Tuesday, October 6, 2009

DVDs of 2009

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Dir. Sacha Gervasi, 2008)

By now most viewers of rock cinema know that this documentary is a real-life Spinal Tap, documenting the middling rise & long, sad career coma of Canadian metal doofs, Anvil. Just when Anvil's about to call bullshit on this Sisyphean, 30-year project, they receive just enough hope or encouragement to delude themselves for another few years. By film's end, when Anvil play before a giddy packed auditorium (at 11:30 in the morning) at some Japanese metalfest, it's hard to know whether to hug those screaming metal kids or slap each & every one of them upside the head.

In the early 80s two nice Jewish boys from Ontario, Robb Reiner (Yes, I know, the director of Spinal Tap with an extra 'b') & Steve 'Lips' Kudlow met when Lips heard thunderous drums & a record by Cactus blasting from Reiner's bedroom window. They fall in love -- there's simply nothing else to call their relationship -- and start a band. In 1984, three albums (Hard'n'Heavy, Metal on Metal, Forged in Fire) later, Anvil was headlining the gigantic Super Rock Festival in Japan, with Bon Jovi, Iron Maiden, Motorhead, etc. Reiner was pioneering the now-ubiquitous double-bass drum technique & Lips took the stage in a bondage harness, playing his Flying V with a large dildo, to the delight of pre-pubescent boys on several continents. Eight albums later -- including more masterstrokes of alliteration like Pound for Pound, Strength of Steel, Worth the Weight, Plenty of Power, etc. -- Lips & Reiner are back in Ontario, barely making ends meet at a variety of menial jobs & playing shows at local beer holes where toothless Canucks drink beer through their noses & bang their heads to their hairy heroes.

While Anvil! The Story of Anvil is front-loaded with testimony from the likes of Slash, Lars & Lemmy (if you need to know their last names, you should just stop reading now), all praising the originality of the band & shaking their heads over the unfairness of the fickle music industry ("Everybody ripped 'em off & then just left 'em for dead," Says Slash), it would take a hessian more discerning than I to tell the difference between the thudding, idea-free riffery of Anvil & the failures-in-waiting that litter the open-stage nights of desperate bars throughout the middle west. Portrayed as Missing Links between something I strain to care about & something I don't care about at all, Anvil may well be armor gods, but I couldn't get Chuck Klosterman on the phone to ask. Lyrics like "Little peaches play/rubbing their beavs" & songs like "Thumb Hang" (Lips' learned discourse on the Spanish Inquisition will make you wish you'd dropped out of school when you were 17 too) & "Toe Jam" (I'm not even sure it's an intentional pun), don't do much to keep the Spinal Tap comparisons at bay. That said, Lips' centered optimism & gratitude concerning the contingencies of rock is truly inspiring for a guy who's had his dreams urinated on as many times as he has.

The entire mid-section of the documentary is devoted to an overseas tour booked by a fangirl Euro-Gorgon named Tiziana. The ambitions & lucrative promises of this outing would cause any reasonable people to make a few inquiries of their own, but Anvil whole-heartedly believes 1500 Euros per gig in 30 cities is just what they deserve. They put all their trust in the obviously naive & incompetent Tiziana and -- city by city -- the tour becomes a study in bad faith, bad directions & bad vibes. Having made little to no upward progress on the tour (though Anvil's bass player does marry Tiziana for her efforts),  the boys return to the snowy north and, of course, decide it's time to put out their 13th album, prosaically titled This is 13

For most bands a tour this apocalyptic would lead to a complete overhaul of expectations & a reassessment of priorities. And maybe, after a two-decade run of tepid luck, a band might be forgiven for not wanting to tempt the Hammer of the Gods by recording a THIRTEENTH record. But that's not Anvil's style. For them, disaster is another word for, well, something that isn't disaster. Mustering monies for the new opus really pumps up the pathos in the film & provides perhaps its best scenes, those in which Lips is forced to do sunglasses tele-sales ("the kind Keanu Reaves wears") and -- to his credit really -- can't sell a single pair. In the meantime, Reiner -- an Edward Hopper fan -- shows off his painting of a turd floating in a toilet bowl. You can't make this shit up & the scenes out-Spinal Tap Spinal Tap.

