Friday, October 16, 2009

Today's New in Theaters- 10/16/09

Where The Wild Things Are: I've started to read some mediocre reviews for Spike Jonze's marvelous family picture, and as I tweeted yesterday, with only a modicum of smarmy hyperbole, they are soulless monsters, incapable of joy. It's an absolute must-see, for intelligent moviegoers of all ages.

The Stepfather: Hey, you'll never believe this, but they took a resonably well-respected horror thriller from the 1980s and remade it, but softened it to a PG-13. I know, revolutionary, right? Well, you might be surprised to hear that it's not very good.

Law Abiding Citizen: I can't even measure my disinterest in this one, though Movieline has a piece on it that floats some interesting theories about its (perhaps uninentional) political overtones.

New York, I Love You: Ebert, in his three-star review, says in one line what I don't quite manage to get across in my entire review: "Inevitably, the film is a jumble sale, but you can make some nice discoveries."

Black Dynamite: Every review I've read today (including Ebert's, Movieline's, and AV Club's) has been wild about Scott Sanders' blaxpoitation parody, but I just don't see it; I've seen a shitload of blaxpoitation movies, and some decent parodies of them (I'm Gonna Git You Sucka leaps to mind), but this one is flaccid and rudderless, as well-made as it might be.

Interview: Alan Zweibel of "It's Garry Shandling's Show" and "Saturday Night Live"

Reprinted from DVDTalk.com.

The name of Alan Zweibel is one you might not recognize right away, but for us comedy geeks, he’s one of the legends. In addition to extensive resume of impressive television and film writing and producing credits, he was one of the primary writers for the original, legendary seasons of Saturday Night Live, and he co-created (with the show’s star) the groundbreaking series It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, serving as that show’s producer and frequent writer for its entire four-season run on Showtime (with Fox airing re-runs). This month, at long last, the entire series is being released on DVD by Shout Factory, in a handsome, 16-disc set. I had the chance to chat with the affable Mr. Zweibel about the show, its influences, SNL, and the final TV appearance of his good friend and collaborator Gilda Radner.

JB: Well, first of all, I know I speak for a lot of TV buffs and comedy fans when I tell you how great it is to finally get “It’s Gary Shandling’s Show” on DVD. I guess we should start at the beginning—did you know Gary before you worked together on the show, or were you put together specifically for this project?

AZ: Well, what had happened was, we were both managed by the same management company. I was with Bernie Brillstein, he’d been my manager since I was on Saturday Night Live; he was with Brad Grey. And when Bernie and Brad got together to form their own company, Garry was doing a special for Showtime. I think it was called Garry Shandling’s 25th Anniversary Show, and it was a parody of a talk show, a Johnny Carson Tonight Show, where he made believe he was on the air for 25 years with this talk show, and they were having their anniversary show, where they made up clips and they showed a retrospective. And they were having, well they needed some fresh eyes for this script. So Bernie Brillstein called me, asked me if I knew who Garry was. I had seen him on TV, I thought he was funny. I read the script, I thought I could be of help, I went out to California, helped with the special, and then he and I got to talking about a show that he was thinking about… I told him a show that I was thinking about… they were both very, very similar. And we said hey, why don’t we just combine them and do them together? So that’s what happened.

JB: So you guys came up with the actual concept for the show fairly early on, without a lot of false starts? Was it always that kind of non-conventional idea?

AZ: Well, you know, I’ll tell you… how it started in Garry’s mind was he played himself, talking to camera, right? I had an idea where, because I was married and had two children already, so my idea for a show was the same thing, but where it was a married guy who was a comedy writer, and the married guy spoke to camera. So we combined the two ideas, if you will. And maybe writing the pilot, we knew what we didn’t like on television, we know what was sort of conventional, so we tried to figure out how we would do it, how we would come up with our own way of doing something. You know, with my Saturday Night Live background, we had, when we started that show, we had always looked at, okay, a typical variety show would do it this way, how would we do it? And with It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, we pretty much did it the same way—okay, this is what’s ordinary, what can we do different about it, which is fun, but also satirizing whatever the convention was.

JB: Gotcha. One of the things that’s great about the show—and I know this has been commented about ad nauseam--is that it’s sort simultaneously cutting edge and hip and new, but it’s also a bit of a throwback, and influenced by things like “The Burns and Allen Show” or “The Jack Benny Program.” How cognizant were you guys of those influences when you were putting the show together?

AZ: We were very cognizant, very respectful of it. We knew exactly what our roots were. And so what we did was, we always acknowledged that yeah, George Burns spoke to the camera, and he spied on everybody by looking at their lives on a TV monitor. And the simplicity of Jack Benny and being presentational like that, absolutely. We were very cognizant of it. So what we did was, we went back to that as a jumping-off point, and then as we went forward, started parodying—what else could you do? What else could you know to have the same kind of omniscience that George Burns did? We acknowledged the audience, and then “The Graduate” episode was the first time that we drove a car from one set to another, you know, and you saw the audience. And so we started expanding, but our jumping-off point by all means were the shows that you just cited.

