Tuesday, October 6, 2009

DVDs of 2008

21 (Dir. Robert Luketic, 2008)

It's beyond belief that director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde, Monster-in-Law) can't forge a functioning tale from Ben Mizrich's riveting non-fiction book, Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. Luketic gets so caught up in gambling movie cliches & the glamour of filming Las Vegas hotel suites that he abandons the true story almost entirely. This would be forgivable if his every directorial reflex weren't so haphazardly borrowed from such obvious sources. Some blame rests with star Kevin Spacey as the students' collegiate mentor, who actually parodies his formidable turns in Glengarry Glen Ross & Swimming With Sharks. He's here to give this vacuous Hollywood product some heft, but Luketic just lets him run wild instead of finding him a logical place in the story arc, what there is of it. 

Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) plays Ben Campbell, a poor MIT student, working at an upscale clothing store to make enough money for Harvard Medical School. If you're thinking, "How the heck is this kid gonna raise the $300,000 for Harvard Med working a minimum wage job?" & you're at the edge of your seat waiting to see how he does it, you should probably be invited to Luketic's home for dinner some night. Ben falls reluctantly under the spell of professor Spacey & his sexy band of waggish card-counting scoundrels & promises he'll quit once he's up the tuition money. But, as the vaudevillians say, "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?" or, in this case, the come-hither lights of Las Vegas. Campbell soon succumbs to Spacey's manipulations & the sexual allure of sad-sack sexy Kate Bosworth (Bee Season, Superman Returns). Betrayal, comeuppance & life lessons are just around the corner. Unfortunately these lessons seem as phony & glitzy as Vegas itself & nothing ever really seems on the line, as it must have for the original MIT Six. 
Luketic makes the mistake of personifying justice in the form of a world-weary Casino pit-watcher, played with limited effort by Laurence Fishburne. Fishburne's old-school casino security, the kind who catches card-counters with a sharp eye, and he's the last of a breed, being chased from his job by a new computerized security system. Turns out he's got a grudge against professor Spacey, but that's hazy. In fact, the film is always hazy where it demands clarity. It's obvious Luketic doesn't understand Vegas, card-counting, computers, basic math, human relations...the list goes on. So he glosses over what counts in such a story -- the details. 

Nothing matters here because the director could care less about the endlessly fascinating cultures involved. He doesn't give a whit about academia, gambling, or the meat of human relationships. There's a reason so many fine films have been made about gambling -- California Split (Altman, 1974), The Gambler (Karel Reisz, 1974), Casino (Scorcese, 1995), Rounders (John Dahl, 1998) -- it's a complex addiction & there's a mighty, tactile, visually exciting empire built upon a completely understandable human weakness. We'd all like to get rich, and we'd like to get rich sooner rather than later. And if someone deluges us with enough bright lights, Capital Records-era Sinatra & low-cut cocktail dresses, we're liable to succumb to the luck of the draw. But like the novice gambler, Luketic forgets that there's a craft to it as well & like those amateurs he's seduced by the hotel room vistas & sex appeal of winning, but wants nothing to do with the lurid, life-altering guts of the matter.

American Swing (Jon Hart, Matthew Kaufman, 2008)

This documentary about the infamous Upper Manhattan swinger club Plato's Retreat, which flourished as the breathless finish line for free love from 1977 until 1984, features opalescent fountains of jizz, casual anal sex between trips to the odious buffet, Buck Henry describing the heave & ho of the scabies-ridden mattress room, glittery disco & glam music, old overweight Long Island Jewish couples it's hard to imagine copulating wildly with Garrett Morris, cocaine tales in excelsis, Phil Donahue acting just like the pompous, disingenuous liberal grotesque he is, copious nudity (some even worth seeing), Ed Koch in a permanent state of denial & Retreat guru Larry Levenson, a big-hearted schlub canonized & pilloried by sex, sex, sex. Seriously, what's not to love about this? Oh right, the AIDS.

Art of War: The Betrayal (Dir. Josef Rusnak, 2008)

Despite a relatively relaxed performance from Wesley Snipes (he's not exuding all 'tude this time around...), there's not a lot to recommend this sequel to 2000's martial arts spy actioner, unless cartoonishly sped-up fight scenes & watching Snipes do some truly masterful nunchuck moves with a dish towel is your particular cup of chop socky. Snipes returns as special agent Neil Shaw to avenge the death of his mentor, the cross-dressing sensei Mother, with the help of the master's daughter, Geena. Of course, he's being used as bait & the whole thing is saddled with a downbeat ending this too-little/too-late sequel didn't need. And while the original Art of War paired our hero with some real B-movie firepower (Donald Sutherland, Maury Chaykin, Michael Biehn, Anne Archer), the lack of comfort actors here make telling one evil dude from the other a real chore.

The Bank Job (Dir. Roger Donaldson, 2008)

An elegant, very well-directed heist film based on the infamous 1971 robbery of the Baker Street Lloyd's Bank in London, which netted the equivalent of 5 million pounds, and still stands as the largest bank haul in British history. Helmed by the always interesting Roger Donaldson (Sleeping Dogs, Smash Palace, Species, World's Fastest Indian), The Bank Job eschews a lot of post-modern crime film pyrotechnics in favor of tense, linear storytelling, abetted admirably by a fine cast, including the ubiquitous Jason Statham & a seductively feline Saffron Burrows.

In '71, the aftermath of the bank robbery stirred a hornet's net of controversy due to a British government order to suppress any information concerning the crime, leading some to suspect that the robbery, in which a gang of previously unambitious hoodlums dug a tunnel into the safety deposit box vault from a chicken restaurant two doors down, wasn't actually about the money at all. The Bank Job garnered some pre-release hype in the UK due to its plot's reliance on a "Deep Throat"-like character's accusations that the heist was pulled to rescue sexually incriminating photographs of Princess Margaret from the clutches of black radical/pimp Michael X. The story is complex without becoming gimmicky & the twists & turns never betray the factual source material. But what really makes this film tick is Statham, who should finally be relieved of relying on cut-rate Guy Ritchie & Guy Ritchie-inspired vehicles for a living. Kinetic & impressive as these previous roles have been, it's obvious Statham has more to offer. As an actor, no one can match his ability to balance brutishness & couture. Burrows, too, has been poorly used in small, uneven prestige projects such as Frida, Klimt & Fay Grim. She has a chilly European elegance that recalls Charlotte Rampling, Isabelle Huppert & even Catherine Deneuve & it really shows here.

The Bank Job is a rental gem. Highly recommended.

Belly 2: Millionaire Boyz Club (Dir. Ivan Frank, 2008)

Wow, if this had actually achieved wide release, instead of being junked around Hollywood like a fake Tiffany billiard room lamp, this might have set race relations back a good 50 years with its portrayal of cracked-out, 40-swilling, Kool-Aid mustached, gun-happy gangstas whom, um, I think, we're, uh, supposed to empathize with on some level. As it stands, even attempting to find information on this unholy shit-stain of a movie, is difficult. There was, indeed, a planned sequel to music director Hype Williams' 1998 cult hit Belly (starring Nas & DMX), but this project never saw the light of day.

So, what we have here is an unrelated project, originally titled Millionaire Boyz Club & pitched as a slightly-fictionalized bio of rapper The Game. For one thing, always beware a slightly-fictionalized bio-pic starring the subject. Evidence: Monte Hellman/Tom Gries Muhammad Ali debacle, The Greatest (1977) & Gordon Douglas' Viva Knievel (1977 -- apparently a banner year for such cinematic short cons). The Game (the rapper, not the David Fincher movie) is released from federal prison after an 8-year stint & vows to go straight, which lasts all of five minutes (I think someone kicks over the bicycle he has to ride to work or something...I forget). It's not long (I'd say fifteen or twenty minutes of film time) before he's king of Compton & his only real problem is he's too dense to realize he's bedding down with a DEA agent (Shari Headley from Coming to America). He offers her sweetened Kool-Aid & she takes her clothes off -- what's more natural than that. The worst part of this is that great, essentially Emmy-proof actors from HBO's brilliant The Wire are caught up in this grim affair. The appearance of both The Wire's Michael K. Little (Omar Little) & Felicia Pearson (Snoop) made me want to mail off anthrax to the Emmy selection committee every time they had to utter a line in Belly 2. Who's to blame, you ask? Well, according to Wikipedia this film was directed by Cess Silvera, but the movie doesn't appear under his IMDB credits. According to the Hollywood Video website, the movie's helmed by Ivan Frank, whose name doesn't even appear on IMDB. I know, I know, I could just watch the credits of the movie again to find out who the real director is, but, man, that's SOOO playing into their hands.For a more objective stance on this, I scoured the web & found these pithy mentions on various message boards:

From Yahoo! Answers:

"i aint no they had a belly 2. the first one is a street classic. why'd they have to put a slob like game in the sequel. id still probably buy it if i had a lil extra money to throw around."

And from the Slumz website:

"I got this Belly 2 shyt on bootleg...that nukka Game does some terrible azz acting in this shyt...hell even Omar is terrible...the dialogue is terrible...the damn story just doesnt make sense...its garbage straight up...the only "good" scene was when ****SPOILER*** Game fukked the shawdii who starred in Coming to America....that was the best acting scene in the damn movie....shyt the nukka WC was the best actor in the damn movie..."

