REVIEW: Stop-Loss

It’s been a given that the overwhelming majority of “Iraq movies” have been anti-war. Less fortunately, it’s also been a given that the overwhelming majority of them also haven’t been especially good. In the rush to come out “in time to do some good,” they’ve mostly been sloppy, poorly thought-out and heavy-handed. So, at first it might seem that calling “Stop Loss” the best of the bunch is damning it with faint praise. But the fact is, this is the first “Iraq movie” that feels like it has a reason to exist outside of condemning the war.

The title refers to the policy by which a soldier’s tour of duty can be (legally) extended more-or-less indefinately in time of war. Our lead is a decorated Iraq vet (Ryan Phillipe) who, upon learning that he’s being denied his expected end of service, goes AWOL in a fit of rage and eventually confronts the possibility of desertion as an option to avoid re-deployment. He’s joined by a (platonic) female-friend on what begins as a long-shot attempt to seek the aid of a friendly Senator, and meanwhile the fellow local members of Phillipe’s unit (including her fiancee, a gung-ho gunman played by Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon Levitt as the loose cannon) are grappling with issues of their own.

Let’s be blunt: It’s an anti-war movie, no bones about it. So if you’re not opposed to the Iraq war you’re probably going to disagree with most of it’s central thesis. More to the point, if the very IDEA of an anti-war movie is something that you read as in bad taste or even bordering on the traitorous, you’re probably not going to be able to appreciate it for any other merits it may have. I’ll gladly lay my cards on the table as being broadly opposed to continuing the Iraq War for strictly tactical and logistical purposes (the War on Terror is real, Islamic Terrorism is a threat and there are thusly more important places and problems that require our attention.) That being said, it’s fairly hard for me to imagine an “anti-war” movie being more fair and open-minded about itself than this one.

Simply put, this is the first Iraq Movie that doesn’t feel like a lecture. It’s more interested in the human toll circumstances take on it’s characters than making broader political points. There’s no obligatory mention of torture or rendition. The soldier characters aren’t racists, psychopaths or ignorant. There’s no “big twist” about one of the characters being bad or covering anything up. If you’re looking for a polemic, this isn’t it. In fact, it’s third act turns on a series of revealed motivations that cast Phillipe’s character’s self-righteous anger and infrequent speechifying in a different light than one might expect, and a final scene that ought to give “pro-war” supporters who opt to give the film a chance genuine pause (and will probably also cost it fans among those expecting a straighforward Bush-slam.)

It’s hardly without it’s imperfections: The too-polished young cast occasionally makes it comes off like an Abercrombie & Fitch reworking of “Coming Home” and a few stabs at irony (Toby Keith’s moronic “Courtesy of the Red White & Blue” pops up for ironic effect) are cheezy as hell. More substantially, the 2nd act meanders somewhere between a road movie and an episodic tour of talking points as the heroes meet various other folks (fellow stop-lossed soldiers, a grieving family, an injured comrade, a military funeral) impacted by the war. It’s not enough to put it under, and a brave ending makes up for A LOT of the smaller issues.

Worth your time.


REVIEW: Horton Hears A Who (2008)

Slowly, through the process of trial and error, Hollywood is getting closer to figuring out how to turn Dr. Seuss books into feature-films. Sadly, the process wasn’t far along enough to prevent “The Grinch” and (moreso) “The Cat in The Hat” from miscarriage; and “Horton” here doesn’t QUITE stick the landing… but at least there’s steady progress and hopefully it’ll all be worked out by the time “The Butter Battle Book” lands on the to-do pile.

Like most Seuss stories, “Horton” is a nonsense tale in nonsense language, told in a straightforward voice at a semi-rapid pace: Horton is a jungle Elephant who, one day, here’s a voice coming from a dust-speck and discovers that said ‘speck’ is actually a tiny but inhabitted world: Whoville, home of the Who’s who are as oblivious to ‘our’ existance as we are to theirs. Horton’s nemesis, a snooty Kangaroo who’s devotion to empiricism borders – paradoxically – on the religious, makes it her mission to see that the “insane” Horton is locked up for ‘hearing voices’ and that the speck be destroyed to make a point… which Horton, naturally, cannot allow.

