Review: The Expendables (2010)

On Wednesday night, there were two press screening options in New York. The dichotomous choice fell along gender lines. One involved three verbs slammed together in the title and starred Julia Roberts. I had the feeling that it would anger me. The other one involved an aging action star who was still inexplicably given millions of dollars to make movies. Presumably his movies had made money or he was highly persuasive. Since I was too lazy and too busy and too hazy to decide, I naturally went with the choice carefully marketed to appeal to the bulge I was born with, that mighty chorizo contained within my boxers. But because I am committed to the truth, I am sorry to report that I could not summon up an erection during the entirety of The Expendables. I have failed my fellow men. Either that or I have an independent mind.

It’s quite possible that I was distracted by the fact that the 65-year-old Kurt Loder (a man who has, rather sadly, pretended to be young for half his life) was sitting nearby. Loder was there watching (reporting for MTV?) a movie co-written and directed by a 64-year-old action star (also starring) who was trying to recapture his former glory. The irony had not escaped me. It’s quite possible that I was distracted by the rather cheesy-looking CGI dismemberment — a stylistic tic that Stallone had carried over from his last film, Rambo in Denial: Death to the AARP.

But the truth is that I had hoped for more masculinity. More style. More the orphaned action movie I had grown up watching. I expected fading action stars to shoot hard bullets into silly supporting characters and demonstrate their right to cinematic existence by channeling some entirely unforeseen element from a hackneyed script. Dolph Lundgren, for example, redeeming himself for being forced to appear in Universal Soldier: Regeneration. In The Expendables, Lundgren does have a great moment when he stomps a man’s head, the bootprint still visible on his dead opponent’s face, with Lundgren simply replying, “Insect.” But for the most part, Lundgren’s character is fairly useless to the team and negligible to the movie. Yes, there’s a minor scene in which Stallone meets up with Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the scene is so poorly written and pointless that it feels more like a contractually obligated Planet Hollywood commercial filmed fifteen years too late.

I expected men to ride highly efficient killing machines and display an expertise in weapons and destroy mighty topographies in five minutes. But what has Stallone done with The Expendables? Well, he (with fellow Expendable Jason Statham) sets a pier on fire after spilling two lines of fuel from an airplane and igniting the charge. Is that really manhood? Not in my book, if the lessons I learned from VHS are anything to go by. A real man kills twenty men with his bare hands or, if he must, uses weapons with style. And he does it on the ground. Stallone and Statham have to do it from an aircraft. That’s not manhood. That’s cowardice.

Statham does, however, have a rather hilarious moment that pretty much sums up what this film is: namely, a big-budget Golan-Globus homage. Statham, seeing that his former girlfriend has been given a shiner by the man she’s now with (this movie, needless to say, isn’t kind to women: one even gets waterboarded), tracks down the abusive man at a basketball game. He punches the man repeatedly in the face, grabs the basketball, kills it with a knife, and then says, “Next time I’ll deflate all your balls,” while laying on top of him with the blade. And it’s silly juxtapositions like this keep The Expendables a somewhat fun diversion for anyone who once raided the action movie section at a 1980s video store. But for some inexplicable reason, The Expendables doesn’t quite have the courage to go over-the-top. A car chase sequence that should be either silly or preposterously derivative, featuring Jet Li shooting a machine gun in the trunk of a truck, is merely ho-hum. The conclusive hacienda battle wishes to mimic Commando‘s gloriously violent finale. But in Stallone’s hands, it just feels perfunctory.

And let’s face the hard truth. I don’t hate Stallone. But as a director, Stallone isn’t nearly as interesting as Mark L. Lester or the late George P. Cosmatos. What makes a film like Cobra (starring Stallone, directed by Cosmatos) unintentionally entertaining is the bizarre backlighting when the cult is practicing. Yes, it’s a failed artistic choice. But it is a choice. And you have to give Cosmatos credit for trying something different. (Same goes for the exploding soldier near the end of Rambo: First Blood Part II. No, it doesn’t work. But why on earth does Cosmatos bother to build up the tension when this soldier can’t even shoot straight? If you’re anything like me, you’re left wondering about Cosmatos’s strange artistic decisions for years.) Even Lester’s Showdown in Little Tokyo (which shouldn’t be nearly as entertaining as it is) managed to get several funny moments from Dolph Lundgren, an actor who is hardly known for his range. Indeed, with Lundgren so thoroughly wasted in The Expendables, one wishes that Stallone would have done the gentlemanly thing, getting Lester some much-needed work (that is, if Lester’s presently scattershot credits on the IMDB are any indication).

Within these mostly forgotten action movies from two to three decades ago (and not just the ones made by Cannon), there are failed yet interesting efforts to create cinema. There are filmmakers attempting to exert voices, to offer personalities. The guys making these movies are truly having a ball, even when they are making disastrous movies. And what makes The Expendables so frustrating at times is that it wishes to honor these films without putting itself on the line.

The only actor in The Expendables who seems to understand what’s going on is Eric Roberts. This shouldn’t be a surprise, seeing as how Roberts cut his teeth on silly movies like Best of the Best and Blood Red and he is cast (thank you, Stallone!) as the bad guy. Roberts is one of the few working actors whose scenery-chewing appetite only grows with age. That’s intended as a compliment. I’m convinced that if you threw Eric Roberts into the middle of a soporific art house movie, he’d figure out a way to get the pretentious actors to up their game and he’d certainly get the audience awake. If you give the man an apple to smell, as Stallone is good enough to do, he will find a melodramatic way to signify its presence. In The Expendables, Roberts’s character enters the movie shooting a man and uttering the line, “Now I can see inside of him. And I see lies.” Preposterous, right? Absolutely. In the hands of any other actor, this moment would be disastrous. But Roberts manages to sell it. Because Roberts is smart enough to understand that contemporary cinema presently has a paucity of melodramatic villains — which, incidentally enough, was the action movie’s (circa 1989) bread and butter.

I can’t say that I hated The Expendables. But if you really want a lively action flick, you’re better off with Mesrine: Killer Instinct (coming out on August 27th), a must-see gangster movie with a fantastic performance by Vincent Cassel which I’m hoping to find time to write about. If anything, The Expendables has caused me to unintentionally come out as a cheesy action movie fan. Well, so be it. But when a movie causes you to remember its predecessors and its influences, is it really a movie to remember?

Review: Lebanon (2009)

Back in March, The New York Times published a Michael Kamber essay in which Kamber took The Hurt Locker to task for its “realistic depiction.” While the film went on to garner numerous awards, including the Best Picture Oscar, its apparent inaccuracies were enough to unsettle Kamber and others who had served in combat. Despite The Hurt Locker feeling “realistic” to those who had never set foot into a war zone, the film was a sham for Baghdad vets.

The criticisms against The Hurt Locker are hardly a new development for the war movie. Full Metal Jacket, Flags of Our Fathers, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (no surprise), We Were Soldiers, Glory, 300, and Apocalypse Now — just to name a few — have all been saddled with the “inaccurate” charge, leaving one to wonder the war movie’s purpose. Just how accurate does the narrative experience have to be? We accept the subjective nature of a documentary. Why can’t we do so in a cinematic narrative?

It’s possible that Lebanon, which is photographed primarily from a tank’s viewpoint, works as well as it does primarily because it has the audacity to be subjective from the get-go. Aside from an image of flowers that bookends the film’s beginning and end, Lebanon remains quite resolutely within the interior. I have no idea how accurate writer-director Samuel Maoz’s film is in relation to the 1982 Lebanon War, and I don’t very much care. What matters here most is that Maoz has established a horrific simulacrum from personal combat experience. We feel as confined as he once did. His frequent shots of dripping black fluid, the terrible blur of dead bodies thrown into the interior with cold alacrity, the squeals of men being chained up and tortured in multiple languages, and the tank’s terrifying whines as it attempts to tread across a battlefield while both severely damaged and under attack unsettled my senses. But then I have never served in combat. Is Lebanon meant for people like me? Or must I recuse myself from the question of accuracy because of my inexperience? If so, I would happily join the company of Stephen Crane, who wrote The Red Badge of Courage despite never having observed a battle.

Whether one insists upon accuracy or not, Samuel Maoz’s movie has rather bravely taken on the same perspective that we’re used to “seeing” or “perceiving” a military environment from a first-person shooter’s detached comfort zone. Iis the video game’s detached alternative more faithful or “accurate” to the combat experience? If you’ve ever played Call of Duty or Day of Defeat: Source online, you’ll inevitably encounter a server populated by former or active servicemen. One rarely hears these men complaining about the “accuracy” of a first-person shooter, perhaps because the video game is more participatory (and therefore perceived as less agenda-driven) than the war movie.

Some critics have called Lebanon an “anti-war movie,” but I don’t think this simplistic label does Maoz’s film justice. Yes, it does feature moments that discourages damn near anybody from wishing to participate in war. A gunner is ordered to fire upon a building and hesitates when he realizes that people will die. His pause causes a soldier on his side to die. Every action — the decision to fire or the decision to freeze up — has a mortal consequence. But is that anti-war? Or is that reflective of human behavior?

I would argue that it better fulfills the second question. A war movie works not so much for its “accuracy,” but for its willingness to explore uncomfortable or conflicted feelings. I’ve described Lebanon to some friends as “Das Boot in a tank,” but, in hindsight, this is probably too formulaic a description. For Lebanon is courteous enough to remind us that these flawed soldiers are caught within a mobile prison, and that the jail cell extends to curtailed interaction. One young man asks if a message can be sent to his parents and is denied. Another man thinks he speaks another language, but remains unfamiliar with the dialect of the man he needs to talk with. These crushing moments of isolation offer us some idea of the fortitude it takes to stick through a neverending war stint. Perhaps there will be ferocious discussions among about whether Lebanon does such communication among soldiers justice. Maoz has stated that he wishes to open up a dialogue with this movie and get people talking about vital issues. And if a film (or a filmmaker) is open to such dialogue, the question of “accuracy” is largely irrelevant.

Review: Get Low (2009)

There is a type of moviegoer, generally between the age of 30 and 45, who will witness Bill Murray in a movie and laugh at his every tic, his every moment, his every step forward. Yes, Bill Murray is a very gifted comic actor, quite possibly the 21st century’s answer to Buster Keaton. But such a preprogrammed response misses the point of Bill Murray. It suggests very highly that he is some jester for our steadfast amusement rather than a soul to be genuinely interested in. Small wonder then that the roles that Murray has taken in the last ten years have involved sad loners in their autumn years.

Given such thespic expectations (and such tittering moviegoers: two of whom were at the screening I attended), it’s a relief to see Murray playing an opportunistic funeral director named Frank Quinn in Get Low, a supporting role comparable to Wild Things‘s Ken Bowden, Cradle Will Rock‘s Tommy Crickshaw, and Mad Dog and Glory‘s Frank Milo. Few filmmakers seem to ken that Murray best anchors a film when his hangdog mug scatters into the background. Maybe director Aaron Schneider gets this because he’s also a cinematographer. But a movie set in the 1930s concerned with how misfits are judged by a town square’s cruel metric works better with Robert Duvall cast as the misunderstood “freak” and Murray as the lonely man riding his coattails.

Get Low takes it inspiration from Felix “Bush” Breazeale, the nearly forgotten figure who, according to James Ewing’s It Happened in Tennessee, decided to attend his own funeral on June 16, 1938. Breazeale’s funeral was heavily publicized in the papers, in part because Breazeale had been charged with murder many years earlier, with the charges later dropped. But where the real-life Breazeale sifted through the crowd at funeral’s end, signing programs and shaking hands, this movie’s “Felix Bush” views Breazeale’s eccentric act less as an individual’s unusual exertion of identity and more as the tragic aftermath of a misfit’s whims skimmed over and ignored by a capitalist system. This Felix Bush is picked on by the local townsfolk. He introduces a raffle component to his funeral during a radio appearance, encouraging greater throngs to attend. The film’s Uncle Bush is more familiar with marketing techniques. He takes a photograph with his long mane in disarray, only to have a barber trim himself for the big day. (Not so for the real Uncle Bush.) This film’s funeral is held so that Felix Bush can see what stories have circulated about him, whereas the real Bush was a fastidious type who wanted to see his service conducted in the right manner. Get Low takes the position that Bush’s funeral is an act of corrective catharsis, of setting matters straight before a hostile crowd.

Yet despite these concessions to conventional narrative, Get Low mostly works. It feels less like a biopic because of its leisurely pace, its efforts to establish a small town atmosphere, and its willingness to maintain Bush’s personal secret for so long. It understands that, when you have actors as good as Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black, Murray, and Gerald McRaney, you let them play out the moments. It has some funny lines, most of them delivered by Murray. Frank Quinn defines his sales track record when he grumbles, “I sold twenty-six of the ugliest cars in the coldest day of Chicago.” Shortly after Bush threatens to put the kibosh on the gambit, Quinn says, “Is it just me or is he extremely articulate when he wants to be?” Yet Murray’s character, for all of his quips, is lonelier than Bush, even when he’s sitting around a table and taking in local gossip. We’re left to wonder why this man had to flee Chicago so late in life. Quinn offers some nebulous story about switching sides of the bed shortly after his wife left him, but it’s just one small part of the story. Just as the stories circulating about Uncle Bush, very much the local recluse, hardly tell us anything we need to know about the man.

And this narrative approach, helped in large part by screenwriters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, very much turns a shaggy dog tale into something more memorable. There’s a certain irony in this movie opting to print Felix Breazeale the legend, rather than Felix Breazeale the man. Sometimes, Get Low needlessly overplays its hand — such as the brazen need to telegraph its time period with “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover” or the lost love plot that never quite congeals, even when Duvall bangs on the door in the pouring rain. But its efforts to capture some impression of a bygone time, fusing these with an undervalued human gusto, reminded me of a needlessly forgotten 1999 film called Man of the Century. American culture has been too preoccupied with condemning the oddballs. It’s a relief when a small movie like Get Low comes along to remind us why they’re so interesting, and why Murray isn’t just some aging goofball.

Review: The Concert (2009)

Here are some of the reasons why The Concert does not work:

1. Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit — a highly charming movie in which an Egyptian police band accidentally goes to the wrong town and learns quite a bit about existing along the way — hangs in recent memory. There is little doubt in my mind that The Concert was acquired by The Weinstein Company or set into motion by its motley group of multinational financiers with this association. But its premise — a ragtag Russian group of musicians impersonates the Bolshoi Orchestra to play in Paris — is problematic.