I hope those were helpful. 

CJ7 (Dir. Stephen Chow, 2008)

If you can get your kids to watch movies with subtitles -- and if not, why'd you fork out 30 grand for that special pre-school? -- you could do worse than to plop them down in front of Stephen Chow's (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle) cuddly-alien-to-nice-family flick, CJ7. As with all films Asian, this is a funhouse mirror held up to what passes for child's fare in the U.S., that is to say, the movie's a little more icky (snot jokes are more, um, vivid) & slightly more cruel (while the class fat girl is defended, when she walks down the hall the school quakes) than what American adults are used to, but hey, stop micro-managing & balance your checkbook, secure in the knowledge that good wins over evil in CJ7 & nobody is seriously injured in the process.

Dicky (the fittingly adorable Jiao Xu) is a smudge-faced ragamuffin living with his nearly destitute widowed father Ti (Stephen Chow), who apparently works 18 hours a day to pay rent, keep Dicky in bowls of fish-flavored rice & pay the boy's tuition to an elite school. Dicky must settle for clothing & shoes pilfered from the garbage dump & he spends most evenings squashing armies of cockroaches on the kitchen wall with his father. The things you do when there's no TV. At the school, Dicky is a cheerful outcast, marveling at the incredible robotic toys the overachieving, equally robotic privileged students own. Dicky's frustration with his lot in life grows the more he's confronted with the shiny, happy lives of the other children. Unlike other put-upon children in cinema, Dicky is NOT long-suffering, and this is a welcome realistic touch in CJ7. He wants what every other child has & he can't be expected to sort out the vagaries of existence that make this impossible, especially when he's faced with these inequities every freaking day. That Dicky can become demanding & inflexible without becoming an odious brat is testament to Jiao Xu's preternatural acting skills.

While scavenging rubbish for a pair of P.E. shoes for his son, Ti comes upon an unusual glowing green bag, like a water balloon with thicker skin & capable of some indepedent motion. After making the best of this limited toy for a day or two, the toy begins to adapt to Dicky's needs, develops nipples, full-fledged tentacles & finally changes into glow-green goop with the head of a baby chicken & the temperament of a spoiled puppy. As special FX aliens go, CJ7 is no E.T., but it has its charms & serves to make Dicky popular for the right reasons, organize his priorities & find his father much-deserved love, in the form of the lovely teacher, Miss Yuen.

All in all, a pretty exciting, colorful kid's pic. Recommended. 

Drillbit Taylor (Dir.Steven Brill, 2008)

While usually at the service of Adam Sandler vehicles (Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds), Director/Actor Brill finally weighs in with some real comic talent, the ubiquitous team of Judd Apatow & Seth Rogan & though this is a far cry from the wicked comic gems those two have recently concocted (40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad & the much-anticipated Pineapple Express), there's enough profane spark here to make for a great rental. Wade (Nate Hartley, from The Great Buck Howard) & Ryan (Troy Gentile, who made an early career of playing the young Jack Black in Nacho Libre & Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny ), are basically more cartoonish versions of the Michael Cera/Jonah Hill pairing in Superbad, but whereas Cera & Hill were simply marginal high school types -- past being bullied, on civil terms with the popular kids -- Wade & Ryan are complete outsiders & the first day of their high school careers they run egregiously afoul of unrepentent hallway sadist, Filkins (Alex Frost), sadly while wearing identical Hot Topic bowling shirts. It's a break-out performance for Alex Frost (Gus Van Sant's Elephant), who plays the bully with the kind of charming sociopathology Edward Norton often registers. While you half expect a backstory for Filkins that includes child abuse & brutish neglect, he is, in fact, a middle class kid whose family has emancipated him so they can attend to corporate jobs in Hong Kong. For Filkins, high school sadism -- and make no mistake, Filkins is a textbook sociopathic sadist -- is simply a part of the natural order of things. He's found his troubling place in the pecking order & he fulfills the obligations of that post with a cruel, unnerving fervor that might be admirable if he weren't constantly showering less-fortunates with their own piss or trying to run them down with his car.

Naturally, since they're up against a foe bent not just on making their lives miserable, but actually killing them, Wade & Ryan seek help from a bodyguard. After interviewing Israeli army veterans, killer bikers, a wildly over-caffeinated Frank Whaley (
Swimming with Sharks, Pulp Fiction), and Adam Baldwin from the 80s classic, My Bodyguard, the two settle on homeless army deserter Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson), who plays himself up as a Black Ops/Special Forces renegade. This is the sort of role through which Wilson can sleepwalk blithely & he does. Of course, Drillbit's first order of business is to steal as much loot as he can from Wade & Ryan's homes, with a plan to pull off a fullscale robbery once he's bilked the kids of all the petty cash they can cough up, all the while teaching them ludicrous combat techniques which only serve to further inflame the highly flammable Filkins. Finally, in an unlikely but likable plot contrivance, Drillbit sees the life he's missed out on by masquerading as a substitute teacher. Of course, Filkins & his minion Ronnie (The Wackness' Josh Peck) soon suss out that Drillbit's a fraud, though not as soon as you'd think considering Wilson's rather high-profile panhandling in the neighborhood.

The final showdown between our end-of-their ropes heroes & Filkins is physical comedy at its best, with tons of surprise turns as the battle rages through the bully's comfy suburban home & spills out onto the front lawn. The happy surprises in Drillbit Taylor come in the form of scale, not ingenuity. All the cliches are in place -- hearts of gold are revealed, evil is vanquished & meekness redeemed, like Jesus said it would be. But Brill meanders blissfully away from easy outs just enough that when tidy bows are finally tied round the proceedings, you almost feel lucky to receive the rather ho-hum package. It doesn't hurt that the cast is peppered with very likable familiar faces, including Mike Judge-regular, Stephen Root as the gullible Principal Doppler, Judd Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann (Katherine Heigl's sister in
Knocked Up) as Wilson's love interest, insult-comic Lisa Lampanelli as Ronnie's mother & the charming Valerie Tian (Juno) as Wade's reason to fight.

Felon (Dir. Ric Roman Waugh, 2008)

Felon plays out like a protracted episode of Fox's Prison Break, minus the plot convolutions that sometimes make that show mildly interesting. Stephen Dorff, who has the honor of also being the POOR MAN'S Stephen Dorff, stars as Wade Porter, a mild-mannered construction worker who's just signed the small business loan papers on his own contracting firm, kills a wee-hour home intruder, but makes the big mistake of doing it on the front lawn instead of in the living room, thus lowering property values, and breaking several neighborhood covenants & zoning laws, for which Wade is sent up the river for three years at Corcoran State Prison (a troubled real-life California prison distinguished by its officials having shot & killed more inmates than any other prison in the country).

Leaving behind a wife & small child, Wade has some trouble adjusting to the ins & outs of Corcoran, especially the gladiator battles staged by Lt. Jackson (Lost's Harold Perrineau). In order to cope, Dorff is mentored by serial murderer Val Kilmer (who spouts the kind of bullshit prison Zen that would seem psychotic outside of cell block #9, but seems pretty practical on the inside), and pretty soon he can hold his own in the brutal human cockfights. Felon is filmed inside a unused portion of the labyrinthine California prison system & it's grittier for it, but the plot is pure potboiler through & through & won't make you forget about Stuart Rosenberg's Brubaker (1980) or Jamaa Fanaka's cult classic, Penitentiary (1979). Felon's too soft-headed to rank with the former & too faux-humanist to even touch the latter. 
Really, this would have been better off as a TV Movie of the Week & better still if they'd found a true story on which to base it, instead of a series of hunches & lurid L.A. Times headlines, but then the director, famous stunt man Ric Waugh (They Live, Hard Target, Leonard, Part 6), wouldn't have been able to push the fisticuffs into the deep red & make all this talk about prison reform seem like a polite reach-around during non-concensual prison sodomy. Felon does have its cheap thrills & Kilmer's kind of a hoot, even though one senses he's aiming for gravitas here & with a little less hand-wringing & extra-penal bathos, I might even recommend it, but as it stands it's a bust both as an issue film AND as knuckle-bruising slammer porn.

The Films of Lech Majewski: Glass Lips (Dir. Lech Majewski, 2008)

This experimental feature by Lech Majewski (best known in the U.S. as co-writer for Julian Schnabel's Basquiat, 1996) seems more like the work of a precocious undergraduate literature major than the last finished work of a filmmaker who's been working in Poland since 1978. That its original Polish title translates as Blood of a Poet, the title of Jean Cocteau's surrealist masterwork from 1930, make it feasible that some viewers might take umbrage & charge the filmmaker with delusions of grandeur. I, however, will simply charge Majewski with run-of-the-mill pretentiousness. 

