the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Friday, August 31, 2007

Death Sentence

Sometimes I take too long to get to the meat of my reviews, forcing my readers to plow through several paragraphs until they discover my true feelings about a film. Let me save you the trouble this time around.

Avoid Death Sentence like the plague.

Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) is a mild-mannered everyman — an insurance executive who spends his days at work analyzing risk portfolios and his nights at home with his beautiful wife and two teenaged sons. When his eldest son is brutally murdered as part of a gang initiation, something inside Bacon snaps. While his quest for retribution comes away with its pound of flesh, it also takes everything Nick loves down with it.

Death Sentence is a wildly over-directed film from James Wan (Saw), who has never in his life heard of the words subtlety or restraint. The film relies on blatant melodrama when it should settle on cold, hard understatement. I couldn’t help imagining, in the first act, before it really went off the rails, what this film might have looked like in the hands of another, far more insightful and self-composed director such as Mystic River's Clint Eastwood.

The dialogue is embarrassingly ghastly; the is score overwrought; the soundtrack is something from a bad "Dawson's Creek" episode; the look of the film, with its soft, bleached frame and diffused cinematography doesn’t feel retro or daring — it just looks like rubbish. Perhaps most surprising of all, Kevin Bacon, a great actor by anyone’s estimation, turns in his worst performance in memory.

The audience laughed at so many points during the film (none of them points the filmmakers intended) that if one didn’t know better, one might think Death Sentence was a comedy.

The one single bright moment in this film is the inclusion of John Goodman as a gunslinger from whom Hume buys the weaponry with which to enact his revenge. Rest assured, though Hume is so inept when buying the guns that he doesn’t seem to know which end to point at the enemy, he is transformed into a badass simply by reading a few manuals — and, of course, shaving his head.

In the final act, as Bacon, now a black-clad death angel, uses his bullets to tear the limbs from his family's killers, Death Sentence begins to resemble the sort of grindhouse film Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino attempted to evoke earlier in the summer. It all ends (blessedly) with a rip off of Scorsese's magnificent Taxi Driver.

Revenge films seem to be all the rage these days. Next week Jodie Foster's The Brave One opens with a surprisingly similar storyline. Death Sentence pretends to be a fable about the dangers of reciprocity. It purports to be a moral commentary on reprisal and its ability to turn on and destroy all who touch it — those who live by the sword, die by the sword. Some have seen in it a cautionary tale about America's post-9/11 need for retribution. Sure, and Saw was an alarm bell against the inadequacies of the health care system.

Death Sentence is a laughably bad exercise in the pornography of sadism and the American appetite which voraciously consumes it. The only death sentence here is your price of admission. Do yourself and this film a favor. Put it out of its misery.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Shoot 'Em Up

Say what you will about Shoot ‘Em Up, you have to give the madcap actioner points for truth in advertising. With a title like Shoot ‘Em Up, you don’t exactly expect an intricate plot or lavish character development. And it’s a good thing too. Shoot ‘Em Up couldn’t care less about such finer points. It’s one preposterous action sequence after another; a film in which the escalation of violence is inversely proportional to its plummeting good taste.

While minding his own business on a bench one evening, the generically named Mr. Smith (Clive Owen) witnesses a terrified pregnant woman stagger past him and into a dilapidated building with gun-wielding thugs hot on her heels. Mr. Smith reaches into his trench coat, pulls out a large carrot from which he takes a hefty bite, and proceeds to use it to kill or maim the small army. (Smith eats carrots for his eyesight, though for at least two bad guys, the carrots have exactly the opposite affect on their’s…if you know what I mean!) Unfortunately the pregnant woman is killed in the ensuing hail of gunfire, but not before the handy-to-have-around Mr. Smith delivers her baby and safely flees the scene.

It’s obvious that Mr. Smith has no idea what to do with the child. Nor does the lactating hooker, DQ (Monica Bellucci), but at least she’s better equipped for the task than the carrot munching Smith who talks her into caring for the baby while he snoops around and tries to figure out why FBI profiler gone bad, Mr. Hertz (Paul Giamatti) keeps sending a seemingly inexhaustible supply of expendable henchmen to kill it. What Smith uncovers is a convoluted marriage of convenience between the largest gun manufacturer in America and an ailing presidential candidate who hopes to harvest the child’s bone marrow.

Shoot ‘Em Up is an action film’s wet dream. Not that most actions films are slaves to realism and authenticity, but Shoot ‘Em Up delights in being so over the top as to brandish its outlandishness as a badge of honor. One absurd sequence leads to another as it tries to outdo every action film that has gone before it — a firefight takes place during sexual intercourse, another while skydiving. With a dozen such sequences, Shoot ‘Em Up’s frenetic pace leaves little time for catching one’s breath. If and when the film does slow down, it is usually so that Smith can mutter the sort of cringe-inducing one-liners James Bond or Arnold Schwarzenegger used to deliver.

Shoot ‘Em Up is director Michael Davis’ first theatrical release. He is best known for trashy, direct-to-DVD releases. Don’t be fooled. That Shoot ‘Em Up made it to the big screen does not mean that it is in any way superior to his previous efforts. Davis’ direction is dark and sloppy, a slapdash cinematography that hopes viewers will be so focused on the absurdist mayhem that they won’t notice how clumsy and incompetent the film is. Mr. Davis, you are no American John Woo.

Over-the-top, mindless action is intrinsically acceptable. There is something to be said for a film that goes for broke and is shamelessly about pure, unadulterated, mindless entertainment. What is unforgivable is Shoot ‘Em Up’s shoddy execution. If you are going to break the rules so brazenly, you better be darn sure what you can deliver the goods.

What perhaps makes Shoot ‘Em Up most difficult to bear is that it is populated with truly wonderful actors. The terrific Owen plays the anti-Bond, hinting at the very traits that made so many speculate over his chances for taking over the 007 role, even while simultaneously tearing them down. When Smith commandeers a BMW at one point in the film, we cannot help but think the filmmakers are paying homage to the series of Owen’s extremely enjoyable, 2001 BMW commercials, The Hire. Obviously Owen is relishing a chance to stash his brain and run around with guns and hot women (and who can really blame him?), but he doesn’t seem to be having all that much fun.

Quite the opposite with Paul Giamatti, the stellar actor who has chosen a number of baddies for his recent roles. While he is fun to watch as the scene-chewing hitman who is constantly interrupted by his none-the-wiser wife in the midst of committing the most violent crimes, he is more parody than substance. Funny and creepy, he plays the role with relish…and cheese. Italian superstar Monica Bellucci has proven herself a competent actress, but she falls victim to a problem many actors have when performing in a language other than their native tongue — they concentrate on their enunciation at the expense of their performance.

Shoot ‘Em Up is a film that purports, in its press materials, to “poke fun at America’s big obsessions — guns and breasts and violence — in that order.” But it’s a mixed message if ever there was one — a tactless, tasteless cartoon that uses the high-minded ideals of satire and social commentary to cloak the fact that it is interested in nothing more than shamelessly pandering to the most base, juvenile angels of our nature.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Resurrecting the Champ

This is an abridged version of a review I wrote for Christianity Today Movies. To read the rest of this review, click here.

