Going to be sparse for awhile here…

I’ll be off on vacation for about a week, so updates will probably cease until then. My appologies, but I will return. Promise.

Until then, fresh reviews of “The Island,” “Devil’s Rejects” and “Hustle & Flow” are to be found below. Check them out, and see you all when I get back.

REVIEW: The Island

Review contains some information that can be considered minor spoilers if you haven’t seen any trailers for this film yet.

A common misconception about Michael Bay movies is that they are “unpretentious,” mostly due to the common misuse of the term “pretense” to describe only “highbrow” materials or artistic aims. In truth, “pretense” refers more accurately to the attempt by a peice of art to be visibly “more” (usually “more important”) than it actually is through a layering of elements. In this sense, Michael Bay movies are all about pretense: His whole style has been, from the start, imbuing action vehicles with exaggerated pretense toward glamour and mythic imagery. He loves magic-hour sunset cinematography, especially when linked to something as vulgar as a car chase or John Woo-wannabe shootout. He loves big, dramatic statue-of-a-greek-god hero shots of actors, especially when they’re everyman action guys in street clothes or a law-enforcement uniform.

In “The Island,” (his first directorial outing not under the wing of Jerry Bruckheimer,) Bay has finally been presented with a screenplay that aptly matches his visual style at overblown pretense: Here we’ve got a paint-by-numbers “cautionary scifi” which is cautionary in the broadest strokes and almost completely junk in terms of it’s science. A bloated, plodding, formulaic chase movie lurching forward under the heavy pretense of having “something important” to say about medicine and humanity in the biotech age.

It was sadly innevitable that the subject of cloning would yield a bad paranoid-scifi epic sooner or later, but it says something about the level of accuity that “The Island” is playing at to note that even with all the new science and frontiers involved in cloning in the real world, the film remains almost a total knockoff of “Parts: The Clonus Horror” which was made in the 70s. In other words, there’s nothing new to see here.

Ewan McGregor, who ought to have known better, is Lincoln (get it?) Six Echo. He lives in a big, sterile facility that looks the shopping mall “city” from “Logan’s Run,” along with thousands of other oddly-named people who go about wearing the white skinsuits from “THX-1138.” It could be that all this theft from prior movies is some kind of subtle gag, since the film is about copies of things… but I sort of doubt it. Lincoln (get it?) and his best pal Jordan Two Delta, (Scarlett Johanssen,) along with everyone else, believe that they are the last survivors of some vast contaminatory holocaust, and that their regimented lives are preparation for a (randomly selected via lottery) trek to “The Island,” the last uncontaminated place on Earth. Lincoln (get it?) is starting to get antsy, though: he’s troubled by nightmares, and begins to suspect that there is no Island.

After nearly a solid hour of beating heavy-handed foreshadowing into our heads, the truth is revealed and proves Lincoln (get it?) right: The facility inhabitants are actually clones, organ banks for a biotech firm’s wealthy clients, and the whole contamination/island story is just there to keep them docile until parts need harvesting. Lincoln (get it?) and Jordan bust out after learning this and go on the lamb, pursued by a bounty hunter (Djimon Honsou) hired by the head baddie (Sean Bean, regrettably not named Hitler SixSixSix Badguy) and the film becomes an extended chase sequence for the remainder of it’s duration. What it adds up to is that Bay gets to stage another scene of cars dodging junk falling off a truck, and Lincoln (get it?) gets to go and try playing Great Emancipator of his fellow clones.

The film is obviously striving to be a kind of topical, Spike TV-skewed riff on “The Matrix,” but it lacks the brains or the conviction to arrive at such. It dwells obsessively on the “science” of it’s junk-science, and only looks junkier as a result: We’re expected to believe that, when the ability to regrow tissue with a vial of mere stem-cells is looming on our horizon, that in a film set at the tail end of the 21st century the most efficient way to get spare parts is have a giant city full of functioning adult clones wandering around dining at juice bars and playing virtual-reality kung fu games? Seriously? Beyond that, the film soon jumps the science-rail entirely and gets into the old standbys of “genetic memory.” Please, make it stop.

The good points are few and far between: The otherwise dull action scenes get a momentary lift thanks to a cameo by the big flying motorcycle thingees from “Halo,” and Steve Buscemi has a fun turn in his reccuring role as “Interesting Wildcard In Otherwise Formulaic Michael Bay Movie Guy.” And it wouldn’t be much of a cloning movie without an amusing scene of an actor acting against his digitally-replicated “self,” would it?

Much hay is being made right now about the “politics” of this film, but having seen it I think it’s giving “The Island” far too much credit to infer that it has the depth necessary to be propaganda for anything. The fact is, the anti-choice legions are going to latch onto this film as “one of their own,” reading it as an anti-Embryonic Stem Cell Research parable that makes their point by recasting the microscopic stem cells as full-grown marquee-name actors, and there’s really nothing that can be done about that one way or the other. Yes, it’s depressing to think that you, me or someone we love may one day die of a curable ailment because research was held back amidst serious debate on the personhood of petri-dishes… but it would be wrong to place any real blame for this on “The Island,” however below-average a movie it is in it’s own right.

(That said, there’s a rather blunt line about midway in that sounds very much like a reference to Terri Schiavo, another unwitting-icon of the anti-choice movement. Hm…)

Eh. You may choose to see “The Island” in political terms. I myself mostly saw it as a dull, formulaic movie and would honestly reccomend that people not see it, period. Four other movies came out this weekend, along with an expanded screen-count for “March of The Penguins.” See one of those.