Director Gervasi doesn't miss an opportunity to visually or thematically reference the mockumentary classic. Hell, there's even a scene at Stonehenge thrown in, mostly for giggles. In fact, the entire directorial style is pretty manipulative here, but if it weren't, the film would just be sad, instead of that kind of sad that forms a lump in your throat which, quite surprisingly, emerges as a cheer. Gervasi creates a dramatic beginning, middle & end to a story which, in reality, shrugs along rather passively. Wouldn't most people rather see Grandpa's measure of the fish that got away, his arms outstretched as far as they will go, than see the actual fish he caught or know whether it even existed at all?

Assassination of a High School President (Dir. Brett Simon, 2008)

Like Rian Johnson's Brick from 2005, Assassination of a High School President gives the teen melodrama a hard-boiled makeover, the halls of its down-at-heel Catholic school, St. Donovan's, standing in for the decaying, corrupt urban purgatory of Film Noir. But where Brick also attempted to echo the nihilism & grimness of the genre, Assassination is played mostly for laughs. In fact, it's really more of a baroque Fletch than some Clearasil-slathered Out of the Past.

Reece Thompson (the stuttering debater from 2007's criminally under-valued Rocket Science) plays Bobby Funke (Pronounced "Funk," but universally voiced as "Funky"), a would-be high school Carl Bernstein whose most salient claim to fame is having been " tied to the snowman penis" as a sophomore. Funke is assigned to find out who has recently purloined all of the school's completed SAT tests & while investigating he runs afoul of teen drug dealers, point shavers, the dim -- but relatively noble -- high school president, a doe-eyed femme fatale (The O.C.'s Mischa Barton), a Gulf War-addled Principal (a very funny Bruce Willis) & more regal Italian surnames than in the Borgia & Medici courts combined. Director Brett Simon shovels on the quirks & with such a large ensemble, this gets exhausting after awhile. Mid-film, when we finally meet a character who behaves, talks & looks like someone we may have actually known in high school (a black student from a seemingly all-black high school), it's such a welcome relief from all the eye patches, unlikely renaissance frescoes & verbal pyrotechnics, we're tempted to change schools.

To compensate for the overwrought, over-heated script & some bizarre, arbritrary visual elements, Simon gives us atmosphere you can poke with a protractor, performers having such a blast it's difficult not to share in it, left-field cameos (Michael Rappaport shows up for no other reason than to deliver a salami/penis joke) & a deeply cool soundtrack (Soft Boys, Stellastarr, some great opera arias) that serves to jazz up the sluggish narrative drive. Instead of lashing out harshly at all the excess, it's best just to surrender & bask in the loopy gracelessness of Bruce Willis calling a convocation so the whole school can sing a song he just wrote about America ("You can all march if you want to!") & lines such as, "A single pussy hair can pull a battleship through the desert."

Bride Wars (Gary Winick, 2009)

In One Sentence: Beware a woman whose entire identity is dependent on the pageantry of her wedding day...

If you can get past the voice-over introduction to Liv & Emma (filmic signposts to misogynist oblivion) without wanting to roam the halls of 20th Century Fox with an M-16, you deserve to be engulfed in this morass of dependency disguised as friendship, upward mobility disguised as love, lip service disguised as avowal, greed disguised as entitlement, credit limits disguised as good taste & ugly envy disguised as door-slamming farce.

Anne Hathaway (knock-down brilliant in Rachel Getting Married) & Kate Hudson (On parole) play two life-long friends who (can you fucking believe it?) fall in love & become engaged at the same time. Both have dreamed since childhood of getting married at Manhattan's Plaza Hotel -- the biggest dream the screenwriters could come up with for them -- and it turns out they're competing for the same date. Needless to say, they become the sort of harpies that you'd run screaming from in real life but somehow pay $12 to ogle in the cineplex. This repellent Tom & Jerry cartoon doesn't even have one reliably funny character actor to inspire audience good will. Candice Bergen, as the Plaza's wedding consultant, should get the kinds of laughs & cheers Hector Elizondo gets in Pretty Woman, but instead she comes off as disposably smug.