2. The premise is problematic because it asks us to suspend our disbelief again, and again, and again. This causes us to resist the movie. We’re expected to believe that, because one fax has been intercepted, a fax that wouldn’t be followed up with an email, a phone call, or any other attempt to verify provenance, the ersatz Bolshoi commanded by our hero would happen. We’re expected to believe that the Théâtre du Châtelet, a long-standing house that premiered Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and is home to the Kirov Opera, would throw around a good deal of money without, say, consulting the Bolshoi’s website to ensure that these people are who they say they are. We’re expected to believe that these impostors can get away with their scheme when a Russian TV crew is chronicling them, and it is quite likely that friends and loved ones of the true Bolshoi would proffer hysteria and consternation when seeing the con unfold. We’re expected to believe that an entire symphony, nearly all of them out of practice, will somehow get its act together. And we’re expected to believe that, in a post-9/11 age, not a single fabricated passport, nearly all obtained at the eleventh hour, would be scrutinized by a single authority. And obviously, since a world-class orchestra is attending press, there are likely to be journalists or bloggers who are going to be checking into the Bolshoi performers. (Then again, what if nobody cared about the Bolshoi Orchestra in Paris? What if the reason why this phony orchestra passed for the real thing was because classical music had become less valued? Even in a metropolis priding itself on culture! Suddenly, there’s a more legitimate tension here over whether or not the impostors will be discovered or even appreciated!)

3. In short, scenarist and director Radu Mihaileanu hasn’t thought these basic questions through. Strangely, Matthew Robbins, the screenwriter who wrote such campy movies as Corvette Summer, Warning Sign, and The Legend of Billie Jean, is credited as one of the collaborators. “Collaborator,” in this case, is rightly associated with the connotation I derived from Isser Woloch’s Napoleon and his Collaborators: The Making of a Dictatorship. What we have here is an illogical mess that will frustrate any thinking audience member. Never mind that Aleksei Guskow is actually quite good as the disgraced former conductor of the Bolshoi Orchestra toiling decades later in the Bolshoi as a janitor and who sees the ruse as a way of restoring his reputation. The points I’ve raised in the previous paragraph work against story logic. Furthermore, the secret daughter plot introduced deep in the film’s second act disastrously detracts from the redemption narrative.

4. Look, I get that the movie wants to be the 21st century answer to Ernst Lubitsch through a Russian prism. (The Concert immediately reminded me of the much superior Ninotchka, and I grew antsier as the film progressed.) But Lubitsch (and Billy Wilder, one of Ninotchka‘s co-writers) understood that when you’re creating fantastical elegance of a somewhat implausible ilk, it needs to be buttressed by such ideas as a champagne pop being confused with a gunshot or funny lines like “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” And while there’s a certain amusement in seeing the fates of several symphony members (a few elderly musicians are now providing the orgasmic soundtrack of a porn movie), as well as a gypsy musician prove himself before edified musicians, The Concert doesn’t have what it takes to invite us into its deception. Furthermore, in explaining the plot, it relies upon an obnoxious strobe effect for belabored flashbacks. And in these flashbacks, the film hasn’t even bothered to make its fifty-year-old composer look or feel like a man in his early twenties.

5. I forgot to mention one of the film’s subplots involving a man attempting to revitalize the Communist Party with a speech delivered on the night of the Bolshoi performance. This story angle is neither funny nor interesting. A long-winded speech, check. A reduced audience, check. Flags and uniforms rescued from the mothballs, check. What’s lost within all these cliches is the true cost of attempting to recapture a past identity. The film’s ultimate failure comes with its diffidence to confront genuine human emotions, save through a work camp flashback that comes near the end, which feels appended by some slick marketing type wanting to ensure that “all the elements are in place” for mass consumption. A film coming from France and Russia shouldn’t feel like some thoughtless bibelot churned from a Hollywood machine.

Review: Inception (2010)

A good filmmaker doesn’t need to be invitational, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. But if an auteur can’t inveigle an audience, if he doesn’t have a basic understanding of showmanship, then the least he can offer is a distinctive voice. Alas, Christopher Nolan offers neither quality with Inception — a hopelessly unimaginative film that has been overly esteemed by many. Inception is reliant on perfunctory globetrotting, lights dangling atop ceilings, and repetitive amber hues for its “look.” It does contain an admittedly intricate plot structure, which cannot be immediately discounted. But when a film feels as dead as a greedy investment banker’s onyx soul, one isn’t exactly enlivened to clap. In fact, nearly all of the characters resemble Goldman Sachs employees hungrily hording your tax dollars: slicked back hair, lifeless eyes, and needlessly expensive suits. It can’t be an accident that the dollar amount of an expensive wallet is mentioned several times, or that the reason this group is invading a man’s head concerns some cartoonish explanation of the global energy market. In other words, this is a film with a childish understanding of our world; a Tinkertoy assemblage you’d gladly celebrate if it were handed to you by a five-year-old, but not from the 39-year-old man who has made Insomnia, Memento, Following, The Prestige, and two passable Batman movies.

It is truly a sad sign of American cultural decline that the rich now exist to be worshiped rather than depicted with anything approaching dimension. Inception‘s emphasis hardly inspires an everyman identification point, much less audience sympathy. Here is a cinematic opportunity to explore the dream state — to plunge into the depths explored by David Lynch, Guy Maddin, Terry Gilliam, Ken Russell, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and countless other cinematic fantasists still alive and working today. Nolan has been given a $160 million budget to get a mass audience to confront its deepest visceral fantasies, but, with Inception, the collected reveries resemble a pedestrian heist movie. It would be one thing if Nolan possessed the theatricality of someone like Arch Orboler, the wackiness of Dan O’Bannon, or the outré singularity of Italo Calvino, but his derivative vision of snowbound fortresses invaded by machine-gunning skiers or decaying seaside cities is divested of such punch or possibilities.

Consciousness should resemble something more than a bad pulp novel. In Inception, you won’t find phantasmagorical creatures or perverse sexual encounters. You won’t find a dream that is truly dangerous. For this is a movie that has been rated PG-13 — a rating explicitly designed to prohibit human truth from the multiplexes. But you will find plenty of mindless gunfights and tedious slow-motion images of a van falling off a bridge, along with the fine comic actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt underused as a guy floating around zero gravity collecting twined bodies into an elevator. (Why the repeat images? Well, the film’s final few reels take place in three, later four, separate levels of the dreamworld, with each level operating on a different unit of time. What passes during seconds in the top level will be weeks on the second level and months on the third level. This permits dreams within dreams within dreams. It’s a clever hook, but Nolan overplays his hand by treating his audience like a bunch of unthinking baboons who can’t remember the club sandwich atmosphere even after the fifteenth series of cutaway shots.)

It’s never a wise idea to name a protagonist after a salad, but our man Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a flinty expert at invading people’s consciousnesses. He carries the mental detritus of his dead wife, storehousing these memories in various levels of his mind and unable to control these stray elements from invading a dreamscape. And while there’s a certain appeal in seeing an old school elevator traveling between internal cerebral levels, there’s simply no emotional impact with a foot-crunched wineglass or a totemic top. Nolan introduces numerous projections of the subconscious — figures who detect when the mind is being invaded and start attacking intruders like white blood cells. But Nolan is crass and careless with his semiotics. The symbols serve merely to demonstrate that Nolan is the guy driving the car, rather than presenting us with any real insight into trauma.

Recruited by a rich man named Saito (Ken Watanabe) to plant a motivation inside a corporate heir’s mind, Cobb assembles a predominantly male group of operatives, with the token female played by Ellen Page — a precocious student who seems capable of grand conceptual innovation, but who spends most of the film staring doelike at DiCaprio or offering banal responses to “surprise” twists.

The film fills every spare moment with so much expository chatter that we never get a chance to marvel at the world Nolan’s setting up. Cobb and his cronies are never permitted a moment to breathe. Nolan doesn’t seem to understand that film is a visual form, not a chatty medium. He’s taken the same minimalist approach that he offered with his two Batman movies — neuter the images with austerity so that they feel “real,” but don’t bother to layer the mise en scène with elements that capture our imagination. And even then, the dialogue is so crummy, so indicative of a man who read a slim Baudelaire volume over the weekend and thought himself a philosophical giant, that it’s hardly worth dredging up. We get bad pulp ultimatums (“Do you want to take a leap of faith or become an old man living with regret willing to die alone?”), laughably specific training lessons (“You have two minutes to design a maze that it takes one minute to solve”), and vapid declarations of life experience (“Do you know what it is to be a lover?”). Even poor DiCaprio, who delivers a fairly lively performance under the circumstances, is directed to talk like a two-packs-a-day Batman near the end, barking “I feel guilt” in one of the film’s many phony emotional revelations.

Taken with the film’s limited worldview, a place where people exist solely to betray each other, there is little excitement here in relation to the human spirit. Indeed, the “cognitively dissonant milkshake of rage, fear, and, finally, absolving confusion” that Jonathan Lethem identified within The Dark Knight is more applicable to Inception. The film feels like some feral holdover from the Bush Administration. It’s a love letter to conservatism, a chapbook steeped in cruelty and duplicity, where the only real evolution comes with how well you can screw over your partner.

One feels needlessly bullied by this movie. Nolan is so keen to show off how clever he is that the film’s internal workings are more adorned than felt. It’s as if Nolan is some obnoxious conversationalist at a cocktail party who can’t take the hint that he’s hardly the smart charmer he thinks he is. Unfortunately, because cinema is a passive experience, you can’t pour the punch bowl over the smug man’s head.

While I suspect the film’s numerous defenders will point to the fact that the dreamworld here is flat because most of Inception takes place inside a privileged man’s head, I must point to Mary Harron’s American Psycho, Kubrick’s needlessly condemned Eyes Wide Shut, and even Cameron Crowe’s flawed Vanilla Sky as examples of dormant and often dangerous desires explored in contemporary cinema. These filmmakers understood that even the most comfortable members of society can be driven to, respectively, homicidal rage, restricted perversion, and self-evisceration in their dreams. No such luck with Inception. We’re promised Limbo, a mental sublevel so intense that the dreamer eventually returns to the real world as a mental vegetable. One imagines Bosch landscapes or truly terrifying images. But what do we get? Some tame universe that looks like it was whipped up in UDK over a few days by some bored kid.

So this film will dazzle any dummy unfamiliar with Bergman or Bunuel. It will entice any viewer who has set the fantasy bar quite low. It will make a good deal of money. And there’s little that anyone can say to dissuade the inevitable march of capitalist progress. But the hyperbolic comparisons of Nolan with Kubrick are foolhardy. There used to be a time in which we didn’t compare a common pickpocket dressed in a flashy suit with a criminal mastermind who had the decency to respect the mark. But in a post-BP, post-bailout age, it comes as no surprise that our affluent cultural thugs would be declared the new Jesii by lifeless critics who are too diffident and too easily seduced by a shiny bauble. Ain’t that a kick?

Review: Cyrus (2010)

“What kind of comedy would you say that was?” said the man.

The marketing guy had observed my considerable laughter during the movie. While I don’t believe in withholding my emotional response within a screening room, and while I cannot in good conscience fall into that dishonest “Oh, I loved the movie!” mode practiced by certain joyless New York film critics judging a flick after observing the collective herd, my approach does run the risk of Bernaysian collisions.

“I’ll give you a hint,” I said. “Albert Brooks.”

Surely my insinuation would lead the man to remember the great film, Modern Romance, where Brooks played a film editor attempting to grapple with his romantic neuroses. Surely this mention would cause the gentleman to observe that John C. Reilly’s character was also a film editor, and just as neurotic as Brooks. Alas, Albert Brooks, as great as he is, cannot be called “box office draw” even after the most creative fudging of the numbers. Alas, this marketing man was more concerned with general taxonomies. This was hardly a matter of artistic comparison. It was crass bean counting.

“Well, is it black comedy?” he said. “Quirky comedy?”

“Psychological,” I replied, beating a hasty retreat to the elevator and hoping to consider my thoughts and feelings on the subway home.

I want to be clear that the man was perfectly nice and was only doing his job. But the idea that a “psychological comedy” — particularly one as well-made as Cyrus — can no longer be marketable is something I must object to. When we live in a world in which a self-serving BP executive bemoans wanting his life back and in which millions of unemployed individuals cannot find jobs (with their unseen plights ignored by media and government alike), it would seem to me that the need to convey American psychology is more pressing than ever. Not through marketing, but through artistic representation.

I am delighted to report that Cyrus lives up to this task. Written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass, and featuring John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, and Jonah Hill in plum roles, Cyrus is one of the few American comedies in recent memory where the character dysfunction invites us to examine motivations rather than bask in base American Idol-style ridicule. It’s a great relief to see the Duplass brothers reclaim reality television’s handheld camera work for their film, which neither overplays its quietly empathic hand nor resists portraying embarrassing truths. This Duplassian commitment establishes itself with our first introduction to John (John C. Reilly), ostensibly in the midst of masturbation. “I have jock itch,” John explains to his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener), who has showed up, unannounced, to check up. It continues when Jamie invites John to a cocktail party, where “people who will stimulate you intellectually” fail to do so. After our intoxicated hero strikes out with libidinous prospects, he goes outside to pee, meeting up with Molly (Marisa Tomei), who quickly responds, “Nice penis. Go ahead. Finish up.” But the two hit it off. They return inside. The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me?” — which John considers to be “the greatest song” — causes John to dance and embarrass himself further. Molly joins him. Our two middle-aged heroes return to John’s, where John declares Molly “a sex angel.” John awakes to a note reading JOHN: THAT WAS AWESOME. CALL ME. And after Molly accepts an invitation that very evening to a home-cooked meal at John’s, an impromptu relationship is formed.

“My life is really complicated right now,” explains Molly. John drives out to Molly’s house the next morning to knock on her door. His efforts are interrupted by the titular Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who is revealed to be Molly’s son. Cyrus is a boomerang kid — one of those post-teens who clings to parental comforts rather than making a move in the real world. He’s pursuing a dubious music career involving avant-garde keyboard compositions. “Sounds like Steve Miller,” says John after Cyrus plays a sample. “No, it doesn’t,” replies Cyrus. But Cyrus has unspecified psychological problems and a morbid sense of humor. “Don’t fuck my mom,” says Cyrus, once the parental relationship has been laid out. “I’m just kidding,” he says next without skipping a beat.