Concieved in the period before Seuss’s narratives grew more explicit in their message-making (there’s NO mistaking, for example, what “Butter Battle Book” is saying about the Cold War nor “The Lorax’s” position on the evironment) “Horton” has been interpreted as everything from a parable of racial equality to an anti-McCarthyism fable to a condemnation of atheism; and it’s stern refrain of “a person’s a person no matter how small” has of course made it a favorite ‘claimed work’ of the Anti-Abortion movement. And, let’s face it: If you WANTED to stage a fairytale for the ‘against’ side of the reproductive-rights debate, an elephant protecting tiny life from a (notably female) villian who’s evil is predicated on a belief that only that which can be seen is real is pretty-much exactly what you’d be looking for.

But, honestly, such business would almost-certainly be both presumptive and in poor taste: When Dr. Seuss wanted to deliver a message, he was VERY clear about it – and in “Horton,” the pleas for belief in the unknown are strictly in the realm of general fairytale magic… not some sort of religious message. It’s natural to try and apply bigger meaning to small stories, but in this case it does more than a little disservice. It’s a movie about an elephant talking to people on a speck, leave it at that.

The problem with doing Dr. Seuss in movie form is that movies have to be at least 90 minutes long, and his work was brief by design. “Grinch” and “Cat” stumbled by opting to use overplotting and comic tangents for padding, and while “Horton’s” slightly-denser original story eases the need for this somewhat it still winds up feeling a little long in the tooth – mostly because it opts to expand the running time but not the story itself. The characters are just as broad, and the story just as basic, as it was as a short book; now it’s just spaced-out by chase sequences (good idea) and comic digressions (not such a good idea.) A better movie could likely be made by deepening the characters (WHY is Kangaroo such a bitch-on-wheels?) or ratcheting up the tension, but the shot-for goal here seems more to be light comedy than Pixar-style ani-drama.

The main thing it gets right is to accomplish the story in animation, as opposed to the costumed-human approach of the prior two Seuss features. It’s kind of amazing to see that Seuss-style devices and architecture don’t even appear physically-probable in animation, but it beats the hell out of watching Mike Meyers stomping around amid giant crazy-straws. Jim Carrey voices Horton, Steven Carrell is the Mayor of Whoville with whom Horton makes first contact.

It’s more than a little impressive to see how thoroughly Carrey, never thought of as an “under”-actor, dissapears into a vocal turn as Horton. This is still where the flights-of-fancy and pop culture references come in, sure, but he strikes the right balance in that it always seems to be “Horton doing a funny voice” as opposed to “the actor voicing Horton breaking character.” Carrell, for his part, is working much of the same “responsibility-juggling parent” mojo he had going in “Evan Almighty” and “Dan in Real Life” to similarly likable effect.

Could be better, could’ve been a lot worse. The kids will like it, and thats the important thing.


REVIEW: Funny Games (2007)

WARNING: Contains SPOILERS for the plot of a shot-for-shot, line-for-line remake of a movie over 10 years old.

In what are now both versions of “Funny Games,” Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke makes sport of brutally tormenting his audience. As a two-time member of this audience, allow me to repay him in kind:

Mr. Haneke, your movie is a tremendous stylistic achievement. The use of largely natural-seeming lighting and wide, geographically-detailed framing achieves a remarkable sense of place despite the limited number of actual locations and helps add to the unsettling sense of disrupted-familiarity. The employment of long, static takes (one of your visual trademarks, it has been observed) displays a profound understanding not just of classical filmmaking technique but of it’s proper application in the present world cinema: In the age of quick-cutting and airborne cinematography, audiences have become accustomed to accepting the static longshot as a precursor of hidden-in-plain sight terrors, so to use them consistently naturally creates a consistent tension. And note how you utilize carefully-composed placement of actors within the frame in order to further manipulate tension – rarely do your protagonists occupy the dead-center of the screen; instead moving off to the side or relegated to the corners so as to leave ‘dead space’ which the filmgoer’s brain is conditioned to expect “filled” at any moment. I have no doubt that generations of film geeks, particularly those of the horror persuasion, will come to adore your work here as a formal exercise – pouring over it and dissecting it shot-for-shot – for years to come.

