REVIEW: Running With Scissors

The worst thing about child abuse, aside from the abuse itself, is that it’s one of those crimes that tends to create a cycle: Abuse victims will often group up with damaged psyches which will lead them to commit abuse against others, and so-on and so-fourth, essentially just bringing more and more abuse into the world. Augusten Burroughs, for example, endured an excruciatingly abusive childhood which he then turned into a bestselling memoir called “Running With Scissors,” which has now been made into a film of the same name, which is right now abusing the HELL out of anyone who makes the mistake of seeing one of this year’s crappiest movies.

Plotwise, the story plays out like nothing so much as some kind of campy PSA warning against the dangers of permissive parenting. Augusten is being raised by an exasperated alcoholic father (Alec Baldwin) and a psychotic mother (Annette Benning.) Mom is the bigger of the two problems, a clearly unbalanced lunatic obsessed with Anne Sexton who fancies herself a world-class poetess in the making, under the constant delusion that her husband, men in general, society, the world etc. are conspiring to “oppress her creativity.” Nuttiness leads to divorce, which leads to psychotropic drugs, which leads (evnetually) to Augusten being shipped off via adoption to mom’s gonzo psychiatrist Dr. Finch (Brian Cox) and his eccentric (as in “Addams Family” level) family.

I’m at a loss to explain how something this bad get’s made. It’s not as though I’m naive enough to expect great or even decent films to regularly be made from poor-me “recovery” memoirs, the whole shebang reaks of Starbucks and Oprah before you even know what exactly it is, after all. But the sheer level of misfire on display here is staggering. How does this happen? Was it directed by various apes? Did the writers get to the part where Augusten comes out as gay and decide that meant they should play the whole thing as Jon Waters-wannabe camp?

The casting of the otherwise talented Joseph Cross as Burroughs is a disaster. He’s supposed to be playing this character as a 13 year-old, but so clearly resembles an adult as to completely neuter what ought to be part of the story’s central “ick”-factor, Augusten’s obsessive relationship with a pederast (Joseph Feinnes, channeling Christopher Lambert for some reason.) His performance otherwise is decent, but he’s stuck as the “lead” in a film that’s more concerned with it’s cast of eccentrics than with it’s actual star.

Ironically, the film forgoes most of it’s focus on Augusten to focus on his mother, Deidre. Ironic because the film SEEMS to understand that this psychopath’s delusions of stardom are what destroyed her and those around her, but dives headlong into turning her into the main feature of the film. Yes, Mrs. Benning, we get it. You play self-obsessed bitches better than anyone in Hollywood. Good for you. Now, let’s try doing it in a good movie.

There is one scene in the film that serves to define the entire experience: That would be the moment where Dr. Finch calls the family into the bathroom to look at his morning bowel movement, literally insisting that this shit MEANS something!

No, it doesn’t.



Note: This review does not spoil the central surprises of “Saw III.” It does, however, involve discussion of the central surprises of “Saw” and “Saw II.”

The “Saw” movies, now totalling three films, are strangely compelling “endurance-horror” gorefests which thus far have all shared myriad shortcomings (some questionable acting, noticeably-constrained budgets) and have all largely overcome them through visual invention, narrative cleverness and a great central figure in “Jigsaw,” who’s shaped up to be at least the most welcome (serious) addition to the pantheon of horror icons in a decade or more.

The pitch: Jigsaw is an especially diabolical serial killer… who technically hasn’t “killed anyone.” He likes to place his victims into lethal traps and provide for them a fairly simple escape… with a catch: The escape will involve the endurance of horrifying physical and/or psychological torture. See, Jigsaw fancies himself a kind of extreme life-coach. His victims are people whom, in his view, are wasting their lives; and his “tests” are designed to FORCE them to appreciate the little things… like, say, being able to draw another breath.

“Saw” eventually revealed Jigsaw to be a frail cancer patient (Tobin Bell) who’s actions are motivated by his apparent disgust with those “wasting” the life he’s soon to lose. “Saw II” revealed a sidekick in the person of Amanda (Shawnee Smith) a former drug addict and rare survivor of a Jigsaw test who’s taken his message to heart. “Saw III” opens with the tying up of loose ends (read: survivors) from the previous sequel, and establishes a troubling new mystery: Someone is setting up Jigsaw-style traps with a new twist: The escapes are phony, and death is garaunteed.