JB: Right. And that’s what great, is how you started with those ideas, and then expanded them into things like “The Schumakers Go To Hollywood” episode, where Grant and Pete end up in the studio audience…

AZ: (Laughs) Right.

JB: And throughout the series, there’s a wonderful kind of love of old-school show-biz, with the guest stars and things like the Red Buttons episode. Were you guys more interested in sending up those conventions and that style of comedy, or sort of embracing them, or doing a mix of both?

AZ: That’s a wonderful question. Garry and I both had an affection for what the roots were, we embraced it. Now if we had fun with it, that’s only because that’s what we do. But to have Red Buttons on the show meant that we were having a guy who was there at the inception of television, who helped start the whole thing with his shows… it was, you know, look who we had! We had Carl Reiner, we had people who made us laugh when we were growing up. We had Norman Fell in “The Graduate” episode, and with all due respect to Norman who was great, he was fantastic, if I’m not mistaken—and I could be wrong here—in the discussion that Garry and I had as to who was going to come through the door from The Graduate, I was pitching my friend Buck Henry, who wrote The Graduate. So once again, it was an acknowledgement of the people who made television possible, movies possible, people that we idolized, you know? I mean, one of the greatest thrills I’ve gotten from It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was as recently as two months ago, when Mike Nichols asked me for a copy of “The Graduate” episode. He had seen it many years ago—Mike directed The Graduate—and Mike had asked me for it a few months ago because he wanted to show it to his wife, Diane Sawyer, because she had never seen it.

JB: Wow.

AZ: So this is total respect for what preceded us and what influenced us.

JB: At the time that the show aired, there was not a lot of original programming on Showtime, like there is today. And then when Fox started re-airing episodes, it was kind of a similar situation, where that was a fledgling network as well. Was it frustrating to have that kind of relatively low visibility, or do you think it allowed you to take chances and experiment in ways that you might not have been able to do otherwise?

AZ: It was frustrating, because Showtime, like you said, didn’t have a lot of original programming. New York, where I’m from, Manhattan wasn’t totally wired for Showtime. I remember we would do these shows, I would run up an enormous FedEx bill, sending out tapes to people to prove that I was indeed working, and this is what I was doing! So they gave us total freedom, which we embraced and made the most of, but we were frustrated that people hadn’t seen it, or had heard about it but hadn’t seen it, weren’t able to access it… And so when Fox came along, it was an opportunity to say, okay, maybe more people can see what we’re doing. We were proud of it, we were very, very proud of it, and even when we failed—when there was an episode as good, let’s say as the preceding one or our other ones—that we tried, there was a nobility to the intent, you know I mean? But there was a great degree of frustration, that there weren’t more people that knew what we were doing.

JB: Well, a couple of nights ago, I was watching the second season episode where Garry falls down the hole, and I’m watching a show where literally nothing happens for the first five minutes of the show, except that the theme song runs twice and people are wandering around looking for him. And all I could think in the back of my head as I’m watching was, “If this show had been on ABC at that time, there’s no way that they could have gotten away with this opening.”

AZ: Well, you’re absolutely right, because what happened back then… Well, once again, there was no cable back then. When we started there was no Fox. It was ABC, CBS, and NBC and that was television. Situation comedies were, by and large, formulaic. You know what I mean, there was “X” amount of jokes per page, you know what I’m saying?

JB: Set-up/punch-line, set-up/punch-line, sure.

AZ: Yeah, so where we come along, and we don’t start the show, or start on an empty set because Gary’s down a hole… (laughs) There’s no other place we could have done it! Nobody else would have even stood for it!

JB: Yeah. I’m sitting there, and I’m laughing because it’s funny, but I’m also laughing that you guys had the balls to do it, and got away with it.

AZ: There was such an audacity that we had—it was always the “what if.” There are certain things that writers, producers, you know, go “what if,” and nine out of ten times, maybe even more frequently than that, you are told, “No, you can’t!” And here we come along and go, “what if… Whoah, they’re not gonna stop us! Holy shit! They’re looking the other way, my God!” (laughs)

JB: I have to ask about this—I know you worked a lot with the Gilda Radner on “SNL,” and how close you two were, and she made her final TV appearance on “It’s Gary Shandling’s Show.” It’s a wonderful episode. How exactly did that appearance happen?

