REVIEW: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Beginning it’s life at various permutations as a radio play, an epic BBC miniseries, a “trilogy” of five novels and a text-based adventure computer game fondly remembered by those of us prone to having fond memories of text-based adventure computer games, Douglas Adams’ popular science ficition comedy now arrives as a feature film. Though vastly enjoyable and excellently entertaining, the film succeeds in a curious manner: In finding a way to faithfully adapt the book to a film despite the long-held belief that the material was unadaptable to the medium, the filmmakers have essentially proved correct the long-held belief that the material was unadaptable to the medium. I’d like to think that the late Adams, who’s tales included one where God proved Himself to be nonexistant, would find that terribly amusing.

To be sure, a lot of popular books, especially those in the scifi/fantasy canon, are frequently said to be “impossible” to make films out of. Usually, those saying such are exaggerating, and misusing the word “impossible” as a substitution for “very, very difficult.” It turned out, for example, that it was not impossible to film “The Lord of The Rings,” but merely an extremely complex undertaking requiring undreamed-of technological wizardry and a director of singular vision and skill. In terms of narrative, Tolkien’s tomes were written (very intentionally) in the manner of historical-record, and thus in terms of a workable screenplay were as “adaptable” as any event of history.

The real “impossible” adaptations, rather, are those materials where narrative either doesn’t exist in any recognizable form or where the narrative is so cerebral and/or internalized that it can only really work properly by reading it. Frank Herbert’s inner-monologue-saturated “Dune” had to be gutted and reshaped from the ground up for David Lynch to make a working film of it, and the result has still managed to annoy lots of hardcore fans and perplex lots of non-fans to this day. (A recent TV-miniseries version, obsessively faithful to the novels, was further and final proof that the material was just NEVER mean to work as a film exactly-translated.) We’ll probably never see functional films of “Finnegan’s Wake” or “The Catcher in the Rye” for the same reasons.

So too it is with “Hitchhikers,” where the narrative turns on a relatively “routine” (for the genre) quest-through-space adventure and the “meat” of the comedy lies in Adams’ very British musings on all the interstellar oddities the heroes encounter AND in the endless supply of dryly-absurd outer-space anecdotes supplied by the titular “Guide,” a sort of e-book Encyclopedia for spacefaring stowaways. Thusly, turning any story that relies so heavily on divergence and inner-musings into a straightforward narrative brings with it the requirment to strip away much of Adams’ signature tangents and the risk that in doing so one may also strip away any reason to tell the story in the first place.

The “main” story arrives onscreen mostly-intact: Sad-sack English-everyman Arthur Dent is spirited off the planet (and away from his pitiable crusade to stop his house from being demolished to make way for a bypass) by his pal Ford Prefect moments before the Earth itself is demolished by the alien Vogons… also to make way for a bypass. Prefect turns out not to be human, but rather an interstellar hitchhiker himself charged with compiling data for The Guide, and he and Arthur are soon semi-unwelcome visitors aboard the spaceship Heart of Gold and innadvertently caught up in the mad quest of Zapphod Beeblebrox, the fugitive President of The Galaxy who’s seeking “the question to the ultimate answer” alongside Trillian, the last (female) survivor of Earth.

And that’s pretty-much the whole of the “story.” Like I said, the whole exercise is really a rung on which Adams could hang a series of tangential tirades about “life, the universe and everything.” The film preserves a fair sampling of these nuggets, including some choice samples from The Guide and a succession of oddball bits involving dolphins, sofas (my favorite) and a sperm whale. For book fans, other material hasn’t so much been excised as it has been changed in execution. Ford Prefect’s devotion to towels remains, but none of his ultra-sensible rationale for such is presented; thus the gag becomes a kicky non-sequitor for newcomers and a winking inside joke for the fans. A fair compromise, I’d wager.

Some fans with have MORE difficulty, though, with the way the film has engineered the story to more comfortably fit a traditional adventure-film narrative: The film adds expanded supervilliany (expanded, that is, from a few of Adams’ universal-oddities) to throw Trillian into danger, amps up a love story between Arthur and Trillian, puts a new twist on Zapphod’s secondary head and crafts a more wide-scale climax. I dealt with this, and found it to work well enough, others likely won’t.

What finally makes much of the difference is a well-assembled cast of character performers, with special note needing to be made of Sam Rockwell as a re-imagined American-huckster version of Zapphod and Warwick Davis (body) and Alan Rickman (voice) doing double-duty as a fantastic Marvin the depressed robot.

The eventual truth is that it’s difficult to say whether this new twist on the story is “as good” or “not as good” as any of the myriad other twists (each retelling has had it’s additions and subtractions, after all) but at least in the opinion of this reviewer the film succeeds as a faithful translation of Adams’ offbeat spirit if not entirely as a faithful adaptation of Adams’ actual material. Those looking to see a 100% visualization of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy” won’t find it here, but those hoping to find a very clever little film based-on “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy” will probably leave smiling.


REVIEW: XXX: State of The Union

I may or may not have taken a few cheap shots at the original “XXX” (said, for the record, as “Triple X”) in previous film reviews posted on this blog. It’s possible that shots may also have been taken at it’s expense in non-review articles about film also posted on this blog. And maybe also in articles about TV. And censorship. Come to think of it, unkind words directed at “XXX” are so ingrained in my day-to-day personal lexicon that it’s likely even to have come up in articles posted about weather, attractive lingerie models and varieties of soup I enjoy (or don’t enjoy, for that matter.)

Yeah, wasn’t a big fan of the original “XXX.”