The real Jigsaw, meanwhile, is not long for the world but, regardless, has set up his torture chambers for one more big game. His subject this round is Jeff, (Angus MacFayden,) a man losing his grip on family and reality due to the hit-and-run death of his son. The test: to present Jeff with the various players responsible for his boy’s death, all locked up in brand-spanking-new Jigsaw deathtraps, and give him the chance to either free them or watch them die. Jigsaw has his usual cryptic reasons for wanting to see how this one turns out, and to that end he’s kidnapped a trouble female surgeon to keep him alive to the end… or else.

Everything that worked in the previous installments works, everything that didn’t still doesn’t. On the plus-side, the structure is still wickedly ingenious, the surprises are still nasty and the pace still cooks. On the down-side, the threshold of disbelief is still stretched pretty thin, and some of the acting is still pretty questionable. The latter isn’t a problem for Bell, an ever-reliable character actor who’s turned Jigsaw into a genuinely fascinating movie-psycho (and who will richly deserve the better roles he’ll be belatedly offered now that this franchise has raised his profile.)

The film puts itself into a corner with the Jeff character. Problematically, he’s never believably insane enough for there to be any tension as to whether or not he’s going to let anyone die… but if he WERE it’d be harder to root for him to survive. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it doesn’t help. Fortunately, the side-stories involving Jigsaw’s makeshift medical care (and Amanda’s growing mental breakdown) are more interesting and provide this installment’s best gore: Onscreen power-tool brain surgery. Nice.

This can only go on so far, but for now the franchise remains worthy Halloween fare. Recommended.


REVIEW: The Prestige

MILD SPOILERS possible, secrets of the film will not be revealed.

Here’s something to watch for when you go to a movie these days: If the film is ANY kind of mystery and/or thriller, and it opens with a character describing in careful detail a seemingly small point of philosophy or procedural concept, PAY ATTENTION. Chances are this character is actually laying out the structure of the film and the mechanism of it’s central twists for you. Often, the dialogue will be repeated in voice-over during a “this is what happened, get it now?” montage at the finale, allowing the film to literally explain itself without seeming hackneyed.

Here, the telltale speech is delivered early on by Michael Caine as Cutter, a builder of complicated mechanical trickery for use by stage magicians near the turn of the century. As the film opens he is mentor and friend to Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman, aka “Wolverine“) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale aka “Batman,” how cool is that!!??), a pair of aspiring magicians toiling as asisstants/audience-plants to their more famous counterparts. Cutter’s speech describes for us the key points of any great magic act: The Pledge (“look, a bunny!”) The Turn (“Poof! The Bunny is gone, and there’s nothing up my sleeve!”) and The Prestige (“Poof! The Bunny is back!”)

The film offers it’s Pledge right off the bat: While performing onstage, Angier finds himself snared in a lethally booby-trapped machine, and Borden is dragged before a court and charged with his murder. (Believe it or not, this is not a significant spoiler.)

Director Christopher Nolan’s much-beloved temporally-fractured narrative dives into flashbacks to tell us how we got here, letting us mee the Angier is the genial showman, while Borden is a brooding and introverted prodigy, but they are good friends until a tragic stage accident breaks up the act and drives them apart; Angier blaming Borden for the accident, Borden tormented by the possibility that Angier is correct.

The division becomes a festering career rivalry between the two men, who both embark on dual careers as up-and-coming illusionists and eachother’s own saboteur; each specializing in busting up the other’s trickery onstage to humiliate and/or maim him. They’ll fight over everything, including the affections of a Lovely Assistant in the form of Scarlett Johanssen (here reprising her recurring role as Viagra With A Personality,) but things take a Turn (remember?) when Borden gains fame for an amazing trick which seems to defy all logic and turns Angier into a full-on obsessive, fixated on discovering his rival’s secrets.

Angier’s quest takes him to America and the mountain hideaway of exiled inventor Nikola Tesla (yay!) and it’s here that all descriptions of plot must stop, because it’s here that “The Prestige” asks you to trust it and come along as it takes an astonishingly brave leap not only into a different realm of mystery but an entirely different GENRE. What Tesla provides both to the magicians and to the film-proper I will leave a mystery, but I will say this: How you react to the coming revelations will determine how you will react to the film, period. Nolan is asking his audience to engage in something they may not have come prepared or especially willing to engage in, and in doing so he shows a tremendous trust both for his audience and in his own skill. I’m in awe.

The film stacks mystery upon mystery, and just because the subject matter and genre make it patently obvious that we’re being distracted by cinematic sleight-of-hand, but just which mystery IS the distraction and which ones are “real” is at the heart of the machine. Not only is almost everyone either a professional deciever, a casual liar or both, the film deliberately has fun with our notions of linear structure: At one point, Borden experiences a portion of the story by reading a diary stolen from Angier, in which Angier expounds at length on the reading of a diary he has stolen from Borden… and it’s not done with you yet! This is the sort of film fans will still be “chewing on” months from now.