AZ: Well, very simply, Gilda loved the show. And when I came to L.A. to do it, she and I were sort of reunited as friends, because there was no emails, there was no Internet or anything like that, and I lived in New York, and she was out here doing movies. And when I came out here to start the show, she and I sort of resuscitated our friendship. After that, you know, when we started the show, she got sick, and what she had requested of me as her friend was just to make her laugh, just to make her think of positive things and not the harp on what was happening to her body. So Garry and I would do a show every week, and we would send her a tape, like a Hallmark card, just to make her laugh, she was such a fan of it, you know? And when she started feeling stronger, she kept on—well, she kept saying all along, “Once I feel stronger, I want to come on and do your show.” And she had an open invitation obviously, she was Gilda, she was my buddy, and Garry admired her; everybody with the show, you know, the week that she decided, “Okay, I can do it this week,” you know, they were just in awe. But what had happened was, Gilda said, “Okay, I’ll do the show.” But then she got some cold feet, thinking she hadn’t been on TV in six or seven years at that point, and was afraid that no one would recognize her when she came through the door. She looked different, her hair was shorter, and she wasn’t Roseanne Roseannadanna anymore, you know, that person. And also she was afraid people had forgotten who she was completely, because it had been so long. And just as I was about to tell her don’t be silly, she stopped me and she said, “You know something, I have to do your show. My comedy is the only weapon I have against this fucker.” That’s what she referred to the cancer as, “this fucker.” And she looked at me and she said, “Zweibel, can you help me make cancer funny?” And so the cancer jokes that got into that episode, she wrote. And there were more of them that didn’t get in, for one reason or another, but this was a mission of hers, to show the world that you can still do stuff, and get the better of this disease. And she got nominated for an Emmy for that appearance, and she felt so good that she and Shandling and I started talking about creating a show for her for HBO. As a matter of fact, somewhere in my house, in a box somewhere, are those notes. But then, you know, she had, you know…we thought she was in remission, and then there was a relapse, and then the inevitable happened. But that’s basically how that episode came about.

JB: Well, I just watched it again last night and it’s a wonderful addition to her legacy.

AZ: Oh, that’s nice to hear, thanks.

JB: Now, one of the great things about the DVD set is that so many of you are involved in it—you and Garry and several of the other writers do commentaries and interviews for the featurettes and so on. How long had it been since you’d looked at these shows, and how do you think they hold up?

AZ: What a treat it was to come back out here, this was a few months ago, I came out here to do the commentary—with Garry, by myself, blah blah blah. And they put us in a room, and they showed us a load of episodes. And you see on the DVD, we comment on them. I can’t even begin to tell you what a treat it was, because yeah, there was something nostalgic about it, but there was an also an emotional detachment that I had—and I’m sure Garry did too—where we had forgotten what we had done. So we were looking at it with a certain objectivity as if it was, “Oh, look at this show.” And genuinely enjoyed it, and were laughing! And on occasion, we’d look at each other and go, “Holy shit, we did that?” (laughs) It was really, really fun. And then I remember going out for lunch after one of the sessions, it was me and Garry and Tom Gammill and Max Pross, and we just went through it all. It was like playing catch-up about the work. And it was the kind of show that attracted really good writers, and really good people—the fun of it was, for me, it was lighting striking twice after being part of the original Saturday Night Live gang. You were given the opportunity to do what you wanted to do, but responsible enough not to abuse the privilege. You know what I mean? In the four years we were on, I don’t think we said the word “shit” ever, even though we could have because it was cable. It was about the work. And now that it’s taken 20 years or whatever it is for the DVDs to come out, we’re just clicking our heels! We’re like, ah, finally! Every time The Onion would print the list of the shows that should be on DVD but aren’t, I’d see the show, I’d see it elsewhere, and I’d go, “Damnit, let’s do it!” So we’re thrilled!

JB: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask at least one quick question about “SNL”. The fifth season is coming out on DVD in December, and this was a kind of transition season where you appeared on-camera much more than in previous shows, it was the last season for a lot of you. It’s not a season that is as widely seen as the first four years—are you looking forward to that particular season being more widely available?

AZ: Yeah, I am looking forward to the availability of this one in particular. When we were doing it, I didn’t know it would be our last year. So, there was always that thing of, would Lorne be coming back next year, would we be coming back next year, blah blah blah… So even when we were doing the show that year, and as the season started winding down, there were murmurs of this and that. I think there was a part of all of us that thought, oh we’ll probably be back. So we didn’t necessarily know it was the last season. So that being said, I think of the work that was done on that is really good. It’s so many years ago now, it’s hard for me to—I sort of remember what we did. I know we did Lord Douchebag, which was a bit that I had mentioned to Franken and Davis many years before… So there were certain things that were memorable to me that I’m really happy that people are going to be able to see.

JB: Well Mr. Zweibel, it’s a tremendous pleasure to talk to you, I’m such a fan of your work. Thank you so much for taking the time.

AZ: Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure.

"It’s Garry Shandling’s Show: The Complete Series” will be released on DVD on October 20th. “Saturday Night Live: The Complete Fifth Season” will be released on December 1st.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

In Theaters: "Where the Wild Things Are"

Holy crap, they pulled it off. After years of preparation, after rumors of behind-the-scenes rumblings, after all of the breathless pre-release hand-wringing (Is it too intense for kids? Is it too smart for family audiences?), at long last, Spike Jonze’s film version of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are has finally arrived, and it was worth the wait. It’s an enchanting film, warm and winning, a picture that envelops its audience and holds them in its grasp for its entire 94 minutes, which go by in a blink. The preview audience I saw it with laughed at the jokes, but sat in hushed silence otherwise, lest they break the delicate spell the film casts. It is, in a word, wonderful.