I'm sure the filmmakers thought that Liv & Emma's comeuppance would make up for the grotesque shallowness & off-hand cruelty they exhibit remorselessly for the first hour of Bride Wars but, hey, they invented this Hieronymous Bosch-like fantasy spectacle of human devaluation, why should we be forced to coo at its warm, fuzzy & entirely onanistic conclusion? It's like applauding after a 14-year-old boy jacks off to a perfume ad in Cosmo, there's just no percentage in it.

This is pretty much as bad as it gets.

The Children (Dir. Tom Shankland, 2008)

Any true horror fan knows a real live creepy cherub is way scarier than some computer-generated spook & also that nothing in cinema is creepier than a European toddler, the British bad seed being damn-near a delicacy. You can have your Japanese zashiki-warashi. You can have your evil Patty McCormacks, Macaulay Culkins & Isabelle Fuhrmans. Pound for pound, the English & Continental tykes are the ne plus ultra of sinister nestlings. The alien telepaths from Village & Children of the Damned, those Diane Arbus twins from The Shining, the fed-up kids of Almanzora in Narciso Serrador's Who Can Kill a Child? (1976), Harvey Stevens as the devil's own in Richard Donner's The Omen, the little hedonists pitted against Deborah Kerr's impregnable corsets in Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961) & the lethal, pint-sized projections of Samantha Eggars' unconscious mind in Cronenberg's The Brood (Canadian, but what's the difference, really?) -- these children seem pulled directly from isolated private school detention rooms in the north of England, their rosy cheeks, forced manners & flyaway hair belying the evil brewing inside them. It's probably America's fear of exquisite manners that makes these children chilling to us. We assume any child who quietly reads a book in a straight-back chair & refers to its parents as "Mother" & "Father," must have something to hide. If anyone's going to manipulate our children into becoming homicidal drones, it's going to be us, goddammit.

Tom Shankland's The Children is a remarkable addition to this horror sub-genre, an excruciatingly tense, beautifully-scaled & psychologically potent tale of innocence run -- quite unexpectedly -- amok. The film's set-up is as English as it gets, a Harold Pinter play gone violently berserk. Two sisters, Elaine & Chloe, are united for Christmas at Chloe & her husband's isolated Tudor mansion. Well, it's not a mansion exactly, but the house serves to starkly underline the economic divide betwen the two siblings. While it's obvious the sisters are close, cracks are beginning to show in their relationship. Elaine (Eva Birthistle) has obviously made some rotten decisions in her life & has been uprooted enough to be terminally nervous, in high contrast to Chloe's (The L Word's Rachel Shelley) controlled, measured life. The two communicate with the weird mix of eye-rolling, passive aggression & eternal patience that is the special province of sisters and, while it's obvious they have a blood rapport, they are prone to whispering not-so-nice things under their breath. Most of these not-so-nice things involve Elaine's new boyfriend, Jonah, who comes to the relationship with two children of his own & Chloe's husband, Robbie, who all too obviously hounds after Elaine's teenage goth daughter Casey. All kinds of ambitious notions about child rearing are bandied about as if the tots are prize calves or giant radishes destined for the state fair. They're to be taught Chinese, home-schooled, weaned from this, that or the other...after all, at this age, they're open to anything.