The Duplass brothers are extremely effective in using our established ideas of these actors to their advantage. Jonah Hill’s warmhearted presence takes some of the edge off Cyrus. And because of this, we become tremendously curious about the hold Cyrus has over his mother. And if John were played by an actor other than John C. Reilly, we might interpret his morning drive to Molly’s home as stalking. Yet Reilly is so good at maintaining an avuncular balance between loneliness and a goodhearted nature that we accept his moves.

And while Marisa Tomei is extremely good in this movie, I’m wondering just how long she’ll be able to play the middle-aged woman who has seen it all and yet quietly accepts her fate. Cyrus follows The Wrestler and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead in this line. And while these films have permitted Tomei to shine, I’m baffled as to why filmmakers haven’t centered their films around Tomei, rather than making her the supporting nurturer.

Perhaps the answer to that latter concern has much to do with the marketing man who accosted me during the closing credits. Fox Searchlight threw a considerable amount of cash attempting to promote Cyrus. In the week before its release, the film sponsored numerous WNYC programs. Pop-up ads invaded several major movie-related websites. Yet my conversation, which I felt compelled to note here in the interest of ethical transparency, would seem to indicate that today’s studios don’t see “psychological comedy” as an audience draw. That’s truly a pity. Because Cyrus demonstrates why it’s so important to pay attention to the smaller people around the corners. For their stories are often more fascinating than the loud explosions.

Review: The Karate Kid (2010)

Age has always been a dicey variable in the Karate Kid universe. In The Karate Kid, Part III — perhaps the most preposterous entry in the series — the 28-year-old Ralph Macchio passed himself off as a “kid” abandoning college, with his character dating the 17-year-old Robyn Lively (thus lending a creepy and statutory quality to the relationship). One of Daniel-San’s adversaries was the 27-year-old Thomas Ian Griffith, a scenery-chewing babyface who tried to pass himself off as a military man who served in ‘Nam with the 43-year-old Martin Kove. Meanwhile, the 57-year-old Pat Morita claimed battle experience for a war that went down when Morita was a preteen.

But these mathematical discrepancies are harmless solecisms when compared to the remake’s shaky moral framework. This time around, the “kid” is truly a kid — even if the “karate” is kung fu and not karate. (I must assume that Hollywood’s rule for any Karate Kid film is to get just one of the two right.) The martial arts here, a watered-down take on Yuen Woo-ping, are both hilarious and disturbing. Here is a film that asks us to celebrate Jaden Smith beating another 12-year-old in the face — a move that would surely have disqualified him from the 1984 original’s All Valley Karate Tournament — shortly after he has pinned his opponent on the mat. The remake’s aggressive sound mix invites us to revel in the bone-crunching prospects of children being thrown into the air and viciously attacked, demonstrating that America’s post-Guantanamo moral laxity has expanded considerably since Jack Bauer first waterboarded a suspect. And I’ll certainly be curious if some family values moralist emerges from the log cabin to condemn the film’s fondness for having kids beating the shit out of each other.

Here is a remake that imbues ridiculous infographics into the tournament finale, where digitized avatars of the participants rotate like some Ritalin-happy bastard progeny conceived between Mortal Kombat* and FOX News, and every round’s most violent moment is replayed for the crowd. This is all quite amusing, but it’s worth pointing out that John G. Avildsen only needed ringside cutaways, medium shots of the fighting, and Joe Esposito’s silly song, “You’re the Best” to generate suspense. (Watch that linked clip and you’ll see that Avildsen, who co-edited the movie, was smart enough to avoid long shots of the crowd. He photographed the tournament more as a vicarious experience. And because Robert Mark Kamen’s script was smart enough to layer Daniel’s predicament with serious stakes, we were very much invested in the outcome. It became surprisingly easy to forget that The Karate Kid was a film directed by the same guy who helmed Rocky.) The remake, by contrast, is more concerned with making the arena loud and large, rather than giving us ringside seats for a conflict that we hope will end all the needless violence.

Director Harald Zwart feels more compelled to give us spectacle with this remake. He scores some points with the supporting cast. If Jackie Chan’s Mr. Han can’t hold a thespic candle to the Oscar-nominated Pat Morita, Taraji P. Henson’s single mother is good enough to match Randee Heller in the original. (Heller was drawn to California for a computer job. But here’s one unsettling aspect of the remake. It’s intimated that Henson’s character, who has moved to China from Detroit and works in an “auto factory,” is a manager at some plant paying Chinese workers a pittance. I can only speak for myself, but the film’s inadequacies might best be expressed by the fact that I found myself far more troubled by this narrative aspect than anything that Jaden Smith was going through.) Even better is newcomer Wenwen Han as Meiying, Jaden Smith’s love interest, who displays a strong talent for expressing contained emotions, even if the material doesn’t give her the opportunity to slug a caddish boy in the face. (I feel compelled to point out that Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface” replaces Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” for the film’s Golf N’ Stuff-like moment. This is an acceptable choice, but a DDR-like machine is hardly a substitute for a hockey machine’s conversational possibilities.) Zwart has a decent cinematographer (Roger Pratt) rigging some impressive Fincheresque dissolves between several shots using the same computer-controlled camera motion and opting for a more handheld feel for the coverage. Zwart is also sensible enough to hire a composer (James Horner) who is just as overblown (if not more so) than the original film’s composer (Bill Conti).

The problem here isn’t Zwart’s direction, but Christopher Murphey’s workmanlike script. While Murphey offers a few new spins on Miyagi’s “wax on wax off” training techniques and skillfully transposes many of the original film’s scenes (and even a good deal of the dialogue) into the new China setting, Jaden Smith’s Dre Parker isn’t nearly as winning as Daniel Larusso. Where Daniel was a decent kid from New Jersey who immediately introduced himself to a crazy old woman in the apartment building and brought her dog a bowl of water, immediately securing audience sympathy, Dre is more of a spoiled brat who drops his jacket on the floor, whines too much, and doesn’t even have Daniel’s soccer ball bouncing moves to impress the girl. (Instead, Dre, after attempting a vicious top spin move in a ping-pong match, gets his ass handed to him by an old man.) It also doesn’t help that Jaden Smith has an annoying habit of mugging for the camera. He rolls his eyes and folds his face to the spectator instead of inhabiting his character the way that Macchio did. Perhaps the charm Smith offered in The Pursuit of Happyness was less rooted in acting and more associated with being in close proximity to his real-life father. Whatever the case, in all my years, I never thought I would ever write the next sentence. I actually longed for Ralph Macchio.

Because of this, even though it’s more entertaining than most remakes, 2010’s The Karate Kid can’t come close to matching the original. And that’s because the 1984 movie was something of a masterpiece. Aside from the original’s clever method of using the Protestant work ethic as a pretext for “training” (one might make a case that Daniel’s dawn-to-dusk shifts are one of Hollywood’s greatest portrayals of efficacious slave labor), the movie was a sneaky parable about cultural appropriation. Kreese (the Martin Kove character), the military man turned dojo master, and the Cobra clan, with its Erhardian “No Fear! No Mercy!” mantra, not only presented us with a shameful bastardization of karate’s peaceful roots, but it certainly helped that Kreese, Johnny, and the various lieutenants acted like a cokehead asshole brigade. Miyagi lost his wife and daughter for reasons that involved a Japanese internment camp — one of the most disgraceful moments in American history. And the class divide between Daniel and “Ali with an I,” when taken with the feminism of Ali pursuing Daniel (rather than the reverse) and clocking the boorish Johnny, created an environment where hard work and a commitment to discipline could pull you through the American nightmare. Sure, these were Protestant values. But it did the trick for mainstream audiences.

But the remake has done away with most of this. Like Miyagi, Han has lost his wife and daughter. But it’s not rooted in historical precedent, and the scene is played out with Chan sobbing with overwrought tears. Avildsen was right to portray the moment in one long take, not have Miyagi break down, and center the scene around Daniel’s discovery. But in the remake, Dre exists to comfort Han. And the film itself exists to comfort the audience, who will instantly forget it.

All this is too bad. Because had the remake’s script considered the original film’s underlying principle — that resorting to violence is only applicable when there are no other choices — it might have packed a greater punch.

* — Maybe some reader can confirm this. This review has become much longer than I anticipated and I’m too lazy to look it up. But I understand that the first cultural usage of “Finish him!” originated in the 1984 version of The Karate Kid. Mortal Kombat then appropriated this phrase. And, sure enough, the phrase has returned to the 2010 remake. So the Mortal Kombat infographics do make a certain amount of sense. The only real surprise is that nobody thought to include this in 1994’s The Next Karate Kid, which appeared in theaters two years after Mortal Kombat enticed kids in video arcades.

Review: Clash of the Titans (2010)

Even as a lad, I was not a fan of the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans. A grade school teacher, detecting some faint whiff of precocity, suggested that I needed to investigate Roman mythology. Not wishing to disappoint her, I checked out a 200-page book on Roman mythology from the school library. It contained striking illustrations and offered a kid-friendly overview of the gods. I spent several days alone in my bedroom, reading it over and over with more devotion than any variation on the King James Bible. Some of my mother’s wild-eyed friends, sensing that I was an uncommon reader, attempted to get me to read more ecumenical texts. But I was suspicious of these gestures. I didn’t understand then why one needed to choose a religion. If you had to select one, why not place your faith in these marvelous stories? Medusa! Cerberus! Narcissus! Prometheus! The tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice! These tales all captured my imagination so much that I found myself flipping through the Yellow Pages, wondering if there were any churches devoted to Zeus or Aphrodite.

Seeing no division for “Roman” or “Greek,” I nervously telephoned a few churches when my mother was away, asking where one could go to worship the gods. One man told me that surely I meant a singular one. “No, no, no,” I replied. “I’m talking about the Gods of Olympus!” There were efforts to steer me towards the “true” faith, but I proved recalcitrant. I concluded that religion was not for me, but I still begrudgingly went to church when I was asked and I did my best to keep my mouth shut. Although one congregation member would later say, “There’s something of the devil in that boy.” For all I knew, he was probably right.

So when the Clash of the Titans lunchboxes started showing up in the cafeteria, and when some of the kids began speaking of this “great” film, and when I continued to wonder about the mechanical bird (who reminded me of Tick Tock from the Oz books), I felt obliged to figure out a way to see this movie. I knew the name “Ray Harryhausen” from the amazing stop-motion effects seen in the Sinbad movies that repeatedly aired on UHF stations. And while the Medusa sequence impressed me, the Perseus depicted in Clash (played by a doe-eyed Harry Hamlin) reminded me of the sleazy and self-absorbed men — some strange phase between disco king and yuppie — who drove loud sportscars when I looked out the car window. This Perseus couldn’t possibly compare to the one I had imagined from the books. What was the big deal?

So it’s safe to say that the original Clash didn’t make much of an impression. And now that I’ve had the misfortune of revisiting the original film, I can safely say that it contains very little of value aside from Harryhausen’s effects. Even with the prominent matte lines and the inconsistent lighting between the animation and the live action, Harryhausen remained a consummate master of the tiny gesture that spelled out everything you needed to know about a creature. The specific way that Pegasus kicks up his forelegs or the manner in which the giant hawk waits for Andromeda’s soul to enter the cage. And, most impressively, the way that the Kraken burrowed his three claws into the rocks and peeked his menacing head over the ravine. This attention to detail made these seemingly one-dimensional characters live in my mind.

So it is my sad duty to report that the Clash remake, while not nearly as terrible as I expected, doesn’t possess a singular creature gesture to match Harryhausen’s. Gargoyles flap about into a giant mass. There are a few giant scorpions that prove somewhat enthralling. Pegasus, who is referred to not as “Pegasus, the last of the flying horses” (as he was in the original) but merely “the Pegasus” (well, if he isn’t unique, then what’s the big deal?), has been integrated, by way of jet hide, into some strange affirmative action program. It’s clear that the animators are inputting coordinates into a computer. The time for careful attention to monsters is now mostly finished.

Which is too bad. Because Sam Worthington is better as Perseus than that dreadful slab of inexpressive meat (the suitably named Hamlin) cast in the original. While there’s something more than a bit odd about seeing a 33-year-old actor referred to as “boy,” and Worthington appears remiss to show off his pecs in the exhibitionist manner that Hamlin (or director Desmond Davis) was all too eager to practice, Worthington is never insufferable. Alas, his Perseus is less committed to taking charge. He bitches about going back to his old life as a fisherman. He is never given an invisible helmet, as he was in the original, much less a shield from the gods.

Instead of Burgess Meredith, Perseus is accompanied by two mercenaries, who speak some bad dialect that is vaguely Russian and vaguely Slavic, but ultimately the product of lazy Hollywood acting. (When this duo first appears, the film is quick to insert some gypsy music track, as if we won’t notice just how terrible they are. All that money for the effects and the filmmakers couldn’t hire a dialect coach?) Indeed, one of this movie’s curious qualities is that there is no uniform dialect. Some actors speak with an Australian dialect; others, Santa Monica; still others, British. And this slipshod attention to language should give you a sense of where director Lewis Leterrier’s priorities are.

Perseus is constantly under the tutelage of Io (played by the inexpressive Gemma Arterton), who has been watching him all his life. (Never mind that we don’t see her until midway through the film.)

In other words, 2010’s Perseus reflects the vitiated masculinity often found in the insufferable hipster too intoxicated with his own indolence.

But that’s the least of the film’s problems. Given that the original film featured Ursula Andress’s ass and a breastfeeding moment, I was surprised that the remake’s eleventh-hour upgrade to 3-D (reportedly assembled in eight weeks) didn’t take advantage of these Z-axis possibilities. It becomes very clear early on that this movie was never designed with 3-D in mind, and that audiences are being gouged. Clash‘s 3-D “experience” merely involves accentuating planes of focus. One would get livelier surprises from a pop-up book. And the film’s reticence to display blood and visceral fluids (much less the nude form) makes one wonder how this movie landed a PG-13 rating. Yes, there’s a scene in which Perseus cuts his way out of the inside of a computer-generated scorpion. But it all seemed artificial to me. Not just because the film never lets a creature have even ten seconds of camera time to offer some personality, but because we are never given a gesture in which we can believe in the scorpion.

