Saturday, May 30, 2009

On DVD: "Spring Breakdown"

A female-heavy all-out comedy is such a rarely sighted species that you might very well cut Spring Breakdown some slack for the mere fact that it even exists. There’s no bigger fan of the Apatow pictures than this reviewer, but they’re basically a boys’ club; the Farrell/Sandler comedies that begat them don’t have much use for funny ladies either. When the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler-fronted Baby Mama did good business last year, word was that its success would bode well for Breakdown, another reteaming of Pohler with an SNL pal (this time, Rachel Dratch). No such luck; after screening out of competition at the Sundance Film Festival, it has indeed gone straight to disc. Conspiracy theorists have said that Warner Brothers was afraid that a comedy with an all-female cast couldn’t hold its own at the box office. Sad to say, they may have just realized that it was a terribly uneven film that didn’t have enough laughs.

Poehler, Dratch, and Parker Posey play best friends since college, where they were ostracized as outcasts (the opening credit sequence, in which they perform “True Colors” at a senior talent show, is pretty good). They assure each other that they’ll show them all when they get out into the real world, but 15 years later, that’s not the case; the trio have middling jobs and disastrous personal lives. Gayle (Poehler) is a dog trainer who can’t pull a date with a blind client (Poehler’s husband, Will Arnett from Arrested Development, wasted in a walk-on); Judi (Dratch) is about to marry William (SNL’s Seth Meyers), who is clearly gay; and Becky (Posey), a certified cat lady, works as the mousy office manager for ballsy, gun-toting Texas senator Kay Bee Hartman (Jane Lynch, in a role clearly modeled on Kay Bailey Hutchison).

A scandal has removed the Vice President from office, and Hutchison, er, Hartman is at the top of the short list. The only worry is that her college-age daughter Ashley (Amber Tamblyn) will “pull a Bush twins” over spring break and embarrass the Senator, who sends Becky to Padre Island with orders to keep her little girl under the radar. Becky decides to bring her girls along for the kind of booze-and-boys trip they never had when they were nerdy college girls.

The situation is ripe with comic possibilities, and it’s stocked to the gills with talented comic actors. Even the smallest supporting roles have gifted comediennes in them—for God's sake, Ashley’s best friends are played by Anne from Arrested Development and Millie from Freaks and Geeks. Sophie Monk’s performance is about the only one in the film that doesn’t work, and that’s mostly because her British tongue can’t pull off the character’s Texas accent. So they’ve got the right actors, but the entire film plays like a first draft. The story (by Dratch and screenwriter/director Ryan Shiraki) provides a decent framework to hang gags and funny bits on, but the screenplay was in dire need of a punch-up. There are scattered laughs here and there, and it picks up considerably once they get to Padre (the twenty or so minutes of set-up are pretty painful), but it never builds up any kind of comic momentum or transcends its formulaic construction.

It’s tough to blame the film’s spottiness on the performers. I’ve never been a fan of Dratch (she made me laugh exactly once on SNL—with her Harry Potter bit—and her rotating cameos in the first season of 30 Rock were that show’s only drag), but her work here is energetic; she goes all the way for the joke, even if it’s a weak one. On the other hand, I’ve always enjoyed Parker Posey, but there’s a strangely vacant quality to her work here—there’s a fine line between playing a dull character and playing a character dully, and I’m pretty sure she crosses that line. Tamblyn charms in what is surely the film’s most thankless role, and Lynch continues to prove that she’s one of the most valuable utility players in American comedy—you can just bring her in and let her go.

But Poehler owns the movie; she can spin a mediocre line into something laugh-out-loud funny (when they arrive at their dumpy beachfront hotel, she dryly observes, “Yeah, we’re gonna get date-raped in there”) and her timing is sharp as a tack (a college girl flashes them, and Poehler does a perfectly-executed slap across the face). But even she gets hobbled by the mechanics of the weak script. Shiraki’s direction is also pretty pedestrian; the shooting style is as rote and unimaginative as your average single-camera TV comedy, with the flat-footedness of a late John Landis movie. It puts all the responsibility for maintaining the viewer’s interest in the screenplay, and that’s too heavy a burden for a script like this one to carry.

In spite of the promise of the cast and premise, and its occasional, isolated chuckles, Spring Breakdown is an unfortunately thin production. It ekes out a slim 78 minutes (not counting end credits) and runs out of gas before it even gets that far, trotting out a predictable climax that brings back the talent show from the opening sequence (complete with a montage of frantic rehearsal and practice). There are enough flashes of funny people doing funny stuff to give it a glance, but for the talent involved, it’s something of a letdown.

"Spring Breakdown" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, June 2nd.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Today's New In Theaters- 5/29/09

Up: I'm out of my head to see the latest from those geniuses at Pixar; WALL-E was one of my top two of last year, Ratatouille was in my top 10 of the year previous. But I won't have a free evening until the middle of next week, and I'm avoiding the kid-infested matinees during opening weekend. I mean seriously, they think this movie was made for them or something. At any rate, the reviews have been expectantly enthusiastic; Drew at Motion/Captured thinks it may be Pixar's best film yet, while Ebert calls it "another masterwork from Pixar."

Drag Me To Hell: Raimi's return to horror/comedy really is a blast--a smart, knowing blast that revels in the conventions of its vintage B-movie roots. Orndorff at DVD Talk dug it too, as did Movieline's Seth Abramovitch.

Departures: I saw this year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film at Tribeca, and while I respected it and liked much of it, I couldn't muster up a great deal of enthusiasm for it. Ebert liked it more than I did. So have most other critics.

Pressure Cooker: I'm gonna do my best not to turn this front page into a fan site for Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman's remarkable documentary. Just go see the goddamn thing, all right?

In Theaters: "Pressure Cooker"

Erica says that people ask her, “How can she be your favorite teacher? She’s so crazy!” They’re talking about Wilma Stephenson, the tough-as-nails Culinary Arts instructor at Philadelphia’s Frankford High School. Frankford is what tends to be politely called an “inner city” school; it’s a little rough, and most of the students are black kids from lower-income families. Mrs. Stephenson doesn’t cut anyone a break, though; she speaks distastefully of the “ghetto palate,” she calls her students out (loudly) when they make mistakes, she expects them to come in before school and over spring break for extra class. She sounds like Jaime Escalante from Stand and Deliver with a whisk instead of a slide-rule; the stunning new documentary Pressure Cooker is the story of her and a group of students that she helps find their way to a real future.

The thirteen students are her seniors, and they have good reason to think she can help; at the beginning of the film, she informs them that her students received a combined total of three-quarters of a million dollars in scholarships the previous year. These scholarships are awarded following a highly competitive cooking competition; her difficult gourmet boot camp will get them in shape for that fateful day. Pressure Cooker tracks their progress, from their practices to the preliminary competition to the finals and beyond.

Directors Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman focus on three students. Tyree Dudley is a mountain of a young man, an All-State football player who can probably get an athletic scholarship, but is hesitant to put all of his eggs in that basket. He’s become a skillful chef; his mom tells him, without hesitation, “Hopefully his next move will be to get us out of here… I’m banking on it.” Erica Gaither is a cheerleader who has been the de facto mother figure in her home; she takes care of her sister, who is blind and physically disabled, and though her father is supportive, she candidly notes that if he were pressed, he would certainly have no idea how she’s going to go to college. Fatoumata Dembele came to America four years earlier from the African nation of Mali not knowing a word of English; she’s now a 4.0 student who wants only to escape the clutches of her hidebound parents.

In many ways, the key to this particular kind of cinema vérité doc is to find great “characters”; it seems dishonest to use fiction terminology like that, but there’s no better description for compelling, complex people who the viewer is drawn to. This is where Becker and Grausman hit the jackpot. Throughout the film’s 99 minutes, you are genuinely engaged, but more than that, you’re invested—you like these kids so much. Tyree is effortlessly funny and warm; he gets laughs all through the film (particularly in a great scene where they’re delivering pies and cobblers to teachers for Thanksgiving), but there’s a wonderful sweetness to the way he walks his little sister to the bus. Erica’s candor and honesty is fascinating; she loves her family, but she knows that if she doesn’t get from them now, she never will—and that’s not an easy thing to admit. There’s a brief interview in which she talks about why going away to school is so very important to her, and there’s so much truth and pain in that moment, it just breaks your heart.