It is also, yes, “difficult” and “challenging” and all those other buzzwords that dull Hollywood types attach to any movie that can’t be put into a box that spits out Happy Meal toys. Make no mistake, it is an unconventional family film—but that is a good thing, inasmuch as it is noticeably lacking in pop culture references and bullshit moralizing. What it does, more than any movie that I can think of, is replicate what it’s like to be a kid, how it feels, the fierce energy of an imagination untethered, and how that runs parallel to the first, terrifying pangs of sadness and fragility and loneliness and despair.

Those ideas are only hinted at in Sendak’s book, which has been greatly (and ingeniously) expanded by Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers (who penned A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, as well as the screenplay to last summer’s Away We Go)—and it would certainly need to be augmented, since you can read the book in about three minutes flat (trust me, I just checked). It is still the story of Max (Max Records) and the boat trip that leads him to the land of the wild things, who make him their king. But we get to know Max a bit beforehand; in a heartbreaking early sequence, we see how his older sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) is drifting away from him, and how his imaginary exodus follows a tantrum prompted by his divorced mother (Catherine Keener) entertaining a gentleman caller (Mark Ruffalo).

Don’t worry, this isn’t needless psychological hogwash intended to “explain” the behavior of an iconic character (we’re not dealing with Rob Zombie’s Halloween here). What they do, in those evocative opening passages, is to show Max’s world, all the good and the bad of it, richly drawn, deeply felt and beautifully textured, so that we can understand why he would want to escape it—and why, later, he would ache to return. It is not a golden-hued, idealized home, nor is it a thin caricature of domestic melancholy. It is what it is. Jonze’s unadorned, mature direction, and the straight-forward, naturalistic writing, are, in the own quiet way, a revelation.

When the wild things appear, they are frankly stunning—thanks to the flawless designs of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop (and some all but invisible animatronic and CG detail work), they look just as they should: real, tangible, alive, there. One can imagine a lazier director slapping in CGI co-stars, Scooby Doo-style, but these creatures have weight and presence, and when they stand on that cliff with Max and howl at the rising sun, it is sheer perfection.

The power of those characters is complimented by some spot-on voice casting. Chief among them is Carol, played by James Gandolfini in a performance that is second only to Tony Soprano in his body of work, and no I’m not kidding. Carol is a fully-drawn character, an immaculate match of marvelous character design and wonderful vocal work. Carol’s gee-whiz enthusiasm, and his ability to turn on a dime to anger and anguish, is a potent cocktail for Gandolfini, who, in his best work, utilizes his teddy-bear charm, and then shows us his claws. Lauren Ambrose finds just the right note for KW, who Carol loves and seems to have lost; Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, and Catherine O’Hara all get splendid moments of their own.

Also of note is little Max Records, whose lead performance is just amazing—he is absolutely committed and completely believable, whether in his unexpected turns to tears (which will just wreck you) or the full-throated abandon with which he throws himself into the “action” scenes, like the thrillingly jarring opening (in which he tumbles down the stairs in hot pursuit of the family dog). That scene, and much of the film, is shot in an intimately handheld style—not a Blair Witch handheld, understand, but more of an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind handheld, keeping us up close with our hero, and sometimes struggling breathlessly to keep up with him. That is one of two smart camera calls by Jonze; the other is the decision, similar to Spielberg’s in E.T. , to shoot most of the film down low, from Max’s eye line, showing his world as he sees it.

Scanning over this review, I fear that I may have over-intellectualized what is, in fact, a warm and funny and ultimately very sweet picture; it’s just so seldom that we get a film that actually elicits these kinds of responses, that speaks directly to such fundamental themes as loneliness and abandonment and isolation and friendship and love, and it’s even more impressive that those notions are housed in a film that is presumably intended for an audience primarily younger than I. But is that a surprise? Even smart grown-up movies are dumbed down and sanded off, and I wonder what it says about the movie business, circa 2009, that the two best films of the year to date (this one and Up) were ostensibly created for “family” audiences. (I think it says two things: that family films are aiming higher, and that everybody else is aiming lower.)

“We’ve got to tamp down our expectations on this one,” I was telling some friends a couple of months back, as we were discussing how thrilling the trailers were and how eagerly we were anticipating the October release. “Because at the rate we’re going, by the time this movie comes out, it’s going to have to be the greatest movie ever made, or we’re going to be disappointed.” Well, Where the Wild Things Are is not the greatest movie ever made. And that is about the meanest thing I can manage to say about it. I’ll say this, though: I wasn’t disappointed.

"Where the Wild Things Are" opens Friday, October 16th in wide release.

In Theaters: "An Education"

He’s a smooth operator, this David. He’s 30 years old, and Jenny is 16, but when he can pull it off, because he’s charmed her parents as thoroughly as he’s charmed their daughter; he doesn’t stop at the “you didn’t tell me you had a sister” line when he meets her mother, but he brings over good wine and regales them with stories of his worldliness and sophistication, and makes dating a woman half his age seem like its perfectly natural and downright urbane. What’s more, he makes his own savoir-faire seem a shared commodity—he takes them in, and makes them part of his world. But then, that’s how he gets Jenny, too.