Had this film been made when the literary/art/music/film movement known as Modernism was in full flourish, Glass Lips (a hopelessly unevocative U.S. title), with all of its Freudian imagery clashing so dissonantly with its tired religious symbolism & erotic posturings, most of its blithe excesses could be forgiven, but now that Modernism has passed & only freshman writing classes allow imitations to slide (mostly to allow beginning writers to follow the steps of great writers to the fruitiion of a unique personal style), there's no reason to give the film any leeway whatsoever.
Because we, as viewers, are so used to certain types of symbolism in movies (Christ symbols are so rife most students of film are forced to avert their eyes to avoid processing their turgid mis-use), in order to maintain a certain cinematic mystery it takes a new language of signs to convey psychology through images, something of which visionaries like David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky & even an antiquist like Guy Maddin are well aware. 

Images of crucifixion, madonna/whore figures & sexual fetishism brought on by childhood discipline & transference, no longer hold the imagistic weight they once did, to say the least. Majewski revels in this exhausted symbological universe & his film is exhausted as a result. Because the symbols are so instantly familiar, Glass Lips reads almost literally from start to finish. And translated so literally, so immediately, these images lose all their psychological mystery, all relation to the dream language of the surrealists the filmmaker so obviously reveres: The main character has a cruel father who keeps an exotic mistress, a mother who would not protect him & turned to television as an escape (a scene where she's fed intravenously from a rooftop TV antenna is like something from a Van Halen video), was raised under the sexual repression of Catholicism, transferred his erotic fixations onto religious imagery, and is eventually driven to the madhouse where he struggles to provide motivations for his rather standard Modernist family romance. 
If this were filmed as floridly as a Kenneth Anger film or imbued with the keen wit of Mark Rappaport, perhaps this parade of ho-hum images might provide a lovely tribute to surrealism, a charming bauble to remind the viewer of arguably simpler times, but the video talbeaux here just can't make the pictures pretty enough to camouflage the scarcity of imagination at work.

Gran Torino (D: Clint Eastwood, 2008)
Clint Eastwood attacks his role as racist curmudgeon Walt Kowalski with such cartoonish glee in Gran Torino that it's impossible to take any of the tragic elements of this profane After-School Special plot very seriously. A Korean war veteran with a mean streak as wide as the Autobahn, Kowalski snarls at his family, his priest & his barber, but saves the real venom for his Hmong neighbors. At the beginning of Eastwood's film, we encounter Kowalski scowling at everyone in attendance at his wife's funeral & it's immediately apparent Mrs. Kowalski was the only tenderizing influence in this man's haunted, angry life. Slowly though he develops an uneasy attachment to Sue (a thankfully modulated performance by newcomer Ahney Her), the teen Hmong girl next door & then to her sensitive brother Thao, both of whom are being persecuted by the kind of street gang that only exists in movieland. After Kowalski performs a few reluctant good deeds for the family, he becomes a neighborhood hero & his front porch is flooded with flowers & exotic foodstuffs. Not that this in any way tempers our protagonist's vocabulary. Even his most compassionate moments come peppered with words like "gook" & "zipperhead." But the racism in Gran Torino feels unbearably forced, as if the script were written by people who'd never really encountered a racist & thought it enough to grab racial epithets at random from a slang dictionary. The moments with Kowalski's barber (the usually reliable John Carroll Lynch), in which they trade racial slurs like Laurel & Hardy at a Klan rally, ring especially false & are not nearly as entertaining as the two actors seem to find them. It seems as though they are barely containing laughter, which is a very strange tone to take in a movie that pretends to so many dark undercurrents. While it's fun to watch Eastwood chew up the oddly generic Detroit scenery, the movie is basically full of shit from the get-go & doesn't, to my mind at least, contain even one moment that seems authentic or lived. Still, that titular Gran Torino, Kowalski's most valued possession, is one hell of a fine car & deserves a better movie. 

The Happening (M. Night Shyamalan)

Significantly less gimmicky than other Shyamalan products, The Happening, amazingly, doesn't fall prey to the director's usual cinematic miscalculations. The uncomfortable mix of Rod Serling & Deepak Chopra, wherein the films set out to chill or horrify & then either weave off hazily into New Age hokum, or attempt the kind of "twist" ending that affords enormous pleasure in short episodes of Twilight Zone or Night Gallery, but elicits mostly groans from even mildly attentive moviegoers.

As always, Shyamalan excels at the set-up. One not-so-special afternoon random citizens begin walking backward, talking nonsense & then killing themselves with whatever's handy. Policemen shoot themselves with their firearms which are then picked up by passing strangers who do the same, landscapers lie down in front of their riding lawnmowers, construction workers step, without a moment's hesitation, off of high-rise scaffoldings into oblivion & joggers cut their throats with broken glass. All of these suicides are filmed with an absolutely unique mix of gore & grace. There's pure, though admittedly grim, poetry in watching those workers fall from the sky still in mid-step, in the gradually revealed sight of hanged men & women dangling from the swaying branches above a scenic New England country road. Of course, the civil authorities, pundits & newscasters attribute this lemming-like behavior to germ warfare, the act of terrorists.

The actual, fleshed-out characters in The Happening, however, are more problematic. We're first introduced to science teacher Eliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) as he's delivering a portentuous speech to his class concerning the disappearance of bees. In the wake of the mass suicides school is dismissed & Wahlberg makes plans with co-worker John Leguizamo to head to a haven in rural Pennsylvania until the crisis blows over. Leguizamo collects his little girl, Wahlberg his wife (Zooey Deschanel) & they head for the hills, which proves to be exactly the wrong place to head. Although the Eco-dread subtext isn't underlined in fire & brimstone just yet, it's pretty easy to predict what's coming. To Shyamalan's credit, he doesn't wield the truth like a novelty cashew can loaded with springs. Pretty much every character realizes the ecological implications simultaneously & then they spend the rest of the movie dealing with the crisis instead of playing dumb for the sake of unnecessary narrative jolts.

Wahlberg's Eliot is just about as annoying as most high school science teachers who aren't completely defeated by the public school system & Wahlberg reads every line as if he's teaching a dog to read a wristwatch. Really, he's the Dudley Do-Right scientist from every 1950s sci-fi movie given some light-weight psychological baggage so we don't go and mistake him for Jon Agar. This psychological baggage comes in the form of his wife, Alma. Figuring out what the hell's up with Deschanel's character often threatens to become more interesting than what's making people blow their brains out for no reason. Is she a little, um, "special"? Is she a nymphomaniac? Is she a child-like sexpot like Carroll Baker in Elia Kazan's potboiler Baby Doll (1956)?

Come to think of it, most of the characters in The Happening are true oddities, types from sci-fi B movies made somehow ethereal by Tak Fujimoto's effectively pellucid color palette & that strange meditative tone Shyamalan enforces even when he's ratcheting up tension or cautiously reveling in gore like the genre director almost every sane person wishes he'd become already. There's some real, gleefully morbid wit on display here, something we haven't seen in the director's films since 2000's severely underrated Unbreakable. I mean, what's to be made of the character who first posits the Eco-Rapture theory, a loopy gentleman farmer who talks to grass & won't stop rhapsodizing over how much he loves hot dogs, of Wahlberg trying to reason with a plastic potted plant, of Deschanel suggesting -- somewhat timidly -- that her family doesn't deserve the apocalypse because they're "not assholes," of Wahlberg singing a verse of the Doobie Brothers' "Black Water" to some paranoid backwoods types in order to prove he's normal...of old women in WWI gas masks knitting away & watching TV in a Victorian parlour? Best of all, a superbly photographed scene in which Wahlberg & Deschanel realize that trusting a tree to safely suspend a tree swing may not be the best idea, under the circumstances. The Happening is littered with great imagery, with inexplicable characterizations that serve to keep us off balance in what is, essentially, just a fun science fiction film, for once not completely sabotaged by Shyamalan's often squishy spirituality. 

Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (Dir. Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg, 2008)

It's probably just cranky to point out that Harold & Kumar...I'll just call it HKEFGB, though that's nearly as troublesome, seems to be more of a marketing tool than a movie, an attempt to develop a healthy franchise before there were any fresh ideas to back it up. But that's the way it goes with movie franchises, right? I mean, Cheech & Chong's Next Movie was certainly no Up in Smoke. Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle was the surprise blockbuster of 2004, costing a paltry $9 million to make & raking in over $80 million from box office & rentals, so it's no surprise, considering the simplicity of the concept, that the filmmakers would concoct a sequel almost immediately. It doesn't take a Ben Hecht to wind up these two reasonably intelligent potheads & send them skittering through a world of squares in search of weed & pussy. 
The franchise-to-be hinges on the performance of its likable leads, Kal Penn (Kumar) and John Cho (Harold), and while they never achieve the comic mania of Cheech & Chong, Wayne & Garth or even Martin & Lewis, there's something comfortable about their relative blandness. Maybe a little two comforting. Harold & Kumar are so assimilated, so devoid of any cultural or racial characteristics (unless you think being a pothead counts as a cultural characteristic, which is arguable) that their homogeneity becomes almost suspenseful. Instead the investment of stereotypes is left to those who view the two of them. Harold & Kumar are virtually blank slates on which the world writes its prejudices, albeit humorously. The racial element is damn near a red herring. Even in HKE...um, the movie at hand, where racial perceptions are the catalyst for the resulting mayhem & hijinx (they're mistaken as terrorists & can't get to Amsterdam for pussy & pot), the political subtext is dropped the minute marijuana & sex jokes can be made instead. Politics is cartoonish, pot & sex are serious business, and therefore the source of the film's ample comedy. Unfortunately this leaves the great Daily Show comedian Rob Corddry, playing the Homeland Security agent pursuing our anti-heroic miscreants, little to do but mug & froth patriotic every quarter hour. 
As with the first film, HAKGTWC (really?), the actor who gets the most laughs here is Neil Patrick Harris, a model for how to convert childhood TV stardom into adult viability (he's also winning as Barney on the scrappy CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother). While Doogie doesn't get as much screen-time here as he did in the first Harold & Kumar movie, his mushroom hallucinations here are definitely the film's high-point.