Erik Kernan (Josh Hartnett) is a sports reporter for the Denver Times whose work, while solid, is uninspiring and tame — bland copy lacking the stimulation necessary to evolve into truly great journalism. When Erik confronts his boss Metz (Alan Alda) to ask him why he continues to cover second-rate boxing matches and high school games and not professional events, Metz tells him, “I forget your pieces while I’m reading them. They’re a lot of typing…not much writing.”

For Erik, the problem is more than just wanting to make it to the big leagues. His late father was a beloved sports reporter on the radio, and no matter what Erik does, he can never seem to live up to his father’s legacy or get out from beneath his shadow. To make matters worse, he has been the same sort of husband and father as he has been a reporter. Separated from him wife, Joyce (Kathryn Morris) and son, Teddy (Dakota Goyo), Erik sees the most important things in life slipping from his grasp.

His big break arrives at the most inauspicious of moments. While leaving one fight in the ring, he encounters another on the street. There, several teenaged hoodlums are beating an old, homeless man they keep referring to as “The Champ” (Samuel L. Jackson). After they scatter, the Champ tells Erik in a grizzled, high-pitched voice that the nickname is from a pervious life when he was the successful professional boxer, Bob Satterfield. Erik is intrigued that this ragamuffin of a man on the ground in front of him was once a sports giant, long believed dead.

Captivated, Erik smells an incredible story. Bypassing his editor, he pitches the story to the paper’s Sunday magazine where it will get him the most visibility. The magazine likes the idea and Erik begins spending lots of time with the Champ, discussing his history over beers and a tape recorder. While there is no doubt that Erik is using Champ to further his own career, the two men become comfortable with each other, perhaps even friends. While Erik hopes the story will be his ticket out of pedestrian assignments, the Champ sees an opportunity to feel the warmth of fame one last time.

Erik’s instincts prove dead on. When the story runs, it catapults his career into the stratosphere. There is talk of a Pulitzer. Showtime comes calling. Erik is on top of the world.

But unfortunately, everything he wrote was a lie. And soon, everything he has worked so hard to build lies in tatters.

Like a good boxer dodging an incoming hit, the second half of Resurrecting the Champ bobs and weaves, going in a completely different direction than the opening rounds would seem to indicate. Evoking 2003’s Shattered Glass or the more recent scandal involving the supposed memoir “A Million Little Pieces,” Resurrecting the Champ becomes a morality play about the tension between fathers and sons, the lengths to which we will go for approval, the infinitesimal ethical compromises that lead to cataclysmic life collapses, and the redemptive power of forgiveness.

Based on a 1997 article by J.R. Moehringer, Resurrecting the Champ is directed by Rod Laurie, the former film critic turned director who wrote and helmed 2000’s exceptional political thriller, The Contender, about a he said/she said scandal implicating the highest office of the land. Lurie is a filmmaker fascinated by the repercussions of our ethical decision-making, the tenuous state of personal honor in the modern world, and the often exactingly high price demanded of integrity. Lurie continues those important examinations here, albeit on a lesser scale than the aforementioned corridors of national power.

Resurrecting the Champ is a strong, competent, assured film. If it has faults, it is an overly long running time and occasional lethargic pacing. Lurie brings no pizzazz to his direction, almost as if he prefers that the camera go completely unrecognized. While competent, is it, regrettably, uninspired. For some, Resurrecting the Champ may play like Erik’s writing — solid, if tame. For others, it will be an exercise in blessed restraint, refreshingly relying on substances over style.

While Josh Hartnett is a genuinely underrated, underappreciated actor who gives a strong performance as the ethically embattled Erik, much will and should be made of Jackson’s performance as Champ. Known for his tough guy roles, here Jackson’s persona melts into a meek and beaten down man with a bedraggled face weathered by years on the street. Though old, he still moves like a man in the ring — nimble and light on his feat, switching his balance this way and that as if the dance of the ring is the only way he knows how to move. Don’t be surprised if Jackson’s name is bandied about come the Academy Awards.

The supporting case are top-notch, most notably Alan Alda, Kathryn Morris (whose career Lurie launched with The Contender) and Rachel Nichols. Easily the best bit part, however, belongs to the completely unrecognizable Peter Coyote, as a crusty boxing manager.

While boxing films prove time and again to be one the most popular sports films, it would be a mistake to assume that Resurrecting the Champ is nothing more than a movie about a couple of guys exchanging blows. The real arena here is not a boxing ring, but the human soul, where the hard right does battle with the easy wrong. This is a film in which round after round will be played out in the innermost man, a struggle of conscience and expediency with very real repercussions for all involved.

To be certain, Erik is not the only person in this film who must confront his demons and wrestle with the consequences of his actions. The Champ too is a man drowning beneath a lie so large he can barely find himself anymore. His destitution on the street is an apt metaphor for his dissolute spiritual condition. Both Erik and Champ are stuck running in circles, both to and from the expectations of others, so desperate to be someone they’re not even if they have to compromise their souls to do it.

Erik’s fall from grace does not blindside the viewer and should not surprise even Erik. Erik is a man who tells little white lies and tall tales to his boss, co-workers, and son in order to make himself look better or grease the wheels of his success. But even white lies have a way of turning on their tellers and the dozens of small, seemingly innocuous compromises he makes throughout his life must eventually be reckoned with.

Resurrecting the Champ has much to say about the fallen state of humanity. But it also recognizes that how we get back up says almost as much, if not more, about us. Comparing the emotional nakedness of a writer on the page to the stark exposure of an athlete in the ring, Erik states that there comes a point when, “there’s no place to hide.” Erik is a man whose sins have found him in the most humiliating and public manner possible. His response to that exposure is what will decide if he will rise above the shadows and expectations of others to, at last, become a man, a husband, a father and a son.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Resurrecting Integrity

I recently interviewed Rod Lurie, director of The Contender and the upcoming Resurrecting the Champ for Christianity Today Movies. The following is a transcript of that discussion. To read the original article, click here. My review of the film will follow in a few days:

Rod Lurie graduated from West Point and served four years in the U.S. Army. Perfect background for a filmmaker, right?

For Lurie, the answer is a resounding "yes." His time at the U.S. Military Academy taught him the value of ethics, integrity and honesty—and in choosing to do the right thing even when it's difficult. These ideas permeate his films, including 2000's The Contender and now Resurrecting the Champ, opening in theaters this Friday.

In a recent interview with CT Movies, Lurie spoke of the importance of sticking to one's principles, no matter the cost. Those ideas ring true in Resurrecting the Champ, whose tagline almost says it all: "Based on a true story, that was based on a lie."

The true part—based on a Los Angeles Times Magazine article by J.R. Moehringer—concerns an eager young journalist looking for his big break. When the writer meets a former boxing champ who's now homeless on the streets, he knows he's found his story—but in his eagerness to tell the tale, he neglects one vital journalistic practice: Thorough fact-checking. That's where the lies come into play.

In Resurrecting the Champ, Josh Hartnett plays sportswriter Erik Kernan, and Samuel L. Jackson plays "The Champ," the former boxer now homeless in a performance that is already getting Oscar buzz. It's a story and film not just about honesty and integrity, but about father-son relationships as well.

You have a fascinating personal resume—born in Israel, attended West Point, served as an air defense artillery officer in the Army—what drew you to film from that background?

