one thing can explain an entire person's life and wrap up all of their choices into one easily diagnosable (and consequently, fixable) disease. Mark off those boundaries for us please, Oh filmmaker!

Although I'm not denying that a formative experience(s) can precipitate a lifetime of compulsive behavior, that doesn't mean it makes good dramatic or psychological sense to drop a scene in the middle of the child's birthday party where Sherry's dad displays some not-new problems respecting the boundaries of his daughter's bathing-suit area. After seeing creepy dad fondle his 24 year-old ex con daughter's boobs (under the shirt no less) in the living room of his McMansion while the kids play musical chairs downstairs, there's little else you can think about for the entire film, and as soon as the film is over you just want to blurt out how bad the scene is and how it spoils the entire movie in both aesthetic and psychological ways. It's an irresistible urge. I'm sorry. You can't say I didn't try. Maybe I'll do better next time. But I'll understand if you're wary.

Review: Mutual Appreciation

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The fact that Mutual Appreciation ends in a group hug blows apart most attempts to connect its style with Seinfeld's "show about nothing" aesthetic, but it is rather telling that the film essentially modifies the tv classic's resolutely unsentimental "no hugs or learning" mandate to "no fucking or learning." Of course, anyone who actually believes that either Jerry Seinfeld's sitcom or Andrew Bujalski's DIY dramedy are actually about "nothing" is incredibly imperceptive. Though Bujalski leaves pained "voice of a generation" ambitions to the likes of Zach Braff, both this film and his exceptional debut Funny Ha Ha examine the lives of post-collegiate middle class indie-ish 20somethings who are quietly flailing through the last remaining moments of the grace period between directionless youth and responsible adulthood. Whereas Seinfeld's principal characters tend to be slaves to their id, Bujalski's cast are dominated by their superegos to such an extent that they consistently deny their every desire, hence the total lack of fucking in his features, though there are a few cringe-inducing close calls.

More than anything else, both of Bujalski's films examine the way his characters use (and abuse) language to obfuscate their intentions and thinly veil their considerable insecurities. His core cast are intelligent and educated, but just barely articulate and rarely if ever self-aware. Bujalski's script (which is so effortlessly naturalistic that it seems improvised, but is not) has an uncanny knack for nailing the sort of linguistic tics that consume their interactions – jokes (good and bad; some well-timed, others not) that pop up to avoid dead air in conversations; rambling monologues full of ideas that are expressed without having been thought through in advance; passive-aggressive digs that fall flat because they err too closely to passivity. His characters are seemingly incapable of saying exactly what they mean, and so we're left to extrapolate from the mess of their dialogue, which is at once incredibly transparent to outside observers, but baffling to one another as they constantly hedge their bets, dutifully avoiding any sort of interpersonal weirdness.

As Mutual Appreciation progresses, some weirdness does go down in the form of a confused, oddly dispassionate love triangle between its leads. Bujalski plays Lawrence, a man nearly devoid of sexual charisma who is stuck in a pleasant but depressingly complacent and chemistry-free relationship with Ellie, who harbors an ambivalent crush on Lawrence's best friend Alan, who has moved to Brooklyn from Boston to pursue a career in ambition-free indie rock. Alan is both inspired and cowed by the level of careerism necessary to simply get by in New York City, and as his star slowly rises, he finds himself repulsed by people who seem to want something from him, and conflates Ellie's unconditional friendship and support with a deeper love. Even as they overcome their reticence to express themselves and come clean about their feelings for one another, they lack the passion necessary to follow through and opt to preserve their unhappy status quo.

It's not a coincidence that the only time Alan ever displays a strong conviction is when he emphasizes to his new drummer that his music ought to never be anything other than amiable and lacking in complexity. (He doesn't come out and say this, per se, but it is the implication of his words.) His avoidance of conflict in his personal life directly manifests itself in the creation of music that deflects strong criticism and seems designed to make the largest number of people in his potential audience nod in vague approval. Like everyone else in the story, as well as far too many people of his generation, he is more interested in being a part of a community than in his own personal expression. In one of the film's best scenes he incoherently proposes a "Cool Inclusive People's Club" that essentially boils down to the sort of low-stakes networking that normally occurs between like-minded friends, and the idea is more exciting to him than his actual art, which is arguably something he only does to gain a social privilege that he never fully enjoys.

Review: This Film is Not Yet Rated

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In the film's opening, Boys Don't Cry director Kimberly Peirce discusses her experience in having Boys rated by the MPAA, and comes to the conclusion that the ratings board is "terrified of female pleasure" and judges it harshly, in a double standard with male pleasure. As she says this, one gets a sense that it's an unsupported proposition, a somewhat reflexive leftist stance (and I say this as a leftist). But then the side-by-side comparisons start — of an "NC-17" female masturbation scene in the comedy But I'm A Cheerleader, placed on the screen next to "R"-rated male masturbation scenes in American Beauty and American Pie. And suddenly Kimberly Peirce is proved absolutely right.

Kirby Dick's documentary is a bold-faced, unashamed attack on the MPAA's "voluntary" film-rating system, and as such, you can't expect it to be even-handed. Some of its tactics — as seen in the still above, Dick hires a private eye to tail and "out" the ratings-board's secret members — are ethically questionable and somewhat oversensational, though the fundamental point regarding the board's thoroughly unnecessary obsession with secrecy (why must film-raters' identities be secret to protect them from influence, when judges, lawyers, FDA officials, and others are all exposed to public scrutiny?) is very sound. Several crucial exchanges between Dick and members of the ratings board are (by necessity) re-created and dramatized, lending those scenes a suspect and unfortunate air of he-said she-said ambiguity. Overall, while the rhetoric is generally shrill (if crudely satisfying for its shrillness), the points the film makes remain iron-clad — especially damning is the experience of South Park's Matt Stone, who describes the profound difference in treatment between submitting independently-financed and studio-financed films for review (namely, when submitting a studio picture, the ratings board provides point-by-point feedback on what would need to be altered to get an R rating; for an independent film, zilch).