While it's obvious that not much work or craft went into making HAKEFGB, its naturalness comes on like comfort food in a field of movies punching us in the face to make us crack a smile. As a rental, it's a sure bet.

In Bruges (Dir. Martin McDonagh, 2008)

I didn't think they still made existential gangster flicks! In Bruges is one of the happiest surprises in a long while, a beautifully acted, sharply literate, spectacularly lensed, brazenly funny, and graphically bloody tale of two harmlessly-named hitmen, Ray (Colin Farrell on fire) & Ken (Brendon Gleeson, the film's hulking soul) who hide out in the fairytale medieval city of Bruges, Belgium after the hit on a priest (Julius Caesar in HBO's Rome, uncredited here) ends up with Ray accidentally killing a small child. Awaiting further marching orders from crime boss Harry Waters (a venomous Ralph Fiennes, finally livng up to the hype), the two thugs take in the museums, stumble across bizarre dream sequences being filmed in the wee hours by an independent film crew, befriend a rather bitter dwarf (Jordan Prentice -- Howard T. Duck in 1986's Howard the Duck) & a drug-peddling actress (startlingly sexy Clemence Poesy), score a bunch of cocaine & discuss -- without ever breaking character -- issues of guilt, redemption, art, God, history, death, purgatory (for which Bruges is a perfect stand-in) & hell.

There are bits here that will certainly remind you of other existential gangster films. Ralph Fiennes' Harry Waters seems a step just to the left of Sir Ben Kingsley's Don Logan in Sexy Beast & has a name sure to conjur up the mob boss from Nicholas Roeg & Donald Cammell's psychedelic gangster classic Performance (1970), the bald, pug-nosed Harry Flowers. There are also shades of Jean-Pierre Melville's French crime classic Bob Le Flambeur (1956), and its crazily underrated re-make, Neil Jordan's The Good Thief (2002). This is only director McDonagh's second film (the first being the very odd Brendan Gleeson vehicle Six Shooter from 2004), and it's so self-assured & lacking in post-modern guile that you'd think it was made by a grizzled genre veteran like John Mackenzie (1980's The Long Good Friday) or Mike Hodges (Get Carter, Croupier, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead). And just in case you're thinking this may all be a little high-brow for your tastes, what with all the scenes of Flemish art & talk of heaven & hell, I'd like to reiterate that this is also one of the bloodiest films I've seen in quite some time, with fierce, gruesome violence coiling around every medieval cornerstone & down every quaint cobblestone street. But, come to think of it, with grisly Low Country masterworks like this15th Century doozy from Gerard David, The Flaying of tihe Corrupt Judge Sisamnes, so prominently displayed in the film......

...Some blood's to be expected. In Bruges is a modern crime classic & highly recommended!

Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead (Louis Morneau, 2008)

Completely selling out John Dahl & J. J. Abrams' truly creepy original, sequel slut Morneau (Hitcher 2, Carnosaur 2) has no feeling whatsoever for the ominous, cold chromium impassivity of semi trucks on lonely desert highways, instead introducing us to a quartet of mostly disposable characters & disposing of them with zero ingenuity, running them through one pointless test after another. Adding insult to injury, our roadtrippers' solutions to these tests are actually more insane than the sadistic demands that inspire them.

Supernatural's Nicki Aycox & her square-jawed -- oh, let's face it, he's square every which way -- fiance (Beverly Hills Chihuahua's Nick Zano) are heading to Las Vegas for a unisex bachelor/bachelorette party, with Nicki's wild, annoying sister (Rebecca Davis) in tow. On the way Davis picks up Nick (Kyle Schmid from The Sisterhood of Traveling Pants & History of Violence), a guy from Salt Lake City she met on Myspace. Nick tells them he's a "third wave emo punk," and he's so annoying that if he were impaled onto a Peterbilt mitred exhaust stack BEFORE the movie started it wouldn't be quick enough. Instead he basically becomes the film's lead male character, information that might require a Spoiler Alert if there were anything here that wasn't already spoiled at conception.

Of course the travelers' station wagon breaks down and, while walking to the nearest town for help, they come across the kind of isolated house that one viewing of Texas Chainsaw Massacre should steer you away from. No one's home so Nick smashes a picture window, which prompts ol' square jaw to break the front door off its hinges. Leaving the door hanging open & the window uncovered, our heroes leave an apologetic note, steal a classic muscle car from the garage & tool off down the road. After this, you pretty much excuse psycho trucker Rusty Nail's first two murders as justifiable homicide.

There are a few good B-movie lines embedded in Joy Ride 2 & I'll just tell you what they are so you don't feel you're missing anything essential. At one point a trucker who thinks Nicki's coming onto him to "close them pretty eyes & pretend I'm Kenny Chesney for all I care." He also refers to a girl's large breasts as "circus boobs," which only gets points because it's more clever than anything else in the moribund script. Also worth some notice is the effective, suitably ragged performance by Nicki Aycox. Nobody's acting career survives Joy Ride 2 unscathed, but hers comes the closest.


Mad Detective (Dir. Johnny To/Ka-Fai Wai, 2008)

"Hello. I’m Dr. Sammy, Beverly Hills psycho-actualist and author of the book, 'Old Lady, Biker, Gay Guy, Japanese Man: The Four Voices Within.' You see, within each of us are four distinct drives, or 'voices.' Our old lady is our short-sighted, impatient, doddering, old fool--prone to violence and rash decision making. Our biker backs her up every step of the way. Our gay guy takes it personal and makes it personal with the velveteen touch of a dandy fop. And lastly, our Japanese man utters nonsensical advice which only our biker can translate and transcend. My program is designed to wrangle these four. I’ll be at the Holiday Center Spot in Nashua, New Hampshire in Room 39 all weekend."

Remember that Mr. Show sketch from Season Two? Well, Hong Kong action auteur Johnny To ups the ante here, introducing us to completely unhinged detective Chan Kwai Bun (a really magnificent performance from Lau Ching Wan), a man who solves crimes by stabbing pig carcasses, being thrown down stairs zipped into a piece of luggage & following the different personalities (a glutton, a sexy woman, etc.) who reside inside most murderers. Bun's madness is accepted because he solves nearly all of his cases, but after carving off his ear at a superior's retirement party, Bun is left to hole up in his apartment & chat genially to the dead, including his deceased wife. To doesn't always let us on to what is delusion & hallucination in Bun's life, and what is real, but this isn't achieved in any gimmicky fashion & we're always aware of the sadness & beauty inherent in the detective's debilitating psychosis.

A young detective, Ho (Andy On), who sees the efficacy in Bun's strange methods, searches out the crazy hermit & lures him back into the case of a cop who may have been killed by his own partner while on a stake-out. The partner has left no evidence trail, but who needs an evidence trail when Bun can see all of the perp's personalities conspiring around him? The relationship between Ho & Bun is devastatingly poignant & there's a dinner sequence where Ho & his wife have a dinner date with Bun & his dead wife that is still giving me goosebumps. In the hands of someone like, say, M. Night Shamalamadingdong, this would've been chintzy stuff, but Johnny To keeps the mood even & lets the actors work their magic, never leading us into dead-ends with showy camera moves or telegraphing emotion or suspense with soundtrack music. It's a fine film, even if the actual case at hand isn't really much of a puzzle. As a character study Mad Detective is a little Hong Kong classic & grade-A film noir. Recommended. 

Meet the Browns (Dir. Tyler Perry, 2008)
Proving John Huston's adage from Polanski's Chinatown that "Politicians, ugly buildings & whores all get respectable if they last long enough," Tyler Perry has finally been getting show-biz respect lately, scoring industry magazine covers & feature interviews in mainstream entertainment magazines. His one-man cottage industry of live theater, TV shows & 12 movies since 2002 (most of them remakes of his own movies...), has long-been a goldmine with black audiences, but often failed to translate to audiences at large. One could posit racism here, since Perry's films are nearly all cast with black actors & plotlines that depict African Americans in all walks of life, from poor rural farm families to nouveau blue-noses, but it's more likely that Perry's incompetence as a director & infantile funny bone is what keeps mass acceptance at bay. That said, Perry is obviously laughing all the way to the bank.

Meet the Browns is standard-issue Perry, though he's managed to corral Oscar-nom Angela Bassett & A-List character actors Jennifer Lewis & Frankie Faison into this one. We have the usual rural southern grotesques (best exemplified by Perry regulars David & Tamela J. Mann), mind-numbing transvestism (Perry himself re-appears once again as the noxious granny, Madea), mawkish sentimentality & Perry's distasteful certainty that some folk will laugh at damn near anything if it's loud & scatological enough.