REVIEW: The Devil’s Rejects

How did Rob Zombie survive the goth/metal implosion when so many of his more critically lauded fellows perished? Simple: He never visibly bought into the “romance” of it. While other late-90s metal acts were dolling up like Anne Rice archetypes and immersing their stage presence in the realm of Ankhs, serial-killer mythos and morose humorlessness, Zombie took a different path: His music was hard-driving, infectious and (gasp!) danceable, and for imagery and inspiration he plumbed the depths of spook-shows, haunted houses, carnival-freakshows and old horror movies. One part Metallic and one part The Munsters. I fondly remember a day in my otherwise rueful High School existance where my film-geek ability to cite and explain the various references in some of Zombie’s songs and videos temporarily made me extremely “interesting.” (btw, the big-head robot is from “The Phantom Creeps.“)

No, it wasn’t the deepest music, and it never terrified the culture the way Marilyn Manson did, but when “goth” metal stumbled under the weight of it’s own pretense Zombie carried on without so much as a missed step. Semi-androgynous guys dressed like The Crow had had their day as the reigning cultural fad… but the bearded horror-host looking maniac in the mandatory top hat, that schtick was already around before Zombie himself was even born for a reason.

Having absorbed so much of his energy from horror movies, it was innevitable that Zombie would make one of his own. The result, of a few years back, was “House of 1,000 Corpses,” a busy throwback to the mid-70s deluge of “Texas Chainsaw”-knockoffs about a group of young people who fall prey to a family of boundlessly-creative mass-murderers on Halloween. Uneven but hugely entertaining, plus solidly directed, the film now has a sequel in “The Devil’s Rejects”… structured in such a way that, if you happen to be among the many who never gave “House” a chance you won’t be completely lost. It’s also, overall, the superior film.

Briefly: Following (presumably) the events of “House,” a crazy-in-the-religious-sense Sherriff Wydell (William Forsythe) leads a massive armed raid on the farmhouse of the crazy-in-every-sense Firefly Family. The raid yields a motherload of bodies, plus a captive Mother Firefly, but survivors Otis (Bill Mosely) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) escape. Teaming with their father Captain Spaulding (Sig Haig,) the remaining Fireflys begin a murder-spree as they seek safe haven with their “uncle,” (Ken Foree,) a brothel-proprietor named Charlie Altamont. In pursuit are the increasingly-insane sheriff, plus a pair of hired guns (Danny Trejo and Diamond Dallas Page) called The Unholy Two.

This is, plainly, one proudly odd duck of a movie. Zombie is working a series of pretty specific cinematic fetishes here, and not only is it not garaunteed that any one of them has enough adherents to make a hit out of this, it’s not even sure that the various stratas of film buffs would be able to stomach it all in one package: The Fireflys, plus the level and manner of violence they inflict, are straight out of the nastiest gorefest. The settings… dusty highways, rusty trucks and sparse dives… are the stuff of “Walking Tall” hicksploitation nirvana. The soundtrack eschews metal in favor of searingly well-utilized southern rock classics. It’s like Zombie went on a bender of post-60s exploitation self-education and made a screenplay out of his crib notes.

This is no “Kill Bill” of semi-segmented genre-dissection, this is styles-in-a-blender, and it’s made even stranger by the imposition of a “revenge drama” story arc upon these outlandish characters: The Firefly’s are ruthless thrill-killers, and their pursuers are equally vicious in their own right, but the film plays out as though it’s Butch & Sundance with pickup trucks; framing the Firefly’s in the terms of a “wacky but loving” family of miscreants and seemingly rooting for them to triumph over the cops. The pace never breaks it’s flow between, for example, horrific scenes of the Firefly’s torturing and slaughtering a random family they happen upon at a motel and later scenes of family comedy over whether or not to stop the car for ice cream.

But I digress. It’s up to the film scholarship of the future to discern whether or not the road/revenge/southern-rock/gore/horror/comedy genre was anything of note; what can be said here and now is that Rob Zombie has made the best possible entry in it I can seriously imagine. I loved this, whatever it is, unashamedly. I don’t think I’m the only one, the actors all seem to have had a great time: Sig Haig once again proves an incredible screen presence, Sheri Moon Zombie is once more the year’s most alluring murderess, and Mosley has actually toned down his bit as Otis (btw, this time around the inside joke of the Firefly’s copping the names of Groucho Marx characters becomes a key plot point) to great effect, utilized this time out as the “straight man” to his more absurd family members.

Zombie has improved exponentially as a filmmaker, and his “money” scenes of gore are just as self-assuredly inventive as the movie containing them: Hands are nailed to chairs, skulls are bashed in, ammo-clips are emptied, axes are swung, knives are thrown and even staple-guns get memorably employed at one point. In terms of bloodletting-as-artistry this is the best boot-to-the-guts gorefest since “Sin City,” bar nothing. And if that sounds like your kind of night at the movies, then get out and see it. In terms of the not-yet-“converted” getting into this at all… look, I honestly can’t tell you. It’s just a hugely difficult film to classify.

I guess it comes down to this: One scene in the film involves a carful of hateful, remorseless (and by that point thoroughly horrific-looking) serial killers engaged in a pitched gunbattle against a phalanx of police that becomes a blur of blood, bullets and wounds all set to the (complete) tune of “Freebird.” If that even approaches something you’d be entertained or even impressed by, you can see it in this movie.


REVIEW: Hustle & Flow

Whether or not you’ll get anything out of watching “Hustle & Flow” will depend less on your appreciation (or lack thereof) for hip-hop than it does on your willingness (or lack thereof) to entertain seriously the core mythology of the genre: That there exists within denizens of impoverished areas, especially those toiling away at illegal activities, the souls of poets just aching to tell the world “what it is” in the form of a rythymic dance track. If this is a notion you believe in, or at least can feign belief in enough to enjoy the genre when it works, you’ll likely find a lot to enjoy here. On the other hand, if you’ve got a tough time buying the “romanticism” of hoodlums setting self-aggrandizing inner monologues to repetitive Casio beats… you probably ought to see something else.

