The Movie Binge

Reviews

Review: X-Men: The Last Stand

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Above: Cyclops (James Marsden) and Phoenix (Famke Janssen), about to "enjoy" the worst reunion ever.

As promised, the entire Movie Binge crew schlepped out to the AMC/Loews on 34th Street (the top-secret NYC "bargain" movie theatre, where tickets are only $9.75 -- a savings of one entire dollar!) to take in the official kick-start of summer, X-Men: The Last Stand. Our thoughts follow, in convenient paragraph form. And we even managed to avoid spoilers!

Also -- we've got our very first fabulous The Movie Binge Prize Giveaway! At the end of this review, you'll find five X-Men trivia questions, ranging from the quite reasonable to the insanely pedantic (and yes, they're about the comics, so you can't get away with only having seen the movies). Send your answers (and your name and address -- obviously it will not be redistributed to anyone) in to info@themoviebinge.com, and we'll randomly select one person with all five correct responses to receive a free copy of the X-Men: The Last Stand video game for the XBox 360! It's got Nightcrawler in it! You know you're down with Nightcrawler. He was in ze Munich Circus, where ze boys are byoo-teeful, ze girls are byoo-teeful, even ze orchestra is... oh, somebody please stop me right there.

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Review: An Inconvenient Truth

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This will be a dual review as both "Josh Horowitz" and I saw this film. I'll start with Josh's take.

Josh says...

It’s like The Day After Tomorrow without those pesky rabid wolves and Ian Holm freezing to death in the middle of nowhere! Paramount Classics, that quote is all yours. Enjoy. Take it to the bank. Use it in good health. Alright, semi-seriously An Inconvenient Truth has got to be considered one of the most worthwhile films of the year. You leave the theater shaken, disturbed, and downright frightened. Try seeing this in the same week as United 93 as I did and enjoy the nightmares.

As you know by now from all the Al Gore photo-ops at Cannes and the like, this is the flick that essentially documents Gore’s decades-long obsession with convincing us that the environment might be worth more of our attention than on just one “earth day” a year. Admittedly this is a flick that plays best to friendly audiences, ie. those who don’t tune into Sean Hannity for anything more than a good laugh.

I know what you’re thinking: 90 minutes in a dark room with Al Gore and a glorified slide show about the ice caps melting? Check please, right? Actually it’s a pretty engrossing and relatively visually arresting (kudos to director David Guggenheim here) way to spend an afternoon or evening. And the key reason why this film works in the end as more than a PBS special? It’s Gore, folks. Bizarre as it sounds this politician who was deemed virtually irrelevant by most now comes off as an impassioned (and vaguely tragic) hero. The film is peppered with personal anecdotes and private moments with the former VP (apparently he rolls his own luggage in the airport) that humanize the politician much in the way The War Room did for big brother Clinton way back when.

Latin Snake says...

Well, well, well...look who got a software upgrade. Not only was Al entertaining for the length of the film (ninety minutes straight!), but he was inspiring. More importantly, if you have doubts about any facet of global warming, Gorebot will quash it. And he does so without having to use a photo of a sad penguin.1 In fact, the film was so effective I thought about flying out to Middle America and buying some folks tickets to the movie (really). Heck, I even researched getting green energy instead of craptastic Con Edison.

Although the presentation aspect of the film was thoroughly engaging, I'm glad they interspersed vignettes of Gore's life. They weren't necessarily on message, but they kept me from taking a cyanide pill. My only fear is that they make it a little easier to position the film as liberal when it should just be viewed as an excellent case for tackling the dangers of a Carbon Dioxide-rich atmosphere.

Josh covered the rest pretty well, so I'll just talk a little about the movie-going experience. Since I was seeing a socially-conscious movie, I felt it was important to skip the popcorn and eat some sushi from the nearby Whole Foods.2 Not only did I receive zero dirty looks for making the theater smell like soy sauce, but the lady next to me volunteered to watch my bag while I used the restroom. And that was before we saw the film. Al Gore: if you're going to turn a normally annoying theater into a lovefest then I insist you skip out on politics and keep making movies. I'm going to need you this summer.

1 Okay, so he had an animation of a polar bear trying to find an iceberg, but it didn't look that sad.

2 And some Malteasers. I can't be good all the time.

Review: Typhoon

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In case you didn't read the preview, Typhoon deals with a baddy North Korean, Sin, who steals, kills and connives his way into the possession of some nuclear waste, which he plans on dumping on all of Korea. A dutiful wooden South Korean soldier by the name of Gang Se-Jong, is assigned to take out the North Korean, and they both realize that had circumstances not been different they could have been playing checkers and listening to Neil Young, or the Korean equivalent of such. This realization does not stop them and their compatriots from putting a lot of bullets into each other and a bunch of innocent bystanders.

The plot device that drives the story forward is the baddy North Korean's sister, Choi Myeong-ju. As the bathos spewing terminally ill victim, she should have been the humanizing window into Mr. Nuclear Pirate Pants' pain. It's through her that we get the flashbacks allowing us to see where Sin's motivation comes from. But her acting...let's just say when she croaked I was relieved I wouldn't have to watch her flail about anymore.

One could say this film works as a primer into the zeitgeist of current North-South relations, but that would truly be a disservice to millions of people that I've never met. The twisted logic employed by agents at every level on both sides was the antithesis of pragmatism. It made me wonder if those jokers could cook themselves breakfast without shooting holes in their frying pan and spouting off about honor and brotherhood. Let it be said, the Americans make a very convincing cameo as an impatient submarine that blows shit up. If I were to take the film's tack, this should be viewed as a shameful avoidance of the nuance of stone faced crying and knife fights.

Two positive aspects: a) The final scene on the ship was well designed and well filmed. The action was kinetic engaging, until of course everyone started crying. b) The flashbacks mattered, if only because the onscreen portrayal of no-nonsense massacre is so different from the rest of the stylized blood and guts that is supposed to be entertaining in other parts of Typhoon. Why play it straight when someone gets shot in the back and not when someone gets shot in the face? This movie almost had something there.

I should probably say that the theater was packed with 75% of the crowd being Korean, and when we were all filing out I noticed more than a few were genuinely touched people. Maybe something was lost in the translation. What I saw was a heavyhanded mediocre action movie.

Review: Coastlines

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Before I begin, let me set the scene for you. It's Thursday night at 9:45pm, the night after Coastlines opened at IFC Center. It's 9:40 and I've been waiting in line to get into the theater for the last 15 minutes. The theater finally empties out and people start to file in. A theater employee yells out that Russian Dolls will now be showing on screen three and everyone files out. I'm now completely alone. Crap, does everyone know something I don't know? Did my preview send shockwaves through the film community scaring people off? Either way, I got to take off my shoes, put my feet up and relax. As for the movie...

Unfortunately, I've never seen either Ulee's Gold or Ruby in Paradise, the first two films in Nunez's panhandle trilogy, so I lack a solid frame of reference. But if people say Coastlines paled in comparison, then I'm going to immediately add them to my Netflix queue.

Note: potential spoilers are in the paragraphs below

Coastlines begins with Sonny's (Timothy Olyphant) release from jail. He hooks up with his accepting but disappointed father before reconnecting with his old mob buddies to collect a $200,000 debt. Sonny only receives a fraction of what he's owed and vows to get the rest. Sensing Sonny won't go away, the crimnals try to off him, but end up killing his father in the process. What follows is Sonny's existential struggle and attempt to inflict payback on his agressors. Luckily he has some old friends (Dave and Ann Lockhart played by Josh Brolin and Sarah Wynter) to help him along the way.

This being an independent drama, Sonny inevitably bites the hands that feed him by sleeping with Ann and threatening the career and life of Dave. Despite everything going to crap, everyone (who isn't dead) forgives everyone in the end and it's one big happy lovefest, which is my main issue with the film.

Nunez definitely leaves hints that everything isn't hunkydory and life is more pain than happiness, but then the film closes with a big party for Sonny that's all smiling and hugging and carrying on. If you want to say that life is messy, then you can't end your film with a party. Period.

What some might consider a more egregious issue is the generally poor script. I was able to get into the characters because nearly everyone played theirs well, but I had trouble enjoying what came out of their mouths. I especially enjoyed William Forsythe's portrayal of Fred Vance, the dirty mobster. He put my mental image of a backwater, redneck mobster into action and I couldn't take my eyes off him when he spoke.

Despite my gripes, the film kept me entertained most of the way through. Nunez was able to make a relatively crappy script shine with a gritty view of life in the panhandle. In fact, my disdain for the sappy ending exists only because I was sucked deeply into this world. I could see why this movie sat on the shelf for four years, but I'm glad IFC decided to release it. The best endorsement I can give is that I sat through the entire movie at 9:45 even though the theater was empty. I couldn't say the same for hundreds of movies I've seen over the years.

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Jen and Vince, We're Through!

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If I had to choose between the Team Jolie t-shirt and the Team Aniston one, I'd probably cast my vote with Team Aniston. She's perky and sweet and in The Good Girl, Jen gave a nuanced performance unexpected for the former Friend. Though when one takes in the track record of recent films, particularly when she goes for comedy like Rumor Has It... which was barely luke warm, it's not looking good for her longevity. Thus it was with guarded curiosity that we took in Team Aniston's newest with Vince Vaughn, the aptly titled The Break Up on Sunday.

With our favorite crap movie companion in tow, Lisa, we settled in for low expectations. However, The Break Up defied those expectations, though not always with the most favorable results.

At the start of the film, we see how Chicagoans Brooke (Aniston) and Gary (Vaughn) meet cute at a Cubs baseball game. She's on a date, he mocks the date and buys her a hot dog. Then two years pass via handy dandy photo montages as the two fall in love, buy a unrealistically huge condo and move in together. The story proper begins on the night of a family dinner party, as Brooke slaves in their posh, yuppie kitchen and Gary lounges on the couch playing video games and offering quasi-help with the preparations. Later, the two get into a terrible row about how Gary's not willing to do the little things for the relationship to show that he cares and they break up.

Around this point in a run of the mill romantic comedy, or even a '30s screwball comedy with Cary Grant like Stanley Cavell's comedies of remarriage, we'd expect Gary or Brooke to move on and then the other to connive to get them back through various prat falls and schemes. While the Break Up has a few ridiculous moments, most of the further interactions between Brooke and Gary as they fight at the bowling alley, fight at their game night and flaunt potential sexual partners at each other, has a tone of realness and an unsettling thread of meanness. These are the kinds of things real people do to each other, yet you feel a little creepy and voyeuristic peeking in on it.

While Vaughn's frat boy charm was stronger in the Wedding Crashers, he's moderately likable here. It is a surprise though to see how doughy Vaughn has gotten since his Swingers days, especially as the equally bulked up Jon Favreau plays his obnoxious sidekick. Speaking of the supporting cast, they're all quite strong from Judy Davis to Vincent D'Onofrio though it would've been nice if Jason Bateman had more than one brief scene and the casting of Ann Margaret as Aniston's mom, who only had a brief scene as well, was perplexing. These moments hinted at more material left on the cutting room floor or in a previous draft of the script.

The film's final surprise is the un-Hollywood ending, where the happy resolution isn't quite what would be assumed from the comedy structure. While it's always a pleasant surprise to see the movie machine do something unexpected, this one feels lackluster and empty 10 minutes after leaving the movie. What are the filmmakers trying to say about the nature of relationships, especially ones with expensive cohabitation? It's seriously unclear. In the end, this movie is really only about the attempts of Team Aniston to bounce back and despite my empathy for her, I'm not totally sold.

Review: District B13

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Action is a universal language. Kicking a guy in the face is the same in English, German and Klingon. District B13 had plenty of face-kicking, which is why I think it might pass the yo-dude test. To refresh your memory, in our preview of District B13 we mentioned the possibility of this film becoming the yo-dude's Amelie. To do that, I think it will need to fulfill a few requirements. Let's go over them and see how District B13 stacks up.

Kick-ass Action Sequences

If you want meatheads to remember your movie, there has to be at least one sequence that blows them away. For me, that was our introduction to Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), the cop assigned to save District B13. See, the film is set in the not-so-distant future and B13 is an area in Paris that is cordoned off and is run by a massive gang led by Taha (Bibi Naceri). Damien and Leito (David Belle) must save the district from a stolen nuclear warhead and find Leito's sister as well.

When we meet Damien he is working undercover, trying to take down the owner of an illegal casino. This being an action movie, he must work alone. I won't detail each and every move, but I will tell you the scene ended with Damien bodyslamming the last baddie from two stories up onto a poker table.

Yo-Dude Requirement #1: Passed

Pretty Things to Look At

When I say pretty, I don't mean lusciously shot scenes; I mean hot bodies and dark, exotic locations. B13 has both of those. Damien's sister, Lola (Dany Verissimo), is a treat to look at and is portrayed as a girl who likes to get down (in a cool, non-slutty way). As a bonus, she's also available, which is a rarity for action films since the lead usually snatches up the girl by the end. The landscape of B13 isn't especially futuristic, but there are plenty of secret passageways and dark corners people jump out of. If all that's not enough, there are some crazy street-style rally cars.

Yo-Dude Requirement #2: Passed

Amazing Stunts

Much of Jackie Chan's popularity is based on his insistance on doing all of his own stunts. The two male leads in B13 should get the same kudos as they are true traceurs, or masters of Parkour. In the very first scene, Taha is trying to capture Damien while he's at home destroying a million euros worth of Taha's coccaine, but he manages to escape by bouncing off every single wall (interior and exterior) in the building. Even if the blockheads in question couldn't pronounce traceur, they will certainly appreciate these stunts.

Yo-Dude Requirement #3: Passed

Memorable Characters

Guy Ritchie has set the standard for memorable characters in yo-dude films. Everyone remembers Brad Pitt's ridiculous character in Snatch. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the actors in B13. While the story was strong and easy to follow, I never really felt a strong attachment to any of the characters (except maybe Lola, but for reasons that have nothing to do with her acting).

Yo-Dude Requirement #4: Failed

From this simple test, it looks like District B13 did pretty well, but I don't think it's going to be a smash hit here in the States. Aside from plenty of people refusing to see a foreign, subtitled film, there is something missing from the characters (which may have been lost in translation). Of course, just because the public at large isn't going to fall for this movie doesn't mean you shouldn't. I really enjoyed it and was transfixed with the actors' ability to bounce off anything and land on their feet. I give it two six-packs up.

Review: The War Tapes

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“I love being a soldier. The only bad thing about the Army is, you can’t pick your war.”

As the closing words of The War Tapes, this proclamation is bitterly ironic – wasn’t the phrase “war of choice” being bandied about quite a bit just a year or so ago? This sideswipe is about as close as the film comes to assailing the very notion of a war in Iraq; more often than not, the soldiers involved rely on the frustratingly stock non-answer (to the big unasked question) that “Now that we’re here, we’ve got to do the job.” But what, exactly, is “doing the job”? Is it the futile mission of protecting trucks full of Cheese-Whiz from car bombs you could never stop in the first place? Is it running down civilians with a Hum-Vee when they don’t have the common sense to step out of the way? Is it standing around in the desert using night-vision goggles to watch buildings vanish in whiffs of bomb-dust? These are the primary pastimes of the soldiers we follow throughout the film, and it’s the sheer banality of their jobs – punctuated by short, sharp shocks of nearly inconceivable horror, and almost never relieved by anything approaching the positive side of human nature – that is the most prominent feature of the film.

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Review: Cars

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I can confidently say that there is at least one level on which Cars does not disappoint: you'll be hard-pressed to find a more visually gorgeous film playing anywhere this summer (unless your local rep house is screening The New World), even if you (like this humble reviewer) couldn't give two shifts about the aesthetics of the automobile in general. In choosing cars as their subject, Pixar's animators hit on the perfect protagonists with which to show off the best their Macs can do: their surfaces are glossy, meaning we're treated to hundreds of beautifully complex reflections sliding over their bumpers and hoods; they can drive through the most remarkable scenic vistas the United States of CGI have to offer; and they're fast, meaning they can really chew up the processor cycles and show us how many moving pieces they can throw at us at once. And in certain scenes, these three tech-geeky elements do fuse together to create the kind of jaw-dropping visual majesty that previous Pixar highlights Finding Nemo and The Incredibles dripped from every frame. But it bears noting that this is Pixar's seventh big release, and when it comes to the script and the story, the formula is wearing thin and balding.

It's not uncommon for the studio's films to credit many writers, but this is the first of their releases to feel like it was written by committee: it's lacking the same wit, crackle, and vision that were the true animating forces of the company's previous efforts. There are more stock characters in this film than in a bowl of chicken soup, and just about all of them simply sit there on screen, failing to engage despite clever character designs and generally strong voice-acting (be sure to stick around through the credits for an homage to Pixar standby John "Cheers" Ratzenberger, who never fails to nail the supporting characters he's always given; it might be time for him to graduate to a lead, in fact) -- and the disappointingly predictable storyline doesn't give them many opportunities to come alive, either. And there's simply no forgiving the egregious mid-film musical number, five minutes of unrepentant message-carrying schlock that actually felt like a parody of heartstring-jerking balladry until I realized, soberingly, that they were dead serious. Sure, there are a few clever gags, and once again the level of graphic design and wizardry on display is honestly awe-inspiring. But the film overall just doesn't stick -- and the lackluster trailer for the studio's next film, Ratatouille, sets off the mildest of warning bells for next summer as well, even with Brad Bird in the director's seat. (Now would be the point in the review at which I would say "Pixar is running out of gas" if I was a lesser reviewer; but I suppose that just mentioning that corny line drags me down to that level, doesn't it?)

Don't get me wrong, you can certainly take the kids to this one without wanting to open your wrists (well, except during the trailer reel -- the world really needs another Santa Clause film, don'chaknow?). But if you're hoping for another movie that transcends the tired cliches of children's film and crosses over into the rarefied air of The Damn Good Movies, then I'm afraid you'd better readjust your priorities, fast.

Review: A Prairie Home Companion

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A Prairie Home Companion: The Movie? What’s next? John Cusack as Ira Glass in This American Life? A trilogy about the Car Talk guys with Nic Cage and Larry the Cable Guy (I want credit if this comes to pass)?!? Yes my dear text-messaging ipod-listening Deal or No Deal-watching short attention spanned friends, radio still exists and I’m not just talking about the kind where Opie and Anthony ask people to fornicate in Churches.

Leave it to heart transplantified, Oscar recognized, octogernarian Robert Altman to remind us that yes radio does exist and you know what, there’s even a quality movie about a program or two to be made from it. Alright, let’s get the Altman stuff out of the way up front. Worshippers at the church of Nashville and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, prepare yourselves. I’m not a huge fan. Do I respect him? Sure. Do I actually ENJOY any of his films? Umm...err...The Player was aight. Okay so now you know where I’m coming from. Having admitted my prejudice I gotta say I had a thoroughly grand old time with A Prairie Home Companion. It’s a company of folks well worth spending a summer night with.

A Prairie Home Companion is another one of Altman’s let’s put on a show kinda jaunts. It seems the long cherished radio show A Prairie Home Companion, is going the way of the bald eagle now that a corporation (embodied by Tommy lee Jones in an odd little performance) has bought it’s home theater up. So here we are on the final night of a show that teems with more characters than any one film has a right to (couldn’t they have lent one of these charming folks to use in The Da Vinci Code? Yawn...).

Now despite the red carpet photos you’ve seen, Lindsay Lohan is not the star of this film. Sorry you Parent Trap groupies. But, yes there’s a but, The Linds-er ain’t bad. She’s the morose, would be poet daughter of Meryl Streep and manages to leave an impression among this galaxy of stars. Speaking of which you’ve got plenty to enjoy: Kevin Kline as the show’s security investigator who seems to have walked in from Altman’s own The Long Goodbye, Meryl and Lily Tomlin as wonderfully eccentric and loquacious sisters, John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson as a couple of singing cowpokes, and let’s not forget the man who made it all possible...a truly great turn by Prairie Home creator (and the credited screenwriter here) Garrison Keillor. With a voice that could (and does) enrapture millions and a face that must belong to the secret long lost father of The Office’s Rainn Wilson (has no one else noticed the similarity?!?) he’s the glue to this little gem of a summer alternative.

Review: The Omen

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The Omen is as scary as overalls and strawberries.

We've had relatively lengthly reviews up until now, but since the creators of The Omen didn't feel like putting much effort in, neither do I.

Horror films face an uphill battle with their traditionally low budgets and focus on style over substance, but The Omen has it doubly rough since it is a remake. None of that excuses the fact that the occasionally promising build-ups resulted in laugh-enducing "boo!" moments. You know, the ones where a mirror turns slightly, there's a goblin of somekind and the music gets really loud. Everyone jumps for two seconds and it's over. It's like premature ejaculation. "Woh! WOH! Damn."

Damien, actor Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, is certainly creepy but he just doesn't feel like the spawn of Satan. Instead of hints of joy when people die, he just looks ambivalent. I'd suggest he said creepier things more often, but it turns out his voice is unfortunately cute. Satan must be ashamed.

I'll admit there were two aspects that made this film tolerable. First, we have the Rube Goldberg device-like murders, which were fun to watch unfold. Then the last fifteen minutes of the 105 minute film were enthralling. Liev Schreiber is intense and I loved seeing him (SPOILER!!!!!) bowl through Mia Farrow's creepy rendition of the Damien's nanny with his car.

If you're dying to see this film, I suggest you show up about an hour and twenty minutes into the movie. The rest just isn't worth 80 minutes of your summer. Better yet, rent the original and call it a day. Netflix has it in stock as of this writing.

Review: Agnes and His Brothers

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Your librarian wants to schtupp you.