Rod Lurie: Movies, man! In a way I entered that background in order to make movies. When people ask me if they should go to film school, I usually tell them, go to school to study what you want to make movies about. I had always been fascinated by history, by leadership, and by the DNA of greatness—and what better school to study that than West Point? They have a motto there: "The history we teach was made by the men that we taught." You really get a distinctive training in history and leadership and ethics. And to me, the characters I make movies about are people who are always confronted with ethical dilemmas and quagmires. So when I was 17 and went to West Point and saw those statues of those great men, I knew that was the place for me because I wanted to tell stories and eventually make movies about men like that.

You used to be a successful film critic. At what point did you decide to stop writing about films and start making them instead?

Lurie: I had resigned myself to the notion that I was going to be a film critic—which is a good resignation, because some of the great writing artists of our time, like Pauline Kael and David Denby, were all film critics. But to be honest with you, I don't think I was ever very good at it. I was successful, I was entertaining, I had good ratings on the radio, but I don't think I was very good. And it got a little humiliating for me; there was a humiliation in waking up on Friday and reading these beautifully written reviews by some of the great critics and I felt saddened and cheap because I wasn't writing anything near that. I was using humor to compensate for a lack of eloquence. I realized I needed to try something different.

I've loved the movies ever since I was ten and saw Ben Hur and realized that I wanted to be involved in the film business—whether it was making them or melting butter on the popcorn. The film critic job served those needs. But when I found out I wasn't that good at it, I wanted to get out and try to make them.

You quickly established yourself as a master of the political film. For my money, The Contender is the finest political thriller since All the President's Men. Why do you like making political films and have you always been a political junkie?

Lurie: Thank you very much; that movie means a great deal to me. A lot of people think it's about femininity and whether there is a double standard in how we view male and female politicians, but really what it's about is how far we are willing to stand for our principles? Is that, in fact, the DNA of greatness? Are you willing to die for your principles, are you willing to kill for your principles, are you willing to be destroyed for your principles? From Christ to Mandela, the great people in history are those who have been willing to die or be crushed to support their principles. You have to be right about those principles, by the way. Hitler had principles too, and he was wrong. So it's a two-part thing—you have to be right and you have to be willing to die for it.

That theme certainly resonates in your films. But Resurrecting the Champ, while it still deals with ethical issues, is not a political film. Are you a sports junkie as well?

Lurie: I love football, boxing and tennis. If I liked the other sports as much as I like those three, I'd be out of work because I'd be watching TV all the time. But I'd actually say I'm more of a journalism junkie. I've worked for newspapers and magazines and my dad is a political cartoonist, so I've been in the journalism world for a very long time. I think it's the noblest profession of them all. There is probably no work, other than teaching, where the nobility and the importance of the work is so inversely proportional to the amount of money you make. I look at the press as the fourth arm of society—the executive, the judicial, the legislative … and the press. And yes, this is a movie that explores basic human ethics [in the context of journalism].

What attracted you to this story?

Lurie: I read the article in 1997 [in the Los Angeles Times] and I thought the story was fantastic. And I couldn't believe the twist. I did a lot of investigative journalism in addition to my film stuff, and I learned this much: Even though you want to believe you live in an honest world and an honest society that tells honest things, unfortunately, that's very naive.

Those themes—honesty, integrity, standing up for your principles, and holding onto your honor no matter what seem to permeate nearly everything you touch.

Lurie: It's the West Point thing.

Joan Allen's character in The Contender was absolutely above reproach. And in this film, both Erik and "the Champ" have built their lives on little white lies and compromises. What is it about that idea that seems to germinate in your films?

Lurie: The common denominator is the difficultly of doing the right thing. Part of the Cadet Prayer at West Point, and I may be paraphrasing, is, "Lord, give us the power to do the harder right over the easier wrong." This movie is about finding the strength to do that. In the film, Erik Kernan lies to his son all the time. I am certain that looking into your son's eyes and telling him that you are a liar is a VERY difficult thing to do. That is a hard right.

I've never told my son—who's 16 now—a lie. I have told him and my daughter the truth, even when it's the most embarrassing I can imagine—because your children will discover the truth. I've seen a lot of people lie to their kids. And I've witnessed it do horrible things to their relationships.

I believe the Talmud says that a smart man learns from his own mistakes while a wise man learns from the mistakes of others. I wanted to create a movie which, by watching the mistakes of others, the audience can learn something about themselves—that the most important people we need to be honest with are our own children.

There are lots of father/son relationships in the movie. There is one between Erik and his son, between Erik and his deceased father, and then there's one between Champ and his surrogate son in Erik. And there is deception between all of them. I think dishonesty is a bigger problem between fathers and sons than between mothers and daughters. And in this movie, Erik lies to every single male in the movie, but is honest with every woman. For some reason he shows ethical strength with all the women.

He tells Champ, "I'll tell your story and I'll make you look good." But when his son tells him that the story he's writing sounds like a sad one, he says, "No, it's going to be a hopeful story." How does he know that? He hasn't even started researching it yet!

He knows because he has already determined how he is going to write it.

Lurie: Right! But when other women make a pass at him, he tells them he's not going to do it. Whether it's for his son or his estranged wife, he has the moral courage not to proceed. In the end, as the Scriptures say, the truth shall set you free, and that is the message of the film. We were born with free will, which allows us to go in many different directions. But only one of those directions is of unfettered honestly. And that's difficult. My movies are about people making difficult decisions and doing the right thing. Even when the right thing is capable of destroying you, it has the power to nonetheless set you free.

Samuel L. Jackson gives a standout performance. What was it like working with him?

Lurie: With Sam Jackson, what you do is yell, "Action!", go make a sandwich, come back and yell, "Cut!" Almost every element of Champ was Sam's decision. It's truly a beautiful performance and I'll be very surprised if he's not nominated for an Academy Award.

There was a point where we were doing a shot above Sam while he was lying on the ground with his arms outstretched. I asked him not to do that because it looked too much like a Christ metaphor, and there are just too many of those in the movies. It's so presumptuous and arrogant to do that. I asked him to move one or both of his arms and he said, "Hey man, I'm a Christian, I don't have a problem with that!" And I said, "Well, I'm Jewish and I do!" We had a good laugh over it.

I think the movie character as Christ is an overdone and easy cliché. Even though this movie revolves in a very real way around the teachings of Jesus to a strong degree—it was something that was very much a part of our thinking as we were writing it—it's arrogant to go to that sort of Mel Gibson state. It's interesting isn't it—I'm Jewish and not necessarily a believer, but there is still so much wisdom to be mined from the Scriptures, Talmud and other religious teachings. Whether you are a believer or not, you can gain so much wisdom from their wisdom. And it applies to film as well.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Lot to Talk About XIII

Well it's over. I could have done without all the rehashes--I can find those online--but it was fun meeting all the actors.

While the fake tension was obnoxious, I have to admit I was kind of surprised the winner was not Adam. While I completely agree with his third place finish, I thought he'd end higher--he picked the best films to re-screen.

So, Will walks away with it all! Will was always my second favorite next to Zach and I have to admit I can't help but bubble with pride and happiness for him. Watching him hug (hug!) Steven Spielberg was worth it all. Well done Will. We can't wait to see what you do next.

And those of you that didn't make it...I have a sneaking suspicion we might yet see more of you too!