The documentary characterizes the NC-17 rating as the kiss of death for any film with serious content, as it prevents wide distribution in both theatres and the home-video marketplace and cuts out most advertising opportunities; but it skims over the implications of this question: who is really performing the censorship of such films, the MPAA or the supply-chain that rejects them? The MPAA ratings board represents a conveniently-targeted bottleneck in this chain reaction, certainly, but a deeply interesting documentary could also be made exploring just who it is down the line that doesn't think adults deserve access to serious films of an adult nature. But as an entertaining piece of rabble-rousing that does blow some particularly large holes through the MPAA's ratings rhetoric (and some of the shadier business practices of the industry at large), This Film... is an unquestionable success.

Review: Crossover

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Proof that this is the most authentic streetball movie of all time. Word to your mother.

In hopes of save you time and mental energy, I will share this single fact about Crossover before continuing: Wayne Brady — the affable man from Whose Line is it Anyway? with a knack for improvisational songs and a comforting smile — plays Vaughn, an ex-sports agent running an illegal streetball gambling ring in one the most dangerous parts of L.A. If you still want to know more about this film, then you are either a glutton for punishment or learning to read and haven't quite processed that sentence yet.

Crossover is about two good friends who make choices about basketball, women and their futures. While Tech wants to make it big via basketball or Hollywood, Cruise is looking to be a doctor. The irony is that Cruise has the talent to go pro, but he's too big for that. The remainder of the film sees each man lose his dream, only to earn it back and, of course, grow from the experience.

After sitting through a 90 minute shitstorm of clichés, I came to this conclusion: director and writer Preston A. Whitmore II created the abstract for the storyline and outsourced the actual scriptwriting to a classroom of twelve year-old girls living in the whitest suburb of the whitest city in the United States. How else could you explain lines of dialogue like these:

  • "Baby girl, it's off the chain breezies."
  • "Cruise, you wanna cruise with me?" "Yeah, whateva's clever"
  • "I can't front, I'm feelin' ya, but I can't do this if you're not feelin' this."
  • "Now you got some karats to go with that salad!"

Imagine these said with Dave Chappelle's white-man voice and you'll have a decent idea of what is happening here. The plot was just barely less inventive than these lines of dialogue and the characters only slightly more engaging.

Now that I think about it, this may have been a clever joke by the creators of Arrested Development. This is the final production from Maeby's career as a studio executive. Right? Please?

Review: Trust The Man

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So I will freely admit that I, being a Big Gay, have a slightly skewed view on modern American masculinity. But really, is it only me who's horrifically tired of movies in which straight guys who are pretty much irredeemable assholes can wind up showered in praise, winning the girl, saving the day etc. just for becoming marginally more aware of the fact that they are sad sacks of shit? Not that they actually change in any way; they just get to say "Yeah, I've been a bad guy" and the trumpets sound and all is forgiven. Does it really work that way out there? If so, women of the world: Why do you stand for it? And if you're putting up with it in the real world, why put up with it at the movies too?

Trust The Man is a complete masculine fantasy — a 180-degree content switch from something along the lines of Die Hard, sure, but ultimately just as absurd in its way. The film follows two male characters — David Duchovny as a mid-to-high-range sad sack, and Billy Crudup as a five-alarm, apocalyptic, "why do you use my precious share of New York City oxygen" -grade sad sack, along with their significant others Julianne Moore (God bless you, dear, you do try your best with whatever material gets handed to you) and Maggie Gyllenhaal, through break-ups, make-ups, and all else that they do. In the process, nobody learns anything. No, seriously. Duchovny learns that it's bad to cheat on your wife, and Crudup makes some kind of mumbling admission that perhaps being childish, petty, aggressively non-intimate, intellectually absent, and utterly lacking in morality is not the surest path to a woman's heart. But it doesn't appear to change their characters at all — and while maybe that could be an interesting gender-war point, the film ends on a completely triumphalist note, beaming with pride at the characters' "reinvention." To which I can only cry "bullshit, bullshit, bullshit." As mentioned before, Moore plays her character well, and Duchovny has a certain level of low-wattage charm (I love the guy, but he's up there with Caruso in the TV-to-film career-suicide sweepstakes), but Crudup's character is simply an abomination (hairstyling included) and no performance can redeem such a horrendous part. Please, if any of you out there happen to see this movie (I don't recommend it) and see your significant other on-screen, then in the acronym of the immortal Dan Savage: DTMFA. And tell him exactly why. Gene Parmesan, your Love Private Eye, demands it.

Review: The Wicker Man

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First of all it's not nearly as horrible as you've heard. In fact it never even approaches the level of awful such soulless Nicolas Cage works as 8MM or Gone in 60 Seconds seemed to marinate in.

No, Neil Labute's The Wicker Man, a remake of the cult 1970s Christopher Lee film of the same name, instead turns out to be a curious misfire. It's a film that never really gels or approaches coherent storytelling but maybe, that was the point? Am I being too kind? Honestly I'm not sure. I'm not sure if writer/director Labute sees this story of a cop way out of his depth looking for a lost girl on a mysterious island as a black comedy, a straight laced "adult horror" film (beware the "adult horror" label, it often means devoid of suspense) or an odd hodgepodge of both.