Germans, poop, and tall skinny women (and tall skinny men that look like women): Agnes and His Brothers

Hey wait a minute, this movie's about a tranny? Oh god damn it. Well, let's see what this is about. I mean I already saw it, but I'm going to pretend that I didn't and then act surprised as I describe this sad scene. Oh hey it's kind of like a German go at American Beauty, except for a few things. It's more perverted with a few scheissa jokes in it, but really it's all about dissatisfaction with the life that's been handed to you, and getting shit on. Really, there's a big dookie theme in this movie. Oh and it's all daddy's fault, that too. Let's take a look at Agnes and her two brothers shall we? The movie basically just follows the life and foibles of three grown up, fucked up suburbanites in Deutschland.

Hans: Ahh, the perverted librarian. Depressing. What a shit. Daddy gave Hans some grief as a child and he grew up into an ineffectual pervert. About as ineffectual as they get...Hans masturbates while watching insanely hot women shit. Yup. Things turn out well for him though, he meets a big titted woman who appreciates the fact that he's a weenie and doesn't mind that he, in a full-grown tantrum, killed his daddy. American Beauty parallel? Every time he sees a hot German chick, which is quite often, choral music plays in the background.

Werner: Ahh the frustrated environmental politician. Depressing. He's a big fan of taking shits outside the potty, and throwing them out in a recycling container. He's actually going a bit crazy, losing his touch with reality. His wife is leaving him, and he thinks all his struggling might be for naught. Life turns out peachy though, for no good reason. American Beauty parallel? His kid, Ralf, doesn't respect him, but he manages to win the rebellious teen's love in the end. This of course has nothing to do with him. He simply gets his way by not lecturing Ralf, and letting his wife give the kid big ol' love-slap.

Agnes: Ahh, the sympathetic character. Depressing. Agnes basically wanders through life getting shit on/taken advantage of by all. S/he manages to be an angel nonetheless. Why? Dunno, s/he doesn't have a dick? Is that it? Not so compelling. American Beauty parallel? A nice little recreation of the misinterpreted blowjob scene as viewed by voyeur extraordinaire Hans, which is his excuse for killing daddy.

Daddy: Supremely creepy haircut.

So what happened? Hans gets laid. Werner gets his boring life back. And Agnes? Agnes gets shit on again, this time by god. S/he dies lonely and in pain, but somehow happy, because for some reason this miserable movie decides to end happy. Long story short, do you like poop? If you said "Ja," then see Agnes And His Brothers. If not, just go about your business. You aren't missing a thing.

An aside, someone owes The Turtles some money, because the song the movie ends on was a total rip-off of "Happy Together."

Review: The Lake House

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Oh when damaged beautiful people meet, them sparks do fly, don't they? But what if they can't meet? What if time and fate have another plan in store? Cruel melodrama, why must you torture our lovers so?!? Fear not devotees of tales of doomed and star crossed lovers, The Lake House won't let you down.

If you've seen the trailer you know that the premise of our story is a fantastical one and one that demands you check your frontal lobe at the concession stand. But that shouldn't be too hard in a week that saw the release of a film starring Jack Black as a Mexican wrestler and it's much less of a leap than Somewhere in Time got away with over 25 years ago (not to mention something like Kate & Leopold just a few years back).

You've got your burnt out ER doc (Sandra Bullock reveling in her grumpiness) moving into a house torn from the notebooks of Frank Gehry. And you've got your architect turned developer who can't escape his father's legacy (Keanu Reeves) moving into the very same house. You see they're actually living two years apart. Keanu's in 2004 no doubt waiting for the recently released Matrix sequels to show up on DVD while Sandy's in the present.

But wait there's more. Thanks to a magical mailbox these two have struck up a correspondence and burgeoning love affair that defies the laws of time and space. Not quite getting it? Don't worry. You couldn't possibly be more confused than Regis Philbin was the other day when Keanu was trying to explain it to him.

The truth is it all works in an effective way. Our leads deliver two engaging and relatively authentic feeling performances and they even share a nice chemistry thanks to more scenes than you might expect of the two sharing the screen. Kudos as always to the never fail acting lion that is Christopher Plummer as Reeves' dad, a self-obessed architectual luminary who gets to shine in a couple scenes. Why Plummer doesn't get offered the roles that Anthony Hopkins can't get to is beyond me.

The Lake House is an adult summer romance, a beach read of a film that doesn't make you feel stupid on the way out and that's just about the best you could hope for something like this, isn't it? Sure the third act twist is telegraphed a long way away but that won't matter as you're enjoying the silly conceits and clever plot turns in innumerable viewings on TNT and Lifetime in the years to come.

Review: Loverboy

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Unfortunately, still photos can't accurately show crappiness.

Going in, I knew this film was going to be bad. The reviews were awful and I had little to no interest in the subject. I planned to survive this film by waiting for the moments when Kyra Sedgwick had a lot of sex. Surely, that would keep me engaged for a few of the 84 minutes of Loverboy. As a testament to the quality of this film, even the naughty bits made me consider standing up and walking into a showing of Garfield's Tail of Two Kitties. Loveryboy might even end up in my list of ten worst films I've ever seen. Yes, it was that bad.

Mostly, Kyra Sedgwick pissed me off. Instead of feeling her pain for the awful childhood she endured, I just wanted her to stop talking. It was like watching a modern-day Saturday Night Live sketch that you hoped would have a punchline but never did...and it lasted 84 minutes. Even the "surprise" ending was a cop-out. Sigh. That was seriously a waste of $10.75. I'm thankful that no other film this summer looks quite so hideous, otherwise I'd be tempted to quit now and save my dignity and remaining brain cells.

So this is your warning: Don't See Loveryboy.

Review: Only Human

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Despite the reassurance of Radiohead, meeeting people is not easy. Especially when it's your fiance's parents. And you're Palestinian and she's Jewish. And you may have killed her father. And, well, you get the idea.

Only Human is a Spanish film written and directed by husband and wife pair Dominic Harari and Teresa Pelegri. The lovely couple referred to above, Gloria and Rafi played by Maria Botto and Guillermo Toledo, lead us through this slapstick tale that's spiked with morality. It reminds me of a Spanish-language Meet the Parents with a distinct European sensibility.

The slapstick side of Only Human is fun, but ultimately forgettable. I have no specific grievances about the acting or the gags, but Cinecultist and I both agreed that this doesn't really add much to the lexicon of film. What sets the film apart is its desire to provide a unique perspective on the Palestinian/Israeli issue. Unfortunately, it has a mild personality disorder. I liked the idea of this being solely a goofy film using the ultimate frightening fiance for a traditional Jewish mother. The idea is cute and the mother (Norma Aleandro) played it just right.

What threw me off was a scene in the third act when the young couple had a genuine argument about the conflict between their people. It's not that I don't want to hear it, but it worked better as an unspoken tension. Letting it free changed my perspective on the film. But if you're content with a good time with some crazy Spanish characters, then it shouldn't have much effect on you. I definitely enjoyed myself despite the lack of cohesiveness and I'm confident you will too.

As a footnote, I could really see Ben Stiller in the man's role if this were remade in the States. But instead of Teri Polo, I'm picturing Renee Zellweger. It's nothing I'd want to see, but with lack of originality in Hollywood today I certainly wouldn't be surprised to see it in Summer 2010.

Review: The Heart of the Game

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The trailer for the documentary The Heart of the Game makes a point of trumpeting the fact that the film is “based on a true story,” which, of course, it ought to be by definition. On one level, this phrase is an easily-understood marketing shorthand for “uplifting tale of ordinary triumph!,” but on another, it's there to let the audience know that this is not in fact yet another mockumentary. (There are waaaaaaay too many mockumentaries. Note to mockumentarians: Please stop.)

Sports documentaries generally either play out an underdog-makes-good narrative, or mythologize individual players or teams. Ward Serrill's film is stuck in a difficult position between the two, with his milieu – high school girls basketball in Seattle, Washington – lacking the gravitas to pull off a proper “sports legend” story, and his subject, the nearly-undefeated Roosevelt Roughriders being nothing like underdogs in spite of a few setbacks here and there. The film isn't about overcoming adversity (though there is a subplot for a key player which does follow that trajectory), but rather a study in how winners go about the act of winning.

Much of the movie is focused on the team's coach, Bill Resler; a shlubby, affable tax professor who leads his team to an impressive record in his first-ever season as the head of a basketball program. He's a highly effective leader, at first dismantling the team's offense entirely, and then going on to motivate his girls to revel in their aggression. He's supportive and easygoing, and capable of transforming timid teenagers into a collective of “warriors” on the court. The girls' enthusiasm provides the film most of its energy, though the story begins to coast along in its third act in spite of plot points including the sudden pregnancy of a star player and a high-stakes state championship match against their scrappy hometown rivals. By that point, you will certainly have enough invested in the players and the coach to want to see how things turn out, but the film has long since exhausted anything that it had to say.

It is notable that rap star Ludacris provides all of the narration in the film. His charismatic drawl is far more restrained than what you may be used to hearing on his records, but it is nonetheless quite entertaining. More rappers ought to make the transition into narration, if just for the fact that clear enunciation and a compelling vocal presence is a natural part of their skill set, and that we all could benefit from voiceovers that aren't entirely dry and uptight.

Review: Garfield, A Tail of Two Kitties

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Sometimes my big mouth really gets me in trouble. At the start of this project, as the Latin Snake and I brainstormed about the pleasures and pitfalls of this binge, we bantered about all of the terrible movies we'd have to sit through for the sake of our readers. The sequel to the 2004 kiddie movie, Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties came up quickly as a particularly painful entry and I thought I was so witty to harp on the pun-tastic title and brag about going to see it. But as I walked up to the Union Square Theater last Saturday morning, I felt like I was on a death march. Someone should've ducked out of a brownstone to yell, "dead movie girl walking!"

Despite my obvious trepidation, the whole cast of the first Garfield didn't have such misgivings. Stars Breckin Meyer and Jennifer Love Hewitt from the first installment are back for more, though one could argue they probably would be home watching Oprah if they weren't working on this film. Not so for other cast members like "the star" Bill Murray as the voice of the fat cat, Billy Connolly as the baddie and Jane Horrocks, Tim Curry and Richard E. Grant all doing animal voices. Surely these people don't need to appear in a movie about a lazy, lasagna lovin' cat and his trip to England.

The thin premise if you're curious: John is going to propose to Liz but Garfield is jealous. Before the proposal, veterinarian Liz announces she's off to England for some kind of animal protection conference. John decides to go to the UK too and Garfield and his trusty sidekick Odie tag along in suitcases. MEANWHILE, a cat named Prince has just inherited a huge estate outside of London. The spoiled nephew of Prince's former owner (Connolly) wants to get rid of Prince so he can get the estate instead. Through various circumstances all coincidental in nature, Garfield and Prince get switched and Garfield has to help save the estate from the animal hating nephew.

At this point it's clear that I've spent far too much of my brain to thinking about Garfield but here's a few more ponderings for you: The conceit of Garfield, that a sad, lonely man owns a selfish cat whom he talks to, implies that Garfield and Jon have conversation yet don't hear each other. They each talk but they're not in dialogue. In the comic strips which I read obsessively as a kid, I accepted this idea without question but on the silver screen, it's an odd one. Also, really what's so great about lasagna and bad about Mondays? Garfield lives in a world of total absolutes. He exists only to stuff himself, sleep and hate everyone around him. Why is this so funny or universally understandable to the child mind? Epiphany! Dear lord, is Garfield our id, the part of our personality that satisfies the primeval?

Another thing I learned from this movie is that if you want to make a massive quantity of lasagna from scratch, apparently bringing in a team of cooking farm animals will do the job. Also my big complaint was that there wasn't enough Pookie. Garfield's stuffed bear has but a brief cameo. How about a third part that features Pookie prominently? Goodness, there goes our big mouth again. Shut up you, just shut up.

Review: Nacho Libre

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For the most part, I think people's expectations for summer movies are far too high. Significant cereberal activity is for the fall during Oscar season. When the sweaty, dirty New York summer arrives I want something that will make me laugh, scream or cheer as I relax in my refrigerated movieplex. Nacho Libre, while a valiant effort, didn't quite make it there.

I was so freaking excited for this movie, as I mentioned in the preview, and for good reason. Jack Black and Mike White have a long history of producing great comedies and Jared Hess had a memorable start with Napoleon Dynamite. I'm not sure if it was a too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen issue, but they couldn't put it together in this tale of a Mexican friar who loves Lucho Libre wrestling and the poor sap he brings along for the ride.

One of the reviews of the film, from The Onion A.V. Club, mentioned how this film and Napoleon move at a "sleepy snail's pace" which it seems is where this went wrong. In Napoleon Dynamite the cast and plot lent itself to the slowly devloping plotlines and the flatly delivered one-liners. Jack Black's unbelievable energy just doesn't jibe with this pace and the film suffers as a result. It's all so frustrating as I thought the cast was strong and the plot is ridiculously fun.

There were definitely a few good moments — a piece of Mexican street corn used as a weapon was my favorite — but not enough to make this worth your time this summer. Unfortunately, this is the only real comedy out in the theaters now, so it will have to do. So, if you're dying for 2 hours of frosty air conditioning and you only need a few laughs to keep you awake, Nacho Libre will suffice.

Review: Lower City

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You idiots, it's not, "Hos before Bros."

I'll just state the most important part of this review first, and then get to what works for this movie. DO NOT SEE LOWER CITY WITH YOUR PARENTS. It's a sleazy sexy violent movie. I felt like I should've been wearing a trenchcoat in the theater.

Yeah, this movie's about a working girl and the brain surgeons that love them. The film wastes no time establishing Karinna's credentials, about five minutes after her introduction she negotiates a ride to El Salvador with a "cash, grass or ass nobody rides for free" motto sporting pair of fellas named Deco and Naldinho. She does not pay with money or weed. This is about as good as it gets for any the three starcrossed lovers.

When the next town they roll into results in Naldinho getting stuck with a shiv, Karinna sticks around to help, so maybe she's the hooker with a heart of gold. Well, nobody ever said being a sweetie made one a genius. The rest of the movie sees the trio fuck with each other's hearts past the breaking point, destroying friendships and futures.

That's it in a nutshell, there's a hell of a lot of drinking in between (I didn't see a character voluntarily imbibe water), screwing, and day to day living, but it's all just cover for those moments when the love triangle plays itself out. It makes them all mighty unsympathetic to watch, just for being so predictable, like a crew of snotty ten year old's they just can't help destroying themselves. It makes you want to send them into the corner for a timeout.

What worked? Well, the acting was solid. No punches were pulled, that's for sure. Additionally, the atmosphere has an excellent gritty and dark feel to it, which owes a lot to City of God, the other Brazilian movie I can safely reference. I'm thinking their ministry of tourism isn't too thrilled with the image that's getting exported.

It's always cool to get a glimpse of cities, towns and neighborhoods that aren't touted by said tourism industry. And that's what you get here with Lower City, a movie that makes its way through locales that while clearly seedy aren't quite the bombed out slums of City of God. The camera spends a lot of time in residential districts that house the hustlers, wageslaves and red light district types. Neat.

To sum-up, if you're interested in seeing a few good looking people get naked and act up in a foreign locale go see Lower City. If not, then don't, see if I care.

Two asides:

-Landmark Sunshine on Houston is one of the only theaters I've been to in ages that doesn't run silly ads/trivia before the movie begins. It's a nice feeling to be able to just zone out and relax, and in fact makes the previews feel a bit more welcome.
-The actress who played Karinna was also in City of God. How about that.

Review: Wordplay

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I've noticed a tendency on the part of movie reviewers (indeed, professional reviewers of any stripe) to get a wee bit breathless any time they're presented with something that is both enjoyable and out of the ordinary. This is perfectly understandable, as they're bombarded every day with films that might meet one of those criteria (or neither, lord knows), but very rarely do they have the pleasure of encountering one that embodies both. Wordplay certainly qualifies, but critics like Peter Travers do, perhaps, overstate matters when they claim it's packed with "palm-sweating suspense." There's drama, certainly, but at the end of the day, this is still a movie about the life of the mind, and the brain is not known for its proclivity for car chases and exploding oil tankers, y'know? (Well, my brain perhaps, but that's in a totally different hemisphere from the puzzlin' part.)

Which is not to knock Wordplay. It's a sweet, funny, and very charming documentary overall, examining the lives of some very, very, very nerdy people (and I should know from nerds) as they don their crossword ties and suit jackets (no, really) and prepare for the 28th Annual Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held in the Marriott in Stamford, CT. The men and women profiled in the film span a reasonable range of demographics, and they're all intriguing folks, but unfortunately there is a slightly repetitive sense of commonality about them: it's a particular personality type that's drawn to puzzles, and it's an even more particular personality type that is both drawn to puzzles and good at solving them. But it's nonetheless quite pleasant to watch them gather and rejoice in each other's nerdiness, and even if the thought of solving the Monday crossword makes you break out into hives, you'll be able to both respect their skills and sympathize with their joy at participating in a community that shares their passions. That brief feeling of repetitiousness aside, the film is generally quite nimble in its pacing and visual style, including some rather original techniques for putting the dense visual code of crosswords onto the screen in a scannable, comprehensible fashion.

The only other two flaws in the film are reasonably minor: One is that, no matter how true the sentiment might be, the film's repeated (and I do mean repeated) references to the New York Times as "the greatest newspaper in the world" or "the most important cultural institution in existence" can be a bit obnoxious -- at moments like that, the film feels like it was created to play on flatscreen TVs in the Times lobby while you wait to speak with a customer service rep about your subscription. The other weak point is, sadly, Will Shortz: he's a very effective sort of Master of Ceremonies for the film, and it's fascinating to see a few quick glimpses of his professional process as an editor, but we get no sense of him as a puzzler or a personality in quite the same way that we're allowed into the heads of the film's civilian subjects. It's respectable as a personal decision, perhaps, but something about his weirdly rakish grin (in one of his appearances, Jon Stewart dubs Shortz "the Errol Flynn of puzzling") seems to demand a closer inspection.

But there are worse ways to spend an hour and a half staring at a wall this summer (God knows I saw one of them a few days after this screening), and you're bound to laugh and, yes, feel a tingle of suspense once the real competition kicks in. And God help me, it actually has made me want to try my hand at a crossword for the first time in years. Stop me before I buy a crossword tie.

(And for further reading: This Times Q&A with Will Shortz.)

Review: The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

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Warning to all the haters: I liked this movie. I got a lot of sympathy when I pulled the Fast and Furious straw last weekend, but I had confidence. Yes, the film would have inane dialogue and mediocre acting, but does it matter? Do you go to see a car movie for witty banter? I certainly don't.

Tokyo Drift rolls without Vin Diesel or Paul Walker at the helm, which means that they'll need a gimmick to keep your attention. Thus, the introduction of drift racing to the big screen. The story follows Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) to Tokyo as he is forced to attend high school there after being kicked out of school after school in the States. One of the conditions of staying with his dad is no driving, but that lasts about 2 movie minutes. Sean finds himself racing for a Yakuza sub-contractor (more exciting than it sounds) and ends up in the middle of betrayal. There's more drama and a hot girl, but you get the drift (he he, puns!).

The plot is far from special, but it's good enough to keep you entertained between driving scenes, which is all I ask of it. As for the driving scenes, they didn't disappoint. The cars were tricked out, the driving was both fast and furious (thankfully), and there was more than enough destruction to keep me happy. Oh, and if you're not into these crazy Japanese cars, our lead character drops a Nissan engine into a Mustang, which is (in the words of Homer) sacrilicious.

There's not much more to say about this film. Fast cars = entertaining. Poor acting = ignorable. And if you do nothing else, I implore you to search out the very end of the film, where there is a guest appearance by Vin Diesel and the following line of dialogue is uttered:

Random Tokyo Guy: I didn't know [Lucas] was into muscle [i.e. the tricked out Buick they're in]. Vin: He was when he was with me.

Hey-o! Well, I guess Vin's character and Sean are, ahem, good friends. If the box office numbers keep up, we might be seeing Fast and the Furious: Under My Hood sometime soon.

Review: The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life Of Ethan Green

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Oh, what a woeful film. What a woefully, woefully woeful film Ethan Green is. How bad is it? It is so bad! How bad it is! What a terrible motion picture (You get the idea).

As the Token Gay on the Movie Binge staff (side note: you may be surprised to learn that Latin Snake is not, in point of fact, our Token Latino), I felt compelled to volunteer for Ethan Green duty, despite having absolutely zero taste for "gay" cinema as such (as long as My Beautiful Laundrette doesn't count, because that movie rocks). But I thought it would be cute to go on a proper gay date to a proper gay movie, which I'd never done before, and in the worst-case scenario I would at least be taking a bullet for my fellow Bingers. In this case, an armor-piercing bullet. With poison inside. And enriched uranium. That's been set on fire. And farted on.

I won't bother you with the details of the plot, dear (likely straight) reader; I will allow you to use that time to make babies or vote for Republicans or do whatever it is that the people who don't go to movies like this do. Suffice it to say that Ethan Green is unlucky in love, perhaps because he is as a character (a.) unlikeable to an almost inconceivable degree, and (b.) acted with an emotional range one step above pornography (one step below some good porn, actually). The script is unbearably dull, jammed with vacant characters and miserable one-liners -- this is the kind of movie that brazenly expects you to laugh when an attendee at a gay wedding asks "Which side is the groom's side?" YES HA HA, WE GET IT, THEY ARE BOTH MEN. Who sleep with each other. Like your entire fucking audience (with the exception of the lesbian couple who sat four rows in front of us, and who really should have known better). Set your sights a bit higher, won't you?

It is worth noting, as a sign of where the bar was set in general, that the single best performance in the film is given by a nine-year-old girl with asthma, and she is only mildly funny. It is also worth noting that the second-best performance in the film is given by Meredith Baxter from "Family Ties," a fact which amused my date to no end. Before the film, he pointed out to me that this movie made more per-screen last weekend than The Lake House, and though I have no especial love for Keanu & Sandra (had their big reunion picture been Speed 3: Speed On A Plane, or perhaps an entry in the Jurassic Park series, it would be another story), I can only think of that as a massive travesty of justice. It would be a travesty of justice if this movie did more per-screen business than Garfield: A Tail Of Two Kitties, which is at least, I gather, suitable for the temporary placation of children. This film was suitable only for the temporary infuriation of yours truly. It is, I cannot stress the fact enough, a woeful movie. Stay home. (Not that you weren't planning to anyway, in this case...)