An Education is the story of their romance, and of how Jenny comes out of it stronger and, for better or worse, wiser. It is based on a memoir by British writer Lynn Barber, remembering her teen years in Twickenham, London in the early 1960s; the screenplay adaptation is by the great Nick Hornby, whose books inspired the films High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Fever Pitch. The director, Lone Scherfig, is a Dane unknown to me, though not for long; she spins Barber’s memories and Hornby’s script into a film of rare and fragile intelligence and grace.

Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a dedicated student, pushed hard towards an Oxford education by her father (Alfred Molina) and, to a lesser degree, her mother (Cara Seymour). Jenny’s never really questioned the life ahead of her—until she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard). David drives a sportscar and knows about music and art and talks about taking her to concerts and nightclubs and even (gasp) Paris. They usually socialize with his friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), who seem nice enough (mostly), though they look a little weary when they first lay their eyes on Jenny. It seems that they might have been through this with David before.

Sarsgaard, who remains one of our most interesting and unpredictable actors, gets David just right—he’s charming and cheerful without seeming oily or creepy. But he sees all the angles and has all of his moves planned out, and when Jenny reacts understandably to a revelation about how he makes his money, his response (“Don’t be bourgeois”) is calculated—and effective. He’s not alone, though; the picture is like a master class in acting, and there’s not a bad performance in the bunch. I don’t know that Molina’s ever been better in a film (which is saying something), while Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson’s authority figures are made admirably three-dimensional, even when they’re functioning primarily as plot points. Director Scherfig gets the importance of the film’s sense of ensemble; when Jenny tells her mother that her first date with David was “the best night of my life,” Scherfig knows that they key to the scene isn’t her saying that, but her mother’s wordless reaction to it. Everything else, it would seem, is inevitable; the film is imbued with that sense of inevitability, so that even when we’re hitting firmly within the conventional three-act structure, nothing feels convoluted or even terribly prepared. It unfolds with the certitude of real life.

But the film lives and dies by Mulligan’s work as Jenny, and it is a beautiful performance to behold. This is a tremendous actor. She’s got a wonderful way of spinning a line, giving it a polish of wit and real bite, but more than that, she’s a joy simply to watch—the way that she listens, and the way that you see her think before she speaks. Watch her cutaways during an early date that is not going well, or the look on her face as she sits in her first nightclub and drinks it all in; she’s wonderfully expressive without ever even approaching overacting. She’s so strong and interesting, in fact, that when she crumbles late in the film, it’s devastating. This is a performance of tremendous dexterity and poise from an actor we’ll be hearing much more from.

Scherfig’s direction is emotionally charged without being showy—it doesn’t have to be. There are flashes of style here or there (the faux-French New Wave photography of the Paris sequence, a subtle push-in on Jenny during a key climactic moment), but she mostly trusts the story and trusts her actors, and for good reason. The closing scenes feel slightly rushed and there are some bothersome loose ends (particularly with regards to Danny and Helen), but those objections aside, An Education is an knowing, affectionate portrait of a man who was surely the best and worst thing that ever happened to a girl who probably should have known better.

"An Education" is currently playing in limited release.

In Theaters: "Black Dynamite"

Scott Sanders’ Black Dynamite is a broad blaxpoitation parody that knows all the words and none of the music. There are laughs in it, to be sure, some of them robust. But it is primarily a triumph of photography and design, and the script that they serve is undercooked and weak—a one-joke premise that wears mighty thin by the time the film’s brief-but-somehow-flabby 90 minutes come to an end.

Michael Jai White stars as the title character, a former CIA commando who is called back into action on the mean streets when his brother is killed and he gets word that drug dealers are selling smack to orphans. White, a muscley smooth talker with a killer Afro and matching mustache, mostly plays it straight, much to his credit (he only fails when he plays it too broad, as in the scene where he finds out about those orphans). Most of the other supporting players are too clearly in the joke, winking at the audience at mugging wildly, forgetting the main rule of successful parody (established most memorably in Airplane!), which is to take the role absolutely seriously, no matter how ridiculous your surroundings. Byron Minns, for example, plays Bullhorn, a rhyming club-owner clearly modeled on Rudy Ray Moore (specifically on his role in Disco Godfather, a film literally quoted at one point early in this one). But Minns plays him with a big grin, laughing at his own jokes, and it’s the wrong approach entirely—part of the charm of the Moore films is how seriously he takes himself, as if he’s really a credible action hero and the serious message of a picture like Disco Godfather isn’t completely laughable.

To be fair, some of the gags—especially those that come early on—do work, like the car chase that ends with the fiery crash of a car that doesn’t match up, or a montage of Black Dynamite and his crew cleaning up the streets with the help of hilariously mismatched stock footage. But there are also plenty of would-be comic set pieces that just lie there, like a meeting of pimps and hustlers (including a brief and uninspired appearance by Arsenio Hall) and a sex scene played out in cartoons and astrology symbols. In these moments, and in the opening scenes, Sanders and his screenwriters don’t do the hard work of writing comedy—they’re so impressed with their own cleverness that they forget to put in the punch lines.