But no one’s story is more touching than Fautmata’s; early in the film, she says, “If I had a scholarship to college, I would go…” and nearly bursts into tears right then, the mere idea of pursuing a higher education is so amazing to her. It’s a spontaneous display of hope and emotion seldom seen in real life, much less onscreen. Late in the film, in an interview with the scholarship committee, she talks about her appreciation of the many opportunities she’s already been given, and you want to pay her way through school yourself.

There are plenty of other peripheral figures who are equally interesting (Tyree’s plump, funny sister; Erica’s beaming dad; the wise school football coach), but Mrs. Stephenson is perhaps the most interesting person in the movie. She’s a prickly pear, there’s no doubt about that—some of her criticisms and objections come off as mean-spirited, and there’s perhaps a case to be made that she’s too involved with this group of students (like when she insists that Tyree and Erica are going to the prom together). But she’s also smart as a whip and funny as hell, and most importantly, she really does care; her anxiety as she waits for them during the final competition is palpable, as is the pride on her face in those cutaways during their school graduation ceremony.

Becker and Grausman’s film is well-shot and impeccably cut, and they were wise to keep the focus fairly narrow; it would have been easy to clutter it up by profiling more of the students. There are occasional, very minor missteps—they probably spend a bit too much time on the prom, and the symbolism of the very last shot is a little too heavy. But the movie is strong and powerful, and the final scenes are unbelievably moving; I basically spent the last twenty minutes on the picture either on the verge of tears, or just over the edge. Pressure Cooker doesn’t have quite the same epic scope (or length) as Hoop Dreams, the previous movie it most closely resembles, but it is cut from the same rich cloth. What an extraordinary film.

"Pressure Cooker" is currently playing in New York, but only through June 2nd, so get off your ass, slackers. It opens June 5th in Los Angeles.

Oh, and go eat BEFORE the movie. You'll be hungry as hell afterwards.

On DVD: "The International"

Tom Tykwer’s The International is not a great thriller, but it’s got one truly great sequence in it, which is nothing to sneeze at—that’s one more than most movies these days. It comes around the halfway mark, and it’s well-prepared. “Our clock has run out,” Manhattan D.A. Ellie Whitman (Naomi Watts) informs INTERPOL agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen). “If we don’t get this guy right now, it’s over.” Salinger and Whitman’s two investigators tail the guy through the streets of NYC to a rendezvous at the famed Guggenheim museum. What follows inside is suspenseful, tense, and surprising; plainly spoken, it knocks the wind out of you.

In that scene, director Tykwer (Run Lola Run) takes what could have been a tired action sequence and makes it damn near Hitchcockian—from the energy of the shooting to the razor-sharp cutting to the way it’s played through to the quiet moment afterwards. Hitchcock’s working method was to start by imagining set pieces like this, and then working with his writers to build a screenplay around them; he famously coined the term “MacGuffin” as an all-purpose descriptor for whatever the plot was about, because it had to be about something (though it didn’t matter what). Hitch treated his “MacGuffin” as a necessary element but nothing to be troubled with; the problem with The International is that it takes its “MacGuffin”—some nonsense about a big bad bank doing big bad things—seriously.

The picture’s action scenes certainly play; there’s a purely visual sequence showing an attempted assassination, which Tykwer shoots in tight, beautifully composed close-ups. Later, there’s a terrific bit where Owen and Watts work the scene of that crime, and the construction of that sequence (and their playing of it) is superb.

But surrounding those action beats are endless dialogue scenes, most in cold, clean offices and meeting rooms, and most of them are pretty turgid. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a smart, talky thriller in the John le Carré mold, but Eric Singer’s screenplay can’t get that job done; his dialogue is too stilted (a conversation between Watts and boss James Rebhorn about the nature of truth is groan-inducing), his construction too muddled. Some of the quieter scenes work—like the moodily-lit, understate faceoff between Owen and Armin Mueller-Stahl—but the film plays best when it quickens the pace.

Tykwer indulges in some nifty visual tricks, and the score (which he wrote with One Hour Photo composers Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek; the trio previously collaborated on the memorable Lola music) helps the film considerably, laying a nervous pulse under some fairly mundane scenes. Clive Owen is becoming the go-to guy for rumpled, unshaven men of action; his work here is strong, and he plays off Watts (who is stuck in a rather underwritten role) well. Their relationship is interestingly done, in fact—it’s purely professional (still an admirable touch in romance-happy Hollywood) and has a life of its own that clearly started before the movie did.

So their scenes work, and there are some notable supporting performances—Mueller-Stahl is great (as always), while Brian F. O’Bryne plays his hired killer enigmatically (to good effect). After the Guggenheim sequence, the actual ending seems a little, well, anti-climactic; Singer and Tykwer don’t seem quite sure of how the hell they want to end this thing. To the close, though, the chases and action are slick and well-done. But watch out for the scenes with all the people talking to each other.

The International was released to little acclaim and less box-office in February, when Sony attempted to capitalize on the current anti-banking sentiment as a marketing hook. Seen now on the home screen, it misses greatness by a mile, but it is a film of small pleasures—a good performance here, some snazzy photography there. And then there’s that Guggenheim sequence, which really is a show-stopper.

"The International" hits DVD and Blu-ray on June 9th.

In Theaters: "Drag Me To Hell"

Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell may not be the “best” film you’ll see this summer—you may see other pictures that are slicker, or smarter, or more professional. But it’s certainly the most fun you’ll have in a theater any time in the foreseeable future. It marks Raimi’s welcome return to his specialty, comic horror; after 1993’s Army of Darkness, he made a Western and a series of dramas before spending the better part of the last decade directing the Spiderman trilogy. Here, here’s clearly having a great time making a loose, funky B-movie; you can almost hear him cackling off-screen. After making three ridiculously popular blockbusters, Raimi brings total assurance to his work—he can play an audience like a piano with this kind of material.

After a vintage, 80s-style Universal logo (seriously, there’s no easier way to suck a movie geek like me in than with a vintage logo—see Zodiac, Mystic River, etc.) and an insane pre-title sequence, Raimi plunges us into his primary story: Christine Brown (Alison Lohman, so good in Matchstick Men) is a loan officer at a bank, angling for a promotion to assistant manager; her boss, Mr. Jacks (good ol’ David Paymer) assures her that, to pull the gig, she has to be able to make “tough decisions.” The opportunity to make one presents itself when ancient gypsy Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) appears at her desk, asking for an extension on her home loan. When Brown tells her that there’s simply nothing they can do, Mrs. Ganush gets on her knees and begs, but Christine doesn’t budge. Mrs. Ganush growls “You shame me!” at her, and things go downhill for poor Christine from there; the repulsive woman puts a curse on her, wherein she is haunted by dark spirits for three days, and after that time, well, they’ll take the titular action.

The curse comes at the conclusion of an encounter in the bank’s parking garage, which is one of the film’s highlights—it’s a scrappy, funny, terrific sequence, and the rowdy audience I saw the film with ate it up like candy. The picture is full of fabulous little set pieces like that one, in which inventively constructed scenes are given further life by Raimi’s dutch angles and trick zooms and shock edits; in those bits, Drag Me To Hell aspires to, and reaches, a kind of full-blooded Pop Guignol.

Much of the success of the picture rides on Miss Lohman, who is really getting away with something here; she manages to be both utterly sincere and in on the joke, without tipping her hand either way. It’s a tart, kicky performance, the kind of work that Nancy Allen used to do so well in those old Brian DePalma movies. Justin Long’s boyfriend is something of a vanilla dullard, but that’s exactly how he should be; part of the fun in a female-ccentric horror movie is the ineffectual boyfriend, which Raimi and Long both seem to understand. Raver, as the crazy old lady, is both terrifying and disgusting; Raimi gets some cheap but nevertheless solid laughs out of her false teeth, creepy glass eye, and sickly fluids.

In many ways, the film comes to a head with the deliriously overblown séance sequence that closes the second act; you’ll probably find yourself thinking, “Jesus, there’s no way he can keep sustaining this,” and unfortunately, you’re right. The last thirty minutes is much weaker than the hour or so that precedes it, primarily because it pivots on the big reveal of a plot fake-out that most moviegoers will see coming a mile away (everyone around me certainly seemed to see through it, and said so, loudly). I kept hoping that Raimi (and his brother Ivan, with whom he co-wrote the script) were actually way ahead of us, that it was going to be some kind of a knowing double-cross, but apparently not. This is not to say that there isn’t good stuff in the third act (there certainly is: the muddy graveyard scene, for instance, and the ending’s admirable sustaining of the film’s cold-blooded streak), but it’s colored by elephant in the room (or in the envelope, in this case).

