The Movie Binge

June 2007

Review: The Golden Door

20070601golden.jpg

The opening sequences of The Golden Door, set in a terrain harsher than I'd come to believe Sicily was capable of, prepare the viewer for an overly broad comparison of life in the Old World and life in the New. The affably wretched Mancuso family, living in a wasteland of crag and scrub, wear their supersitions proudly. So much so that, when a few novelty photos of life in America (human-sized carrots, money literally growing on trees) turn up, Salvatore, the plucky patriarch, takes it as an incontovertible sign of the wealth and happiness waiting for his family across the Atlantic. The filmmakers give insight into Salvatore's fantasies, many of which border on full-blown hallucinations. He sees giant produce and money raining from the sky, and later, when a fellow immigrant suggests the possibility of him actually swimming in a river of milk, he of course pictures that reality for the audience as well.

These, oh, let's call them "artistic" diversions from the more straightforward storytelling aspects of the film—the charm of the actors, the otherwise inventive cinematography, the suitably underwritten dialogue, and the powerful social implication of the narrative—only tend to cartoonishly detract from the very strong strengths this film has to offer.

Taking place around the turn of the 20th century during one of the most historic Italian immigration waves, the family faces quacks and charlatans galore, everyone trying to milk what they can from an already desperate family. Even if America doesn't have magic vegetables or money fountains, it's made blessedly clear that Sicily is kinda hopeless. Before boarding the ship, a prominently redheaded Brit (Lucy, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) sticking out like a sore thumb in a sea of Sicilians, gloms onto the Mancusos, hoping to appeal to Salvatore enough to grant her safe passage to America for herself so that she can meet a lover-in-waiting. Over the course of the trip Lucy and Salvatore's will-they-or-won't-they flirtations are expertly choreographed around the ship's decks, one of several scenes where clever blocking and inventive camera use carries the film. The best example of this being the moment the ship sets off, shot from overhead, so that the eye only sees a mass of people on board the ship being slowly and silently parted from the mass on the dock below, a people being divided.

The difficulty of the voyage, however, turns out to be nothing when compared with the straight-laced U.S. bureaucrats waiting for them at Ellis Island. The film is most critical of the self-righteous immigration officers who, in the words of Salvatore's mother, "play God" with the fates of the beleaguered Old World travellers trying to make a better life for themselves. Aside from the obvious injustices and indignations forced on single women and seniors by the quasi-Eugenicist screeners, the film smartly plays up the simple differences between cultural interaction that almost keep some immigrants from crossing the metaphorically titular threshold into the America of their dreams. When given a block puzzle to test his intelligence, Salvatore confidently builds a makeshift farmhouse and barn to prove that he is up to snuff on his livestock savvy.

Then, for some unknown reason, Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" plays while immigrants trudge around the corridors of Ellis Island, which, much like the fanciful hallucinations at the beginning of the film, completely pulled me out of the story. It had been going so well, and then this anachronistic burst of music distracts me from the formerly simple elegance of a subtle, character-and-camera driven sleeper that was really making me thoughtfully consider what all immigrants in this country, for the past 400 years, have had to put up with just to win a shot at living our famously "American dream." A little more restraint on the part of the filmmakers, and a little more faith in their obvious strengths, would have made this an excellent movie. As such it's only pretty good. Well-worth seeing, perhaps.

The best decision, however, is in ending the film before any of the loose ends (Will Lucy meet the man who's supposedly waiting for her, or will she actually marry Salvatore? Will Salvatore find his brother? Will they find carrots big enough to warrant such a hard journey?) could be properly tied up, thus most effectively expressing the risks taken by any family who picks up on fickle pretense and sets out to find fortune in distant lands. Save for a few corny, fradulent post-cards, none have any concept of what really constitutes America. Their future, like the film, is left wide open.

Review: Knocked Up

knockedup.jpg
He's good with kids AND he shops at Bustedtees.com? Girlfriend, you better have that baby!

Knocked Up is the story of one acceptably chubby slacker's attempt to graduate from unemployed stoner into father-of-the-year. This movie is inspiring. So inspiring, in fact, that I immediately walked out to the lobby and had unprotected sex with the guy that sold me my popcorn combo.

"Spanky" was 49 and had to ask his manager for the keys to unlock the butter dispenser. But if Knocked Up is the cultural touchstone for today's charming man-child, I think my inseminator is about to have a life-changing epiphany and become the best thing that ever happened to me and my unborn little angel, Katyln-Zoë.

The film is a subtle, dystopian fantasy which takes place in a future where Planned Parenthood doesn't exist and having a kid can only be a blessing. The word "abortion" has been stricken from the record and replaced with the word — I swear — shma-shmortion. Hip grandmas all over the country are giggling over the almost-raunchiness as we speak.

Ben is a broke stoner with a collection of creepily-close best buddies. Like all broke stoners, they spend their weekends waiting behind velvet ropes to get into cheesy clubs. Alison is a career gal celebrating her promotion to on-air correspondent for the E! Channel by getting shitfaced with her sister. In a moment of foreshadowing, the two ladies pass directly into the club while Ben and his gang are left angrily outside what is apparently the only place to get an espressotini in California.

Once inside, Ben charms the out-of-his-league Alison by snagging beers from behind the counter and having curly hair. Meanwhile, Ben's pals narrate the budding romance from across the room and lovingly bust each other's balls. Dudes, we're like, totally friends! It's hysterical to be friends!

At the obligatory morning-after breakfast, Alison acts like a snotty bitch and walks out on Ben, who has no internal filter when it comes to talking about porn before 10 a.m. The imminent cable celebrity hates everything Ben stands for, as well she should because they are clearly ill-suited for one another. But all that is about to change for the hilarious, because what Alison doesn't know is that she just got Knocked Up.

After Alison regurgitates her high-powered breakfast, she suspects that she may be totally Knocked Up. Naturally, she emails Ben before she knows for certain that she's Knocked Up and they improv having dinner at a nice restaurant. Then he watches her get a transvaginal ultrasound, because a dildo that runs on cyclic sound pressure is funnier than a blood test.

Why Alison thinks she'll be able to keep a career in television while caring for a newborn baby is never explored. There's no time, because both characters are completely overwhelmed by inexplicable unconditional happiness. Sisters are running through the drugstore to buy 30 different brands of pregnancy tests! Ben suddenly has a membership at the same gym as Alison! Ultrasounds rock out to electronica beats! Oh, and the kooky fellas are having a beard contest.

Everyone in the Knocked Up universe seems to be either a good-hearted scamp or a batshit insane wife. Alison's sister starts fights with her husband over cupcakes, spies on his internet habits, and worse, goes clubbing in really ugly shirts. You'd think her chemical imbalance would be comedic but alas, it's simply awkward.

While there are just enough improv'd bong-smoking scenes to keep teen boys and atheists from feeling left out, Knocked Up seems aimed primarily at people who like crazy-cute babies and Robert Deniro impressions. Scenes like the one where Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen go to see Cirque De Soleil on shrooms are pretty funny, and I loved the super-adorable pothead chick played by Charlyne Yi. But I felt like every good laugh was immediately negated by an uncomfortable five minutes of "realistic couple-fighting" or a cute six-year old in princess outfit saying something naughty like "penis." Did I mention Robert Deniro impressions? I guess the target-audience here is 20-something fellas, but I can't fathom how it could hold their attention with all that boring chick-flick padding. What self-respecting guy has ever said to their new buddy, "You know, you and I make a good team"?

In the end, Alison falls deeply and madly in love with Ben because that's what happens when you keep your baby and then hang out with a guy you hate five times: happiness. I believe the angry fundamentalist waving the pig fetus in a jar summed it up best when she screamed: "AIDS is God's punishment to Africa!"

As for me and Katlyn-Zoë, well, I've been in and out of the hospital with pregnancy-induced toxemia. But my sister just bought me a whole case of Similac and said we can live in her basement after they put some throw-rugs down (score!). None of these material things matter though, because my life is filled to the brim with wacky friends, witty dialogue, pop-culture references to Matisyahu, musical montages, and the kind of love that can only come into your life after getting Knocked Up.

Review: Gracie

gracie.jpg

For parents weary of Disney movies that open with grim public hangings and kids So Totally Over the Shrek franchise, we have for you now this Gracie, a gritty tale of New Jersey's seedy soccer underbelly that flouts all sports movie conventions to reveal that sometimes having the "heart of a winner" just isn't enough. Actually no, it's pretty much just a sports movie where people (a girl) overcome mildly significant obstacles (dead soccer-star brothers and institutionalized sexism) to succeed during the big game (in the rain) and then to be loved and adored by everyone (even her dad) except maybe the one guy who is kind of a villain but probably just written that way.