Through much of the film, though, the design elements do most of the heavy lifting. Black Dynamite looks just right, as if it were an honest-to-goodness blaxpoitation picture that’s been sitting in a vault for thirty-plus years. Cinematographer Shawn Maurer doesn’t go the Grindhouse route, aging the film in post-production; instead, he shoots on a Super-16 color reversal stock, creating a high-contrast, richly saturated image, well-augmented by excellent imitations of the clunky camerawork and awkward framing that became part of the template. Sanders and his writers do manage the nail the tin-eared expositional dialogue (currently heard in the soap-opera minstrel shows of Tyler Perry), and the sound mixers even manage to replicate the slightly-hollow sound quality of those old dialogue scenes. Adrian Younge’s original score is spot-on as well, full of funny trills and “Dynamite!” vocal hits. Ruth E. Carter’s costume design couldn’t be better, and the sets are a hoot (particularly the wonderfully chintzy White House interiors of the closing sequence).

However, the karate scenes are played too straight and look too good (at least compared to the oeuvre of the aforementioned Rudy Ray Moore); an early kung-fu training scene lands some laughs from its stilted choreography and poorly-timed editing, but that’s abandoned later, for no good reason. Sanders makes another key error in utilizing some obvious CG (for a man on fire) and green-screen (when Dynamite parachutes out of a chopper); it looks and feels wrong, wrong, wrong, blowing the carefully replicated vintage aesthetic.

Black Dynamite mocks blaxpoitation pictures with affection, and make no mistake, they’re easy to sneer at. Those filmmakers were often making it up as they went along, doing their best with ridiculously low budgets and limited resources. But part of the reason that so many of them have survived and influenced filmmakers today was that their energy was undeniable. Little to none of that energy is evident in this send-up, which lurches from scene to scene and often leaves its cast standing around in period costumes on period sets, waiting for something funny to happen. It works in places as a parody, but also has the misfortune of following the Grindhouse films to the marketplace—which worked both as spoofs and as their own enjoyable entertainments. In Black Dynamite, not much happens once they’ve wrung the easy laughs out of the premise.

If I’m a little too hard on the movie, it’s mostly out of disappointment—I was genuinely excited to see if after taking in its brilliant trailer a few months back.. The trouble is, you’ll get about as much out of the film as you will from that trailer (the clothes, the cars, the action, the flawless recreation of period low-budget filmmaking), but it’s 88 minutes shorter and it’s free.

"Black Dynamite" opens in limited release on Friday, October 16th.

In Theaters: "New York, I Love You"

You don’t see a lot of sequels in the world of independent cinema, but when the star-studded, multi-director anthology film Paris Je T’Aime was a sleeper art-house hit in 2007, the wheels were quickly put into motion for a follow-up. That film’s premise—multiple stories of love in the city of light—could easily be transposed to other urban centers, stocked with new actors and directors, and presumably replicated with ease. So now we have New York, I Love You, a compilation of eleven love stories (plus transitions) from Gotham. As with most sequels, it’s not as strong as its predecessor, and the slate of filmmakers is considerably less impressive. But it has its moments.

Things get off to a rough start with the Chinatown segment, directed by Chinese actor-turned-director Jiang Wen. It’s not entirely his fault; the concept is clever and the story has some fine dialogue. The trouble is the casting. “Ugh,” I jotted down in my notes, “Hayden Christensen is going to ‘play a character’.” I’ve never been a member of the Hayden-haters club; he’s good in Shattered Glass, and I’ll bet DeNiro couldn’t even do anything with that Lucas dialogue. But he’s just awful—using a horrible put-on voice for his dull line readings, he’s so bad you’re embarrassed for him. And then Andy Garcia shows up and just acts circles around the poor schmuck.

Next we go to the Diamond District for Mira Nair’s piece, an unlikely intimate connection between an Indian diamond seller (Irrfan Khan) and a Hasidic bride-to-be (Natalie Portman). I’m not quite sure I bought her Yenta voice, and the story turns a bit too quickly and sharply (it may have needed to be a couple of minutes longer). But the two actors have an interesting dynamic, and the story is at least unpredictable. The surprise of the film is found in Japanese director Shunji Iwai’s Upper West Side segment, and that is that the usually insufferable Orlando Bloom is actually quite good as a frustrated film composer engaged in a telephone flirtation with his director’s assistant (a well-utilized Christina Ricci). It’s a sweet and lovely section, with an inspired ending.

Yvan Attal’s story comes in two parts (one at this point in the film, one later), each concerning an out-for-a-smoke connection—the first couple played by Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q, the second by Robin Wright Penn and Chris Cooper. Both pairs are very good together, trading their sharp, snappy dialogue with aplomb, though the little twist at the end of the second story is more predictable than in the first. The Central Park story is next; it comes to us from Brett Ratner, and as much as I hoped he might raise to the occasion, it nearly sinks the entire film. Let’s go back to my notes: “Is this supposed to be funny or what?” His tale of a young man taking a girl in a wheelchair to prom is absolutely tone-deaf and rather repulsive—it wastes some wonderful actors (James Caan, Anton Yelchin, Olivia Thirlby, Blake Lively) at the service of what amounts to an enactment of an old dirty joke.