Myself, I fall somewhere in the middle on the whole thing. Objectively, it’s hard to deny that much of the mythic image of hip-hop is little more than shrewdly manufactured smoke and mirrors. But it certainly had a kind of genesis in something real, like all music, and when it works it works. Which is about what you can say for this movie.

Terrence Howard toplines as DJay, a low-level Memphis pimp and drug-dealer who rediscovers a yearning to be a rapper when he lucks into the posession of an old keyboard. It turns out he’s got real talent for lyrics and beats, and soon he’s lucking into other things like an old buddy (Anthony Anderson) who owns recording equipment and knows how to build a makeshift studio and the impending visit of a childhood aquaintance who’s grown up to be megastar rapper Skinny Black. Still more luck: A local church kid (scene-stealing DJ Qualls) is a whiz with a mixing board and DJay’s pregnant ‘ho reveals a great voice for singing hooks.

Yeah, It’s that kind of music movie. All the staples of the genre are there: Stapling egg cartons to the walls for soundproofing, miraculous scenes of “it all coming together,” recreational drug use, a lead character feverishly scribbling lyrics in a notepad, inside-ref-laden scenes about mics and studio mixing, the married character who’s wife doesn’t like him spending time at the studio, it all gets a workout. None the less, Filtered through a determinedly 70s-colored lens, bouyed by the authentic-looking Memphis surroundings and resting on the back of Howard’s inspired starmaking turn, the film frequently rises above the “how I got into the music biz” movie-pile and has moments of real energy and emotion. It’s characters are complex, culled from the genre stockpile or no, and yield surprises.

Thus, it’s a bit disheartening that the film suffers a bit come the third act, eventually collapsing into the overworn cliche’s of hip-hop movies (and videos) past. It’s at least agreeable that the characters don’t have to break their previous strides in order to arrive at the genre-mandated blowup of police, posses and screaming onlookers, but still a bit of a letdown on my end that the story couldn’t find a more original way of wrapping itself up.

Still, it’s a well-made film and a good star-turn. And unless the genre is a complete turnoff for you, I’d say it comes reccomended.


Is the "Passion-Effect" continuing?

“[The clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” — Thomas Jefferson, Sept. 23 1800.

You may have been able to expunge it from your memory, but you may recall that the big “hoped-for” impact of Mel Gibson’s religious-fundamentalist (and, in my view, nominally anti-semetic) torture-porn epic “The Passion of The Christ” from it’s most fervent supporters was that it would “prove” to Hollywood the existence of a massive Christian-hardline audience and that more of the overall film output would begin to be catered to them. As you may have guessed, in my opinion there’s already too much influence by extreme-religiousity on American culture, so this is was a concern of mine as well.

While it’s not only true but also grossly-underreported that the majority of American faithful are good and decent people, the same cannot be said for the vast majority of faith-based leaders, lobbyists and special-interest groups; which were of course the very machines propping up “their” manufactured hit in “The Passion.” Most such groups are pushing not for faith and/or “morality” but instead for political agendas in the anti-freedom vein. Also, their usual reccomendations for “improving” Hollywood product: purging out curse words, nudity, sex; inserting cloying moral messages, using film to prop up their belief to the exclusion of all others, etc., would result in movies that really really really SUCK. Which is the real problem.

I was sort of hoping that the failure of Hollywood to bow before the pressure and shower “Passion” with undeserved accolades in the awards season would be the end of the dream, at least in large part. But now comes this story from Sharon Waxman of the New York Times, laying out the apparent rumblings of a movement towards, if not the “Christianizing” of the U.S. film industry, at least a troubling development to those of us who truly value freedom (they once called us “Americans”) and have the historical acumen to recall what becomes of freedom when the type of religiousity espoused by the Passionistas becomes any kind of formidable cultural force.

Here’s Waxman’s original peice, courtesy the NYT by way of the International Herald Tribune:

As my feelings about such have likely come up before, I’ll just say for the record that YES, it does in fact bug me to be quoting the NYT for this. If I want to read DNC talking points, I’ll just read DNC talking points is the usual extent of my “use” for said newspaper, but this time around Waxman’s peice is stocked by a good deal of quotes and free from much editorializing, so I’ll let it aboard.

From the article:
“Mel Gibson did us a service,” said Bob Waliszewski, a media specialist with Focus on the Family”

Focus on The Family is a militantly anti-choice, anti-gay rights organization, fronted by anti-freedom juggernaut Dr. James Dobson. Just thought I’d bring that up. Here’s their website, be forewarned about the vitriol of some of the content:

The article then segues into a discussion of the biggest publicity “coup” for this so-called movmement: Disney’s very public wooing of marketing firms aimed at mollifying the evangelical audience for “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The With & The Wardrobe.”

“Paul Lauer, who on his Web site calls himself an expert in the “faith and family” market, has been hired to work on “The Chronicles of Narnia,” based on the C.S. Lewis literary fantasies, which Christian groups regard as an explicit allegory of Christ’s Resurrection.”

As I blogged before, thus far this has seemed to me to be a development that is a touch troubling in the overall but does not negatively reflect on the film proper at this time. Despite the creepiness of marketing a children’s film in the same manner as the ghastly “Passion,” a simple formulation thus far holds for me: The marketing is the marketing, and any niche you have to hit to sell the film should be considered. The problem with “Passion” in this case is that it actually was the creepshow propaganda it was often marketed to be. Thus far, I see no such indication from the makers of this film.

Now, I want something understood here: I don’t have a big problem with fundamentalist Christians having movie marketing aimed at them. Hollywood exploits everyone else’s hobbies and interests for marketing, so why shouldn’t they have that “fun,” too?

No, my issue is that films may be hurt and creativity stifled in an attempt to appeal to a market bloc that has not really been historically condusive to creative freedom. And that’s where the worrisome stuff begins to creep up:

“In some cases, such customizing has meant sanding the edges off dialogue that might offend churchgoers.”