Let's get this out of the way first: Gracie features a caged bird. Not just any caged bird, oh, no, my, but a caged bird discovered by the titular character in her Saintly Dead Brother (SDB)'s bedroom. Gracie then proceeds to feed this bird and watch it get fatter and fatter until she has a blowout fight with her best friend, who is like "You're a whore and a dyke and that bird is too big for its cage!" (don't worry they make up later). So then Gracie carries the bird around for awhile longer, and it chirps and allows her to be filmed with its cage's bars in the foreground and everything. Then she frees it. Yeah, she just up and lets this domesticated bird go free. Fly, obnoxious little device. Fly to the very tops of the Metaphor Forest and go live among the Cliché Pines and build your Irritatingly Pointed nest and lay some Screenwriting 101 eggs. That'll be better for everyone involved.

Gracie herself is played by Carly Schroeder, a young actor so engaging that frankly I could watch her glare down Dermot Mulroney (who plays her angry, busted-knee father) for hours upon hours. She's got this beautifully pissed-off voice pitched just a few notches above Scarlett Johansson's and a ponytail that always carries just the right amount of askew. Her Gracie doesn't talk a lot, nor does she back down: when her father refuses to train her, she responds by running off to the Jersey Shore to lie about her age and make out with college boys.

It's a rare film heroine who is permitted to be both athletically and sexually aggressive -- a point not lost on the filmmakers, who make a villain out of Gracie's team captain. Not only is he pissed off about her lady parts trying to make the team, he's pissed off that her lady parts wouldn't give it up to him over the summer, when he totally wanted to do it with her and she totally preferred to moon around and spray-paint her SDB's name on an underpass. The casting department assists in tipping the scale away from Gracie by populating the soccer teams with hulking, handsome men who all appear to be twice her age and four times her weight. A girl playing on a boy's team is sure yeah okay beautiful and inspiring and brave, but let's be honest, it's also hella scary. Gracie gets her ass kicked, and the hits are filmed in painful detail.

Lurking around the film's edges is Elizabeth Shue as Gracie's mother, who at first seems content to fold the laundry and remind Dermot Mulroney not to be such a dick, but who eventually proves to be one of those strong semi-silent women who pick up the slack when their husbands quit their jobs and who make inspiring speeches at school board meetings. Andrew Shue is also there, though I can't remember if his character is ever introduced, he just kind of appears in one scene and looks like he's sad, or happy. There's also that aforementioned best friend, who has really great hair and I guess is important for some exposition, and also there's a boy who would be perfect for the role of True Love of Main Character but who turns out to just be the infinitely preferable Supportive Friend.

It's all well and good: the film has a nice palette to it, the plot doesn't wear out its welcome, and honestly can I say there just aren't a lot of teen movies featuring girls as unabashedly tomboy as Gracie. Amidst the platitudes about winning and sticktoitness is a real sweetness and a total affection for the game. I saw the movie in a theater full of moms and daughters, and honestly if that very fact doesn't make you feel all right about things, I'm guessing you're totally banned from humanity. Winning isn't so bad, you guys. We should try it.

Review: Day Watch

dw_029.jpg
"Feelings....nothing more than...feelings...."

Day Watch is the second installment of the story of the ancient battle between the forces of Good and Evil, and I for one think that it's high time that someone made a trilogy of films about this often overlooked subject. For too long, filmmakers have ignored this essential conflict and Day Watch comes as a welcome corrective to the glut of movies about genocide, corruption and lady problems that clog the theaters. One can never know too much about the political history of Magickal Wampyres in these troubled times. Yeah, although the premise seems to have been done to death, Timur Bekmambetov's Day Watch manages to feel refreshing and original, though at times (delightfully) inexplicable.

So there are two groups of super-powered "Others", the Light and Dark ones, and one guess as to which are the good and which are the evil. For some reason the opposing forces are not indiscriminately slaughtering each other but instead have delegated certain members of their parties as "Watches," who enforce a Byzantine scheme of passports and permits that make up the ancient Truce. The good guy Watch, the Night Watch, ride around Moscow in customized disco utility trucks acting as kind of a CSI: Bloodsucking Victims Unit, but they have a tougher job - it's particularly hard to secure a crime scene when it's partially located in Second Level Gloom, as I don't believe 3M has bothered to manufacture Gloom-spanning plastic tape for that purpose.

Day Watch begins as the Truce is being threatened by the unprecedented emergence of not only a Great Dark Other (who happens to be the spurned child of the vodka-sodden good vampire main character) and a Great Light Other (who is your stereotypical blonde Russian bombshell, and in love with the vodka-sodden good vampire main character) but also a mystical writing implement with the Tenacious D-worthy name "The Chalk of Fate," that has the power to re-write history, if you stay after school and write what you want to change 100 times on the blackboard.

Right here is the major flaw of the film - it's so front-loaded with exposition and thoroughly odd concepts (the aforementioned Second Level Gloom, flashlights that kill, the name Zavulon) that a significant portion of the audience is going to be turned off or confused right away. Couple that with the fact that after the narrated re-cap of the first film concludes, there's no more English in the film except the kind that you have to, you know, read, it was no wonder that the two rows of people in front of me abandoned ship 20 minutes in, even after having been treated to an ancient warrior dude riding his effing horse right through the walls of a Persian fortress/maze in an advanced example of bad-ass problem-solving acumen.

Which is a shame because there's a lot to recommend about Day Watch, including those dastardly sub-titles. Like in the first film of the series, the sub-titles move, fade, change color, explode, bounce, but in such a restrained manner that it hardly seems like showing off. It is amazing to me that this hasn't carried over into foreign film distribution in general, as it's very effective and engaging.

The rest of the film's design is impeccable as well, with the special effects/CGI in particular being artfully integrated into the action instead of fully supplanting it, as in for instance the woosh-smash-spin-motion-sickness fest that is Spider-man 3. The sets are beautiful in a baroque way, with nearly every location, including the interiors of trucks, limos and airplanes, hung with mirrored shards or other fetishes and wallpapered with bizarre flocked designs. The Moscow setting is exploited much more so than in the first movie, with the kitschy Kosmos Hotel being a central location, and other monuments serving as target practice. It's a blast to see a city besides New York or Neo-Tokyo get totally knocked the fuck up, particularly when the engine of destruction is the tinfoil, vampiric version of a cluster bomb. Such are the delights of Day Watch, and I recommend you savor the disco vampire called The Parrot, the weird squeaky half-spider doll, and the gratuitous Freaky Friday psychic body-swapping sequence that ends up in a lesbian Irish Spring commercial, as there's probably no more silly or strange action/adventure film to be released this summer.

Review: Mr. Brooks

mrbrooks.jpg

There's a certain pleasure to be derived from a really gawd-awful movie but Mr. Brooks, Kevin Costner's foray into darker, more complex serial killer drama, is just plain ridiculous. Costner plays "Portland Man of the Year" Earl Brooks whose yuppie-tastic exterior masks a taunting alter ego named Marshall (William Hurt) and a hankering to kill. Demi Moore is the loose-canon, heiress detective hot on Mr. Brooks trail, and Dane Cook plays a wannabe killer who discovers Mr. Brooks identity and blackmails him. Oh and did I mention there's another escaped serial killer loose and on the prowl for Demi? Who knew Oregon was such a scary place to live?

Here's my major problem with this mess of of a movie—where it could be campy, it's utterly serious. Where it could be delightfully baroque, it's merely confused and inconsistent. As much as I would've loved to spend my 2 hours gleefully throwing stale popcorn at the screen while reveling in Costner and company's silliness, Mr. Brooks is actually not over the top enough for such displays. This film desperately wants you to just suspend your incredulity and connect the flimsily associative dots of the plot, but there's too many damn holes.

Like so many crime thriller movies hitting theaters these days, there's way too much going on in the convoluted story. Each detail piles on top of each other like a stack of junk mail, and as the tower grows, one becomes indistinguishable from the next. However in Mr. Brooks' case, many of the individual moments and plot points are so phenomenally, jaw-droppingly bizarre that they come back to you later, gnawing at your insides, willing you to examine them.

In fact, now that I think about it, maybe that's actually his diabolical plan! Perhaps that's Earl Brooks' and his alter ego Marshall's intention all along, and they're laughing at us right now! Nah, this movie just isn't that smart.

After the jump you'll find a sampling of the numerous points which brought me and my viewing companion to the brink of insanity.

Continue reading "Review: Mr. Brooks" »

Crazy Love

crazylove.jpg

The Movie Binge sent Matthew Perpetua and Dan Beirne, two grizzled veterans of the music blogging scene, out to see a movie that has absolutely nothing to do with music or the internet. Here's what they have to say for themselves.