I chose to see it as the former (because surely it does not succeed in the latter) and when I gave myself over to it, doggone if I didn't enjoy it on a certain level. Yes, there are problems. Clearly there are problems. One of my most overused phrases when talking about films tends to be, "it was a mess" but in this case...well it really is. Action scenes lie there flat. Odd and too frequent flashbacks by Cage's tortured cop get tedious and laughable. And all in all I never really cared for Cage's performance. He doesn't go far enough in camping it up or playing it straight for me. Consult Johnny Depp’s Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow for an oh so much more alive take on a similar predicament.

But there are pleasures to be had in this weird little flick. Creepy witch-like twins who seem left over from a production Macbeth. Lunatic servant girls drop-kicked by Nic Cage kung fu moves that really come out of nowhere. And let's not forget a climax that finds Cage disguising himself in a bear suit! Damn it if I didn't smile as I shook my head in disbelief.

In a way it all makes perfect sense. Labute spends 100 minutes tearing away any kind of masculinity and authority of Cage's cop. Cage is a cop with no jurisdiction on an island with no use for men (aside from some menial labor of course). Why shouldn't he be making a fool of himself underneath all that fur by the end?

And you thought it didn’t make any sense...

Review: The Covenant

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The Covenant is a film so utterly wrecked by the tedious contrivance of its high concept that it barely matters that the rest of the production is extremely shoddy and half-assed. As the filmmakers go through great pains to set up the boring rules and details that set it apart from other teen-witch stories, they render their own central metaphor unintelligible. Take your pick – it's either some tired “mystical powers as a metaphor for drug addiction” story that was trite even in the context of the generally brilliant Buffy The Vampire Slayer series, or some garbled thing about fearing the loss of male sexual potency with age.

In spite of some perfunctory cheesecake shots scattered throughout the picture, The Covenant is mainly concerned with the power and privilege of young male sexuality, though its ideas on the subject are extremely unclear. The film doesn't shy away from homoeroticism, but the sexually charged interactions of its blandly hunky male leads are so lacking in urgency and subtext that it seems to be entirely for the shallow titillation of horny girls who want to see hot guys together, but aren't sure if they actually want them to be gay. Though this is a pleasing mainstream reversal of the “girls lezzing out to turn on fratboys” shtick that has become so mundane in a post-Howard Stern America, it's not any less timid and boring.

Review: The Protector

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How do you feel about the sound of arms breaking? Do you eat cornflakes in the morning dry and say to yourself, "Goddamnit, these just aren't giving me the satisfying crunch I need in my life"? Do you look at Steven Seagal and think, he should put down the sword, gun, ponytail and stick to snapping joints like a fat guy at a buffalo wing bonanza? Then you just might like The Protector starring Tony Jaa and a bunch of schmos. Then again you might listen to the hundreds of compound fractures happening in this movie and decide you're over it.

With the plot's complexity falling somewhere between Nintendo's Kung Fu and Megaman 3, Tony Jaa runs around snapping the arms of people too stupid to shoot him in an effort to find...his elephant. Cultural blind spot here, elephants are worth the lives of hundreds of people. Not just villains either. In his efforts to find Khorn and Dumbo (his two kidnapped elephants), our sociopath hero ignores the plight of a dozen women forced into prostitution as well as caged endangered animals that didn't have the luck to be elephants.

Poorly dubbed, poorly acted, poor film quality, all not that important when one considers that The Protector is a Tony Jaa movie, no one is there to rave about the cinematography. So let's get down to it: the action is...ok.

Don't get me wrong, the main man is a physical talent. He is insanely fast and acrobatic and really knows how to throw an elbow, and of course, snap people's limbs. The thing is, it wears thin. The sets are mediocre, a warehouse, a restaurant, an office, a park. The enemies are rote; there's the bike riding thugs, the kung fu thugs, the thugs who can't shoot, the steroid rager thugs, the tiger-lady with a suitably feminine yet dangerous weapon (whip) and that's about it. Tony Jaa dispatches all of them with equal aplomb. With the end never in doubt, the viewer is left to imagine what could have been had someone gone further with the idea for this movie rather than Tony Jaa in a room with 40 bat wielding thugs...unless of course you love the sound of bones snapping. Then you're golden.

Review: Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles

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For some art house movie going experiences, the best part is not the movie itself but the process of visiting the cinema. In my life there have been a number of movie houses, like the Park in Palo Alto, CA and the Egyptian in Seattle, WA, that I've loved beyond measure because going there felt like an authentic intellectual experience. The Quad in the West Village is a bit like that. From the lobby's posters for Cinema with a capitol C to the train station boarding area feel to the theater entrances, it's the sort of space which cries out for bearded, elbow-patched pretentious dudes and subtitles galore. All of this movie geek atmosphere contributed immensely to my opinion of Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles, a movie I finally got around to seeing last weekend.

It's fitting in a way for me to see this movie at the Quad because Zhang Yimou's previous movies like Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou contributed greatly to my romanticizing of foreign cinema. As a member of the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers—artists funded by the state but also critical of its hinderances on their product as it began to break out on the international stage—Zhang makes two types of movie, those that romanticize Chineseness and those that gently poke fun or criticize it. Riding Alone is the latter, a flick about the emotional aloofness of the Japanese and the comedy of errors that is trying to get anything done in China. A Japanese fisherman tries to reconnect with his terminally ill son by traveling to China to videotape a Chinese folk opera performer the academic son has been documenting. But of course, language difficulties, distance and the ridiculousness of government officials make this a much more difficult task than it should be.