Review: Land of the Blind

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I admit, I didn't even know this movie was coming out. I have a feeling that there may only be five or six of you who have heard of Land of the Blind, even though it has Ralph Fiennes, Donald Sutherland and Laura Flynn-Boyle. After seeing the film, I'm surprised this is the case. I'll admit, there were a number of flaws and I could see how it might be tough to promote, but it deserved to open on more than two screens.

Land of the Blind is political satire that imagines a fictitious state under a totalitarian dictatorship. The dictator (Tom Hollander) uses taxes to fund his ridiculous lifestyle and stupidly large mansion. Ralph Fiennes plays a prison guard (Joe) watching over the leader of the uprising (Donald Sutherland, i.e. Thorne), who happens to be a political prisoner. Eventually, Joe helps Thorne overtake the evil dictator only to watch Thorne create an even more retched existense. This, of course, brings us to the moral.

Well, as many other reviewers have noticed, the moral isn't so fresh. I took away that dictatorship is bad and the grass is never greener. Despite these being far from earth-shattering, I was still entertained. This is probably because I'm a sucker for a highly stylized film, but I did think there was some interesting camera work, I enjoyed Ralph Fiennes' performance and the cutaways to newscasts were consistently funny.*

I'm going to give Land of the Blind an A for effort. It clearly wasn't a film for the ages but at least it tried. Anytime a studio tries for something other than a quick cash-grab, I'm happy to give it a shot. Still, save your ten bucks and rent it on Netflix.

* For example, if there were three murders in a K-Mart, the newscaster would follow this news with a live read of an advertisement for K-Mart. It's funny because I could see it being true.

Review: Waist Deep

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Don't be like your daddy; stay out of awful movies.

Look, this film was utter crap. I'm not going to even bother with a proper review. I'll just tell you the basic (and it was basic) plot outline and then follow it with a great story.

O2 (a.k.a. Tyrese Gibson) is fresh out of jail and committed to getting a real job and caring for his son. His son gets napped in a car-jacking and is held hostage by Meat (a.k.a. The Game) for $100,000. O2 enlists the help of Coco (a.k.a. Meagan Good), who's also looking to start fresh, to get the cash and his son back. They rob two feuding gangs and three banks. They get freaky at some point. A bunch of other highly anticipated crap happens. Then O2 kills Meat (at some point we find out they had beef) as he gets his son back. They drive off, but the cops are chasing behind them. O2 manages to save Coco and his son, but in a not-really heart-wrenching moment decides to drive his car into the river. We then fast-forward two years and see Coco and O2's son in a beautiful little house in Mexico (Coco wanted to move there because people say all your sins are wiped clean) living all hunky-dory.

Does it end there? No, but the ending is integrated into the awesome story. At some point during the film O2 explains his name. People call him O2 (i.e. oxygen, but like super-oxygen (yes, seriously), which is why it's Oh Two) because he can escape any situation unscathed. I know what you're thinking — "there's no way they'd use that as excuse to bring him back", right? Before I loosely quote the end of the film, I will note that I saw this at the UA Court St. Theater in Brooklyn, where people can be quite vocal.

Coco and O2's son are walking on the beach. Coco: Let's practice your spanish. What's that? (points to the ocean) O2's Son: El Mar. Coco: What's that? (points to a family) O2's Son: La Familia Coco: What's that? (points to a guy walking towards them from far away) [Dramatic pause...] O2's Son: Padre!!!

At this point, a very large man behind me is like, "No, No, Nu'uh. That did not just happen." He proceeds to step over the three people to his left and walks right out the theater. Another dozen people yell out and do the same thing. Forty-five seconds later the movie ends and people are standing before the director's name is on the screen.

I freaking loved that. I'm just glad that audiences today can sniff out a turd without a problem.

Review: The Road To Guantanamo

guantanamo.jpgThe summer movie season is usually reviled for putting out movies of the Waist Deep school of filmmaking but actually there are more quiet, moving indies in the mix of releases than you'd expect. Michael Winterbottom's newest, The Road to Guantanamo falls into that camp (no pun intended) with its fine acting, clever use of documentary realism and shocking subject matter. Like The Inconvenient Truth, this is a movie which may not seem like it would be a fun time at the cinema and at times it's certainly not, but it's an important movie if you believe in human rights and America's due process system.

Winterbottom is a director whose prolific output is only matched by his eclectic subject matter and seems to me to be one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. Thus, I hopped at a chance to attend an advance screening of the film hosted by the ACLU at the IFC Center with a Q&A following featuring Winterbottom, a few human rights lawyers and the three subjects of his film linked in via iChat AV from England. Consequently an already upsetting film about three young English muslims imprisoned at Guantanamo for two years without ever being formally charged, became an even more conscious raising experience. As the lawyers on the panel pointed out, to see the conditions at Guantanamo actualized on screen with actors living through it brought this situation home more than all even they've read or heard. It's impressive when movies can communicate someone's lived experience so viscerally and it gives this sometimes jaded viewer hope that making movies can really be an important undertaking.

On a random side note: Michael Stipe happened to be in the audience and during the Q&A got up to make a heartfelt comment to the young men in England that on behalf of all Americans he apologized for their treatment. So, if it was possible to add a tally to our Movie Binge running totals of popcorn, sodas and candy we could put down "one" next to celebrity sightings during our project.

Review: Wassup Rockers

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Larry Clark is a love 'em or hate 'em sort of artist, and I've spent the last ten years in the latter camp. I've never had a taste for Clark's artless photographs of teen sexuality and drug abuse, and I certainly don't care for the sort of influence he's had on subsequent generations as one of the prime architects of what would be best understood today as the Vice aesthetic. As Clark ages (he's currently 63), his relentless fascination with nubile teenage flesh only becomes creepier, and his films become ever flimsier excuses to indulge in his chickenhawk tendencies.

Surprisingly, after the relentless sweaty crotch-shots of Bully (if you've ever been extremely curious about the anatomy of Macauley Culkin's ex-wife, that's the movie for you) and the over the top parade of perversity in 2002's Ken Park (a film that I and most everyone else have not seen largely due to the fact that it contains explicit scenes of teen sex, incest, and autoerotic asphyxiation and never found a distributor), Wassup Rockers is a far milder version of Clark's regular shtick. Though the film is packed with lingering, leering shots of half-naked teenagers, there's virtually no nudity in the picture, and there's actually not very much in the way of glamorized debauchery. It's hard to tell whether this is the result of commercial pressures or some show of mature restraint, but I suppose that I'm grateful not to be totally skeeved out by anything in the movie.

Clark's subjects in Wassup Rockers are a group of Latino skate punks from the ghetto of South Central Los Angeles. In the first hour or so, the film trudges through a series of rhythmless, poorly shot vignettes depicting their daily life, including several interminable sequences of the teen skaters wiping out gracelessly, over and over again. The picture finds some kind of form in its second half, as the boys stumble into a series of misadventures in Beverly Hills. Obviously, the boys are fish out of water in this enclave of extreme affluence, and their encounters hammer the film's one and only discernible point: rich white people in Los Angeles are grotesque, and these poor Latino rebels are genuine and pure. The boys' presence is met with one of two basic responses – they are run down or attacked by the whitest dudes imaginable, or are treated as novelty sex objects or tokens of outsider coolness by bored white girls and jaded hipsters.

The film is at its most honest and direct in the moments when the objectification of these young men is foregrounded. When a duo of cute rich girls lure two of the guys back to their rooms, they are clearly acting as mouthpieces for Clark as the brunette gently interrogates one lad (bringing the film full circle with its incongruous opening scene of one of the boys answering questions in his bedroom with his shirt off as though the movie was a documentary), and the blonde exclaims that she thinks her dude's uncut cock is “dangerous!!!” In these moments, there's a refreshing guilelessness about the fact that Clark is treating these boys not so much as characters but as specimen to be observed, and that the fascination is largely rooted in the idealized sexualization of otherness. When the movie tries to be about the boys' struggle and the integrity of their lifestyle, it is clear that Clark means well, but it rings very hollow.

Though Wassup Rockers is a vast improvement for Larry Clark, it is at best a mediocre film. The production values aspire for documentary-style naturalism, but with the exception of the moments when the camera is ogling young skin, the photography is amateurish and shoddy, and the cast of untrained actors is often glaringly untalented, seeming stilted even when they are ostensibly playing barely fictionalized versions of themselves.

Review: Superman Returns

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Oh, what it must be like to be a comic book geek growing up today?!? Back in my day a big budget adaptation of a comic book was something called Howard the Duck and you’d get beaten up for even whispering that you liked it. (I did and please don’t give me a noogie.)

Today Hollywood seems to think they’ve hit upon the magic formula for comic book movies and great Caesar’s ghost, they’re right. It actually is working—most of the time. Take your venerable institution of a comic book character, let a fan boy/preternaturally gifted director have at it and lo and behold you’ve got your summer tent pole.

It’s been working pretty well by and large.
X-Men: Bryan Singer
Batman: Chris Nolan
Spider-Man: Sam Raimi
Hellboy: Guillermo del Toro
Hell I even have grown to like what Ang Lee did with The Hulk.

And now we come to the granddaddy of them all. The man with the big S on his chest and that silly little curl of hair that you know he must work on for hours to get just right.

Superman!

And once again Hollywood’s gone to Bryan Singer. And once again it’s worked—mostly. Superman has indeed returned as the title promises (from a DVD extra jaunt to the remains of Krypton) and by God for nearly three hours it’s pretty fun to be at the movies again. How much of the credit for that goes to Singer and company and how much is due to our collective nostalgia for the Richard Donner ’78 version is up for debate. Frankly I need to see it again. I need to see it again because I was overwhelmed—overwhelmed in a way I haven’t been at the movies since I was at an early screening of The Phantom Menace and my brain simply couldn’t process that I was watching a new Star Wars movie. It happened again last week when I saw Superman Returns and those glorious swooshing titles began and that John Williams fanfare bellowed from the Dolby surround. So honestly it’s going to take another viewing or two to properly judge just what I saw.

BUT…let’s give it a try anyway, shall we? Superman Returns is a worthy re-start of a franchise that we’ve sorely been lacking. Let’s face it, we’ve got angst-ridden/tormented/self-destructive heroes up the wazoo. I love Batman. I really do. But sometimes it’s fun to hang out with the fun friend and not the too cool for school brooder.

And more importantly for our purposes every once in a while it’s nice to feel a little wonder and awe at the movies and that’s what Superman Returns delivers. Singer and screenwriters Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty have delivered a lovingly earnest continuation/re-imagining of the Donner Superman film—sometimes a little too lovingly for my taste. I get it. You liked the Donner film. We all did.

Ironically the new film gets bogged down in some of the same pacing problems of 78’s Superman. Frankly Kevin Spacey (a gallant Gene Hackman-ish turn that falls just short) and his cronies get too much face time plotting and scheming and just sort of hanging out in mansions and yachts. It’s especially too much when you consider that after two hours and forty five minutes I still felt like Clark Kent and Lois Lane’s relationship got short shrift. Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth give it a decent try but their exchanges really are trading on the memories of the past and not what’s in the here and now.

Unfortunately there is perhaps not one cast member here that improves upon Donner’s version. Alright, maybe Parker Posey could give Valerie Perrine a run for her money. Most egregious of all is a blah performance by Bosworth as Lois. This is the chick Superman turned back time for?

However and there is a big however…Superman Returns in the end delivers where it counts. Donner’s film promised that “you will believe a man can fly.” This one’s tag line could have been “you will believe a man can lift a space shuttle from a supersonic plane in mid-flight.” There are a dozen iconic images of Superman doing his thing in this film that took this overgrown adolescent’s breath away. This is what I want to see modern effects technology used for, not to put Shaun Wayan’s head on a baby (though don’t get me wrong, that’s cool too).

Credit also must go to Brandon Routh who truly embodies Superman as well as could be hoped for. He looks the part to a tee and carries a healthy dose of charisma—especially when you consider this is his first film. I just wish he (and indeed the film as a whole) would have lightened up a tad at times. Singer has created a gorgeously realized old fashioned melodrama of an epic. Your eyes widen with wonder and your pulse races as Clark makes a beeline for the elevator but unfortunately you never get the whimsy and sheer joy that Donner achieved.

[TEMP ED NOTE: This review is by Josh Horowitz. However, with editor Latin Snake out of town this week, I couldn't quite figure out how to post it under his name. Anyhow, all opinions are the sole property of Josh and not the Cinecultist.]

Review: Strangers With Candy

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The Strangers With Candy movie is rather like a late period Rolling Stones album — it's still the same super-talented people doing exactly what you expect of them, but nothing more. The creative spark isn't totally gone, but the sort of gleeful perversity that made episodes like "The Blank Page," "Hit & Run," and "Who Wants Cake" so sublime is dulled down in even the film's best moments and occasionally lacking entirely. It's a strange thing that the troupe would actually make the film version far less filthy and weird than the original series, which was subject to FCC standards. I'm not sure whether this is because they were hedging their bets, or if the timetable of writing and shooting a feature film killed the spontaneity of the show, which had episodes written and produced in the span of a couple weeks. Either way, if you come into the film hoping to revisit familiar characters and get a few good laughs and a lot of quiet chuckles, then you'll be fine, and rewarded with a few priceless bits involving Amy Sedaris' Jerri Blank sexually harassing Tammy Littlenut and Sir Ian Holm sliding down a bannister. If you're expecting something even as good as the show's weakest episodes, you're in for a disappointment.

I was lucky enough to catch an early screening of the film with a panel featuring Sedaris and director Paul "Geoffrey Jellineck" Dinello immediately following the program. The audience was packed with Strangers With Candy superfans who were laughing loudly throughout the film and applauding whenever a character made their first appearance on the big screen. It was a slightly alienating experience to be around people who were totally losing their shit to jokes that I thought were only okay, but it was also fun to be in a room with so many people that were so obviously enthusiastic about one of my favorite sitcoms of all time. (Second only to Arrested Development!) As you might have guessed, Sedaris and Dinello were hilarious in the q&a, tossing off one-liners and wisecracks with an effortlessness that seemed much more in the spirit of the show than the frequently stiff movie.

Review: Leonard Cohen, I'm Your Man

Does it suffice to say that I wish that I could just plunk down a bunch of quotes from the Leonard Cohen documentary, Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, and call it a day? Every single thing the man says is gold. If they just had a "Fishing with John" episode that had Leonard on it, there would've been no point in making this movie. Seriously, they should bottle up that guy's sweat and sell it in men's bathrooms across NYC.

There are some other points to this movie besides Mr. Cohen, and that's where this documentary takes a bit of a breather. The performances, from a 2005 tribute concert, are hit or miss. I've read other reviews where people have taken the piss out of Rufus Wainright's singing. Hey guess what? Fuck you. Rufus Wainright is easily the most entertaining singer in this movie as he sings like himself and not some sad ghost approximation of the movie's subject. He also talks about Leonard Cohen without sounding like an over eager tween with a thesaurus. You know why? Because he knew the guy, he grew up in Montreal and therefore can talk about personal encounters and the effect Cohen had on Montreal's character as a city. Oh, and he's funny. No other interviewee besides LC managed that.

The other film participants were solid, if not a standout in my mind. The Edge and Bono were kind of embarrassing to watch. The Edge kept reminding us he was a catholic, and Bono appeared bloated and unfocused as he racked his brain for metaphors. But it was forgivable; in the video at the end of the flick they were just so happy to play with their mentor that it made me think they were sincere.

Really, the only thing that was annoying were the directorial flourishes. The slo-mo. The red curtain. The obscenely long lingering shot of cleavage, revealed later to belong to a living breathing...cigarette girl? Still, it's not that hard to ignore the unnecessary tweaks and there's a lot of good in Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man. See it, love it, and then go buy some of the guy's music. You'll want to.

[TEMP ED NOTE: Again, this post is by Bronto Burger and express the Leonard Cohen adulation of Bronto alone.]

Review: Click

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Great New Wonderful

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Devil Wears Prada

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

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

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

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

Review: Who Killed The Electric Car?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Motel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: A Scanner Darkly

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Oh In Ohio

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

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

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

Review: You, Me, and Dupree

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

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

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

Review: Once in a Lifetime

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Little Man

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Lady in the Water

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

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

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

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

Review: My Super Ex-Girlfriend

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

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

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

Review: The Groomsmen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The word for The Groomsmen is milquetoast.

Review: Clerks II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Peaceful Warrior

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

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

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

Review: Scoop

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

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

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

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

Review: Little Miss Sunshine

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Time To Leave

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

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

Review: The Night Listener

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

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

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

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

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

Review: John Tucker Must Die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Miami Vice

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

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

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

Review: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

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

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

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

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

Review: Monster House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Brothers of the Head

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Ant Bully

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

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

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

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

Review: Barnyard

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

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

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

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

Review: Half Nelson

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

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

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

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

Review: The Descent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: World Trade Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Zoom

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

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

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

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

Review: Step Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Snakes on a Plane

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Quinceanera

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

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

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

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

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

Review: House of Sand

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

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

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

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

Review: Pulse

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

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

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

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

Review: Accepted

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

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

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

Review: Material Girls

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

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

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

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

Review: The Quiet

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

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

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

Review: Factotum

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

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

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

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

Review: Conversations with Other Women

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

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

(Spoilers begin here)

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

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

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

Review: The Illusionist

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Idlewild

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

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

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

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.

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.

The Boss Of It All

Still from Boss of it All

Given his reputation for dour, misanthropic polemics, one does not reasonably expect light-hearted comedy from Lars von Trier. He seems to be aware of this — he appears in the opening scene of The Boss Of It All to assure the viewer that what they are about to see is "a comedy, and harmless." He is, of course, totally full of shit. Sure, the movie is funny and not anywhere near as heavy as anything else he's directed in the past ten years, but von Trier's office farce nevertheless betrays his rather grim and cynical outlook on humanity.

As the film begins, an office manager hires a pretentious stage actor to play the part of his company's CEO when an Icelandic mogul intent on buying the company insists upon his presence when signing off the required paperwork. However, "the boss of it all" has always been entirely fictional — the manager is in fact the owner of the business, and he created the character as a convenient scapegoat in an attempt to indefinitely avoid conflict with his employees. Hijinks ensue: The manager has neglected to properly inform the actor of his numerous conflicting lies, and so he's forced to improvise in ways that only end up humiliating him and alienating the workers. The actor is vain and delusional, and his obsession with a mad Italian playwright fuels his eagerness to remain believable in his part no matter how much he does to inadvertently demolish his own credibility.

Even though von Trier swears that he has never seen an episode of The Office, the film can't but resemble Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's sitcom franchise on a superficial level. Likewise, the dilemma of his lead elaborates on an undeveloped yet key theme at the core of Gervais' David Brent character: Management as a perverse form of performance. Both projects arrive at more or less the same point — authority figures are not meant to please or entertain their subordinates, but cowards in executive positions will do most anything to play a part in order to retain their power and save themselves the trouble of actually doing their own dirty work.

The avoidance of conflict is common to office politics around the world, but von Trier is primarily concerned with how that milieu highlights the meek character of his Danish countrymen. The only Danish character who ever snaps out of a default passivity is a mustachioed ex-farm boy named Gorm, who erupts into brief, hilarious fits of violence twice in the film before abruptly reverting to a state of inert submission. This is contrasted with the fiery, openly antagonistic antics of the Icelandic businessman, who refuses to let go of his grudge against the Danish for their rule of his people for 400 years, and berates the leads with profanities when he learns of their malfeasance.

Like all of von Trier's projects, The Boss Of It All is the product of a formal experiment. This time around, he shot the film using a program that essentially acted as a computerized cinematographer. The results are choppy and odd, and often quite unattractive. Images suddenly disappear from the frame or haphazardly cut away from the action, lending the film a somewhat jarring appearance that mostly seems like an experiment that has little to do with the actual content of the piece.

Group Review: The Pirates of the
Caribbean: At World's End

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Ed: Your prayers have been answered! For the second year in a row, we're gonna kick off the first week of the Binge with a group review. Not everyone is taking a crack, but you'll take what we're offering and you'll like it. No, you'll love it. Or else. Enjoy!

What say ye, Erik?

My father used to tell me that you can make God laugh by making a plan. This movie would have Him clutching His ineffable belly as He rolled cackling for breath in the aisles. The characters make more strident and complicated plans than your health insurance provider every chance they get. I gave up trying to follow the plot of the film somewhere in the middle when it finally struck me that not only is it completely irrelevant, but the plot changes every ten minutes. If you don't like the plot you're watching, just sit tight because it'll be completely redirected, most likely in the service of fulfilling whatever pirate-related cliché they haven't already completely run into the ground by this third installment, which is few.

Which is not to say that the film isn't enjoyable. Its merit lies in every opportunity it takes to cut through the irksome seriousness of its continually convoluted plotlines with a well-placed reaction smirk, usually supplied by the monkey. The monkey, named after Depp's still-entertaining leading captain, is by far the best part of the movie. The monkey handler deserves a lot of credit for his or her work. If only Knightley and Bloom's handlers could have put in as much. Their tepid romance continues to be the least credible aspect in a slew of remarkably incredible events. Whenever they attempt a longing look into each other's eyes, the audience suffers for having all the fun sucked out of the theater. Their impromptu marriage amidst the spectacular final battle was the most extravagant and unnecessary of all of Pirates' extravagant and unnecessary set pieces.

The best scene was a glimpse into Captain Sparrow's afterlife in Davy Jones's Locker. If Depp is the most consistently entertaining part of the movie, then why not multiply his effectiveness by introducing, like, 30 more of him? As captain to a whole crew of Sparrows stuck on a landlocked ship, bickering, ordering, and killing each other at whim, the film's senseless absurdity, for a few enigmatic moments, actually reaches a kind of inspired lunacy. It's also one of the few sequences in the film where the increasingly cloying supporting cast doesn't get in the way of Depp's hilarity. Once Sparrow departs from this death-defying madness, however, the reality of the film returns to it's tedious plot-driven inanity with only brief flashes of wit and much needed self-mockery.