Dan says:

I first need to outline the decisions made by the characters (if you can call them that in a documentary) and their reasons as they're presented in the film before I can examine the movie properly:

1. Linda and Burt get together because he's rich and she's beautiful.

2. Linda breaks it off because Burt is too creepy/ugly, and she'd rather be with a hotter guy.

3. Burt goes insane because his wife is boring and his kid is retarded (his words) and Linda represents what his life could have been and isn't at the time.

4. Burt hires some guys to throw lye in Linda's face when he hears of her engagement to another guy.

5. He goes even crazier in prison because he can't be rich anymore, and has lost everything instead of one thing, and decides he'd rather obsess about Linda instead of anything else in his life.

6. Burt gets out of prison to find Linda, who can't get anyone because her face is so messed up, is interested because now he's convenient and could possibly be the only one left who could love her.

7. They get back together.

8. He cheats on her again.

Crazy Love is full of morally vacuous (or morally unexamined) people hurting each other, justifying themselves to themselves, and forgiving each other. So it either speaks volumes to the talent of the filmmaker (or equally to my own shallowness) that I'm sooo interested in it. The sheer baseness of their choices as they're presented in the film is so gratingly familiar, it's like a John Updike novel. Maybe all my choices could be summed up this way, maybe we do all hurt each other in the same way, maybe love doesn't mean anything at all unless you're completely fucking someone else's life up, or they're completely fucking up yours. If we're not changed, not scarred, what's the difference, right?

Matthew says:

Let's say you're a single, relatively unattractive guy, and you've got your heart set on some girl who is way out of your league. You can either dismiss your chances with her, or you can find a way to highlight your best qualities just enough to get her attention. Of course, that's not always enough -- this woman is a catch, and so you've got a lot of competition from other suitors, most of whom are far more desirable than yourself. You've got to do something bold, something that will keep her in your life. In Judd Apatow's Knocked Up, an unemployed stoner impregnates the gorgeous Katherine Heigl on a one night stand, which leads her to inexplicably decide to pursue a real relationship with him when she decides not to terminate the pregnancy. Burton Pugach, the star of the documentary Crazy Love, followed a more unorthodox plan for sealing the deal with Linda Riss, the girl of his dreams: He hired some goons to blind and disfigure her by hurling lye at her face. He eventually went to jail and lost his fortune, but he ended up marrying Riss anyway, in large part because he was the only man who was still interested in taking care of her. It's a totally insane story, but somehow it makes so much more emotional sense than Apatow's slacker fantasy. Pugach and Riss may be total weirdos, but their decisions have some sort of twisted internal consistency, whereas Rogen and Heigl's characters in Knocked Up have motivations that are only sensible in terms of advancing that movie's plot and warming the hearts of the audience. It's a disconcerting thing when Pugach's brutal methods seem like a more foolproof plan for landing a lady than the rather mundane "accidental pregnancy" scenario.

Pugach and Riss' story is so far-fetched and elaborate that if Crazy Love were a work of fiction, most audiences would find it rather unrealistic, and would very likely accuse its author of being a misogynist. In contrast with the demented yet extremely straightforward Pugach, Linda Riss is something of an enigma. In her youth, she's a chaste party girl who is impressed by Pugach's wealth and connections but unwilling to commit to anyone. Following the incident with the lye, she becomes somewhat reclusive, but by the time she is reunited with Pugach, she's become rather comfortable with her tabloid notoriety, and seems to have adopted elements of his outlandish persona. At the end of the film, it becomes clears that Pugach has successfully reinvented Riss, to the point that she's disturbingly eager to dismiss his inability to avoid repeating his toxic cycle of philandering and violence well into the third decade of their creepy, co-dependent marriage.

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman

20070611pierrepoint.jpg

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman opens briskly on a kind of intro-to-hanging class being taught inside of a gloomy stone prison. Among those in attendance is Albert Pierrepoint (Timothy Spall), a mild-mannered grocery delivery man yearning to let out his inner executioner. He's a quick study too. Instruction is superfluous. He knows straightaway what length of rope is going to get the job done. Turns out hanging is the family business and Pierrepoint's old man was a pro in the field. His mom doesn't approve of his career choice, tells him never to bring it up. This isn't a problem, since the executioners work in anonymity and utmost secrecy and Pierrepoint is furthermore capable of an extreme psychic detachment that allows him to fulfill his duties unburdened.

Meanwhile, he gets a girlfriend named Annie (Juliet Stevenson). Two seconds later she's his wife. Pierrepoint goes to work making good on the family name. He kills with efficiency, develops a system of “variable drops” that snaps the second and third vertebrae, ensuring quick, clean death. At one point, he expresses a desire to best his father's old record of 14 seconds. But that's nothing. Thanks to his ever-evolving methods, Pierrepoint cuts that time in half. None of this escapes the notice of his superiors, who enlist him to execute a great number of German war criminals after the Second World War. This is a turning point in his life and also the film. Pierrepoint kills dozens of Nazis a day, and there are no fewer than two hanging montages set to classical music. It's a fascinating digression and could've been the whole movie, I thought, but it's handled without nuance and things quickly move on.

Due to the high-profile nature of his Nazi gig, Pierrepoint's cover is blown and he's greeted with cheers on the home front. He and Annie use the dough to buy a pub, and here the film, never subtle in the first place, begins telegraphing its intentions and painting in much broader strokes. I'm usually oblivious when it comes to these things, but when Pierrepoint's lovelorn singing buddy announces—with regard to his heartbreaking slut of a girlfriend—that, well, there's only so much he can take, I knew instantly how things would end for that chap. By now it's clear that years must have passed, but the actors look the same and the film's one-note claustrophobia, used to good effect early on, becomes a liability in the overwrought final minutes. In this shrunken version of events, Pierrepoint's sangfroid crumbles just as a wave of anti-death penalty sentiment begins to crest. People spit on his car rather than buy him drinks.

The performances in Pierrepoint are uniformly fine. Spall, in particular, is good, revealing the turmoil beneath the hangman's bland exterior in convincing and understated ways. But the film nears its conclusion feeling both rushed and drawn out, and it hammers home its obvious message in ways that overshadow the complicated moral struggle of Pierrepoint the man.

Oh and it's a true story, which I didn't know until the end, thanks to my own self-imposed approach to the Movie Binge, which is never to do any research or review-skimming beforehand.

Hostel: Part II

hostel_part_II_shooting_up_.jpg

Eli Roth :: cinema

as

Eating Dinner Off the Sidewalk As Performance Art :: Your Choice of Restaurant

That is to say: kind of gross, completely uninteresting to watch, and the artist oddly and inexplicably feels pleased with themselves.

Before I get into this movie, I want to say a few things: I've never seen Hostel Part 1, and I don't intend to. If you feel this leaves me with an untuned ear for this film, stop reading. I don't think it's necessary, I think the guy from the first one died in the first few minutes of this one, just like the Jason movies. Also, I want to say that far scarier than anything in the movie were the people WATCHING the movie. I was in there with 5 single dudes, I felt like I was just waiting to be one of these guys' first "real frag". At one point a girl walked in alone, and I felt much better, only to be followed minutes later by her completely creepy boyfriend, wearing the man version of her clothes.

So the movie starts, and it's a pretty predictable string of "bad guy red herrings" who are shooed away by the main villainess, only to reveal they are all part of the conspiracy of International Rich Torture-Killers. Then we meet the perverts, who are more interesting to watch than the victims, until their "I'm the guy with the conscience" and "I'm the guy with no conscience" routine gets old. Then the torture and killing happens, then one girl doesn't get killed, and she gets away, because she can pay more money than the guy who's trying to kill her. That's it. It's actually thankfully short.

What I found most disturbing was Roth's extremely thin and juvenile justification for making me watch this. The main pervert explains before he's about to kill the main girl that he "can't kill his wife". So instead of killing his wife, he's paying to kill a replacement, one that he can get away with. But this is immediately before the "reversal" (pro-wrestling!) happens and the main girl straps the main pervert into the torture chair. They proceed to have a shouting match made-up exclusively of "cunt" and "fuck", which really reminded me of some kind of caricatured married couple, not unlike the witty barbs of a Cary Grant movie, only boiled down to the animal gurglings of these hollow souls. Now, Eli, I get it, but I just don't care. I don't care that this is your view of marriage or the world in general; it's the most uninteresting point of view I've heard since I first heard in ninth grade: "Man, think about it, everything you do is selfish, even if you give to a charity you're just doing it to feel better about yourself. And also, what you think of as purple may be a totally different thing to me, except I ALSO call it purple. Think about it, man."