You may or may not have some difficulty recalling the specifics of “XXX,” a difficulty which will rise and fall largely on your being OR being in the close proximity of either an employee of the film retail business or a member of the audience demographic (male “street”-culture poseurs between the ages of 12 and 16) for whom it’s otherwise-talented star Vin Diesel occupies the center a Holy Trinity of pop-culture demigods slightly below Eminem but slightly above Tony Hawk.

In any case, the film featured Diesel as one Xander Cage, aka “XXX” owing to a helpful neck-tattoo, an extreme-sports devotee recruited as a deep-cover secret agent by Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson,) the apparent leader of a super-elite cloak-n-dagger government division. His mission: Throttle eurotrashy terrorists using as much conveniently-placed extreme-sporting equipment as available (which turned out to be quite a lot.)

“XXX” was, putting it mildly, a disaster. You’re shocked, I know, since the idea of a catchphrase-spewing commercial for marketable faux-additude saving the world by snowboarding has such obvious cinematic potential. No more than a disgustingly calculated cash-grab for the disposable incomes of teenaged boys who’d developed an instantaneous fixation on Diesel after seeing him embody their wish-dream fantasy of self-perfection as romanticized drag-racing superhero Dominic Toretto in the embarassingly popular “The Fast & The Furious” and an even MORE disgusting calculated attempt to turn Diesel into the next-big-thing in action heroism. In what can only be described as an unexplainable minor-miracle, something was wrong in the marketers’ math and the film was greeted with a lukewarm “eh” by even it’s notoriously-undiscerning target audience.

But it wasn’t a TOTAL loss and now, for good or ill, we have a sequel in “XXX: State of The Union.” Diesel declined to reprise his role as Xander Cage, a move which will likely benefit his future career prospects and has in my opinion GREATLY benefitted the “XXX” franchise. Yes, you read that right. Here’s an action-sequel that blows the original out of the water and, heaven help me… I liked it.

Almost from the get-go, it becomes apparent that the filmmakers are heeding the age-old wisdom about how to proceed when life gives you lemons: Rather than scrapping the whole thing in the event of Diesel’s departure, they’ve taken the opportunity to jettison the Xander Cage character entirely along with all of the moronic grasping at the X-Games culture he represented and get about the more agreeable business of fashioning an action hero for whom being the angry-young-American answer to James Bond is it’s own gimmick. As Gibbons (Jackson again) speeds away in a narrow escape from one of the cleverer opening action scenes of late, he informs his aid of the immediate need for a “new Agent XXX,” (Xander’s nickname and tattoo having, apparently, been absorbed into the agency-proper,) and pointedly adds “no more surfers, bikers, snowboarders, etc.,” a sentiment which nearly drew from me a reflexive shout of “Amen!” which would have been loud enough to be deemed inappropriate were I even in Church at the time.

(Xander Cage, by the way, is expositioned-away as having been recently killed; an event not shown in the film but available to anyone with the lack of respect for their money to spend it on the new “Special Edition” of the original “XXX” on DVD.)

In any case, Gibbon’s choice for the new XXX is Darius Stone (Ice Cube,) a thug turned Navy SEAL turned convicted felon. Stone, played by Cube as a natural (in an action-movie) progression of the streetwise persona he’s honed to a fine art since his early rap career, makes it immediately clear that he WON’T be joining Xander on the half-pipe anytime soon: “I don’t play with my life, I’d rather play with your’s.” It’s a cute line, well-delivered. Cube is a good actor who’s had better, meatier roles before this and will have them again, but he knows enough that it’s more fun to play this material straight than to try to go too far with it. If Xander Cage was a studio marketing committee’s idea of cool; Darius Stone is cool, period.

The bulk of the story takes place in and around Washington D.C., as XXX and the remnants of Gibbons’ elite unit blast their way through a conspiracy involving a military-led coup of the Presidency, somehow tied to the President’s planned introduction of a new anti-isolationist “make allies of our enemies” direction for National Security at the State of The Union address.

The somewhat stunning lack of cynicism on the part of the film in this respect is almost charming, as it eventually means that the “big evil scheme” is hinged entirely on the premise that once the President merely voices an idea before the public that it will become and immediate and unstoppable force for change and thus must be stopped by whatever means necessary. Nope, lobbying or watering the initiative down in Congress or media skepticism or even the possibility that the President might just be floating a nice idea for polling’s sake are NOT possibilities in the world of this film. Somehow, this level of wide-eyed faith in the absolute honesty of presidential declarations is strangely endearing occuring, as they do, in a film where a later exchange sums the situation up as follows: “Freedom is in the hands of a bunch of hustlers and thieves.” “Why should tonight be any different?”

So yeah, it’s dopey. But I can’t say that it doesn’t succeed at being what it wants to be: Namely a fun, diversionary action-vehicle for Cube that revels in it’s own action-movieness. Given the implications of the subject matter, i.e. a militaristic overthrow of Washington, the omnipresent unreality of the film’s execution gives it license to produce scenes that no “serious” political thriller would dare attempt: Like an architecture-busting shootout in the Senate rotunda or the Capitol Dome blasted open by a tank shell. I’m even tempted to seriously suggest that the film’s knowing veneer of shoot-em-up silliness allows it to inject the possibility of relevant social commentary (of a sort): Surely SOMETHING bigger must be bubbling in the subtext of the film’s final-act, with Stone leading a makeshift army of street-tough thugs from the poor ghetto neighborhoods surrounding the U.S. Capitol on a mission to save America from an internal threat.