The plot, for what it's worth, concerns Chicagoan Brenda Brown (Bassett), a prostitute's daughter with three kids from three different dead-beat dads, who loses her job & packs her family off to Georgia for meet her deadbeat dad's "respectable" family, on the occasion of his funeral. Turns out dad was a pimp before he found Jesus. Go figure. Under the catty wing of this reluctant extended family, Brenda learns to love, trust, open up to men again, mother more gracefully, etc.

Only two things redeem this clanging barrage of shrieking unfunniness -- luscious model Sofia Vergara as Brenda's bi-polar pothead friend (she can't act, but who cares in crap like this?) & the pretty hilarious ptich-black funeral scene outtake that runs during the closing credits. Wow, Perry had a genuinely funny scene & cut it out of the movie!

Addendum: Some special scorn needs to be heaped upon composer Aaron Zigman for blatantly ripping off the Brian's Song theme ("Hands of Time") to jerk tears for this abomination.

Miss Conception (Dir. Eric Styles, 2008)

Due to her family's history of premature menopause, winsome thirty-ish Brit Georgina (a frantic Heather Graham) only has four days to have her lone surviving egg fertilized & conceive a child, which she desires with the kind of barely concealed hysteria with which small boys desire robots or tennis shoes with tail lights. Though she owns a construction company (I suppose we're to think her behavior isn't TOO crazy girly since she engages in a predominately male profession) & has a classy filmmaker boyfriend, it's really a baby she needs, above all else. Turns out her boyfriend doesn't know if he wants a baby or not & of course the plot contrivance doesn't give him the weekend to think about it, so Graham & her best friend, the anti-mommy Mia Kirshner (Showtime's The L Word), set out a four-day course of action that doesn't, because this is, ostensibly, a comedy, include one reasonable response to her dilemma. 


The first day she'll sleep with one of the strangers who stop by to view her new model home, the second day she'll go to a nightclub & pick up some strange, etc. And if none of these strategies pay off with some viable spermatazoa, she'll sleep with Kirshner's gay friend, who doesn't -- reasonably, I think -- seem to relish the concept. What on earth did women do before heaven granted each & every one of them an insouciant gay friend?

Miss Conception's plot is just too deranged & distasteful to really click & the undercurrents of anti-feminism are so trenchant they're difficult even for a male to ignore. 


Mia Kirshner is the true star here, playing a wicked variation on the kind of role once reserved for snooty males like Noel Coward & George Sanders, but its an uphill battle & doesn't really make up for the strained hijinx perpetrated around her. 

Nothing But the Truth (Rod Lurie, 2008)

In a Sentence: Rod Lurie is scheduled to remake Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, so...Yeah.

To call Nothing But the Truth a thriller -- which the DVD cover insinuates -- might be over-estimating its impact. It's really a fine media critique (though it pales next to Billy Ray's devastating Shattered Glass, from 2003) with some spy shenanigans & skull-duggery thrown in at the beginning to make you think you might have stumbled into Three Days of the Condor or Parallax View. Based very loosely on the Bush Administration Valerie Plame scandal & the trials & tribulations of New York Times Reporter Judith Miller, Nothing But the Truth begins with an intricacy & subtle humor that makes you think you're watching a more intelligent picture than you actually are.

You're probably familiar with the basic outlines of the story: In order to shush Joe Wilson, an outspoken critic of the Bush administration, one of the President's many Igors, Scooter Libby, leaked to unregenerate asshole Robert Novak that Joe's wife was a CIA agent. It's strange how this movie leaves the court intrigues at the heart of all this completely untouched. Here's an administration that prides itself on defending national security above all else but outs a fucking CIA agent...

How this film became a polemic about free press & the confidentiality of sources is pretty hard to imagine. Novak was a shill; Nothing But the Truth's plucky Sun-Times reporter Kate Beckinsdale (never more wan) is some kind of First Amendment Joan of Arc. The disconnect is jarring & this would have been a far better film had they delved more closely into the shadowy vagaries of a CIA outing. Instead Lurie is content to make another movie about a reporter who spends years in jail for her principles, which seem a tad ludicrous when you consider the ethically brutal facts on which this story is based.

Nothing But the Truth wants to have it both ways. It wants to be a straight & narrow defense of the First Amendment, but it's based on a real-life incident that murks up the waters like nobody's business. It wants to be a thriller, but it wants us to follow the travails of a fictional character into soap opera territory & then act as if it's "the way things are." There's a significant moment of anticipation when the screen goes black at the end of the film. You're waiting for all of these factual addenda to arrive ("Reporter Rachel Armstrong was finally released from prison"...ya-da, ya-da) & then you realize you've watched a fiction & wonder why the hell you'd care when the reality is so much more compelling.

Had the movie indulged its thriller instincts it might have been a classic. I kept seeing moments that could have amounted to something vital & commented on the U.S. zeitgeist the way Three Days of the Condor, The Conversation, Winter Kills, Manchurian Candidate, Parallax View & Capricorn One did, but the movie flakes out on the maligned genre tropes that might have actually saved it from cliche & bathos. It's too bad because there are the seeds of a great political thriller here & the performances, especially Vera Farmiga (as good as acting gets) as the outed CIA agent & Matt Dillon as the Grand Inquisitor would have thrived in a more operatic, less literal setting.  When Farmiga calls Beckinsdale a "Cunt who's going to walk right off the plank into the bowels of hell," after blithely telling the reporter days earlier that she can't even use the GPS on her Prius, you see shades of how great this film could have been.

Watch it for Vera Farmiga. Seriously. Oh, and Alan Alda does a fair approximation of Alan Alda in this movie, if that's an actor that still coaxes the quarters out of your change purse.


Pink Eye (James Tucker, 2008)

Pink Eye begins as a disturbing, wildly inventive, cheapo horror film, performing miracles with an amateur cast, a few evocative locations & video FX thought played out in 1990. Infernal lighting, expressionistic gore & creepy found documentary footage from mental hospitals manage to make the meager budget an actual asset, an idea that's great in theory but rarely in practice.

The story revolves around a series of murders & suicides at a rundown nuthouse. Although we're never actually told what's happening in the hospital, there are theories that a couple of doctors are doing PCP testing on the patients, including the very creepy, almost Lynchian, Edgar (so-called because he quotes from Poe a little too often), a kind of Dr. Phibes who wears elbow-length rubber gloves & a really creepy mask that looks as if it's been formed from a splat of novelty dog poop. There's also a parallel love story of sorts about a long-distance relationship & the very strange bad dreams the separation causes. When these stories begin to meet up, there's a sense of dread hanging over the proceedings that most mainstream filmmakers can't muster with big budgets & A-list stars. Unfortunately, not a single thread of this movie leads the viewer anywhere. The Pink Eye reference, mentioned in a dream & tangentially referred to in the film's garishly violent prologue, is dropped entirely, what's happening to the patients at the asylum is never explained & a whole slew of promising characters seem to fall off the face of the earth. It's as if the director promised all his friends they could be hacked to death on film if they'd each give him $100. What we're left with is the Poe-spouting ghoul Edgar, rampaging through the countryside killing people. While that sounds exciting, Edgar's spree is actually an unwelcome & rather ho-hum diversion from the main plotline, which turns out not to have been a line at all, just a frayed end that goes nowhere. Sad, because all the elements were in place for a low-budget horror classic.

A Raisin in the Sun (Dir. Kenny Leon, 2008)

This TV remake of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play & the 1961 Sidney Poitier film it inspired, suffers from a glossy staginess & the kind of old-fashioned black theater performances that seem stilted & melodramatic today. And it's not the performances themselves that seem creaky, but the lines, which almost require excessively monumental readings, as if types are being voiced instead of characters. Not that the lives of black people in the 1950s didn't allow for some tumult, some chest-pounding in the name of justice, but Raisin in the Sun simply hasn't aged well & its characters seem stiff when they're not railing against the cosmos, at which time they seem unbearably shrill.

I'm sure there are actors out there who could open Raisin up for new audiences, scrape the rust off it with some Method acid & retool it from the inside, gutting some of the more hackneyed conventions of its staging, but this isn't the ensemble to do it. Headed by Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs as the voice of frustrated black yearning, the chauffeur Walter Lee Younger, Phylicia Rashad (famous mainly for her role as Bill Cosby's wife on both The Cosby Show & Cosby TV series, though her live theater credits run much, much deeper), as his wise, long-suffering mother Lena & Audra McDonald as Walter's wife, Ruth, a quivering wreck of a woman, exhausted from an unwanted pregnancy, work & managing the stormy discontents of her husband.

With these three launching every ten minutes or so into windy, grim-as-death monologues on personal pride, religion, economic injustice, social injustice & all other affronts to justice, it's easy to grasp for the traces of wit in the carefree social climbing of Walter's sister, Beneatha (Sanaa Lathan), a character with the difficult job of seeming a little ditzy and, at the same time, the right stuff for Medical school. Beneatha has the leisure time to explore fads, date without conviction & dream big dreams, a luxury not afforded anyone else in the Younger household. Combs is efficient in a role that mostly requires attitude & its adjunct, indignation, characteristics he apparently exemplifies in real life anyway.