The Nanny Diaries

The Nanny Diaries takes place in an urban fairy tale version of our own reality in which colors pop just a little bit brighter, men and women are just a little bit more beautiful, villains are just a little bit more repugnant, and a poor girl from New Jersey can fly around Manhattan on a red umbrella like Mary Poppins—at least in her imagination.

Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson) is a recent college graduate who got a minor in anthropology because it is her dream and a major in business because it is her mother’s dream. It’s not that her mother (Donna Murphy) is controlling. She simply wants her daughter to be successful and live comfortably, something the full-time nurse has not been able to achieve herself. When Annie flunks out of an interview for a lucrative banking position in New York City, she wonders how she is going to tell her mother she didn’t get a job she didn’t want in the first place. That’s when she meets Mrs. X (Laura Linney) and her cherubic son Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art). Mrs. X’s name is, of course, not Mrs. X, but ever the budding anthropologist, Annie ascribes informal and scientific designations to those people she meets.

Through a name mix up with her own, (Annie sounds an awful lot like nanny), Annie is offered a job as Gavin’s caretaker. Mrs. X is kind and beautiful, belonging to that rarified Upper East Side milieu known as Park Avenue. Her apartment is immaculate and opulent and she promises that Annie will accompany them to fine restaurants and trips abroad. Unsure of her employment options, Annie accepts the job, telling her mother that the bank came through. Of course, things immediately go downhill, as we knew they would. Mrs. X turns into a narcissistic, condescending control freak who sleeps until noon and bemoans long afternoons choosing caters and attending benefits. She is terrified of her own son and foists all motherly duties from the most mundane to the most sacred on Annie. Work-obsessed Mr. X (Paul Giamatti), is rarely ever home and when he is, either sees right through Annie or sees her as just one more extramarital conquest.

Annie’s one happiness is in being pursued by the guy upstairs whom she has designated the Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans) even though she is strictly forbidden to date, especially guys so far out of her league. As Annie tries to keep her mother from discovering her charade, she must also wrestle with long hours, impossible demands, and the cardinal sin, becoming emotionally attached to her young charge.

The Nanny Diaries is based on the 2002 satirical novel by the same name. A scathing portrait of posh Park Avenue families as seen through the eyes of the lower class nannies who manage their daily affairs, the book swims in the same stream as The Devil Wears Prada but is unable to capture Devil’s witty spark and satirical bite. This is surprising, given the fact that the co-writer/co-director’s of 2003’s subversive American Splendor, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, are at the helm here.

The Nanny Diaries is an unexceptional comedy that only occasionally rises above standard sitcom fare. Sure, it’s fun to mock the hollow existence of the moneyed class, and sure, it’s good to point out that the grass is not always greener just because the wallets are. But the film so relies on stock caricatures that the satire falls flat and ineffective. Even actors as exquisite as Linney seem to fight through the script for moments where authentic humanity can crack through the stereotypes. For her part, the always astonishing Linney succeeds — but just barely. By painting with too broad a brush, Nanny gets laughs at the expense of any sort of deeper commentary, a deeper commentary the filmmakers were obviously hoping to achieve.

The performances are solid. While Johansson and her underrated comic sensibilities do little to stand out (she can’t dazzle us in every film), she does a good job as a culture/class shocked girl in frumpy clothes set amongst the glittering extravagance of New York high society. If Johansson’s beauty and sexuality is deemphasized, Linney is luminescent as a trophy wife who has heard her culture’s lies so often she has forgotten what really matters in life. Giamatti’s part is not large, but he makes the most out of what he has as Linney’s emotionally toxic husband, obviously reveling in a string of bad guy roles this summer. Evens, with perhaps even less to do, is nonetheless charming and along with his role in Sunshine is doing a good job of breaking his The Fantastic Four typecasting before it has a chance to set for life. Songstress Alicia Keys also competently adds a few scenes as Annie’s best friend.

Annie narrates the film through a sort of anthropologist’s journal, dispassionately recording the pampered lives and rituals of her new world with scientific precision. It is a delightful avenue into Annie’s mind, especially when she imagines the self-absorbed tribe in which she’s found herself as part of static dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History, posed in their exotic environments like the Pigmies or the Aborigines down the hall. Sharp and comic, these moments only heighten the fairy tale aspects of the script. But even fairy tales have characters with more dimensionality then these.

Monday, August 20, 2007

I Want To Know How To Kill Someone 213 Different Ways With My Thumb!

Alright, this question is for all the guys out there:

Guys, this weekend, I watched The Bourne Ultimatum again, this time with my wife who hadn’t yet seen it. I was gleefully excited for the film to begin. When it was over, I offhandedly said something about wishing I was Jason Bourne. My wife was taken aback and insisted that I clarify my statement.

“I wish I knew how to shoot like that,” I said. “I wish I knew how to fight like that. I wish I knew how to kill someone 213 different ways with my thumb. Not that I want to kill someone—I just want to know how. Should the need arise.”

This surprised her and lest she thought I was some sort of aberrant freak, I told her that the vast majority of men who were walking out of the theater with us felt the exact same way. Though she didn’t put me up to it, I told her if I informally polled those men filing out beside us, they would say the same thing. They too wanted to be Bourne. They too wanted to be Bond.

I tried to explain to her that it was important to us that we be in the right and fighting for a good cause.

“We don’t get like this watching a serial killer movie,” I insisted. “But it’s a fantasy every guy harbors to be a spy on a cat and mouse chase where lives hang in the balance and the world depends on us coming out on top.”

So, I ask you, am I way off here? Is it just me? (Later that night we asked a friend if he felt the same way and he said, “Oh yeah, absolutely.” And he’s a priest!) So back me up guys—not that the majority can’t be a bunch of hardened, violence loving sociopaths—but did you walk out of Bourne wishing you could be him or is it just me?

Mr. Bean's Holiday

In 1953, French actor and director Jacques Tati invented the character of Monsieur Hulot, a nearly mute, good-hearted but clumsy man who is so flummoxed by the modern world that he causes accidents and misunderstandings everywhere he goes. The film was Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday) about a visit to a seaside resort, and it would make Tati so famous that he would later revisit the character in four additional, equally enchanting films, including 1967’s masterful Playtime. The films suppressed nearly all dialogue in order to elevate the sound effects associated with Tati’s astonishing, physically comic gags.

Englishman Rowan Atkinson’s “Mr. Bean” has always owed a massive debt to Tati and Hulot, playing what is in essence an Anglo version of the Franco character. This is nowhere more evident (and intentionally so) than in what is purported to be Mr. Bean’s final performance, Mr. Bean's Holiday. The film starts in soggy, rain-soaked England where Mr. Bean wins a raffle ticket for a free camcorder and a trip to the French Riviera. It ends in sunny Cannes as a buttoned up Bean saunters cluelessly amidst the glitteratzi at the prestigious Cannes film festival. How Bean gets from here to there is the plot of the film.

Perhaps plot is too precise a term. Mr. Bean’s Holiday essentially has no plot in the same way that it has little to no dialogue. Like Hulot, Bean doesn’t say much, communicating mostly though grunts and unintelligible drivel. The film is a pastiche of various gags stitched together into something resembling a narrative. Because of its stream of consciousness style, settling on a ridged plot is awkward. To explain that Bean accidentally separates a father and son on a train from Paris to Cannes and spends the bulk of the film trying to reunite them could be construed as the plot, though the film is far more interested (as it should be) in the slapstick gags that occur along the way as Atkinson’s buffoon mugs for his camera and ours.