It’s also, it must be said, not afraid of going into dark places. Both lead characters are borderline-sociopaths when you get right down to it, and their rivalry draws real blood.. and not only their own. In addition, well… let’s just say that I don’t think most people will be especially glad to see how certain tricks involving small animals are actually accomplished.

You couldn’t ask for a better cast for this story. Jackman, Caine, Bale and Johanssen slip into period roles like second nature; Jackman especially finally gets a chance to retract the Adamantium claws and put his finely-tuned theatrical presence to use on film, while Johanssen speaks and moves as though the mannerisms (and the, ahem, “uplifting” fashions) of the era were invented just for her.

“The Prestige” serves notice on behalf of Christopher Nolan that he is ready and willing to make full use of the clout that “Batman Begins” earned him, and it’s a bullseye. This is one of THE films of 2006, one of the ones people will be talking about long after the year is done.


REVIEW: Flags of Our Fathers

Lots of famous actors go on to become directors later in life, but have ANY in most of our lifetimes done so with the grand success that Clint Eastwood has? Here is a man who had already become a Hollywood legend twice over when he first began directing, and since that point has delivered a portfolio of work that would easily have made him a titan of his art even if there’d never been a “Dirty Harry” or Spagehtti Westerns.

“Flags of Our Fathers” has been called, incorrectly, a work of “de-mythologizing” WWII and Iwo Jima. In fact, it’s more simply a work of examination: The legend of WWII as recalled by movies, photos, etc. and the reality as remembered but seldom spoken about by the men who fought it. The subject matter at hand just about writes itself: The famous flag-raising over Iwo Jima re-galvanized the homefront and turned it’s surviving raisers into bond-rally celebrities… but the psychological whiplash of having endured horrible combat and then being asked to pitch a hopeful, sanitized version of it to the public drains them emotionally and (the film and history would argue) ultimately destroys at least one of them.

The film is structured, at first disconcertingly-so, as a time-skipping stream of consciousness narrative; leaping back and forth in chronology between the wartime events before, during and after the battle, the homefront tour AND the present, where the son of one of the three unwitting icons researches the history of the famous photo as part of a book (the film is based on the resulting text.) As such, there really isn’t much in the way of a beginning, middle and end through-line to follow which, eventually, has the effect of letting us experience the strained psyches of the men we follow. Adam Beach, late of “Windtalkers,” has the “showiest” part as Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian who takes the tour the hardest, while Ryan Philippe gives a performance of powerful restraint in the nominal lead.

The scenes of combat on Iwo Jima itself are excellently-mounted but sparse, here used primarily as flashbacks. Those hoping for a full-on battle film, though, will get their wish: While shooting this film, Eastwood and company shot a second feature covering the battle from the perspective of the dug-in Japanese troops. Titled “Letters from Iwo Jima,” this parallel film to “Flags” is due out in February.

Like much of Eastwood’s recent output, the film is both quietly powerful and free of heavy-handedness in terms of message. There’s been some controversy over the film’s supposed function as an anti-war film, but it’s not as simple as all that. Those looking for a condemnation of war will find it, as will those looking for a celebration of the Greatest Generation. Those looking for a good movie… ditto.


REVIEW: The Marine (2006)

I’m of the mind that we can’t really have too many movies celebrating the various heroics of our men in uniform, don’t The Marines deserve to be represented onscreen by something a little better than “The Marine”? The film’s trailer (“Meet a one man strike force… Who NEVER SURRENDERS!!!!”) has been the funniest thing playing in theaters for weeks now, and the final film actually lives up: If this was sold as a parody, it’d be winning comedy awards right now.

Here’s a deliberate throwback to low-budget American hyper-action prior to the late-1990s Asian Invasion, pitched hard at fans who’re convinced that modern action heroes are too sleek, too refined and know their way around an English sentence entirely too well. The lead is given to John Cena, a star of WWE wrestling (who also produced the film.) It would be wrong to critique Cena’s acting, as the film doesn’t ask him to do any as John Triton, an ex-Marine forced into civilian life after.. wait for it.. disobeying a direct order while rescuing POWs from and Al Qaeda Compound (!) in Iraq.