You may be wondering why, exactly, I’d offer up an immensely positive critique of the film with the intent to torment. Well, it’s a matter of details. My appreciation of the film, expressed with nary a whiff of cynicism or sarcasm above, is as a formal exercise in the technique of horror filmmaking – and that is, as evidenced by the film itself in both of it’s versions, the last thing Haneke seems to want it to be appreciated as: “Funny Games,” in both of it’s incarnations, is by design a moralistic, heavy-handed assault on movies that engage in the stylistic exercise of turning violence into cathartic entertainment and, more-directly, the people who go to see them. Imagine Takeshi Miike directing from a screenplay by Michael Medved and you’re halfway there.

The original 1997 film is a hair over ten years old now, though I didn’t see it until a year or two afterwards. This new remake differs only in cast, language and a handful of minor details – for all intents of purpose it’s the same movie. I only saw the original once and found it to be quite visceral, though I now wish that I had done so once more so to better gauge whether my overall disaffected reaction to seeing this version was the result of some intangible flaw (unlikely, as I described above Haneke’s technical skills are impeccable) or simply because it’s the sort of gag that can only really work once.

In any case, it (i.e. both versions) is a formula “home invasion” thriller in which an upperclass family is held captive and horrifically tortured in their vacation home by a pair of psychotic preppies. And that’s all there is to it, at least as far as the “story” is concerned. In setup, it’s using the same ingredients list as a hundred other movies in this particular subgenre of exploitation shockers: Bad guys do terrible things to good guys, delivering the audience an allotment of icky chills traded-off on the presumption that this will “morally permit” the good guys to eventual deliver a secondary allotment of righteous thrills by doing equally terrible things to the bad guys. It’s the basic through-line that connects everything from “Fight For Your Life” to “Straw Dogs” to “Last House on The Left” to “Death Wish” to “Hostel.”

The trick at play here is that Haneke has something Very Important he wants to say about the genre and a Very Stern message he’d like to send to it’s fans. And make no mistake, the film’s assault is aimed squarely at genre afficionados in this case: Haneke is quite intelligent, and understands that the folks who don’t “require” his lecture (i.e. they agree with him about films of this type or just dislike violence in general) don’t go to see movies with this plot description in the first place. Haneke, and his film, are nakedly boiling-over with contempt for filmgoers who indulge in vicarious movie-carnage and appreciate films meant to shock in the detached terms of “money shots” and it’s effect on the other, less formally-aware in the audience.

The idea, then, is to browbeat consumers of cinema-grosteque by staging the formula without gimmicks, characterization (theres no reason or origin-story for the baddies) a total absence of violent “money shots” (gore is essentially nonexistant and kills occur off-camera) and not merely a lack of ‘payback’ but a mocking smack across the face to reprimand the viewer for wanting it in the first place. And, in case all that’s too subtle for you, the lead baddie habitually breaks the fourth wall to converse privately with the audience and eventually reveals the power to bend the rules of the movieverse to his will. The movie, and it’s maker, are both very bothered that you showed up to see a film of this type… and they intend to make you pay.

But don’t misconstrue my awareness of the game, nor my all-to-apparent annoyance with the thesis of his sermon, to mean that the film is “bad” or even an unsuccessful presentation of it’s case. Quite the contrary. Haneke’s film can indeed count dubious titles like the infamous “Cannibal Holocaust” or the Christian anti-drug slasher opus “Blood Freak” as it’s spiritual-forebearers in the obscure subset of “message-horror” movies, but in terms of filmmaking it’s in a class by itself: Alongside the already mentioned technical prowess, it also boasts startlingly rich performances by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as the tormented couple and Michael Pitt as the lead villian.

This is a difficult sort of film to review, being as it is a remarkably well-made message-movie sermonizing with great conviction toward it’s point… but said “point” is finally a bunch of hooey. I wonder if this is what it’s like to work in the quality-control wing of Scientology’s P.R. department? The makers of “Freak” and “Holocaust” were, at best, blatant hypocrites… while Haneke actually seems to believe his own line. I’m disinclined to say that one is really superior to the other, but they are certainly different.

FINAL RATING: A+ for the filmmaking; fuck-you-very-much for the lecture.

REVIEW: Doomsday (2007)

Add some simulated print-damage and an awkward reel-shifts and Neil Marshall’s “Doomsday” could easily be one-half of a hypothetical sequel to “Grindhouse.” If you regard that, correctly, as high praise, get yourself to a theater with all deliberate speed and enjoy the crap out of a genuine-article brawny B-movie brawler. If you regard that as anything other than high praise… I dunno what to tell ya, at this point.