There is Bean in an uppity Parisian restaurant playing with prawns. There is a melodramatic street performance set to Puccini. There is the big-budget Hollywood World War II blockbuster where Bean shows up dressed as a goose-stepping Nazi (the movie within a movie is directed by none other than Willem Defoe as a preening egotist whom even the French cannot stand and whose film, “Playback Time” is yet another nod to Tati). There is an all-night drive in which Bean tries everything possible not to fall asleep on the road.

Not all of the gags soar and none rise to the genius of Tati. But Atkinson’s antics are nonetheless charming — the sort of unbridled physical humor we simply don’t see any more. Mr. Bean’s Holiday is a film stuck in the wrong century, more akin to classic silent comedy than modern humor and Bean himself is a clown caught without his make-up, psychedelically colored pants and bright red nose.

There is something unrepentantly joyous about Mr. Bean’s Holiday. Its simplicity is its strength. It helps to come to the film with a childlike attitude and a sense of whimsy. No, it’s not grand comedy nor is it trying to be particularly brilliant, but it is sincere and sweetly endearing.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Invasion

The virus strikes with blinding speed. During the onset of infection, it attacks the host with an almost unbelievable ferocity. It immediately sets to work obliterating all shreds of individuality and personality, replacing it with its own matrix. When the disease is done, only a shell of the former host remains. In its place is something new, revolting and nearly devoid of intelligence.

Now, while you, dear reader, may assume that the above description is an account of what happens when one of the alien body snatchers in the film, The Invasion takes over a host and replaces it with an extra-terrestrial parasite, you would be mistaken. What I am describing is the production debacle behind the film.

More on that in a moment…

The Invasion is a science fiction movie that opens in outer space…naturally. There, the ridiculously named space shuttle Patriot explodes on reentry into the earth’s atmosphere and breaks up, scattering its metallic flotsam and jetsam across half of the American landscape. (That the film appears to have used the actual footage from the disintegration of the all-too-real shuttle Columbia over Texas in 2003 is almost too distasteful to mention).

The government swoops in to wrangle the wreckage and reconstruct what happened. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) head-honcho Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Nortam) and his team discover some sort of organic material coating the shuttle debris, something which survived both the icy cold of space and the searing heat of reentry. Before they can even comprehend the enormity of the situation, the spore like material infects them all. During the night, while they sleep, it re-animates their bodies and minds. They awake the next morning looking exactly the same, but definitely no longer human.

D.C. psychologist Carol Bennell’s (Nicole Kidman) first clue that something is wrong is when one of her patients comes to her terrified that her husband has been replaced by a stranger. Carol prescribes some medications and sends her patient on her way. But over the next several days, more and more people voice similar complaints. The government insists that a flu virus is on the loose and the CDC insists on inoculations for everyone.

But Carol’s doctor friends Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) and Stephen Galeano (Jeffery Wright) have a different hypothesis — nothing short of an alien invasion. As the planet is subsumed by alien clones, Carol and her miraculously immune son Oliver (Jackson Bond) try to avoid detection and pass for one of the assimilated. But when Carol becomes infected, she must do everything in her power to stay awake. For if she falls asleep, she will be lost forever. But how long can she hold off the inevitable.

Now then, where were we? Ah, yes…the parasitical virus.

Fresh from his Oscar nominated and hypnotic Downfall, German director Oliver Hirschbiegel was tapped by Hollywood to make his first English film, yet another remake of the 1957 thriller, Invasion of the Body Snatchers truncated austerely to The Invasion. Warner Bros. gave Hirschbiegel millions of dollars and some of the biggest stars in the business. Everyone involved in the production licked their lips in anticipation of an out-of-this-world success.

Then came the first screenings. The studio so loathed the cut that they immediately demanded massive reshoots. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel was “unavailable” so Warner Bros. asked Andy and Larry Wachowski, the sibling team behind The Matrix trilogy to rewrite as much as two-thirds of the film, gutting cerebral content and replacing it with more action and a completely different ending. James McTeigue, who directed the pair’s V for Vendetta was brought in to direct. We may never know what Hirschbiegel’s original cut looked like, but it can’t have been any worse that this infantile mess.

The Invasion is Frankenstein’s monster, a composite of ill-fitting scenes stitched together without any thought for the aesthetics of final product. It is completely obvious that some scenes are missing while others were hastily added. To complain about the inappropriate abruptness of the virus’ rise at the beginning of the film would be to waste the breath required to howl in righteous condemnation at a resolution to the entire plot that takes place in the same span of time that it took you to read this brief paragraph. No kidding.

The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a commentary on the dangers of the Cold War. The 70s remake confronted the vacancy of American political leadership at the height of the Vietnam War. The Invasion can’t decide whether or not it feeds on the fears of a global pandemic or our barbaric cruelty and appetite for war. This schizophrenia robs the film of any real potent message.

Somewhere in The Invasion is a good movie scratching to get out. There are genuinely creepy moments and the film certainly tries to say something about human nature, our proclivity towards violence, the duality of emotions and the necessity to “stay awake” and ideologically vigilant. But those noble intensions are lost amidst a mad push for commercial viability. Ironically, the Wachowskis managed to fuse both art and action in a way that grossed billions on dollars with The Matrix. Whether the material they were working with was deficient from the get-go or whether they should have left well enough alone is privileged information known only to a few. Hirschbiegel, who at one time apparently wanted his name removed from this film, has become a walking cautionary tale, just one more tragic piece of European road kill on the dumbed-down road to Hollywood glory.

A Lot to Talk About XII

Tonight's episode doesn't even deserve a mention. Taking a page from American Idol, the show simply replayed what the remaining candidates felt were their two strongest films of the season. We've seen all the creativity were going to see from On the Lot.

Sam's departure came as no surprise, though I felt that Will's choice of films did not put his best foot forward, making way for a possible Adam upset (who chose wisely). Then again there is always Jason, the beloved dark horse. While I like Will, and hope he wins, I'm surprised at how little I suddenly care about the show now that Zach is gone.

Friday, August 10, 2007

"Be Kind Rewind" Trailer is Up

The trailer for Be Kind Rewind, Michel Gondry's (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep) new film, is up and it looks amazing, in terms of humor, craft and cinematic self-reflexivity. Check it out here.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Damon Is Hollywood's "Best Value"

IMDb ran a fascinating news story this morning. Instead of analyzing what top movie stars are paid, Forbes worked out which stars represent the best investment, dollar for dollar, of Hollywood's money. Not what their individual films have brought in, but an across the board return for their salaries.

Matt Damon offers the best box office returns, at twice the value of Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks. He makes $29 dollars for each dollar he is paid. And he gets paid a lot.

The top ten is as follows: 1. Matt Damon; 2. Brad Pitt; 3. Vince Vaughn & Johnny Depp; 5. Jennifer Aniston; 6. Angelina Jolie; 7. Renee Zellweger; 8. Reese Witherspoon; 9. Ben Stiller; 10. Sandra Bullock.

Tom Cruise in Star Trek!?

Another Trek cast member is set and explains why the character of Chekov was not listed on the casting call sheet I posted earlier in the week. According to The Hollywood reporter, J.J. Abrams has cast Russian-born actor, Anton Yelchin (Alpha Dog, Charlie Bartlett) as navigator Pavel Chekov in the new film.