Surf's Up

surfsup.jpg

Let's just assume that the apex of the "tastes like chicken" joke was 1994. Let's more specifically assume that the recorded instance of said cultural summit was in The Lion King, where a svelte Nathan Lane informs teen heartthrob JTT and voice actor heartthrob Ernie Sabella that grubs, in fact, "taste like chicken." Let's just assume that, because I'll be honest with you, I've seen The Lion King a lot, like, enough that Hamlet seemed REAL boring by the time I went and got around to it. So for me it's like king benchmark, and I don't actually care about much before it, except The Little Mermaid. And I can't remember if Flounder tastes like chicken. (Oh my god, Flounder is just named after his fish-type? Why didn't they name Sebastian 'Crab'?)

After that there would have been a brief period — let's say six months, because that was before Twitter so it's not like we could wear those jokes out as fast as we can now you know? — a brief period during which it would have been perfectly acceptable to make a sly reference to the fact that Timon had captured a generation with his wry observation about grubs. So we'll say that by January 1995, the "tastes like chicken" joke was over. Done. Unfunny, or even to be charitable, funny only in the hands of a true comedic savant. Like Paula Poundstone in her CableACE days.

All that said, why, do you think, do screenwriters continue to recycle the joke like the oldest of the old pennies? Or in the case of Surf's Up, four (FOUR!) credited screenwriters, why do they recycle it twice in one movie? A movie that comes in under 90 minutes, even? Is it because this is a children's movie and children find the joke so unbelievably funny that you're really stabbing the next generation in the throat if you don't use it, like, you're actually undermining their very SAT scores by depriving them of this feel-good food-slander ha-ha?

I guess I could see why that might be true, but just to be scientific about it, I made a list of all the parts of Surf's Up that made a youthful Sunday matinee audience laugh in unbridled, unburdened glee.

  1. Burping (by any character)
  2. Comic violence (specifically, Stoner Icon Jon "Chicken Joe" Heder having his head crushed under a rock, Stoner Icon Jeff "Big Z" Daniels falling off a cliff, and Prettyboy Shia "Cody" LaBeouf getting hit by a branch)
  3. Key toilet-oriented words ("poop" x2, "butt")
  4. Simple insults ("I hate you.")

Nope. Not one chuckle, gurgle, or snorgle over the two "tastes like chicken" jokes contained therein. I hereby decree that all further instances of the joke in a children's movie shall be punishable by me ripping out James Woods' vocal cords, thereby depriving the entire animation industry of villains. That's right. No more James Woods, no more gravel-voiced, butchy, macho, evil-ass villains. Just try me, you savages.

You're Gonna Miss Me

20070615gonnamiss.jpg

Roky Erickson is crazy. Or is he? No, just kidding. He's nuts.

The first half of the Keven McAlester directed bio-documentary focuses on the rise of Erickson's prominence in psychedelic music, a genre his band The 13th Floor Elevators had a large part in creating. Then, as predictably as any VH1 Behind the Music, Erickson and his cabal descend, in this case unintentionally humorously, into a nightmare of LSD and heroin abuse. After taking 300 or so hits of acid, he is declared legally insane by the U. S. government and, incidentally, also shows symptoms of schizophrenia around the same time. After being caught with a single joint before the de-regulation of marijuana, Roky's faced with a 10-year prison sentence. He opts, due to his legal status, to plead insanity. He spends the next three years in Rusk, a Texan maximum security asylum, with convicted rapists and murderers. He also receives a fair amount of shock therapy there, which only exacerbates his mental illness. Now, did he have latent schizophrenia which was manifested by the LSD, or was it purely a drug-induced psychosis? The question is never raised by the filmmakers. The only sufficient evidence to answer such a question would be to see if similar psychoses are present in his family.

And what a family! The film's main focus, once we get past the VH1 bits and the slew of encomia from rock and roll's finest (Billy Gibbons, Patti Smith, Thurston Moore in what is possibly his most pretentious and condescending 15 seconds of screen time) is on the legal battle between Roky's mom and his brother Sumner, both of whom are fighting for custody of the obviously damaged, "great lost singer of rock and roll" (Kurt Loder's quote). His mother is a devout Christian who doesn't believe in a clinical approach to mental illness. She spends her time pasting family photos to cardboard and doing approximations of yoga. She shares videos of the Bible stories she's staged in the woods around their home, most of which feature a very distant, clueless Roky. His brother Sumner, on the other hand, wants Roky to get his meds. He spends his days playing tuba, fuming over his mother, and crying while his "therapist" spoons him. It's really creepy. Also, Roky's father is presented as a witholding, angry drunk, and one of his brothers attempted suicide. The film becomes more engaging as the bizarre character of the Erickson family is gradually revealed, and it's plain to see that, even if Roky is the crazy one, no one in his family can pass for normal.

That's the thing, though. Yes, Roky appears to clean up after Sumner wins custody. He takes his meds, he sees Sumner's "therapist," and he picks a guitar back up. However, he's still completely detached. It seems that McAlester wants to suggest that Roky's much better off now, but Roky himself is just as unreadable as ever. His demeanor is unchanged, and even though he's started touring again (he just played NYC for the first time a few weeks ago), I get the feeling that it would be little difference to him whether he keeps touring or goes back to his mother's to absorb hours of daily cartoons. Like a lot of "great lost singers" (Sly Stone, Brian Wilson, Daniel Johnston, Syd Barrett . . . Wesley Willis?) it's disturbing that interest in their work now seems as much an attempt to witness their mental instability as to appreciate their contribution to music. Erickson is a perfect example. His voice is powerful and distinctive, and he has a genuine gift for songwriting. If he didn't go bonkers, though, would he have documentaries made about him?

Review: Ocean's 13

20070615oceans.jpg

In this week's New Yorker, Dave Eggers remembers re-enacting films with his friends (he liked the shoot-em-ups), which made me realize that summer movies are all about fulfilling the desires of your inner 12 year-old. Apparently, my inner 12 year-old loves dressing in shiny suits, talking fast and using overly complicated schemes to steal expensive items. Unlike Dave Eggers, I have accepted my nebishy jewishness and am drawn to ridiculously cool guys using brains over brawn instead of the other way around (he reenacted First Blood). The first two films in the Ocean's series fulfilled this fantasy quite nicely and I was eager for the final installment. Sadly, I left unenthused. Had my inner 12 year-old gotten over Vegas? After many hours of deliberation, I think my inner child is just fine, but I'm not so sure about the stars of Ocean's 13.

The bread and butter of the franchise is fast-paced action, editing and dialogue with knowing winks and nods thrown in to make the audience feel like they're part of the team. It's this inclusion that made the first two films so effective. Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and Rusty (Brad Pitt) were likable guys that were at the top of their game and had fun teaching arrogant, rich guys a lesson. I loved it. In 13, they're doing more of the same as they try and right the wrongs of casino-owner Willie Banks (Al Pacino), who stole their buddy Reuben's (Elliott Gould) share of a casino. The premise was great and all the characters were back to keep the party going, but the magic was gone.

This is the part when I would point out that the script or the editing or the acting ruined the film, but I don't think that's it. To me, it just seemed like the band of merry men just weren't having fun making these movies anymore. It's like summer camp. The first year you go and try everything and are hyper-friendly because you want everyone to like you. You're giving it your all. The second year you're happy to be back and see all of your friends, but you still want to master archery and pass your swim test. By the third year you've hit puberty and just want to kill mayflies, steal from the canteen and talk about girls.

When you make a movie that's all about the chemistry of the actors, using the same formula and changing the details works for only so long — you've got to shake it up. It seems inconsequential that these actors are playing casino-rats and they're clearly bored with it. Like third year spanish, all they're doing is sitting in the back of class and picking out the most ridiculous name ("Burrito!" "No, Cachuates!") to use for the year. If I had unlimited powers over the movie industry, I would have switched the casts of Pirate's and Ocean's. Both films were underwhelming but would have been fantastic if my fantasy came true. Imagine Brad Pitt as Jack Sparrow and Johnny Depp as Danny Ocean.

I think the film's players had the best intentions going in (i.e. 13 wasn't about the money) as the formula had worked twice and they loved making these movies, but the well ran dry. Here's hoping Soderbergh takes my advice and brings some of these actors together again. They can tables for all I care; I just want to see these guys having fun together.

La Vie En Rose

20070618vieenrose.jpg
An unreleased scene from Madonna's Erotica video

It just goes to show, no good can ever come from shaving off your eyebrows. There is only one tragedy which doesn't befall Edith Piaf during her morose, morphine-sodden Parisian lifetime, and that is as follows:

1. Bear Attack.

As far as I can tell, The Little Sparrow was never mauled to a bloody pulp by a grizzly. Lack of bears is about the only break life afforded this unlikely songbird, however. Well, if you don't count fame, wealth, and international acclaim. But who can enjoy being celebrated by the likes of Jean Cocteau when you've got all those nagging memories?

The past, the past! It's like it makes us who we are, or something. "Other memories are surfacing, not the ones I wanted to see," Edith eerily says from her deathbed. Is La Vie En Rose the a psychological thriller the likes of Duel, with French phenoms pursued through time by their own faceless, unrelenting recollections? Does La Vie suck and then La Mort?