Also, the film uses it’s percieved unseriousness to handle the innevitable subject of race in what I can’t deny is a deft and proper manner. The film-proper and Darius himself never make any explicit reference to the noteworthiness of his black leading-man stature, (save for a single scene of verbal-comedy at the expense of a clueless bigot) but the fact is cleverly and naturalistically acknowledged in a few key moments. Stone’s choice of disguise for “blending” at a swank D.C. bash leads to the film’s funniest visual punchline, and later on the topic provides Cube with his best action hero one-liner of the show: When told by a skeptical lawman that he “looks guilty” after being set up, he shoots a stone-faced glare at the camera and knowingly intones “I was BORN looking guilty” in a manner that leaves little doubt to the multi-tiered meaning behind the statement.

NONE of this, you’ll understand, is meant to suggest that “XXX: State of The Union” is some deep well of social commentary or racial insight, but it’s just slightly smarter than an action-movie sequel needed to be; and that’s a big part of why this is a superior film to the original and FAR better than any sequel to “XXX” had any right to be.

As strange as it is to type these words… I’m reccomending it.


MovieBob’s "Final Rating" system clarified

I’ve been going over the old reviews during this largely-slow news period in hopes of compiling some sort of reccuring best/worst of the year so-far list(s), and it dawned on me that I’ve been using a numerical rating for the concluding “Final Ratings” but have never really clarified what the numbers should be taken to mean. An oversight on my behalf, to be sure, and one I intend now to correct.

What follows is the ten possible final rating scores for this sites reviews, along with brief explainations of what such a rating is meant to say about the film.

10/10: An unequivocal reccomendation. The film is either perfect, damn-near perfect, or has positive qualities so abundant and extraordinary as to negate the impact of any flaws it may or may not possess.

9/10: The film is excellent, in the upper-echelon of quality, worth seeing immediately. Perhaps lacks the esoteric spark of grandeur to achieve a “perfect 10,” but still better than almost any immediate alternative.

8/10: A great film, reccomended. Not quite an instant classic, but nothing seriously wrong with it and a great deal more right with it.

7/10: Not a classic and not on the “run-right-out-and-see” list, but the film is most-likely solid and assured filmmaking, and may even contain a few sparks approaching genuine greatness.

6/10: Decent and inoffensive, but only barely rises above the average.

5/10: Totally average. In many ways, this is probably “worst” rating even if it is not the lowest, as it’s my general asthetic philosophy that the most egregious crime of art is to be unremarkable in either good or bad traits. “5” films are generally competent and properly-assembled, but lack the necessary interest to make them worth mentioning. In other words: “eh.”

4/10: Below average. Something is inescapably wrong with this film. It has unignorable flaws, and is not a good film.

3/10: A film with serious problems. It’s flaws run deep, and it’s positives are nearly nonexistant.

2/10: This is a bad film, with major flaws all the way to it’s core. May even approach “awful” throughout it’s duration.

1/10: This is a terrible film, not only bad but very possibly painful to endure. In some instances, which will be noted in the review-proper, films this bad may actually be bad in such away that there are actually “reccomended” for the humor and learning-value of their innate awfulness.

REVIEW: Kung-Fu Hustle

If I had to reduce my reviews to capsules, here would be the entry for “Kung-Fu Hustle”: This is very possibly the funniest movie of the year, definately the funniest so far and likely tough to beat as the months go on. Get yourself into a theater and see this now.

By the time you’ve read this, you’ve probably heard a hundred times over from voices ranging from Roger Ebert to the boxoffice teller at the cineplex that “Hustle” is a martial-arts flavored fusion of Buster Keaton and Bug Bunny, an East-meets-West lovechild of the MGM Musicals and the Shaw Brothers chop-socky epics. It’s all of these and more, but now having seen it I believe that the majority of observers have overlooked the film’s true pop-cultural ancestor: Popeye.

Specifically, I mean the golden-age of Popeye cartoons made for Paramount by the great Fleischer animation studios; the typical episode of which were gleefully-insane celebrations of the maleability of the cartoon form: Popeye and Bluto endlessly engaged in apocalyptic grand-scale fisticuffs while the animators reveled both in their innability to be seriously injured and their surroundings limitless potential to be demolished in ever-more creative ways. The heroes and villian’s of writer/director/star Stephen Chow’s film indeed have the Popeye characters powers, and the world they inhabit shares not only the Fleischer animator’s fondness for elaborate property damage but also their eye for setting such antics amid affectionate renderings of the everyday world of the working poor: As Popeye and Bluto’s cartoon world was indelibly linked to a Depression-era cityscape apple carts and tenaments, Chow grounds his tale in a 1940s-looking Chinese slum.

At the same time that Jackie Chan, Jet Li and other Hong Kong action superstars were making migratory inroads to American fame, Stephen Chow was becoming a phenomenon of the Asian cinema as a wunderkind comedy star. Chinese audiences adored him, leading to an explosive rise to the top but also a dour pronouncement: Because his self-invented style of nonsense-comedy relied heavily on verbal gymnastics, he’d never translate to Western audiences. Chow’s response was to hone his proficiency with physical humor, drawing heavily on comedians of the silent era and the 70s kung-fu epics of his youth. The first film showcasing this new approach by Chow was “Shaolin Soccer,” which became the biggest domestic hit in Chinese history and a phenomenon in soccer-phile Europe only to see it’s release fumbled by Miramax in the U.S. “Hustle,” a superior film to “Soccer,” has been given a wide release by Sony and may finally be the film to make an American name for Chow.