While that news is confirmed, IGN Movies has revealed something chew on. Apparently Abrams is also looking for someone to play Captain Christopher Pike. Pike, for those of you who don't know, was the captain of the Enterprise before Kirk took command and was the lead in the first failed Star Trek pilot. The character of Spock was the only character to survive from the first pilot to the second, thus setting up a history with both men, later fleshed out in the two-part episode, "Menagerie" which incorporated footage from the discarded show.

While I love the idea of Pike and a possible Enterprise handover (this would seem to indicate that the Starfleet Academy rumor is indeed false) I'm not sure I like the direction this is going.

IGN Movies is reporting that Abrams is after an A-list actor for the high-profile cameo role of Captain Pike. How A-list? Supposedly Abram's friend and MI3 star, Tom Cruise! As Star Trek will be a Paramount production and they don't much like Cruise, let's hope this is just an erroneous rumor. Especially since IGN hints that, "if you think this Cruise stuff is crazy then you don't even want to know which A-lister we were told Paramount is trying to land to play the villain!"

A Lot to Talk About XI

Zach is gone. Like Will, I thought he had it all sown up. Wow America, the last time you were this near-sighted you voted Melinda Dolittle off American Idol. The good news is that, like Melinda, Zach’s future is probably already set, despite losing the show.

So, after getting through all the obnoxious filler last night, we had only four films to watch.

Will’s Yes Men was outlandish and clever, with a great, old-fashioned look and a suave, beautifully lit style. My favorite of the night. In fact, as I was saying last week, with Zach gone, I’d love to see Will win this thing.

Sam’s Dress for Success was a funny take on the whole torture porn thing. Though the blended genre worked better than the judges gave it credit for, it certainly had its faults, not the least of which was pacing. I think Sam is gone.

Adam’s Army Guy looked the worst and may have had the best reveal at the end, but getting there was painful. Despite it’s admittedly Fellini-esque moments, I didn’t like it as much as the judges. For me, Adam has been mostly forgettable all season long.

Jason’s Oh Boy — interesting that another film about a man in a dress is explained by way of torture — looked great, moved great, had a nice stunt, and was shot well. Jason’s films, more than anyone else’s, look the most technically proficient. I very much enjoy and appreciate Jason’s gentleness, whimsy and kindness and was very happy to see the judges point that out last night.

I see this coming down to Will and Jason. After all, “there can be only one.”

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Stardust has set itself up as the next The Princess Bride. It purports to be an enchanting tale full of dashing princes, evil witches, flying pirates, and mythical creatures. It wants you to believe that it is a rip-roaring thrill ride, a wondrous tale of romance, adventure and unrealized destiny. It has the audaciously to claim to be nothing short of pure magic.

And so it is.

Stardust is utterly and completely beguiling, an enthralling fairytale that, like Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, posits a mythical land existing parallel to our own. Tristan (Charlie Cox) is a bumbling, naive shop boy of dubious origins in love with the beautiful Victoria (Sienna Miller), a girl far beyond his humble reach. “I’m not a shop boy,” Tristan tells her, little realizing his miraculous destiny, “I just work in a shop.” Victoria promises to marry Tristan if, by her birthday in one week’s time, he can bring back the remnants of a shooting star they watched streak overhead. The only problem is that the star landed somewhere over the stone wall that separates the real world of England from the mystical land of Stormhold. But twiterpated Tristan is more than willing to prove his adoration and happily accepts the challenge.

Tristan manages to cross the wall and finds himself in a strange world where the star turns out to be a beautiful young woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes). But Tristan isn’t the only one looking for her. Stormhold’s king (Peter O’Toole) has died and his squabbling sons, especially the scheming Septimus (Mark Strong) require the star/woman to cement their throne. Worst still, three wicked witch sisters led by Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) seek Yvaine so that they might cut out her heart and by eating it, achieve eternal youth and beauty. Soon Tristan and Yvaine are in the fight for their lives, beset on all sides by magical forces beyond their reckoning. In the end, only one of them will claim Yvaine’s heart.

Stardust is based on the book by author, graphic novelist and creative impresario Neil Gaiman. Director Matthew Vaughn, best known as the indie helmer who made a star of the present James Bond in his gangster thriller, Layer Cake, here takes the reins of a sprawling story that is, by turns, a high adventure, a thrilling romance, a tongue-in-cheek comedy, and a dark tinged horror film.

Vaughn’s camera is omnipotent and omnipresent, sweeping across vast distances and scaling great heights. It rockets over magnificent scenery, emboldened with the same sort of enchanted alchemy as the rest of the film. The special effects dazzle even when they are not entirely convincing, the music thunders and soars, and something happens to the viewer all too uncommon in summer cinematic fare—we are transported away, borne on the wings of genuine storytelling with a sweep as epic as imagination itself.

Michelle Pfiffer, in one of a triumvirate of films marking her return to Hollywood this year after a four year hiatus, is both dazzlingly beautiful and riotous as the witch who becomes more and more of a crone each time she uses her magic. Relative newcomer Cox is a face we’ll deservedly be seeing much more of in the future, convincingly portraying an awkward boy who transforms before our eyes into a handsome, dashing hero. The consistently underrated Claire Danes delivers a heart-warming performance and actually pulls off the unthinkable for an American actress—a credible British accent.

Other members of the magical cast include Sir Ian McKellen as the resonant narrator, Rupert Everett as one of a long line of ill-fated princes, and Ricky Gervais as a trader who brings his modern comic improvisational sensibilities to bear on a script already suffused with surprisingly effective, incidental humor. But it is the great Robert De Niro who steals the show as the cross-dressing, foppish pirate, Captain Shakespeare. In recent years, De Niro has unwisely chosen a spate of light-hearted, comedic roles—this is not one of those mistakes. In a film full of well known faces acting ridiculously, De Niro takes the cake and eats it too.

Stardust is the surprise hit of the summer, an undermarketed dream that paints grand themes on a canvas as utterly enchanting as it is entertaining. Stardust is pure magic and should not to be missed by child or adult.

Rush Hour 3

There is an old lynchpin of logic causality that states: just because you are capable of doing something, it does not necessarily follow that you must or should do that thing. Someone should have introduced that simple concept to Brett Ratner before he gathered up his team and traipsed halfway around the world to make yet one more tired retread in the Rush Hour franchise.

Rush Hour 3 opens on a gridlocked street in Los Angeles where Detective James Carter (Chris Tucker) has been demoted to directing traffic. He doesn’t seem to mind. With earphones snuggly intact, he channels Michael Jackson’s moves, oblivious of the headlong rush of colliding cars all around him. Meanwhile, Chief Inspector Lee (Jackie Chan) has been assigned as a bodyguard to Consul Han (Tzi Ma) who, while speaking before the World Criminal Court about the identities of the fearsome criminal organization, the Triads, is gunned down by an assassin.

While following the evidence trail, Carter and Lee, surely the unlikeliest of buddy movie buddies, reunite and wing their way to France where Kenji (Hiroyuki Sanada), a blood brother from Lee’s past turns up as the sharp point of the Triad spear. Continuing with the “fish out of water” motif that framed the earlier films, assassins come out of the woodwork, chasing our heroes from one clichéd Parisian landmark to the next. The beautiful burlesque dancer Genevieve (Noémie Lenoir) holds the key to unraveling the secret of the Triads, if Carter and Lee can keep her alive long enough to get it from her.