Enter the grey, very grey (everyone here wears grey) world of Belleville in 1916. Edith is a snot-coated waif who could have just stepped out of a Save the Children commercial. Mom has delusions of stardom, while dad is your average, everyday contortionist about to join the army. Edith is soon left off at a French brothel, replete with stereotypical randy harlots who show you their bottoms and mete out nose thumbings with wild abandon.

Soon Edith finds her favorite whore bleeding to death, but can't actually see it happening because she has just been struck blind. At this point, you begin to suspect she may have had it rough. Life continues along these tragic lines, subsiding only for a few years during which she becomes awesomely super-famous. Then, the love of her life is killed in a plane crash. When she begins shooting morphine in 1951, you wonder if it will be enough.

Her genius is discovered by a nightclub owner (played by Gerard Depardiue) while she is belting out cabaret tunes in the street. Residents hang out of their windows and gratefully throw money at her. Unfortunately, it's not abundantly clear why they are so enchanted. It's like, "hey, she's Edith Piaf, everyone always loved her, okay?" The whole world seems to want to help this kid get famous, which is no small feat, as she supposedly "looks sick" and stands with her hips jutting forward like Ed Grimley. She skulks around the nightclubs, snarling at patrons and generally acting like a total drunken plustard. But the kid got pipes. She is mentored by a Henry Higgins-ish taskmaster who transforms her from feral vaudevillian into a high-class eccentric. When Marlene Dietrich calls Edie "the soul of Paris," you just know there is nowhere to go but down.

Edith sits in a rocking chair, the kind of chair that movie characters always sit in when they're about to die. At this point, the chatty old guy sitting behind me exhaled uncontrollably: "H'oh boy!" But the movie doesn't want to end on a bummer, at least out of compassion for all the elderly couples at my matinee. It focuses, instead, on Piaf's final performance at L'Olympia, zeroing in on her signature song "No Regrets" as its philosophical affirmation for a life better lived. It is her "My Way," her zen death poem. What else can you do as you cast off this mortal coil but remember your shitty life and come to peace with it?

"I can't go back," Edith says. And why in god's name would she want to? It's all a part of this kooky rollercoaster they call life — the car wrecks, alcoholic parents, dead lovers, murder charges, blindness, and bear attacks that befall all orphaned French prodigies before they become international singing sensations, shoot morphine into their neck, and die of cancer at age 47. Why do it any other way?

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Siver Surfer

20070618fantastic.jpg

Oh man. Fantastic Four Part 2 was just that! A planet totally explodes and then they're gonna get married, and at the bachelor party Mr. Fantastic is dancing with these hot girls and his wife finds him and is all, "Unfortunately . . . FOR HIM!!!" So then they try to have the wedding but the Silver Surfer with the voice of Morpheus comes and blows up the thing that Mr. Fantastic made and the Human Torch is all "Flame ON!!" and chases him for a bit, but then gets dropped back to Earth and says,"hey," to the camel he sees. Then the government's all, "We've gotta stop this guy," and so they try to do that and Dr. Doom comes back and the government (totes evil!) is like, Ok, you can help, too. So they go to a Black Forest and with more science stuff knock him off his magic surfboard and the government kidnaps him and gives him torture to find out but then Invisible Woman sneaks in and finds out about Galactus, this big space tornado that sucks life out of planets and it's coming to suck Earth! Oh Noes!!! So Dr. Doom steals the surfboard, and one of the guys is all, "My bad!" and they fight him with the Fantastic Dodge Stratus and then everybody gives their power to the Torch guy and he beats Doom. But then it's too late to stop the space tornado and the Silver Surfer's like, no I'll do something, and after he brings the Invisible girl back to life he does and he gets all shiny and the tornado goes away and then they really get married and that's it. AWESOME!!!

So, that's basically how stupid this movie is.

Lights in the Dusk

20070619lights.jpg

Lights in the Dusk is the third picture in a series helmed by director Aki Kaurismäki, a filmmaker well-regarded for his talent for dark comedy, and whose The Man Without a Past was nominated for an Oscar. Unfortunately, none of that made a difference when I got to the theater yesterday, because all I saw was flat lighting, stoic shots, a complete dearth of emotion and characters with less appeal than first-round reality show losers. In other words, Lights in the Dusk is on par with a student film.

Our main man Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) has some shitty luck and may be worthy of some sympathy, but he makes zero effort to get his act together. After being swindled by an attractive lady doing a gangster's bidding, he takes the rap and goes to jail for no discernable reason. He has dreams of starting his own business, but he makes minimal effort and thinks he'll get the world in return. How am I supposed to sympathize with that? The rest of the characters were equally empty and don't seem to have any real motivation for what they do. The gangster's sole reason for destroying Koistinen's life is that he's doing a friend a favor, but we only hear this in a passing remark and there's no follow through. Maybe the film's soulless nature is Aki's intention, as Lights is pitched as a tale of loneliness and I certainly felt alone in that theater.

Nancy Drew

nancy2.jpg

Meg says:

What were you like as a girl, they like to ask me, and often I answer back: I think you mean what did I like as a girl. The answer to that, is, of course, I liked The Baby-Sitters Club and I liked the Christmas scenes in the Little House on the Prairie books and I loved, by far, any book about a girl who was a little bit different and who succeeded with any measure of aplomb. But not Nancy Drew. By the time I got around to her she had been worked over by a couple of generations of ghostwriters, and honestly, was kind of a bore. It is a surprise, then, that in the year two thousand and seven I am here and she is on my movie screen. It is awkward and we are not sure what to say to each other.

Perhaps a better mystery for Nancy would have been The Case of Am I Here Ironically or Are You Feeling Nostalgic? Because had that been clarified, I think a real ball could have been had with the world-building. Either Nancy exists in that New Brady Bunch place where she much prefers land lines to cellular telephones or actually she is a sharp, witty, Veronica Mars-without-the-venom. Instead what we get is a barely-sketched sort of character, a girl who likes dressing oddly, is eerily polite, and who does Internet Research on an iBook (how totally 2003!). On top of all that, she says adorably quirky things and, bless her heart, believes in right and wrong. Meanwhile, the other children of Nancy Drew act in the now-canonical school of Disney TV Movie Acting, where you are snarky to a point and your idea of fashion sense is accessory + accessory + accessory (Claudia Kishi would be proud). Their jibes and barbs and who-me's! fall terribly, terribly flat in front of Nancy, and what about us? Are we on her side, are we hoping this fish out of water teaches the land a lesson, or do we just shake our head at how silly these children are, all, together? Is Nancy herself willing us all into adulthood?

So: do I care, and in addition, would me as a girl have even liked this movie? And I just feel like okay first of all there's no way to tell what with how I lost my time machine and in addition to that I'm pretty sure my past self WOULD NOT TOLERATE her future self asking such DUMB QUESTIONS. But secondly, I think, I don't think so. Maybe if director slash writer Andrew Fleming had come up with a good solid mystery, something with a few more twists and turns and way fewer archetypes (I'm sorry, nods to the source material). Maybe if the mystery was something a little more engaging than this apparent reject from the Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen Mysteries video series. Even, maybe, if the mystery was something that didn't so bizarrely advocate breaking adoption privacy laws. Alas, however: I definitely would have seen it anyway, because it's rated PG.

Matthew says:

Nancy Drew is an amusing film in spite of the fact that its makers mostly decline to commit to their best ideas. The picture mainly draws on the prim, old timey charm of what I understand to be the latter day interpretation of the title character and her milieu, but falls short when it attempts to make sense of her somewhat anachronistic nature by dropping her into a standard "fish out of water" narrative.

That storyline could've worked only if the writers, casting director, and costume designers had actually bothered to make its bratty Los Angeles teens seem even remotely authentic. The movie would have been far more entertaining and thoughtful if Nancy was taken out of hey idyllic midwestern hometown and dropped into the middle of a Lauren Greenfield pictorial, or at least a variation on Tina Fey's script for Mean Girls. The dim-witted girls who tease Nancy throughout the picture are sitcom cliches from the 80s, but not recognizable human beings. Instead of looking and acting as though they just stepped through a time warp on the set of Blossom, these girls should have been a pointed contrast with Nancy's conservative aesthetic and do-gooder spirit. The script barely needed to change to reflect this -- the "bad girl" characters are already vapid and obsessed with image, so if the costume designers had simply gone through the effort of making them look like Cory Kennedy or something, it would've been at least 20% better. The filmmakers apparently had no faith that their young viewers would side with Nancy, and chose to highlight her impeccable fashion sense by dressing Emma Roberts in a succession of amazing quasi-vintage outfits whilst every other girl in the film is forced to appear as an over-accessorized frump. It just never rings true that a girl as gorgeous, talented, and stylish as Nancy would be any kind of social pariah.