There are other, little infractions here and there as well; the industrial espionage subplot is half-baked, and Raimi tips the tone too far to the goofy side in a couple of shorter sequences (like the handkerchief attack and the assault in Christine’s shed, which is also marred by surprisingly shoddy effects work). And there’s a little story thread that will be tough for my fellow cat lovers to take.

But these are minor complaints; Drag Me To Hell is giddy, trashy fun. Some won’t get it; I heard a couple of guys on their way out saying it was “stupid,” and I just shook my head. They don’t understand: It takes a smart, smart man to make a film this stupid. Raimi is intoxicated by movies, and no doubt the moments that struck those guys as “stupid” were the ones I liked the best, when Raimi was indulging the conventions, kidding them, occasionally turning them on their head. That moment aside, I encourage you to see it as I did—with a packed, raucous opening weekend audience. This reviewer usually prefers to see newly releases at sparsely-populated weekday matinees because, let’s be honest, people just don’t know how to act at movies anymore. But at a jumpy horror movie with a sense of humor, all rules are off—we’re all there to have fun, to scream and yell and jump and talk to the screen, and Drag Me To Hell has no trouble providing that particular brand of a good time.

"Drag Me To Hell" opens in wide release today.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

About to lose...

Here's my view from the back of a looooooooong line of fellow cheapskates, an hour before a free preview screening of "Drag Me To Hell." I have no idea how big the theater is, but I'd be surprised if I make it in.

EDIT: Surprise, I made it in! Review above, or here.

On DVD: "Notorious"

Notorious tells the inarguably compelling story of Christopher Wallace, a mountain of a man who gained worldwide success as rapper Notorious B.I.G. when he was barely out of his teens, and was dead by the time he was 24. He was shot to death in a drive-by hit that seemed the logical extension of the lifestyle he represented, even if it wasn’t the lifestyle that he was living.

That dichotomy is one of the more fascinating elements of his life, and one that goes back to his childhood; he was raised by a loving single mother and attended good schools, but was drawn to the danger (and rewards) of slinging drugs. His relationships with women were similarly complicated—he was abandoned by his father and raised by a strong, independent woman, but after his success made him desirable to the opposite sex, he frequently treated the women in his life as objects and all but abandoned his own first child.

The unfortunate news is that the complex psychology of Christopher Wallace barely gets lip service in Notorious, which abandons depth in favor of the standard, paint-by-numbers beats of the musical biopic. The music is infectious and the performances are skillful, but the screenplay and direction are so predictable that the film feels like it was assembled from a Mad Libs book.

Rapper Jamal Woolard (in his screen debut) plays “Biggie” from age 17 on (Wallace’s own son, Christopher Jordan Wallace, plays him as a young boy), capably embodying his charisma and presence, even if his voice is a little higher-pitched than Biggie’s. Some of his best moments come in the portrayal of his close relationship with mother Voletta (Angela Bassett); their scenes are mostly grounded and believable, though poor Bassett gets saddled with the lion’s share of the corniest dialogue. In spite of her positive influence, Christopher can’t resist the urge to make some paper selling crack on the corner; he first sees writing and performing rhymes as a hobby, a diversion, rather than a source of honest income. That said, he clearly has a gift, and an early scene where he takes on a neighborhood rhyming rival transcends its inevitability (is it legal to make a hip-hop movie that doesn’t have at least one “battle” scene?) and serves as an effective illustration of how unique and comparatively sophisticated his style was. It’s a rare moment where director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriters Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker show instead of tell, letting us see Biggie finding his voice and glimpsing his future instead of saying he did so in another of the script’s clumsy voice-overs.

Christopher eventually gets popped and does some time, spending much of his incarceration sharpening his lyrical skills, and when he makes it out, a demo tape ends up the hands of Sean “Puffy” Combs, played by Derek Luke in a passable if uninspired performance. Luke doesn’t look a bit like Combs (though he does have his odd dancing down pat), but more distressingly, the role is just dull as toast; Combs is credited as an executive producer on the project, but that’s no excuse for to turn his character into a blandly supportive saint, mouthing inane inspirational slogans like some sort of a hip-hop Leo Buscalia.

Combs is on his way out at Uptown Records, but promises Biggie that he’ll be an anchor act for his new label. On the way to that moment, Biggie and his street-hustling partner get popped on a weapons charge; a powerful scene follows, wherein the buddy takes the fall for Biggie’s gun so that his boy can stay out of jail and follow up on his music opportunities. That’s about the last moment of real surprise in the second act, as the rapper’s rise to fame is accompanied by the expected indulgences and vices—in this case, the large man’s love for the fairer sex, at first in the guise of neighborhood girl-turned-performer Lil’ Kim (well-played by Naturi Naughton, who nails Kim’s sexiness, fragility, and vocal quality) and then with singer Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), who he marries and promptly fools around on while he’s out on the road. Smith and Woolard have nice chemistry, but we’ve seen all of these scenes (and heard these lines—“I don’t even know who you are anymore!”) a thousand times before. That said, I liked how the screenplay works Kim and Evans’ song performances into the fabric of their love triangle storyline.

If the script follows a too tried-and-true formula with regards to Biggie’s rise to the top and excesses of success, it does manage to get a storytelling charge by tracking the splintering of his friendship with Tupac (Anthony Mackie) and how it escalated into the East Coast/West Coast beef that, either directly or indirectly, led to both of their demises. That’s a story we haven’t seen before (aside from in Nick Broomfield’s excellent Biggie and Tupac), and it is a fascinating one, lending some much-needed momentum to the third act—though we probably could have done with at least one or two fewer scenes of Biggie getting his life back on track right before his untimely death (the fact that he ties up every single loose end feels too damned nice and neat to be entirely convincing).

Tillman’s direction is pretty pedestrian—some of the individual shots are stylish, but the assembly of the scenes and the overall narrative lacks any real punch or surprise. The concert scenes have a nice energy, however, and Woolard is a real find, easily carrying the entire film on his broad shoulders. It’s a shame he didn’t have a less predictable picture to carry. It may just be that all musical biographies are bound to follow the same playbook (unless they’re an oddball mindfuck like I’m Not There), but that’s not enough of a reason for Notorious to hammer its clichés as hard as it does.

There’s no question that Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace’s story is a compelling one, a kind of hip-hop Horatio Alger tale of a young man who made it big by telling the kind of stories that he knew from firsthand experience. But Notorious suffers from the familiarity of the story’s broad strokes; it feels assembled from spare parts, squandering the opportunity to weave a real and complex narrative in favor of the usual rags-to-riches, mo-money-mo-problems template. The Blu-ray’s technical presentation is high-caliber, some of the performances are inspired, and the music is energetic, but we ultimately don’t learn much about Christopher Wallace here that we didn’t already know from his songs.

"Notorious" is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

In Theaters: "Departures"

“We are here for the encoffment,” they say when they arrive. The two men burn their incense as they clean the dead body in a ritualistic fashion, in order to “prepare the deceased for a peaceful departure.” It is their job, and they take it very seriously; they are there for both the family and the deceased, as a kind of buffer that soaks up their grief while respecting the dead. It’s not a job that Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) would have sought out (he sees that ad for an agent of “departures” and thinks it’s for a job at a travel agency), but it becomes honorable in his eyes, though perhaps not in everyone else’s.

The story of Daigo’s journey is told in Departures, which pulled a big upset by beating out Waltz with Bashir and The Class for the Best Foreign Language Film award at this year’s Oscars. From that strange, fascinating opening scene, director Yojiro Takita weaves a tale that is by turns odd, dryly funny, and deeply moving.

It also takes too long to get going and relies too heavily on voice-over narration; as is often the case with Japanese cinema, you have to choose to give yourself over to the storytelling style and the deliberate pace, which require some getting used to. I’ll confess that there was a long stretch in the middle of the picture where I wasn’t sure where it was going, if anywhere; there are scenes and episodes that seem extraneous, until they’re calmly pulled together in the third act. But more on that later.