The baddies are a gang of jewel thieves (roll call: Evil Hot Bitch! Angry Black Guy! Crazy Guy! Vaugely-Ethnic Swarthy Guy!) on the run after using something like half a munitions depot to steal a bagful of diamonds. Their led by Robert Patrick, late of “Terminator 2,” doing the best interpretation on this part since Lance Henricksen in “Stone Cold.” The two story-points meet at a South Carolina (the state is identified by name nearly ten times in the first half, hoping to distract people from how suspiciously the locales look like Australia) gas station, where the crooks hijack Triton’s car and hot blonde wife.

Triton, fortunately, manages to happen upon The Most Indestructible Police Car On The Planet Earth and gives chase. He rest of the film follows Triton as he stalks his prey through the swamps, stopping occasionall to punch people to death or jump away from massive explosions.

There’s fun to be had with the film’s “Renegade”-like unnapologetic doltishness, but it can’t sustain the whole film. Certain parts are dopey enough to be worth the ticket price on their own, like the eye-poppingly bad taste of the payoff to a running gag about Angry Black Guy’s hatred of rock candy, or the obscenely silly reaction-shot of Patrick when his henchmen shout of Triton “This guy’s like the Terminator!!” This stuff is cotton candy for action afficionados who feel Jet Li and Keanu Reeves are too “gheeeey,” the rest of you may want to chew some Orbit gum afterwards.


REVIEW: Man of The Year

Spoiler Warning.

“Man of The Year” is being pitched on the lines of a movie that may otherwise have been called “President Doubtfire”, the ads promising an inoccuous one-joke comedy about Robin Williams as a wacky TV comedian who runs for President… and wins! With “Wag The Dog’s” Barry Levinson at the helm, that the actual film is something entirely different shouldn’t really be a surprise. But then Levinson goes and does something fairly devious… he builds a second surprise into the first, so that what at first appears to be a dark political satire hiding inside a “zany” comedy premise unfolds further to reveal itself as… a quaint 40s-style morality play.

The foundation could’ve originated as the pitch for a feature-length spinoff of “The Daily Show” (or “Colbert Report” for that matter): Cable TV political-satirist Tom Dobbs runs for president as a barnstorming, fun-poking independent candidate… and actually WINS! Robin Williams plays Dobbs, and at first his broad, scattershot brand of humor seems an ill-fitting substitute for John Stewart’s politically-charged sarcasm; until one realizes that Levinson and Williams are playing Dobbs in another direction – that of the Capraesque everyman do-gooder.

And while Capra’s era was mercifully spared the amuck technology that drives the film’s primary plot twist, he would doubtlessly have found common ground with the tough nut of right and wrong it brings about. The election has been conducted using an upstart company’s electronic voting kiosks, and a vote-counting program which a low-level employee (Laura Linney) had discovered is fundamentally buggy. It’s this bug that causes Dobbs’ surprise electoral win, and gives way to the central quandry of the film: Dobbs is a good man, in this for the right reasons, who could very likely make a good president. But his victory isn’t legitimate, and soon enough he knows it. What’s the right thing to do? Tell the truth and lose the chance or live the lie and use it for good? Complicating matters are Linney’s former employers, who will be ruined if the truth comes out and are willing to go to dark extremes to cover up the bug.

The best intentions are on display here, but it doesn’t entirely “work.” Folksy charm goes a long way, but doing a political satire thats almost entirely apolitical is a difficult wire to walk. Also, the “thriller” storyline focusing on Linney’s persecution goes WAY dark WAY too early on, and the effect is whiplash-inducing. Most of these flaws are polished away by a fine cast and a likable atmosphere, but they leave issues that’ll nag you later on.

Imperfect, but worthy and worth seeing.


MINI-REVIEW: "The Departed"

I’ve now seen “The Departed” twice since it came out last Friday, and I’ve been struggling to figure out how to approach reviewing it. Or, rather, how to review it in greater depth than simply telling you the basic truth: That’s it’s one of the best, if not THE best, major movie of the year and that you should absolutely go right out and see it.

Outside of that, I find that the film defies my ability to construct a useful review by way of it’s stripped-down, unpretentious edge: It doesn’t aim to turn it’s story or character arcs into larger symbols, it attaches no “greater” issues or themes to it’s central plot other than eternal quandries of loyalty, honor, etc. And while, as usual, one could write a dozen reviews just relating director Martin Scorsese’s skill at building tension and constructing a scene… here the best examples would only be spoiled by description.

Briefly: The film is a loose remake of Hong Kong’s “Infernal Affairs,” here relocated to Boston. Leonardo DiCaprio is a state trooper drafted as a deep-cover mole into the local Irish mafia, while Matt Damon is another trooper who’s been drafted as the Irish mafia’s mole into the police department. At the center of both men’s lives, to varying degrees, are Vera Farmiga as a psychiatrist unknowingly treating both men, Martin Sheen, Mark Whalberg and Alec Baldwin as the police superiors and Jack Nicholson as Luciferian mobster Frank Costello.