Marshall landed himself instantly on the film-geek “watch-list” in 2002 with the winning two-hit combo of A.) making an ultra-violent action/horror film about special forces soldiers fighting werewolves, “Dog Soldiers,” and B.) making a DAMN good little movie out of it. Making smarter, slicker, darker and meaner than average films in time-tested B-movie formulas appears to be his forte, as he followed that up with “The Descent,” easily the best “trapped underground with creatures” movie in a long time. “Doomsday” is in a similar vein, applying a fresh coat of paint and some fresh logic to the Post-Apocalypse action genre.

After a mysterious “Reaper Virus” infects Scotland, British authorities wall-off the entire country in an attempt to starve the infected (and thus the disease) out of existance. In 2035, the virus re-emerges in England-proper; which leads to a startling revelation: Apparently, there ARE small communities of survivors still alive in Scotland, suggesting the presence of a cure. To investigate the matter, the government drafts a deadly, tough-talking soldier (Rhona Mitra) to lead a team over the wall. You can guess that it doesn’t go well. In fact, among the “survivors” to be encountered are an army of cannibalistic neo-tribal punks… and that’s just for starters.

For what it’s worth, the film is so brazen and unashamed of it’s place as “Escape From New York” meets “Road Warrior” that when a pair of supporting characters turn up named Carpenter and Miller it rates among the more subtle homages and allusions to be found. In case your wondering, Mitra’s lipstick-butch heroine IS in fact a Plissken-esque cyclops… though she only sports the eyepatch when her glass eye is doing double-duty as a remote-controlled camera (bad-ass!) and you likely don’t need me to tell you that the nasty punk villians have a inexplicably well-fueled fleet of gruesomely-decorated death cars at their disposal. Let it be said, though, that for all the borrowed-parts the film takes off in it’s 2nd act with the introduction of Malcom McDowell as an ersatz Colonel Kurtz who’s post-plague feifdom manifests itself in a delightfully original way.

As before, Marshal distinguishes what amounts to genre work by keeping things smart, quick and not cheaping out where it counts: There’s a copious body count and a mounting series of creative action setpieces, and his camera seems to actively seek out the choicest bits of hacking, slashing and exploding at each turn. Mitra does quite a bit of the heavy-lifting, ably selling herself as a no-bullshit action chick (next up: female lead in the “Underworld” prequel) worth keeping an eye on.

Bottom line: You’re unlikely to find a better hard-action film in theatres right now.


On David Mamet "Brain-Dead Liberals," and more…

Just to see if we can’t get two semi-political bits out of the way at once, let me preface with this: Geraldine Ferraro is absolutely correct about Barack Obama. Her phrasing is crude, her broader logic sloppy, her behavior contemptuous and her motives both shady and disingenuous, but I can’t see how she’s not basically right at least in the raw text of it. Good guy, demonstrably great politician, but it’s fundamentally undeniable that if a caucasian candidate ran the same lighter-than-air feel-good campaign with as little hard experience behind him as Obama has/is he’d never have caught on in the first place in order for us to see these winning political chops of his. This isn’t a negative assessment of his character, nor is it even a condemnation of this essential hard truth – maybe the fact that “novelty” has such pull in American politics is ultimately a good thing because it allows guys like him to get noticed up front without having to “play the game” for too long – but it doesn’t change the fact that her assesment is correct. Here’s the thing, though… Who the hell is Geraldine Ferraro to accuse ANYONE of getting ahead unfairly via identity politics? Pot to kettle: You only conduct heat so well because you’re black 😉

Now, then, to David Mamet. The prolific writer/director of theatre and film, a living legend of contemporary American drama if there ever was one, has always been relatively mum about his personal political beliefs. And trying to divine them from his body of work is no easy task given how his political-themed output runs the gamut from cynical government/military conspiracy yarns like “Wag the Dog” and “Spartan” to the corporate-culture tongue-lashing of “Glengarry, Glen Ross” to “Oleanna’s” harsh criticism of the “sexual harassment” issue and even the gung-ho macho militarism of his TV series “The Unit.” Well, Mamet opts to shed some light on the subject in a March 11th Village Voice essay published under the not-confrontational-at-all title “Why I Am No Longer A ‘Brain-Dead Liberal.’ “