I should probably also mention the remake’s casual misogyny, which comes courtesy of screenwriters Travis Beacham, Phil Hay, and Matt Manfredi. The original film, you may recall, was somewhat careful with the gender balance. There was Thetis’s statue that came alive. Athena and Aphrodite were given some moments. When Perseus declared that he was going to pursue the Stygian witches on his own, Andromeda stood her ground, saying, “No, we will ride with you as far as their shrine. It is a long and perilous journey.” And when Perseus busted out some macho swagger, Andromeda pushed back. Then, with a schmaltzy music cue from Laurence Rosenthal, Andromeda rode forth with her horse, shortly announcing, “We follow the North Star.”

This may not have been much, but at least the women in the original Clash got the chance to engage in a little action. By contrast, the remake has pushed all the goddesses out of the narrative, leaving only Zeus (Liam Nesson) and Hades (Ralph Fiennes) to duke it out with humans as pawns. In the remake, Andromeda doesn’t accompany Perseus on his quest. And it isn’t too long before Io, in a preposterous moment aboard Charon’s ferry, soon becomes little more than a sex object, urging Perseus to “ease your storm.” And it was here that the film lost me. Granted, defenders of this remake (will there be any?) will no doubt respond to my criticisms by pointing out that Io tries to teach Perseus some moves to battle Medusa. But Io never makes any real effort to put Perseus in his place. The film’s anti-women attitude can also be found in the Medusa sequence. Medusa, in the original, was an ass-kicking serpent who fired arrows at Perseus’s comrades. She was a formidable villainess whose omnipresent rattle was enough to command attention. But in the remake, all Medusa does is offer random laughs and slither around her lair. And if that isn’t enough for you, consider the needless explanation for Medusa’s transformation in both films. The original simply mentioned that Aphrodite punished her. The remake offers a description of rape, painting Medusa as a once very beautiful woman. It’s almost as if the filmmakers are suggesting that the bitch had it coming.

So if some kid is coming into this movie, hoping to find some halfway house with which to move onto the likes of Edith Hamilton, then the Clash remake is mostly futile. As my pal Eric Rosenfield was adamant to observe, the film doesn’t even get the mythology right. (Perseus does not marry Andromeda in this movie.) It doesn’t even have the decency to give us Dioskilos, the cool two-headed dog that Perseus’s army fought before Medusa. It does wisely divest itself of Bubo, the mechanical bird from the original, giving it, quite literally, a throwaway cameo. And again, I cannot stress enough how anticlimactic the 3-D is.

I’ve seen movies that are worse. But when you’re dealing with mythological wonder, why settle for less?

Review: Cop Out (2010)

As suggested by Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, Steven Soderbergh initiated his “one for us, one for them” plunge into the Hollywood ocean with 1998’s Out of Sight. Richard Linklater’s occasional dips began with 2003’s School of Rock. Both were perfectly respectable movies, but it wasn’t much of a surprise when these distinctive directors’s later compromises floundered. Now Kevin Smith, a tardy arriviste into the strange club of indie filmmakers turned hired hands, has copped a Hollywood feel with Cop Out, a buddy movie that so desperately wants to be Beverly Hills Cop or Fletch (even composer Harold Faltermeyer has been coaxed out of near-retirement to score this flick), but that squeaks like some by-the-numbers franchise sequel co-directed by Brett Ratner and Abraham Zapruder. Cop Out is a hack movie directed as if it were a home movie, a big shaggy dog that really, really wants to be loved. One feels a bit embarrassed watching Smith attempt to put together a car chase, relying on a routine vehicle spin to win some half-baked sense of excitement. And the film’s firm commitment to choppy amateurism is equally evident in the sloppy attention to detail. There’s one scene where, in a stunning display of shoddy script supervision, a slice of pizza disappears from Kevin Pollack’s right hand. In a later shootout, there’s a lazy nod to John Woo’s double-fisted gunning. The visual palette is, as expected, little more than static shots and long takes, with half-hearted efforts at a TV-friendly color scheme. A primitive amber aura for a restaurant showdown. Willis backlit by blue in a bar. These are a student filmmaker’s templates. With eight feature films under his belt, the fair pass that Smith has received for this type of shoddy camerawork must end. It doesn’t help that Smith has this tendency to film his actors with all that dead space at the top of the frame, as if these characters are awaiting some comic book caption or the audience is enduring some bumbling community theater production.

On the other hand, if the Hollywood hostlers give you a cliche-ridden horse (“These assholes are crazy, brother,” reads one of the unnecessary Spanish subtitles) saddled with dated cultural references (the first ten minutes is a tedious farrago of movie quotes and the film’s later use of “All your base are belong to us” is so 2001), why not direct it like a home movie? Unlike Brett Ratner’s films, one can safely assert that home movies emerge from good intentions. Smith is known for badgering his poor actors into highly specific and highly unnatural line delivery. But Bruce Willis, perhaps because he is too big a star to be prodded by an unambitious filmmaker, plays a very good straight man. He reacts to the anarchy around him with John McClane-like head cocks and James Cole-like introspection. Tracy Morgan, whom I’ve long suspected is more than the loudmouth immortalized on 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live, is refreshingly played against type. His character is given numerous opportunities to spout obscure facts and his monologue with a teddy bear nannycam should not work as well as it does. The material is weak, but Morgan thankfully isn’t. Worrying about his wife’s possible infidelities, Morgan momentarily turns a character who might have become a stock wiseacre into a bustling bundle of neuroses. The film is also wise enough to cast the ass-kicking Susie Essman in a small role. Unfortunately, the underrated Seann William Scott, who showed that he was far more than Steve Stifler in the little-seen 2008 film, The Promotion, is given very little to work with.

I can’t say that I hated this movie — certainly not as much as the people around me. But I also can’t say that I loved the movie either. I’m as fond of crass humor and dick jokes as the next guy. And to ensure that I absconded with any lingering pretensions, I took along the thriller novelist Jason Pinter to the screening. But he felt the same way. While there are a few funny moments, there isn’t a single gag in this movie that is as creative or as funny as Axel Foley stuffing hot dogs up a tailpipe. And while Morgan may have energy, despite my praise for what he does with the material (including a funny scene where he insensitively crunches on tortilla chips), he’s simply not given much of a character to work with. Sitting in a hotel room with a sexy woman has only so many variations before the material gets old. And say what you will about 1985’s Fletch, but Chevy Chase owned that role, even if the script wasn’t nearly as good as Gregory McDonald’s books. Willis may anchor this movie with his serious presence, but because Cop Out hasn’t been written to fit Morgan, what should have been a breakout role for him devolves into more of the same. He’s far more interesting than Chris Tucker, but, unfortuantely, thanks to writers Robb Cullen and Mark Cullen, he’s just as forgettable.

Smith, of course, came very close to rebooting Fletch for the big screen, with Jason Lee set to play McDonald’s famous reporter. And the closing credits, just before a scene set in a morgue, grace us with Stephanie Mills’s “Bit by Bit,” the theme song from Michael Ritchie’s 1985 movie. Clearly, Cop Out, a film that more than lives up to its title, must have appealed to Smith as a fun substitute for the aborted Fletch remake. (Indeed, Smith took a reported pay cut to ensure the R rating, although the film flinches from depicting violence and is about as safe as a PG-13 movie.) But if Cop Out is the lackluster result, it appears that audiences may have dodged a bullet.

Review: Happy Tears (2010)

It is difficult to muster much enthusiasm for Mitchell Lichtenstein’s latest film, Happy Tears — in part because Tamara Jenkins gave us the similarly-themed The Savages three years ago, a remarkably moving film about middle-aged scions learning to care for a decaying father — and in part because Lichtenstein strikes me as an insensitive dilettante all too happy to humiliate the talent he has at his disposal. I could very well be wrong, but a gnawing feeling kicked in upon seeing Rip Torn, a talented actor who has had a series of alcohol problems preceding this film’s production period, cast as an alcoholic man climbing into the rough crag of dementia with two near-the-hill daughters. It continued with Ellen Barkin, a talented thespian who, like many aging actresses, has had an army of surgeons carve up her face into something bearing little resemblance to natural physiognomy, cast here as a cartoonish junkie. To a lesser extent, it carried on with Parker Posey, an enjoyable indie film queen whose peppy demeanor has worn a bit thin, who is cast here as a flighty and imbalanced woman wanting to pop a baby with her flighty and imbalanced husband. There’s one point in the film where Lichtenstein is so desperate to pound home this tired character trope that he places a denuded Posey in a cheap-looking CGI aura, the result of drugs, where a voice chants, “Everything turns out for the best.” If that isn’t a desperate deus ex machina originating from an “artist” uninterested or incapable of examining human behavior, then I don’t know what is.

But I’m straying a bit from my point. Torn, Barkin, and Posey were certainly complicit in taking these roles. Still, from an ethical standpoint, it seems to me that a writer-director, working in an occupation that involves protecting the actors, bears a sizable responsibility for ensuring that his cast is given the best opportunities to demonstrate why we marvel at them in the first place. If a director has any decency, he will be aware of where an actor is presently situated in the careerist food chain and will do his damnedest to accommodate. Even Quentin Tarantino, doped up as he is on too many movies, has sought second chances for his overlooked actors. No such luck with Lichtenstein. Judging by the needlessly glossy press booklet I received from the amicable publicist, and from Lichtenstein’s ability to nab Demi Moore for this film, I’m guessing that Lichtenstein made this movie shortly after running into a bit of money from his father’s comic book painting magic. Again, I could be wrong. But I was so underwhelmed by this film that I’m too lazy to Google it. Still, let’s go with it. If Happy Tears (rather than A Single Man) is the result of such lavish self-financing, then perhaps the presentation of connective failings isn’t always compatible with the unfettered expansion of purse strings.

There’s a plotline in this film involving Torn’s character hiding some buried treasure somewhere in his Pittsburgh backyard. One gets the strong sense that this reflected Lichtenstein’s muddled creative process. When Posey’s character divests the family home of furniture, instead of being drawn into the film, I envisioned Lichtenstein tapping away at the keyboard, wondering how he could squeeze some life out of this minimalist situation (and failing). The characters are given cardboard-thin domestic situations with which to mutter predictable lines. Lacking the ability to make these characters pop, Lichtenstein tosses in random backstory (both daughters stripped at one point; dad slept around) that is presumably intended to shock, but that draws additional attention to how one-dimensional these characters are. He can’t even capture Alleghany County very well. He throws his characters in flat-looking Chinese restaurants, but lacks the contrapuntal ability to extend his visuals beyond the mundane. This seems counter-intuitive, seeing as how Lichtenstein wants to make a greater point about what it takes to move forward and stay relatively sanguine when you regularly have to clean up your father’s shit (quite literally). Altman would have made something of this. But Lichtenstein, despite appearing as one of the fresh Vietnam recruits in Streamers, is no Altman. I don’t even know if he’s even a real filmmaker.

Review: Youth in Revolt (2009)

Michael Cera, a reedy actor known for grilling his thin mix of thespic tricks into crepe-like pipsqueaks quietly braying the predictable coups de foudre, is not necessarily a man to be disliked. But there doesn’t seem to be a filmmaker with the guts to discourage his predictable instincts.

Miguel Arteta would seem to be that man. The director has served up a commendable body of work (the underrated Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl, and episodes of Six Feet Under and The Office) reflecting his knack for getting quirky and engaging performances from his cast. But it does not follow that, just because you affix a beret and a moustache onto Cera’s boyish poise, you will be guaranteed a performance that treads beyond established terrain. These sartorial embellishments, which emerge with Cera’s unconvincing puffs at jaspers, are intended to create an imaginary alter ego to Cera’s established protagonist. But the results demonstrate that Cera lacks the possibilities of an Elijah Wood, coaxed into enjoyable cartoonish viciousness by Sin City‘s Robert Rodriguez.

The Cera predicament is especially troubling for Arteta’s latest film, Youth in Revolt, which, my Cera criticisms aside, is a fairly engaging diversion — one that caused me to laugh, even when the needlessly condescending interstitials (various animations, disastrously calculated to appeal to some misunderstood Williamsburg demographic) threatened to uproot the delicious anarchy buried beneath. These concessional interludes caused me to wonder whether a few nonconformist kinks were ironed out during the reported reshoots early last year, and whether a more dangerous film, truer to C.D. Payne’s subversive source material, was lurking under the restitched seams. The film business, being as secretive and as protective as it is, will no doubt stay mum on this point.

Cera plays Nick Twisp, a teenager who is “a voracious reader of classic prose” and who likes Frank Sinatra. He complains that he lives “in a city filled with women who have zero interest in me” (honestly, in Berkeley?) and is mercilessly ridiculed when he rents La Strada from a video store. His mother has a taste for dumbbell fuck buddies (the first played by Zach Galifianakis, a noisy neo-Belushi whose supporting comedic turns I am becoming rather fond of). The promised Summer of ’42 moment emerges with a girl named Sheeni Saunders (played winningly by relative newcomer Portia Doubleday), who takes to Twisp’s naive disposition and expands her lips further after he unleashes an alter ego: a lumpen lothario named Francois Dillinger, the alter ego I quibbled with above.

Dillinger persuades Twisp to do bad things. Arson with $8 million in damages. A ruse involving sleeping pills. All in the service of winning Sheeni’s heart with dangerous behavior. Much of this is fun, but Cera’s plodding one-note performance prevents this gleeful mayhem from living up to the disastrous possibilities of a Frank Oz-directed comedy.

It is troubling that Arteta casts so many of his supporting actors right, while failing to elicit much out of Cera. Adhir Kaylan nearly steals the movie as Twisp’s pal, Vijay, imbuing his character with romantic neuroses that are far more plausible than anything Cera has to offer. Fred Willard is cast as a naive and burned out activist, and demonstrates once again that he’s brilliant at getting inside the surprisingly dimensional mentality of a clueless buffoon. I failed to mention that Jean Smart, who can do little wrong, plays Twisp’s mom. Even Steve Buscemi manages to show up as Twisp’s dad.

There are also some amusing oddball moments, such as Sheeni’s father revealed to be a lawyer, who proceeds to cite conditional legalese when Twisp arrives to hang out with Sheeni. Sheeni’s family lives in a preposterously baroque trailer with multiple floors. And in a surreal flourish, a car, for reasons that I won’t divulge, is trapped within the Twisp living room.