It’s hard to take the action scenes in Rush Hour 3 seriously coming only a week after the phenomenal Bourne Ultimatum. While this film has its moments (a motorcyclist is launched from his bike, through an open van and onto a nearby car; a martial arts swordfight takes place high atop the latticework of the Eiffel Tower), most of the action is laughable compared to the where the bar has recently been set. The action works best when the film employs legitimate stunt work—when it relies on gags and CG work, the tension instantly vanishes. While Ratner tries to cut his action to mask its less than graceful nature, he cannot hide the fact that, while Chan can still do things with his body that defy explanation, he is over 50 years old and simply doesn’t move as fast or as easily as he once did. He still amazes, but he no longer has the ability to steal our breath away.

Carter and Lee spend most of the blessedly short 90 minutes bickering even though the film seems desperate to establish a camaraderie between the two as something akin to brotherhood. While Chan pulls off his role with a surprisingly serious aplomb, Tucker is as ridiculous as he ever was. Chan’s English is as indecipherable as Tucker’s overacting. The film involves a couple of cameos that defy explanation: the great Max von Sydow plays the head of the World Criminal Court, and has a character arc predictable from a mile away (somebody watched Minority Report one too many times); and renowned director and forced expatriate Roman Polanski shows up as a French police detective with an interrogation style straight out of Abu Ghraib.

Rush Hour 3 is a Frankenstein’s monster of a buddy/action movie, blatantly stealing scenes from as diverse a pool as Abbott and Costello to The Godfather and Star Wars. Inorganically episodic in nature, the film sacrifices plausibility (even in its own established, make-believe universe) for cheap laughs. There are cross-purposed political messages as well—one moment Carter is making legitimately offensive lines about Arabs as terrorists and the next a Parisian taxicab driver (Yvan Attal) delivers a vehement anti-American tirade about U.S. aggression which ends only when he decides the ultra-violent American lifestyle is appealing and killing another human being actually sounds like a whole lot of fun. Unfortunately, the only real, genuine moments of humor come at the end of the film, during the outtakes. If you can’t laugh at Jackie Chan hurting himself on set, what can you laugh at?

Rush Hour 3 is a stagnate yet still commercially viable franchise. It arrives on your theater screen already infested with the mold of a dated, stale rehash. It’s not that Ratner is a bad director, despite what the slighted X-Men fanboys might say. It’s just that he seems consistently fated to choose material well beneath him. Oh, his movies make money and admittedly have fans, but until he makes films as sprawling as his reported ego, no one will ever take him seriously.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Star Trek Film Cast to Grow!

Up till now, the speculation was that the hush-hush script of J.J. Abram's new Star Trek film was an early Kirk/Spock story dealing with their adventures at Starfleet Academy (an idea I've loathed from the start).

But today, that idea was shot down with the posting of Paramount's actual casting breakdowns, including calls for almost every member of the original cast! It appears that the film isn't an origins story at all, but rather something closer to a continuation of the original series' five-year mission! Fan films have been doing this for years and now it seems Hollywood is in on the game.

Feature Film

[JAMES KIRK] 23-29 Handsome,cocky self assured and earnest. Great physical condition. 6 ft or less

[LEONARD (BONES) McCOY] -28-32 Medic on the Enterprise. Smart, clever and a bit danger-loving. Dark hair, blue eyes.

[UHURA] 25ish -African American. Brilliant, beautiful, heroic and FUN!, Uhura is almost tom-boyish - as if she grew up in a houseful of brothers.

[SULU] 25-32 -Asian American male (preferably Japanese). Helmsman on the Enterprise. Extremely fit, capable and dedicated. A bit of a wildcat

[MONTGOMERY (SCOTTY) SCOTT] -28-32 a brilliant ship's engineer. Must be able to do a flawless Scottish accent!

Friday, August 03, 2007


Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are best friends with a uniquely co-dependent relationship. But all that is about to end. In just three weeks, they graduate from high school and brainy Evan is heading off to Dartmouth while slacker Seth stays behind at a state school. Seth is foul-mouthed, selfish, volatile and sex-obsessed, while Evan is sweet, introverted, and sincerely cares about treating girls with respect. They are not nerds exactly—that role falls to third-wheel Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) with whom even Seth is reluctant to be seen—just unpopular, socially inept outsiders whom no one but the bullies ever even recognizes exist. On the outside looking in, the trio longs to be part of the luminous world of the popular kids, and with the end of their high-school careers looming, Seth decides they need to do something radical.

When Seth happens to mention to sexy crush Jules (Emma Stone) that he has access to the high school Holy Grail—a fake ID—Jules invites them all to a party later than night, provided Seth can supply the alcohol. This is exactly the sort of break Seth has been looking for and he agrees instantly, thoughts of getting with a drunk Jules running through his head. Evan is excited about the prospect simply because he knows that Jules’ friend Becca (Martha MacIssac) will be there, but he isn’t so sure about Seth’s rationale: “You know when girls say, ‘Man, I was soooo gone last night…I shouldn’t have slept with that guy.’ Don’t you understand—we could be that mistake!”

Fogell is the one who has secured the fake ID, listing him as “McLovin,” a 25-year-old Hawaiian organ donor. When the liquor store at which he tries to buy the booze is robbed, Fogell finds himself spending the evening with two hilariously bumbling cops (co-writer Seth Rogen and Bill Hader), while Seth and Evan embark on a classic, increasingly treacherous, misdirected odyssey to procure illicit alcohol and make it to the party with their friendship intact.

Superbad follows in the tradition of such films as Animal House, Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds, Dazed and Confused and Can’t Hardly Wait. Those who bemoan the ascendancy of bawdy sex comedies merely haven’t been paying attention to film history. These sorts of over-the-top, crass comedies have always been around—they’re just much more unleashed and “in your face” these days. Superbad takes one of the most notorious and played-out stories—the teenage sex comedy—and infuses it with new life through an immaculate convergence of exceptionally brilliant, understated actors, a hilarious script and a gifted director.

To call Superbad crude is a whale of an understatement. It is quite possibly one of the most foul-mouthed, vulgar films you are ever likely to see. Superbad is pornography without the nudity, which, depending on how you look at it, either ruins the film or redeems it. The characters spend most of the two hours talking about sex in graphic, raunchy detail. If I told you about the lines and moments that drew the loudest laughs, you’d have to give this review an R-rating.

The thing that saves Superbad from being a profane waste of time is its urbane intelligence and above all, bracing honesty. On the one hand, the frank subject matter and the way in which the guys discuss it mirrors exactly the crass give-and-take of a locker room or any such space absent of women. (Sorry ladies, shocking, I know, but true.) Superbad has the cojones to put on screen the way guys actually behave and talk when we think no one is watching. On the other hand, the script is sharp and observant, infused with contemplative observations of a time in life dominated by profound confusion, seemingly uncontrollably urges and often deep pain. The two writers, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, obviously understand intuitively the awkwardness of adolescence, private embarrassment, and the pubescent love/hate relationship with the human body.