What sets this story ticking is the $10,000 insurance settlement Lena finally receives (one can only imagine the kind of hoops a black woman in 1959 had to jump through in order to be handed $10,000) in response to her husband's death. Walter wants the money to open a liquor store, Ruth for expenses, Beneatha for her medical school. The disappointments & discouraging realities brought to the surface by this divine windfall can't help but put a lump in your throat, but that doesn't stop Raisin in the Sun from being a bit of a museum piece. Of course, if a decent cast can somehow breathe some life into Thornton Wilder's Our Town, maybe anything's possible.

Oh, and it should be mentioned that John Stamos is in this and, for the most part, he doesn't embarrass himself.


Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, 2008)

Based on a 1961 novel by the late, great Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road is a sumptuous study in marital disappointment & sits nicely between Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? & Ang Lee's The Ice Storm as worthy descriptions of that frightening time period when couples began to question whether the compromises of monogamy didn't damage more than they nurtured. Mendes dresses up the production in Mad Men's high-style, giving you the feeling that the whole torrid affair's being filmed through a hi-ball glass. In Yates' book -- as in many novels of infidelity & wedded warfare from the 60s -- NYC's bedroom suburbs in Connecticut serve as ground zero for the sexual revolutions to come, a bucolic paradise everyone was supposed to want even though it mainly served as a petri dish for growing dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank Wheeler, an aimless, charming Peter Pan without the conviction to even be a proper beatnik. When he meets beautiful wanna-be actress Kate Winslet (her role here, not a comment on Winslet personally), Wheeler bucks up, gets the kind of office job God meant robots to do & the two scattered, terminally distracted dreamers start playing a very unconvincing game of house in the suburbs. Winslet simply radiates dissatisfaction & resentment, which drives DiCaprio into the arms of comparatively uncomplicated secretaries at work. Both of them know they're no catch. It's obvious Winslet knows she's intolerable to live with & it's equally obvious DiCaprio has no fundamental personality whatsoever.

But the two develop a giddy little plan that might save them both from spousal Armageddon. They'll sell the house, pack up the kids (barely blips on their radar anyway), move to Paris, she'll work as a government secretary & he'll figure out what the hell he's supposed to do with his life. How a viewer feels about this plan will entirely depend on one's ideas about responsibility & duty. It's one of the joys of Mendes' film that many in an audience might side with the neighbors & friends who tell the couple they're making a rash, uneducated decision, while others will see this migration to Paris as a completely sound solution to their mounting discontent. All these friends are just jealous, torpedoing this dream within a dream because they have none of their own to speak of. The answer's somewhere in between of course, but it's nice that Mendes lets it cut both ways, involving the audience actively in the conflict at hand.

While the Wheelers are preparing for their controversial journey abroad, a few dizzying peripheral characters graze their lives. One is a young academic named John Givings who's recently been released from a mental hospital & the others are the next door neighbors, the husband (the cartoonishly square-jawed David Harbour from Quantum of Solace) who finds Mrs. Wheeler an exotic tonic for his own pasteurized dreams & his mildly unhinged wife (a frightening Kathryn Hahn). Michael Shannon (Shotgun Stories, Bug) adds another awe-inspiring performance to his resume as the young intellectual & he gets the most revealing lines in the script. When DiCaprio tells him he's leaving his job because of "the hopeless emptiness," Givings is mock-starstruck, as if he's finally met a fellow traveler. He responds, "Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness. Wow."

I've come to admire DiCaprio's performances lately, especially as buffed-up soldiers of fortune in Body of Lies & Blood Diamond. I was never a fan of his watery boyishness & it unfortunately returns a few times in Revolutionary Road. There's still too much of the simpering, shrill child showing through his Frank Wheeler & mid-film he has a tantrum that I wanted to echo one of Burt Lancaster's breakdowns in Frank Perry's The Swimmer (1968), but instead it reminded me of the painfully sensitive 70s actor Robbie Benson.

Of course, none of this ends very happily & there's a truly creepy breakfast scene towards the end of the movie that might spoil any wedding plans you have if you let it get under your skin. There are actually many moments of grave, palpable terror in Revolutionary Road, which is rare in a period piece & that's just as Yates would have wanted it. 

Shine A Light (Dir. Martin Scorcese, 2008)

While there are plenty who would call bullshit on doing anything with dignity -- even growing old -- in the moveable feast called rock'n'roll, where taste is what you make of it & bad taste is often the best way to tip over the loansharks' cash registers at the gates of the temple, there's something alarmingly icky about watching The Rolling Stones in Martin Scorcese's new documentary, Shine A Light. While I'm eternally grateful that the boys are out of the jogging outfit stage of their live career (though that may only be for this small venue two-night stand at the Beacon Theatre in NYC), this phase -- with Keith as Medusa decked out in one of Kevin Rowland's old Pirate outfits & Keith so skeletal, sinew so tweezed to the bone, that he looks like a starved mule humping the rump of Christina Aguilera -- is equally embarrassing and, at least for me, very difficult to watch. Is it wrong to believe that rock'n'roll, for all its variations & intangibles, is NOT a day in the condo weight room or some pedophilial dress-up party? If the form cannot be defined, can we at least be agreed that there is an aesthetic at work, and that this, in the name of Sweet Gene Vincent, ain't it?

And one would certainly be excused for holding this film up next to Martin Scorcese's rockumentary masterpiece The Last Waltz (1978) & finding this wan parade of disingenuous cinematic cliches lacking. All of the grainy black & white moments early on in the film which portray a harried Scorcese & staff worrying over the logistics of this shoot seem altogether forced, especially considering that these obstacles were surmounted with such grace in his previous concert film. The concern over whether or not there will be a crane camera that wheels about the proscenium of the Beacon is just ludicrous. Of course there will be, as it's really the only way to make any concert film seem immediate. Do they really expect Scorcese to film this from the back of the room, or from the wings through a hole in the velvet curtain? And do they really think this great director doesn't know how to do this without sacrificing the energy & spontaneity of the sell-out crowd? And what lackey is even bringing up these concerns to someone like Scorcese? The whole conversation seems staged or, at the very least, an inconsequential, perfunctory assurance given far too much weight in the film because, alas, Scorcese could make this film blindfolded & there's not much suspense in that. But why should there be any suspense at all? The show happened & we know it happened because we're paying to see it. The entire introductory portion of Shine A Light is a hedge, lest we forget what a rare thing it is to see this arena rock band in such a small, intimate (if 3,000 seats can be considered intimate) venue. It's telling that Scorcese felt he had to build this event up with such tactics. After all, it's not as if the Stones haven't been adequately represented on film, from their many available television appearances to the Maysles Brothers' Gimme Shelter (1970), Hal Ashby's Let's Spend the Night Together (1983) & Robert Frank's invaluable Cocksucker Blues (1972).

The entire first 20 minutes of Shine A Light is a con & a curiously uninteresting one. Nothing at all is revealed about any of the participants -- Bill Clinton may have a slightly inflated sense of entitlement (but just what is a former President entitled to?), the Stones are weary of pre-show meet & greets but politely receive special guests, Scorcese has a rather passive aggressive nervous smile (from years of having to please people he has zero interest in pleasing) & the Beacon Theatre, the 1920s-era vaudeville theater that often threatens to become the film's true star, is criminally underused & dressed up like a Byzantine whore for this crudely-organized event.

But what of the concert itself. Well, there are high points. If you close your eyes & don't watch the very strange jaw movements of Mick Jagger (supporting the mule metaphor), the rare version of he & Keith Richards (on 12-string guitar) performing "When Tears Go By" is gorgeous, though being flippant about tossing the song away early on to Marianne Faithfull seems in poor taste, considering her current viability as an artist & the many years Keith & Mick spent cruelly passing her around like a cheap bottle of port wine. The time the camera spends on Keith & Ron Wood trading wild slashes through greying riffs is revelatory & lends credence Keith's assertion that, separately, the two are rudimentary guitar players at best, but together, they're untouchable. The duet with Jack White on "Loving Cup" is invigorating & adds some much-needed vigor to the Beacon stage & White seems truly touched by his inclusion in the proceedings, giving the Stones all the respect & honor 20 minutes of over-orchestrated pre-show build-up could not.

Other songs, seemingly arranged for the smaller stage, fare less well. The pared down, sometimes loopy, arrangements to cocaine-fueled mid-70s manque-punk burners like "Shattered" & "Some Girls" don't work at all. Stripping these songs of their adrenalin buzz & glitter punk bravado simply point out weaknesses in the song structure & make them seem much, much longer than their recorded versions, which whiz by like furies on 1978's Some Girls. The most troublesome aspect of Shine A Light comes when Keith takes centerstage. He begins "You Got The Silver" from Let It Bleed timidly, but when he hits the pocket & begins belting the chorus, he seems as surprised as the audience & his elation his contagious. It's easily one of his best live recordings, not that there are many gems to choose from in the arena. Then something happens that sinks the momentum of the whole concert. We are edited away to what seems like a whole different concert for a pretty iffy reading of the hardest rocking cut on 1967's controversial Between the Buttons, "Connection," but that is awkwardly interrupted by a sloppily-assembled archival montage of Keith Richards' infamous drug use. After a routine plod through "Tumblin' Dice" & a warm-hearted, if far from vital, jam (The Stones should never jam & should know it by now) through Muddy Waters' "Champagne & Reefer" with a beaming Buddy Guy, this oddly detachable bit was not what Shine A Light needed & it never recovers. Also in there is a strange, profanity-riddled reading of the Temptations' "Just My Imagination," which would be fine if the concert's version of "Some Girls" weren't so robbed of its Studio 54 decadence.