…Yeah. So, the title is basically the writerly equivalent of a character in a kung-fu movie (incidentally, up next from Mamet is the mixed martial-arts action/drama “Redbelt”) taking stance and doing that one-handed “c’mere, let’s do this!” gesture. But if you read the whole article (do so, it’s a tremendously thoughtful peice) it’s quickly clear that the important part of that phrase is the QUOTES around “Brain-Dead Liberal.” He’s most certainly NOT calling all political-liberals to be brain-dead and declaring himself a newly-converted ‘conservative’ – this is not, thankfully, the sequel to the tragic implosion of Dennis Miller – he’s talking almost-exclusively about himself. The theme of the piece is that, in his own view, he had been holding on to certain political ideas as “truths” in a kind of quasi-religious way even though he’d long stopped practicing them or observing them in the world around him… in other words, he’s not so much knocking “liberalism” as he is the non-questioning, “brain-dead” way in which he feels he had ‘living it.’

This, I think, is something everyone goes through in some way many times in their life – and not always in terms of politics. You get thoroughly wedded to a certain view or opinion and the holding of it becomes something you define yourself by… often to the point that you find yourself still holding it as a kind of “totem” even though if you stop to actually think it out you DON’T really have that conviction anymore. For the longest time, I “hated” Woody Allen movies… basically because most people I knew also disliked them and I hadn’t liked them when first exposed. So “I hate Woody Allen movies” was an ever-present part of my psyche, even as I started seeing and liking more of them. It eventually went away at the point when I found myself liking yet another one and saying “I usually hate Woody Allen movies, but…” and had to stop myself and realize “no, you don’t. You thought you did, but it’s no longer true.” Now, doesn’t mean I unequivocally LOVE all of his movies, I still dislike the ones I dislike. I’m simply no longer keeping “I hate Woody movies” as an article of faith.

This is being (over)played across the media and blogosphere as a kind of massive shift for the man, but reading the piece it’s much less about a man “changing his mind” and more about a general lessening of vehemence that the intelligent usually find in maturity: The over-arching point being that his “brain-dead”-ness manifested itself in broad generalizations about the army (“bad”) about the upper-class (“really bad”) and about the government intervention (“good”) which he is now more comfortable admitting to seeing in shades of gray. I’m not really sure what could be all that controversial about this. Shallow, one-sided, unquestioning zealotry – regardless of what “side” it’s on – is mark of the weak-minded. Mamet obvious wants to touch of a discussion here, hence the “c’mere, let’s do this thing!” title, but in the end what this comes down to is more of a plea for independent, unbiased thought in a political climate dominated by illusions of cheezy, good-versus-evil partisanship on all sides. If it’s really become an “atom bomb” for a guy to declare that he no longer sees things in stark black-and-white or that there are exceptions to everything… we’re in more trouble than we know.

As it happens, here’s Jeffery Wells reacting with uncharacteristic sobreity over on Hollywood Elsewhere:

And here are the kids at Libertas, engaging in what I’d call a bit too much champagne-popping over the whole matter:

What’s fairly despicable, however, is what’s going on in the “comments” section of the original Village Voice post. Yeah, fine, obviously when you put “Brain-Dead Liberal” in the headline of your essay angry college brats from Huffington Post and Kos with time on their hands are going to flame you – that’s at least half the point of doing it. But an uncomfortable number of Mamet’s newfound detractors have taken to dropping some geuinely ugly anti-semitism into the mix (Mamet is Jewish and a vocal support of Israel) and that’s quite simply disgusting. There’s been a small but noteworthy slow-creeping rise in repurposed anti-Jewish vitriol on the farther fringes of the American Left for a few years now, most of it born out of a naive gut-reaction to the Christian Right’s cynical make-believe fondness for the Israelis and a well-meaning (but usually similarly naive) over-sympathy for Palestine; and it’s one of the uglier parts of politics right now. Rational people should be outraged by this sort of thing, and rational Liberals ought to be ESPECIALLY so because THEY wind up tained-by-association.

REVIEW: 10,000 B.C.

At some point this was bound to happen, but it’s still pretty surprising: Roland Emmerich, director of “Independence Day,” “Stargate” and “The Day After Tommorrow,” has made a movie that takes itself too seriously for it’s own good. Let that sink in for a minute or two.