Daigo is a cellist in Tokyo who has to rethink his life when his orchestra is dissolved due to low attendance. In a bit of a desperation move, he and his wife (Ryoko Hirosue) move to the provincial home left to them by his late mother; he starts looking for work, and that’s how he gets the job as an “encoffineer.” Much of the material covering his hire and apprenticeship period is played for laughs—his interview with his boss-to-be (Tsutomu Yamazaki) is hilariously brief and pointed, and he spends his first day on the job playing a corpse in an instructional video, to great comic effect. The film’s bone-dry wit reaches its apex with his first grisly visit to a dead woman’s home (“That was a bit much for your first job,” notes his boss, which is a bit of an understatement).

But he slowly learns the ropes, which we see primarily in an extended and effective sequence that respectfully observes the beauty of the ceremony, and how it moves a tough, angry husband into a raw display of emotion and grief. It’s there that the film begins to hint at its Big Themes—life, death, love, loss, and so on—which are handled with intelligence and sensitivity.

As Daigo, Motoki occasionally overacts in the early, comic sections, but plays his more serious scenes with appropriate subtlety and naturalism. Hirosue is terrific as his wife; she’s warm and likable, but shows a tougher side in the scene where she confronts him about his job (which he’s been hiding from her), managing to convey both strength and fragility, seemingly at the same time. Yamazaki is appropriately wise and honorable.

Director Takita is, incidentally, a terrific visualist; his compositions have a marvelous symmetry, and a scene where Daigo plays his cello (melding into a series of childhood memories) has some knockout imagery. But what pulls the film together is Takita’s mastery of tone, and his patience. Departures is a quiet, measured picture, somewhat clinical in its opening passages. But that gives way to the tremendous emotion of its closing sequences, and that final scene is a wrecker.

"Departures" opens Friday, May 29th in limited release.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On DVD: "Diana Krall: Live In Rio"

I’m a pretty casual Diana Krall fan; I’ve got a couple of her records, I always enjoy her mellow arrangements and smoky voice when one of her songs comes up during a shuffle on my iPod, and that’s about it. But her new concert disc Diana Krall: Live in Rio is just plain enchanting. Filmed last November and featuring much of the same talent and music assembled for her recent bossa nova-flavored Quiet Nights album, Live in Rio has the same warm, mellow, at-home vibe that I so admired on last year’s Live from Jazz at Lincoln Center DVD (featuring Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson).

The program begins with a brief series of Rio de Janeiro beauty shots (which are occasionally, awkwardly cut into the concert as well) before settling on Krall and her band on stage in front of a packed house at Vivo Rio, where they smoothly run through eighteen songs, most of them jazz and pop standards given a (sometimes barely perceptible) regional flavor. Krall takes the vocals and piano, and for backing, she has a terrific quartet—John Clayton on acoustic bass, Jeff Hamilton on drums, Anthony Wilson on guitar, and Paulinho DeCosta on percussion—with the Rio De Janeiro Orchestra (conducted by Ruria Duprat) adding the lushness of Claus Ogerman’s arrangements. All are splendid, while Krall’s playing is excellent and her silky voice is in fine form. I’ve never really understood the folks (and there are plenty of them) who dislike Krall’s voice; I find her vocals to be soulful and understated, with the lived-in quality of the best jazz songstresses.

The video recording of this particular performance is a fairly standard affair; there’s not much that a director and editor can do in a live concert film that’s terribly unexpected, but director David Barnard manages to put his cameras in the right places and assemble it into a smooth, professional package. He smartly keeps a camera tightly trained on Krall throughout, so that he can catch some of her smaller touches in performance (my favorite was her longing little sigh leading into the bridge of “Let’s Fall In Love”). She also has some nice audience byplay; when a fan shouts “I love you,” she replies, “Oh, I’m difficult, but I thank you” without missing a beat.

But the music is just wonderful. “I Love Being Here With You” is a marvelous, toe-tapping opener, and their rendition of “I’ve Grown Accustomed To His Face” is absolutely lovely. Her stirring cover of “Walk on By” is a highlight, as is their spirited, fast-tempo “Cheek to Cheek.” Her take on “You’re My Thrill” is moody, atmospheric, and a little dark. “So Nice” (with some expert ivory-tinkling by Krall) is a definite crowd-pleaser, but the audience goes absolutely nuts when she (ably) sings “Este Seu Olhar” in their native tongue. Her version of “I Don’t Know Enough About You” proves a rousing closer (pre-encore, of course), while “S’Wonderful” is warm and bewitching.

The less-than-stellar video quality prevents this reviewer from giving Diana Krall: Live in Rio one of our higher recommendations, but it’s still absolutely worth picking up; the show itself is marvelous and the concert audio is reference-quality. Like a good jazz album, it’s the kind of disc that can be re-spun again and again, either as background or a mellowing foreground.

"Diana Krall: Live In Rio" is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

On DVD: "There's Something About Mary"

There’s Something About Mary is one of those films that’s hard to objectively critique this far removed from its original release; it has so totally influenced every mainstream studio comedy that followed it that it can be difficult to view it clear-eyed. It’s also a film that comedy fans may have burned themselves out on at the time; freshness, spontaneity, and surprise are a key element of all good comedies, so when you’re viewing a film like this for the upteenth time, fully aware of what’s coming next, the flaws become more apparent.

And there are flaws, make no mistake. Mary’s directors, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, have never been noted for their brevity; the theatrical version of the picture runs just under two full hours, a pretty expansive length for a pop comedy. Most of the disposable material is in the first and second act (our hero Ted and his long-lost love Mary don’t even reconnect until well past the one-hour mark), but the sheer length of the film causes us to get antsy in the home stretch, when it should be taking off. The third act is also overly cluttered, with too many characters making too many reveals (and too, too much Chris Elliot). And repeat viewings make it more and more clear that Mary, though well-played by Cameron Diaz, is too much of a construction; it’s one thing to create a “perfect woman” who’s hot and sweet and smart and rich, but must she also end a date by asking, “Hey you wanna go upstairs and watch SportsCenter?” In an obvious moment like that, it feels like the script is stacking the deck.

But these are all relatively minor irritations. My more analytical viewing, eleven years after Mary’s theatrical release, confirmed that the Farrellys (along with co-screenwriters Ed Decter and John J. Strauss) truly did capture lightening in a bottle with the picture; it managed to perfectly combine the R-rated sex romp with the romantic comedy—the sticky and the sweet, if you will. It was a combination that created bang-up box office; Mary was a rare movie that opened respectably and then grew to monster numbers over time, one of the last honest-to-God “word of mouth” movies in recent memory. It had something for everyone—guys liked the dirty jokes and were hot for Cameron Diaz, girls identified with Diaz and dug the genuinely sweet relationship between her and Ben Stiller.

The film somehow got that balance exactly right, in a way that astonishingly few of its “gross-out” copycats (Tomcats, American Pie, Van Wilder) did; even the Farrellys struggled to recapture the Mary magic, striking out with films like Me, Myself, and Irene, Stuck on You, and their ill-fated Stiller re-teaming, The Heartbreak Kid. What happened this time? It’s hard to say. Part of it is the intangible quality of good comedy—Mary is just plain funny, from the beautifully constructed zipper-in-the-bathroom scene (and its horrifying “money shot”) to the cringe-worthy (but very funny) hijinks with poor Fluffy the Dog to Harland Williams, who comes in out of left field with a head-scratching, odd performance and damn near steals the picture.

But Mary’s most famous scene is the notorious “hair gel” sequence; I’ll assume that everyone knows the joke (and I couldn’t easily replicate it on this family website anyway). That scene contains, I think, a lot of why Mary resonates and those other pictures don’t. The Farrellys made some smart casting decisions—they went for actors who could be funny instead of traditional comedians. As a result, Diaz’s Mary and Stiller’s Ted are fully-formed characters (even underneath the goofy wigs and braces of the opening scenes); we identify with them, as we would in a more conventional rom-com. So when Mary notices Ted’s “hair gel,” we’re embarrassed for him, but we’re not laughing at him—or her, when we get that great cutaway of what said gel has done to her hair. In fact, we’re laughing in spite of ourselves, because we like the characters so much, and we’re silently hoping that the scene doesn’t pay off in an awkwardly traditional way (i.e., with Mary calling Ted out and laughing at him). And when it doesn’t, we’re thankful; we’re not just with Ted and Mary, but we’re with the movie, for treating them right.