Set in a version of 1940s (30s?) China, the film finds the land under the merciless control of a hatchet-slinging kung-fu crime syndicate appropriately dubbed The Axe Gang. Only the poor slum of Pig Sty Alley is safe from the Axe’s reign, and only because it’s too poor to be worth robbing. Sadly, this knowledge (make that any knowledge, really) is lost on wannabe gangster Sing (Chow), who tries to shake down the locals by masquerading as an Axe only to wind up wayover his head an inadvertently drawing the attentions of the REAL Axe Gang, who aim to make an example of Pig Sty Alley as to what happens when you mess with even a fake Axe. Their presence unleashes a slapstick battle-royal and the hidden secret of Pig Sty Alley: A whole crop of it’s most mild-mannered residents are actually kung-fu Supermen, old-school wandering master-figthers from the days of Shaw Brothers-school high adventure hiding out among the poor and downtrodden. Accordingly, this sets off a war between the Pig Sty masters and a succession of increasingly bizzare evil masters hired by the humiliated Axes, while Sing continues his quest for the villiany he’s so obviously unsuited for.

Slyly understanding his genre, Chow and his film are openly aware from the get-go that Sing’s innability to be a bad guy (no matter how desperately he wishes to be one) can only mean, in a kung-fu epic, that he’s destined to become a hero for the ages. He gambles, wisely I think, that the majority of the audience (and eventually EVERYONE in the film except Sing himself) will get this to be a fact from the get-go.. except of course for Sing, who at first seems clueless to the idea and later graduates to being openly hostile to it. It’s a grand credit to the film that this belligerence on the part of the hero to accept the fate we all know is coming to him transcends being a device of plot-extension and is instead presented as a crucial element of the plot and his own development. I won’t spoil how, but suffice to say it involves the mysterious character of Lolipop Girl and winds up providing a moment of romantic melodrama so earnestly-presented you won’t even feel silly at being genuinely moved by it. It’s expected, as the writer, director and star that Chow enjoys and even loves this material, but the deeper key to it all is that he believes in this material.

Chow is all over the film in all respects except for the one you’d most expect: actual screentime. His Sing is the main character, and his arc sets the tone for the rest of the movie, but in a rare display of auteur anti-egotism Chow is content to keep Chow’s story at a secondary level to the more colorful and immediately-endearing heroes up until the big climax. Sing spends the first act as an obnoxious would-be baddie, the second act as a guest-star in his own movie and only emerges as a superhero in the third and final act. Until then, he graciously cedes the stage to the cast of wacky aging kung-fu dynamos he’s assembled, and together they put forth a display of post-prime glory reclaimed thats every bit as cheer-inducing as the similar heroic reemergence in “The Incredibles.”

It would do the film’s setpeice scenes a disservice to try and describe them to you, as words simply won’t do them justice. Let me just say that special note needs to be paid to a tone-setting scene where Sing challenges all of Pig Sty to a fight… sort of, a shockingly funny scene involving knife-throwing and cobras that would do Dr.s Howard, Fine and Howard proud, and the hillarious revelation of “Toad Style” kung-fu.

The MPAA has rated the film R, mostly for violence (Chow doesn’t cut away from many of the bloody results of the Axe Gang’s mayhem, but shows the worst as black and white crimescene photos) and a few comical scenes of rear male nudity. I’m not in the business of making family-audience reccomendations for such things… but I’d say that if you’ve got kids who are looking to see this I’d say it’s at least suitable for the ten-and-up crowd in my opinion. At the very least, it has no real cursing (at least as far as the subtitles are concerned) no explicity sexual content and it’s overall message (basically “do unto others” with a Buddhist flavor) is broadly virtuous and worthwhile.

Far and away the best comedy out right now, don’t miss it.


REVIEW: The Interpreter

WARNING: Some entries here may or may not be regarded as spoilers by some. Read on at your own risk.

Personal fact: I graduated College with a degree in Art. Having offered this context, let me make an overtly Art Major’s observation about “The Interpreter”: It plays as a movie very similar to the vibe one gets looking at especially empty examples of “minimalism,” in that it does very little, means even less and expects to be congratulated for these facts.

Here is a suspense film without very much suspense, a story of political intrigue that sports about as much real “political” insight as the average suburbanite “Rage Against The Machine” devotee and isn’t very intriguing at all. A non-thrilling “thriller-lite” with a bead drawn on yuppie psuedo-sophisticates who’ll file into it eager to be made to feel smarter just for seeing it and, in many cases, to turn up their noses at all the “rabble” heading for the showing of “Kung-Fu Hustle” across the hall.

At least the performances, though not in service of much, are good. Nicole Kidman leads as a United Nation’s interpreter who’s pretty sure she’s overheard someone plotting to asassinate a visiting dignitary in the obscure dialect of her African homeland. Sean Penn is a bitter, jaded Secret Service agent (why yes, in fact, he IS a self-destructive lone-wolf owing to the recent loss of a loved one to tragedy.. how’d you guess?) who’s assigned first to investigate he claims and eventually to protect her when she seems to be in danger from whoever may or may not be “behind it all.”

Without spoiling any major details, the over-arching storyline is about the propensity for revolutionaries to morph into dictators (particularly in war-torn Africa) and the questions of whether or not counter-revolutions to stop them can accurately be described as “terrorism.” Meaty stuff, yes, the “The Interpreter” is only concerned with the thinest, most easily-digestible cuts of such: It’s shockingly easy to tell who the surprise-baddie is going to be from the moment he walks onscreen, especially if you’re even a casual student of politically-correct movie cliche’s and thus aware of the standard “out” used by films involving African turmoil hoping to avoid the P.C. taboo of making a minority the bad guy.

But, then, the movie really isn’t concerned with the goings-on of the story-proper; it’s concerned with it’s lead characters. More precisely, it’s concerned with their suitability as talking-head avatars in what amounts to a pretentious parable about differing approaches to disagreements (read: wars), with Kidman’s willowy pan-Euro class representing the virtues of U.N.-style debate and diplomacy and Penn’s swaggering macho-stoicism standing in for over-aggressive American vengefulness. Three guesses which side makes a convert of the other.