The peculiar adventure subgenre which you’d kinda have to call “Anthropological Fiction” if “Caveman Movie” wasn’t so much quicker and more appropriate is, on it’s face, almost always ridiculous to some degree: Actors in some version of what a design team thinks (after consulting a few speculative textbooks) that pre-historic humans might’ve dressed like if they too had to meet PG-13 standards of acceptibility hop around in deserts and jungles, beating their chests and throwing prop spears at empty space later to be filled by an SFX monster; all of it generally going on with a profound are of dramatic portent… make-believe reverence designed to make the audience feel like they’re watching Nova.

The genre covers a wide stretch: Way over on one end of the spectrum you’ve got the infamous “One Million Years B.C.” and “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” – essentially sleazy paperback bodice-rippers crossbred with The Flintstones – and waaaaay over on the other you’ve got studiously-realistic offerings like “Quest For Fire.” In between, there’s room enough for everything from ludicrous feminist mythmaking (“Clan of The Cave Bear”) to sword-and-sorcery (“Ironmaster”) and even a surprising number of wholly-intentional comedies (“Caveman,” “When Women Had Tails.”) The dissapointing flaw in Emmerich’s new entry is that he’s got a movie who’s story and setpieces are CRYING OUT for insanity of “One Million Years” but acts so dour you’d think it was aiming for “Quest.”

The story, such as it is, is fairly similar to “Apocalypto”… save that Mel Gibson isn’t directing so you don’t have to worry about the bad guys just opting to stop fighting because a Priest shows up out of nowhere and saves the day by holding up a freakin’ crucifix (no, really.) A peaceful tribe of innexplicably tan-skinned (despite living in snowy mountains) Mastodon hunters are victimized by an evil raiding-party’s reenactment of the opening scene from “Conan the Barbarian,” who haul half the population off for slave duty. They also snatch up the tribe’s prettiest young woman (Camilla Bell) which is reason enough for the tribe’s resident unwitting hero to tear himself away from inventing Daddy Issues to assemble a rescue posse and head out for… well, it’s kinda unclear. From the way the geography keeps changing, it looks as though the villians and heroes follow eachother from the Himalayas, down into the Amazon, onto the Serengetti and finally the Serengetti.

The problems come in the second act. This is where all the wacky “holy crap, what’s THAT THING?” monster/freaky-tribe stuff is supposed to happen, but instead it’s mostly lots of walking and character work. We get a fun sequence with some huge killer ostriches (I forget what they’re supposed to be called) and some Aesop’s Fables business with a sabre-toothed tiger, but it’s basically a walking-tour of different tribal costumes. None of it’s BAD, just sort of meandering for a movie that very specifically wants to re-create “300’s” success from this weekend last year.

It picks up in Act 3 when the movie remembers it’s job is to make History Professors pull their hair out and we get to the big setpiece: Pyramids (possibly THE pyramids) being built several centuries too early using enslaved cavemen and domesticated mastodons. Emmerich does this sort of nonsense better than just about anyone, and the stuff going on here largely redeems the rest of the movie. We never get an especially-clear read on who the bad guys building up a civilization for the Egyptians to come squat in down the road are supposed to be, though the onscreen evidence seems to lean toward the old Atlantean or Lemuria lost-civilization-castoffs theory. For a moment, it looks to be building up to a reveal that’d make the whole film INSTANTLY more awesome… but it doesn’t go for it. Pity.


REVIEW: Be Kind Rewind

Michel Gondry, celebrated as a visionary music video creator and director of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” has as his (visual) bread-and-butter an unmatched skill at short, controlled bursts of childlike flight-of-fancy whimsy often expressed as aggressively-overloaded moving collages of inviting, colorful randomness. Or, in english, he likes to pack the frame with D.Y.I.-looking effects/sets at an affectionately dizzy pace. When he’s working from a great script, as he was in the nearly-flawless “Eternal Sunshine,” this skill is a great modifying-asset… when he ISN’T, you wind up with well-meaning but hopelessly-adrift films punctuated by isolated moments of greatness – like last year’s “Science of Sleep” and now this.