That identification is what Mary has over the films that followed it, the gross-out movies that knew the words but not the music. When Stiffler downs that DNA beer in American Pie, we don’t react with much more than disgust—the circumstances that contaminated it are far-fetched, and we don’t like the guy, so we don’t have any investment in what happens to him, and so it’s just a gross gag and nothing else. Nothing is just gross in There’s Something About Mary (okay, maybe Magda topless in the window); as stupid as it sounds, the gags and the comic set pieces are in service of the story, and that is what makes all the difference.

The first time I saw There’s Something About Mary, it was with a radio-assembled pre-release preview audience, and their laughter took the roof of the joint; we knew next to nothing about the picture, so its every wild bit and manic turn took us by uproarious surprise. Obviously, you can only see a film like this with that kind of fresh eye once, but Mary still holds up; its comic bits still play, its romance is as effectively rendered as ever. If you’ve somehow managed to elude the film for the last eleven years, then by all means, pick it up. But fans who own that 2003 collector’s edition can probably keep hold of it; with no new extras and little noticeable improvement in picture or sound, that version of this talky comedy should continue to serve you just fine.

Obviously, "There's Something About Mary" is available on DVD and has been for quite some time; it was released on Blu-ray disc back on May 12th.

Interview: Kevin Murphy of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" and "Rifftrax"

Here’s the thing: Tom Servo was always my favorite. On the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000, the little gumball machine robot with the deep voice always seemed to get the best lines, and land them with unassailable comic timing. That deep voice belongs to Kevin Murphy, who took over the role in the show’s second season on cable and filled it for the rest of its run, from Comedy Central to the Sci-Fi Channel. When the show ended its run in 1999, Murphy wrote a terrific book, My Year at the Movies, in which he saw a different movie every day for a year (over four continents). The book is a nice reminder that Murphy, above all else, loves movies—even though he’s a guy who makes his living making fun of them. He reunited with Mike Nelson and Bill Corbett, MST’s Sci-Fi era cast, first for the short-lived (but uproarious) direct-to-DVD series “The Film Crew.” The trio then began recording commentaries for Nelson’s Rifftrax website, in which viewers can download MST-style “riffs” on current movies to their mp3 players and sync them up to watch live.

Now, Rifftrax is doing its first batch of DVD releases. Eight of them are well-known older films, including such notoriously low-budget clunkers as Reefer Madness and Plan 9 From Outer Space and cult hits like Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls. They’re also releasing two collections of their expert riffs on vintage educational shorts. Recently, I had the chance to talk to Kevin Murphy about the new discs, Rifftrax, and the legacy of Mystery Science Theater 3000. And, as a bonus, I actually made him laugh twice, which, for me, was sort of like getting to play a good riff for Jimmy Page.

JB: Well first of all Kevin, it’s a real thrill to talk to you. I’m a MiSTie from way back, and I loved your book and the stuff you’re doing with Rifftrax. So thanks for taking the time to talk.

KM: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

JB: We should probably start with the new Rifftrax DVDs. Up until now, Rifftrax has only existed in mp3 and Video On Demand format. What prompted you guys to take the leap into physical media?

KM: It really was the movies, I think. Mike had done really sort of solo actual commentaries on several of these films that are in this flight when he first started with Legend Films, and we thought it was time to give them the proper Rifftrax treatment. And since Legend Films already had them in their library, and there are a lot of people who, believe it or not, are not inclined to do the little bitty technological leap there is to do a Rifftrax. And so we’re reaching, I think, a lot of Mystery Science Theater fans that said, “why don’t you guys do DVDs? It would be wonderful. If you had a DVD, I’d buy it.” Well, here’s an opportunity. And at the same time, we got some great old groaners and some old chestnuts and some films that some people consider sacred cows in the collection. So it is fun to do those, and dive back into the sort of stuff that we’d been doing. It was like going back to high school for a little while.

JB: Yeah, a lot of these are really good “gateway” Rifftrax titles for people who know you guys from “MST” because so many of them are the kind of older, low-budget movies that are so easily identifiable with the show—things like ”Reefer Madness” and “House on Haunted Hill”. Do you find it easier to riff on those movies than on some of the newer titles that Rifftrax usually does, just because they’re so in your comfort zone?

KM: Oh yeah, It is so easy to take old, bad films and make fun of them, for us. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s a lot of fun. And I think it sort of attracts us for that reason, because it’s just—there’s a lot of glee and joy that goes into those, you know. With the current films—which believe me, I love doing. I always go back to Wicker Man, which is one of our favorites, but looking at Nicolas Cage’s gob for two hours tends to be a little oppressive after a while. And the older films are shorter too, and that’s another thing that some people are happy for.

JB: Well, speaking of shooting fish in barrel… Probably the best-known title of this batch, among bad-movie fans anyway, is “Plan 9 From Outer Space”. Now for a long time, that was one that you guys wouldn’t do on “MST.” Why was that, and what caused you to change your mind here?

KM: I think at the time, Plan 9 really had sort of a campy following, you know, like Rocky Horror has. And it was so out there and visible in the public eye at the time, and I think that has sort of quieted down, since we brought so many films, so many bad films to the forefront. I mean—

JB: Far worse films than “Plan 9”!

KM: Exactly. Manos, The Hands of Fate now gives Plan 9 a run for the money when it comes to the worst film of all time. It’s hard to say. I think Manos is a far worse film than Plan 9. Plan 9, it’s a least fun to look at. You can’t even say that about Manos, The Hands of Fate.

JB: “Manos” just kind of hurts your soul.

KM: Yeah. So I think we did a service to the world, and made people realize that Plan 9, believe me it’s bad, but it’s not all as horrible as people used to think it was. It’s really more fun, it’s a lot more lighthearted, and so it seemed like the perfect time to do it since Legend Films already had it on board, and were doing restoration and colorization on it.

JB: You mentioned that Mike had already done the solo tracks on those. I guess a lot of the fans who may have bought those discs and are now looking at these will wonder, how different these “3-riffer” versions are that add in you and Bill in? Obviously, there’s three guys instead of one. But how much of the material is new?

KM: Well, there’s a whole ton of new material. We looked at all of the scripts, and we kept some of the jokes that Mike had done before, but Bill and I were able to throw in our perspectives as well, and our fourth writer Conor Lastowka also pitched in on it. So there’s a lot more “oomph” there than there was. And it really feels like a Rifftrax, where the things that Mike did, although very funny and observant, they’re truly meant to be more like commentaries. And these are real riffs, honest to goodness riffs now.

JB: No, I’ve heard both versions of both “Reefer Madness” and “Plan 9” and it is definitely a different sort of experience. I think in a lot of the early ones, Mike is really funny, but he almost sounds kind of lonely on them (Kevin laughs) I’m curious about how you and Bill got involved in Rifftrax, was it always in the back of his mind that he wanted to reassemble the three of you, or did that just kind of happen organically?

KM: It was always the intent, I think, for us to rejoin once Mike had gone up there and done all of the pioneering that needed to be done to get Rifftrax going. And he had always said that it was his intent, and I’m certainly glad that it worked out that way, and yeah, he probably did feel a little bit lonely doing those first films. You can almost hear an echo in the background, a dog barking in the distance…

JB: A lot of fans, myself included, were always fond of the educational shorts that you’d riff on “MST” before the shorter features, so it’s very cool to see that you’re putting out these two DVD collections of the shorts. What do you think it is about those that makes them so fertile for what you guys do?

KM: Well, they’re not meant to be artistic at all. And if they are, they almost always fail. They’re really sort of there to drive home a lesson or a purpose, so they’re really screwed down and very intent in that. And sometimes they try to scare you into doing something better, and sometimes they try to teach you a moral lesson, and they always seem a little bit oppressive. And so you really get that delightful feeling of sitting in the back of the classroom and making fun of the movie that the teacher put on and then she went out and had a smoke while, you know, the kids in the back of the room are making fun of the movie. That’s how it feels to me. It oddly enough takes me back to about fourth grade, when I used to actually watch some of these things, and snicker with my friends in the back of the room. And you know, they’re condensed versions, it’s like having a bowl of candy rather than a whole meal.

JB: Right. And with the shorts, a lot of times, for fans, they’re the things that you can show someone else to turn them on to the series, because they’re so short.

KM: And they’re the perfect straight men, because it seems like for some reason, most of these educational shorts have a narrator who says something and then leaves a huge gap! So it’s like somehow, they knew subconsciously that they were gonna be our Margaret Dumont sometime in the future.