These are, of course, themes worth discussing and a debate worth building a film around, but not when the deck is so stacked to one side that the characters become one-dimensional editorial cartoon figures. Once you’ve figured out what the film’s message is, every event of it’s story becomes instantly predictable, and regardless of which side of the argument you fall on it just makes for dull, uninspired filmmaking.

Failure of story-mechanics aside, the film on the visual level is otherwise totally routine for the genre: steely gray-green vistas of perpetually overcast New York, womb-like amber-hued leading lady apartments, agents pounding back starbucks while staring out of stakeout windows, the obligatory single scene featuring a giant fireball of an explosion included so that the trailer can snare some wayward action fans, people snapping crucial photos from park benches, multi-tiered chases scenes linked by cellphones and radios… you know the drill by now.

Nothing terrible on display here, but certainly nothing unexpected or worth talking about either. It’s not going to rot any brains, but it won’t be expanding any either.


About this new Pope…

Not going to do too big a thing on this, as I’m getting the sense that mainstream fascination with the anachronistic Catholic pagentry in the choosing of a new Pope will soon fade. Let me merely say that, my Catholic upbringing aside, the new Pope Benedict XVI (aka Joseph Ratzinger) is not a man who’s beliefs I’ve ever greatly agreed with as long as I’ve known about him. He is, and has been for a long time, a hardline traditionalist in a Church that could use a lot less of those at this point. Still he’s now the Big Cheese and to the degree that you’re inclined to care what he has to say I suppose he deserves a clean slate.

Oh, but just one thing (hat tip to Andrew Sullivan on this one)…

THE pressing issue for the Catholic Church is, will continue and SHOULD continue to be their as of yet still grotesquely innadequate response to the clergy sex abuse crisis. What has the new Pope previously had to say about this issue? Read on…

“I am personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign, as the percentage of these offences among priests is not higher than in other categories, and perhaps it is even lower… One comes to the conclusion that it is intentional, manipulated, that there is a desire to discredit the church,”

For those of us who don’t speak B.S. fluently, he means that the scandal is all just a creation of that eeeeeeeeevil secular/liberal American media boogeyman. Didn’t see THAT ONE coming, eh? Prediction: Unless there’s another big flare-up of accusations, justice will continue to not be served for the hundreds of rape victims of priests, American Catholics will continue to drift further and further away from the Mother Church (a schism, perhaps?), and organized religion in the West will continue it’s inexorable slide toward irrelevance.

I’ve said this before, but perhaps not here: There should be a worldwide, U.S.-led full-scale criminal investigation into the entire Roman Catholic Church on this matter. EVERY priest found guilty of abuse should be in jail. EVERY Cardinal or official who knowingly covered up the abuse and moved them around to new victim-rich environments (I’m looking at YOU Bernard Law) should be in jail. EVERY Vatican official who is found to have known about the coverups and did not immediately report it to a superior or a law-enforcement agency should be (at least) arrested. If the Pope himself (including the new Pope, who was a high-ranking and highly-involved Vatican official before his ascension yesterday) is found to have known about it and participated in ANY WAY in the coverups, even in passing, then yes, he should be arrested and possibly even imprisoned for doing so. No one is above the law, “infallible” or not.

I know that some say that a criminal investigation into the upper echelon’s of the Church must not take place because it could cripple the institution. To them I say: Understood, but disregarded. It would be justice, plain and simple, to “cripple” the financial status of the entire Church if that was what was required to bring justice to ONE abuse victim… and there are THOUSANDS. To ALL politicians with the power and place to do so, I deeply implore you: Do not let this scandal “die” with the last Pope. Many offenders are still in the Church, and still being protected. Don’t go soft on this. Show them that no one gets away with hurting our children, no matter how big their castle, how oppulent their throne or which God they claim to speak for. Get on this, get the people responsible, get it done, and let justice at last be served.

The world has now not only the duty to save children from predators, but also the opportunity to perhaps save the Church from itself.

But then, thats just my opinion.

DVD REVIEW: 800 Bullets

Here is a plot synopsis for “800 Bullets”: Carlos, a mischevious 12 year-old troublemaker, is living in Spain under the reign of his mother, a cold and serious-minded corporate executive. He’s bursting at the seams with the boyish longing for high adventure which is, of course, harshly suppressed by mother along with any questions as to the identity of his father (who, it would seem, probably had more in common with his son than the woman his wife has become.) One night, digging through moving boxes with his flashlight he discovers (amid a swell of twinly Spielbergian “discovery music”) that his grandfather Julian was a stuntman in the 70s “Spaghetti Westerns” that were shot in the not-far-away Almeria desert long ago… and that he may still be there. A real live Western star! He heads off to Almeria seeking adventure and answers, and finds Grandpa Julian and a host of other wacky, aging Western stuntmen indeed are still living on the old cowboy sets, living lives of half-imagined excess and putting on cowboy stunt shows for tourists. Enraptured, Julian joins the slapsticky fun and games of these wacky cowboy performers and has the time of his life… until mother shows up with her corporate cronies and a plan to turn the whole place into a garish theme park. But the wacky cowboys and Carlos aren’t going without a fight, and they plan to hold off the bulldozers in a real life Old West standoff!

Armed only with this description, I imagine most people would immediately presume “800 Bullets” to be a family film, a comedy about a boy on a wild comic adventure. The wacky cowboys, the Hillary/Cruella mother character, the basic idea of “running off to join the circus,” it’s not hard to picture this all as some kind of awful Disney or Warner Bros. vehicle starring some odious sitcom tyke.