Though most of the film is spent indulging in a shockingly substandard mystery plot, its best moments come when it foregrounds the ways in which Nancy pretends to be oblivious to the interests of the movie's two young male leads. She's got feelings for her hometown pal Ned Nickerson, a repressed, mild-mannered guy who is crazy about Nancy, but is consistently cock-blocked by life and is mostly unaware that his attraction is reciprocated. This relationship is contrasted with her platonic friendship with a pathetic comic relief character named Corky, who is basically like a retarded version of Little Pete crossed with the Fonz. Whereas Ned is stoic and reserved, Corky is all dumb bravado and smarm. He hits on Nancy in the stupidest ways possible, and avoids getting thoroughly embarrassed only because she is so unwaveringly polite. Neither guy gets the girl in the end. She has sublimated all of her sexuality into her perfectionism and obsession with sleuthing, and both men are weak suitors who are clearly attracted to Nancy for her sexlessness, abstract purity, and assertive demeanor. To me, this is the most fascinating element of the film, perhaps because I certainly understand the appeal of a girl like Nancy, and would've enjoyed a story that spent more time dealing with the reasons why some young men go for the Little Miss Perfect type.

Erik says:

It's never a good sign when your childhood (or worse, your parents' or even grandparents') is mined for summer movie fodder. Although, with the Fantastic Four and Transformers returning to screens, it couldn't hurt to go ahead and sneak Nancy Drew in to the schedule as well. For a book series that's been continually published and updated since 1930, it only stands to reason that another incarnation is no threat to the series' consistency. The only constant is that Nancy Drew is a plucky teenage girl who likes to solve crimes, much to the amusement of local law enforcement.

What doesn't work is the tone of the film. The update is half-formed because they can't decide if they want Nancy to be a throwback or just an oddball. Nancy's foils (two catty post-Paris classmates) are every bit as unrealistic as she is, but this is a movie filled with short-hand characterization and "that's the strange caretaker" introductions. The soundtrack seems to have originated from someone in the marketing department hitting shuffle on their iPod (what with Apple products appearing ubiquitously in the film) and going with the first 15 songs that came up. The clothing choices, meant to depict a decadently image-conscious L. A. trendiness, are highly questionable, save for the smartly retro looks of Nancy and her father and Ned's earnest Midwest sensibility. They don't really suit the context, but they look great.

This is not to say the film is without merit. I'm all for the over-arching (if not a little cliched by now) message that being different is cool; that fitting in, especially in high school, is an atrocious imposition. Add to that Emma Roberts displaying a great deal of wit and charm in the title role, so much so that she brightly outshines her uneven supporting cast (Barry Bostwick, Tate Donovan, Chris Kattan). Even through the mess of the non-mystery she brings levity to the film and hits the perfect note when delivering such plain-spoken lines as, "I wonder who's trying to kill me," or when instructing party-goers on the proper method for performing an emergency tracheotomy, one of the most successful of the film's random but endearingly comic set pieces. The dry dialogue and Roberts' confident delivery make for a highly entertaining character in what is an otherwise forgettable movie, one that leaves several mysteries unsolved:

* Why would a kid growing up in L.A. dress and talk like he's from Jersey?
* How old is Nancy supposed to be, and why do they let her drive a car?
* Do any pretty young crime-fighters use PCs?
* Why weren't there any kids in the theater?
* Chris Kattan? Really?
* And, finally, why did everyone at work give me that look when I asked if they wanted to see this with me? I mean, honestly, it's not as if I asked them to go see Hostel Part II.

Eagle vs. Shark

SharkEagle2.jpg

The principal creators of Eagle Vs. Shark are so alarmingly bereft of artistic vision that they are almost certainly unaware that their project is not a sweet love story about two childlike losers, but rather an elaborate tomb for dead-or-dying '00s hipsterisms. There's not a single original joke in the entire movie; it's just a nonstop buffet of clams derived from the likes of Todd Solondz movies, Vice magazine, and lame post-Curb Your Enthusiasm humiliation comedy. Essentially, the film comes across like Napoleon Dynamite if it were written and directed by Miranda July, and though that may sound promising to some readers, I assure you that it does not work, mainly because its misanthropic bully humor is at odds with its attempts at twee sentimentality.

Aside from a marginally endearing female lead played by Loren Horsley, Eagle Vs. Shark forgoes characters in favor of filling out its cast with an assortment of "quirky" one-note weirdos and drab "dysfunctional family" ciphers. Its male lead, played by Jemaine Clement of the miserably unfunny and similarly unoriginal HBO series Flight of the Conchords, is especially aggravating. His character is relentlessly cruel, clueless, obnoxious, and pathetic -- he's basically a poor mash-up of Dwight Schrute and Napoleon Dynamite -- and yet the audience is encouraged to sympathize with Horsley's inexplicable attraction to him despite the fact that the film does not allow the character a single sympathetic moment. Eagle Vs. Shark convinces itself that it's about two unlikely people finding love in spite of their considerable flaws, but in reality, it's the story of a deeply insecure woman who is abused by the object of her affections and never has the self-respect to walk away from her attachment to a violent, insensitive manchild. The filmmakers attempt to make a point of the characters' inability to progress beyond their childhoods despite being in their late 20s, but instead, the picture plays more like a celebration of infantilization.

You Kill Me

20070625youkillme.jpg

I went to see this movie alone on a Sunday in the middle of the afternoon. It was a beautiful day and everyone seemed to be in a good mood. I paid eleven bucks for my ticket, then went up many levels in the huge theater. You Kill Me was on playing on the twenty-fourth screen, out of twenty-five.

I like seeing movies alone but if my girlfriend were around I would have asked her to come. But she’s in California visiting family and friends and she hates me right now anyway. I’ve been trying to do and say the right things but I’ve been unhappy lately and quite self-absorbed. Relationships are complicated. The world is overwhelming. It’s hard being alive. Karla gets annoyed when I say those things but I’m not trying to be dramatic. I really believe those things to be true.

I took my seat in the theater. I was early. I tried reading but the screen was blasting loud ads. I watched the ads and they sickened me. I read a few paragraphs of my book over and over. Finally the lights dimmed. The previews began. People kept coming into the theater. A woman sat next to me. She knocked me with her bag and said sorry. A moment later another woman came and sat in the empty seat to my right. The coming attractions looked okay. I saw the one for the new Noah Baumbach film. Noah’s dad, Jonathan, was my teacher in grad school and I’d seen Jonathan just a few days before. I hadn’t realized Jack Black was in Noah’s movie. Not a promising sign, in my opinion.

The movie began. There was Ben Kingsley, drinking vodka straight from the bottle and shoveling snow. The woman next to me was moving all around, digging in her bag for something. Finally she produced a little tube of lotion and rubbed it around on either her feet or her ankles. Then she settled down.

Ben Kingsley plays Frank, an alcoholic hit man. He’s supposed to kill a mobster played by Dennis Farina but he botches the job, passes out in his car. His boss Roman (Philip Baker Hall) is upset and sends him to the Bay Area to dry out. Bill Pullman is there. He plays a sketchy real-estate agent/go-to guy named Dave. I was happy to see Pullman. I’ve always liked him and he’s good in this movie.

Around this time the woman to my left began snoring lightly. I looked at her. She snored once loudly, then jolted awake. We made eye contact for a second before I could look away.

Tea Leoni plays Laurel, a woman Frank meets at the funeral home where he works prepping bodies. Laurel is a high-powered corporate person and she and Frank hit it off. They go on a date. Leoni is good. I was surprised. I know she used to be on TV but I’ve forgotten the show.

Pretty soon Luke Wilson shows up as a gay AA guy. It’s not much of a part. I like Luke Wilson but I don’t know why. He’s been coasting for a while. Same thing with Owen. Mostly, at this point, they just seem like they’d be cool guys to hang out with. Luke doesn’t do much here. He’s handsome, though. Too handsome to be working as a toll-collector on the Golden Gate Bridge, which is what the filmmakers have him doing.

The main problem with You Kill Me, billed as a comedy, is that the laugh lines aren’t funny. I didn’t laugh out loud once. The dialogue is okay, some of it really pops, it’s just not ever funny. The whole middle part of the movie feels sluggish. It devolves into an unconvincing admixture of noir-thriller and dark romantic comedy. Laurel learns what Frank does for a living but instead of revulsion she feels excitation. There’s a goofy sequence where Frank shows her some killing moves. They slash a watermelon together. I thought the scene was just thrown in for a goof but I should’ve known better. Later Laurel has to use her new moves. It’s not a credible transformation.