Following this leaden half-way point, the Stones rely heavily on arena hits like "Start Me Up," "Brown Sugar," "Satisfaction" & the aforementioned creepshow of Aguilera rump-cuddling Mick's nethers during "Live With Me," leaving all that alleged Beacon intimacy in the dust & delivering yet another predictable Rolling Stones concert. The one song I was most excited to see performed live, "Shine A Light," is relegated to a low-volume fragment under the closing credits.

For aesthetic reassurance, I kept my eye on Charlie Watts whenever possible, looking like an honorable gentleman, a hip book editor, the elegant stranger at the end of the bar with stories in every line on his face, a hermetic jazz-bo with a passing interest in rock'n'roll. Looking past the gorgon in the pirate outfit & the mule-lipped skeleton shaking his shit vain-groovily against that good night, Watts actually makes growing older look not so silly, effortless in fact. Charming. Though I'm sure rock'n'roll was never meant to be charming.

As the Beacon quakes with applause, one of those crane cameras swerves out the stage doors & Martin Scorcese -- who hasn't made anything approaching a masterpiece since Goodfellas -- energetically beckons the camera into the New York City night, where it flies up above a fake-shimmery CGI skyline to that great John Pasche tongue & lips logo, planted like a comic book kiss where the moon should be. It's a cheap shot, but it does remind one of better days, before every act of worship had to be forced on us by marketing hubris & show-biz desperation. It's cheap, cheap as the Stones were at their shabby best. Cheap as the invaluable dung-heap of rock itself. But it didn't remind me of Mick's swagger, or of Keith's dissolution. It reminded me of Charlie Watts' sly grin. You're 65, Mick. Put the tongue away now.

Sleepwalking (Dir. Bill Maher, 2008)

Unless you count unrelentingly dismal misfortune as a special effect, visual effects coordinator Bill Maher's (Chumscrubber, X-Men, X2, Batman & Robin) directorial debut is a real change of pace for the man & it makes you wish with all your heart that depression, poverty, unemployment & child abuse could be animated with CGI just to add a little color & energy to this pointless exercise in downer cinema. I suppose there's something to be said for transposing a standard Dickens plot to the run-down trailer courts & truckstops of mid-America, but even Dickens knew how to inject a bit of humor or a few lively characters into his stories. Here, Charlize Theron once again uglies down to play a more benign variation on her Aileen Wuornos character from Monster, a trampy, desperate loser who sleeps with truckers & abandons her turtle-eyed little girl (AnnaSophia Robb...turtle-eyed) to her even more lackluster little brother (an inchoate Nick Stahl). Stahl (Bully, Sin City) proceeds to lose his job because he's such a pushover & can't seem to say no to the turtle-eyed child's every preposterous whim & then loses the girl to foster care because he doesn't have a job. Stahl is evicted & moves in with his retarded friend Woody Harrelson & his shrieking shrew of a wife, who give him a deflated air mattress downstairs between the washer & dryer in which to sleep & yell at him for using their phone.

Stahl kidnaps the turtle-eyed girl & asks her where she'd want to go if she could go anywhere in the world, not mentioning that he's only got $300 in the travel budget. Thankfully she has zero imagination & can't think of a destination. If she'd said "Paris," Stahl would've probably found a completely self-destructive way to get her there, like selling her to French white slavers or robbing an armoured car with a dirt clod. But our hero, also suffering from a lack of imagination, bee-lines through the winter bleakness (it just had to be winter, didn't it?) to his father's house. Of course his father is a psychotic played by Dennis Hopper who works the child until her hands are bloody & then beats her for wanting an apple. Or something. Basically things just get worse & worse until you feel like blinding yourself with a salad fork. A literary critic once accused author Thomas Hardy of unnecessary cruelty to his characters, saying something to the effect that Hardy will create a pregnant, unwed heroine standing on a train platform on the run from a cruel landlord, having spent her last shilling on a ticket to see a kind aunt she doesn't know is dead & to top it off, the train will be an hour late. Thomas Hardy has nothing on Bill Maher.

Smart People (Dir. Noam Murro, 2008)

Burned-out, emotionally shut-down, blowhard college professor & widower Dennis Quaid, finally perfecting his not entirely unwelcome Jack Nicholson lite, plays Professor Wetherhold (wow, is that Dickensian, or what?), who begins to arise from his sepulchre of a life upon meeting a pretty doctor & former student played by Sarah Jessica Parker. Of course, this cut rate Butley has a lot of barnacles on him & his transformation from self-centered jerk to open vessel takes some time. And Parker's not exactly a catch, her neorosis (perhaps brought on by the bad grades she received from Wetherhold) being that she can't really commit to any club that would have her as a member.

This is a typical plot, really -- emotionally cut-off, cerebral curmudgeon has life shaken up by the fickle contingencies of existence (family, coincidence, fate...) & winds up a better man for it, but Smart People works, for the most part. There's not a soul here doing whit more than the film requires of him or her, from the director to Man in the Hospital Waiting Room #3, and that's kind of comforting. Thomas Haden Church, as Wetherhold's black sheep brother, plays a slightly less annoying variation on the character he played in Sideways, Juno star Ellen Page -- as Wetherhold's alpha daughter -- seems to be making a career of playing girls not immediately recognizable as human beings & Quaid & Parker don't make their transformations from dysfunctional subhumans so circuitous you tire of their resistance to positive progress. In fact I really like that these two characters acknowledge there are better ways to live & simply need the right petri dish in which to experiment with new ways of behaving.

First-time director Noam Murro has an easy way with characters & his camera, like Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, Sideways) without the gags & there are clever nuances to spare throughout Smart People, my favorite being the big publishing company's decision to publish Wetherhold's book because it will infuriate people with its rampant snobbery.

There's nothing in Smart People to drag you in if you have any resistance whatsoever to a movie featuring a bunch of rather lackluster characters desperately in need of makeovers inside & out, but if you like quiet autumnal mood pieces with veins of intelligent good humor running through them like indian summer breezes, this might be the movie for you. I have to admit, it worked on me. But maybe I'm just sick to death of summer. Mildly Recommended.

Splinter (Toby Wilkins, 2008)

This horrifically unhinged & insidiously claustrophobic horror flick continues a run of swell B-Movie grisliness (Donkey Punch, Shuttle) from Magnet Video, probably the most interesting label going just now. A redneck ex-con & his meth-freak girlfriend kidnap a helplessly urbane biology PhD candidate & his buxom, but handy, tank-top-with-eyes of a girlfriend & are immediately set upon by some fucked-up cross between a porcupine & the creature from Alien. The quills -- or splinters -- on this creature animate corpses & body parts the way Max Fleischer animated kitchen utensils & soon our motley foursome are trapped in a gas station/convenience store battling severed hands, some horribly contorted & demonically quick dead bodies & their own infected limbs. Splinter also inaugurates an honest to goodness B-Movie star in Shea Whigham (sort of a white trash Robert Carlyle), who imbues his sacrificial rube with some real verve & dimension.

Stop-Loss (Dir. Kimberly Peirce, 2008)

The title of Boys Don't Cry (1999)-director Kimberly Peirce's sophomore effort refers to the Bush Administration's current practice of ordering soldiers who've completed their contractual tours of duty back to Iraq for tours of unspecified duration. While this is certainly an important topic & worthy of intelligent discussion, I was glad to see that this policy was just a jumping-off point for the very gifted Peirce. As in Boys Don't Cry, she imbues her small-town characters with just a hint of the mythic, but keeps them all grounded by her eye for rural detail, both tangible & psychological.

Ryan Phillippe, who's finally matured into a commanding leading man, plays Sergeant Brandon King, who returns to Brazos, Texas with what's left of his platoon after a bloody ambush in Tikrit. His buddies, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Lookout, 3rd Rock From the Sun) & Channing Tatum (Coach Carter, Step Up) are neck-deep in post-traumatic stress disorder, shell-shocked into a hyper-masculine state of paranoid alert that detaches them almost completely from normally comforting concepts like "home" and "family." Once back in Brazos, they're so tightly wound that they're only able to relate to one another. They drink, pick fights with anyone who looks at them wrong, beat their wives or fiancees, show nothing but indifference to personal property (cars, furniture, houses) but protect the area around themselves as if it's a war zone. Even though they are ostensibly out of the service, they are all drawn back in, Phillippe by the stop-loss policy, Tatum by his inability to adapt to normal life.