Oh yeah, and Keith Richards is in it. They obviously didn't know what to do with him, which is why for half of the three minutes of screen time he gets, he's stuck idly strumming a guitar. Come on.

What say ye, Dan?

I know a lot about pirates. I know they wear bandannas. I know they're comfortable with having dreadlocks. I know they love the water. But I saw the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie this weekend, and learned some things I didn't know:

1. Pirates will always double-cross you. Even if they've done it literally ten times before. They don't get tired of it.
2. Pirates are way smarter than they seem. I know they sound drunk when they talk about Davy Jones' Locker, and Calypso the weather witch, and the edge-of-the-world waterfall, but they're right about all of that stuff. None of it's wrong.
3. Pirates, though completely removed from regular society, and constantly facing their death head-on, are very good at controlling their sexual urges. They're damn noble, in fact.

Being more of an expert on ships, I only learned one thing about ships:

1. There are ropes everywhere, non-essential ropes, that are strung so tight, if snapped, they will launch you 50 feet into the air. That happened like 8 times in the movie, so I'm guessing it's pretty common.

I also got confused at one point in the evening (and I do mean my entire evening, and most of my scheduled sleep-time); I thought it was last summer and I was watching X-men. I've prepared a picto-chart to show you what I mean: Will is just like Cyclops 'cause they're both boring and yet they're like the leader for some reason, Sparrow is like Wolverine 'cause they're both named after vicious animals and they're the one everyone wants to watch, Calypso is like Storm because they both control the weather (and racial reasons), and that one hairy pirate is like Beast because they look the same (their facial reasons).

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What say ye, Matt?

You will not be surprised to learn that the newest Pirates installment included swashbuckling, swords, rum, wooden prostheses and a touch of habberdashery (there was more, but budget cuts will leave us forever wondering). If you are at all familiar with Jerry Bruckheimer, you will also not be surprised to learn that there is a shoddily tacked-on romantic subplot that 98% of the audience couldn't give two shits about. In fact, if you ignored any conversations that involved both Will Turner (Bloom) and Elizabeth Swan (Knightley), this was a damn enjoyable film. Unfortunately, the At World's Mend edit hasn't shown up on the internet yet, so we're left wondering why Bruckheimer, and to be fair, every other blockbuster director, insists on inserting worthless love stories into action movies.

Let's look back briefly at Bruckheimer's history. Recently we have Nicholas Cage gettin' his mack on with Diane Kruger in National Treasure and Angelina Jolie in Gone in 60 Seconds. Traveling back further we have Lawrence and Smith loving all the ladies while they blow shit up in Bad Boys and Eddie Murphy finding time for some loving in Beverly Hills Cop. I think the only time it worked, and I really shouldn't admit this, is in Armageddon. It's safe to say this is the quintessential Jerry movie since he somehow made a tryst between Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler appealing. That takes talent, people.

As for At World's End, Brucky is just getting lazy. There was a slight whiff of romance between the lovebirds, but most of the time they were trying to kill themselves to save their fathers, not sneak away for some pirate nookie. About two hours into the film, during the ultimate battle sequence, someone at the editing bay woke up and decided it would be a good time for a wedding. Er, what? It was ridiculous at best and soul-crushing at worst. Thank God for both Jacks (the monkey and pirate) as they balanced out this nonsense. If they do indeed make a fourth Pirates I propose they ditch every other character and name it, Pirates of the Caribbean: A Monkey, a Drunkard and a Lifetime in Davy Jones' Closet of Hallucinations. You'll thank me.

What say ye, Meg?

If the first Pirates was like that day your nastiest co-worker brought in cupcakes, and the second was like that day your boss told you that this .04% raise was completely out of his control but hey there's always bonus season right, then the third is like the day a band of jungle faeries from just beneath the Earth's crust just up and bashed your office window in for the sake of spiriting you away to a new career riding jockey for the finest ostrich-polo team yet assembled in the galaxy. I'd go so far as to say that Misters Verbinski, Elliott, and Rossio (our director and our writers) are nutbat crazy, except for how it's become clear that all along they've just been staging an elaborate live-action Merrie Melody. (Don't tell Disney about that part.)

The francise's best asset is not just Mr. Depp's ability to set up camp, live in camp, strike camp, and then set up a newly ironic camp a few beats later. The films now have a full set of morally ambiguous protagonists, all of whom can apparently do whatever they want for whatever reason they want and not explain it so long as they have a chill CG effect nearby. The result is a script that loves absurdism more than characterization and an experience not unlike the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride. There's a slow ride in a creaky boat, a couple of scary drops in the dark, some questionable portrayals of women, and a really, really creepy song. Plus that dog with the keys. He gets me every time.

Review: Angel-A

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When it comes to selecting a movie to watch, I have a complicated rubrick of criteria. It's a mix of the cast, the crew, the setting, the subject matter, sentimentality and buzz. I'm sure there are point values assigned in the deep, deep depths of my brain, but I couldn't retrieve them with all the peyote in the world. As an example, the equation for the new Pirates goes something like this: Johnny Depp (awesome) + Keira Knightley (hot) + Geoffrey Rush (duh) + tons of pirates (also duh) + a cute monkey (whee!) + positive memories of the first two = definitely won't miss it. The equation for Angel-A went: Jamel Debbouze (Amélie!) + Luc Besson (Two nuanced films, The Fifth Element and The Professional!) + some hot girl + French cinema - crappy buzz = I'm in, but my guard is up Luc. After all this internal math, the hope is that I've laid down $11 for a movie I'll enjoy seeing, but it doesn't always turn out that way. Before I start opining, let me tell you about the plot.

André is the sort of lowlife who prefers lies to the truth and can't get his act together any more than he can find time for a weekly shower. His ambitions are selfish and trite, but he has a sweet demeanor and that counts for something, right? After borrowing a metric ton of Euros from seedy characters, he's prepared to jump off a bridge when a beautiful, leggy vixen swoops down and distracts him from his suicide attempt. She has zero inhibitions and a seemingly weak moral fiber, but she's willing to do anything to help André get back on track. Her name is Angel-A and, sadly, her name is indicative of the plot's complexity.

From the moment Angel-A appears with her bleach blonde hair and nearly translucent complexion, you inevitably wonder if — or hope that, in my case — her role as an angel is purely metaphorical. For at least half the movie I was left wondering, which was obviously Besson's intention. While it was amusing to think that a woman with legs that go up to her pupik and a willingness to sleep with or punch anyone for cash would be an angel, this film was about an infantile adult learning to survive and was not an over-the-top Kevin Smith comedy (see: Salma Hayek as a muse in Dogma). So when it was revealed that Angel-A was indeed an angel, I began to question my rubrick of criteria.

Angel-A is a redemption film and it shouldn't matter who is helping the protagonist find his way, but it turned out that wasn't even her true intention. Once André began trusting her, we learned Angel-A had problems of her own. After some time, it was clear she just wanted to be loved. Her desire allowed André to ignore all of his newfound mantras of self-reliance and succumb to his infatuation. In other words, both characters failed to fulfill their central roles, but they had love and that should provide satisfaction enough. It was a lazy copout and a total disappointment.

While Angel-A had some of the nuance of Mathilda in The Professional, Besson ended the movie with a catch-all solution. I think my rubrick would have been more accurate if I had visited his IMDb page before the screening and seen that almost all of his work since The Fifth Element has been mindless action. Then I could have allocated a potential minus towards his ability to provide satisfying closure for a complex character.

Review: Bug

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There was a time, or so the old-timey CD-ROMs tell me, that film was all but kept alive on the sweats of the brows of the New York literaria. Before God invented screenwriters, He chose to poach playwrights and lure them into His service, buying up their plays wholesale and filming without so much as a tweak to the scene constructions. 'Twas a time when any decent seat-filler of a play could get itself a movie deal — a time that sounds so damn pretty, well, it's a true shame that we don't talk so much anymore. Nowadays, Broadway steals from Hollywood, no longer the vice versa, and the well-regarded plays that do get cineplexy tend to be stinkers (Closer was an Olivier Award-winner; Proof a Pulitzer winner).

So here stands Bug, a movie whose former life was as a successful Off-Broadway play that ran many many months at New York's Barrow Street Theater. Playwright Tracy Letts was permitted to stay on and write the screenplay; he brought with him Michael Shannon, who starred in the Barrow Street run. Why, they've even pulled a couple of oddball casting coups: Harry Connick, Jr., who himself has molded a new career as a Broadway heartthrob after a lengthy run in a Pajama Game revival; Broadway favorite Brian F. O'Byrne in a godforsaken role; and Ashley Judd, who's really good at looking desperate and sad and pretty and like she should be in another movie all at once. At the director stick is William Friedkin, who I'm told directed The Exorcist. That would be really cool, except he also lent his visionary abilities to Jade.

Anyway: Michael Shannon plays a gentleman who doesn't talk much until he goes a little nuts, and he goes a little nuts after hanging out with Ashley Judd for awhile. Ashley Judd has her own issues, mostly that she can't look at empty shopping carts without taking a dramatic pause (something about her missing son, I don't know) and also she's either married or not married to an abusive, sweaty-muscular Harry Connick, Jr., which right there is enough problems for any woman. Oh also she might be a bit of a lesbian, or at least she kisses another lesbian on the mouth a couple of times, and she's also really good at getting abused! So good at it! Over and over and over!

Then there are the bugs, which either do or do not exist, and in fact the bulk of the drama of the playmovie is apparently built on this question. Do we believe this hotel room is infested with blood-feeding aphids somehow spawned out of the unholy union between QuietCrazyEx-ArmyGuy and the comely Ms. Judd OR do we believe that this movie would be a hell of a lot more interesting if there was even the slightest chance that he's not just crazy? Because that's it, you know? He's crazy at the beginning, and he's crazy in the middle, and (SPOILER SPACE) he's crazy at the end, so not once do we even get to rig up a few wires and pulleys to get to that belief-suspicion thing.

All told, it's not even really a horror story, and the whole damn thing almost never switches locations and still rotates firmly around a seam-showing act break. I have little doubt that the play plays better as a play, in a small and dark space where your sound designer can rig up the creepy-crawlies right on your audience's shoulder. At times, you can still hear pockets of lines playing the satisfying cadences they must have played onstage, these friendly little islands of wit and entertainment. You've just got to feel for (longtime Steppenwolf company member!) Letts, whose teeth were clearly cut on the rigors of theatrical pacing, and whose work is now absolutely dead & discredited by virtue of the film's sloppily-composed staging, repetitive insert shots of a rattling air conditioner, and overuse of aluminum foil as set dressing.

Better luck next time, theater.

Review: The Golden Door

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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

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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

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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

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"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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Live Free or Die Hard

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Several years ago I went on a strange date with a strange girl. We met at the Fresco Tortillas on Fulton Street and exchanged numbers. That was in August of 2001. The girl didn’t call and I forgot about her. Six months later I received a voice mail from a person speaking in a slurred British accent. It took me a while to figure out it was the Fresco Tortillas girl, who, last I knew, was American. I called her back. It turned out she’d gone to live in England for a while and adopted the accent.

We met at a bar and she chain smoked and told me she wanted to be an actress. Her new accent came and went as she spoke. She told me her brother was an actor who’d been in big things, including one of the Mummy movies. She told me his name—Yancey Arias—and I always remembered it. It was one of the names that I saw flash far down the list in the opening credits of Live Free or Die Hard.

Arias plays Agent Johnson. He shows up about thirty minutes in. The nation’s computer systems are under siege and there’s panic and chaos in the streets. Bruce Willis is dragging around a greasy hacker kid who might know why. Willis and the kid get in a police vehicle with Agent Johnson at the wheel. Willis grills the kid, who starts babbling his nervous tech-geek nonsense (a routine repeated many times throughout the film). Agent Johnson glances skeptically into the rearview. A moment later a helicopter full of bad guys fire twenty thousand rounds at the car. Only Agent Johnson is killed. Arias slumps convincingly as Willis and the kid flee.

I’m an unabashed fan of big-budget summer action films. At the same time I agree with everyone who says they’re horrible. They mostly are horrible, especially when viewed years later on TV. But Die Hard was one of the good ones, I thought. Willis, against the odds, made a great action star. He defied further odds later by turning in some interesting performances. It will surprise no one to learn that his fourth run as John McClane doesn’t rank as one of those.

McClane’s a world-weary battler this time. He’s divorced, doesn’t understand his daughter, muses darkly on the thankless nature of heroism during one of the movie’s few quiet moments. His lack of tech savvy is played for laughs not only by the hacker kid and the always-irritating Kevin Smith, but the evil genius bad guy too, who calls him “a Timex watch in a digital age,” or something like that. The same could be said of the film itself, coming as it does twelve years after the last installment, but the filmmakers do their best to stay current, tossing out references to anthrax and 9/11.

Remember 9/11? I do. I remember a lot of pious, well-meaning talk of a new era of enlightened national discourse and the end of irony and violence in movies. What a notion! Did we ever believe it? I wish I could go back in time to 9/12 and go on TV with Peter Jennings and say, “In six short years, Peter, these horrors will merely be dim back story in the next Die Hard film. Now, what was that you were saying about America being changed forever?”

Live Free or Die Hard has some cool action sequences, including a surprising—and inexplicably refreshing—scene in which McClane and the bad guy’s foxy Asian girlfriend beat the shit out of each other with bare fists while the hacker quivers over a rubber keyboard. He’s always trembling and stuttering and making unfunny wisecracks. I disliked him immediately and that never changed.

The movie held my interest but it drags toward the end, just when it should be revving up. There’s a long sequence involving a semi and a fighter plane that was probably too expensive to cut. By the time McClane delivers his signature line I’d already checked out. I was thinking how chincy it was going to look later on TV.


Black Sheep

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Welcome to Loews, would you like to try a fiesta-popper combo?

Not since Night of the Lepus has something so adorable caused so much carnage. There is terror incarnate in being attacked by that which we believe could never harm us. Also, there are fart jokes. And vegans digging their teeth into live rabbits. Plus, there's a sheep biting off a guy's weiner.

Black Sheep is at once hacky and hysterical, ridiculous and wonderful. I mean, if you're into that kind of thing. If you hear "genetically mutated sheep" and think, "Is that in the new Michael Moore documentary?" maybe you should wait until it comes to cable. If you have an Evil Dead poster rolled up in a tube in your closet and once dated a guy who dressed as the clown from House of 1000 Corpses for Halloween, you'll probably enjoy Black Sheep. It's not scary, but it is bawdy and gross. Plus, there's a sheep driving a truck.

If Jaws had been a kinkajou, if The Birds had been about flying squirrels, if the only thing buried in Pet Cemetary had been koala bears, there would have been a precedent for Black Sheep. As it stands, it felt less like an actual horror flick and more like a series of isn't it funny that a SHEEP just bit that guys mouth off and now he has no mouth- type vignettes. But if Monty Python taught us anything, it's that fluffy animals biting your face off are funny. These sheep have a vicious streak a mile wide!

I was hoping Black Sheep would be more in line with the 1970's animal-spolitation films, like Squirm, where worms go crazy and attack a small town. And - and - the lady is standing naked under the showerhead - only - instead of water coming out, it's like all these insane sharp-teethed worms falling on her! AHH! But the plot of Black Sheep seemed to get easily distracted. What could have been a fun parody of the "nature-attacks" genre became, instead, a very silly movie about sheep zombies.

Black Sheep doesn't have a chance to play up the "animals are coming from places they shouldn't be coming from!" angle because it makes an unfortunate choice to turn New Zealanders into giant weresheep. The transformation happens slowly -- first a furry hoof, then a taste for blood. The next thing you know, the evil farm owner is in the middle of a presentation about how his genetically mutated sheep are the wave of the future and every other word out of his mouth is "baaah." He's turning into a sheep! In front of his investors! Who are Japanese and German! Plus, everyone dies.

Facing up to the sad fact that Black Sheep would not be the Orca the Killer Whale of 2007, all I was left with was my enjoyment of sheep violence. Setting a sheep on fire, falling into a pit of genetic waste, and mint jelly used as acid. Plus, a guy gets kinda raped by a sheep.

Broken English

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The standout quality of Zoe Cassavetes' debut feature is its simplicity. It deals with one issue and one issue only: one woman's quest to feel loved. The film's standout weakness, however, is its simplicity: it takes an hour and twenty-five minutes to get to the point that "you need to be happy with yourself first before you can be happy with someone else".

Now, it's called Broken English which, while I'm assuming has something to do with the leading man's heavy French accent and much of the story-advancing characters having English as a second language, highlights the dialogue in general. If you were to type out the dialogue of this film, or to read the written script, it would look completely inane. Everyone talks in cliches, and none of the characters have a single original idea (save one, but it's fleeting, and in the next paragraph). Which is in itself, though maybe not an original idea, a pretty good one. That's because this aspect is almost unnoticeable (the perfect amount of noticeable) due to the performance of the actors and the actual reality of the world that that reflects. That is the way people talk, as if they were in a movie, and it takes a strong performance to fold that back on itself. English, I'm talking about the language now, is broken as a means to communicate, this film seems to say, and it merely narrates our actions, which are the real messages. Again, this is simultaneously a strength and a weakness for the film.

In one scene, Nora (Parker Posey) is on a date and muses, "do you think we all turn into our parents?" To which her date replies (and here's that idea I mentioned), "I like to think of it more like 'picking up where they left off'." Intentional or not, this is a bold claim for the daughter of John Cassavetes. It certainly seems like she's trying to pick up where her father left off, and I heartily applaud her effort (it's more than can be said for ol' Nicky), but I'm left uninspired, and merely with a few morsels of truth, rather than a constant stream. Cassavetes (when I use last name only I mean John, 'cause I'm a huge misogynist) spent years and years honing the philosophy of his films before making them. And then he had his actors play out the story that was rooted in that philosophy. There's clearly way more going on, but let's leave his "style" at that for now. To look at Broken English, the philosophy is the story, as in, it's revealed like a mystery and explained like a murder plot. It's an explanation of a feeling rather than the result of one. There is very little meaningful dialogue in the film, so it could benefit hugely from cutting all of it. Just leave only the words that come as a result of a characters feelings yet aren't about them, and I think Nora's character would be left with about two lines.

I have about four thousand other things I want to mention, but instead I'll sum up: the film's desire to be real gets in the way of it being interesting. It has moments of greatness (saying goodbye in bed and the perfect final shot) but not enough for me to think about the characters any further, or to love them at all.

Ratatouille

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There are two main reasons why I enjoyed Ratatouille more than any other animated film that I've seen in the past...oh, let's say twenty years? That seems about right.

1) I love Patton Oswalt, and even though he did not write the movie, it's sort of amazing how much it seems as though the project was created as a way of bringing his aesthetic to the masses. When I say that, I don't mean his shtick. What I mean is, the film is dealing with the central motif of his body of work: the dilemma of being a tasteful, thoughtful person trapped in a world full of unthinking bores. I know that sounds incredibly snobby, and sometimes it is, but it's urgent and key, especially when ignorance and anti-intellectualism becomes a destructive force rather than just an aesthetic irritant. So there's that, and the fact that Oswalt happens to have a keen interest in fine dining, and the maybe-not-totally-coincidental casting of Brian Dennehy -- a man who has been invoked in at least two of his best bits -- as the father of his character.

2) As I said, Ratatouille is a movie about taste, but more than that, it's a general audiences picture that intelligently and sensitively explores the tension of art, criticism, and consumerism. Most animated features are either vehicles for dumbed-down jokes and/or cloying tearjerkers*, but Ratatouille is mainly concerned with making an argument that brilliant creativity can come from anyone, anywhere, even if it is met with resistance from indifferent philistines, crass consumerists, or overly mannered snobs. Of course, the latter is represented by a ridiculously self-important food critic voiced by Peter O'Toole, and though for most of the film he is portrayed as an insufferable prick just like pretty much every other fictional critic ever created, he eventually comes around to revising his opinions when confronted with a dish so sublime that he's overcome with a Proustian involuntary memory. The film's stance on criticism is a bit garbled -- predictably, criticism is connected only to negativity, and the appreciative, philosophical end of the discipline is represented mainly by its creative protagonist and the writings of a deceased chef who serves as his primary inspiration. However, even though I currently make my living as a critic, the part of me that went to art school can't help but agree with the film's basic point: We should all own our taste and develop our critical faculties, but we should use that as a starting point for our creativity rather than to let it fuel our ego and turn us into petulant, persnickety consumers.

* I don't want to totally knock the tearjerkers. Finding Nemo is a worthwhile film even if it's not totally my thing, and I'll level with you -- I was totally DESTROYED by An American Tail when I was a little kid, and I still get choked up if I hear "Somewhere Out There" on the radio.

License to Wed

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Hey John Krasinski. How are you? Life at the top of being the star of NBC hit The Office is the greatest, I'm sure. Anyway, I bet that many well-meaning people, having seen this heapingly rank cup of rom-com with which you've seen fit to grace yourself, are probably clogging up your cell phone tubes trying to give you advice for your career. They are no doubt saying: oh, this is for your own good Mr. John, this is to keep you from becoming the next Zach "When Will A Quirky Woman Save Me and my iTunes" Braff or Matthew "Remember How Skinny I Was, Was That Drugs Or Anorexia Either Way Gross" Perry. You probably think this is very nice of them, and maybe you're hoping that my brilliant ass has words of wisdom for you as well. Only I don't, not me. I have for you instead an invitation. Right now, we word-fight, me and you behind the shed. Lanky Le Smirksologist versus Frizzy McInternetsalot. Stop dragging your feet.