And before anyone brings it up, YES I am equally offended when film dialogue gets a polish to avoid offending ANY special-interest group.

“For example, the actor Peter Sarsgaard, speaking at a tribute to his work during the Seattle Film Festival recently, said he was instructed to strike the word “Jesus” from his dialogue during shooting this year of the forthcoming Disney thriller “Flightplan.”

I’m sorry, but that is simply total and utter CRAP. You cannot just yank every line that MIGHT offend someone, you’ll be left with no lines.

“They said: ‘You can’t say that. You can’t take the Lord’s name in vain,”‘ Sarsgaard said he was told by the film’s producers. He said he offered to say the line more reverently, but “they wouldn’t buy it. I had to say ‘shoot,’ and that isn’t as good.”

“You can’t take the Lord’s name in vain????” This came from a film producer’s mouth as an instruction to an actor? This is faith-based censorship of the worst kind, and the makers of this film should NOT have either stood for it or engaged in it. The makers of the film (which looks pretty awful anyway, no?) should hang their heads in shame for selling out the integrity of their art like this. Disgusting.

Still, the article isn’t ALL bad news:

“There’s definitely more of an awareness, but it’s just another group to be marketed to, albeit a very strong one, with incredible grass-roots tentacles,” said Russell Schwartz, president of theatrical marketing at New Line Cinema, a Time-Warner company.”

That’s what, in my estimation, the prevailing studio additude ought to be: It’s fine to attend the party, just don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Big applause to New Line Cinema.

And then there’s always the issue of one of the more amusing bits of hypocritical behavior by the so-called “Christian-Right”… their often-noted warm relations to movie violence in spite of their often-noted dislike for movie sex:

“And just to complicate matters, a new study by a leading Hollywood marketing firm, MarketCast, suggested that not only do American Christians watch mainstream entertainment, but the most conservative among them are also drawn to violent fare.”

Wow, didn’t see that one coming, eh folks?

“What you find is that people with conservative religious doctrine are the most likely to see movies rated R for violence. If you compared it to liberals, it’s a third more.”

Hypocrisy, you say?? In a religious movement???


Now, lest some of you determine I’m unfairly focusing on “conservatives” here, let it be known I’ve got JUST as much disdain for anyone making anti-freedom waves on the “liberal” side.

For example, they don’t come much more “liberal” than Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has embarked on a crusade to bring down the hammer of the FCC on the video game industry:

“Clinton compared the sale of violent and pornographic video games to that of alcohol and tobacco and said it was time for a law “with real teeth.”

Put aside any thoughts of the 2008 election or your own political preferences for a moment and ask yourself something: Can you fathom ANYTHING for anti-freedom or anti-artistic than this notion? That entirely subjective IDEAS might need to be regulated as “harmful” the way drugs or stimulants are? Think about it: Under that logic, ANY creation of art, literature, whatever, could be found “harmful” on unprovable illogical grounds and subject to government regulation. Does just the sound of that scare the bejesus out of anyone but me? Just asking…

Of course, this is largely a ploy on Clinton’s part. She’s running (yes, I know what she’s said and I don’t care trust me she’s running) for the 08 presidential nomination of her party, and she knows she needs to woo “moderates” to do so. And “moderates” can be most effectively wooed by Hillary trying to look “traditional” on social issues.

So she’s picked up the pro-censorship flag, which makes sense for two reasons: It’ll WORK (no modern myth terrifies the weak-minded more than the idea of GTA turning their lil’ precious into a Columbine killer) and it still fits in the perameters of her actual politics (“it needs more government regulation” being the default-position for Senate Democrats on just about everything, after all.)

Not that I was ever all that fond of Mrs. Clinton to begin with, but it needs to be said: A proponent of censorship is a proponent of censorship is a proponent of censorship. Supporting and especially advocating such an infringement creative expression makes her every bit the enemy of freedom that James Dobson, Pat Robertson and the Passionistas are.

Who is Irshad Manji?

If you consider yourself at all interested in world affairs and have not heard of Irshad Manji (pictured right) it’s about time that you did.

Manji is a Canadian radio talk-show hostess, recently described as “Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare.” Now, being that Manji is an upwardly-mobile, thoroughly-modern feminist, an open lesbian and, as you can see, appears in public wearing makeup and sans-headscarf, that she’d boil any Islamofacist’s blood is not news to anybody. So why the distinction of the special disdain of terrorism’s top dog? (appologies to actual dogs for the comparison, of course.)

Because Manji is herself also a practicing (if thoroughly-skeptical) Muslim, who’s written several books and delivers frequent speeches on the subject of faith and terrorism. And her takes on such? Manji is pro-America, pro-Israel, pro-gay rights, anti-jihad and offers up the following advice to her co-religionists in regards to “understanding” terrorism: She wants fellow Muslim’s to admit that something has gone horribly wrong with Islam as a religion, and that it needs to be fixed.


In case you’re wondering, yes, the windows or her home are currently fitted with bulletproof glass.

Here’s her official website:


What’s important to note here is that, while she’s earned the ire of religious “conservatives” in her own faith (hatred of gays, independent women and personal freedom in general being, after all, common threads between fundamentalism in almost all major religions) Manji is no self-hater or apostate: Instead, the theme of much of her work is that Islam has lost it’s way from being what was once a progressive faith that once championed science and helped spur the Western Renaissance has in large part regressed into a freedom-disdaining fascism that forces women into burkas, hates modernity and launches suicide strikes on innocent civilians.

Manji aims to help change all that, and to do so from the inside out. Her recent book, “The Trouble With Islam,” is essentially a laundry list of refutations of the typical defenses used to justify or dismiss acts of terrorism. It culminates in a laying-out of her primary formulation: That Islam can only save itself from implosion by enough of it’s adherents rediscovering the lost art of religious skepticism; i.e. questioning the Koran, tossing out medieval notions of “written by God,” and focusing on getting religious faith to fit into the modern world instead of demolishing the modern world to suit religious faith.