The cast is, across the board, excellent. Scorsese finally wrings the excellent performance out of DiCaprio that he’s been promising us for two movies now, Damon is fine as a self-satisfied heel, Sheen and Baldwin serve notice that they do remember how act with greatness after all, Farmiga holds her own in the difficult position of being the film’s lone strong female voice, and Whalberg has probably never been better in a role that at first seems extraneous and soon proves anything but simply because the character is so enjoyable to watch.

Anything more… honestly, I can’t and shouldn’t say. Let it be enough that you need to see this, even if your not a fan of the genre, the maker or anyone in it. It’s a good movie, simple as that.

Columbine Dad on CBS News: Teaching evolution causes school shootings

Have you been watching these “Free Speech” segments on the new Couric-ized CBS Evening News? The basic idea is that CBS will turn over a bit of nationally-telecast airtime to basically anyone who wants to get on a soapbox about anything. Like a lot of Network News’ attempts at remaining relevant, thus far I’d say they’ve been a great idea poorly realized. Most of the “big” moments have come from well-knowns like Rush Limbaugh, and what’s the point of that? I can hear what Limbaugh or any famous person has to say anytime I want… he has HIS OWN SHOW.

I want to hear from people I’d otherwise never hear from, I want ordinary folks speaking their mind. And I have only two “requirements” for them to be considered successful at doing so. ONE: Be entertaining. Perform. You’re on TV. TWO: Be incredibly insightful or batshit crazy. No middle ground. One or the other. Ho-hum folksy reasonability is bad TV. I either want to see Yoda give me the secrets of existance in the form of a simple limerick or I want a guy in a foil hat whipping out a pie-chart that proves Paul Wolfowitz is secretly a member of the Green Lantern Corps.

The other night, CBS finally got it right. They invited on the father of a Columbine Massacre victim to give his take on the phenomenon of school shootings in the wake of the recent tragedy at an Amish school in Pennsylvania. Gawker, via YouTube, here provides the clip in case you missed it:

Direct Link:

Summary of charges: The removal of school prayer and creationism and broader-societal permissiveness regarding suicide and abortion have made America morally weak, and evolutionary theory being taught in schools is particularly to blame because it replaces absolute right and wrong with kill or be killed.

Let’s put aside for a moment what you think about this man’s opinions (you already know what I think.) I want to ask the politically-minded in my readership, liberal, conservative or otherwise, to consider a few things.

Back over the summer, Ann Coulter caught some (largely deserved) flak over a portion of her latest book involving the concept of victims being re-cast as experts. As is usually the case with Coulter, her argument was a kernel of genuine logic framed in hyperbolic attack-journalism tones. The basic point was that, in Coulter’s view, “the left” (her words, not mine) was responsible for ruining honest public debate by frequently re-branding the sufferers of various tragedies as experts on the larger cause of said tragedies; with the goal being to render one’s opponent unable to respond for fear of seeming callous toward a victim.

The most obvious embodiment of this concept, to Coulter and her ilk, was Cindy Sheehan, the anti-war activist who’s son was killed in Iraq and who subsequently embarked on a series of speaking engagements. The argument here, which I find unfortunately (given the sources) difficult to completely disagree with, is that Sheehan’s loss, however tragic, does not immediately annoint her any kind of expert on war or the geo-politics thereof. To put it another way, living through Katrina didn’t grant anyone a degree in climateology.

The flaw in Coulter’s logic (in ALL of Coulter’s logic, really) is that she ascribes the notion of propping up victims (or victims propping themselves up) as experts with their victimhood as sole qualification exclusively to the “left,” and the above clip/link clearly indicates that this is as much a “red” problem as it is a “blue” one. I’m not here to give the gentleman from the CBS clip a hard time, just asking people to consider the broader implications at play here: What this man had to say, honest opinion or not, is just the standard boilerplate of the religious “right” for the last few decades or so; but coming from this particular person it’s going to resonate much more strongly with many more people than it otherwise would’ve because, the currency of modern media culture his victimhood is meant to imbue him with the instant weight and gravitas of expertise.

Viewed now in the context of a “both sides” problem, is “expertise by way of victimhood” out of hand? Does it hurt the decorum of honest debate? Are we becoming a nation of “Oprah” guests, where feelings and emotion hold greater currency than reason and facts?