Krazamataz, GOD. You effing sleepwalked on this one and you know it. The script's a total shambles. You and Mandy Moore, god rest her drying soul, have zero to negative chemistry. The characters are so finely drawn as to turn invisible when they stand sideways. Robin Williams is really, really old. That super-tacky fake-Jersey kid from the Nancy Drew movie is wandering around basically playing the same character. And you, you son of a primetime, you've got so little to work with that occasionally you just accidentally start playing Jim Halpert and I'm almost damn sure Ken Kwapis (another Office vet, for shame) got stuck with some long takes because you probably couldn't stop mugging at the camera and going Can you believe this guy I mean seriously...who let HIM run a parish?

This is something we should be basically talking about, and that's your commitment to the jokes. This Halpert guy, he's actually been kind of a passive-aggressive dick for like a year now and I'm not saying you've gone and got lazy with him but you haven't really been called upon to be very likable. So it's a total breath of super-fresh air when License to Wed forces you to take some pratfalls, 'cause you actually up and go for them, like you let all your limbs go wibbly in the air. Physical comedy will get you out of a lot of skinny corners and plus I bet it was more fun than mumbling things nervously while Robin Williams used that one tone of voice he has.

Sure, I get that sometimes probably you find out that your friend is directing a thing and you sign on because, well, you're so close to paying off that zeppelin! or whatever, but maybe next time you or someone you employ can read the thing all the way through. Maybe you or said person would have then noticed the part where the sweeping climax of the film takes place at Sandals Jamaica, a resort which just a few months back was sent up in a couple of spot-on Office episodes. Or maybe, even if that didn't matter to you and yours, someone would have noticed that not one character in the movie seems to have a reason for doing anything that he or she does. By the time your character cruelly and nonsensically punch Robin Williams in the face, we're all pretty much wishing we could feel his glorious, glorious pain. Oh! anything to feel alive again.

I see that you're crying, so I'll let you go, but you're skating on thin ice holding a basket of pre-counted un-hatched eggs in a lightning storm during swimming after eating, Krasinski. And I'm always watching.

Transformers

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We like the cars that go boom

Kurt Vonnegut wrote that, "Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae." Now, I don't have any rage or loathing to express for the Transformers movie (mostly bemusement), but it should be noted that being critical of a movie like this in any conventional sense would be equally preposterous. So what if the plot has semi-trailer sized holes in it, or the human characters are all as equally underdeveloped as the their robot counterparts, sometimes moreso? That's not why people are going to see this movie. And believe me, if the sold out Monday-night crowd and the box office numbers for the past weekend are any indication, people are seeing this movie. Lots of people. Which, to my sensibilities, means that a huge number of people are paying to see the most expensive commercial ever made for:


  • GM cars and trucks

  • Ebay

  • Hasbro

  • Apple computers

  • the U. S. Army

  • the U. S. Air Force

  • Mountain Dew

  • Nokia

  • Google Maps

  • Sony

So, if you endorse any of these products, or you just really want to see cartoon robots (yes, CGI is a form of cartoon as far as I'm concerned) beat the shit out of each other, then by all means, see this movie. Despite what many of my co-workers are saying, I can totally understand the catharsis and mindless enjoyment in watching a lot of money spent on special effects and literally awesome carnage. If I were 20 years younger, this would probably be the movie I'm most excited about this summer. While Transformers delivers spectacularly on its premise, there really aren't any surprises. As far as I can tell, you will enjoy this movie exactly as much as you think you will. It's no more or less than what is expected of it (despite the movie's requisite maxim that it's "More than meets the eye"), which seems to be what the movie-going public wants most this summer.

Evening

Evening

It's tough to come up with new storylines. We've been making movies for a hundred years and telling tales for thousands, so it's hard to fault someone for treading old ground. Of course, if you're going to go down the road most traveled then you'd better have something interesting to say. If you don't, at least make it easy to follow and include some eye candy. If you can't manage that, then you'll be on the same level as Lajos Koltai, who managed to turn Evening into a terrifically boring film.

As a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) lays on her deathbed, she can think of nothing but a brief, youthful tryst with Harris (Patrick Wilson). She's plagued by the missed opportunity and tunes everything else out, including her two daughters that are at her side. As she eases into the afterlife, the question seems to be whether this flirtation with love and her own youthful adventures are more important than her daughters and the issues they face. It's understandable for a dying woman to relive a crucial moment in her life, but Koltai did an awful job showing how this moment effected Ann between the two periods of time, which leaves you wondering why this moment was so meaningful. Their encounter seemed more lustful than loving and it was difficult to believe this tormented Ann for decades. In other words, the answer to Ann's question was woefully inadequete.

On a less esoteric level, Evening was just boring. The only notable performance was from Meryl Streep, but it was in the last 10 minutes of the film and I was too far gone. The rest of the cast had the chemistry and charisma of the Presidential Cabinet. This was Koltai's first real foray into direction after many years as a successful cinematographer and he just didn't have the chops. If you're looking for an upside to this film, I've heard great things about the book.

Joshua

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Settling in to watch videotaped evidence that mommy never loved me

Joshua is a psychological thriller that plays on every adult's deepest fear: What if children, who are inherently amoral, were also smart enough to successfully fuck with us?

When I was four years old, I stole licorice from Vic's Vegetable Stand. Upon returning home, I told my mother I needed to use the bathroom. I emerged, 15 minutes later, covered in the oozing trackmarks of sticky black candy, my tongue and teeth stained like I'd been chewing betel nut. Needless to say, my intricate plans for world candy thievery were immediately thwarted.

If my sweet malfeasance had taken place in Joshua's world, not only would I have successfully eaten and removed all traces of licorice from my naughty maw, I would have framed the neighbor's child and convinced Vic that he should hire me as in-store security. Joshua, unlike every other nine-year-old in existence, is competent. And that makes him scary as shit.

Joshua is, by his own admission, "a weird son." He plays Beethoven, hates sports, and dresses entirely in tiny business-casual attire. He spends most of his time skulking around with no expression, startling people by creepily emerging from corner shadows or comedically popping out behind open doors. The bad seed's movements are wonderfully choreographed, as if The Omen's Damien were played by Bruce McCullough from Kids in the Hall.

The movie opens with the birth of Joshua's sister Lily — just another perfect child born into family of stinking rich hedge fund jackasses. Perhaps it is this vision of his inevitable future which finally pushes Daddy's Little Slugger over the edge. Joshua spoils the celebration by brattily puking on the hardwoods and cutting the noses off his stuffed animals. He also talks a lot about Egyptian gods that eat their own screams. At the age of nine, Joshua is a petulant, 17-year-old goth.

Continue reading "Joshua" »

Vitus

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Smokin' hairstyle piano playin' little dude.

On television or in the movies, precocious children are charming (see the popularity of Kids Say the Darndest Things and Raven-Symoné's whole career), but in "real life" a prodigy is more oddity than not. Ostracized by their peers and gawked at by adults, it's not far-fetched to imagine that even the most successful child geniuses might long for a moment when they can just blend in. This is the premise of Vitus, a charming albeit fantastical story about a Swiss piano player who exhibits staggering talents on the keyboard until a fall from his apartment balcony renders him "normal."

Our boy wonder is played by two actors in two important segments of his life — Fabrizio Borsani when Vitus is 6 years-old and Teo Gheorghiu at 12, both real life piano prodigies. His doting inventor father and ex-pat American mother realize conventional school is too easy for Vitus and get him a private piano tutor to nurture his talents. But Vitus seems most at home when he's doing regular kid things like flirting with his cute, older babysitter Isabel or learning simple carpentry with his salt-of-the-earth grandfather (Bruno Ganz). Flashing forward to the pre-teen Vitus, he's acting out in school because at 12, he's leagues smarter than his 17 year-old classmates and stalking his now hot ex-babysitter. A heart-to-heart with grandpa about finding what really makes him happy turns on a light bulb in Vitus's overactive brain. He just want to be regular and after a rainy late-night flight from balcony to the pavement below, he seems to be. No more cleaning his grandfather's clock at chess, no more expert piano pieces, no more off-the-charts IQ results for Vitus.

The final third of the film, post-accident, loses some of its momentum as Vitus's machination to aid his Dad sends the plot off the rails of believability, but at least director Fredi M. Murer has made a relatively entertainingly little art house flick. I'd much rather spend two hours with Vitus's brand of well-meaning weirdness than the creepy Joshua, another ahead of the curve kid currently gracing silver screens. Vitus wouldn't do freaky Rosicrucian things to your favorite dog when you're at work and he has enough social grace to sport a different hair style than Joshua's tiny Republican crop. Also, Vitus likes Thai food and can fly small airplanes which constitutes a catch in my book.

Captivity

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*Captivity stars the cop from 3 minutes and one line in the final half-hour.

Captivity: The Review: As Boring and Depressing as The Movie? How Dare You!!

The last line of "Captivity" (spoiler! don't care!) is "thanks for the lesson, Gary". I wrote it on the bathroom wall afterwards. The lesson that Jennifer (li'l Cuthbey) is referring to is how to cock a shotgun. She tried to shoot the bad guy (the film's 2nd villain) but she didn't cock the shotgun, and then he showed her how, and then she shot him. But, and I think you knew this was coming, she's probably not talking about just that lesson. I mean, she can't be. This film's not interesting enough for the possibility that there isn't some Romerian lesson like all the rest. But here, the lesson is so muddled, this is all I can come up with: FEAR IS THE SAFEST PLACE TO LIVE, and EVERYONE HATES YOU, YOU CANNOT BE LOVED. Every single twist in the film, literally every single one, is "what you thought was good is EVIL!!" and Jennifer starts the film without any friends or family or boyfriend (just a dog) and ends the film unchanged (yes, unchanged, as in, as if the experience had taught her nothing, because what was there for it to teach her?) only without a dog because she shot it (also with a shotgun). It's dark, isn't it? Almost so dark you can't even see it. Because, as is obviously the case, these aren't true lessons, so the film's got a couple of pretty fundamental false premises. Its cowardice is just so unrelatable that there can be no emotional investment whatsoever, so the only "successful" scenes are the ones based on visceral response (force-feeding a girl liquified entrails, burning off a girl's skin with an acid shower) and all the ones based on emotional impact (shooting the dog, the entire romance and subsequent reversal, the poor poor serial killers as boys with their rapist mother, basically 90% of the movie) are pitiful attempts to disguise the (thankfully small) little erectile scenes as an actual story. Which is like eating a bowl of shit and then asking for a mint. Don't go see this movie. It's negative in every direction. Another way you can tell is that it (I'm convinced unwittingly) aims to prove as true both of the contradictory (and staunchly negative) ideas "hell is isolation" (which is mentioned in the film) and "hell is other people" (which is the last line (spoiler!) of Sartre's "No Exit").

This review is exactly 33% parenthetical phrases. (eat it, Heidegger)

One to Another

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Something "extremely subtle" is about to go on.

Small town malaise, it seems, is universal. In one country it might be expressed through hanging out with your abnormally close buddies riding BMX bikes, sniffing glue and shooting cats with BB guns, and in another country it might be expressed by hanging out with your abnormally close buddies, riding little motorbikes, playing in a dad-rock band, indulging in sun-dappled homo-erotic wrassling and fucking your abnormally close Alpha-buddy's even more abnormally close sister. In either case, bad shit is sure to follow, up to and including horrendous, senseless murder.

But before that comes that fucking. A lot of it. However, because the film is structured so that it ping-pongs back and forth between idyllic, pre-lapsarian nude sunbathing (and such) and post-crime tortured clue and soul-searching, One to Another's exploration of the lives of an all too tight-knit group of provincial French young folks ends up muddled and confusing, and the viewer is unlikely to enjoy either the sex or the existential musings. By the end of the film, the only thing we know for sure is that rural France is a prime spawning ground of Abercrombie and Fitch-y hot boys, as the male leads look like they tumbled straight out of that iconically homosocial catalog. Better looking still is a hot, possibly mystical retard in a strangely attractive sweater-vest/overall combo, which I would not be suprised to see anchoring the fall Calvin Klein collection. Put another way, you're not likely to see a better collection of cheekbones in a film this summer.

The female lead, Lucie, (Lizzie Brochere) looks like a low-rent Tara Reid, including boob job scars. Her main attraction for the boys is her availability, since they more or less all fuck or have fucked her in the past (except for the one who just likes to watch, which sets up a ghoulish joke later in the film). Her brother, Pierre (Arthur Dupont), is the lead singer of the band (which Lucie is strangely not part of, except as #1 groupie) and the sexual superstar of the friends, not only boning one of the other boys on the sly but working nights as a manwhore and professional orgy-goer. He's also the owner of what I can only surmise is a high school letter jacket for making the varsity incest squad, and with his sister, a matching ass-cheek strawberry birthmark. Pierre is supposed to signify unfettered, pure sexuality that annihilates all boundaries. For instance, he and sis engage in some "extremely subtle" frottage in an extremely picturesque al fresco bathtub, and there are several other Bonobo-esque couplings. Pierre's sexuality, even when covert, is a physical, primal force that can overwhelm and force people into equally uncontrolled actions.

When Pierre goes missing on the motorbike he bought with his orgy-money, and eventually turns up beaten to death, Lucie becomes a determined, slutty Nancy Drew on a quest to fuck her way to the truth, all the while offering up such quintessentially French musings like "deprived of youth, man becomes accomplice to his own death." A broad array of rightwing boogeymen are offered as suspects, including secretive old queens, nihilistic young rough trade, fag-bashing neo-nazis, thieving gypsies, sister-protecting Algerians. Lucie tries to coerce a pre-mature ejaculating police detective and the aforementioned mystic retard into helping her solve the mystery, but hot snatch freely given can only do so much.

When we finally learn the answer of who snuffed Pierre, the filmmakers reveal that the film was "based on a true story" and that no one ever knew the motives of the killers. The implication is that the motivations for all such crimes are unknowable, that one can observe the actions of a seemingly normal person and not ever have the slightest inkling as to why they committed a horrible crime. This is just silliness, as normal people don't just snap and off someone, particularly in the way it goes down in the film. While maybe the institutionalized Lucie and the filmmakers can't cope with the reality of murder, most people can combine intellect and empathy in order to hazard some sort of guess as to the whys.

In the last scene Lucie lies crumpled in an orchard, absolutely still, as her only true friend the courageous retard rushes to her aid. When he gets to her it turns out that she was only playing a game, which she calls "learning how to die without him." One wishes that she came to that conclusion far earlier in the film and spared us any further philosophical bullshit.

Rescue Dawn

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The opening sequence in Werner Herzog's new film is immediately more engaging than any CGI feat of ingenuity I've seen all summer, simply for the fact that it's real. These were real bombs being dropped from real American planes during the lead-up to a very real war (despite whatever specious parlance of "police action" may have been used at the time) in Vietnam. Using these clips of an actual bombing campaign also lends a kind of authenticity to the non-fiction, albeit recreated, story that follows. I don't usually go in for biopics, but knowing that Herzog, critic's darling, has already filmed a documentary version of these events in Little Dieter Needs To Fly , including extensive interviews with Dengler himself, makes me feel like this is as close to the truth of what happened as any recreation is going to get.

Rescue Dawn is the story of Dieter Dengler, played by Christian Bale, the lone survivor of a truly daring escape from a Laotian P.O.W. camp in the early days of the war. The film begins on an aircraft carrier in 1965 when no one thought full-blown war was imminent. Dengler and his crew are briefed on a top secret bombing campaign in Laos. While a teammate is yukking it up during a filmstrip educating the pilots on jungle survival tactics, Dengler pays close attention, which illustrates not prescience but a facet of his focused character. Bale does a fine job of becoming Dengler. His speech is overly formal, his jokes usually fall convincingly flat, but there is obviously a wealth of wit and fortitude flashing behind his eyes. While getting suited up for the flight, Dengler explains his decision to join up with the Navy: He just wanted to learn to fly, and to party on bases in Southeast Asia. He never intended to bomb anything or fight in a war. He just picked the wrong time to enlist.

His bad luck continues while on his first mission, only days into active service, when his plane is shot down. Crawling from a spectacular crash, he collects himself and hurries into the jungle for cover. His escape from Viet-Cong sympathizers only lasts so long before he is captured and dragged to a local magistrate. He is given the option of signing away his citizenship and denouncing America, but he refuses and is immediately subjected to torture. In a time when the Geneva Conventions have largely been revoked and there are public debates over which forms of torture are acceptable, Rescue Dawn unflinchingly showcases a host of non-lethal methods. After Dengler is beaten, hung by a wasps' nest, dragged by an ox and waterboarded, one sees how grueling and dehumanizing all methods are, and one gets a sense that our generation is no less culpable for its specious parlance of "information gathering tactics." After the torture, Dengler is shipped off to rot in an internment camp deep in the jungle.

While at the camp, mostly inhabited by other soldiers and Air America pilots, the film finds a surprising amount of levity. Faced with the worst possible scenario, the captured manage to find humor and solace in the most commonly human of shared experiences, everything from incontinence to discussions of what would make the perfect meal to memories of girls back in the States. Dengler explains without irony his decision to fly for the military. Born in Germany, Dengler was a young child when his village was bombed toward the end of WWII. He describes seeing the pilots whiz by as an almost spiritual experience (not unlike another Bale role), one that influenced him for years to come, and though he disassociates the pilots from the war that would ravage his homeland, he still has a childlike infatuation with the simple mechanical beauty of flight. Two fellow service members, Eugene and Dwayne, seem to regard Dengler, who never gives in to despair or hopelessness, as a natural leader. When he begins planning their escape, even the disagreeable Eugene comes around to the possibility of success. Unfortunately, Eugene has become too much a product of prison camp mentality and his own frail sanity, and when their escape actually works he is left wandering aimlessly in the jungle babbling, "where from here?"

Dwayne, a perfectly amiable but indecisive dependent played endearingly well by Steve Zahn, is the only one who sticks with Dengler, although their companionship is cut short. It's in the last reel of the film, as Dengler is shot at by his own countrymen and hallucinates a still-complaining ghost of Dwayne, that we see how clearly our human associations define us. Alone in the jungle, while resourceful, Dengler is little different than any other animal trying to survive. It's when surrounded by his friends in the camp and, upon his rescue, rejoicing in the arms of his fellow soldiers that he becomes an expressive, inspiring human being.

Talk to Me

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A lot of times we don't speak up. We have lots of reasons for this. Sometimes we are scared. Sometimes we don't trust ourselves to say what we mean. Sometimes we just don't know what to say. Sometimes we have ruptured our vocal cords or have been captured by wrongdoers and are gagged in an all-windows office looking at the world about to be destroyed. We have lots of reasons, and so, we look around and we pick out other people to be our voices. Maybe a musician who sings real good or a comedian who tells it the way you always thought it should be told or a writer who, I don't know, uses commas, you know, the way commas ought to be used. We choose our voices, and it's all well and good: at least up until our chosen voices change their tunes.

Well, they don't mean to. Because the thing about it is that our voices, our agents, we forget, are other people. They don't exactly live inside our heads, no matter how many times we seem to hear them coming straight from the cobwebs in the corners next to the memory of our birthday party circa turning eight years old (ice cream cake, the movies, a fight). We ought to know this. We ought to know they aren't us (they weren't at the party, after all). And yet doesn't it feel so personal? Doesn't it feel a bit like a betrayal?

This movie is based on truths. Petey Greene (the sideburnituded Don Cheadle) was a radio DJ, and he was important to a community (black) in a place (Washington DC) at a time (Civil Rights, raging). He was an ex-con and his story is for real, including the part about how he talked a lot of shit, drank a lot of alcohol, and was BFFs with a man named Dewey Hughes (black, Washington DC, idolized Johnny Carson and no one else). Dewey (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who will be such a star soon you will know how to pronounce his name) up and makes the very same mistake we all make, all the time. He grabs onto Petey 'cause Petey says the things that Dewey maybe would have said originally had he not got caught up in trying to score big in a Martin Sheen world. Which you can't blame him for that, or can you? The movie is unsure.

Our Dewey pushes Petey to standup, and then to television, and all the way up and up to the Tonight Show, where Petey instead of doing a standup set gets out in front of the curtain, smokes a cigarette, and says a few things echoed just three decades later by Dave Chappelle. Because it turns out that (a) when you're the chosen voice of the disenfranchised and (b) the not-so-disenfranchised get all excited about making money off of you, well then (c) at some point if you have any sense in your head at all you realize that you've created a moral paradox, and finally (d1) you probably have nothing left to do but to quit your Comedy Central show and run off to South Africa or to (d2) smoke a cigarette instead of doing your routine on the Tonight Show. Which is fine, except for how your BFF wanted you to do it right so badly, and your audience wanted another season, so much, and both are left to fend alone. So now what.

That's what compels, about the Petey Greene story. Not the alcoholism (it's there) or the platitudes about race (they're there, though, it's been a long time since such earnest respect was paid on film to Dr. MLK), or the sub-sub plot about another brother in jail. What compels is watching a man choose his proxy, watching his proxy fold for all the right reasons, and then waiting to see if that first man will be able to stand up for himself. Will we ever, do we ever need to, so long as there are other books, or other songs, or other films, or other plays? I would like to think that eventually we'll all have our own voices. I would like to think we'll all some day just realize that what we say out loud just is, and doesn't need fixing, necessarily; we're the only ones who can speak for ourselves. The rest are just getting close. Sure, and I know a strong but flawed biopic isn't going to give me the answers. I'm just glad it even started the questions.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and Dolores Umbridge

Reviewing any Harry Potter media is hard. I'm not implying the text is like James Joyce's Ulysses, rather that it's so immersive you forget to come up for air. Like many Potter fans, I read the first four books in about 2 hours and I certainly didn't underline important passages. So when it comes to the movies, my central question is whether the director was able to at least keep up with the excitement of Rowling's writing. Alfonso Cuarón did a great job with Azkaban and Mike Newell didn't do so hot with Goblet of Fire, neither of which are shocking revelations. The Order of the Phoenix is another tall order and expectations are impossibly high. Still, all the production team really has to do is Not Screw It Up.