But what the children are most "open" to is an ugly little parasite we see brewing only in a quick intercut of anonymous germs squiggling in viral bliss on a microscope slide. The moment Jonah's kids arrive at the manor, the young boy begins to wretch violently & behave in a disoriented manner. As the children sip from each other's cups of juice & cough in each other's faces, we can almost feel this germ, or parasite, or whatever, spreading. Shankland is a top-notch director & the film is so visually astute & subtle that it's hard to peg the exact moment you start feeling the mounting dread & exactly which visual cues are instigating the suspense. There's a scene mid-way through the film where one child begins to cry & the bawling becomes contagious. We've all experienced this before, but soon the pitch of this tantrum rises into a cacophany of sound & editing that makes us question the validity of what we consider "normal" in children. There are so many moments in The Children that echo this, moments where these kids are apparently doing something very kid-like, but something is heightened, rendered sinister & it's to Shankland's credit that we, like the parents, can't get a handle on it until it's too late. And when it's too late, it's far too late. Jonah's older daughter begins to see the changes first, though we only know this by the distressed look on her face as she sees the others make almost militaristic formations on the snowy plain in front of the manor house. As a witty accent to the idea of the children becoming somehow "militarized," they are bivouacked in a bright yellow tent in the snow & this becomes their de facto war room as the action intensifies. 

The film is full of witty touches, but it's the kind of wit horror films used to have in the late 60s/early 70s, when social criticism & sly satire was an integral -- but subtextual --  part of the whole ritual. These days, Tarantino-esque quips & cartoon pratfalls on slicks of blood pass for humor & drain the films of any real resonance. Shankland returns the mirroring element to horror, reminding us that what's scary is not how far-removed the monster or ghost or psychopath is from our daily life, but how very ordinary the supernatural intrusion can seem, right up until the moment it tears a bloody chunk out of your cranium. Of course, once the children are fully in the grip of this mysterious virus, it's blood on snow for a significant portion of the film & cinematographer Nanu Segal gives the whole bloodbath a chapped, raw palette, with splashes of yellow & pink keeping the killing fields from looking like one big raspberry snowcone.

Seemingly possessing some sort of hive mind telepathy, the sick kids go through the unsuspecting, liberal adults with shocking dexterity. But it's the violent effectiveness you'd expect from children reduced to animal instinct, facing off against parents who simply will not believe their little pride & joys are out to viciously murder them. When the adults finally decide to fight back (and there's not much of a response force left by then),  your eyes will be glued open for the duration of the movie. There's still nothing more shocking than watching adults forced to brutally retaliate against rogue children, whether they're possessed by alien forces or simply bad eggs. Just before death, there's a moment when they return to being little angels & there's nothing more terrifying than that. Very Highly Recommended.

Fired Up (D: Will Gluck, 2009) 
Well, there's nothing remotely nourishing about this air-headed little high school sex romp, but it doesn't hurt much & there are just enough laughs to keep me from slathering the display box with lamb's blood. In a plot that cops moves from so many other youth comedies that it could almost be mistaken for a quirky original, high school playboys played by Nicholas D'Agosto (Rocket Science, TV's Heroes) & Eric Christian Olsen (Beerfest, Sunshine Cleaning) ditch football camp for the obvious pleasures of bedding as many pom-pom girls & shapely acrobats as they possibly can at a competitive retreat for cheerleaders. Their plan is to go through them the way lions go through lame gazelle & then skidaddle to a friend's summer house before the final competition. But, of course, they soon learn to respects these hotties & their spunky craft. Elements of Road Trip, Bring It On, American Pie (a section of which actually appears in Fired Up) & a dozen other teen flicks cross-pollinate with lazy ease throughout Fired Up & the good-natured dunder-headedness will develop some viewer good will after awhile if you're the kind of viewer that doesn't mind dialing back critical thought for 90 minutes. The best moments here result from a series of odd cameos by the likes of master thespian Philip Baker Hall (Magnolia, Dogville), as a foul-mouthed, doddering football coach; the great John Michael Higgins (Arrested Development, Kath & Kim, A Mighty Wind) as the predictably homo hetero cheerleading guru; and -- the best reason not to use Fired Up as a one of the wheels on a Tinker Toy Truck -- relative newcomer David Walton. As Dr. Rick, the college boyfriend of D'Agosto's cheerleader love interest Carly, Walton ups the ante for all preppie teen movie slimebags to come & easily delivers the movies most earned moments of mirth. On the downside, Fired Up represents a new low for the "Unrated" versions of DVDs. For a movie so driven by adolescent lechery, the film is almost irresponsibly tame: Philip Baker Hall says "shit" about 20 times, we're treated to three seconds of some pretty unremarkable bare breasts & ten seconds of REALLY unremarkable Asian boy buttocks.