This is I think the first movie of Zhang's where the intercession of modernity plays such a huge part in connecting people, and it's surely one of the subtler strokes in his thematic palette. His scenes of villagers tromping to rooftops in search of a signal for a cell phone conversation between the chief and a remote translator or the power conveyed through a deftly shot digital picture of a young child are really arresting. Sadly, the rest of the movie is not so gentle in communicating intended meaning. For a guy who's supposedly as taciturn as our protagonist Takata, he shouldn't have quite so much damn voice over. I completely got that the character would be thinking about his dying son as he holds the little lost son of the opera singer, Yang Yang, I didn't need to be told as much. It's surprising that Zhang would think it necessary, but maybe he's hoping for "dumb" audiences who embraced Hero, his bombastic color epic, to also jump on this bandwagon.

While I do enjoy Zhang in that over the top epic vein, it's nice to see him further exploring his potential as an art house director of small, character driven dramas after a spate of hugely popular blockbusters. This one may not be the best of his abilities but the fundamentals, from his signature lush photography to his knack for well chosen non actors, are definitely in place.

Review: Rolling Family

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Subtlety is hard to portray in marketing-speak. Everything must be a "feel-good comedy" or "spine-tingling horror." This trailer for The Shining, which was recut to look like a comedy, is only funny because studios have a habit of doing whatever is necessary to market a film. After seeing Rolling Family, I think I understand their motive. While it was neither bad nor good, the film washed over you, a sea of events that were all mildly entertaining. Trying to get an audience excited by a Rolling Family trailer would require long nights and many pots of coffee.

You can think of Rolling Family as a Spanish-language version of Little Miss Sunshine (it even had a van-pushing scene). At the behest of the matriarch, a family of eccentrics must drive cross-country to attend a wedding. Familia Rodante (that's español) replaces corpses and strip teases with lots of sexual tension. Unfortunately, it never really ended up being funny. It was engaging at times, but the film skews towards the drama end of a dramedy. I didn't laugh out loud once.

Raul Viñona, who played Gustavo, was the standout of the film. Gustavo is a teenager forced to choose between two suitors — his cousin and her friend. While none of the hijinx were everyday occurrences, Gustavo seemed genuinely conflicted while his family members were all character actors. This was the downfall of the film, as the subdued pacing didn't match the temperament of the characters. I hate to be harsh, as Rolling Family was far from crappy, but it didn't do much to stand out.

Review: The Black Dahlia

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There’s a well-established sub-genre of crime pictures in which the writer sutures the fallen universe of film noir to the mythic origins of Los Angeles and the Industry that put it on the map. The metaphorical valences certainly make this tempting – light and dark, angels and devils, innocence and corruption, and image and reality (not to mention the naughty excitement that comes with writing about how sinister and deviant your business, the film business, is), but for all the classic pictures that manage to pull it off properly (Chinatown, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) there are too many that don’t quite manage to join the two parts, and end up as a hollow, absurd parody of these films.

Such is The Black Dahlia, and the first question to be answered is how anyone could mess up a film with such grimy and archetypal material. The story of the The Black Dahlia murder is the story of a young actress whose creatively mutilated body was found in a field in Los Angeles. Her butcher was never caught. The story of The Black Dahlia, the film, is a policier in which one not-very-innocent cop (Josh Hartnett) teams up with an even more not-very-innocent cop (Aaron Eckhart) to try and catch the Dahlia killer. This quest for headlines or redemption or whatever leads them into an overwrought but altogether unsexy demimonde of lesbian cabarets, underage porn, classic silent film and the creeps who made ‘em. Hartnett has no personality I can discern, and while Eckhart’s character is supposed to be hopped up on bennies through most of the film that’s no excuse for his histrionics. Scarlett Johannsson, the third leg of the listless love triangle, acts as if people from the 40s acted exactly like people in movies from the 40s. She’s more part of the décor than anything else, waving around a cigarette holder like it’s the coolest old-timey device ever.

The unnecessarily convoluted plot leads Hartnett to the trampy daughter (Hillary Swank) of a prominent Los Angeles developer, providing us with the only enjoyable scene of the film, a macabre dinner party that is ruined in retrospect when it turns out that one of the sub-Lynchian creeps involved was not mere perverse window dressing but meant to represent an actual person with actual motivations. Well, actual person and actual motivations in the context of the “types” involved here – there aren’t really any characters in this story, but the writing is only one of the problems.

The film is as poorly assembled as the decrepit Hollywoodland bungalows that expository dialogue points to as the source of Swank’s father’s wealth. There’s a laughable scene where one of the main characters plummets from a balcony in cheesy slow motion, an even more laughable scene where Josh Hartnett sees the Dahlia corpse in his minds eye and we get three quick cuts to closer and closer shots of the body, and several examples where previously innocuous dialogue is resurrected for exposition purposes via voice-over. I suppose that last part’s necessary, as the story sure wasn’t clear enough to tell itself.

It’s the preposterous linkage between the developer, the murdered girl’s porno debut and a hidden clue in the décor of Paul Leni’s silent classic The Man Who Laughs that requires the most explication, and if that contrivance is what’s necessary to pair up the Biz and the murder then perhaps we’d have been better off as audience if the writers’ ambitions were a little less grand and a little more serviceable. What we get instead is a silly little noir that probably reads much better on the page than it plays onscreen.