Many of these eccentricities existed in Payne’s novels, and they have been adapted well by screenwriter Gustin Nash (and uncredited polisher Mike White) into the requirements of cinema. It’s just too bad that Cera isn’t up to the material’s feral exigencies, and that Arteta (or some other unknown production force) has neutered the promise of a teen comedy as reinterpreted by Preston Sturges. This film is very good in spots, but why diminish the insanity?

Review: Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009)


Sometime ago, I attended a screening for Did You Hear About the Morgans? I apologize for the lateness of this review. I have been occupied with more important things, such as clipping my toenails. I wish I could review this film properly, but that would be a bit like putting together a 4,000 word essay devoted to one man’s case of athlete’s foot. The upshot is that there is truly not much to recommend about this film, although I have seen worse films and this braindead offering served as a diversion between deadlines. It was possessed of nothing and permitted my mind and spirit to become actuated, seeking fun and greater things.

I should probably note that Susan E. Morse, fired by Woody Allen sometime after The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (possibly one of the key reasons why Allen’s more recent films have been less than stellar), edited the film. But aside from this, I leave the readers to do the detective work and track down the cast and crew. They are, for the most part, not worthy of having their names repeated here. But I do feel bad about what happened to Susan E. Morse, even though Woody Allen needs her more than Morse needs Woody Allen. What follows are some of my random notes taken throughout the film. This is what is known as a lazy review. But since the filmmakers have been extraordinarily lazy in putting this film together, it makes considerable sense for me to afford it the same level of disrespect. The collected notes will provide content for this site while I do interesting things (such as clipping my toenails) and it may be of some use to those who, for whatever reason, are still on the fence about seeing this movie:

Phone call against black. Long-winded. Premiere boutique. Real estate firm in this economy? Nonsense. Ice sculpture disaster.

“The perfect combination of classic architecture and understated elegance.” — some statement explaining this film?

Speaks French. Pregnant. Skyline shots. A black hole. Park Avenue? Really? 1991 fantasy. Not the New York I know. Not the New York Woody Allen knows. Hugh Grant tired. Sarah Jessica Parker tired, but peppy. Jackie and Andy. Assistants. Two assistants. More interesting than leads. Needless class warfare. Columbus Circle. “There is now a galaxy named Meryl.” — she’s still interested in this guy? He’s an attorney? Really? “Can you please stop being so agreeable.” Why not just punch someone?

He slept with someone else. A little less love for a while. Many years. Preposterous murder subplot. Really, this kind of crime in the East Side? Did the writer even visit here?

Keeping safe. Big black guy. Scrawny white guy. Unfunny racist joke. Real estate. T-shirt. Sent a police officer up. Shot. Shouting. I long for Preston Sturges.

Couple across the street looking through window. Liked this the first time in Ghostbusters, possibly before. “There’s an emergency.” Gay subtext in shower. Attorney with loads of free time in New York? Yeah, right. “I’ve had bagels in other parts of the country. I don’t even like Connecticut.” Such appeal! Will the killer shoot these snobs?

“If you want to lie, you’re out of options.” Manichean approach. Couple acts like they are in their twenties. Was that original script before getting Hugh and SJP?

A week at most. Sam Elliott kicks ass. Mary Steenburgen kicks ass. But why is there no chemistry between SE and MS? Wyoming. Cliches. City Slickers-style music.

Taxidermy. Encounter with a grizzly bear. Shouldn’t he be writing this down? Bargain Barn. “It’s huge. I had no idea.” But New York has Costco! Big guns. PETA. People for Eating Tasty Animals. Heard that joke in redneck bowling alley in early 1990s. Stilted blocking. Trapped.

One room. One witness at a time. Ten years ago. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood mostly. Cliched DVD selection. A computer. Make a quick call. There’s a code.

“Look, Paul, I know how hard you’re trying.” Not hard enough.

“And I don’t trust you anymore.” Paul or screenwriter?

Rodeo Round-Up magazine. All meat in the fridge. Who plays the assistant? “I’ve never turned my oven off.” “I thought I could actually keep my cells dividing.”

“I feel my organs shutting down.” “I can’t breathe. The air’s too clear.” Grizzly bear. Spraying him in the eyes. “I’ve always dreamed about Chicago.” “Laughter really is the best medicine.” Thank you, but I’m waiting to laugh.

307-179-9048. No 555 in telephone number?

Fertility experts. Stuttering Hugh. He’s in his forties and he’s still stuttering? Four Decades and a Funeral? I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Apology to audience?

“Without him, I’m superfluous.” Oh please. Someone get bell hooks on her ass.

Shooting at the audience. “This is nothing. You should see how long it takes for her to order dinner.” Quicker than this movie?

“I think I have a welt.” Too much typing, Mr. Screenwriter?

Chair — moving inside the house.

“I am told that it is the only place.” Remington 270. “I called around and got a table near the mayonnaise.” New York neurotics. Wilford Brimley smoking. Cast as a badass! Beat them up, Wilford! Liberals in town: “Thirteen, not fourteen, and we know who they are.” People take trucks in this town? Truck return policy? “I Googled her.” — one of several modern references placed in at last minute, if script sitting in drawer.

Smells like a burrito. Need a will. Stun gun. “It is an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken.” Which Shakespeare sonnet is this again?

Wait a minute, he’s British and been in New York all this time? Google Maps. Google paid someone?

“Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Hypocrisy. Second big rock as landmark. Joke now told four times, still not funny.

“You risked your life for me. That’s so nice.” Barf.

Review: The Road (2009)


In 2006, an incalculable number of retroussé-nosed snobs — most possessing little understanding or appreciation of speculative fiction — were justly charmed by Cormac McCarthy’s YA novel, The Road. It was a common weakness for such ostensibly erudite essayists as James Wood to not comprehend that McCarthy, like nearly every other speculative fiction author, was extrapolating his own values of fatherhood and manhood onto his fantastical canvas. Functional illiterates, without even an elementary knowledge of the exciting New Weird and steampunk movements then in full bloom, raved that The Road was “unlike any book you’ve read in a long time,” and that sentiment was certainly true if your grasp of speculative fiction extended no further than a Ray Bradbury story read under duress in a high school haze. But McCarthy’s novel — simple yet effective in its execution — went on to earn the Pulitzer Prize and was even selected by the middlebrow television queen, who proudly gushed to McCarthy that he looked just like he did on the back of the cover.

I am happy to report that The Road, in its cinematic version, lives up to this wanton accessibility. It lacks the apocalyptic punch of 1984’s Threads or 1982’s The Day After, and is far from bleak and depressing in its approach. But a liberal parent may very well argue that this family-centric film is fun for the whole family. I couldn’t help but wonder at times whether Viggo would coo, “Good night, John Boy,” under the acid rain of family values. The film does possess a streak of humanity comparable, at times, to 1983’s Testament, particularly since it is securely anchored by Viggo Mortensen, who conceals an effective bundle of husks, rasps, and laconic remnants within his spindly, half-starved frame. (He even delivers McCarthy’s contractions without apostrophes. This is a dedicated lead actor.) Joe Penhall’s adaptation is relatively faithful to the book, reproducing much of the narrative moments and the dialogue (although on film, the mind’s eye begins to see the question marks forming around lines, somewhat sullying McCarthy’s intent). There’s also gruff narration from Mortensen reading much of McCarthy’s prose, which I’m not sure was needed. Flashback moments involving Charlize Theron as the mother come perilously close to needless audience spoonfeeding.

But then McCarthy’s book was, in its own way, altogether too geared for mass consumption. One moment from the book, bearing the telltale indicator of a corporation wheeling over a rusty shopping cart of money, has been lovingly reproduced on screen. But director John Hillcoat and Penhall shouldn’t be held entirely accountable. They have indeed been true to the book, rendering every line of the following exchange:

He withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Coca-Cola.

What is it, Papa?

It’s a treat. For you.

What is it?

Here. Sit down.

He slipped the boy’s knapsack straps loose and set the pack on the floor behind him and he put his thumbnail under the aluminum lip on the top of the can and opened it. He leaned his nose to the slight fizz coming from the can and then handed it to the boy. Go ahead, he said.

The boy took the can. It’s bubbly, he said.

Go ahead.

He looked at his father and then tilted the can and drank. He sat there thinking about it. It’s really good, he said.

Yes. It is.

You have some, Papa.

I want you to drink it.

You have some.

He took the can and sipped it and handed it back. You drink it, he said. Let’s just sit here.

The stuff of literature! A book and a smile! And a film and a smile.

On the big screen, the thinking audience member, troubled not only by this product placement coming at the expense of verisimilitude, notes that warm and unrefrigerated Coca-Cola nestled for so long would surely have gone flat. (Indeed, the subject was argued about on Metafilter.)

The apocalypse’s visual elements involve tilted telephone poles, burned out office parks, skeletal remains, bituminious detritus, and frequent flickers of past civilization (paintings within a gutted out church, portraits in houses) cannily mirroring the father’s desire to “carry on the soul” and stay “one of the good guys” in a landscape populated mostly by cannibals. Alas, the sordid cannibalism doesn’t include the book’s infamous roasted baby, which China Mieville rightly called “a little bit camp.” We do see bloody bathtubs and sinks, a basement populated by living human meat, and chops and screams in the distance. But Delicatessen and Eating Raoul this ain’t. This grisly stuff should jolt or horrify, as it does on the page. But the film’s cannibals are more or less actors daubed up with grease who wear trucker’s caps. The intent is to depict humanity debased by desperate impulses, but it comes off like a cheap shot at red staters.

Still, some of the film’s pulled punches are redeemed by the solid performances (Kodi Smit-McPhee is good as The Boy) and a sound mix that knows the value of silence and knows when to intrude with creepy creaks. Robert Duvall’s presence as the old man is quite welcome and possibly more of a humanizing influence than the character’s appearance in the book. And while David Edelstein has pooh-poohed the film’s seeming “monotonous” quality, I must commend the film for the same reason. (Then again, it’s doubtful that Edelstein paid much attention. He claims that “having Mom lurch off is quite an evolutionary statement,” but failed to note Molly Parker’s presence at the end.) This is a film about process. Surviving in a wasteland when there’s no real reason to survive — other than the nebulous idea of “going south” — is one of the film’s (and the duo’s) reasons for being. It also helps that the father is, as the flashbacks and the incident with the thief reveal, hardly a flawless and glowing patriarch, and that his mistakes don’t necessarily coincide with the conditions.

Make no mistake: This is a feel-good apocalypse movie. And while the film is more entertainment than art, it’s just loose enough to provide any number of comparisons to the present economic shitstorm. Because of this, I suspect it may perform quite well at the box office.

Review: 2012 (2009)


Roland Emmerich’s 2012 is slightly better than Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow — the hack director’s two previous opuses involving mass devastation. But that’s a bit like saying that imbibing a thimble of urine is better than eating a shit sandwich or employing an embalmed corpse as a surrogate dining table. That one must pay ten George Washingtons for the privilege of drinking a soupçon of pee is hardly a recommendation. But the piss remains compelling. For it has become every dutiful American’s duty to sit through vile cinematic “entertainment” in order to remain on the same page. Still, there’s a part of me pondering 2012‘s potential.

“Something like this can only originate in Hollywood,” says a character early in the film. And indeed, Emmerich is right on this point. Emmerich is only a mite more talented than Uwe Boll, his fellow German sellout. But one shouldn’t compare two cultural criminals who have both severely setback the intelligent possibilities of mass entertainment. The film presents a primitive political viewpoint to entice the kooky charlatans now banging out insipid and predictably contrarian viewpoints for the New York Press. Two African-American male characters are presented here with noble intent — a humanist geologist played by Chiwetel Ejiofor at loggerheads with the cold and clinical Oliver Platt (here, with an American accent) and Danny Glover’s President Thomas Wilson (beckoning phony comparisons to Woodrow, whose first name was actually Thomas), who stays behind at the White House as giant waves and dust clouds ravage the nation. And while it’s heartening to see African-Americans shift from “magical black” side characters and wiseacres into take-charge positions, the film also serves up a distressing sexism. The Speaker of the House is, three years hence, a “he.” When a giant plane heads to a safe point in China, the women are compelled to stay downstairs while the men are summoned to the cockpit to witness recent developments. President Danny Glover insists that the people have the right to know about forthcoming disaster because “a mother can comfort her children.” Why can’t a mother kick ass? These misogynistic politics are at odds with the film’s purported humanism. Make no mistake: This is a film designed for an Armond White pullquote.

On the other hand, I cannot deny the sheer pleasure I experienced in seeing the two centers of vapid American entertainment — Los Angeles and Las Vegas — destroyed by cheap-looking CG effects. (It should be noted that Emmerich also manages to obliterate the Sistine Chapel, complete with a crack forming between God and Adam. But the man is running out of landmarks to destroy. Will public memory permit him repeats?) I cannot deny being amused by the fact that one million Euros, not dollars, is the asking price to get on board one of the arks destined to save the remainder of humanity. (There’s even a nod to Douglas Adams’s Golgafrincham, where one of the arks is damaged, proving unsuitable for the flailing crowds clamoring to get on board.) I was even amused at times by Woody Harrelson’s wild-eyed, pickle-eating, radio-ranting mountain man. But Harrelson serves the same purpose as Brent Spiner’s wild-haired scientist in Independence Day: a forgettable cartoon providing as much human depth as a TV dinner. Not that anyone will remember the formulaic similarities. As Harrelson says at one point, just after urging Cusack to “download my blog,” “You lure them in with the humor. Then you make them think.” It’s safe to say that Emmerich cannot follow his own crude advice.

There comes a point in any Roland Emmerich film in which anyone with a brain must give up and ponder why such superficialities remain a draw. For me, it came about ninety minutes in, as certain characters defiantly survived even the most liberal geophysics. It is also profoundly insulting for Emmerich (and his co-writer and composer Harald Kloser, who is overwrought in both of his “professional” duties) to offer us a character who reads books (Ejiofor’s Adrian Helmsley, “moving on up” just like Sherman did a few decades ago) and a shah using an e-reader, while also offering us this shoddy science behind the Earth’s destruction: “Neutrinos are causing a physical reaction.”

Here is a filmmaker so utterly stupid that he takes us to “the deepest copper mine in the world” in the opening minutes, features buckets of ice, and yet provides only a single consumer fan to cool the expensive computer equipment residing at the bottom. Here is a filmmaker so happy to whore himself out to product placement that the most important government representatives all use Vaio laptops. Here is a filmmaker so tone-deaf to politics that the President of the United States actually utters, “‘I was wrong.’ Do you know how many times I’ve heard that? Zero.” At the risk of invoking Godwin, Roland Emmerich is Hollywood’s answer to a dutiful Sturmabteilung. He was only following orders. And he will be rewarded for his hubris and ignorance by the considerable cash that this film will generate worldwide.