Like the huge tome that is Goblet of Fire, director David Yates has the difficult task of condensing a lot of plot, little of which is fluff, into a feature-length film. In this volume Harry is forced to act older than his years and convince his classmates that evil Lord Voldemort has returned and will definitely bring the pain. Since the wizard world's governing body, the Ministry of Magic, is gung-ho about convincing the world Harry is a liar and a fraud, our young hero takes matters into his own hands. When the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, the Ministry's Dolores Umbridge, won't teach them anything useful, Harry rounds up a dozen or so like-minded students to prepare themselves for Voldemort's inevitable attack.

While Voldemort is still Harry's nemesis, Dolores Umbridge is the true villain in the Order and she steals the show. Not that Voldemort isn't a scary dude, but I have more memories of prim and proper teachers with a mean streak than I do of recently disembodied dark wizards with nose-less faces.

The questions remains, did Yates Screw It Up? The action scenes were gripping and the side story about Harry's love life was a blast, but the movie just felt like it was missing something. No, I'm not concerned about the lack of quidditch, rather that the pace of the film was far too consistent. Even during the final battle scene I found myself no more engaged than I was during the earliest conversations about extendable ears. My level of engagement was high throughout, but there was no arc, no crescendo. It's possible having read 6 books and seen 4 movies or watching this at midnight on a Tuesday made it difficult to experience the Order as Yates would like, but there are hundreds of thousands in the same boat.

Despite my grievance, you should still see this movie because Yates may have come in a little under par, but he didn't Screw It Up. Billions of dollars later, J.K. Rowling and her stubborn wizard crew prevails again.

Interview

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It was pure coincidence that I happened to be reading Jancee Dunn's memoir But Enough About Me on the same day that I saw Steve Buscemi's film Interview -- a review copy of the paperback edition arrived at my apartment the day before, addressed to "Michael Perpetua" -- but the book and the film made for an interesting double-feature on the topic of interviewing celebrities. It seems like a lightweight topic, but it's something that happens all the time, and even if we pretend that it's all a lot of stupid fluff, it's a folly to pretend that the lives of celebrities are not a major part of the fabric of contemporary culture. Both Dunn's book and Buscemi's movie are interested in the social dynamics of the celebrity interview, but from different angles roughly corresponding to their individual roles in the symbiotic celeb/media axis.

Every other chapter in Dunn's book is essentially a how-to guide on writing profiles of famous people based on her years of experience doing just that for Rolling Stone and MTV2, and it's mostly quite helpful, even if you never intend to pursue that line of work because when it comes down to it, she's really instructing you on how to immediately ingratiate yourself to people who have some sort of intimidating social power. Whereas Dunn is generally reverential of the celebrity's role in the lives of ordinary people, Interview is extraordinarily bitter and cynical, and far more concerned with the cost of living the lifestyle of major celebrity. Buscemi's story, based on a 2003 picture by the late Theo Van Gogh, spends most of its time demystifying and humanizing its celebrity character, and then showing how she becomes dehumanized without that mystification.

Sienna Miller plays a starlet not entirely unlike her actual public persona, but also quite a bit like Lindsay Lohan. (Among other things, there's a reference to her "fluxuating tit size.") She rapidly cycles through moments of self-possession, petulance, cruelty, righteousness, nihilism, egomania, and self-loathing, but it's never clear whether or not she actually has any sort of emotional baseline. She's being interviewed by Buscemi's character, a sour hard news reporter with a dark past who resents having to interview an actress best known for her tabloid antics when he feels that he ought to be covering something or other in Washington, but his lack of professionalism derails the usual celeb/journalist ritual, and spins them off into unfamiliar territory. The two start off being dismissive and antagonistic, and although that never quite goes away, over the course of one night they find themselves bonding over booze, revealing sympathetic sides of their personalities and gaining insight into each other's radically different lives. Things get sexual, then they realize that they remind each other of deceased familial relations and recoil a bit at the incestuous implications of their attraction, and then kinda get sexual all over again.

Buscemi's character keeps attempting to figure her out, but he's grasping at straws and she knows it, so she toys with him some more. In the end, Buscemi seems like a jackass for feeling that he's superior to this tabloid princess, and she seems like a damaged person for buying into her own hype. The film ends on the assertion that there is no equality, and that every relationship has a winner and a loser, and though Miller's character seems to come out on top, it doesn't seem like much of a victory.

Sunshine

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You got the touch! You got the powwww-er!

I've always thought that humanity was pretty short-sighted to collectively decide that sacrificing babies to the Sun wasn't worth the hassle. Whose stupid idea was that? Now, the only recourse we have if Ra starts getting cranky is to put our continued existence in the hands of the same people who can't ever seem to design a space-ship hatch that doesn't get stuck at the most inopportune time: Scientists.

Such is the premise of Sunshine. A team of psychologically unfit astronauts and associated types have blasted off from earth carrying a massive nuclear payload to the deliver to the heart of the sun, much like a hypodermic needle full of adrenaline to the heart of an ODing bitch. They're following in the footsteps of a previous mission that mysteriously disappeared. Tip: If you're flying to the Sun, don't name your spaceship the Icarus! Was "Challenger" already taken?

The crew of the Icarus II (natch) consists of a genre-standard smorgasbord of types: stolid, self-sacrificing captain; possibly unstable psych officer; mission-oriented science jock; two high-strung neurotics; under-used racially-ambiguous female biologist; naive physicist; and naive girlfriend. Oh, and a ship that talks and is sort of sentient. We're introduced in media res, as the crew is at the point of the journey where their on-board communication devices are nearing zero bars of reception.

After human error leads to a predictably tense (though not less enjoyable for it) spacewalk in stylish if bulky gold lamé spacesuits, the crew starts to disintegrate psychologically as well as physically. Not only has the miscalculation nearly destroyed their nuclear device, but their fragile ecosystem and thus all hopes for a journey home alive has been ravaged the sun.

Even a dying sun packs enough fire and force to eradicate all differences. It looms huge throughout the entire movie, dwarfing the merely human actions even while itself dying, becoming smaller. The Sun is not just the life-giver to the human beings on Planet Earth, but a destructive force beyond all rational understanding and control. The film makes a point of this when the chief Physicist tries to run a simulation of what the consequences of payload delivery will be - at a certain point all calculations become unreliable, and the crew's nightmares of plummeting towards the surface of the sun are just as a reliable guide as their super-computer.

The crew has to make other calculations besides things like proper trajectories and remaining oxygen. There's a moral calculus at play, balancing the seriousness of the mission and the ability to sacrifice the good of any single person for the continuity of the species. Some crew members are more comfortable with the abstraction of the species than they are with the reality of the fellow human beings on board the ship. The script is full of metaphors of control - about what we can control as a singular human being, as a species, and as a constituent of the universe. There is a push-pull between abandoning and seizing control, and it's not a coincidence that the two characters who most clearly see and believe in the mission like to spend their leisure time giving up control, by basking in the sense-depriving rays of the looming sun or being crashed upon by ocean waves in a "earth simulation" program.

Unfortunately, what could have been an interesting exploration of the limits of scientific and rationale thought when confronted with not only huge, unanswerable questions about existence and the nature of the universe, coupled with the surely cinematically-engaging evidence of the ways the laws of the universe change in extreme situations is pushed aside in favor of the introduction of a faith-based boogey-man. Just in time to derail the mission, a character appears that starts spouting lines like "our Science and our genes are futile. It is not our place to challenge god," which has been the default position of Film in relation to science and scientists since Frankenstein.

Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland try to play against this traditional movie archetype of the god-mocking, overreaching scientist, but seem to go too far in the other direction, shoe-horning in a menacing, Freddy Krueger-ish nightmare of Faith into the proceedings as the antithesis of the way the more or less rational scientists are trying to save all of humanity. The problem is that, at the end of the film, Science requires just as much of a leap of faith as leaving the universe in the hand of a god would. The last remaining astronaut has to "let go and let science," so to speak. Science, in the end, ends up a matter of faith and relinquishment of control. You may think you're the one setting the controls for the heart of the sun but nature is really driving the bus.

Boyle employs some simple but effective editing techniques that ratchet up suspense while also serving as an echo of the way time and space are warped when approaching the extreme physical conditions created by a star. There are some amazingly jarring flashback frames abruptly cut into the film as the crew board the dark hulk of the earlier Icarus, and the final scenes where the ship and remaining crew members plummet towards the sun stop and start in ways unfamiliar to us terrestrial-bound humans, taking away our control and expectations of continuity as viewers, leaving us no choice but to let the filmmakers do their thing. After showing us what might be Eternity, they then leave it in our hands, and we're able to decide for ourselves what it all means. Has something been preserved or have all the efforts of science just bought us another big-whup 5 billion years of learning to live with the unknowable?

My Best Friend

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Try as I might, I couldn't convince anyone to go see My Best Friend (ou, pour le Francophone, Mon Meilleur Ami) with me. I've been in New York for about 10 months. It's not that I don't have any friends here. I've got some drinking buddies, some work buddies, some Binge buddies, and I'm on very good terms with my roommates and their boyfriends. Seriously, I'm a very likable person! I guess no one I know is very much interested in seeing a relatively unadvertised French film about a man who makes a bet with a colleague to prove that he has at least one close friend in life. The same colleague astutely asserts later in the film that just taking the bet is akin to an admission of defeat, but that doesn't safeguard the entire premise from coming off as more than a little hackneyed. I will grant my friends in New York this: I didn't want to see this movie either.

Francois (Daniel Auteuil) is a successful antiques dealer without anyone to call a friend, so, to win a bet, he hires a know-it-all and seemingly socially winning cab driver named Bruno (Dany Boon) to teach him how to make friends. I thought--due to the lead's name (I can't imagine a more "everyman" name for a Frenchman than Francois) and the nearly universal assumption that the French are a dour and unfriendly lot--that this was perhaps meant as a meditation on how French identity is perceived in the world, and possibly even a plea for a national effort to smile more and be more outgoing. If this is the filmmakers' intent, however, it's approached with such subtlety as to be almost absent from a textual reading of the film. Which is really where French filmmakers do tend to excel: subtlety. However, due to the defiant lack of subtlety in nearly every other aspect of the film, my musings on sub-textual investigations of national identity can be dismissed outright.

As expected, Francois and Bruno are set on a path to become best buds, despite the former's rigid indifference to the world around him and the latter's previous misgivings with the enterprise of friendship (his former best friend ran off with his wife a few years before). There are a few predictable montages of Francois trying to use what Bruno has taught him, shots of the two smiling at each other as they develop meaningful bonds in the search of friendship, and a spectacularly tacked-on finale where Francois uses a contact in the antiques world to land Bruno a spot on the gameshow Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Which, of course, leads to an overly personal Phone-A-Friend lifeline for the big win.

Perhaps it's just my arrogant American identity, but I couldn't help feeling that the increasingly serendipitous twists and turns of this contrived plot are more reminiscent of an over-the-top American comedy. I could easily imagine Adam Sandler and Kevin James, stars of one of this summer's big cinematic blunders, starring in an American version, the main difference being that our version would have more toilet humor and wall-to-wall gay panic. Granted the French version is shot better (albeit in a somewhat distracting steadicam/verite style), and has better actors and mostly credible dialogue. The French version also adroitly works in a few nice details, most notably a reference to classically Greek ideals of friendship as introduced by a vase that Francois obtains featuring Achilles and Patroclus, best buds from the Iliad.

However, the implausibility of it all--everything from the over-arching premise to the idea that one can get the same taxi driver in Paris twice in a row by chance--keeps the film from sticking to its better instincts. Ultimately, it's a small idea turned into a cute film with endearing characters that could absolutely never, ever happen. Still, I would have preferred to see it with a friend.

The Simpsons Movie

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In a very direct and concrete way, I almost feel like my life has led up to this very moment, where a troubled and trying 18 years after watching the very first full-length episode, "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" (sorry, but I didn't then, and never will, watch The Tracey Ullman Show), I now have the pleasure of reviewing, for the incomparable benefit of all peoples, races and creeds, The Simpsons Movie here for the Movie Binge. It is both a blessing and a burden, to have seen the loving face of G-d, but now obliged by destiny and desire to share what I saw on top of that mountain with my weakly imperfect human voice.

What must our grandparents have felt to know that victory had been declared over the forces of Nazism and Fascism in the second World War? What must our parents have felt as they witnessed humans, flesh and blood like themselves, walking on the surface of our once-distant Moon? Surely these examples pale by comparison to the global flood of feeling, ranging from exalted joy to accomplished vindication, when our generation's lucky few sat in darkened theaters at the stroke of midnight on July 27 and witnessed the herald of a new age of peace, laughter and prosperity being born, like a blood-and-mucus-spackled babe, from the womb of our collective hopes and most deeply cherished beliefs. That child is The Simpsons Movie, except that it's a movie and not a child and you have to pay money to go see it.

Magnanimous bullshit aside, I really was delighted at how the final product came out. The Simpsons is consistently the best show on television, even, paradoxically, when it's not. The creators still manage to deal openly and confidently with every social stigma that comes our way, micro or macro, with levity, wit and a continuously endearing and complex cast of characters, one that rivals even literary masters like Dickens or Dostoevsky. The movie retains all the best attributes of the series: The theme has a decided (and generally unassailable) progressively liberal bent, geared toward environmentalism but unafraid to poke fun at itself; our religion, our government, and our uniquely American sense of propriety are all given a vigorous shakedown; and the breaking points of the family, Homer and Marge's marriage, and Homer's own brutalized body are all tested.

Although it's a surreal experience to see them on the big screen, without the constraints of the censors or the half-hour sitcom format, the writers are allowed to more fully investigate the Simpsons's universe. Surprisingly, most of what would have been throw-away jokes on the show actually come together here to create a story that holds together rather nicely. The animation is better, and they have more time to develop character and jokes. Since this is also one of the most anticipated films of the decade, a true landmark event, there was obviously an impetus to go above and beyond in the scope and execution of the plot. As a result of this cinematic one-ups-manship, Springfield itself is threatened, as is Homer and Marge's marriage, and more dramatically than either ever have been. Especially moving is a video-taped message from Marge to Homer, brimming with more emotive inflection than I've ever heard Julie Kavner's gravelly voice achieve. All of this stake-raising works in the service of a triumphant conclusion where Homer gets to play the hero, fulfilling our sensitive audience expectations. In the end, in good times and bad, the Simpsons are an appreciative reflection of ourselves, and we'd all do well to hold together as well as they do.

It needed more Ralph Wiggum, though. Just sayin'.

Hairspray

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It turns out that being racist is bad and that black people are real good dancers who make some mean collard greens. Oh my, did I just flip your bowler wrong side-up? Sounds like you're a bigot who needs a fat slice of life served to you by Hairspray, an adaptation of a musical drawn from the bowels of Broadway (though not before Broadway first had a chance to adapt the original, non-musical film for the stage). If there's one thing this movie knows, it's that blitheness will win out and problems are best solved with pluck. And who doesn't like pluck, you jackass?

You see, Tracy wants to be a dancer on television. It's the 60s, so there are black people who we're afraid of but who seem to have lots of fun regardless. You know they have fun because once a month you see them on television. It's subtle segregation, you might not notice it, so here in the movie we call it Negro Day. Television is in black and white and it's controlled by men with cigars and cosmetics companies. Tracy is also fat, but she's resourceful, so she keeps smiling and dancing until she gets on the show. Then she is like, "Let's stop having Negro Day one day and just have Negro Day forever." Trouble ensues, but briefly. I won't spoil the ending, but I will reveal that You Can't Stop the Beat.

The movie is ably directed and choreographed by Adam Shankman, who does no real wrongs, except he did pick this project. Nerds will recognize his name because he choreographed the Buffy musical; Broadway fans will thank him for scrapping Jerry Mitchell's original, overly frenetic work on the show. Shankman keeps a fluid pace, and musical numbers occur at exactly the point at which musical numbers should occur. He avoids surprises and does the bidding of the script, imbuing scenes not with delightful! confectionary! fantasy! but with embarrassing wish-fulfillment fakery.

Casting is a mixed bag, beginning with the unfortunately stunt-like choice to place John Travolta in the role of Edna Turnblad, the gigantic doting housewife. Travolta minces into a role ruled on film by Divine and onstage by Harvey Fierstein, and it would all just be an ignorable folly if it weren't for the fact that Travolta has turned into a painfully bad singer and a completely mediocre dancer. His presence nearly spoils the musical's least grating tune, a sweet little duet called "(You're) Timeless To Me" that he shares with Christopher Walken (lurching around with the unteachable gracelessness of an ex-dancer who can barely be arsed to show up on set anymore). Showing up for the first time in forever is Michelle Pfeiffer, who I guess is evil and therefore bad at staying on pitch; showing up for the umpteenth time is Queen Latifah, playing, you know, the sassy black woman who saves the day. You would think at this point she'd be a little tired of saving white people from themselves. I guess I'm grateful she's not.

The kids fare a little better. Tracy Turnblad herself is played by Nikki Blonsky, who basically didn't do a damn thing before she got cast in this, and good on her. She sings, she dances, she's cute and I'll light a candle for her future career. High School Musical heartstring tugger and Bop mainstay Zac Efron checks in with a ton of mugging, and Amanda Bynes seems to have developed enough comic timing to puncture through the script's dull call-response. Best of all is James Marsden — he's a total snooze as Cyclops in the X-Men movies, but here he exhibits grace, charm, rhythm, and pipes.

It's not that it's so bad to have a movie that believes in joy, and in triumph by dance-off. In fact, those are a couple of things sorely lacking in cinema and in life. As an endlessly embarrassed proponent of the Broadway musical, I like to believe in nothing more than the resolution of conflict through song and dance. Only it helps to have a bit of an emotional arc to set your characters on, something for them to battle internally as well as externally, well, doesn’t it? Surely we read the same screenwriting blog. Hairspray props up villains like target practice and, as they're picked off one by one, we don't get to have any fun at all. Why should we? Turns out we already knew that racism was bad.

Goya's Ghosts

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Erik Bryan and Karen Wilson attended a sparsely populated Tuesday evening screening of Goya's Ghosts. Following are their thoughts on the experience.

Erik:
While watching Milos Forman's newest biopic of one of Spain's most celebrated master painters, I couldn't help but get the feeling that historical events like the re-introduction of the Inquisition and the Napoleonic invasion of Spain were being used to thinly veil Forman's political assessment of the current American administration's handling of the Iraq war. Firstly, there's a discussion of the usefulness of torture in obtaining an accurate confession. The context is that of the Inquisition's attempt to rid Spain of heretics, atheists, Jews, etc., but the exact same language has recently been used to address the necessity of gaining information from suspects of terrorism. Later, Napoleon's armies are told that they will be greeted as liberators in Spain, which directly echoes evil overlord Dick Cheney's words on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. It's not that I have a problem with political content being expressed in film, I just don't think it has to be so overt.

Well, as it turns out, according to this article, the screenplay was completed almost a year before the Iraq war began, which certainly gives Forman a few points for prescience. Napoleon himself is reputed to have said that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it, which makes it all the more amusing that Cheney has used these age-old cliches to defend our government's "information gathering" and "liberation" tactics. For whatever else the film is, Forman has certainly proven that he is an apt pupil of history. But does good history a good movie make?

No. The biggest problem, I felt, was that the movie is barely even about Goya, here played by adequately by Stellan Skarsgard. He just happens to be there during some of these important moments in Spanish history. His printwork is discussed gravely among Inquisitors, he's shown painting the Spanish royals (he was their court painter), but he doesn't actually get much screen time. The majority of the film is concerned with a corrupt priest, Lorenzo (played by Javier Bardem with devilishly cool menace) and the suspected heretic, Ines (played a little less than adequately by Natalie Portman), that he "puts to the question", rapes and impregnates, and later commits to an asylum. Once his coerced confession is discovered by Church officials, Lorenzo flees to Paris and becomes a parrot of Enlightenment ideals which the French invaders fought for but rarely lived up to. These fanciful conversions of political and religious ideology while Europe's at war have been the subject of better films (Barry Lyndon comes immediately to mind), ones that weren't ostensibly biopics of hugely influential painters. The film contains all the elements of Goya's work, the political strife, the vulgarity, the flat honesty, but none of the signature style or passion. Goya's best works, taken at face value without any narrative intrusion, are far more affecting than this milquetoast rumination on where Goya's inspirations may have come from. Which is why, after the movie, as several of Goya's paintings were shown underneath the closing credits, I sat glued to my seat.

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Karen:
Sitting in the Angelika lobby before watching Goya's Ghosts, I tried to explain to Erik that while I knew very little about Goya's life or artwork I have a strong bond with Milos Forman. Milos and I have an unspoken understanding, I said. Amadeus was probably my most frequent repeat-viewing movie as a teenager, seeing The Fireman's Ball in grad school was a movie-geek revelation and I even enjoyed some of his more maligned movies like Valmont and Man on the Moon. Unfortunately, I found Goya's Ghosts lacked a cohesiveness and an over-arching, complex point of view which is evident in Forman's other work. The movie's chief problem is its harping on the cliched main narrative theme, HYPOCRISY IS BAD. Uh, duh? With his family victims of Auschwitz and growing up in the tumultuous former Czechoslovakia, you'd think Forman could say something more nuanced about the impetus for social order through totalitarian control and the responsibility of art to stand up for human suffering.

The actors' performances come off as bare sketches of real people, the worst being Natalie Portman's dual roles as Goya's muse Ines and Ines's illegitimate daughter Alicia. While Portman has now conquered playing two generations in one movie (which surely has to the similar acting thrill of playing a part where you're immortalized as an action figure), it seemed as though she thought she had to put half as much charisma into each performance. Plus, the fake choppers the film's teeth wrangler Chris Lyons put her in (a distinct set for each character!) were nightmarish. Despite these amusing distractions, I walked out of the movie realizing I learned less about Goya than one should after sitting through a biopic. Equally as murky after the gorgeous art-filled credits rolled were the identity of Goya's ghosts. Were they the brutalized Spanish he depicted in his gruesome lithographs, yet was not able to actually save from their suffering? Are they the royal families he lovingly captured in massive portraits still hanging in the Prado? In 113 minutes of running time you'd think my friend Milos would be able to provide a more concrete answer.