Review: How To Eat Fried Worms

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There comes a time in every adult's life when they realize they simply can't engage with a child's world in the way they used to, and it would appear that I've reached it. Luckily for me as a reviewer, that topic happens to be one of the minor themes in How To Eat Fried Worms; the main theme would appear to be something along the lines of "It's bad to be a bully" or "Worms are gross," but there's an entertaining and refreshing element of What Goes Unsaid taking place in every exchange between adult and child in the film. Your boy Will was right: Parents just don't understand. (Of course, that cuts both ways — the film's father figure, played by Tom Cavanagh, has a few token grown-ups-only office politics scenes that, while clearly kept in the film to briefly perk up the drowsy parents who shepherded their children into the multiplex for an hour and a half of relative quiet, also highlight the mirror-image troubles adults are dealing with in the hours when they're not with their kids.)

As you could probably guess from the title, though, the real business of How To Eat Fried Worms is in gross-out humor, and while the movie could've aimed lower on the scatology scale and blissfully doesn't (not many poop jokes to be found, for example), it still manages to extract a good number of gratuitous, child-pleasing but vaguely pornographic incidents of nastiness from its food-centric focus. There's something vaguely queasy that's endemic to the enterprise of entertaining children with gross-out gags — maybe kids can't think through all the implications of shoving squirming worms into one's bathing-suit area, for example, but the adults writing the screenplay certainly can — but in this particular instance, the film manages to incorporate enough pleasantness and unforced geniality that the serious ick-factor (on an ethical as well as a visual level) remains tolerable.

Review: Al Franken: God Spoke

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Al Franken is a funny man. As a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live for many years, he knows how to put an audience into stitches with his dead on impressions and characters. But in the last few years, the funny guy has transformed into the guy with the political conscience, taking his comic timing and well placed zingers into the political commentary arena. The new documentary, Al Franken: God Spoke follows this transformation from the first days of Franken's contribution to the liberal radio channel, Air America through to the crushing defeat of the Democrats in the 2004 election. This is a movie that shows explicitly what happens when someone who's spent most of his career entertaining people decides to use his access to the public to do more.

I suspect however, that most of the people who'd be buying a ticket to see this movie will be in the "preaching to the choir" section of the political spectrum. They're probably also the folks who listen to Air America in the first place, not those who chuckle gleefully when the Drudge Report says that AA is about to declare bankruptcy. Sadly, this seems to be the whole problem with the left in America these days, they spend a lot of time listening to what the right says and thoughtfully trying to refute it, while the right just continues on blithely with its own agenda. In the documentary, Franken spends a lot of time taking well aimed and witty pot shots at Conservative mouth pieces like Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter, but where does that get him? Sure, my New York media elite audience thought the movie was funny but is Franken converting any actual undecided hearts and minds?

Political agendas aside, God Spoke is a well made documentary, though you'd hardly expect any less from the team involved. Directors Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob along with producer D.A. Pennebaker have made some really excellent non fiction films in the past, like The War Room and Startup.com. I just hope that their track record of capturing American zeitgeist moments with their cameras transfers that level of importance to Franken's quest. As the film ends, it seems that he has intentions to move out of show business and into elected politics. Might I suggest a Franken/Jon Stewart ticket for maximum pop culture effectiveness?

Review: The Last Kiss

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"Infinite Crisises"

Adapted from Italian filmmaker Gabriele Muccino's 2001 picture L' Ultimo Bacio but warped into an Americanized romantic comedy with delusions of grandeur by shameless Oscar-baiting hack Paul Haggis, The Last Kiss fronts as a critique of the commitment-phobic mentality of its male protagonists. Instead, the film neutralizes any potentially valid points by steering clear of any serious consequence for the often contemptible behavior of its leading men. What's more, the obvious desire to make its characters likable ups the ante from "lack of consequence" to outright reward, and the result is a film that perversely romanticizes and celebrates the relentless self-absorption of its cast, and serves to fuel the fantasy lives of real narcissists who map out their loathsome personal narratives in part on bad movies.

As fellow Movie Binger Chris Conroy notes in his review of the thematically similar Trust The Man, simply acknowledging one's flaws and making a half-hearted apology or two is not the same thing as redemption, nor is it even a substitute for self-awareness as the characters' desperate groveling is at best a pathetic attempt to con their way back into a liveable status quo until they once again fall out of line. There's nothing wrong with presenting these sort of characters in fiction if they are portrayed with some modicum of intelligence and honesty (check out the tremendously unsentimental characterization of Nate Fisher in the later seasons of Six Feet Under for a good example), but the creative timidity of everyone involved in The Last Kiss flips what ought to be an unflinching and uncomfortable depiction of the rampant cowardice and selfishness of its whiny, privileged characters into what I can only hope is an accidental sort of endorsement. Everything about the movie whimpers "accomodate me, embrace and assuage my neuroses," and it's played off as a form of noble suffering rather than for what it is: thoroughly punchable in its refusal to take any sort of responsibility, and insidious in its emo misogyny.

Zach Braff, whose occasionally grating presence is among the least of this film's considerable problems, stars as a young architect (his job doesn't really figure into the story, though it's just about the most generic movie-yuppie occupation outside of publishing, isn't it?) who has been avoiding getting married to his pretty yet boring girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett, whose acting career seems to have benefited from the fact that almost no one remembers the season of The Real World that she was on back in the mid-90s) even though she's recently become pregnant with his child. He ends up cheating on her with a perky undergrad played by The OC's Rachel Bilson, but his ineptitude in concealing this liason results in him being found out by his girlfriend before the night is through.