I bring this all up primarily because, along with the fact that I’ve long admired Manji’s guts as a fellow enemy of unchecked religious fundamentalism, she’s got a great peice in the current issue of Time that I think everyone should take a look at. Read it here:


Money quote from the article:

“While our spokesmen assure us that Islam is an innocent bystander in today’s terrorism, those who commit terrorist acts often tell us otherwise.”

See also:

“For too long, we Muslims have been sticking fingers in our ears and chanting “Islam means peace” to drown out the negative noise from our holy book. Far better to own up to it. Not erase or revise, just recognize it and thereby join moderate Jews and Christians in confessing “sins of Scripture,” as an American bishop says about the Bible.”

And also:

“It’s not enough for us to protest that radicals are exploiting Islam as a sword. Of course they are. Now, moderate Muslims must stop exploiting Islam as a shield–one that protects us from authentic introspection and our neighbors from genuine understanding.”

The “War on Terror,” if it’s ever going to be won, has to be fought with ideas every bit as forcefully as it’s fought with firepower. People like this, with the ability to speak frankly about the dangerous of religious extremism and the guts to do so, are the way to start.

REVIEW: Wedding Crashers

The first thing I took notice of in “Wedding Crashers” was that, right off the bat in the first few minutes of the film, it goes and uses up it’s alotted PG-13 comedy single-use “F-bomb.” Then, a few minutes later, I was surprised (along with, it seemed, much of the audience) by the welcome appearance of actual onscreen female nudity. The initial spotting of the first confirmed “bare pair” was greeted with a round of audience applause, myself included, as it seemed we were all having an “oh, duh!” moment at once: It wasn’t a PG-13 like we’ve mostly expected every single “guy” comedy to be for the longest time. We weren’t going to have to wait for the special unrated DVD. An honest-to-goodness R-rated bare-boobs sex comedy… it’s about freaking time.

This much you know from the trailers: Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are lifelong pals who’ve perfected the art of bedding bridesmaids by conning their way into weddings. Their scheming catches up with them, though, when they infiltrate the nuptials of the obviously-supposed-to-be-the-Kennedys family of Treasury Secretary Cleary (Christopher Walken) and wind up “attached” to his remaining single daughters. Specifically, Wilson gets them dragged along to the Cleary vacation home after being smitten by Claire (Rachel McAdams) while Vaughn has become the fixation of possibly-insane nymphomaniac Gloria (Isla Fisher.)

So there’s your movie: Too funny actors with good chemistry digging themselves into an ever-deepening charade among a wealthy, eccentric family. Complications arise from mistaken identities, Walken’s protective-papa, a foul-mouthed matriarch and the revelation of Claire’s super-evil blueblood fiancee-to-be. There’s no use pretending that you can’t guess how things will end up, who will be revealed as the main villian, how and when the truth will come out, who will have a change of heart and what lessons will be learned, or anything else. This is situation-comedy as a genre exercise, and what matters isn’t how “original” the structure is or isn’t, it’s how well the jokes land.

Simple answer: They land well. The movie is damn, damn, damn funny in all the ways a movie like this should be. No, it never quite hits the levels of absurdity that, say “Bachelor Party” did, but it’s a riot while it’s playing.

Alot of it works just because it’s willing to go full-out with it’s jokes and it’s hooks: Freed from any desire to be available to a younger audience, the jokes are loosed for all they’re worth. The evil-fiancee isn’t just a toad, he’s a downright monster who means to hurt people and does.. in other words an actual threat. The “naughty” parts are really naughty, and it’s all really funny.

Beyond that, there’s not too much more to report on: This isn’t really about any kind of complicated reasoning for liking or disliking the movie. It’s funny, I liked it, go see it.


REVIEW: Charlie & The Chocolate Factory

THE College dorm late-night pop-culture debate of the new millenium:
Which was better, “the one with Gene Wilder” or “the one with Johnny Depp?”
The answer to your first question is: No, it’s not as good as the Gene Wilder version.
Yes, I know, we were supposed to pretend like that isn’t the first thing on all our mind’s. It’d be rude, after all, given all the Rove-ian talking points Warner Bros. has been streaming out since the project was announced: “It’s not a remake, it’s a second adaptation,” “this one is closer to the book,” etc, etc. But really, it’s silly to try and fake it. Just about everyone has seen the 1970s adaptation of the Roald Dahl book, and those who haven’t are aware of it regardless. It’s a classic, instantly recognizable, and that’s that.