JB: (Big laugh from me, the Marx Brothers fan) What exactly is the process that you guys go through in selecting titles to riff on for What are your criteria for a movie that you’d want to take on?

KM: I think the first and most important criterion is that it’s a film that people will actually be able to find if they go look for it. I mean, there are tons of obscure films that we could probably have fun with, but they’re almost impossible to find, and even Netflix doesn’t have enough copies. You know, Sylvester Stallone put out about six direct-to-video films that we’re probably never gonna be able to touch. So by and large, the films that are either enormously popular or have been spectacular failures enough that, you know, there’s gonna be enough copies on the rental shelves for people to go out and get them. That’s important. And the second thing is, it’s just a feeling about a film. I mean, I don’t know how to quantify why we knew that Twilight was gonna be so good for us. Except that it’s so serious, and so melodramatic, and it’s so twisted into its little niche, that it reaches a point of absurdity very early on and then never lets go. And we gave a lot of people, I think the Twilight one in particular was liberating for a lot of young men who weren’t about to set foot in the theatre with their girlfriends in order to watch this damn movie—they thought they might die of shame. And now we’ve given them an excuse to watch the film.

JB: Excellent. And part of the reason I ask about the selection process is because some of the fans are curious about the fact that some of the titles you’ve done over the last year or so—and I know that movies are subjective, and everyone has different standards—but a lot of them have been what most people consider “good movies”, things like “Raiders” and “Jaws” and “Dark Knight” and the like. I guess the question is, are you guys at a point now where you’ve been doing this so long that you’re more drawn to the challenge of riffing a good movie?

KM: I think there’s something to be said for the challenge, but more so—I mean, Jaws, I love the movie Jaws, I think it’s a terrific film. So when we do it now, it’s not like we’re trying to tear the film down. I equate it more to a roast.

JB: Gotcha.

KM: You know, it’s like a celebrity roast. And people don’t do a roast of someone who they don’t honor or hold in esteem in some way. If they do, it’s a little twisted, that’s the kind of thing Adam Carolla would do. But it is sort of an honor, I think. We did the Lord of the Rings films, you know, I have a special spot in my heart for those. And Raiders of the Lost Ark, I think was a classic in its own right. And then of course, Crystal Skull came around which put the whole thing in perspective for me…

JB: (Laughs) Now, you guys are very prolific with the Rifftrax releases. How similar is the writing process for Rifftrax to “MST”? Do you still do those sort of fabled multiple writing sessions and script every line, or is it a little more free-wheeling? How does it compare?

KM: Well, it’s much different these days because we all have our own lives and our own homes and we live in different cities. So we actually end up writing quite a bit of it alone. We divide the film up into chunks of time, and the four of us---that includes Conor, who’s our unsung hero writer, he doesn’t appear on microphone with us but he’s a terrific young writer and young man—and we divide it up and we each do a chunk of the film. Then we get together to do a little revision, rewriting, and rehearsal before we perform it and that’s where everything sort of gets blended together, and we have a chance to revise at that point. It’s much more efficient than we used to do in a room, in a writing room, sort of Hollywood-style. I think I prefer it, but that’s only because I’m such an introvert and I hate people in general…

JB: (Laughs) So if you can do it from the home…

KM: That’s right. And it’s worked out just fine, and I don’t think anybody’s ever been able to detect which chunks of the film I would have written, or Conor or Bill or Mike. I think we know each other’s chops well enough now that it sort of blends together.

JB: Have there been any movies, particularly for Rifftrax but also for MST, that you went up against and couldn’t lick? Where you thought, “Oh, this one’ll be easy,” and then you just couldn’t get it to work, for whatever reason?

KM: We haven’t abandoned a film on Rifftrax. And we never abandoned a film on Mystery Science Theater, because at that time we were committed with money to do it, we sort of had to it. There were a couple of times when it was really, really hard, and the film Red Zone Cuba keeps screaming into my head… And there are times when we’re doing films for Rifftrax when it just… what we do is sort of, it’s got it’s challenging elements to it, and when we talk about the vitriol that we have for the pod race scene in the first of the new, old Star Wars films… There’s something genuine in that hatred of the pod racing scene, the endless, interminableness of it…. and the confused vision that gets forced on us by, say, a Michael Bay in Transformers. I still don’t know what the hell happened in that film, and who was talking when, and what those things were supposed to be. Maybe it’s because I’m old, but I don’t think so.

JB: I think you just… have a brain, and you like to use it when you walk into a movie theatre!

KM: (Laughs) “It’s colors and shapes and I like it!”

JB: Exactly! Okay, last question: Shout Factory is releasing Volume 15 of “MST3K” this summer. It’s their third release since taking over the series from Rhino. Are you happy with the job that they’re doing with the show?

KM: I love-- you know, we did a small stint with Shout Factory when we reformed as The Film Crew for a little while…

JB: Oh yeah, I loved the Film Crew.

KM: And they’re great folks. I think they do a really nice job of packaging things and putting them out there, and I’ve always been happy with their work on what it is I’ve done with them. I like ‘em.

JB: Well that new “MSTK” set is out on July 7th, and the ten Rifftrax DVDs hit on June 16th. Kevin Murphy, thanks you so much for talking with us.

KM: My pleasure!

Kevin Murphy, ladies and gentlemen. A prince among men.

Kael of the Week: Marketing

"There are a few exceptions, but in general it can be said that the public no longer discovers movies, the public no longer makes a picture a hit. If the advertising for a movie doesn't build up an overwhelming desire to be part of the event, people just don't go. They don't listen to their own instincts, they don't listen to the critics--they listen to the advertising. Or, to put it more precisely, they do listen to their instincts, but their instincts are now controlled by advertising... The public relations event becomes part of the national consciousness. You don't hear anybody say, 'I saw the most wonderful movie you never heard of'; when you hear people talking, it's about the same blasted movie that everybody's going to--the one that's flooding the media. Yet even the worst cynics still like to think that 'word of mouth' makes hits. And the executives who set up the machinery of manipulation love to believe that the public--the public that's sitting stone-dead in front of its TV sets--spontaneously discovered their wonderful movie. If it's a winner, they say it's the people's choice... Advertising is a form of psychological warfare that in culture, as in politics, is becoming harder to fight with aboveboard weapons. It's becoming damn near invincible. If Hollywood executives still believe in word of mouth, it's because the words come out of their own mouths."

-From "On the Future of Movies", The New Yorker

I think this (35 YEAR OLD) quote is particularly interesting as we go into the summer movie season, where studio-manufactured "event movies" are shoved down our collective throat, whether they're worth a fuck or not.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Oh, No Way I'm Seeing That: "Imagine That"

Welcome to “Oh, No Way I’m Seeing That,” a regular feature in which we’ll take a look at a trailer for an upcoming film, and then examine exactly why there’s absolutely no way I’ll be seeing the advertised film. In this edition: Eddie Murphy’s newest family “comedy”, “Imagine That.”

There was a time when there wasn’t an Eddie Murphy film that I’d miss; Trading Places and Coming to America remain two of the best comedies of the 1980s, 48 HRS. and Beverly Hills Cop among its most enjoyably trashy action/comedies. Boomerang looked like a strong start to the 90s, but Murphy started grinding out pictures of lower and lower quality. The Nutty Professor was, in many ways, the best and worst thing that ever happened to him—best, in that it was a much-needed hit (and, I still maintain, a genuinely funny and entertaining movie), and worst, in that it showed Murphy that he could tamp down his aggressive persona and four-letter vocabulary and score big box office by catering to the PG and PG-13 market.

His last starring role worth a damn was in Steve Martin’s Bowfinger; since then his filmography has included such garbage as Pluto Nash, I Spy, Daddy Day Care, Showtime, The Haunted Mansion, and the loathsome Norbit, a film so unifying in its badness that many believe it cost Murphy a perhaps-deserved Academy Award for his restrained, fully-realized performance in Dreamgirls. Did he learn from the positive notices he received for his mature work in that film for grown-ups? Hardly. He followed it up with the belly-flop Meet Dave and now, well, this.