It's all rather dull as far as infidelities go, but that would seem to be part of the point. Before, during, and after this event, Braff's character spends a lot of time moaning about hating the mediated rituals of straight moneyed normalcy and fearing a life without “surprises,” but he can't even manage to rebel against that with any sort of imagination. The same lack of personality and courage that has him sleepwalking through his bland life is exactly what informs the non-decisions that he makes as he awkwardly attempts to shake himself free of a larger psychological problem that he does not comprehend. He's doomed because he always takes the path of least resistance, not because he lied and made a mess out of a comfortable situation. The Last Kiss teeters on the brink of this awareness, but much like its chief protagonist, it errs on the side of buying back its audience's shallow sympathies rather than actually engaging with the root of its problems.

(Special thanks to Hannah Carlen.)

Review: Gridiron Gang

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While I proudly wear my Urlacher jersey from September through January, being the lone sports fan at the Binge requires me to watch sports movies, which is oftentimes far less entertaining than the real deal. There have been successes (Caddyshack and Slap Shot, duh), but we all know there's a lot of schlock out there. Today, we'll tackle both (holy crap, a pun!) and we'll start with the good.

It was two short weeks ago that I complained about Invincible's lame attempt at pulling my heartstrings, claiming that Marky Mark and Disney couldn't make the magic happen. The Rock is no Mark Wahlberg. I don't know how he did it, but I shed multiple tears during Gridiron Gang and it was the Rock who got me there. Well, it was the Rock and the story of a couple dozen kids from the wrong side of the tracks who decided to turn their lives around.

The Rock is Sean Porter, an officer at Camp Kilpatrick, a juvenille detention center in LA. Many of the kids are gang members, most have multiple offenses and none of them seem to be changing much from their experience in juvey. Porter wants to make a difference and realizes football would teach the kids discipline and give them something positive to work towards. As expected, they succeed, but it's their personal journeys that are inspirational.

Director Phil Jounou does an amazing job of showing both sides of these kids — their rough street attitude and the fragility of their young psyches. We've all had moments where we're forced to let our guard down and take a chance to make things better, but it's moving to see kids who have no future make a turn for the better. I'm rarely swayed by the "inspired by true events" angle, but it made a difference here. As the credits rolled they showed the real Sean Porter talking to the kids, which was followed by kids crying and saying they just want their mothers to love them. How can you not break down?

Some movies are guaranteed to move you to tears (Schindler's List), but I wouldn't put Gridiron in that category. Part of what makes a movie like this effective is your mindframe going in. Thankfully, the Cinecultist beamed about this movie and I went in expecting good things. It doesn't seem like movie critics at large were able to do the same. If you're looking for an uplifting film on a dreary day this fall, please see Gridiron Gang. It won't change the world, but it might put a smile on your face and inspire you to do something good for someone else.

Review: Everyone's Hero

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Have you heard of the Backyard Baseball? Professional players are turned into kids and it's sold something like 300 million copies to kids under the age of ten. Now this may be insane, but I think the producers of Everyone's Hero might have been going for the same demographic. Unfortunately for them I am older than ten, am not a fan of the Backyard Sports series and my favorite baseball team is the Cubs, who happen to be the bad guys.

Our hero is Yankee Irving. His dad works on the grounds crew for (shocker) the Yankees in the days of the Babe. While visiting his dad, Lefty Maginnis — the hated Chicago Cubs pitcher — steals Babe Ruth's bat, Darlin'. Yankee and his buddy Screwie, the talking baseball, must chase Lefty all the way to Chicago to get Babe back his bat. As expected, Yankee recovers the bat. The twist ending is that he also gets to bat for the Yankees in the World Series. Gee willakers!

Okay, I'm being a bit harsh on this film. The truth is it was made for five year olds and I have a feeling they'd enjoy it. The kids around me didn't laugh much, but they also weren't crying or running around or peeing on anything. What did make me happy was that Everyone's Hero was truly a cartoon. People got knocked off trains by signposts at 60mph and lived. While some folks may be happy to relive the days of the Babe, I'm happier reliving the days of Bugs Bunny and Warner Brothers cartoons.

Review: Keeping Mum

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It's maybe the easiest game you can possibly play in movie-land, but "Spot The High-Concept Pitch" is honestly a pretty useful tool for summing up a movie's content in as few words as possible. Since most of the people I've talked to in the last week had no idea that Keeping Mum existed, I found myself forced to communicate the essence of the film as quickly as possible, and the high-concept I arrived at — potentially the very same one that got them their funding — was "Mary Poppins with blunt-force trauma." Box office history, here we come!

Keeping Mum isn't a particularly remarkable film, but it isn't a particularly bad one either; indeed, it's got a lot of charm going for it, and while it never really breaks out of the deeply predictable course it runs (a pretty standard British black-comedy trajectory, though it's certainly not as ink-black as perhaps it could be), it never becomes particularly frustrating or at all unwatchable. Kristin Scott Thomas (whose understated performance manages to play up her likeability, straight-man comedy chops, and her natural beauty) plays the frustrated housewife, Rowan Atkinson (keeping it low-key for once, to strong effect) is her deeply dull village-vicar husband, and Maggie Smith rolls in as the more-than-slightly homicidal nanny who brings their family together. All three are quite strong in their parts, and only Patrick Swayze is out of place (though not miscast per se) as a louche American golf pro with "romantic" designs on Scott Thomas' very married character. Again, the film is rather predictable, and not as demented or unhinged as the premise might have allowed it to be, but it seemed to hit the comedy sweet-spot of the mostly 60-something audience I saw it with (seriously, I was the youngest person in the theatre in Chelsea on a Saturday afternoon). If anything British will tickle your fancy, you could absolutely do worse than Netflixing this one, but it's not going to land on your Best Comedies Ever list any time soon.