Gene Wilder is as linked to Willy Wonka as Walt Disney, Judy Garland and Peter Jackson are to “Snow White,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Lord of The Rings,” respectively, and for good or ill no amount of publicity or spin can alter that. The mass audience going to see this new adaptation from Tim Burton is taking it’s collective memories of the prior version with it, and nothing can change that. And therefore I feel no degree of poor sportsmanship or anything else in preceeding my actual review with this initial impression: Irregardless of other merits, this is nor as good or memorable a movie as it’s predecessor.
Now then, to the actual review, which will contain MINOR SPOILERS:
One of the most frequently-named defendants in the “too many remakes” bruhaha of Summer 2005 has finally arrived, now bearing the added burdern (from a studio perspective) of following the “slump-busting” of last weekend. It doesn’t really matter what the reviews or even what the actual earnings of Tim Burton’s latest offering are, what will be talked up is whether or not it continues the “pulling out of the slump” upswing in ticket sales started off by “The Fantastic Four.”
We’ve all heard the story, read the original Roald Dahl book and/or seen the first movie based on it starring Gene Wilder. This new version doesn’t deviate too far from the central premise: Eccentric candy-tycoon Willy Wonka hides Golden Tickets in candy bars which will permit five children (and one adult each) to tour his mysterious factory. The winners include four “bad” kids, each defined by an individually-obnoxious trait, and one “good” kid in dirt-poor Charlie Bucket. During the course of the tour, the bad kids get bumped off one by one, each in an individually-ironic manner.
As a book, “Charlie” has always proved problematic for adaptation. It’s structure is curiously episodic, it’s tinged with a hint of vengeful moralism (often playing like Dahl’s narrative compendium of “types of children I greatly dislike and what should be done to them”) and it “stars” a main character who’s very goodness renders him often eclipsed by the more interestingly-rendered “bad” kids and the outrageous Willy Wonka himself. In other words, it’s difficult to turn this material into a movie.
The 70s version “solved” most of these issues by adding a new beat to the climax, giving Charlie and Grampa Joe a memorable moment of indiscretion and outright admitting that Wonka was the real star, even going so far as to retitle the peice “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.” This new film tries the same tricks in new ways: Charlie (Freddie Highmore) gets a more subtley-shaded persona (reflexively practical and selfless), and Wonka himself (Johnny Depp) is given an both origin-story that ties him to the larger world of the story and a radically new character arc that gives him as many “lessons to learn” as the “bad” kids.
I won’t spoil the “surprise” of the new Wonka origin-story, save to say that this being a Tim Burton film you may be unsurprised to learn it involves unresolved father-issues, exaggerated magic-realism and a cameo by a venerable star of classic horror movies. I WILL say that, while I enjoy this addition to the story, it does pretty significant damaged to the “closer to the book” spin and also imposes an odd, truncated-feeling “fourth act” onto the film that throws off the pace quite a bit. It also raises interesting questions that aren’t paid off, such as implications that Wonka oddball business style is in part responsible for the seeming destitution of the town surrounding his factory and Charlie Bucket’s family in particular.
Most of this ends up working, though, because the cast is strong. Highmore (last seen in “Finding Neverland” ALSO as a child who inspires Johnny Depp) makes a great Charlie and seems comfortable amid the weird-is-normal motif of a Tim Burton-imagined factory. Depp finds a strange, semi-sinister edge to Wonka, bolstered by the film’s heavy intimation that THIS Wonka has been planning these events from the start and is possibly even more unbalanced than he acts. Good work from these two.
The other four children aren’t really given much to work with, as for some reason the film seems more concerned with the reactions of their respective parents, but the young actors aquit themselves well. What’s of interest is how the types have been “updated” for a modern telling: Violet Beauregard retains the gum-chewing that Dahl found so objectionable but is more displayed as a manipulative, overcompetitive perfectionist raised by a mother who’s more of the same. Veruca Salt is once-again a blueblooded spoiled-brat, and gluttonus Augustus Gloop remains a gleefully cruel joke at the expense of the German nation.
The only one of the kids who doesn’t quite work is Mike Teevee, which becomes problematic as he gets a good deal of screentime as a kind of evil direct-counterpoint to Charlie. In the book, Mike was a bulletin board for Dahl’s dislike of the newly-rising “TV generation,” and in the Wilder film he was the ultimate cowboy-costumed Ugly American. Here, the film just can’t figure out what to do with him or what he’s even supposed to represent: He begins reimagined as a video-game junkie, an update which doesn’t play as clever as it was probably meant to but is at least a decent start.
But then, Mike’s “sign of badness” switches to cold calculation as we’re informed he only won by figuring out a mathematical formula for ticket-placement and doesn’t even like candy. THEN it becomes cynicism, as his father wistfully comments on technology making kids grow up too fast. Once inside the factory, he switches to “hyper-aggressive” and finally earns his “accidental” pillorying for daring to approach Wonka’s inventions from a scientific angle. Favoring hard science over whimsy is, apparently, enough to get your textbook kicked out of the Kansas public school system, but is it really as “factory removal”-worthy as the original Mike’s TV-inspired unpleasantness? I’m not so sure.
The Mike Teevee problem is compounded by an insistance on adhering to the books for the post-accident songs sung by the Oompa Loompas (each one played, hillariously so, by digitally-duplicated little-person actor Deep Roy.) The songs, reimagined as parodies of music styles by composer Danny Elfman, are a little hard to understand for one thing, and for another Mike’s song chastises him for a lack of intellect even as we’re told that he sports entirely TOO MUCH intellect for his own good.
Overall, I’d say this new “Charlie” works more often than it doesn’t, and it’s visually impressive as one expects out of Tim Burton. It could use more length to breathe, some down-time between the factory segments, and the added fourth-act just feels like a strange quickie-sequel instead of part of the film-proper.
So I’d say go see it, I had fun with it, but it’s no classic. Johnny Depp turns in a fine, wacky performance, yes… but five years from now, the “definative” film image of Willy Wonka will still be Gene Wilder and his orange-skinned dwarfs, not Depp and an army of (admittedly uber-talented) Deep Roys. But in it’s own right, judged as much on it’s own merits as much as is possible, this is a decent movie.
Oh, and the answer to your second question is: No, I don’t think he’s supposed to be Michael Jackson.

The slump that wasn’t, isn’t… now what?

Did ya hear?


So that’s the end of that. The “slump,” (read: the consistent lower performance of films this year as opposed to films in the same period last yes,) has now been “broken.” Oh, the overall theatrical market is still in deep trouble, and all the various forces driving the lower theater takes are all still in place. BUT, this past weekend the overall U.S. boxoffice was just slightly higher than it was last year, and so now the studios will celebrate: The “streak” is broken, so the “slump” is now over.

First thing’s first: The now-defunct “slump” is, was and ever-shall-be a silly industry trade-paper non-story, and it will remain so.

And, so: What did it?

Or, more importantly, what will get the credit and what will it mean?