However, while it may (deliberately, I think) sport the plot, the characters and the arc of a lame kiddie time-waster, “800 Bullets” has other things on it’s mind: It’s also an R-rated bawdy dark comedy, brimming with foul language, bloody gunfights and fairly explicit sex scenes. It’s a night and day hybrid, but somehow it all works. It works really damn well, courtesy of Spanish cult-film wunderkind Alex de la Iglesia.

This is one of those films that defies easy characterization… in plot, it’s a kid’s film. In characters, it’s a dark comedy. As the third act rolls around, it becomes a violent shoot-em-up. The disparate elements criss-cross back and forth between one-another, stirring up something resembling mini-tempest of mixed genres. It’s hard to imagine a kid who wouldn’t be swept along with Carlos’ adventure here, but equally hard to imagine that most parents would find this film appropriate for any child of Carlos’ age. In this respect it reminds me of another excellent recent Spanish import, “The Devil’s Backbone,” which also plays primarily as a children’s film for grownups. (see also: “The Witches.”)

It’s also a loving, if minimally cynical, homage to the wonderment of children for the movies… not just the Spaghetti Westerns, but Westerns and boy-friendly adventure films in general. It’s final coda, which I couldn’t bring myself to reveal, is something I can honestly admit got me a little bit choked up. (Even as one does sort of see it coming.)

I suppose it can be read-into the film, of one chooses, that it’s buried message carries with it the hint of misogyny: Carlos and Julian are both, in their own way, ersatz Peter Pans who wish always to be little boys and have fun, and their “Captain Hook” in Carlos’ mother is indeed painted as an anti-maternal harpy who’s not only chosen business meetings and fancy (masculine) suits over child-rearing, but who’s ultimate aim always winds up as a malevolent spoiler of fun and games and hiss the vile orders to “grow up!” at everyone. Let it be said, though, that the film is intelligent enough to give her a point of view on the proceedings that is eventually sympathetic, and that it doesn’t take the easy road of making Julian anything close to a 100% noble figure.

I suppose this decidedly politically-incorrect undercurrent, plus the more explicit suggestion that Carlos is really seeking out the missing and desperately-needed masculine influence on his life in order to “become a man,” will bother some people. Myself, I can acknowledge that it’s there and accept it as a part of the film’s worldview, and also that since a HUGE majority of films (family or otherwise) especially in America are much more explicit in their messages about men and fathers-especially being (at worst) evil or (at best) completely unecessary, perhaps it’s proper that this film attempts a sort of counterbalance.

Bottom line: A fun film, highly reccomended.


REVIEW: The Amityville Horror (2005)

I’m not the type of movie geek who’s automatically opposed to any remake of a “genre classic.” I thought the (theoretically) heretical remake of “Dawn of the Dead” had merit. “House on Haunted Hill” and “The Mummy” were both worthwhile. However, I’m also not the type of person who’s prone to denying their gut instinct. Sometimes, certain remake ideas just give me a bad feeling.

This, you might’ve guessed, is one of those times… though not for the usual reasons. Most times, when one is confronted with a remake and reflexively driven to ask, “What’s the point?,” it’s because the original is some kind of enshrined, important classic (think “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”). Here, the “what’s the point” also applies retroactively to the original itself: The astounding financial success of the original “Amityville” is recalled today largely as one of those moments of pop-culture mass hysteria… many cannot readily identify a “point” to having made it the first time, let alone a remake (to say nothing of the SEVEN cheap sequels that occured in between.)

As with the original, the film takes place over a period of 28 days which the trailers have assured us are “BASED ON A TRUE STORY!” In most of the trailers, which is true. that declaration is followed by further assurance that what occured over those 28 days “HAS NEVER BEEN EXPLAINED!” That’s significantly less than true.

Reader’s Digest Version: In the mid-1970s, writer Jay Anson was provided with tape-recorded testimony from the Lutz family, who claimed to have fled their recently-purchased Dutch Colonial home due to hauntings possibly connected to the slaughter of the home’s former residents, the DeFeos. Anson punched up the story into novel form and the resulting “Amityville Horror” became a huge cult success by coasting on the “true story” hook, or more precisely the way that this story that “really happened!!!” was so similar to the happenings of popular 70s horror films (for reasons that would soon become apparent.)

The flash stayed in the pan long enough for an American International Pictures B-movie based on the book with James Brolin and Margot Kidder as the Lutzes to premier and become a runaway success in it’s own right despite being a defiantly routine haunted house pic. Eventually, after being sued by subsequent house-owners who were aggravated by the the Lutzes stepped up and admitted that much of their story had been exaggerated or invented outright as a publicity scheme with Roland DeFeo’s (the eldest child and killer of the prior owners) attorney as a partner, though they still claim that “unexplained” coldness and bad-vibes proved to them that the house was legitimately haunted. George Lutz is currently lashing out at this new remake for refusing to hire him as a consultant of some sort, as well.

Ryan Reynolds, still awkwardly showing off his “Blade 3” physique, plays George this time around, a contractor who picks up the Amityville house for a baragain (cue theremin) and moves in with his new wife and her three kids from a previous marriage. Almost immediately, just as in the original, bad stuff starts happening: The house is full of cold spots, the windows keep opening, doors slam, the dog won’t shut up, something evil is lurking in the cellar and George is suddenly suffering nightmares, nausea and a compulsion to behave abusively to his stepchildren. Also just as in the original, Kathy Lutz sticks around waaaaaaaaaay past the point where any reasonable person would stick around even in a horror film just so that everyone can be together for the big “All Hell Breaks Loose” (or, more accurately, “A Neglibile Amount Of Hell Trickles In”) finale. Somewhere in the middle, Philip Baker Hall pops up to throw some sizzling Holy Water around, get accosted by flies and depart.