Review: Flyboys

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Watching Flyboys, a new movie starring James Franco as a WWI flying ace, it’s surprising how few honest to god genre movies get made these days. This flick could have just as easily been made during the height of the studio system with contract players and a journeyman director for hire. There’s little here that smacks of innovation, with its intently three act structured plot, single note characters and falsely stirring, string-laden soundtrack. But there must still be moviegoers who don’t want more from their film going experiences than to be a little romanced, a little stirred and a little entertained. In this modest enterprise, Flyboys is an ace.

Much of the success should be laid squarely on the broad shoulders of James Franco. His winning but gentle masculinity makes him an actor cut from the old school mold. He goes out to do a job—to play the moderate outlaw who redeems and leads the squad of Americans in the French air force—and does it. End of story. He’s the kind of matinee idol you can take home to your grandmother.

The bulk of the flick is a series of increasingly complex bi-plane air fights peppered with a bit of G rated, PC boy bonding. The one who wants to be a hero learns the real meaning of courage. The fat, rich one learns to accept the black one. While the screw up comes to terms with his war wound and gets to save the day. It’s all not rock science, or even newly developed bi-plane science. It’s just by the number plot exhibition.

If the cineplex were like a bookstore, Flyboys would be one of those paperback novels you can find near the exit for that last minute impulse buy. It's distracting, though not very substantial.

Review: The Science of Sleep

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I am looking at my notes for this movie, the sometimes intelligible scratch that results from writing in a dark theater. They're rather scattered. Every time I get going on a topic it gets chopped up. There's "fever dream" next to "purple suit" next to "Stephane TV" next to "full of shit," and so forth. Some of it meshes, most doesn't, but it hardly matters, because I remember what kept me rapt throughout The Science of Sleep kept. It was the act of interpreting the dreamy logic populating. Messages that are felt rather than understood.

Stephane, as played by Gael García Bernal, returns to his childhood home in Paris after his father's death. An artist he comes with the idea that he has a plum creative job waiting for him, courtesy of his mother. When he finds it's a rather dull layout job for a seasonal calendar, he puts most of his creative energy into the courtship of his neighbor Stephanie, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg.

She becomes a major character in his dreams, affirming his love. The co-workers and family members assume lesser roles—the cops, janitors, and sidemen in his waking and dreaming amorous efforts.

The Science of Sleep gives equal credence to all parts of Stephane's life, family, work, love and dreams. In a state of arrested development, Stephane is browbeaten by all tasks requiring responsbility. He dreams to escape, but sometimes his problems follow him into his fantasies.

Technically amazing, the tricks and waves of imagniation make the film more than a quirky tale of doomed romance. They make it precious. The arts and crafts fantasies are intentions unsullied by others' interpretations. This is what makes The Science of Sleep so bittersweet. The viewer can feel what Stephane desires, and then see those hopes falter in the face of reality.

The last, and most heartbreaking, dream sequence laid a wreath of silence on the entire theater in a matter of seconds. I can't remember the last time that happened. Please see this movie.

Review: Jackass Number Two

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A Handy Reference to Enhance Your Enjoyment of Jackass Number Two.

We go to the movies, we laugh, we have a good time, we wonder what's going through the head of the parents who brought their three grade-school age children to see a film that probably broke the record for display of silver-screen scrotum, but what are we really enjoying? Our team of crack researchers broke down Jackass Number Two by the numbers to give you a better sense of what the movie is all about.

Summary
Nine Primary Jackasses (listed roughly in order of funniness: Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, Chris Pontius, Ryan Dunn, Wee Man, Bam Margera, Ehren McGhehey, Preston Lacey and Dave England) and various tertiary guest star Jackasses (such as pro skateboarder Tony Hawk and film director Spike Jonze) perform in roughly 50 vignettes (not including segments which duplicated an earlier stunt, or the end credits montage) which we broke down into five non-exclusive types:

Endurance test: (pain or discomfort is inflicted for the sake of pain or discomfort)
Stunt work: (putting yourself at risk of life or limb, usually involving a contraption)
Fucking with people: (sundry pranks on the unsuspecting public and other Jackasses)
Extreme Sports Inspired: (could conceivably appear in a late 90s Mountain Dew commercial)
Performance Art: (high concept stunts that would not be out of place in a gallery setting)*

(*Why on earth is Matthew Barney not a Jackass?)

Continue reading "Review: Jackass Number Two" »

Review: The U.S. vs. John Lennon

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There was a fair amount of dread involved with going to see The U.S. vs. John Lennon. It didn't have much to do with the man himself. Aside from being the best Beatle, he had a badass solo career and a wonderful political agenda based on love. On the other hand we have Nixon with a political agenda based on eating babies. The setting is this, John Lennon due to his sway and radical peacenik positions was in danger of being deported back to England on some bogus charge. Whose side will the filmmakers take?

Like WWII, the subject of the late 60's and the disillusionment of the early 70's is a well documented subject. Unless a filmmaker takes a very specific movement, or group as his/her muse chances are it's been done to death. The zeitgeist has been throttled, mottled and sold. Guess what? The U.S. vs. John Lennon is about as deep and insightful as Forrest Gump.

Using old footage, we see John articulate his position again and again. He made the most of it. Because of the narrowness of the clips used, Lennon expounding solely on peace, he comes off as a St. Lennon, holy and one dimensional. The talking heads, on the other hand, drag the film down. They're either in the "For Lennon" camp, in which case they're boring, or they're in the "Anti-Lennon" camp, with horns sprouting from their foreheads.