Aside from the inanity of the concept and the sure-to-be saccharine themes, there’s one element of Imagine That which is worth examining. While reading Drew McWeeny’s lacerating review of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian over at Motion/Captured (click it, it’s a good read), I came upon this paragraph:

“One of the reasons I intensely disliked the first film was because it fell into one of the forms that I hate most in commercial films these days: a hard-working father encounters some magical hoo-haw that teaches him that all that hard work he's doing to provide for his family ACTUALLY means he's a giant asshole. Because in today's economy, with job definitions changing as radically as they do all the time, god forbid we portray someone who actually works hard as a good person or a decent character. Nope. Work = neglectful asshole. That's Hollywood, for you, where people routinely work 60 hour weeks. Talk about self-loathing writ large, eh? It seems like every comic has made at least one of these movies. "Liar Liar." "Evan Almighty." "Bedtime Stories." "Click." "Imagine That." I know I'm missing a hundred easy examples, but for the most part, I reject those films and their empty, stupid moralizing, and I try to forget them completely as quickly as possible. I think it's a rotten, corrupt theme, built on a lie, and the films turn out to be built on some inane plot mechanic ("Wow, I'm glad we got this magic wristwatch that lets us turn back time!") and crammed full of gooey phony sentiment."

Drew’s a smarter guy than I am, because I had never really stopped to examine this construct. But it is a tiresome one. And it will be interesting to see if his point about the effect of the recession on these types of films is a salient one; in a country where nearly every week, men are literally killing their families and then themselves because they can’t provide for them, maybe having a father who works hard to provide isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a kid.

As for Eddie Murphy, well, there is hope: He’s reportedly working on a Richard Pryor biopic with his Dreamgirls director, Bill Condon. I have hope for this project; Murphy idolized Pryor when he was growing up and becoming a comic, and his Pryor impression in Eddie Murphy: Raw (a film so removed from the current incarnation of “Eddie Murphy” that it feels like it stars a completely different human being) is spot-on. I just hope he doesn’t decide to tone down the f-words into “filth flarn filths” so they don’t have to part with those PG-13 dollars.

On DVD: "Defiance"

Defiance is the kind of picture that Hollywood tends to trowel out every December as Oscar bait and pretend like they’ve been making all year long. It tells a noble true story in handsome autumnal tones; it lets its stars do some Acting with a capital A; and it concerns a little-known but inspiring story from our favorite movie war, WWII. Defiance didn’t do much at the box office (it was caught in a glut of Nazi-themed movies late in the year—every time its trailer ran, I thought I was about to see an ad for Valkyrie) and was all but ignored come February. Watching it now, it’s easy to see why it made so little noise. There’s nothing obviously wrong with it—on the surface, it’s well-constructed and competently directed and tells an important story. But it’s all surface. For such an emotional tale, it’s surprisingly passionless; the resulting product has a perfunctory, formulaic quality.

The screenplay, by director Ed Zwick and Clayton Frohman, tells the true story of the Bielksi brothers, a quartet of Jewish farmers in Nazi-occupied Poland who created a forest refuge for other persecuted Jews. In the forest, they created a collective where all inhabitants worked, built, hunted, and protected the group; they learned to shoot and prepared to fight. Oldest brother Tuvia (Daniel Craig), stern and businesslike, becomes the practical and moral leader of the group; Craig’s work is straight-forward and no-nonsense, with flashes of soulful rage (though his character’s extended second-act sickness also cripples Craig’s ability to hold the story’s focus). Zus (Liev Schreiber, in a robust, fully felt performance) is less nuanced in his views—he wants full-throated revenge for the deaths of his family, and is less interested in Tuvia’s good intentions.

Most of the film’s personal drama comes from Tuvia and Zus’ conflict; in the early sections, Tuvia keeps returning to the forest with more and more people (“Now you are Moses, eh?” an unsmiling Zus asks), while they later disagree about the degree and severity of their actions (“You don’t have the stomach to do what must be done,” Zus notes). Eventually, Zus takes the more direct route of fighting with the Russian army. Unfortunately, this removes Schreiber from too much of the film (his absence is felt), and he and Craig’s eventual reunion pays off their conflict so half-heartedly that it almost feels like an afterthought (“Oh, yeah,” Zwick seems to have realized, “we’ve gotta tie that up too…”)

Zwick and Frohman’s screenplay is frequently undercooked. Its opening scene shows the brothers discovering that the Nazis have murdered their parents; it plays all the right notes, but it’s tough to engage emotionally because we don’t yet know these men (we just know that their family is dead). Jamie Bell, as third brother Asael, is a bit of a cipher—his role is woefully underwritten, though it’s like Hamlet compared to the wafer-thin characters of the three brothers’ love interests. The script plods a bit from scene to scene and has difficulty pulling its threads through the narrative.

However, Zwick’s sturdy direction occasionally covers the troubles in his script; some of his set pieces are involving and well-done. A late night killing spree sequence is blunt, brutal, and effective, while the brothers’ raid on a police station to steal necessary medicine is stylishly rendered. Eduardo Serra’s dreamy cinematography beautifully captures a winter wedding, while Zwick slyly undercuts the cheeriness of that scene by intercutting it with Zus and the Russian army in the midst of a particularly ruthless attack. The battle sequences towards the picture’s end are well-executed (we’d expect nothing less from the director of Glory and The Last Samurai), and a battlefield death scene is pat and expected, but still does the job. However, those flashes of ingenuity aren’t enough to put the film over.

Like Zwick’s last effort, the vastly overrated Blood Diamond, Defiance is rather a paint-by-numbers affair. His direction is professional but strangely detached; in his attempt to tell the story without flourishes he’s drained it of the necessary emotion. As a result, the film is specious and lacking resonance; it looks good, and it goes through the paces, but it never really draws us in.

"Defiance" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, June 2nd.

Monday, May 25, 2009

On DVD: "Fanboys"

Fanboys begins with an interesting idea and fills it up with (mostly) charming actors and welcome cameos. Trouble is, it just ain’t funny enough. When it limped into a handful of theatres last February, it was coming off a multi-year sturm und drang of post-production that was more dramatic than anything that made it to the screen. New directors and extra talent were trucked in; scenes were tossed out and reworked by the handful. It’s hard to know what director Kyle Newman’s film looked like before its cuisinart of reworkings, but in its current form, it is damp with the flop sweat of too many extra hands.

The time is 1998, a year before the long-awaited Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. The titular characters are Linus (Chris Marquette), Hutch (Dan Fogler), and Windows (Jay Baruchel), lifelong friends who live and breathe everything Star Wars. They’re also stuck in a perpetual adolescence; they work in a comic book store, still live at home, and seem oblivious to the fairer sex—even the foxy geek girl (Kristen Bell) who works with them. Their buddy Eric (Sam Huntington) has grown up, it seems; he works at his father’s used car lot and is about to take over for the old man. But an awkward reunion at a Halloween party stirs up these old friendships, and they devise a plan to travel from their home of Ohio to Skywalker Ranch near San Francisco, where they will break in to Lucas’ home base and get an early peek at the prequel.

Oh, and Linus has cancer. His sickness was one of the film’s sticking points; executive producer Harvey Weinstein reportedly wanted the cancer subplot excised and various versions were tested with and without it, resulting in flame wars and online petitions and so on. On paper, I can see why it was in, and why director Newman fought so hard for it; in theory, it gives the film a ticking clock (Linus may not live to see the movie when it’s actually released). But after viewing the film, I gotta say that Harvey Scissorhands may have been on to something. The cancer plot is tone-deaf to the wacky tone of the rest of the film, an ill-advised attempt to add gravitas to a lightweight story that can’t support it. It pretty much stops the movie cold whenever it comes up, and Eric’s particular (and particularly vague) form of the disease is that elusive “movie cancer” that only exhibits symptoms when it’s convenient for the narrative.

Not that there’s any particular comic momentum for the serious moments to spoil; the film’s rough-and-tumble assembly is most evident in its lack of forward motion. It’s strictly a minute-to-minute affair, clearly the handiwork of script doctors and outsourced talent who were asked to punch up the movie’s laugh lines with no real concern for the big picture—and even there they failed. There are funny lines here and there, but the throwaway gags (like a coffee shop called Java the Hut) are frequently more amusing than the big comic set pieces. Much of the picture is assembled from the tired spare parts of countless road trip movies, like the encounter with a gang of rough bar bikers who turn out to be (wait for it) GAY (can you imagine such a thing?), or the scene where they get high around a campfire. Sure, the film’s non-stop Star Wars references and inside jokes can get a little tiresome, but they’re better than the cliché parade that it reverts to in its lesser moments (we even get a slow-mo bad-ass walk with music at one point, as if there’s anyone on earth who’s not tired of that move).