In a sad journey across a visibly war-torn America (Peirce knows where to look for the evidence & doles it out subtly) with Tatum's fiancee, an AWOL Phillippe heads to Washington, D.C. in hopes a friendly congressman will help him fight the stop-loss. On the way, he stops at a V.A. hospital to visit a horribly disfigured member of his ambushed platoon, stays in a motel that's become a safe house for soldiers resisting the stop-loss & finally meets with a lawyer who can give him a new identity & safe transit to Canada. Stop-Loss never resorts to anti-war sermonizing, in fact it's the most pro-troops of the recent spate of Iraq war movies. The soldiers' comraderie & sense of honor is never questioned or debased. Flecked with fine, well-defined peripheral performances by Timothy Olyphant (Deadwood), Ciarin Hinds (Rome), Alex Frost (the blithe bully in Drillbit Taylor), Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne) & Josef Sommer (Dirty Harry, Stepford Wives, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Stop-Loss is a revelatory road movie, a chilling portrait of war's tragic afterburn & a gracefully subdued message movie. Recommended. 

Triloquist (Dir. Mark Jones, 2008)

The problem with modern ventriloquist horror fare -- Magic, Dead Silence, Dummy -- is that the filmmakers don't trust how inherently spooky the standard-issue dummy is. There's no need to make the doll look like a monster. In fact, that ruins the effectiveness entirely. I mean, why would some old-school Catskills ventriloquist purchase or build an overtly terrifying doll for his comedy routine? For my money, Edgar Bergen's Charlie McCarthy doll is plenty creepy & the dummies in the ventriloquist horror classics Dead of Night, The Great Gabbo & Devil Doll were all subtly sinister. They aren't gargoyles after all. Aside from all the other problems with Mark Jones' (Leprechaun) no-budget waste of time -- busted comedy, crude attempts to mix multiple film stocks, cartoonish acting -- the dummy in the movie (cleverly named "Dummy") is basically an horrific Mardi Gras parade head, looking more like papier mache slathered over chicken wire than wood. The use of a cowboy motif in the production design & soundtrack borders on interesting but it's so repetitive & shoddily executed that it's hardly worth mentioning really...

While She Was Out (Dir. Susan Montford, 2008)

In a Sentence: Rick Moody Meets Angela Carter...

The most revealing thing about this indie sleeper is that it's produced by Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Devil's Backbone), and he must have recognized the grim, archetypal fairytale at the heart of this plot-challenged film. And he was right. Though the plot is the burned-out wreckage of a hundred less arty films, there's style to spare here & a few scenes that will take your fucking breath away. Kim Basinger, an actress I've NEVER liked, plays Della, the abused suburban wife of this year's villain du jour, a greedy drunken stock broker/banker/thief (a neither here-nor-there Craig Sheffer). He comes home, drinks himself into a bloody stupor & threatens violence -- though the film oddly stops short of his domestic brutality, in favor of his general economic ickiness -- while Della appeases, appeases & then goes out to buy wrapping paper at the local mall. Because it's Christmas & she's protectorate mother in excelsis. There's an amazing scene at the beginning of the film, after Sheffer punches the requisite hole in the living room wall because Basinger can't keep the house clean, where she goes up to her childrens' room & all is paradise. The children don't even seem troubled when she's around. Della has, miraculously, protected them from almost everything. They're still excited by Christmas after nearly bearing witness to their mother's demise.

At the mall, Della runs afoul of a bizarrely multi-ethnic group of tweener hoods. Seriously, there's a black kid, an Asian kid, a Latino & Lukas Haas, their leader, who's becoming so creepy as an adult that he should be zapped into the past to star in late-60s biker films. The rest of the movie is standard procedure. The twisted turks spend the rest of the movie hunting her down while she defends herself with whatever she can grab out of the bright red toolbox she manages to carry away from her wrecked SUV.

And that's not much of a film. It's not much of anything. What sets this film apart is its amazing fairytale quality. The opening tracking shot through the dull, winter-wet suburban cul-de-sac where Della lives is the finest opening of a horror film since the Torrence family's drive to the Overlook Hotel. It almost hurts how much the festooned Christmas lights can't illuminate the darkness on the edge of the city, where the McMansions meet the primeval forest. Visually, the film never lets up from there. The mall in which Della buys her wrapping paper feels completely off, claustrophobic & empty all at once. It's a creepy effect in a movie full of visual oddities. If you latch onto the plot, you'll never get to this film's soul.

Once Della witnesses Haas & his Rainbow Coalition gun down a mall security guard, While She Was Out gets about as allegorically nutty as a Nicholas Roeg or Neil Jordan film, but it doesn't throw its style at you as a substitute for lack of internal narrative logic. Instead the movie makes you come to it. If you don't, you'd be excused, because there are scenes of groaning incongruity along the way & the Brothers Grimm elements do start to grate after a while, but when this movie truly fires up its gingerbread house oven, which it does quite a bit, you're amazed at the crap you'll put up with -- the bright red toolbox, the dark forest of the subconscious at the edge of the encroaching suburbs, the absolute madness of Haas & Basinger's bonding, etc.

The four basic settings are so detailed & full of sinister nostalgia, without ever once resorting to special effects, that it's hard not to feel drawn into each of them. We begin down the rain-slicked streets, Christmas lights straining to reflect on the pavement, proceed to the desolate but completely packed mall, stall where the ghost-ship skeletons of faux Tudor crapholes-to-be cast a thousand seasick waxing & waning shadows & then we're into the woods, where Della finds her maternal wild side and, as an implausible but strangely inevitable boon, her sexual prowess.

This is Guilllermo Del Toro territory through & through & he's found an able compatriot in Montford, a first-time director with an absolutely original visual sensibility. While She Was Out is not about the actors & no matter what you hear, this won't make you love Basinger if you're not already a fan, but it's an inventive, sometimes gruesome, suburban fairly tale, and it would make a fascinating double feature with Matthew Bright's superior Freeway or Neil Jordan's inferior Company of Wolves.

You Don't Mess with the Zohan (Dennis Dugan, 2008)

For those who think everything Judd Apatow dips his 5000 fingers into will be transformed into comedy gold, his co-writer credit on this anemic Adam Sandler vehicle may cause some consternation (as will Robert Smigel's). We'll forgive Celtic Pride (1996) as being the folly of youth & Fun with Dick & Jane (2005) because every director apparently has to be saddled with Jim Carrey at least once, possibly as a kind of Hollywood initiation rite. The truly talented are given the handicap of a Jim Carrey star-turn, the hacks get Robin Williams.

If hearing words like "baba ghannouj," "tahini" & "hummus" coughed up in thick cartoonish middle-eastern accents reduces you to paroxysms of laughter, Don't Mess with the Zohan is your movie. Superhuman Israeli terrorist hunter Zohan (Sandler), thought killed by Palestinian baddie The Phantom (a seriously slumming John Turturro), seizes the opportunity for a sabbatical & high-tails it to New York City to fulfill his secret dream of becoming a hairdresser. Several "Faigelah" jokes later, he's spinning a styling chair in a down-at-heel salon managed by Dalia (Entourage's Emmanuelle Chriqui), a Palestinian. Having only seen the Paul Mitchell hair style catalogue from 1982, he's a hit with older women who still think feathering & frosting is the bee's knees. It doesn't hurt that he also has sex with them in the back room. Zohan doesn't care, he's full service. Of course, this being a low-end Middle Eastern neighborhood on the verge of gentrification & Zohan being a bit of a superstar in his home country, his past comes back to haunt him & us, mostly in the form of sight gags only a Wayans brother could love & a few esoteric ethnic jokes spread sorely thin over the course of a LONG two hours. Despite most everyone involved being either Jewish or Arab, Don't Mess with the Zohan is probably racist to boot, but if you've got the free time to figure out just how, you should probably just finish that Doctoral Thesis applying the Hegelian triangle to Gilligan's Island & make something of your life.

As usual Sandler has assembled a dizzying array of cameos, as if frittering away the talent of others somehow speaks to Sandler's largesse as an entertainer. Zohan features Henry Winkler as the vomiting limo passenger, Kevin Nealon threatening to crap his pants, John McEnroe & Kevin James discussing McEnroe's propensity for rage, boxing announcer & "Let's Get Ready to Rumble" phrase-owner Michael Buffer as a Trump-esque real estate developer, Mariah Carey & her cleavage, Dave Matthews who I wouldn't recognize if he sat on my lap singing "Crash Into Me," Lainie Kazan as the neighbor lady Zohan does doggy-style in front of her son, Chris Rock as a cab driver, Rob Schneider as the former terrorist whose pet goat Zohan heartlessly kidnapped, George Takei & Bruce Vilanch as two gay guys sitting on a couch & well-respected Israeli actress Dina Doron as Zohan's mother. Apparently Dom DeLuise is also a part of this low-brow menagerie, but I didn't spot his particular teeth marks on any of the scenery.

Zohan's length is the real deal-breaker here. Had this been a 90-minute movie, one could conceivably surrender to its giddy charms -- John Turturro training for his hacky sack bout with Zohan by cracking two eggs into a pint glass & drinking down two live chicks, Israeli-owned duty-free electronics stores actually named Going Out of Business & Everything Must Go, a game of hacky sack played with a live cat, Zohan's unique take on cutting children's hair, amazing Pleistocene Catskills comic Shelley Berman stealing every scene he's in as Zohan's fodder, etc. -- but that final, interminable half-hour completely eclipses these meager bright spots.


No comments:

Post a Comment