The movie ended. I forgot a lot of it while it was happening. If you happen to see it, let me know if that’s really Steve Buscemi playing a corpse on the table at the funeral home. I could swear it was.

A Mighty Heart

20070626mighty.jpg

Rubbernecking makes my blood curdle. When I'm stuck in traffic and everyone slows to stare at the early 90s Civic with smoke pouring out from under the hood and its high-school age owner frantically calling his parents, I try my best not to succumb to road rage. Sure, I'm curious about what's going on &mdash we all have some degree of morbid curiousity — but all the gawking isn't helping anybody. In fact, it's keeping thousands of people from getting to work on time. With this in mind, I wonder if Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart is nothing more than a smoking Honda Civic or the latest post about Kate Moss' exploits on Perez Hilton. Does it serve a purpose beyond telling a story we've all heard, but with fancier equipment?

A Mighty Heart is the story of Mariane Pearl (Angelina Jolie), wife of Washington Post writer Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) who was held captive and killed in Pakistan, and the search for his captors. The story plays out like a beautifully shot procedural drama as we watch the Pakistani police, Post employees and various U.S. agencies follow a long string of bit players until they find the true villian. Jolie was able to shed her gossip column alter-ego and give a passionate performance and shows Mariane Pearl as a woman of great integrity who cared deeply for her husband and the truth. The film, while difficult to watch as I knew the gruesome ending that awaited me, nearly kept me from blinking in fear of missing something important and showed the care and devotion of everyone involved in the search for Daniel Pearl.

Still, if Michael Winterbottom felt it was important enough to tell this aspect of the Daniel Pearl tragedy in a film, it should be more than just a good story. It was probably a bit unfair to mention rubbernecking in contrast to the film, but when a tragedy is fresh in our minds it seems unfair to subject those still grieving to another reminder unless the film helps us to improve our understanding, thereby relieving some of the anguish. Paul Greengrass's United 93 dealt with this problem on a much grander scale and opinions about the film's efficacy were debated constantly with neither side able to convince the other. A Mighty Heart hasn't been subjected to the same debates, but the question is no less important.

Without the ability to read Winterbottom's thoughts, the central message of Heart seems to be the injustices forged by hatred and stereotypes. While the perils of ignorance is well known to many, it is a story that can't be told enough. Of course, because it is well known, it would be unfair to those grieving to convey this message in a feature-length film in most cases, but the screenplay is based on the memoir of Mariane Pearl. And this seems to emphasize the point, that informing the world of senseless violence is always more important than the pains of the individual. Mariane was often chided for not showing emotion in interviews, but she didn't want people to tune in to see a car wreck — she wanted to put the focus on the importance of journalism and educating the world. Not only is this noble, but it's absolutely a message that is worth spreading.

Sicko

sicko3.jpg
All of these people are about to get on a boat headed for MISCHIEF

Sickness comes in a variety of forms, and while some of them involve frighteningly topographical rashes or other easily identifiable symptoms, some are so subtle and pervasive that you can x-ray, MRI, PET scan, centrifuge and insert any number of uncomfortable 'scopes into a patient and still be presented with all sorts of non-random yet frustratingly incomplete data. A diagnosis can remain just out of reach until a person of uncommon vision and clarity looks holistically at the pieces that have presented themselves and makes a confident decision about what it is that actually needs treatment. And once that diagnosis has been made, any other interpretation of the facts seems absurd, and the person that made them is hailed as the banisher of the ridiculous relics of benighted thinking. Sicko is the story of one such diagnosis and the often reviled man who presents this analysis in a clear, easy to digest form, which, although it may be abrasive in spots, is indisputably correct. The patient in this case is health care in the U.S. and that man, my friends is House, M.D. Wait, I mean Michael Moore.

The sickness that has befallen the United States, is indeed, to borrow a phrase used by our current president in a clip contained in the film, "uniquely American," as there appears to be no other country in the world with a health care system remotely like ours. The most effective diagnosis comes from the inside, and in my understanding of the concept, there is no one more American than Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 911, Bowling for Columbine, etc.). Moore is only possible because of the best qualities of the United States (freedom of speech, mobility between class, cheap and easily available French Fries) but is only a necessary because of the worst manifestations of the values of the United States (the limited scope of acceptable public debate, increasing stratification between classes, cheap and easily available French Fries). He is the ultimate American private citizen, using the circumstances afforded to him by success in the capitalist system in order to address what he sees are the inefficiencies in that system.

While it may be fashionable for self-styled "liberals" to bash Moore for use of "excessive" rhetoric, his jeremiads are a necessary corrective to the prevailing scope of public discourse, ill-advised boat jaunts to restricted areas (Cuba, in this case) notwithstanding. Moore is, to put it bluntly, an American Hero, and the only thing that I can think to fault him for in the execution of Sicko is the timing of the release. The issues brought up by the film are far too important and far-reaching to be relegated to the dog days of the summer, and are sure to be fading from public consciousness by the time the dog-eat-dog days of the upcoming presidential primary season rolls around.

As far as the structure of the film goes, Moore has shifted his documentary format a little this time around. Yeah, he drags around a couple of symbolic cripples like always, but largely absent are the camera ambushes of the previous films, which often made me cringe when they ended up verging too far into "Curb Your Enthusiasm" brand of the humor of embarrassment, which can do a disservice to the message trying to be delivered (and anyway, Borat has that shit locked down now). Instead, Moore fashions himself as a bemused or concerned Gulliver, travelling to a series of alien lands and reporting back his findings, usually voiced by someone other than the filmmaker. The situations of both common, everyday U.S. citizens who have managed health care, and the citizens of the various countries Moore visits that have government provided health care seem absurd. The crucial difference is that most of the U.S. examples tragically absurd, like an unfunny Kafka story, while the foreigners' stories seem like wish-fulfillment of a very unrealistic yet forward-thinking 8 year old who yearns not for limitless candy but for free Albuterol, and what's more, gets it, with a unlimited number of wishes to spare.

This wish-fulfillment fantasy, unspeakable in the U.S. for so long, is taken for granted by the citizens of Canada, of the U.K., of France, of um, Cuba. These countries with which the U.S. has so much in common are so alien in this aspect of the society that there are several communication breakdowns when Moore asks a simple question like "where do you go to pay?" But underneath the practicalities of "socialized" medicine are worrisome questions about values, and what the absence of universal health care says about the values of the society that denies it.

Moore wisely more or less elides this issue, choosing to instead frame the question of values for the viewer to decide herself. And that's what Sicko is about - frame-making - an opportunity to shift the debate and transform the way we speak in public about values, without sounding shrill or condescending. Moore does an excellent job of offering points of entry for everyone along the U.S. political spectrum, precisely because the issue he is tackling, and the values that it manifests, are so universal and pervasive. I hope that the inclusion of the Cuban holiday, and some humorously and irrefutably damning audio evidence from two of Conservatism's shining stars: Richard Nixon (jumpstarting HMOs) and Ronald Reagan (an exclusive track from an LP he cut to defend the nation against creeping Socialism), doesn't cloud the issues, and that when the election cycle kicks up this fall, we are talking seriously about health care reform. I hope that this is a debate that all Americans can join, and a good place to start would be heading to the multiplex to catch Sicko

Evan Almighty

evan.jpg

Lo, said the Lord God unto the lost tribes of Israel, thou shalt go with thine into the West, and on the shores of the Ocean of Peace thou shalt inhabit the Woods of Holly, and it was so. And, yea, after much toilsome begatting, was Tom Shadyac [director of Patch Adams, Ace Ventura, Bruce Almighty] born unto them, and he did grow and, with little lernt of the will of his Lord God, did he give motion to images proscribed [ Leviticus]. Such were his transgressions that he did bore the contemptuous ordure out of many a theater-dweller, so that it is said that, though the wind blows against the the four walls of his house, there do many corruptible sheep lodge there. Yea, verily did Tom of Shadyac further consternate the ire of wrathful God by then giving to direct a multitude of actors most cherished [Morgan Freeman, Steve Carrell, Lauren Graham, John Goodman], with a script that gave odors of the leavings of mule.

And God did cry out, Why hast thou thus portrayed My visage and My Promise? Hast thou forgotten who made thee? Must thou imbue thine films with such formulaic storytelling and cheaply injurious sentiment [Um . . . Ephesians?]? Hast thou no shame before the Lord, thy God, nor the little ones that do suffer as they come unto thee?