The meager memorable keypoints of the original are dutifully trotted out: bleeding walls, cryptic voices and Reynolds sporting a Brolinesque beard. As for the rest of the film, it doesn’t so much add anything new so much as blend as many stylistic steals from other recent horror films as in can into the mix: creepy religious symbolism, grain film stock, blender-editing CGI facial morphs all make their obligatory cameos; and for reasons that eventually don’t even make movie-sense the ghost of little Jodie DeFeo is drifting around causing trouble in an attempt to replicate the Japanese “hair scare” spectres of “The Ring” and “The Grudge.” Even the central character of George plays less like a being in his own right (or even a semblance of Brolin in the original) and more like a direct lift from Jack Nicholson’s in “The Shining” (The iconic Stanely Kubrick film, not the lackluster early Stephen King book it was based on). The bottom of the barrel is even scraped so cleanly as to yield a rip from, of all things, “Poltergeist II.”

Bottom line: Nothing more than the latest off the assembly line of recent cash-grab “horror” entries, lacking anything new or worthy in it’s own right along with the original film’s curious-footnote stature. Not awful, but worth skipping.


Enemies of freedom confounded by "Sin City"

In case you hadn’t heard, “Sin City” is officially a big hit. In it’s opening weekend, the hyper-stylized, ultra-violent film handily outgunned the PG-13 romantic comedy “Beauty Shop,” and though it was unseated from first place the following week by the heavily-promoted “Sahara” it still managed to outgross another cutesy-poo romcom in “Fever Pitch.” In strictly Hollywood-business terms, the pic earned back it’s $50 Million budget already and is on track to becoming substantially profitable for the studio (especially when the ancilliary marketing and innevitably big DVD push kick in.)

This is all rather surprising and significant, primarily because few were expecting a black & white, highly-expressionistic noir-homage splatterfest; to say nothing of one based on a strictly cult-item run of graphic novels, to have much in the way of crossover appeal to mainstream audiences. Yet that’s exactly what’s happened, and it’s leaving a lot of people searching for the words to explain the success away.

Specifically, the always-delightful pro-censorship crowd is (for a change) at a loss for words here: If, as we keep being told, the country is undergoing a “spiritual reawakening” and a return to “traditional values;” then how does a film where thuggery, prostitution and gunplay are the face of a psuedo-chivalrous heroic-ideal while organized religion is comprised of equal parts corruption, pedophilia and cannibalism become the number one film in the country? Sensible people, of course, will tell you that the film was full of popular actors, heavily hyped and well-reviewed, thusly a great deal of people were curious to see it. Many others, like myself, would add that it’s a damn good movie, which usually doesn’t hurt a film’s chances of making money. And still others, also like myself, would tell you that a majority of the country is still made up of free-thinking, independent folks with minds of their own who don’t need the censorship lobby to tell us what we should and should not be watching.

But for the enemies of freedom who make up the censor crowd this simply won’t do. Their entire schtick is based on the carefully-cultivated mythology that “the media” is controlled by a secular liberal (read: anyone who disagrees with them) cabal, and that violent or sexually-explicit material is being “forced” on a public which, if said cabal was to be overthrown, would demand only entertainment which envinced the “good, old fashioned Christian values” the censor lobby prefers. When a film like “Sin City” or a show like “Desperate Housewives” is a major hit, it throws the censors for a loop because it shows the fallacy of their claims by preventing them from pretending to speak for “the mainstream” and instead exposing their true face as anti-freedom, anti-First Ammendment, anti-Constitutional radicals who’s agenda has little to do with the common man and very much to do with installing a regressive theocracy.

L. Brent Bozell, leader of the “watchdog” group the Media Research Center and the anti-freedom organization “Parents Television Council” is the current vangaurd of the censorship movement, so you can bet he’s got something to say about this. The success of “Sin City” is just the latest thing to make his entire so-called belief system look completely foolish, and you can see him struggle to explain it all away HERE:
(owing to technical difficulties, click link and scroll to entry titled “Sickos celebrate Sin City.”

Money quote: “It’s fine to appreciate the art of something, but not to the utter exclusion of a social conscience. Film is not just entertaining, it can be intoxicating. It can be a very malignant influence. Can you sit on the fence as this cinematic disease spreads? Just wait until the “Sin City” DVD starts traveling around in teenager backpacks.”

Please note, with irony, the way he here co-opts the old leftwing-socialist premise of the “social conscience,” here infering that the film should be low-rated for not envincing the particular political beliefs of Bozell and his cronies. See also use of terminology like “intoxicating,” “malignant influence” and “disease” to subtly prop up the undying yet completely unproven and unprovable dictum of the anti-freedom pro-censorship canon that such films will innevitably cause some sort of societal decay and/or imitated behavior. And finally the image of the “teenager backpacks,” speaking of the film as though it’s some kind of sinister underground cult-item instead of a hugely-popular boxoffice smash playing at every multiplex in the country to sizable crowds.

What Bozell and all of his ilk will either never understand or always pretend not to understand is that the success of any controversial film, whether it’s “Sin City” or “The Passion” is a quintessentially American thing: Despite what the anti-freedom, anti-First Ammendment, anti-Constitutional censorship-lobby may wish, we are free to choose, and we have chosen to be free.

The battle continues.

REVIEW: Fever Pitch

Warning: Some spoilers herein.

Here in New England, this is primarily known as “that Red Sox movie,” which means that it’s doing spectacular business. Whether that will translate to the rest of the nation remains to be seen, but it can be surely said that the promise of a story set during and around the Sox curse-reversing 2004 season has snared a big chunk of Red Sox Nation’s male populace into seeing a movie that they would likely otherwise have skipped: A rigidly-formulaic romantic “comedy” about a mismatched young couple making it work.