Luckily, the Greenwich Village segment (from Menace II Society co-director Allen Hughes and screenwriter Xan Cassavetes) is one of the film’s strongest; it’s perhaps a touch overwritten in its opening moments, but is quietly stylish and has a great, wordless payoff. The Upper East Side segment was written by Anthony Minghella, who was to direct it before his untimely death; Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) took the reins, and while the story behind the story is compelling, the same can’t be said for the piece itself. Kapur makes fine use of his cast (Julie Christie, John Hurt, and Shia LaBeouf), but boy is this one overwrought—and pretentious, what with all the billowing white curtains and sad cello music. It’s the first watch-checker of the film.

Next, Natalie Portman returns to the film, this time as a debuting writer/director; her short easily measures up to the more experienced filmmakers, telling the tale of a little girl (Taylor Geare) and the black man caring for her (Carlos Acosta) with an off-the-cuff feel, a tender mood, and a sophisticated trick of construction. German director Fatih Akin’s Chinatown story is vividly drawn (Akin’s tight close-ups are well-composed), though the story is slight, even by short film standards. After the second part of the Attal film, we arrive at the final section, a Brighton Beach story directed by Joshua Mastron (who did the excellent Maria Full of Grace). As with Paris, Je T’Aime, they end with arguably their strongest piece, which finds Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman as Abe and Mitzie, a longtime couple out for a walk on their anniversary. Their back and forth is wonderful (like a good Neil Simon play), the final beat is just perfect—and then they top it.

There are a couple of new issues with this latest installment. First and most distressingly, these eleven stories from one of the most socially progressive cities in the United States all concern straight couples. It’s a bit of a shock; the Paris film at least gave us the Van Sant short (even if it was a bit of a throwaway). I’m not trying to assert some kind of a “homosexual agenda,” but seriously, I live in New York, and to pretend like this city isn’t teeming with gay romances is just plain crazy.

The other problem is that they can’t leave well enough alone; the Marston film is a perfect conclusion (as Alexander Payne’s segment was in Paris, Je T’Aime), but they keep going for a couple more minutes, using a video installation by one of the “transition” characters to try and tie everything together, not realizing that they’ve already passed the ideal ending. Ah, well. New York, I Love You still has much to recommend, and if it’s a little bit bumpy, that’s rather par for the course.

"New York, I Love You" opens Friday, October 16 in limited release.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In Theaters: "Good Hair"

The subject of follicle prejudice in the African-American community is a fascinating one that’s been rather shortchanged in mainstream entertainment; the last time I remember it really boiling to the surface is in the brutally honest “Straight and Nappy” production number in Spike Lee’s 1988 effort School Daze. In the comic documentary Good Hair, which stars Chris Rock and is directed by his longtime collaborator Jeff Stilson (Rock is also credited as co-writer and co-producer), the hair concerns of his very young daughters prompt the comic to examine the stigmas of “good” and “bad” hair, and the multi-billion dollar industry that surrounds that divide.

The format is that of a documentary/comic essay, somewhat akin to last year’s Bill Maher film Religulous (which itself seemed styled after the free-form docs of Michael Moore). Rock travels across the country and around the world, interviewing celebrities, chatting up folks in barber shops and hair salons, and visiting the centerpiece of the black hair business: The Bronner Bros. Hair Show & Battle in Atlanta.

Rock and Stilson’s tangential style may not be terribly disciplined, but Good Hair is loose, free-wheeling, and very funny. Some of the comic set pieces—like a sodium hydroxide demonstration with a chemist, or his attempts to sell “black hair” to shopkeepers in the Crenshaw district—are reminiscent of taped sketches on his HBO series, and have some laughs. But the funniest pieces of the film are his off-the-cuff interactions with the people he encounters on along the way. He is, first and foremost, great with the interview subjects (both the celebs and the men and women on the street). Poet Maya Angelou turns out to be a surprisingly game interview, while the array of female actors and musicians are remarkably candid and funny about their hair travails; actors Tracie Thoms (Death Proof), Nia Long, and Raven-Symone are particularly frank and insightful, as is “video vixen” (that’s how she’s supered) Melyssa Ford.

But Rock is just as engaged in the spirited discussions of the barber shops and beauty salons, whether asking black men some blunt questions about “weave intimacy” or keeping a straight face as a stylist explains to him that it’s perfectly reasonable for a woman to spend a thousand dollars on a weave “so their hair can look natural.” (!) There are some serious questions raised, directly and indirectly, and this is perhaps where the film really comes up short—one can understand the desire to keep the film from becoming a polemic, and Rock is an entertainer first, with a primary responsibility of making a funny, enjoyable film. While one jaw-dropping early proclamation (that black people, while 12% of the population, spend 80% of the hair care dollars) passes without much examination, Rock does pause to delve into the issue of ownership—who is making money from black people for black products? (For the most part, it’s not black people.)