John Cusack, who is one of our most underrated actors, gives this material more sincerity and dignity than it deserves. The man (or his agent) clearly needed the cash or a way to boost his box office standing. He is, much like Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow, the Believable Presence. The guy to identify with. That guy is a writer named Jackson Curtis, the author of Farewell Atlantis, which has sold only 500 copies. Curtis is driving a limo to pay the bills. And while every other actor in this film understands that this assignment represents a fat paycheck, and is only partially exonerated, it is Cusack alone who obdurately refuses to ham it up. He is therefore just as culpable and responsible as Roland Emmerich. Let him suffer a metaphorical car accident worse than Montgomery Clift’s.

The film has lifted a good deal from 1998’s Deep Impact — the broken family gathered at the beach as a giant wave is about to hit, the older African-American President addressing the nation with the grim reality, the millions killed along the coastlines, and the efforts to alert a senior scientist of the impending catastrophe. But Deep Impact, as problematic as it was, had two half-decent screenwriters (Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin) attempting to imbue some humanity into the improbable scenario.

But 2012 doesn’t even provide the unadulterated fun of an unintentionally hilarious B movie. Emmerich, with considerable resources at his disposal, has made a dumb and unfulfillable movie. And instead of Emmerich using his exploitative skills to make his audience think, he has produced the cinematic equivalent of an audience member running out of toilet paper when she most desperately needs it. His audience is doomed to run around the house with pants around legs, hoping to seek out a Kleenex or paper towel substitute and praying to the deities that nobody else is home. But the film is so long (it runs a needless two hours and 38 minutes) and the quest so fruitless that it goes beyond any uncouthly rectified inconvenience. As such, 2012 is, to paraphrase Jefferson, the movie that the American public deserves.

[UPDATE: In a rare drift in sensibilities, Armond White has panned 2012 in what appears to be a hastily written review. The big surprise is Roger Ebert, who has awarded this film three and a half stars. I note Ebert’s review largely because he points out (correctly) that the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling has been inexplicably relocated within St. Peter’s Basilica — a detail that I failed to note in the above review.]

NYFF: The White Ribbon (2009)

[This is the first in a series of posts relating to the 2009 New York Film Festival.]


(This post will be updated. Review of The White Ribbon TK.)

On October 7, 2009, the New York Film Festival held a press conference with writer/director Michael Haneke. To listen to the press conference, as recorded and mastered by Edward Champion, click on the podcast below. Haneke answered questions in German, with English translation by Robert Gray.

Press Conference; Michael Haneke — October 7, 2009 (Download MP3)

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Review: Capitalism: A Love Story


It seems to me that, if you’re rolling out the howitzers with the intent to destroy an ideology, you should probably blow the shit out of everything. But Michael Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, feels passe and diffident, despite the fact that it has gone out of its way to include footage from only a few weeks ago. Maybe this film’s dated feel has much to do with our present information age. In an age of YouTube and Twitter, how can any well-meaning documentary capture a permanent image for posterity? But Moore’s best films (Bowling for Columbine and Sicko) have worked because they operated within a specific focus. By examining one aspect of the failed American system, Moore has demonstrated a knack for showing a regular audience how the world works according to his mind. But with a more general emphasis, Capitalism: A Love Story, much like Moore’s narcissistic offering The Big One, is unfocused, messy, and even contemptuous of its intended audience.

For example, Moore suggests that the derivatives which guide the stock market cannot be understood by anybody but the Wall Street guys. As one economist explains a derivative to Moore, we see Moore’s eyes glaze over. Moore then cuts to an academic having difficulty explaining a derivative. Lost within all this didactic comedy is the fact that a collective website called Wikipedia allowed people to come together to explain a derivative in fairly straightforward terms .

But forget how the Internet can galvanize the people (and lead Obama to presidential victory). Let’s talk about the distinct possibility that Moore’s starting to rust within his gilded cage. Since Moore has clearly not thought much about his thesis, he seems to have fallen asleep at the wheel of his liberal limousine. He looks into the recent Pennsylvania child care scandal, in which two Pennsylvania judges bartered kids for cash. But he doesn’t use his ambush tactics to interview the two judges. (In fact, unlike Moore’s other films, this film lacks a heavy along the lines of Phil Knight or Charlton Heston for Moore to confront at the end. And without that perceived villain, Moore’s hollow demagoguery is revealed for what it is.)

To the film’s credit, it does go after Democrats — including Senator Christopher Dodd — and points to Democratic complicity in the Goldman Sachs bailout. Moore hasn’t been this vocal about the lies of the two-party system since he campaigned for Ralph Nader in 2000. (He later campaigned against him in 2004.) But Moore is hardly the fearless agitator he thinks he is. He’s too afraid to criticize Obama’s many failings, preferring instead to dwell on that hopeful day in November when we elected “our” candidate and we used “our” votes to get the Democrats into office. Of course, months later, millions of jobs have been lost, the unemployment rate hovers around 10%, and universal health care — part of FDR’s Second Bills of Rights, a clip of which is included in this film — remains distant. But Moore doesn’t pin any of this on Obama. In fact, Bush 43 receives more camera time than Obama. (That’s a bit like a bunch of philosophers arguing about the 1968 riots as people are losing their jobs. Oh wait. I saw that happen last year when Bernard-Henri Levy and Slavoj Žižek argued last year at the Celeste Bartos Forum. I guess we’ll never have the guts to discuss current predicaments.)

Moore points out that Jonas Salk offered his polio vaccine for free. And at the film’s end, Moore suggests that the audience should be doing what Moore’s doing. Of course, this comes after we’ve paid $10 to see the movie. Moore stands to make millions from this movie. Is he really all that different from a rapacious CEO? Glenn Beck may want all of his pie, but then so does Moore. It’s insulting to have someone in the film referring to mainstream media coverage as “propaganda,” when this film clearly serves the same function.

This is not to suggest that our nation doesn’t need a corrective or that Moore’s services are no longer required. There is, frankly, no other filmmaker out there who can get progressive messages out to a mass audience. He is not, as The New York Times suggested, our little tramp, but there’s nobody else out there stepping up to the plate in quite this way. But Moore’s party mix of stock footage, snarky narration, and righteous indignation is starting to wear thin. It’s the kind of thing we expect out of a filmmaker in his twenties and his thirties, not a 55-year-old filmmaker. Moore naively believes that Wallace Shawn’s presence will somehow attract his established liberal affluent audience. But this is clearly a film made for Middle America, and it doesn’t understand that Middle Americans are often much smarter than bicoastal elitists.

Case in point. The naive majorette Rachel Sklar, who participated in an intellectual sweatshop during her tenure at the Huffington Post by collecting a salary while not paying her contributors, tweeted in response: “WOW. Michael Moore’s latest movie is gonna stir up some SERIOUS shit. Wow. Wow. One more time: Wow.”

No, it’s not. You can cream your pants like it’s the first time all you want, but capitalism isn’t going away.

In fact, Moore’s film really isn’t all that anticapitalist. As Moore points out, capitalism under a more equitable tax system wasn’t so bad for the middle-class. (See this helpful spreadsheet from the IRS containing lowest and highest bracket tax rats from 1913 through 2008. From 1944 to 1963, the highest bracket tax rate hovered around 91%.)

Moore pins the blame on Reagan. And the highest bracket tax rate did indeed fall from 70% to 50% in 1982, eventually down to 30% in Reagan’s second term. But drops, as we all know, occur in degrees. This didn’t happen overnight. Surely President Johnson should be held just as accountable.

So if we accept Michael Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, as a series of generalist sentiments designed to fire up the masses, then, to my mind, it’s probably Moore’s most toothless and tepid film. The film is entertaining enough. We get the obligatory shots of Moore being denied entrance into corporate buildings by security and Moore shouting through a bullhorn. We are horrified by Wal-Mart filing a life insurance policy against one of its employees and collecting a tidy sum (without a cent going to the family), as well as the phrase “dead peasants” used in the insurance policy. On the other hand, if people have allowed capitalism to continue, shouldn’t they be taken to task just as much as the corporations? The film’s credits feature numerous quotes from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. One key Jeffersonian sentiment that’s missing: People get the government they deserve.

Review: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)


It’s safe to say that any imaginative soul will welcome the prospect of tasty food descending from the heavens. It’s a great idea. Not only does this cut down or entirely eliminate precious minutes in the kitchen, but it also benefits the lazy and profligate types who eat out all the time. Instead of driving to some restaurant, you could merely stick your hands out a window and await immediate results. You wouldn’t even need a microwave. Then again, if the food isn’t prepared to your liking, you’re not exactly in the position of returning it to the kitchen. Getting the ideal meal is more akin to scratching off a lottery ticket with a nickel. Maybe you’ll win. Maybe you won’t. But with so many free-falling viands, you have a pretty good law of averages on your hand. But what of quality? The food may come from the atmosphere, but if a chicken bursts through your roof during a candlelight dinner, chances are that the mood will be killed. These are gustatory dilemmas that Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, based on Judi Barrett’s book, is remiss to investigate. But then I was probably the only guy in the audience looking for philosophical arguments within a mainstream family film. I am sorry. But if you give me food fused with weather, you’re going to get my brain going.

These perfect food storms come from a whiny scientific punk named Flint Lockwood, who has somehow built a giant hidden laboratory without his father knowing and has a somewhat annoying tendency to speak in gerunds when building something. (The lab is accessible through an elevator hidden in a portable toilet.) Flint, voiced by Saturday Night Live regular Bill Hader, has come up with several rum inventions, including spray-on shoes, remote control televisions, monkey translators, and electric cars. But he now has an invention that can turn water into food. (Why he hasn’t considered turning his talents to the far more lucrative sideline of alchemy is a question this film never answers.) His scientific endeavors are misunderstood by his father (voiced by James Caan and largely hidden behind a unibrow and a moustache), a sardine shop proprietor too taken with communicating through fishing metaphors. Our man Flint is also menaced by Baby Brent, who appeared on numerous sardine cans in his callow infancy and who has been riding on this diaper-wearing fame ever since. It’s also worth noting that Bruce Campbell plays the town’s mayor, and this casting is every bit as pleasant as you might expect. Flint’s invention is let loose at the unveiling of a preposterous sardine theme park — with The Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius” suitably matching this crass commercialism. Inclement weather soon takes on a new meaning. There is also Sam Sparks, a one-dimensional meterologist voiced by Anna Faris, who offers a contrived romance subplot and a tired geek vs. beauty dichotomy that’s out of step with the film’s scientific sympathies.

This nifty-looking universe — centered on a town located on “a tiny island hidden under the A in Atlantic” called Swallow Falls (no relation to the Maryland park) — hasn’t entirely accounted for the supreme messes arising from these food-related meteorological mishaps. Sure, there is a vehicle that drives around town, hurling leftovers into a giant pile. But surely great torrents of ice cream and spaghetti sauce would slick up the hamlet. There are rat-birds flying around the place, and they’re seen several times chomping away at the stray bits of food. But do they carry disease? (Indeed, why do we never see animated rodents for the bacteria-carrying vermin that they are?) And why doesn’t Swallow Falls have an exterminator? Furthermore, if the Swallow Falls population has been eating nothing but sardines during its history, why does Steve the Monkey — Flint’s happy servant, appositely voiced by Neil Patrick Harris –have a Gummi Bears fixation? Surely, his master wouldn’t know about Gummi Bears if there’s been nothing but sardines on the menu.

And when all this food falls from the heavens, why are the townsfolk familiar with it? I must presume that, despite the town’s limited resources (no exterminator, no doctor, no lawyer), all citizens somehow manage to take several months of vacation. But surely there are dishes here that they have never tried before. Come to think of it, the pelting cuisine is mostly American. We get burgers, steaks, pizza, nachos, jelly beans, and hot dogs. Lots of breakfast food but no frittata or smoked salmon? Foodies will be upset. For that matter, no Indian food? Chinese food? Mexican food? When some vaguely Italian spaghetti drops from the sky, one character shouts, “Mamma mia!” I will leave the PC types to argue over whether this possibly Anglo-Saxon, anti-multiculturalist conspiracy. In the film’s defense, I must point to Chief Earl Devereaux, a cop voiced by Mr. T, who scrunches his butt before dealing with his a stressful scenario and somersaults before writing a ticket. Poor Mr. T is assigned this mouthful by the screenwriters: “You know how fathers are supposed to express their appreciation for their sons.” That doesn’t quite have the ring of “I pity the fool,” but Mr. T does what he can.

How can one find plausibility in this giant peach of a premise? To cite another incident, giant pancakes fall from the sky, followed by two square dabs of butter, and then followed by a melange of syrup. Since all this is animated — in 3-D and in IMAX, ideal for a 420-friendly crowd were this not a family film — this is all very pleasant to watch. But the pancake dilemma also assumes that all three breakfast components will fall at precisely the right times and spatial coordinates. Likewise, a roofless restaurant has diners holding out their plates waiting for steaks to pelt down hard from the sky. The success of this operation hinges upon (a) the sky remaining sunny, (b) the steaks somehow magically landing in the desired plate positions, (c) the steaks not hitting these diners in the head and rendering them unconscious (there are apparently no lawyers or courts in this town; so I presume nobody in Swallow Falls is litigious), (d) the steaks maintaining an ideal warmth over the course of a fall of several thousand feet, and (e) the steaks landing on the plates without breaking apart or otherwise being split into inedible pieces upon impact.

You see the problems.

In an open letter to Alexei Mutovkin, the writer Ursula K. Le Guin suggested that plausibility within fantasy is uprooted by wishful thinking. And Cloudy, as enjoyable as the film frequently is, relies very much on wishful thinking. It is wishful thinking to expect a really cool idea like falling food to hold up. Then again, Roald Dahl managed to hold our attention with James Trotter back in 1961. So maybe we should blame the filmmakers. Expanding her thoughts further, Le Guin also wrote that a fantasy story’s plausibility rests upon “the coherence of the story, its constant self-reference.”