He's Just Not That Into You (D: Ken Kwapis, 2009)

Considering the sharp, often edgy TV shows Ken Kwapis has directed & produced over the years (the U.S. version of The Office, Grounded for Life, The Larry Sanders Show, Freaks & Geeks...), it's surprising what an underdeveloped, overcrowded mish-mash this movie is. Trying for the kind of large-ensemble interplay that worked so well in films like Love, Actually, Kwapis managed to assemble a pleasing cast, but there's just not enough character delineation to go around, leaving the majority of these sketched-out "types" stranded with a few cringe-worthy platitudes & fashionable clothing. It's a cast of hundreds with enough ideas for three & possibly a dog.

He's Not That Into You concerns the interconnected lives of a group of upscale Baltimorians, all struggling with varying degrees of lovesickness. The theme here -- though it's loosely developed at best -- is that, while there are social rules to the mating dance, almost everyone longs to be the exception to those rules. While that's probably true, watching ten characters deal with it results in a severe self-involvement overload & creates a world where people are either infantile & impossibly needy or cynically bound to a set of icy rules & glib witticisms.

Flighty Bradley Cooper (The Hangover, Wedding Crashers) is married to obsessive Jennifer Connelly, but he's obsessed with flighty Scarlett Johansson. Ben Affleck & Jennifer Aniston co-habitate happily but he doesn't believe in marriage & she begins to think that's a signal that he's not committed to her. Kevin Connolly (Eric on HBO's Entourage) digs Scarlett Johansson but he can't get her into bed to save his life & he's quite obviously her fall-back romance. Bar manager/ladies man Justin Long (Drag Me to Hell, Zack & Miri Make a Porno) becomes the cynical guru for unlucky-in-love (but eternally optimistic) Ginnifer Goodwin (HBO's Big Love), who soon develops feelings for him. While these are the main players shouldering through this heavy traffic, some brave casting director figured there was still room for Drew Barrymore, Kris Kristofferson, Luis Guzman, Busy Philipps, comedian Natasha Leggero, Bill Brochtrup & a host of other familiar faces, most of them television regulars. Jennifer Connelly's neurotic Janine is about the only fleshed-out character & in this antiseptic environment where everyone seems to be learning the same lesson at once, she seems like a freak, and this flesh & blood complexity makes her the only character whose romantic life isn't tied up with a shiny red foil ribbon by film's end.

While this is a passable confection, it's made for those who want the toppings ladled on with a snow shovel. 


The International (D: Tom Tykwer, 2009)

German director Tykwer (
Run Lola Run, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) has concocted the kind of slick, globe-trotting espionage thriller we haven't really seen much since the heydays of John Frankenheimer, Fred Zinnemann & Billy Friedkin. Harking back to epic thrillers like Sorceror, Day of the Jackal & The French Connection, The International is gorgeously mounted & has several eye-popping set pieces that combine action & angst in perfect measure.

The story, though it seems twisty at first, is really fairly simple. A big international banking concern called IBBC has taken to arms dealing in order to control the debt accrued from armed conflicts around the world. Though this pretty much sounds like something banks actually do, IBBC resorts to multiple assassinations in order to achieve their goals, making what would otherwise be simply unsavory into a worldwide criminal conspiracy being investigated by Interpol agent Clive Owen, a rumpled insomniac with a blotchy past & his U.S. counterpart Naomi Watts, who's all but wasted in this role.

The mark of a fine thriller in this mode is having the dialogue & verbal exposition be as ominous & thrilling as the gunplay & car wrecks. Like Frankenheimer's fascinating
Ronin from 1998, The International achieves this perfectly (unlike, say, the Bourne films). Discussions of debt accumulation & the sullied history of international banking rivet the attention only slightly less than the insane Guggenheim Museum shoot-out that serves as the film's bloody & masterful centerpiece. Ricocheting from Paris to Milan to Istanbul to NYC, The International revels in location shooting, finding just the right sinisterly impassive corporate buildings, just the right winding cobblestone streets, just the right terracotta rooftops & Turkish minarets. The faces too, from bedraggled police officers to Armin Mueller Stahl & Ulrich Thomsen (The Celebration) as the devils of IBBC, rendered dead-eyed by greed & avarice, seem molded perfectly into the sprawling surface of this film. Special mention should be given to Irish actor Bryan F. O'Byrne (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Million Dollar Baby), whose nameless professional assassin is so enigmatically & subtly crafted here that you almost don't notice how much soul he's bringing to his scenes. He's sinister without raising an eyebrow or cracking a sneer.