Let’s first get to the actual facts: There was no magic-bullet that did this, it was a simple matter of stacking up enough blockbusters on top of one another to hit a high number. The “slump” is now over because “Batman Begins” and “War of The Worlds” are still playing to huge crowds, and the newly-debuting “Fantastic Four” made about $20 Million more than it was projected to. But that’s real-world logic.

The studio-logic, on the other hand, changes completely from day to day based on whatever the current situation is. As I’ve been saying here since the early days of the “slump,” whichever film was #1 the weekend the damn thing was “broken” would get the lion’s-share of the credit and thus shape the studio thinking in the near future in a profound way. As of right now, the movie getting that credit is “Fantastic Four,” and as of right now that feels like kind of a mixed blessing.

The Good: Apart from any actual merits (or lack thereof) “Fantastic Four” is a big-budget comic book adaptation, cast mostly with lesser-knowns and sold on the concept of it’s characters. To my way of thinking, better to have this be the “slump-slayer” that the studios will aim to emulate as opposed to something like “Monster In-Law” or “The Perfect Man” (or “Passion”, for that matter.) If nothing else, this likely means the studios will continue to mine the comic world, or scifi/fantasy genres in general, for stories and not retreat from them.

The Bad: BUT… a comic-based scifi/fantasy/action pic “Fantastic Four” may be, yes. But it’s a godawful one, to put it gently. A half-assed throwback to the “old way”… the “Batman and Robin” way… of doing these things: The source material stripped of it’s vitals, self-consciously embarassed to exhibit any of the qualities that made it worth making a film about in the first place, reshaped into a generic formula-blockbuster, resulting in something little better than a bloated Happy Meal commercial. What “lesson” will the studios take, for example, from this type of comic-adaptation being the golden-boy who broken the infernal “slump”; while “Batman Begins,” practically a three-act how-to guide for making great films out of comic books, was not able to accomplish the “same” task? Nevermind that “Batman” (and WOTW, for that matter) will likely out-earn “Fantastic Four” overall, and that it’s solid week-to-week earnings helped break the slump just as much as F4 did; all that won’t fit in the Variety headline. “Fantastic’ End To The Slump!,” does.

I know, I know… I’m being negative, a big grouch. Whatever. The point is, “Fantastic Four” now being annointed the “slump-slayer,” however better it might be than to have had some Hillary Duff vehicle do it, means the following: The studios have no real reason to STOP making films like it. So yeah, they’ll keep giving us these nifty superhero movies, I’m glad. BUT, they’ll also have one LESS reason NOT to half-ass them.

After all, why go to the trouble of going the “Batman” route… hiring a fresh top-tier director, stocking the cast with high-end acting talent, nailing down a complex, intelligent screenplay and taking care to approach the material with respect… when you can get the same kind of bottom-line financial result AND “slump”-busting bragging rights with the director of “Taxi,” a generic script mostly knocked off from prior, better genre films and an approach to casting typified by a leading-lady primarily qualified by her ability to fill-out her costume?

Or maybe I’m reading to much into this. I dunno, what do you think?

REVIEW: Fantastic Four (2005)

Minor spoilers follow.

Some things are harder than they look.

For evidence, I offer up the case of “The Fantastic Four,” the celebrated comic-book series that, when launched in the early 60s, put Marvel Comics on the map, made names for Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, ressurected the mass-market appeal of the superhero genre and generally gets the credit for launching the “Silver Age” of comics. With that sort of pedigree, you’d expect a movie version to be a slam-dunk, an easy score especially in the current wave of comic-based blockbusters.

Instead, it’s a project who’s inifinite troubles date back to the early 1990s, an infamous “troubled production” thats been through more scripts, directors, starts and stops than any similar property… even the notoriously litigious buildup to “Spider-Man” went easier. In one of the more well-reported oddball stories of film production on record, it took so long to get this project moving that an original rights-holder had to produce and then shelve a quickie version just to avoid losing control of the franchise. Simply put, making a movie out of this property has been a tough nut to crack.

I think the reason for that is, the concept is a little hard to get one’s head around. The setup, a “family” of four differently-powered superheroes, is deceptively simple cover for one of the most offbeat corners of the Marvel Universe: It’s tone a one-of-a-kind melding of superheroics, pulp-scifi and of-the-moment pre-Vietnam family dynamics. The heroes themselves have reveled in a kind of stubbornly-unhip retro-cool even when they were NEW: Mr. Fantastic, the square-jawed super-scientist, was an anachronism of B monster movies upon his inception, ditto for the bruiser man-monster “The Thing.” Young readers may have identified more immediately with the teenaged Human Torch, but from early on the stories were more concerned with the relationship of Mr. Fantastic and The Invisible Girl, who were the age and presumed temperment of most fans’ parents. This is to say nothing of the team’s appropriately bizzare gallery of enemies: a succession of pulp-made-new threats with names like “Doctor Doom,” “The Red Ghost” and “The Mole Man.”

Whenever these comics or adaptations thereof have worked, it’s been when the respective creators have allowed themselves to accept and roll with the outre strangeness inherent in the material. Attempts toward making these particular characters “cooler” or “more realistic” have usually backfired. In fact, come to think of it, lets make that always backfired.