And so it was that an angered and vengeful Lord did pay $11 to see Evan Almighty, and He did weep to see His flock fall into such lamentable folly. For He so loved His children that He did send an angel as messenger to whisper 10 new Commandments into the ear of scribe Bruce Vilanch, who would probably get Whoopi Goldberg to then read the Commandments [or, you know, Billy Crystal if she wasn't available] over the valley of the Woods of Holly, so that the word of God shall reach all who film there:

1. Thou shalt not create sequels to films that blow.
2. Thou shalt not use the teachings of the Lord, thy God, as half-assed shorthand for lessons of the family.
3. Thou shalt not relegate thine humor solely to the striking of the genitals of men, nor of the besmirching of the head and the vestments with the droppings of fowl.
4. Thou shalt not relegate Morgan Freeman to the role of a Magical Negro.
5. Thou shalt not pad thy film's duration with more than one montage, much less five!
6. Thou shalt not cue thine audience's emotional responses with swells of sentimental music.
7. Thou shalt not put in the mouths of actors any of the Unforgivable Clams.
8. Thou shalt not waste the talents of John Goodman, who the Lord God would kindly like to remind thee is one of the best living character actors working in this year of Our Lord.
9. Thou shalt give better roles, with more depth, range and screen time, to Lauren Graham, for her word's wit has the speed of the prancing fawn of the meadow, and her blue eyes sparkle and shine like the Heavens above, and her breasts are like two birds [ Song of Solomon], and her lips the dew of a new day on the grass of her visage, which is most beloved by God, for He made her to be most loved by man, and it was good. Yea, so good.
10. Thou shalt not render unto Tom Shadyac another dime. Seriously.

Lady Chatterley

chatterley.jpg

Movie sex: bleargh. You know, women sleeping with their bras on, people giggling as they dive under crisp white sheets, people going "UHH" instead of making the sounds you know they must actually make, that stupid Grey's Anatomy entwined-feet shot, all of it. Total bleargh. Only here we have the lovers of Lady Chatterley (or, en the literal Francais, "Lady Chatterley and the Man of Wood," yuk-yuk) doing it not one, not two, but SIX TIMES, and each time, I'm gonna say right here, it was completely hot and in all the right places. He's on top and she's thrilled, she's on top and everyone's thrilled, he's leading, she's leading, they're by the fire, they're al fresco, they're completely in love, they're completely not sure. The sex itself is all filmed with particular attention to the lovers' faces, and maybe I'm just airing my own personal kinks, oops, but, hell if watching people get off isn't a superior form of entertainment.

You can take a second to fan yourselves. The French, right?

Truly, thank goodness for the hot movie sex, 'cause otherwise me and Mme. Chatterley mighta broke up long ago. First of all, this moving picture adaptation of the second draft of the D.H. Lawrence story most banned everywhere is about two hours and forty-five minutes long. You know what else is two hours and forty-five minutes long? Me doing a million other things with my life. The nap of the guy a couple rows behind me. Etcetera. The slow burn is not always a bad way to tell a story, and I'll admit, there are advantages to watching the transformation of Mme. and the Woodsman ripple out slowly. Only what fills the spaces in between isn't all that engaging or insightful. The laconic camerawork seems content to linger for years upon years of flowers and branches and, I don't know, vales. Dales. Valleys. Keep your eye on the screen and you might think for a second the projectionist has gone fallen asleep and left his Nature Scenes screensaver on. You see Parkin is a poor gamekeeper and Mme. Chatterley is a bored-ass wealthy lady with a Jake Barnes-in-a-wheelchair husband so of course their love is like nature, right? Does this make you want to stab yourself Y/N? How about if I tell you that their emotional climax (yuk-yuk) takes place in the midst of a rainstorm, how about now?

Unfortunately, that's not the end of the metaphor gun, as director and co-screenwriter Pascale Ferran also sees fit to fumble with the hook-and-eye closure of Class Issues' bra. It's fun for a second in the way that it's always fun to briefly consider, say, the relationship between Demi Moore and that guy from that show, but soon enough you're like, "well, I guess that's role reversal for you! Too bad about the rest of the world!" and you move on while more sexy miners from the town undress Mme. Chat with their virile working-class eyes.

More engaging is the b-story relationship between Mme. Chatterley and the cripply Mister. While Marina Hands works on staring out windows and arranging flowers with her neck properly extended, Hippolyte Girardot rocks a bummer of a role to make you give a good damn about a man's battle with his motorized wheelchair, a hill, and his eye-rolling wife. By the time the film wraps itself up (abruptly, and nearly devoid of all expected tragedies) you sort of wouldn't mind going to live with this dreamy cuckold for awhile. The sex might not be as good, but at least he's got the decency not to waste your time.

1408

1408.jpg

When I was watching 1408, I was taking notes for my fellow Movie Binger Todd Serencha's biennial Summer Movie Comparison Chart, and about halfway through, I noticed that it seemed as though the film was created with this year's categories in mind. (Well, except for the "pony blow job" thing, but hey, it's PG-13.) It's extremely doubtful that any beverage will advance the plot of any other movie this year more (or more often) than John Cusack's $800 bottle of scotch, or that any "ingenious torture method" will top watching the guy who played Lloyd Dobler get beaten up by an "evil fucking room."

As a consequence of fitting so well with Todd's chart, the film is at once banal, formulaic, and totally weird. 1408 is an adaptation of a short story by Stephen King, and its plot stays within his usual comfort zone. It's essentially a self-aware take on the "haunted hotel" horror story, with Cusack cast as a failed fiction writer who has found success writing guides that review inns and hotels that suck in curious customers with invented ghost stories. Cusack's character is a world-weary cynic, and he's skeptical of the room's powers even when it's kicking his ass in spectacularly strange and deadpan ways. (I'm rather partial to the sequence in which the room becomes an icy wasteland.) The story isn't exactly profound, but it's certainly not dumb, and the movie's dark wit and admirable production values keep it from becoming a drab one-man-show. It's a bit hard to get too worked up about 1408 unless you're a John Cusack superfan, but it's a solid picture and its presence in theatres presents an intelligent and tasteful alternative to the fetishized torture and degradation of Hostel Part II and Captivity.

Fido

fido.jpg
I refuse to make even the smallest The Matrix joke

It seems impossible to believe, but there was probably a time when the concept of the Zombie did not exist solely as a metaphor for group-think, conformity or the ills of modern capitalism. But you wouldn't be able to tell that from recent films like Land of the Dead, 28 Weeks Later or the subject of this review, Andrew Currie's Zom-com Fido, all of which have been paying increasingly feeble dividends of vicarious undead pleasure to both the discerning genre fan and budding social critic.

Fido's critique in particular is so muddled as to almost defy comprehension. Fido is set during the fakest 1950s ever to be seen on celluloid, immediately following a world war against the undead, the number of which will eventually include every person on earth unless the head is severed prior to or following death. The Zombie problem has been contained through the ingenious use of fencing and the more ingenious use of a shocking-collar apparatus. The ingenious Invisible Fence apparently still awaits invention, which is a shame because I'm sure it could have saved a lot of lives. Anyway, the citizens still left alive after the great Zombie war walk around armed with pistols in case they have to blow away any recently dead elderly acquaintances (don't trust them) but other than that they pretty much resemble any other lame version of white, post-war suburban life you've seen on film in the last 45 years. Sounds like a passable premise for a film, and it is, but the problem is that the filmmakers don't advance too far beyond it, and when they do the narrative gets all haphazard. The actors are all fine but the characters they are given to play are such straw men that when they finally reach some sort of turning point or catalyst in their "arc" there is no reason why we should care at all.

The film is ostensibly a satire of conformity but as such it makes American Beauty look like the work of an astute and subtle observer. Saying that beneath the bland (though in this case, hard-pastel candy-colored - though that's somehow come to indicated bland in the vernacular of set designers. I blame Tim Burton) exterior of Suburbia howls the putrid, polymorphously perverse ancient many-tentacled id-child that our mothers warned us about is the sociological equivalent of saying "hey, you know what, Jim Morrison was actually a pretty shitty poet, dudes." In the future, please try a little, guys.

In addition to the ersatz Edward Scissorhands backlot, the filmmakers shovel on other metaphors or agents of conformity - zombies, sinister corporations, inaccurate and childish tv news, churlish cub scouts, insincere priests - like they're trying to bury the stinking corpse of their hacked to death script. Nothing ends up sticking, and by the middle of the movie you're wondering how they could have saved the film - re-cast it (did someone really see The Chumscrubber and say to themselves, "Holy shit, Carrie Ann Moss is awesome in this and I want her boobs to play the same role in my film!"), punch up the dialogue a little, make it more macabre, jettison the campy old-timey touches (obvious rear-projection, matte paintings that say "look at me, I'm a matte painting"), or include more of the very few actual ideas the writers had, such as the silly "head coffin." Such games can certainly amuse, particularly if relayed in hush tones while still lounging in the dark theater, but instead of paying to sit and kibitz with your buddies for 90 minutes, if you want your Zombie metaphor itch scratched, I urge you to return Dawn of the Dead. Every other modern Zombie film, no matter how much candy-colored enamel the production design team slaps on it, pales in comparison.

Calendar