Moliere

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Molière is fanfic. Director and co-screenwriter Laurent Tirard, I guess, decided that we didn't know quite enough about the super-famous French playwright, even though we basically know his entire life story because he was famous and rich people liked him. Seriously, he performed his plays in an old-timey room at the pre-listening tour Louvre. I am not even kidding about that, he was a popular guy! So we know a lot about him because he was constantly surrounded by rich people and rich people, as we know, write Wikipedia.

Regardless, Laurent Tirard has decided that Wikipedia is not enough and basically Tartuffe — Molière's professional turning point between straight up farce and comedy with teeth — couldn't have been written unless Molière himself went through a farcical situation of his own. One so madcap and crazy that he couldn't help but poach it for his very own, very successful career. The better to help your literary audience laugh in well-educated recognition, naturally.

So: Molière is thrown in debtor's prison (true). Molière is bailed out by a weasley, wealthy merchant who likes to (a) ignore his wife (b) ignore his daughters (c) suck up to a local nobleman, who is a dick and (d) moon over a rich girl named Célimène who has a salon and who paces back and forth, flicking her fan around like she's gonna kill you with that if her wit doesn’t get you first. Oh: (false). Molière is tasked with coaching the merchant, a gentleman named Jourdain, in performing a play that Jourdain has written for Céli. Also Molière has to pose as a priest for some reason, and later he gets with Mme. Jourdain, who just happens to be a total wellspring of wisdom when it comes to making honest artistic choices.

Behind every great writer is a dead woman who likes to encourage said writer to be true to himself. True story. Amidst all the fanficcy faux-farce (Molière gets chased by a dog! Molière jumps through an open window! Molière, ah, dresses...up...as a priest!) there is plenty of time for Mme. Jourdain to buck epochs of cultural scholarship and make the wholly shocking claim that comedy can make people think about truths. For some reason Molière is sooooo not into that, at least not until 13 years later or something where they basically haven't seen each other for a decade and she's dying and he vists her on her deathbed and she's like "make me laugh" and so he does a running backflip against the wall. Oh, I wish. No, actually he writes Tartuffe and is suddenly completely okay with a little drôlerie. That's French for patronizing your audience, I think.

Making a comedy about a comedic writer in which said writer does not believe in comedy is a confounding set of choices, and we'll all be damned if even the cast knows what's going on. Their choices are half ham, half cheese, and the only real truth generated by the whole honky tonk monkeyshine is that Molière deserves better. You can say things with comedy, you can say all sorts of earth-jiggering things, but maybe first before you try that, you go and you figure out if you have something to say at all.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry

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I'm sure that no matter what, I Now Pronoun would've been a better movie.

Something that you need to know is that I didn't pay to see I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. I refused to spend money on it, and so I bought a ticket to see The Simpsons Movie (which was pretty good, I mean, it's the Simpsons, what do you want?), and after that was over, I snuck in to watch Chuck and Larry. The other thing you need to know is that I couldn't make it though the whole movie, and that I walked out after about an hour. (There was almost another full hour to go!)

I hope that you can understand. Given some of the truly horrible things my fellow Bingers have had to sit through, I realize that it's kind of a dick move on my part. But hear me out -- I was in a lousy mood, and the film was nearly devoid of charm. I was feeling down, and it was just making things worse.

Why? Well, for one thing, it's hard to tell whether Chuck and Larry is more homophobic, misogynistic, or racist. I mean, it spends most of its time trading in homophobia, but at least the film attempts to make its characters' boneheaded attitudes about homosexuality some kind of gag at their expense. The racism is totally uncalled for -- Rob Schneider has a totally inexplicable role that has him in the Asian equivalent of blackface -- but it's a relatively brief detour. The sexism, though -- yikes! Chuck and Larry is a film that presents women mainly as walking, talking tits and asses who all desperately want to fuck Adam Sandler, mainly because everyone involved is so desperate to make sure we understand that his character is sooooooooooooooooooooo not gay, dude! It's a movie in which Adam Sandler's cock is the great equalizer: Whether you're some random bar skank or a headstrong doctor, you're going to end up dissolving your identity and joining his harem of identically-dressed Maxim girls. Do you see how this might be a bit much to take? I'm not even getting into all the lame fat jokes.

To make matters worse, the screenplay is a poorly paced, overlong mess of illogical motivations, rotting clams, and witless set pieces. Why is it that the trailer for this movie was able to communicate its basic premise -- Adam Sandler and Kevin James are firemen who fake a gay marriage in order to bilk the system, and Jessica Biel is the generic hottie that Sandler can't nail for fear of blowing the ruse -- but the film itself takes nearly an hour to establish all of that, and Biel doesn't even show up til around the 45 minute mark? It's bad enough that Chuck and Larry is boorish and unfunny, but did it really need to be full of plodding exposition too? Seriously now, who were they trying to fool by even attempting to make this shit plausible?

Anyway, I have a few theories as to how this thing ended. If you saw it and know the ending, don't bother telling me. I'm pretty sure this list is the only kind of pleasure I could derive from this experience, and it'd just be mean to take that away from me.

Theory #1: The film ends on an unbroken 40 minute shot of Sandler awkwardly fondling Biel's T&A while making kooky sounds and wacky faces. (Actually, I might be describing an outtake from the eventual unrated dvd. Whatever.)

Theory #2: Kevin James' faggy 10 year old son turns out to be not so gay after all when he stumbles into Sandler's harem and FUCKS EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM with his tiny, prepubescent member. The boy finally earns the love and respect of his father. Awwwww!

Theory #3: James and Sandler actually give sodomy a shot, and it turns out to be kinda awesome for the both of them. Hey, this homo stuff ain't so bad! The two abandon their cushy DUMBO firefighting gig and join up with that all-gay volunteer fire department in New Hampshire from that one episode of the Sopranos. A round of johnny cakes for everybody! Hooray!

Theory #4: Oh, snap! Jessica Biel is totally a lesbian. You shouldn't have pushed your luck, Sandler! Sandler, James, and their accomplices all go to jail and HAHAHAHA get anally raped by enormous black dudes! Comeuppance!

Theory #5: Oh, for the love of God. I don't fucking care, okay?

Who's Your Caddy?

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This man is fat. He is farting. That's about it.

Before I begin, I want to make something clear: I paid money to see Norbit. Honest to God, I paid $12.50 to see Eddie Murphy in a fat lady costume and I wasn't reviewing it. Oh, and I kinda enjoyed it. "How you Doin'?!?" Keeping this in mind, I want you to understand the gravity of this statement: Who's Your Caddy? is an absolutely wretched film that has made me consider the benefits of a police state that only releases government propaganda films with G ratings.

At this point, there must be someone out there still considering this movie. I accept that I am just one man with an inexplicable fondness for urban comedies, but I'm hoping the whole of the IMDb community will be enough to convince you. See, they have deemed Who's Your Caddy? to be the worst movie of all time. Sure, the list is loaded with new-ish films and the IMDb community commands less authority authority than most kindergarten classes, but you can't get around the fact that people hate this film.

As you'd expect, the film is based on a terribly broad, terribly generic stereotype — white people are stuffy, stale, racist and want to keep urban flava out of their lives. Evil White Man has worked well elsewhere (in Do the Right Thing for instance). Caddy doesn't set the bar that high, but righting the wrongs of African-Americans with a hyper-wealthy rap mogul and his rag-tag entourage who prove that a black man holds a golf course record is ludicrous and slightly offensive at best.

This is a comedy though, so it's at least funny, right? Right? I guess no one told the suits at MGM that Andre 3000 is the funny one in Outkast. Big Boi and Faison Love were dreadful and Finesse Mitchell was wasted; his delivery was great but the lines fell utterly flat. The funniest scene was when Faison, a very large man, sang, farted and made dick jokes while naked in the men's locker room. In fact, if he had just danced and farted for the whole movie it would have been an improvement (possibly raising it to #10 on the IMDb list, just above Baby Geniuses 2).

Despite being unfunny and offensive, most urban comedies can be saved by a fantastic soundtrack and hot girls. Well, the soundtrack is not for sale because there were zero notable songs and the leading lady was stuck in business suits for 98% of the movie. This is a movie starring a major hip-hop star and the songs were worthless. How is that possible?

With a fart joke being the sole redeeming aspect of Who's Your Caddy?, I am amazed this made it into theaters. Lee's Movie Info claimed they spent $7 million on marketing but they should have spent 1/20th of that and released it straight to DVD. It would have sold a million copies and MGM and the Weinsteins would make their money back. Instead the assholes released it to theaters, thereby forcing its inclusion in the Binge and, thus, me to see it. Therefore, I hope every man, woman and child who allowed this to open on over 1,000 screens suffers from extreme bouts of food poisoning, pink eye and gonorrhea. Yes, even the children.

Arctic Tale

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I really don't want to hate on this film. It's trying to do right, showing us the splendors of the Arctic and that our frivolous consumption might put everything at risk. It is a noble venture. Leaving it alone would make Al Gore happy, but I can't do it.

You got Queen Latifah to narrate? You included two minutes of walrus farts when your message was about global warming? You used comic sans on your website? Couldn't you have just shut up and let these amazing visuals speak for themselves? I would have much preferred pleasant classical music to their lame attempts at voice-over. To be honest, I don't fault Latifah as she's just collecting a paycheck and trying to help the environment. The writers though, sheesh. You really didn't have to include urban slang to make polar bears relevant.

The suits at National Geographic obviously saw The March of the Penguins and said, "I want that. Take this footage and make it happen." Then a committee got together, egos clashed and instead of doing one thing, they did everything. An Inconvenient Truth meets Penguins meets Ice Age. If the story of a young polar bear and walrus growing up (shot over fifteen years, no less) hadn't been so riveting, I would have headed straight for the door. For this reason, I am confident the film will resonate with the little ones, who are slightly less discerning and love cuddly things. For the rest of us, wait for the DVD to come out and turn on the director's commentary as quickly as possible.

No Reservations

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This summer there have been two movie posters that made me wanna bash my fucking head against the wall. The first is the one for I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry where the King of Queens guy is holding Adam Sandler and has his mouth open wide like he’s screaming and you can see his tongue. The other one’s the ad for No Reservations where it’s Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart in a kitchen and CZJ is looking at AE kind of dreamily romantically and he’s smirking back with his dimpled blond handsomeness as if thinking shit’s sort of wacky here but essentially under control.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is something of a mystery to me. She’s one of those people who I don’t understand how they got famous. I know it’s largely the Michael Douglas thing but she must’ve been a little bit famous before that or Douglas never would’ve walked up to her and said, “I’d like to father your children,” which according to some bullshit I just read is what he said to her when they met. Oh and then she won a fucking Oscar. Who fucking cares. Zeta-Jones is the worst. I hate her.

Anyway, in this movie she plays Kate, a super uptight but really awesome and renowned chef. Kate works at a hot restaurant in New York called 22 Bleecker, which has a small dark intimate dining room but for some reason has a huge gleaming kitchen about ten times as big. The kitchen is sweatless and greaseless and Kate rules with an iron fist. She’s one of those movie women who only has time for her career and won’t ever go on a date with the pleasant Irish guy who lives in her building and keeps asking her out. She goes to therapy but only so she can drone on to her shrink about her succulent quail. At this point everything’s set up for the dude to come along, the Aaron Eckhart character, to first throw her world into turmoil and then bring her true happiness but what happens instead is her sister dies in a car crash and Kate gets custody of the kid, her niece. I admit this was a surprise and made the movie marginally more interesting. Plus the kid’s played by Abigail Breslin from Little Miss Sunshine, who’s not so bad as far as child actors go. But pretty soon Eckhart does appear as a soulful nonconformist sous chef named Nick who wears red Converse All-Stars and sings fucking opera in the kitchen to the delight of the staff but the outrage of Kate and blah blah there’s some hard times and some good times then some hard times again but eventually Kate and Nick fall in love and feed each other delicacies with wooden spoons blindfolded and everyone ends up happy etc.

No Reservations is way too long and, after that brief early detour into death and darkness, adheres pretty strictly to formula. But it’s more interesting than the poster makes it look and I liked it better than I thought I would, though I hasten to add this has more to do with Eckhart and Breslin and nothing whatsoever to do with that fucking mannequin Zeta-Jones. It’s still a piece of shit but on the scale of things certainly better than Chuck and Larry or some fucking movie about tourists who get hacked.

I Know Who Killed Me

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Siverston (right) and Linds the Lane Babe (left) on the set. Note the very professional-looking camera!

LOCAL INDIE FILMMAKER HITS THE BIG TIME!!

He wears a regular t-shirt and blue jeans, he eats Wendy's late at night sometimes, and he has a dog named Carmella. But don't be fooled, his mind is as twisted as a scary tree branch. No, he's not Dr. Kevorkian, he's local filmmaker and super-ghoulishly-talented Chris Siverston! Chris has just finished the final touches (called "post-production") on his new super-scary movie I Know What Killed Me, and I recently caught up with him to get all the details.

Chris is a high school senior at Davis, and got all his friends involved in the making of this, in his words, "great little movie." He got his friend Jeff Hammond to write the script, and Jeff has been writing ever since. "I love it," he says, "you can do anything you want!" That's true, Jeff. He said that he and Chris are very influenced by the show "Passions", and wanted to make a full movie like that. And although this is his first regular-length movie, Chris has been making funny fake commercials and videos with his friends since 2002, says Siverston in his wicker easychair. There was even a whole team of people in charge of special effects. "I thought it was important," says Siverston outside, "to have realistic effects, because that's what I think are important and like about movies." And boy oh boy do they look realistic. I got to see some unedited ("raw") material that was just long shots of gross-looking hands and feet, it was really cool.

It stars Ms. Lindsey Lohan, who most people who bowl at Garver Lanes know as "Linds the Lane Babe", and many other local actors and actresses. I asked Lindsey what it was like to be in a movie. "It's pretty fun," said she with a nice smile. "As fun as getting married?" which is what Lohan will be doing in a few weeks. "Ha ha", she laughed, "No, not as fun as that." Lindsey will be marrying Dwight Douglas, a rugby player and her high school sweetheart, a few days after her high school graduation.

"What do you think of this new trend of "indie" films?" I asked Siverston, at pool's edge. "I think it's really important," he answered in reply, "that filmmakers are free from the old "studio system", so they can be more free to have the freedom to make what they want. Look at all the best directors, they were free." So true, Chris.

Can't wait to see it? Well, I Know What Killed Me will be screening this weekend (Fri., Sat., Sun.) at the Burnt Hymen Community Center in room 222, with free admission, and a small reception with refreshments afterwards. There won't be another chance to catch this spectacular inter-stellar premiere of Chris Siverston's new movie, so be sure to come out. This reporter thinks we might just have the next Steven Spielberg on our hands. "Maybe," says Siverston, laughing at his table, "I just want to make a movie as a living." At this rate, that's not too slim of a possibility, Chris.

The Bourne Ultimatum

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"I'm not Jason Bourne anymore."

Jason Bourne is a fascination type of action hero. He has little to no personality, he never has any fun, he's never not running, he's always aware of threats. He has no firm character at all because he has no idea who he is. But instead of this being boring, it actually really works. There's no heroic posing, there's no wry wise-cracks as he thwarts the baddies, there's just succinct fights and chases as a means to the end of evading the constant pursuers, and a nagging (and streaky-strobey) conscience that tells him killing is wrong. So what happens, at least for me, is that I just graft whatever I want in terms of character onto Matt Damon's meaty face. The less he's like his own thing, the more he's like me. Except, just the kind of me that can kill a dude eighty ways. I identify with him the way I do with Spider-Man, minus the wit, like if Spider-Man were played by Mason Gamble. So when it came to the ultimatum (which turns out not to be an ultimatum, which is another odd counter-intuitive anti-climax that somehow succeeds) I found myself really wrapped up in Bourne's decision. Essentially (and I need to spoil to make my point) Bourne chose to be Bourne, he decided he wanted to be something he ended up hating, and I was desperate for him to be able to reverse that decision. It was suddenly me in that room with Albert Finney, that fish-mouthed reminder of how you can fuck up your life with one false move, and I was so tense. And, as they should, the movies thankfully reminded me that no change is permanent where the will is involved, you can always make your situation better. And if that's an illusion (I'm open to comments, readers) then it's one I'm fully signed-on to.

Oh, and in terms of the movie, it's a slick, precise, machinated entertainment device that has maximum yield with minimum ingredients. It's a LOT, and I'm surprised I haven't seen this on posters, like a Hitchcock film. Though I guess most people think Psycho and murder when they think Hitchcock. It's just pure distilled tension and perfectly cut action. I recommend it.

El Cantante

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The cheek bones of a warrior and the look of love.

The audience I saw El Cantante with on Saturday afternoon was filled to the gills with Latino mamis, and when Miss Jennifer Lopez appeared on screen about five minutes into the film, an audible gasp of pleasure rippled through the crowd. They knew what we had paid $11.75 to see—we were here to see our superstar Jenny from the block play second banana to her real life husband Marc Anthony as he portrayed the salsa performer Hector Lavoe. An immigrant from Puerto Rico to New York during the early '60s, Lavoe fused a number of different popular Latino musical styles to create an electric new genre called salsa but like many a performer before and since, he developed a insatiable taste for the injectable party and died in the early '80s of AIDS.

But Lavoe shavoe, even though the movie's title "El Cantante" or "the singer" refers to him, anyone who understands the Hollywood star system knows this is a Jennifer Lopez movie. Interestingly enough it actually reads as a Lopez/Anthony movie, more about the aspects of their relationship they want to put up on the silver screen than any kind of biopic narrative. Lopez chose the script with her production company long before she was even dating Anthony, casting him as Lavoe and herself as the controlling shrew wife Puchi. See, she even put herself into the non-singing, second fiddle role. Could've it have been for love?

As a proud, yet scarred member of the Saw Gigli in the Theaters club, I know what Lopez looks like on camera when she's in a dying relationship. In El Cantante her facial expressions and body language toward her costar are the complete the opposite. She literally lights up. It's lovely. Of course it's not surprising that she has affection and admiration in her eyes while she watches Anthony perform, he's not one of the most popular recording artists in the Latin world for nothing, the man knows his way around the microphone. But with the rote "a star rises, a star falls" story line, I could've done with about 45 minutes chopped off the end of this movie. Or better yet, the filmmakers should've eschewed narrative all together and strung together a bunch of Lavoe music with their footage of Lopez modeling increasingly more decadent fashions from the '60s, '70s and '80s. It's a serious shame that Lopez didn't live during the era of Studio 54, she looks spectacular with messy curls, gold jewelry and Amazonian blush. If she'd been a Steve Rubell regular, she would've outshone Bianca Jagger and Cher combined. After all, she's no regular girl from the Bronx. Jenny's a Star.

This Is England

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So, I guess because I grew up in America, I was under the mistaken impression that skinheads are, by definition, neo-Nazis, or at the very least racist. Well, I learned something today. Only half of skinheads (a completely arbitrary estimate that will not hold up to any statistical evidence, so don't bother) are racist. The other half are some pretty chill dudes who just want to listen to Toots and the Maytals and wear Doc Martens.

This Is England, based on some of director and writer Shane Meadows's experiences, follows a turbulent school holiday of 12-year-old Shaun, played pitch-perfect by Thomas Turgoose, who is possibly the best child actor I've ever seen. Set in 1983, Shaun's father has recently died in the Falklands War. In addition, the young lad is picked on by his peers (and, in this reviewer's opinion, understandably so) for wearing bell-bottoms and generally looking like a hippie. After a chance meeting with a group of amiable skinheads, led by the immediately likable Woody (Joseph Gilgun), he starts dressing like them, shaving his head, and getting into the variety of light-hearted mischief that makes little gits such lovable scallywags. Oi!

Unfortunately, the mixed group of friends is put to the test when former convict and raging fuckwad Combo (Stephen Graham) shows up and tries to coerce the errant lads into hate and "Paki"-bashing. His arguments stem from chestnuts—so fresh in our American minds from our own recent fantods over immigration—on the importance of national identity and accusations of job-theft by immigrants. Paper tigers like the Falklands War and unemployment are presented and torn up, naturally, without clear logical pretext for the vandalism and intimidation that follows. From then on the threat of violence raises the tension on the otherwise capricious goings-on, and, as any novice screenwriter will tell you, you don't introduce a gun (or, in this case, an emotionally unstable bigot) into a story unless it's going to go off in the third act. If a horrible act of mindless violence offends, one probably shouldn't seek out this film.

Thematically, the film touches on all sorts of theoretical touchstones. The idea of nationhood, spiritual fatherhood, coming of age tropes, politics, prejudice and class status are all packed so densely into the context of the pleasantly divergent narrative that this film could easily function as a subject for any number of undergrad theses. That it manages to come off as fresh and engaging despite the well-worn subject matter, though, is proof of how well all the simplest elements of cinematography, editing and scripting come together to make a truly entertaining and affecting film, brimming with appropriate social commentary and genuine pathos. For this, I have to say that This Is England is the best movie I've had all Binge.

Or maybe I just really dig British accents.

The Ten

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Last week my Australian roommate told me that Americans don't understand dry comedy, and though what I really wanted to do was make a fart joke or go star in a movie about an athlete triumphing in an inherently hilarious sport, instead I went to see The Ten to prove her wrong. Turns out it's full of lessons for American citizens who want to overcome our inherent unfunniness and our love of mediocre framing devices to turn out a ninety minute sketch comedy show movie. Who's with me, people, seriously.