By Le Guin’s standards, Cloudy is a failure. And I suspect that because the film often lacks narrative coherence, it will not last very long in the heads of children hoping to ride this gleeful storm out. This film possesses too much energy for its own good. It feels the need to constantly insert characters doing funny things in the background. It is terrified of inserting a natural break, perhaps because we’re not meant to think too much about the world that the film presents. The film therefore lacks confidence, in large part because the coherence and the constant self-reference, as I’ve just demonstrated, fails to make sense.

(For parents, I should probably also note that I observed two kids having a difficult time near the end because of the film’s relentless tsunami of visual information. One boy retreated to his mother’s lap, crying and exhausted. Another was frantically waving his arms at the screen and began to jump up and down in confusion. The 3-D is certainly impressive at times, but little ones may get overwhelmed.)

I don’t mean to suggest that this film isn’t fun. But it doesn’t quite live up to its potential. It is more interested in perpetuating a concept than building a world. The filmmakers have avoided Ron Barrett’s illustrations from the book, opting for a peppy and textured look that does away with Barrett’s lines and shadings. But Barnett understood that a fantastic premise, particularly an unlikely one, needs a little reality to make it work, to make it coherent, and to avoid wishful thinking. Had this film opted for conceptual quality instead of quantity, it might have stood toe-to-toe with Pixar.

Review: 9 (2009)


“We had such potential, such promise,” croaks an apocalyptic voice at the beginning of an apocalyptic movie. That may as well be director Shane Acker and screenwriter Pamela Pettler talking. 9 is the kind of film you expect from a mirthless marketing team stumbling onto a hip concept discovered two years too late (“Oooh! Steampunk! That’s what the kids are into!”), only to fumble so desperately in the conception. Sure, the filmmakers were given enough money to attract Christopher Plummer, Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, and numerous other big name actors for voice talent. But they couldn’t be bothered to come up with a coherent or original script, characters worth caring about, or interesting dialogue. After all, when a film’s characters are given such generic names as #4, #8, #1, The Scientist, Dictator, and #8, one shouldn’t expect dialogue as commensurate. Unfortunately, Pettler can be counted upon to give us such cliched dialogue as “I know where we can find answers!” and “We have to find the source!” (One of Pettler’s forthcoming projects involves the forthcoming Monopoly movie. We shall see if she ends up writing such lines as “We have to pass Go and collect $200!”) Let me put it to you this way. Jeff VanderMeer could have written a steampunk movie in his sleep a hundred times better than this after being bloated with Belgian beer, with both hands tied around his back and using only his nose to peck at the keyboard.

The movie’s environment resembles maps that were too shopworn and derivative to make it on Team Fortress 2, with rust and squeaky wheels randomly deposited in the environment without a real sense of purpose. Acker can’t even decide if the remaining corpses of humanity are skeletal or have only partially decomposed. Acker and Pettler have a promising time period to play with for their parallel universe: what looks to be an alternative history circa 1970 after a Nazi-like empire somehow built up an analog version of Skynet. But because there’s no logic to the environment or the backstory, there isn’t much for us to latch onto except sour eye candy. Watching this film is like being promised a tasty taffy stick and being given a Now and Later that’s been melting in the sun since 1962.

I felt nothing when I watched this film. I kept hoping that the cut scene would end. But it didn’t. It went on for an interminable 80 minutes. I would have had more fun waiting for a video game level to load. At least with a video game level loading, you get some carrot at the end. Something worth your time or something you have some control over. But we aren’t given anything here in our passive roles as audience members except dolls (with a dismaying lack of expression: see the above still; Acker tries the whole wide-eyed look for his titular character and it grows tedious quite quick) who have some dim remnant of humanity to recapture here. And so 9 is nothing more than a steampunk knockoff of Wall-E. But it’s worse than a knockoff. Because Wall-E not only presented us with characters we could care about, but an environment that demonstrated the dangers of present human folly. Without any such reference points, 9 is a lackluster husk of a film.

Review: The September Issue (2009)


“People are frightened of fashion,” explains the frosty Anna Wintour at the beginning of The September Issue, a documentary concerning itself with the behind-the-scenes assembly of Vogue‘s September 2007 issue. I agree with Wintour. It’s not the fashion that frightens me, but the people who feel compelled to live for nothing but fashion.

Take editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley, a man so hopelessly flamboyant and fussy with his sartorial sensibilities that he cannot be bothered to wear a T-shirt and shorts on the tennis court. Why is he on the tennis court to begin with? Wintour suggested that he get some exercise. Listen to the great dictator. She might end up dancing with your globe.

After seeing this film, I think it’s safe to say that I’d sooner place my head into an open oven with a Zippo than work for Vogue. This is a world run by vicious capitalists in which beauty is prepackaged with all the warmth of a malfunctioning Twinkie machine. An editor can slave for hours to find the perfect colors or a striking look reminiscent of a noir movie, only for Wintour to come in and throw out a $50,000 photo shoot on an aesthetic whim. Young designers like the bright-eyed Thakoon arrive slightly terrified of Wintour, but all too eager to supplicate for photo ops and other forms of commercial whoredom.

What is Wintour’s excuse? Why does this devil wear Prada? Her daughter, Bee Shaffer, quietly explains that she has no interest in getting into the fashion world. And in the film’s only unguarded moment with Wintour, she confesses that her family finds her vocation “amusing.” (Wintour’s brother, Patrick, is a long-time political editor.) This is not someone to be frightened of. This is someone to pity. If you can’t hold your head high after decades in the fashion world, then what’s the point of the work?

“Don’t be too nice,” says creative director Grace Coddington to the young editor Edward Enninful. “Even to me. Honestly, you’ll lose.” Enninful is later seen clutching a giant cup of Jamba Juice to get through the day, and I began to grow concerned over whether he was eating anything. Until I realized he wasn’t even drinking a real smoothie.

In fact, even accounting for the 300 hours of footage here whacked down into two, these people don’t seem to eat. “Stop at Starbuck’s please,” barks the thin-framed Wintour to her driver. Bottles of Fiji water are everywhere, guzzled down in lieu of a hearty meal and never enjoyed with other people. There is one moment in which Coddington pecks at a salad in a plastic container, but it’s only because she’s upset at another one of her meticulously arranged shoots being disposed of. You’ve got to be hungry for the work. You’ve also got to be hungry.

Coddington is the most interesting figure in this film. She’s the only editor at Vogue who still personally dresses the models. She’s also the only person in this film who uses older photographers as reference points. “It hard to go on the next thing,” says Coddington, when asked about so much of her work being thrown out. But she’s had the tenacity to stick it out with Vogue for forty years, just as long as Wintour. She seems tough enough to duke it out with Wintour over an artistic decision. Unfortunately, she’s not the one here with executive privilege. Hence, the sad salad-eating scene. “If the magazine doesn’t sell, I don’t have a job,” she says late in the film.

But to be perfectly fair, Vogue is still capable of some creative spontaneity. With numerous pages to fill at the eleventh hour, this documentary’s photographer, Bob Richman, is recruited to stand in for a shoot, jumping up and down for the camera’s lens to match a model’s gaze. It’s one of the most vibrant photos in the issue. Coddington, to her credit, asks the people not to Photoshop Richman’s paunch.

Sleazy editor after sleazy editor insists that the September 2007 issue of Vogue is “the biggest in our history.” But this is Vogue‘s history, not America’s. Is this really a sustainable fantasy? $50,000 of work thrown out? That’s a good annual salary for an editor who can do great things. Vogue can’t be entirely discounted, but this documentary does show that many things have gone horribly wrong. While I’m not necessarily in favor of seeing the magazine industry fold into oblivion, this film certainly fed my anarchist impulses. Fashion shouldn’t be this cartoonish. Is this the fault of the filmmakers? Were there unused shots of Wintour being human? I certainly hope so. But whatever the film’s oversights, perhaps some of the film’s subjects might be inspired by the depiction to remember the impulse of being alive. If they have souls left. Perhaps Conde Nast’s current financial woes are a self-correcting prophecy.

Review: Taking Woodstock (2009)


The realities were already fixed; the illness was understood to be terminal, and the energies of The Movement were long since dissipated by the rush to self-preservation. — Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)

Altamont’s fixed realities are thankfully mentioned at the end of Taking Woodstock, when organizer Michael Lang, portrayed here by Jonathan Groff as a perpetually calm Brian May type, mentions “a truly free concert” in the making that involves the Rolling Stones. Exciting stuff. If only Meredith Hunter had been around to lodge a protest. (Or perhaps he’s the unnamed man seen checking into a motel with a white woman.) But Ang Lee’s film is less concerned with this corruption (although it does thankfully suggests that everybody listens to money). Lee is more interested in how people of all types — Jewish motel owners, the dutiful farmer and local chocolate milk magnate Max Yasgur, acidheads busing across the nation, theatrical performers fond of Happenings and disrobing, a Vietnam vet, a transvestite amusingly played by Liev Schreiber — came together in a anarchic haze to slide in the mud, listen to distant music, and kiss random strangers. Good times. But, as it turns out, the possibilities for unity were there all along. For before the Woodstock organizers roll into Bethel, New York, Eliot Tiber (both in real life and in this movie) was the president of the local Chamber of Commerce, patiently stamping permits and listening to wily eleventh-hour interlopers. And what makes the Bethel diner any different than Yasgur’s rented farmland as an amicable place for congregation?

The film actually shares much in common with Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Inherent Vice: an accessible mainstream story, streaks of subdued and audience-friendly eccentricity, a meticulous concern for landscape, and a celebration of misfit life just before its destruction by “progress” (for Pynchon, it’s the toxic qualities of the information age; for Lee and screenwriter James Schamus, it’s the transformation of free love advocates into avaricious capitalists). While Lee and Pynchon approach their respective canvases from two close but different time periods (and from two different coasts), I came away from both works with similar populist-minded emotions. I was greatly delighted to see so many perspectives united through a common mass experience, but very much aware that this is a harder reality in an age where careers can end with the judgmental spread of a sound bite. (Rebecca Solnit’s fascinating new book, A Paradise Built in Hell, offers the argument that disaster is now the only way for disparate souls to band together, although both Lee and Pynchon make persuasive cases that passing along a roach might get some of the stiffs to expand their horizons — a sentiment I don’t entirely disagree with.)

What happened to America’s generous capacity to accept its freaks? Or to embrace those gritty human qualities nestled inside steely opportunistic hulls? It can’t just be Thompson’s self-preservation that lopped off the liberal and attentive ear. But these are questions worth asking four decades after Woodstock’s inadvertently free event altered the cultural landscape. Lacking a chewy antagonist like Bigfoot Bjornsen (the cop in Inherent Vice who shares more in common with the libertine detective Doc Sportello), Lee and Schamus have shifted the conflict inwards to the Teichberg family, the managers of the El Monaco. But the Teichbergs are as stiff as dimensionless characters come until the brownies arrive. Imelda Staunton is given a Jewish stereotype. She runs around the hotel screaming at people, muttering Yiddish curses, and, in one terrible Shylock-like moment, is seen clinging to a stash of money in the closet. Surely the real Sonia Teichberg had more depth.

But maybe these skeletal characters represent part of the point. With Woodstock around, we all become insignificant. And, for what it’s worth, Lee gets decent performances out of the actors who count. As Eliot Tiber, Demetri Martin manages to evince an appealing boyishness that matches his efforts to win the town over and his repressed sexuality. Eugene Levy is an inspired casting choice as Yasgur, particularly because Lee allows Levy to play the role straight. Dan Fogler, who I last saw in Fanboys, again shows great energy as a character actor. It’s too bad the women here have been given very little. Surely, Woodstock was a two-gender affair. (And certainly this film features at least one free-form ménage à trois. They didn’t call it free love for nothing, although it would be interesting to see Chris Anderson plagiarize a book on the subject.) And it’s too bad that Emile (Speed Racer) Hirsch is unconvincing (and often laughably bad) as the aforementioned Vietnam vet.

Speaking of Hirsch, his presence here offers a sensible reminder that he also appeared in Gus Van Sant’s Milk. And like that audience-friendly Trojan horse, Taking Woodstock does succeed very well in recapturing Woodstock’s innocence and making you believe in human possibilities. “Hey, don’t lose that creativity, man,” says a character to Tiber, after he suggests an out-of-the-box solution . But he may as well be addressing the audience. Later in the film, after news of the hippie influx has made the rounds, Tiber finds himself unable to order “the usual” from the diner forming the Bethel social center. But the entire town hasn’t quite turned against him. Happy entrepreneurs rush up to Tiber and thank him. Is capitalism then just as much of a galvanizing force as the Woodstock ideology? It would seem so. Michael Lang pays everyone in cash, bundled in brown bags of money. “$1 for water?” says Tiber’s dad upon encountering some pre-bottled water entrepreneur. “Can you believe it?” (Just imagine if he’d encountered the inflated prices in the Coachella desert.)

The film then, despite being a crowd-pleaser, isn’t afraid to focus on the Movement’s dissipated energies. And while Taking Woodstock may come bundled with supporting characters who contribute little to the narrative, as well as annoying split-screen homages to the Michael Wadleigh film, there’s a marvelous shot — which reminded me of the famous traffic scene from Godard’s Weekend — in which Tiber heads down a jampacked Bethel street (courtesy of a motorcycle lift from a friendly cop) past a man carrying a sign BOB DYLAN PLEASE SHOW UP, bra-burners, war protestors, a booth with a sign reading MAKE YOUR OWN SANDWICH, and much more. Today, when such people gather together for an arts festival or a political rally, there is generally some snarky photographer who wants to snap pix and post the results on Flickr for others to ridicule. But presented within this context, only a mirthless asshole would fail to see the wonder of so many types together.

Lee’s made a film that, like The Ice Storm, succeeds in getting us beyond our present historical reference point and reconsidering some of the virtues we abandoned in the past. And maybe the energies of self-preservation will be dissipated by the rush to collective understanding. Yes, that’s a Utopian ideal. But, as Oscar Wilde once said, a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at.

Review: Inglourious Basterds (2009)


The important thing to understand about Quentin Tarantino is that, as an artist, he has no interest in real life. (Mr. Tarantino’s excellent Crate and Barrel adventure from 2004 does not help his cause, but perhaps there is a reasonable explanation.) Several dour and dense critics, most over the age of 50, cannot see this clear truth before them and have been spending the past few weeks willing their collective blood pressure to rise because they cannot pigeonhole Inglourious Basterds into that neat higher category they desire. (One wonders whether the late Don Edmonds, who gave us the first two Ilsa films, would have faced similar reception in the mid-seventies had he possessed Tarantino’s allure.)