In the leading roles, Marquette and Huntington are damn near indistinguishable in their bland vanilla looks and mannerisms, and their conflict is tiresome, right up to the tender ending scene where they tell us what the story was about (“This was never about the movie…”). As Hutch, the loathsome Dan Fogler (whose “filmmaking” debut Hysterical Psycho was the lowlight of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival) does his best impression of Jack Black in High Fidelity. Only Baruchel (Undeclared) manages to work up much of a character. And while it’s always a pleasure to see Kristen Bell work, but she’s punching way under her weight class with this role. That said, she still manages to charm, and her reappearance at the halfway point gives the picture a much-needed jolt of life.

The film does keep some surface interest going by trotting out a non-stop parade of cameos. William Shatner gets a pretty good scene, though Star Wars alumni Billy Dee Williams and Carrie Fisher get about three lines each (they’re utilized for their mere existence, rather than for any particular end). The bulk of the guest shots are from various figures of the modern (mostly Apatow-based) comedy scene; some of them amuse, but by the end, it starts to take on a Cannonball Run air (“Hey, it’s Craig Robinson. Hey, it’s Danny McBride”)—we smile in anticipation at the appearance of someone who has made us laugh before, though they rarely do so here. It’s not enough to get funny people, you have to give them something funny to do. Seth Rogen plays two roles, and one of them (a nearly unrecognizable bit as a Star Trek fanatic) looks like it’s building to a comic high point, only to culminate in a clumsy, poorly staged fight scene that’s hardly a payoff. Scene like this don’t go anywhere; they fumble to their foregone conclusions lethargically. I’m not sure which scenes were in Newman’s original cut and which were in the reshoots, lensed by talentless Steven Brill (Without A Paddle, Little Nicky), but there’s not much here for either man to be proud of.

It’s not that there’s nothing worth seeing in Fanboys; there’s plenty of talented people involved, and scattered laughs throughout. But the whole thing has the air of an opportunity missed, and then desperately attempted to recapture. There’s one entire sequence that plays—the final scene, of our heroes and their brethren camped out in those lines outside the theaters before the real opening. In that scene, the filmmakers finally capture the unfettered anticipation among movie geeks in that particular pop culture moment (and they get Bell to wear the Leia gold bikini, which is no small accomplishment), and cap it off with a decent closing line (I mean, it’s no “Nobody’s perfect!”, but still…). There, and in other isolated moments, Fanboys is charming, goofy fun. But it stumbles too often to work up a full head of steam.

Fanboys is a movie I wanted to like far more than I was able to; it’s just a clunky mess, full of too many strained scenes where funny people stand around waiting for laughs that don’t come. The cult of movie geekdom can be fertile ground for comic satire (as anyone who has seen Trekkies can attest), but Fanboys never finds a real comic attitude or voice; it doesn’t really admire its heroes, but it doesn’t bother to satirize them, either. Instead, it marches them through a tired road trip construct and some desperate comic situations and hopes for the best. Unfortunately, that’s not quite good enough.

"Fanboys" is currently available on DVD.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

On DVD: "Gran Torino"

From a conventional storytelling standpoint, Gran Torino is something of a disaster. It’s almost entirely predictable, numerous dialogue scenes ring noticeably false, the tone is all over the place, and it keeps stopping for scenes that go nowhere. Its performances are wildly inconsistent, and it’s a good fifteen minutes too long. But it still works somehow, mostly due to the skill and presence of Clint Eastwood as its director and leading actor. The script is a mess, but the considerable iconographical baggage that Eastwood brings to the table does a great deal to spackle over the story’s many holes and false notes.

He stars as Walt Kowalski, a Korean War vet and lifetime Ford worker whose wife dies just before the story begins. He doesn’t get along with his grown kids and their families (the quickie portrait of a disconnected family is broad but convincing), so he’s fairly content to live out the rest of his days drinking beer on his porch and polishing his prized possession, a 1972 Gran Torino. But the world has changed around Walt—particularly the world around his immaculately-groomed lawn. He’s about the only white face remaining in his neighborhood, which is now mostly inhabited by Hmong families (a fact that allows him to keep trotting out his leftover xenophobic slurs).

The Lor family next door has two teenage kids: daughter Sue (Ahney Her) and son Thao (Bee Vang). Thao is an introverted kid who’s getting pressured by their cousin (Doua Moua) to join his Hmong gang; the initiation they device for the reluctant kid is to boost Walt’s prized Torino. Walt catches Thao in the act; he runs for the hills, and when he refuses to do another initiation, a brawl breaks out in front of their home that creeps over to Walt’s place.

This is the movie’s first big crowd-pleaser moment: as Thao and his antagonists scrap and push all over Walt’s perfect green grass, the camera tilts up to Eastwood, leveling a rifle in tight close-up, as he growls, “Get off my lawn.” The audience eats it up, of course—it’s Dirty Harry meets Mr. Wilson. There’s no question whether it gets a laugh (it does), but is Eastwood playing it for one? Later, Sue is out for a stroll with an ineffectual caricature of a white b-boy when they’re confronted by three tough black guys who start talking dirty and man-handling her. Walt, of course, happens by, and ends up saving Sue by pulling a gun on the black kids (and throwing some slurs their way too). That marginally troublesome (but indubitably well-received) scene sums up the trouble with the Walt character: the script wants to have it both ways with him. They make him racist, but not too racist (he calls them “spades” but not “niggers”), and when they set him up in situations like this one and the scene on the lawn, we can dig his tough-guy encounters and forgive his casual racism (some audiences might even enjoy it a little) because these guys have it coming and besides, we’ve seen enough movies to know he’ll be a good guy by the end of the picture.

The script also hamstrings Eastwood, as a director, with a number of scenes that bog down the momentum. There’s a running subplot with a young priest (Christopher Carley) who was close with Walt’s late wife; his scenes are too numerous and mostly unconvincing (their conversation in a bar about life and death plays like a first draft), and Carley’s woefully inadequate performance doesn’t help matters any. The character has two good scenes near the end, but they aren’t worth all the bad ones that precede them. The scenes with the gang members are, admittedly, more convincing than you’d expect from a director who’s pushing 80, but they’re still a touch forced (and Eastwood clearly relied on too much improvisation by actors who weren’t up to the task). A later scene in which Walt, who has taken Thao under his wing, takes the young man to his neighborhood barbershop to learn how to relate with other men (“Now you’re gonna learn how guys talk,” he informs the boy) is a “movie scene,” disconnected from anything resembling reality and only good for cheap, easy laughs.

Ahney Her is an unaffected, natural performer, and a key scene where she brings Walt over to a family gathering is charming and a little heartbreaking. Some of Vang’s line readings are a little stilted, and a scene towards the end where he’s calling out for Walt needed a much quicker cut (you start to see him acting), but he has an interesting, low-key quality. Eastwood’s performance is a little uneven; he spends most of the first act communicating primarily in guttural grunts, his face a glowering, bitter mask of sheer contempt for everyone around him. He’s also required to talk to himself too frequently (this is the handiwork of a lazy screenwriter). Midway through, a scene in which his children propose putting him into a home climaxes with a big push-in to his fuming face; it’s a moment of bug-eyed overacting that none of his other directors would have ever left in.

But once it gets into the second hour, his considerable strength and ability to hold the screen comes through. The broad strokes of the story may be obvious, but Eastwood’s playing and direction are mostly straight-forward and effective. And there’s no question he knows how to work an audience over—when he picks up his gun or beats the hell out of a gang punk, it does get a rise out of us. And when the people Walt comes to care for are wronged, our blood boils with his, culminating in a scene of exploding rage that shows the kind of passion which sometimes didn’t make it into his earlier movies. That intense emotion lends some real power to the genuinely unexpected conclusion. In those moments, Gran Torino plays. But they don’t negate the very real difficulties elsewhere in the film.

Gran Torino became Eastwood’s biggest box office hit to date (without inflation adjustment, anyway) and was considered by many filmgoers and critics as superior to his other fall 2008 release, Changeling—which is befuddling, as Changeling is the far better picture. But Gran Torino certainly has its moments, and its simple, businesslike storytelling undoubtedly resonates—even if Eastwood himself has been making far more complex and challenging films in recent years.

"Gran Torino" hits DVD on Tuesday, June 9th. Here's my review of "Clint Eastwood: American Icon Collection", a four-movie set of his 60s and 70s work, released earlier this year.