Let it not be said that there isn’t promise, since at least in the premise Gondry conjures what almost feels like the lost script for the best 80s comedy Dan Aykroyd and Jon Belushi never made: A dopey slacker (Jack Black) accidentally erases all the tapes in the threatened-with-forclosure video store clerked by his buddy (Mos Def,) and the two of them hatch a ridiculously-desperate plan to replace the blank movies with remakes enacted/filmmed by themselves from memory/guesswork and on the cheap with occasionally clever do-it-yourself effects. Rather than being fooled or angry, the local folks end up loving their work and soon they’re doing brisk business shooting and renting their own wacky products… until big meanie movie studios and land developers show up to shut them down.

It’s a great idea, a kind of “Cinema Paradiso” for the Movie Geek generation, and in at least one respect Gondry is perfect for his own material: The self-made (they dub them “sweded”) movies – and the scenes detailing their production, are tailor-made for the director’s sensibilities and instincts. Taken on their own, absent even the context of the movie-proper, these sequences aren’t just the best things in the film but some of the best scenes in any movie I’ve seen all year. They’re love-letters to imaginative low-rent art in general, and it’s not hard to predict that any film lover or film maker who every messed around with a camcorder to try making their own stuff as kids is going to be struck deep and personal by this.

The problem is, these individual scenes are surrounded by the rest of the movie that just does not work.

It comes down to two key issues: First, Gondry’s screenwriting ability – as displayed here, at least – is extremely lacking. Characters mumble through their lines as though ordered to improv, structure is almost nonexistant, character arcs are predictable and sloppy and story points have to be FORCED into place in order to make the plot move at all. And that’s not even getting into the fact that the attempt at social-commentary in the subplot of the store’s owner (Danny Glover) trying to imitate the blandly-mainstream business model of the Big Chain Video Store nearby goes nowhere and pretty-much falls on it’s face.

Secondly, well… it’s a problem of tone. The short remakes, as I said, offer Gondry the perfect outlet for his unique sensibilities; but he lets said sensibilities spill out all over the rest of the film and the result kills any hope it might’ve had of fitting together. The “sweded” flicks are so zany and wacky that they need to be as APART from the ‘real world’ of the film in order to be truly effective, but Gondry frames the ‘real world’ in the same silly-for-silly’s-sake terms as the shorts: Why do these people go so buggy for these gonzo movies when their everyday world is just as gonzo? I just couldn’t escape the impression that the film would improve TREMENDOUSLY if a more “conventional” filmmaker had handled the main story and let Gondry go nuts on the “swede-ing” scenes.

Still…. that 2nd act tracking-shot montage of everything from King Kong to Men In Black being remade? That’s damn brilliance right there.


REVIEW: Semi-Pro

It’s more-or-less a given that “Semi-Pro” is funny, both because Will Ferrell is funny and because the movie was already funny the last few times he made it. That sounds more unkind than it’s intended, but it’s basically true: Ferrell once more plays a loud, dumb, stunningly un-self-conscious narcissist who’s status as a major player in an inherently-amusing profession spirals out of control forcing him to finally grow-up. “Anchorman” (still the best of the bunch) set the template with it’s story of a cartoonishly hyper-masculine 1970s news anchor, “Taladega Nights” (also good) applied it to Nascar, “Blades of Glory” (decent) tried out figure skating and the addition of a sidekick, and now “Semi-Pro” lobs it in the general direction of ABA Basketball (ask you’re parents.)

Ferrell’s alter-ego this go-round is Jackie Moon, a onetime 1970s disco “musician” (a subplot which seems to exist solely because Ferrell is funny belting out a sleazy R&B riff) who’s been using the money from his one-hit-wonder smash to buy, manage, coach and play-for the Flint Tropics (ha ha) ABA team. When he learns that the Tropics will not be part of the planned NBA/ABA merger, he schemes to whip the team and it’s attendance numbers into shape to try and save them. All-told, Jackie is better suited to elaborate promotional stunts than actually playing or coaching, but he does make a good move in drafting over the hill NBA “star” Monix (Woody Harrelson) to help them out. It’ll surprise no one that Monix arrives with baggage, most notably Tom Berenger’s backstory and character-arc from “Major League.”

And that’s sort-of all she wrote: Funny basketball scenes, wacky promo-stunts from Jackie, semi-serious sports dramedy from Monix and (too few of) Ferrell’s signature “out of place insanity” spitballing sessions – most notably a poker game that gets inexplicably out of control. It’s not BAD, but you’ve seen it before and it’s starting to wear out it’s welcome.