The razzle-dazzle hair styling competition at the Bronner Bros. Extravaganza (which includes hairdressers hanging upside down or styling hair in water-filled tanks) provides the baggy structure for the film, with Rock meeting the four contestants early in the film, checking in with them occasionally, and covering the competition at the end. Some critics have complained that the movie spends too much time with this thread, though one can certainly understand Rock and Stilson embracing “the battle” as an easy climax for their shambling narrative—and some of Rock’s commentary is priceless (“Now we know why Jason didn’t need to rehearse; you don’t have to choreograph hot women with no clothes on”). Good Hair isn’t exactly a tight, focused documentary, and in some places, it raises more questions than it seems to have the time (or patience) to answer. But it does entertain, and the fact that those questions aren’t wrapped up in a snug little package doesn’t negate the value of opening up a frank and honest discussion.

"Good Hair" is now playing in limited release.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Today's New DVDs: 10/13/09

Drag Me To Hell: This week's pick-to-click is Sam Raimi's deliciously enjoable return to genre horror. Inexplicably unsuccessful in its May theatrical run, this over-the-top slab of supernatural comedy is anchored by a beautifully zippy Alison Lohman performance and a sense of ghoulish fun.

The Proposal: One of the many, many movies that outgrossed Drag Me To Hell, and for no damned good reason; in spite of some ample chemistry and a sharp performance by Ryan Reynolds, it's just another day at the rom-com mine for Sandra Bullock.

Land of the Lost: There's plenty of talent on-board, but this summer "family" movie feels thrown together out of spare parts and duct tape.

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (Blu-ray): I know South Park has put out plenty of good episodes in the (good Lord) decade since their feature film hit screens. But they've never managed to top it--it's razor-sharp satire, with some outstanding songs to boot.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Oh, No Way I'm Seeing That: "Old Dogs"

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: A new family “comedy” with John Travolta and Robin Williams, “Old Dogs.”



That's right kids, they wear it loud and proud: It is "from the director of Wild Hogs." You know, in case you were contemplating seeing it! Oh, who are we kidding. You are a person of taste and class. You would never, ever see this movie.

But here's a way to make watching this trailer interesting: Watch it with your friends and make bets on how long they can wait to show someone getting hit in the balls. It's longer than you might think!

God, I hate Hollywood sometimes.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

On VOD: "Mary and Max"

Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max is an unexpected oddity: a feature-length claymation film (or “clayography,” as the director calls it) with the dark humor and biting edge of a 1970s relationship movie like Harold and Maude or Thieves Like Us. Narrated by Barry Humphries (aka “Dame Edna”) and featuring the voice talents of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette, and Eric Bana (among others), it is an absolutely charming and impeccably funny little gem.

Our story begins in 1976 in Australia, where little Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced by Bethany Whitmore as a girl, Collette as a woman) lives a lonely, friendless life. One day, in desperation, she grabs an address from the New York City telephone directory at her local post office and sends a letter to a random man—Max Jerry Horovitz (Hoffman). Max, overweight and also lonely, responds to her correspondence, and the two become pen pals, their relationship blossoming over the ensuing decades as both experience real pain, sadness, and loss.

If it sounds less cheery than your average claymation film, well, it is; Mary and Max is a dark, often downbeat tale (particularly near its end), and is certainly not for young kids. But it is by no means a depressing picture—it’s full of uproarious non-sequiturs and funny visual gags (when Max finishes cutting his toenails, we see a trio of jars on his counter: “Toenails 1976,” “Toenails 1977,” and “Toenails 1978”), as well as Humpries’ witty voice-over (of Max, he notes, “flirting was as foreign to him as jogging”).

The look of the film is just splendid, the painstaking consummation of five years of work by Elliot and his crew, assembling over 132,000 individual frames of stop-motion animation to give the movie its haunting, moody texture. Elliot contrasts the bright colors of Mary’s home in Australia with Max’s desaturated New York, in which the only splashes of color are provided by the gifts sent to him by his faraway friend. Movement is smooth but stylized, while the liquids (Max’s sweat and Mary’s tears in particular) are especially fun to watch.

The voice characterizations are also quite wonderful; Bana is charmingly roguish, while Collette and Whitmore bring sweet little Mary to sympathetic life (though, contrary to the billing, there’s less of Collette than there is of Whitmore or Hoffman). The centerpiece of the film is Hoffman’s brilliant vocal performance; his readings, always slightly out of breath and with a soft Jewish growl, put a spin on the already-clever lines, creating a character that is alternately lovable and absolutely impossible.

Though it is occasionally interrupted, the overall structure and format of the screenplay (their letters back and forth) does get a bit tiresome—as anyone who’s sat through a community theatre production of Love Letters will tell you—and the narration is a little overbearing, particularly in the first half hour or so. But overall, Mary and Max is just enchanting—funny, poignant, and rather sad and beautiful.

Though "Mary and Max" was well-reviewed at several film festivals (including Sundance and October's Chicago International Film Festival), it was not picked up for theatrical distribution. It will instead premiere domestically on Sundance Channel's "Sundance Selects" video-on-demand service, starting Wednesday, October 14th. As Roger Ebert notes, the faltering economy is tightening purse strings at indie distributors, and VOD is becoming a more and more viable method of seeing new, challenging independent films.