Most of all what bothers me is the attempt to tie what happened then to what's going on now. Obviously there are base similarities. There's an unpopular war, disproportionate power in the hands of Jesus freaks and a government with little interest in humility.

But. The social climate is just completely different. Today, it's not such an absolute shock that governments can be cruel, domineering and underhanded. The shock lies in the willingness of people to elect (and re-elect) those governments. It's our fault. We don't need a John Lennon to lead us to peace. We just need to get off our ever fattening asses and do the little things, like vote once every four years.

Please note that Mario Cuomo in a "did he say that?" moment cites 9/11 as a viable reason for attacking Iraq. That right there is the problem, the one with this film. Slimy bullshit statements that have been proven false, are used so often and shamelessly by authority figures that they just slide through.

I give it this, The U.S. and John Lennon reminds the viewer that something is indeed amiss. We're missing the rallying figure. We're missing our John Lennon. At this point, the movie subject is a poster, a slogan, a memory, a goddamn hackneyed documentary. The public at large is more interested in lobotomy cases like Whats-er-name Hilton. People that distract us from the larger picture of world affairs, rather than point to it and say, "This is wrong. Let's change it."

It's 2006, and sorry John, we're fucked in ways you could never imagine.

Review: Jesus Camp

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Not unlike their Evangelical Christian subjects, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's documentary Jesus Camp is informed by very good intentions, but is unfortunately tripped up by a lack of self-awareness about its motivations.

In the film, Ewing and Grady set out to expose Pastor Becky Fischer's “Kids On Fire” summer camp in North Dakota as an egregious example of the Evangelical indoctrination of small children throughout the United States. They don't need to work very hard to make the connection of this practice to the deliberate preservation of a voting bloc in support of the right wing establishment, mainly because all of the adult figures in the film are extremely forthcoming about this matter. In fact, Fischer herself cites the Islamic methods of fundamentalist indoctrination to be a sort of inspiration. When she is not braying about the need to create a new generation of “Christian soldiers” or launching into tirades against the Harry Potter books that are two steps beyond what would likely qualify as parody were this a work of fiction, Fischer and the rest of the adults in the feature beam with an unquestioning adulation for George W. Bush that stops just short of the praise that they would normally reserve for Jesus Christ.

The trouble is, Ewing and Grady have made their rhetorical work far too easy for themselves by focusing exclusively on unhinged radicals such as Fischer rather than portray any sort of range of viewpoints from a religious movement that accounts for an enormous chunk of the American population. The film clearly seeks to spook its viewers with a nightmarish vision of Evangelicism that only serves to reinforce the worst “Blue State” expectations of its target audience, and their straw man tactics render valid criticism of their subjects facile and occasionally insulting. The directors put up a front of objectivity and attempt to disguise their editorializing with recurring, obviously staged scenes in which Air America talk show host Mike Papantonio rants in a radio studio about the frightening political implications of the rise of the Evangelicals and their quasi-fascist ambitions, but the resulting effect is like the passive-aggressive cousin of Ann Coulter's ham-fisted prose.

Ewing and Grady present the midwest (specifically Missouri) with the condescending eye of longtime Adbusters subscribers, and they only do slightly better in the representation of their core subjects, who mostly appear on screen to hang themselves with their own rhetorical rope before the editors move on to the next scene. In its most hypocritical moments, the film is highly judgmental of Evangelical propaganda, although Jesus Camp is propaganda itself in the way that it presents its “characters” (as they put it on the movie's official website) as a terrifying bunch of others. In the end, the film accidentally portrays its subjects with the very same elitism that alienates a large portion of the country and enables the anti-intellectualism that drives the Evangelical movement, and reveals the toxic smugness that informs both sides of the great political and cultural divide in the contemporary United States.

Review: Fearless

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I've got a soft spot for Jet Li, but I think he's right to hang up his hat. I can't imagine today's audience having the patience for a slow build in an action movie. People would much prefer sixty minutes of non-stop action, happily leaving any non-essential back story on the cutting room floor. I lean towards today's approach (I'm usually too impatient for old Japanese samurai films), but I can appreciate a slow burner. Fearless dragged a little at times, but it wasn't for lack of effort—the film was apparently cut from an original runtime of 150 minutes down to 105. While cutting back was the right idea, it didn't work out as well as it could have. I ended up checking my watch every twenty minutes or so.

The film begins as Huo Yuan Jia (Jet Li) must take on the four best fighters Europe has to offer. He easily offs the first three, including a mammoth brute with fantastic mutton chops, before we're sent back in time to Yuan Jia's childhood. We learn early that he is a cocky young man whose only desire is to humiliate every fighter in Tianjin. To the surprise of no one, things go sour and Yuan Jia is forced to learn humility and the true meaning of wushu (the fighting methodology he uses). Once he came to this realization, things got exciting again.

So why did I grow impatient during the meat of the film? I've seen it a hundred times before and I knew where every scene was going before it got there. When you begin a film with the end, you better have an amazing story to tell in the middle and I ended up waiting the last reel to arrive. I wouldn't have minded waiting, but director Ronny Yu spent too much time on Yuan Jia's young and cocky days when he should have emphasized his transition period. I'm okay with a slow film if it helps me relate to the protagonist's situation. Putting a little more information up front would have helped get the audience behind Yuan Jia from the beginning.

Despite my complaining, Jet Li doesn't disappoint when it comes to kicking ass. The fight scenes were tight and the choreography was simple, yet effective (there was very little CGI and wire work) and that's what people paid to see. While far from perfect, I'd take this over big-budget Hollywood films like Rush Hour 2 any day.

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