Honestly it probably sucks some to be David Wain or Ken Marino or any of those The State alums, constantly getting called impish or puckish or weirdish or just hard to understand. Though many of the vignettes in The Ten have clear story arcs or familiar sketch comedy tropes, the jokes don't always get born straight of the premises. Just a for instance would be the super-funny Y tu mamá también parody that sees Gretchen Mol losing her virginity to none other than Jesus Christ (Justin Theroux) himself — Jesus, of course, taking a break before he gets around to the rapture. It's a great sketch, but it begins with a fantastic and completely unrelated joke in which Mol is introduced to a new co-worker (Jason Sudeikis) who, for no clear reason, is walking around on his knees. He stands to shake her hand, apologizing. A cut later he's in the background, on his knees again.

That's really as scary as Wain comedy gets. Over the years, he and his collaborators have done a lot of work to create a whole vocabulary of absurdist funny crap: gross mispronunciations of certain words, cruel shoves leading to disproportionate pratfalls, large groups of screaming people running around in chaos, quotidian dialogue spoken fast enough to be ridiculous, women who make out with visible tongue, and the occasional direct address. All are present in The Ten, some more successful than others, some more aware than others: When Liev Schreiber flatly mispronounces the names of several popular fast food restaurants, his neighbor (& State alum) Joe Lo Truglio nods knowingly at his diction, saying, "I like what you did there." The joke has been through enough iterations that it might as well reach for the meta-meta skies, but hell, it's still funny to listen to someone deadpan "MacDarnolds."

The very best part about the non sequitur jokes is that none of the movie's vignettes are ever a total wash. This sketch about prison rape not doing it for you? Hang on, it's saved at the end with Michael Ian Black first reciting a Shakespeareanish soliloquy and then twisting away from the camera in a sickly, sultry way. Paul Rudd's dialogue a total drag? Wait for the very end, when he bites off the final word of a speech with a whine and a hilarious sort of sneer. That's goddamned right, people: The Ten sometimes balances exclusively on the very funny choices of its grossly talented cast. The movie is packed with the Wain Repertory Players (Paul Rudd, A.D. Miles, H. Jon Benjamin) and filled out with a generous high-caliber motion picture actors like Schreiber, Mol, Theroux, Oliver Platt, Adam Brody, Jessica Alba, Famke Janssen, and Winona Ryder. Everyone from Serioustown is super-game, making out with puppets (Ryder) donning funny mustaches (Schreiber), doing horrible Eddie Murphy impressions (Platt) and squealing about ponies (Alba) whenever necessary.

It's true: in the America we like our storylines, we like our truth in comedies, we like our Knocked Ups, but certainly there is a place in our hearts for a gaggle of comics who tirelessly search for the funniest things that could never happen, the driest possible deliveries and the most profane and juvenile of words. If you're scared don't be and if you're not you should be and if you're Australian it'll probably be the best thing you've seen in your entire life.

Hot Rod

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Hot Rod ain't, cuz it's not.

While Andy Samberg has consistently been one of the better elements on the surpassingly uneven Saturday Night Live for the past few seasons, it's obvious that he still isn't ready for prime time. I was hoping to just end my review right there without even having seen Hot Rod, but after a week of begging and pleading I finally found someone to go see it with me. What can I say? Misery loves company.

Samberg's character, the titular "Hot" Rod Kimble believes his father was a stuntman, is striving via hand-to-hand combat to attain the approval of his step-father, and generally spends his time launching his moped off of things. He is attended in this by his crew, a passel of borderline retards, and a curiously (if not found in the context of a ridiculously implausible summer movie) hot neighbor (played flatly here, even by stock-love-interest summer movie standards, by Isla Fisher). Anyway, Rod's step-dad needs surgery that his insurance won't cover, so Rod decides to out-do Evel Knievel's record by jumping over 15 school buses to raise the money so that his step-dad can get better so Rod can finally kick his ass in a fight. I hope no one's looking for the logic in that last sentence.

Essentially, if you want to see multiple impossible injuries sustained, improbable explosions, over-acting, under-acting, fake moustachios, non-sequitir thrust-dancing, Footloose-inspired angry-dancing (all sorts of hyphenated dancing, really), random singing, flash riots, poop jokes, an underused Will Arnett, Europe songs that aren't "The Final Countdown," over-pronounced silent h's, human piñatas, hemorrhaging head wounds, an unconvincing acid trip, an octopus and a kitten as spirit animals, a taco fighting a grilled cheese sandwich, and Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Day, then by all means see Hot Rod. You obviously love totally unrelated dumb stuff.

It's not that all of the jokes don't come off in the movie. It's just that the ratio of good to bad jokes is excrutiatingly low, so much so that at times I'd completely forgotten that what I was watching was ostensibly a comedy. The good jokes, and the more inspiredly absurdist tangents, could have made a riotous five-minute sketch, but never 88 minutes of enjoyable summer movie. "Dick in a Box" it ain't.

Skinwalkers

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It's easy to understand why so many hack genre fiction writers are into prophecies as a plot device. I mean, it's an incredibly lazy way to string a story together, and you don't have to spend any time thinking about character motivation and plot holes because -- dude! -- it was PROPHESIED, and prophets never get anything wrong! The future is already written by ancient idiots with no grasp of poetry or logic, and we're just going along for the ride, okay? What's harder to comprehend is why audiences go for this sort of thing. Once in a while you just have to deal with prophetic bullshitting in order for a writer to focus on better things such as interesting characters, funny jokes, and subtextual themes (hi Joss Whedon!), but most often, anything involving prophecies is just insultingly stupid, and Skinwalkers is no exception.

Make no mistake, Skinwalkers is a b-movie. In fact, it might be a c- or a d- movie. There are no stars, the acting is uniformly stiff and unbelievable, the special effects are extremely lame and unconvincing, and the writing and film making are on a level far below that of a Lifetime TV movie. No one involved in the film was trying very hard, and it's difficult to understand why the film even exists. Maybe the producers felt as though there weren't enough movies in the world? If the film was even remotely fashionable in terms of content -- ie, something closer to Hostel or Saw -- I'd assume it was just a blatant cash grab, but Skinwalkers is so plodding, gore-less, and devoid of style that it's hard to imagine it doing well in any era.

The most galling thing about Skinwalkers is that the writers decided to make a werewolf movie and refused to engage with the central metaphor that makes werewolves such a potent archetype -- ie, fear of unrepressed sexuality. Instead, they go for a drug metaphor so lame and hysterical that it makes those old "this is your brain on drugs" ads seem extraordinarily subtle. On top of that, you barely see the werewolves, and when you do, they look totally silly and ridiculous, like a substandard Halloween costume from the mall. So basically, if you're into werewolves at all, they've basically fucked it up in any way you could possibly enjoy a werewolf movie. They try to make up for it with lots of guns and motorcycles, but it's just pathetic, really.

Becoming Jane

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Dear Miss Bingey,

I am sooooooo into this one guy at work! He brings me flowers he picks from the parking lot and sometimes we "split" a stick of gum from the vending machine. Recently he finally "popped" the question: would I go out with him to the movies!! Would I!!! Everything was a total dream, until I realized we'd have to agree on a movie (hilarious differences between men and women alert!). I thought for sure he'd want to see The Simpsons Movie (YAWN!!), so color me surprised--and a little confused--when he suggested we go see Being Jane, the romantic comedy of the summer! At first I was excited -- then I was scared! Doesn't it seem a little, you know. You know!! I don't want to say because I think Martin in Sales might actually be, but you know. You know!!! What should I do?

Signed,
MovieWatcher Member #1889078


Dear MWM#1889078,

First of all, this column has a three month turnaround time. You aren't seriously still waiting for an answer, right? I mean didn't he ask you about this forever ago? I mean I guess we'll answer anyway, because if you are with this guy after all I would get with the breakup. This man is clearly a sociopath (yes, like Martin in Sales).

Face the facts, kitten: Being Jane is about the worst date movie ever. And we're not talking License to Wed style worst ever, either. We're talking, like, you know when you're all ready to eat a delicious dried fig and you bite down and it turns out to be a piece of pemmican? Who hasn't been there! This li'l film sets you up like, okay, I've banished all thoughts of literary credibility and I'm ready to see two sevelt young actors moon and banter over each other. Right? It sets you up like that and then for like the last hour it drops you into this horrifyingly depressing story about how no in fact you can never ever be with the person you love, because if you are you are ruining your life and also the lives of his fifteen hungry siblings, so, effin go spinster it away for the rest of your life, hope you're happy, maybe I'll see you again someday when you're grey and I've named my firstborn after you! Lots of laughs, peace!

Of course loyal readers all know that we know lots of facts about the choices of educated and unwealthy women in the time of this Jane Austen lady. In fact, we know so many facts that occasionally we visit graveyards and walk around apologizing. You would even think that all the reality might have improved our chances of liking the thing, since we were a little up in arms about it being made at all. (Jane Austen's like number one amazing characteristic is that she did all of the expert writing she did without ever having to rely on the support of a husband, so, why bother. That was our thinking.) But we girded our brains, and were thusly dropped into what we thought was fantasy land but no in fact was The Nightmare Before Christmas. Dear MMW, it has been long since we were so depressed at watching a romance.

In short, this man wants nothing more than to lift you up and either kill you in his basement or make you make all the hard choices for him. He will likely offer you great ideas and thoughts of running away together, so long as you leave your life behind and never accomplish the things you want. And then he will expect you to point out the flaws in this plan, and lo, you will do the dirty work entrusted to women all over the centuries: mopping up the breakup pieces, trying to pretend it's all for the best. You may in fact get a good novel out of it; we actually recommend you just read a novel instead.

Lovingly,
Miss Bingey

Bratz: The Movie

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I believe the mastermind behind this colossal shitpile was a sympathetic bookie. Jon Voight must have built up a seven figure debt in underground peanuckle games but didn't have the money to pay. The bookie, let's call him Frankie, respected Jon's impressive filmography and thought he'd throw the old man a bone. It just so happened his thirteen year-old daughter, Francine, loved both Bratz dolls and Jon Voight (Deliverance is her favorite movie). In exchange for finding his way into the film and the paycheck he would receive, Voight would be off the hook for the full sum. It was through a similar perdicament that Jon ended up in The Karate Dog and Baby Geniuses 2. This must be God's honest truth as there is no other plausible explanation for his involvement in a movie this offensive. To make matters worse, he plays a bumbling idiot, subjugated by his awful daughter and never gets a comeupance. I'm sorry Mr. Voight.

The downfall of Jon Voight aside, this movie is guaranteed to teach your child the wrong way to deal with just about every situation. Is life getting you down and you have nowhere to turn? Go shopping! Don't have enough money to solve your problems with shopping? Turn to your friend with divorced parents who want to her love and wait for her to give you free clothes! Are social clicks bringing you down despite your ability to be liked by everyone you meet? Put on an elaborate performance costing thousands of dollars! The overt message of loving yourself and your friends was perfectly acceptable, but the only reliable answer to life's problems involved spending money. The movie felt like it was financed by the evil fashion industry overlords from Zoolander.

What's worse is that the kids around me seemed to be laughing and enjoying themselves. They even clapped when the villain was cast aside. To their credit, there were a few moments that were genuinely funny and made me think the movie was salvagable, but it was too far gone. I was rooting for nobody. I looked longingly at the few adults that got up to leave, wish I might be them. This film is not for you and it's not for the kids in your life. Take them to Ratatouille instead.

As a final thought, I want you to hear the moment of the film when I laughed loudest. The villain, who is trying to control the school with cliques, actually says, "I love MySpace" after watching a clip for the talent show. It seemed they eschewed having many product placements in favor of letting MySpace and MTV take over the movie.

Listen to I LOVE MYSPACE.

Stardust

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I would like to make sure my review of Stardust has a viable place in the canon of Stardust reviews, so I will structure it accordingly;

1. Stardust has been praised for its refreshing quality of storytelling. This is false.
I suppose what most reviewers are interchanging here is a refreshing AMOUNT of story for a refreshing QUALITY of storytelling. Yes, there is a huge amount of story (never have I felt like I was watching a 2-hour trailer more than while watching Stardust, it's all expositional vignettes) but it's told very lazily and without much regard for clarity or truth. Wait, Dan, "truth" in a fantasy movie? YES! The main character, 30 seconds after traveling through space-time, figuring out that he must be beside the fallen star he thought would take a week to find, and that the star is in fact a person, he immediately decides to ENSLAVE this person. I'm fine with everything in that sentence except the all-caps. His actions are far more contrived than any of his surroundings, so the bottom falls out from underneath, because they're foregoing truth for the needs of the jam-packed story.

2. Stardust has been praised for the work of Michelle Pfeiffer. This is false.
She's really not impressive, I don't know why they're making this mistake. She falls in and out of her British accent, and she overplays most of her moments. I was waiting for Claire Danes to come back onscreen, surprisingly.

3. Stardust has been deemed an all-around passable let's-not-harp-on-it-when-there's-better-battles-to-wage fantasy film that suffers mostly from bad casting. This is true.
There's no point in raging against this movie, it's just kind of boring, but it doesn't suck. It's as if they've just started making a bunch of movies using the Harry Potter "engine", as if they were video game sequels. But Robert De Niro is garbage, and kind of offensive. And it's hard to offend me (because I keep my moral compass under lock and key!) but this comes damn close. I didn't see Chuck and Larry, but I imagine the level of gay sensitivity is about on par. Ricky Gervais is out of place, and yet somehow underused, and as one shorts-and-oakleys muttered to his girlfriend on the way out of the theater, "needed more Rupert Everett".

And with all weaknesses of the tome addressed and my own insights added to the mix, I am forced, immodestly, to review my own review: nuthin but net!

Superbad

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I first saw this movie with fellow Binger Karen, who asked after the screening, "Is this a guy thing?" Or something like that. Yeah, I told her, I guess it is.

There are no cigars here. Only penises. Lots of penises. Superbad is the most phallo-centric film I've ever seen, although, to its credit, it manages to expertly demonstrate all the attendant vivacity and existential terror that young men face in the process of sexual maturation. Paradoxically, this film dealt with the theme of men facing maturation more efficiently and maturely than any other Judd Apatow film (40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up) even though the film focuses on his youngest subjects. As would be expected, the movie has a lot of vulgar male bonding, tough-guy swagger coming from the dweebiest of dweebs, and a conviction that getting with women, while the ultimate goal in life, necessarily means distancing oneself from his friends. Whether or not such a conviction has merit is up for fiery debate, but it's certainly more in line with an 18-year-old virgin's mentality than Apatow's previous outings.

Increasingly, Apatow's best accomplishment is the perceived realism and relatability of his characters. Here, the central friendship between Seth (Knocked Up's Jonah Hill) and Evan (Arrested Development's Michael Cera) is as real to me as any I had in high school, often uncomfortably close to actual conversations and complications I experienced around the time of my own graduation. I've heard some reviewers describe the leads' friendship as being latently homosexual, but I think this is a knee-jerk and dismissive reaction. The truth is, it's a film about homosocial young men, platonic friends in the truest sense, who are faced with the uncertainty of their inevitable adulthood. Since they are teenagers, most of their dialogue, hell, their self-proclaimed raison d'etre, is in the service of their sexual pre-occupations, but the film allows a few sincere, illuminating moments wherein they connect on an emotional level and face, however briefly, both how much they love each other and how apprehensive they are about leaving each other's constant company at the end of the summer.

The inspired subplot features scene-stealing newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the self-christened "McLovin". While running afoul of the law, he finds himself in the company of two incredibly nerdy bad cops who, through McLovin, are trying to prove to themselves that they can still have fun and shrug off their responsibilities. Running directly contrary to the emotional development of the film's teenage leads, the cops drink like punk kids, play with their guns as if they were their dicks and apologize profusely for "cock-blocking" McLovin, proving that as necessary as it is to become adults, the mostly innocent frivolity of youth will always trump the banalities of the adult world.

Yes, Karen, I agree with you that the few female characters in the film are underdrawn, but this, too, I feel works toward the notion that teenage men have absolutely no idea who, or for that matter what, women really are. The characters here are as fascinated with women's sexuality as they are afraid of it. Women are another world for them, one that they will, the film suggests, come to terms with and find as much comfort and friendship in as they do with their understandable albeit immature homosocial realm.

Also, I laughed my ass off. This is the only movie I've reviewed this summer that I've seen twice. Take that for whatever it's worth.

Tekkon Kinkreet

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I have a demonstrable soft spot for urchins and other pathetic children. If for some reason you encounter my forboding presence, a quick lapse into Dickensian orphan-speak and I will be immediately disarmed, especially if you sing a song about chimbley sweeping (but — not you, Colin Meloy!).

The urchins who are the main characters of First-time feature director Michael Arias's Tekkon Kinkreet are surely adorable but their backstory is just as tragic as anything from an 800 page 19th century novel, though instead of working their little fingers off in a darkling factory in sooty London town they're leaping off walls and flagpoles and parapets in the crazy-quilt multicultural setting of a grafitti'd slum called Treasure Town. They're "Black" and "White," a pair of symbolically monikered "cats" — stray cats, orphans — who live by their quick wits, nimble fingers and super-hero-esque Karate skillz. Black is the older, quiet, more cynical and violent one, his face scarred from untold past battles, while White, still a snot-nosed tween who is afraid of the dark, is more or less his ward rather than his sidekick. Their relationship is very touching, particularly in the way they interact with the older residents of Treasure Town. Cops and (most) crooks alike seem to have a soft spot for these street children.

While Black and White wear cartoony costumes (goggles, animal head-hoods, toilet-paper dispensing utility belt) and White is prone to saying crushingly adorable nonsense like "I've got all the screws to his heart," not everything about their lives is cute. The only home they've ever known has come under successive threats from a rival kid-gang, the Yakuza, and a weird, fruity guy who might be German or Martian, or Martian German — it's not clear — but who definitely has crazy eyebrows. While force and corruption cannot change the nature of Treasure Town, one thing can — gentrification, in the form of Kiddie Castle, a theme park. That and 8 foot tall flying dudes with rocket launchers and bows and arrows.

Although Black keeps on insisting that he "owns" Treasure Town and engages in increasingly unhinged violence to prove that point, it is clear that the "cats' attachment to this deadly urban playground will mean their early death if they don't get out soon. When Black lets a skewered White be taken into protective custody by the police, he grows further and further detached from reality, culminating in a theme park showdown with his dark alter-ego, who drags him into a crayon-scribbled netherworld which is among the most moving and innovative animation I've ever seen. The confrontation between the dark powers upon which it is possible for Black to draw and his love and attachment to the world, particularly to his friend White, is riveting, and when the end comes it is uplifting and satisfying without being cloying or cutesy.

The Last Legion

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"Let's go measure our swords to see which one is bigger!" "Hey, this isn't Superbad, keep your sword to yourself."

For almost as long as there has been cinema, they've been making swashbuckling movies. Dudes with swords and damsels in distress, it's a genre that doesn't even necessitate dialogue because with a few key images we get the gist. The Last Legion is filmmaking at its most generic, and I don't mean that in a hip street slang sort of way. The genre is toga/sword action adventure and that's exactly what the movie delivers. While not a particularly original or artistic movie (and the last 20 minutes are a bit of a snooze), it is exactly the kind of grist in the mill that keeps Hollywood churning along and as a fan of the business of show, it seems pretentious to begrudge those involved with Legion their paychecks.

Scene: just before the fall of Rome. Thomas Sangster plays Romulus Augustus, the soon to be crowned Caesar of Rome. You may remember Sangster as the idealistic young romantic from Love Actually who wooed the Mariah Carey singing pre-teen by learning to play the drum set. Four years on, Sangster is a few heads taller but is just as earnest. He's like a hall monitor in sandals and a Roman skirt. Shortly after his coronation, Huns sack the city kidnapping Romulus and taking him to the natural water-bound prison of Capri.

Colin Firth is the Roman centurion Aurelius who leads the charge to save Romulus, while Sir Ben Kingsley plays Romulus's mysterious robe-wearing (that's how you know he's mystical) teacher. Poor Colin Firth, twelve long years have passed since the BBC's version of Pride and Prejudice but he's still pigeon holed as Darcy. Though being type cast as a little brusque and emotionally aloof, yet still dashingly hunky is hardly a tragedy. As his romantic foil, the filmmakers have gone surprisingly multi-culti casting the Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai as the warrior Mira, who predictably enough is introduced in a man's garb and then reveals her smokin' hot physique to Aurelius only after she's proven her battle skills.

On Capri, Romulus discovers a special sword forged for his ancestor Julius Caesar which contains special powers and with the instruction from Ambrosinus—who of course has been studying its mystical ways his entire life—Romi wrestles it from its hiding place. Unfortunately super sword or no, the Roman political tides have turned in support of the Hun invaders and our adventurers head North to find the last loyal warriors stationed in Britannia.

Blah blah blah, crossing the Alps. Blah blah blah, befriending the natives in their lush green Celtic paradise. Blah blah blah, appearance of evil Lord in Phantom of the Opera-ish golden mask who must be vanquished. Anyhoo! Full disclosure: somewhere in there I got up to use the restroom and completely lost the thread of the plot, so sue me. Regardless I will say, phalanxes are cool and even cooler is the opportunity to use that word in a review. Phalanx, phalanx, phalanx. One more thing before you go off to read all about phalanxes on Wikipedia, The Last Legion features a completely bizarre performance from Kevin McKidd, who previously was so wonderful on the HBO series Rome. Here he plays one of the evil Germanic guys and has the most ridiculous, yet strangely awesome, ginger-colored eyebrows and sideburns. When this movie hits basic cable, be sure to check those suckers out.

Oh by the way, the super sword? It was Excalibur. And Sir Ben the mystical teacher? Totally Merlin. Yup, it's a Roman legion/phalanx rockin'/Arthurian legend movie. Take that genre conventions! Booyah.

Rush Hour 3

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

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

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

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

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

Death at a Funeral

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

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

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

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

Rocket Science

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

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

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

ENOUGH WITH THE QUIRK ALREADY!!!

The King of Kong

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Days In Paris

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

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

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

Underdog

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

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

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

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

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

Hannah Takes The Stairs

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

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

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

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

The Nanny Diaries

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

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

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

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

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

The Invasion

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

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

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

The 11th Hour

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

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

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

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