So, then, it’s sad to have to report that “cooler” and “more realistic” seem to be the chief thoughts in the minds of most of those working on this movie. The result is, to my mind, the first major stumble by Marvel in turning one of it’s major franchises into a major film. “The Fantastic Four” is, overall, a stubbornly self-conscious exercise in poor pacing, bad characterization and palpable embarassment by too many of those involved with the material they’ve been given. A ton of attention has been given to making everything look very slick and “Armageddon”-ish in the production design, and the cast is very attractive and clipped in their performances, and none of it is really any fun. This is a property that has always lived and died on it’s own peculiar wavelength, and trying to shoehorn the material into the mold of a generic summer superhero pic has neutered it of the gee-whiz jolliness that should be it’s greatest strength. And if ONLY that were the only problem…

This is a film with no real idea where to go or how to get there, the only thing on it’s mind seems to be getting a feature’s worth of obligatory scenes out of the way, often with only the thinest tissue to connect them. Nothing happens organically. It opens with fast, blunt, poorly-disguised expository dialogue and keeps up that basic pattern for all of it’s running time: Bankrupt scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffud) and his NASA pilot buddy Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) reluctantly seek the financial aid of billionaire industrialist Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) for a space experiment, which Von Doom agrees to mostly so he can travel to space with them and gloat over his newfound romance with Reed’s ex, Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) who brings along her younger brother Johnny (Chris Evans) who has an old an contentious relationship with Ben. All of this coincidence and complication is, believe it or not, supposed to make the story SIMPLER by conflating all five character origins into one.

In a nutshell, a cosmic radiation storm hits while they’re in space, and gives them all superpowers: Reed gets a stretchy rubber body, Sue turns invisible, Johnny controls fire and Ben becomes a superstrong monster made of orange rock. As a bonus, Von Doom gets metal skin and electricity powers, eliminating the need to characterize the villian beyond yet another eeeeevil greedy billionaire who gets powers and goes wacko in the 3rd act (In fact, Doom’s substory is almost a beat-for-beat rehashing of Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osbourne arc from “Spiderman.” )

From there, the film degenerates into a series of episodic “scenes you NEED in a Fantastic Four movie.” Powers are discovered, explained and demonstrated. Story points are raised (Johnny is a showoff, Ben wants to change back, the four are celebrities) and then quickly pushed to the side. Reed’s lab, the Baxter Building, The Thing’s blind love interest Alicia Masters and even mailman Willy Lumpkin (a cameoing Stan Lee) all get franchise-establishing bit moments, and the film even squeezes in some labored fandom face-saving references to Von Doom’s homeland of Latveria (the “businessman” Dr. Doom is a creation of the film in deferance to ‘realism’, as the comic book Dr. Doom is a third-world despot threatening the West with weapons of mass destruction which of course is not realistic at all, right?)

The less said about the screenplay itself, outside of the outright bad structure and pace, the better. The dialogue is awkward, too heavy on exposition and given to truly terrible puns and foreshadowing. Evans in particular gets saddled with some of the worst “funny” lines in recent memory, made all the more painful by a strange disconnect between his performance and the film: The dialogue, such as it is, and Evans seem to lean in the direction of Johnny Storm being an irritating, aren’t-I-cool jerk, but the pace of the film in his scenes seem to want us to actually regard him as cool. Also coming out looking bad is Alba, here saddled with more than her share of the psuedo-scientific exposition. To be polite about it… this isn’t AS big a disaster as handing similar chores to the similarly-“talented” Tara Reid in “Alone in The Dark,” but thats not the same as saying it’s a good idea.

All the characters seem to be making their decisions at the whim of a screenplay, and nothing connects one scene or motivation to another. What should be major character arcs over the course of the film, like Thing’s self-loathing and gradual acceptance of his new form, his meeting and wooing of Alicia or even Reed and Sue’s rekindled romance are done away with in single scenes with almost no thought to narrative cohesion.

The film can’t even think of some grand evil scheme by Dr. Doom to tie the story together: This supposed “supervillian” mainly grouses about his stock portfolio, picks at his slowly-metalizing scabs, dons a rather sorry-looking variant on his comic costume and seeks the power to throw bigger and bigger lightning bolts because “he’s always wanted power.” Whatever. By the end, his “evil deeds” are little more than zapping some expendable extras, a single kidnapping, some property damage and firing a missle; followed by a big final smackdown that marks the weakest attempt yet to mimic the big super-power-showdown from “Superman 2.”

Everything also winds up looking shockingly cheap, given the amount of time and money reportedly spent: The CGI and greenscreen work are uniformly sloppy and unfinished-looking, especially in regards to the (admittedly tricky) visualization of Mr. Fantastic. The rest of the effects are a mixed bag: Invisible Girl and Human Torch look passable, and while The Thing never rises above looking like an actor covered in Nerf the filmmakers wisely don’t try to hide the creature at all, and eventually you just kind of “accept it” like Chewbacca or the original Yoda. We get only two major action scenes, (save for a series of out of place Warren Miller-style extreme sports sequences with The Torch that stop the film COLD each time) both overly slapsticky and noticeably smaller in scale than we are obviously intended to regard them.

Most of the actors are doing what they can with all this, and overall much of the blame can probably be lain at the feet of the producers: Forcing a (widely-reported) hurried production schedule onto the project, endlessly rewriting the script (a process the finished film REEKS of) and assigning directorial chores to the woefully underqualified Tim Story (“Barbershop” and “Taxi”) appear to have resulted in a film that looks and plays at it’s best moments like a higher-end Golan & Globus production from the mid-80s.

Cheap-looking, unfocused, badly-written and unmemorable are the order of the day here. Yes, I’m aware I was among those who weren’t really expecting much from this, but I sit here honestly surprised by just how big of a misfire “The Fantastic Four” has really turned out to be. This isn’t merely a case of a dissapointing adaptation, and it’d be a blessing if the biggest problems were merely Jessica Alba’s miscasting or the uninteresting-by-comparison “new” Doctor Doom. No, the problems run deeper and more basic: Script, direction, production are ALL functioning at a seriously lax level here.

This is a plain old fashioned dud, a badly-made film, top-to-bottom, and with it Marvel Films now has a REAL problem on it’s hands, particularly coming as it does in the same summer as “Batman Begins.” The arrival of original “Fantastic Four” books began Marvel’s stature as a driving-force in comics, and now it’s wholly possible that the arrival of the “Fantastic Four” movie could well signal the end of their stature as THE driving-force of comic-based films.