Over-the-top raunch-fest though it may be, Superbad’s legitimate hilarity is not in dispute. Mixing screwball humor, outrageous hilarity, fantastic, hallucinogenic absurdity, and a funky soundtrack, Superbad is the laugh out loud hit of the summer. For comparison, watch a film like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry to see how the one is light years ahead of the other in terms of sophistication and intelligence.

Years down the road, chances are Judd Apatow (the director of Knocked Up; here the producer), Seth Rogan, and Jonah Hill will look back on the summer of 2007 with wonder and awe. Together, the three were directly involved with (and often conspired together on) some of the summer’s biggest hits—Knocked Up, Shrek the Third, Evan Almighty, Rocket Science (to be released next week, but already getting great buzz), and now Superbad. If Superbad is about one unforgettable night in the lives of two young men, this summer is likely to be indelibly etched in the minds of some of the most hilarious, creative (and incontestably naughty) men to hit Hollywood in a very long time.

Colbert on Bergman

Watch Colbert honor the late Ingmar Bergman in his own, unique way here.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Film Tasting

Recently, one of my wife’s co-workers had us over to their apartment, along with several other couples, for a wine tasting party. It was a sumptuous affair, with numerous varieties of reds all from all across France’s rich Bordeaux region.

We participated in three tastings (each with three vintages), the first of which was done blind to ensure our impartiality. The reason for the objectivity was clear as soon as we took our first sips. Of the three glasses, one was clearly a humble table wine, one a middling quality entry, and the other an exquisite, expensive vintage.

I’ve attended wine tastings before, mostly in Italy, but never with checklists recording our impressions of the Five Ss (See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip, and Savor). By the time we were done, we had several pages worth of marked boxes and scribbled notes.

What impressed me, was that out of the dozen or so tasters, most of whom had never participated in a tasting before or knew anything about wine, all but two people correctly assessed the quality of the vintages and with the tools given them, were able to articulate exactly why.

And it got me thinking...

What if we substituted film for wine? What if, instead of ingesting everything that came down the theatrical pike without a second’s thought regarding its quality, we actually applied some discriminating taste? If we gave viewers the proper tools for understanding inherent levels of excellence within cinema, could even the most uneducated film viewer come away knowing the difference between Michael Bay and Ingmar Bergman and be able to explain why? The exercise with the wine proved that even the most ignorant tongues can appreciate and distinguish between base, average and the truly extraordinary.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a reason the French drink the table wine each night with dinner. It is cheap and agreeable, a satisfactory if uninspired compliment to their meal that does not require anything in the way of reflection or meditation. But when they sit down to an opulent banquet, only the finest wine with the most exquisite balance, bouquet, and flavor will suffice. No matter what they hold in their glasses, they are fundamentally aware of the content and the context within which each is appropriate and esteemed.

Should we not have the same attitude toward cinema?

If Matt Groening Drew Me...

...and wrote me into Springfield, this is what I'd look like.

To see what you'ed look like as a character on The Simpsons, click here.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

La Vie en Rose

Edith Piaf (Marion Cotillard) was born into pain. The daughter of a street performer and circus contortionist, the girl was bundled off to live with her grandmother, a brothel matron, while her father was sent to the trenches of World War I. There, ravaged by illness and even blinded for a time, Edith found some modicum of happiness among the prostitutes who became like surrogate mothers. But this respite ended when her father returned and snatched her away to use as a part of his circus act. Finding it hard going one dreary day, he forced Edith to perform. Not knowing what to do, the young girl opened her mouth and sang “La Marseilles.” It was as if Zeus’ thunderbolt fell. The gathered crowd, like the audience, sat in rapt astonishment as a voice at once colossal and delicate, strong and clear as a bell, surged from her tiny frame. And so the world met “the sparrow.”

If we assume this was the beginning of Edith’s way out of a life of hardship, we are wrong. When next we see her, she is a young woman, warbling on street corners and about to turn tricks for her supper when she is overheard by Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu) the owner of a Parisian nightclub. The impresario scoops this diamond in the rough from the streets and begins to shape her for the stage. It is a process continued by many competent men (Leplée himself is gunned down shortly after rescuing her, probably by a jealous pimp) until the diminutive (she stood only 4 feet, 8 inches tall) firebrand is transformed into the most famous and beloved French singer of all time.

Such stories are supposed to have happy endings, but Edith’s life was anything but. As a young girl, she prayed repeatedly to St. Theresa whom she imagined visiting and speaking to her in her times of greatest need. For many people, the struggle is to hold on to religious fervor as we shift into adulthood. Not so with Edith. She continued to pray to St. Theresa into adulthood. It was St. Theresa and her protective embrace, not Edith’s faith, which seemed to vanish in adulthood. Edith’s joys and tragedies seemed simultaneous. She loved many men (among them Yves Montand and middleweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan) but lost them all to tragic death or her own indifference.

La Vie en Rose is a story of a 47 year long suicide attempt, set to some of the most exquisite music you’ve ever heard. Surrounded by a swirl of lovers, friends and admirers — none of whom remained long enough to rely on — Edith lived instead for nights of belting out sublime cabaret ballads, guzzling champagne, lustful passion and morphine injections. When life was done with her, she was an old husk of a woman, prematurely old with thinning, dyed hair and a stooped back. Haunted by her reckless living, she died at aged 47 but looked 80.

The film follows a shattered chronology, skipping back and forth through time, leaping from Paris to New York and then doubling back on itself. It has an arc but no trajectory. It is almost impossible to stick entirely with it, though it doesn’t really matter. The camera is borne on the breeze of Edith’s own scattered memories. Though certain visual signposts remain to guide the viewer, the linear progression of her disintegration — a disintegration that begins with her birth and ends with her death — is all too clear.

Olivier Dahan's La Vie en Rose is not a perfect film, encumbered by its clumsy narrative and too reliant on cheap melodrama to reinforce Edith’s tortured state. But it is also an elegantly directed biopic with several scenes of staggering power (pay close attention to the subtlety with which Dahan handles Edith’s world debut, and the moment she discovers her beloved Cerdan has perished in a plane crash after she persuaded him to visit her in New York).

Marion Cotillard’s performance is so colossal that it overshadows the film’s faults, so blinding you to its blemishes and imperfections that you wonder whether you saw them at all in the first place. One moment she is a beautiful, vibrant woman, and the next is an unnaturally aged hag, a grotesque mime whose body is ravaged by a life of abuse and neglect. Cotillard joins Ben Kingsley (Gandhi) and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) in so completely embodying a role that it seems more possession than performance.

The film’s songs (many of which are actually Piaf recordings) are exquisite and will resonate in your heart and mind long after you leave the theater. What better legacy can there be? It is very appropriate that of all the songs for which Edith Piaf is famous, none is more beleoved than the poignant “Non je ne regrette rien” (“No, I regret nothing”). It is a defiant anthem to a life of self-destruction and unforeseen, undeserved heartbreak. When everything around her was in tatters, somehow her will and her voice sang on.

Ketchup With The Great Adventure

This past weekend, one of my dearest friends since childhood traveled from Los Angeles to New York City with the rest of his superbly talented improv comedy troupe, The Great Adventure, to perform on the Upright Citizens Brigade’s stage. Aside from spending a few great days “ketching” up I got to check out a series of spec commercials the group has filmed for a contest that Heinz is putting on. Enjoy!

For the rest of The Great Adventure's Heinz commercials, click here, here and here.