If there's a problem with
The International it's perhaps that all this sleek vision occasionally defeats the film's internal tension, which doesn't quite ratchet-up as it should. That, and that the presence of Watts (who deserves better) seems a mystery, even to the filmmakers. Beyond that, this is a high-caliber suspense classic-to-be. 

My Life in Ruins (Donald Petrie, 2009)

A soft-skulled mash-up of My Big Fat Greek Wedding & the 1989 hot flasher, Shirley Valentine, My Life in Ruins seems concocted entirely from the wish-fulfillment fantasies of dowagers, spinsters & sundry other disappointed dim bulbs. Dim because, as fantasy, this story could really use an animated talking grandfather clock & a shining castle on a hill made entirely of large humming vibrators.

Instead we get Nia Vardalos (Whose Fat Greek Wedding just goes on & on) as the expatriate college professor Georgia, the worst tour guide in in all of Athens. Georgia is brow-beaten by her boss, taken advantage of by a fellow tour guide (the unscrupulous Nico) & mostly ignored by her daily gaggle of tourists, who wish she'd talk more about shopping & sex than art history. Although you want to be on Georgia's side against all the gross, shrieking stereotypes she confronts every day, she actually is pretty dull & would it really kill her to sexy up her spiel? Well, when she finally does, it's bawdiness the way you'd expect it from a 7-year-old girl, not a woman who's ostensibly been around the plinth a few times. In other words, it's embarrassing.

To get this particularly life-changing day cracking, the estrus ex machina provides Georgia with a busload of character actors in various stages of decline. There's TV regular Brian Palermo as a pancake & pancake accessory-obsessed IHOP manager, the fat kid from a dozen crappy direct-to-DVD comedies (Jareb Dauplaise) as the fat kid in this crappy direct-to-DVD comedy, a couple of real comedians, Rachel Dratch & Harland Williams, slumming for a buck & Richard Dreyfuss as the...well, we do have a talking grandfather clock, after all. 

Though we're meant to think the pancake guy may actually be the object of Georgia's pent-up affections, he's a particularly clumsy red herring. In fact, there's really no reason in the world director Petrie (Mystic Pizza, Grumpy Old Men, Miss Congeniality) couldn't have saved himself some dough & actually cast a herring in the role. To anyone who's ever seen even trailers of movies, it's pretty damn obvious the real love interest here is the bus driver, Poupi Kakas (you heard me), a werewolf philosopher who slowly shaves down to lovability as the movie progresses. Poupi eventually gets into Georgia's polyester pant suit by telling her that her butt is too small.

Along the road to Delphi, Dreyfuss tells the story of his dead wife until his crotchety sensitivity drips from the screen & into our laps like Palermo's prized maple syrup. He teaches Georgia to lie to the tourists, which is understandable considering their inability to tell the cradle of civilization from a Wal-Mart, but it doesn't really make you want to stand up & cheer. He also pretends he's the oracle at one point & apparently heals another old man's stiff legs. Remember when you thought no one could annoy you the way Robin Williams annoys you? Think again. There are numerous intimations throughout My Life in Ruins that Dreyfuss' Irv will die in the end, leaving his pearls of geriatric dementia ringing in the ears of his new disciples, but this movie doesn't even have the tits to stand by that maudlin convention. It's actually become an annoying trend in recent romantic comedies to threaten an old person's demise & then fail to deliver (see The Proposal).

Without a death scene, Ruins is so toothless & inconsequential, a tour of your own closets will seem dazzling in comparison.

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