Which isn’t to say that the film doesn’t go out of it’s way to give Sox fans what they could reasonably have expected: “I walk by that place all the time!!!!” location shooting, expository banter about curses, Bambinos and Buckner, player cameos, etc. The Dropkick Murphys are on the soundtrack, along with all the standard pop-tunes about Boston and it’s eponymous team, the BoSox “font” is used for all the intertitles and (of course) a portion of the end credits roll over footage of the big World Series victory parade. If you’re a Red Sox fan, this is what you’re seeing “Fever Pitch” for, and the good news is you’ll get it. The not-so-good news is that getting to these fan treats requires you to sift through one of the most stiflingly predictable rom-coms not featuring Ashton Kutcher in recent memory.

This is all a rough translation of a popular Nick Hornby (see also: “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy”) book, directed by the Farelly Brothers. The British Hornby’s book was about soccer, and the Sox are on hand here because someone (not without reason) determined that Red Sox Nation was the only adequate American doppleganger for European soccer hooligans. (I’d imagine Raiders fans came in a close second.) As you’ve heard by now, the central premise is that of a “love triangle” in which our young hero is torn between his lady and his team. Drew Barrymore (who’s usually funny in these kinds of movies) is Lindsay the girlfriend, and Jimmy Fallon (who’s almost never funny in any kind of movie. Or television show. Or comedy album) is Ben the conflicted fan.

Let it not be said that this is a bad premise, or even not a very good one, but the film cannot seem to muster the will to do a single truly original thing with it. It plays like a script written in the manner of Mad Libs, as though the Farelly’s believed that the novelty of the Red Sox minutia was all they needed in the way of a new angle and just let the rest of the story play out by the numbers. It’s a total formula movie, and since formulas become formulas for a reason this means that “Fever Pitch” isn’t exactly awful or offensive… it’s just sort of “there.” It does, however, lack completely any semblance of ambition to be anything approaching memorable or meaningful.

This lack of desire to break formula becomes more and more clear as the film rolls on, and at about midpoint it begins to seriously hurt the characters: It becomes impossible to really care about Fallon or Barrymore’s characters once it becomes apparent that they have no depth or purpose beyond doing exactly what they need to do to make the required scenes happen. Barrymore’s character is, from scene to scene; understanding, irritating, silly, smart, insecure or over-confident, dependant ONLY on what the script requires her to do to provoke the plot-appropriate reaction from Fallon.

The film does her no favors, either, by going rather “soft” on it’s hero’s so-called “obsession.” Yes, his home is so stocked with BoSox memorabilia that it looks, as she says, “like he lives in a gift shop,” but as homes-of-fans go most of you have seen a lot worse in your actual lives. (Ever been in the garage of a hardcore Nascar devotee?) Ben’s fandom, as the film’s backstory endlessly informs us, is rooted more in the need for a surrogate family (his fan buddies, his fellow season ticket holders) than it is in any sort of “fanatic” trivium. Thus, when the film hits the obligatory “oh, Ben!” moments from Lindsay they don’t really work.

For example: A scene where Lindsay thumbs through Ben’s closet and finds a collection of team jerseys starts out as cute, but immediately sours when the contents actually serve to upset her. After she’s already seen his bedroom/memorabilia-museum, what did she expect to find? It’s a totally false beat, existing only because the formula called for a “speedbump” moment, and it only gets worse when she pronounces: “This isn’t a man’s closet!”, declares him a “man-boy” and sighs that her sister’s husband has a closet full of wonderful suits. Whereas the initial response reads as false, the name-calling followups simply feel cold and unreasonably mean. It also marks poor character structure, since in the very next scene she’s not only “nice” again but also a willing participant in his fanboy eccentricities.

The “arc” to all this is supposed to be that Lindsay meets and falls for Ben during the winter, and thus is “hillariously” surprised by the “different guy” that pops up during the baseball season. The trouble is, “winter Ben” is presented as such a superhumanly above-and-beyond boyfriend that even the most extreme display of misplaced priorities that “summer Ben” can muster aren’t really enough to make him even close to unlikable enough to justify the mandatory pre-happy-ending false-alarm breakup that innevitably ensues. The situation (Ben can’t contain his displeasure upon learning he’d skipped “the best game ever played” to attend a prove-I’m-more-important-than-the-Sox-to-you date with Lindsay) is so contrived, and Lindsay’s reaction to it so overblown-feeling that I just couldn’t help but wonder if she had somehow missed the rest of her own movie.

But maybe I’m being too hard. The plain fact is, formula romantic comedy has it’s audience and that audience will probably enjoy this. Enough of the jokes hit, theres a lot of fun classic rock music (a Farelly staple), I’m sure that a good number of so-called “sports widows” will find cause to nod to eachother in a “you said it, sistah!” manner in agreement with Lindsay’s frequent exasperation and I’m equally sure that devoted Sox fans will enjoy the multiple scenes where Ben’s colorful gallery of fellow-fans give Lindsay the Reader’s Digest version of Red Sox mythology from The Curse to the proper pronunciation of Yastrzemski.

So yeah, here and there I smiled and laughed. But it’s just so relentlessly predictable and lazy that I just can’t fully reccomend it in good conscience. It’s an average movie that seems less so because it never once tries to be above-average.

Bottom line for Sox fans: As Boston sports-comedies go, it’s at least better than “Celtic Pride,” but not good enough to be worth paying theater prices for unless you like formula romantic comedy at least a third as much as you like the Red Sox. Wait and rent it, and until then you can always just watch “Faith Rewarded” a few dozen more times, right?

Bottom line for everyone else: Just another romantic comedy, save for boasting some amusing trivium about Boston sports fandom in between the usual beats. This particular weekend, you’re still better off with “Sahara.”