I’ll get to these mostly humorless critics later. They include the normally astute Jonathan Rosenbaum (not this time), Daniel Mendelsohn (who is closer in his assessment, but, not nearly close enough), and the characteristically pompous Ed Gonzalez (who doesn’t seem to ken that Tarantino’s talkathons are part of the point).

The important thing to understand is that Tarantino has never been real. This is the man who didn’t see the humanity in Kirk Blatz’s Reservoir Dogs improvisation. (Blatz played a cop and blurted out the line, “Don’t burn me. I’ve got a kid.” Michael Madsen then told Tarantino, “Quentin, I cannot fucking touch him after he says that to me.” Tarantino’s response? “No, no, I think it’s great. I think it’s wonderful. It brings a whole new element to it.”) This is a man who introduces a kid into the Bride’s domestic brawl with Vernita in Kill Bill Vol. 1 for similar reasons. Character development? Oh, hell no. The kid brings a whole new element. And in Death Proof, when Stuntman Mike is asked why he spends so many hours drinking club soda and lime in a bar, Stuntman Mike says, “A bar offers all kind of things other than alcohol. Women. Nacho grande platters. The fellowships of fascinating individuals like Warren here.” Stuntman Mike turns out to be a psychotic. And it’s easy for any person with a remote understanding of life to see why, given this superficial explanation.

But one should not blame Tarantino for all this. He has, after all, been trying to tell us this for quite some time. Here’s Tarantino in an Entertainment Weekly interview for Kill Bill, Vol. 2:

But one thing that was semi-annoying to me in reading a couple of the reviews for ”Vol. 1” was, ”Oh, this is a very wild technique and style is cranked up and the technique has gone up, but it’s a clear retreat from ‘Jackie Brown,’ and the growing maturity was in there.” ”Clear retreat” says I’m running away from what I did in ”Jackie Brown.” I’ve done it. I don’t have to prove that I can do a [mature character study], all right? And after ”Vol. 1” I don’t have to prove that I can do a good action scene.

Maturity? Leave that for the elder statesmen. Tarantino has done it already. No need to repeat it. So what does Tarantino have to prove exactly? And why does filmmaking have to involve “proving” anything? We expect such claims from a high school jock, not a man in his forties. Maybe it’s because the critical and commercial audiences have expected Tarantino to be real, in the same way that they want Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and world peace to be real. Or perhaps Tarantino’s films prove so intoxicating that we really want them to be real. It’s a testament to Hollywood’s failings that Tarantino’s grab bag of cinematic references and outright theft (see Scorsese’s American Boy and Ringo Lam’s City on Fire just for starters) have managed to seem real, particularly for those who cannot see the real before them.

But if Inglourious Basterds were real, then why would we accept Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Henrich Himmler, and Martin Bormann hanging around 1944 Paris for a film premiere? Innumerable history books refute this. Why would we accept Lt. Aldo’s Apachesque hunger for Nazi scalps? Or his ridiculously inept effort to impersonate an Italian late in the film? This is a movie that presents Goebbels, sitting with a woman who is not his usual French interpreter. The scene itself equires no additional explanation. It is abundantly clear to any thinking mind that this woman is his fuck buddy. And yet Tarantino feels compelled to insert a quick scene of Goebbels schtupping her. Why? Because this film, contrary to all the high-minded talk, isn’t really about the Holocaust. It is more about America’s cathartic response to violence. There’s no need for the Goebbels scene, but we wouldn’t mind seeing it. After all, when our bloodthirst rises, we won’t remember. And what does this say about us?

There’s no need for a long scene in which the thwacks of one vigilante’s baseball bat carry on at an absurd length — to the point where a histrionic Jeffrey Wells, who clearly has his cardiologist on speed dial, called it “one of the most disgusting violent scenes I’ve ever sat through in my entire life.” More disgusting than the Saw movies? We only hear the sounds. “Morally disgusting, I mean.” Oh. But how?

The vigilante in question, known as the “Bear Jew” by none other than Hitler himself, is played by Eli Roth, known predominantly for helming the Hostel movies, which some have described as “torture porn.” But I don’t think his casting is an accident. This is, after all, a movie in which one Frenchwoman says, a few years before the Cannes Film Festival and Cahiers du cinéma have been established, “I’m French. We respect directors in our country.”

But Tarantino can’t be respected in America. Jonathan Rosenbaum ridicules the film’s title, lambasting it with sics and many other charges, but doesn’t remember that Tarantino’s debut, Reservoir Dogs, bastardized the title of Au Revoir Les Enfants. Rosenbaum suggests that Tarantino’s film is “morally akin to Holocaust denial” and doesn’t understand why Jews are giving Tarantino a free ride for this apparent travesty. Maybe Rosenbaum hasn’t lived a second-generation life of nagging and incessant reminders about the Holocaust. (It’s worth noting Lawrence Bender’s reaction to the script. He called it “a fucking Jewish wet dream.”)

Door #2 reveals Daniel Mendelsohn, a critic so lost in the classics that he can’t familiarize himself with the rampant exploitation film violence of the past four decades. Mendelsohn fixates on the scalping as “post-modern fun,” and reveals his true cathartic cards. Mendelsohn just loves seeing the scalped Nazis, thus proving Tarantino’s point — that we are all equal at the cinema. Mendelsohn is smart enough to determine that Basterds is not real life, but he sees this more as a problem than a possibility. Mendelsohn is also wise enough to pinpoint “the visceral pleasure of revenge,” but isn’t willing to come to terms with his own clear pleasure in seeing the Nazis tortured. Here is a high mind who has fallen into Tarantino’s trap, clearly reveling in the violence. One can see Lt. Aldo recruiting Mendelsohn, had he been born only a few decades earlier, and Mendelsohn capitulating his civilized and critical perch for the “fun” of revenge.

This is not, as Mendelsohn suggests, Tarantino’s “taste for vengeful violence,” but the audience’s. If you find the film’s violence fun or cathartic, you will likely wilt into Tarantino’s snare. But is this really so bad as pretending that you don’t have it in for somebody? Perhaps this is where the virtues of catharsis might be found.

Various film people have been raving about Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, and with good reason. He offers the most compelling performance in this film, and Tarantino has made him the focus of our rage. Here is a man who asks permission to enter a home but who, like Stuntman Mike’s eating habits, will wolf down a strudel without pausing to taste the meal. (When this occurs, and a Jewish woman disguised as French is forced to eat the strudel, Tarantino lingers through closeups on the cream being served atop the strudel, insinuating a kashrut violation.) Is it so wrong to cheer on the despicable Landa’s inevitable fate (comparable as it is to our blind acceptance of waterboarding)? Or are we complicit, as the film suggests later, in approving of the inevitably real results of our cinematic catharsis?

When the four major Nazis attending the cinematic premiere arrive, Tarantino is quick to highlight their names with optical arrows pointing to their location. Here they are! suggests the underlying semiotics. Do you want me to kill them for you later on in the film? If you have a problem with such underlying autocratic flourishes, this film is probably not for you. But if you are a regular filmgoer, then you might wish to consider these questions anyway.

Since Tarantino has spent a lifetime insisting that cinema may very well be the only focal point that he can start from, I found Basterds‘s candor refreshing and I was able, at long last, to accept a Quentin Tarantino film for what it was. Ed Gonzalez, whose review lede reads like a Philip K. Dick protagonist contemplating the paranoia around him, sadly could not, despite his four star rating (which I suspect I agree with). If you’re determined to see everything as “an allusion” or “a pose,” rather than accepting the visceral discomfort before you, then this film is not for you. Which is not to discount Tarantino’s hubris. A film that dares to call into question our cathartic response is arrogant by its very nature. But if we’re so content to feel outrage about whether a film may or may not be exploiting us, one wonders why we’re so determined to put such energies into the duplicities of narrative rather than the more salient (and fixable) cons before us in the real world. If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people may eventually come around to believing it. Especially in cinema. Tarantino has told a big lie. And if the town hall lunatics believe that Obama is Hitler, then I suspect that even our most nimble critical minds will have similar thoughts about Tarantino’s vision. For those of us who have accepted (and enjoyed) exploitation films all along, revisiting this source may prove a strange panacea. And if this anodyne lasts beyond our immediate epoch, then it will be Tarantino who has the last laugh. And for this grand illusion, he may rightly deserve the spoils.

Review: Taxidermia (2006)


I don’t know if I would go so far as to call György Pálfi our next Fellini (circa late 1960s), our next Pasolini, or even some predictable filmmaker going out of his way to offend us — even if the visual cues for his most recent film suggests all this. But he does have talent. And Taxidermia, which finally gets a limited and long overdue American release this Friday, is certainly not for weak stomachs or limited-minded men who cloak their shallow prejudicial insights inside the sheltered caverns of higher education. The distinguished critic sitting behind me, not the type to sit through a Saw installment, made numerous sounds of disgust. I kept slouching downward in my seat so that the remnants of some half-digested lunch wouldn’t hit me unexpectedly in the back of my head. But thankfully the critic was civilized.

The New York people may not get this film. But then again, they might. For my own part, I feel inclined to applaud it. For there is a regurgitation-heavy eating contest here that makes the “Lardass” scene in Stand By Me look as innocuous as a Disney film. Two men, having just finished shoving spoonfuls of some disgusting stew in their mouth, are now regurgitating their stomachs out of view of the audience. They then begin discussing a woman they’re trying to impress in the audience, all the while puking their guts into a bucket. When they return back to the competition, Pálfi’s camera sweeps through the crowd with an unexpected excitement. I was both disgusted and galvanized by this, and it is a rare film indeed that can dislodge two entirely differing feelings like this at the same time. And this audacious emotional combo made the Hollywood movie I saw afterward seem notably limp by comparison.

But Taxidermia isn’t just a film of scatological shock value. If you’re willing to give this film a chance (and, again, I hesitate to recommend this to those of flaccid constitutions), it offers some inventive visual ideas. A joyful man pisses fire. A camera circles across a floor containing a bathtub, revealing yet another matching bathtub, which houses any number of strange sights in its cavity (an animal carcass, a recently born infant, et al.). An act of bestiality has the violated animal transforming into various women. An enormous man — that champion eater, pictured above, a few decades later — sits permanently in an apartment with endless boxes of chocolate bars. There are giant cats he keeps in a cage and that he keeps big by having his son — a taxidermist — constantly feed them butter. Should I mention the ejaculation mass that shoots into a starscape? Or the creepy pederast we discover in the landscape of a pop-up book? Or, for that matter, the cock (penis) that gets pecked by another cock (animal)?

If such sights trouble you, you should probably blame Lajos Parti Nagy, whose short stories provided the source material for Pálfi to go crazy here. And while the last ten minutes of the film does feature some minor torture porn and the results, on the whole, don’t always work, I doubt very highly that I will see another film in which two champion eaters are enlisted to eat caviar on a boat to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Communist liberation. The film can be cartoonish at times. (Gergely Trócsányi’s shouting as the champion eater grows a bit tedious, but he is replaced by another actor in the next installment. I should probably point out that this film is also a three-part multi-generational epic.) But it’s easily one of the more alive films I’ve seen in a while.

Review: Pleasure at Her Majesty’s (1976) and The Secret Policeman’s Ball (1979)


You know that cultural journalism is in a sorry state when only four people show up for a screening, and not a single dead soul (save for myself, still chortling with pulse) has the courage to laugh at legendary comedy material or get excited by consummate performers tinkering with sketches like tetchy scientists.

I was in a darkened theater for a film called Pleasure at Her Majesty’s, part of The Secret Policeman’s Film Festival, which kicks off this Friday at the Lincoln Center. The Festival even includes, for those cineastes saddled with an equine constitution, a full screening of the 660 minute film, A Conspiracy of Hope — essentially Amnesty International’s 1986 answer to Live Aid, but probably not up there with The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. Despite the hopeful title, you won’t find Freddie Mercury wowing at Wembley. This screening seems to be a wild gamble on the Film Society’s part. For who out there in New York is really interested in 23-year-old footage of Jackson Browne and Bryan Adams? (Then again.)

The common assumption is that, if an esteemed film society is holding something called The Secret Policeman’s Film Festival, you should probably check out the main film. But I’m here to tell you that you can probably skip the primary offering. The true can’t-miss movie here is Pleasure at Her Majesty’s, which features some fascinating behind-the-scenes footage of, among many geniuses, the Monty Python troupe (sans Eric Idle) rethinking the Courtroom Sketch. We see the Python team trying to pinpoint why the sketch doesn’t entirely work. They make changes. They argue. And even after they have performed the sketch later in the film and have received laughs, John Cleese walks off-stage and remains unconvinced that it worked with the audience.

This is fascinating if you’re interested in dramatic rhythm. And it isn’t just Python here. Deep division among the Beyond the Fringe performers is intimated in a conversation with Alan Bennett and Terry Jones, both seemingly unaware of the camera. “I could never do anything you do,” says a wan-faced Bennett. “The atmosphere with you is different. You don’t seem competitive in the way we were.” And we begin to wonder if Beyond the Fringe’s anti-authoritarian comedy was motivated by internal strife. At what social cost does one break new ground?

The Secret Policeman’s Ball, which doesn’t permit us these interesting peeks behind the curtain and features more music in the place of many comedy sketches, remains an enjoyable if badly dated film. The Amnesty organizers began changing the formula. And the contrast can be seen in the choices. Pleasure has Neil Innes’s delightful “Protest Song.” Policeman gives us Tom Robinson’s “Glad to Be Gay”: brave at the time, but precisely the kind of sanctimonious fury that Innes was satirizing.

In Policeman, Peter Cooks’s sendup of the Jeremy Thrope 1979 trial is funny, but only if you know all the scandalous details. It is indeed ironic that the very sketch Cook wrote in response to criticisms that the Amnesty shows contained nothing more than regurgitated material has secured its own time capsule. And the less said about Billy Connolly, the better.

On the other hand, one of Policeman‘s highlights is a wild and wonderful performance from a pre-Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy. McCoy hammers a four inch nail into his nose and attempts to dodge a toy train approaching his testicles with a fork while he remains chained to a chair. The late David Rappaport is even involved. McCoy’s antics, which involve jumping atop audience heads while wearing a kilt, are almost unthinkable today. McCoy — and Rowan Atkinson, who appears in an early version of his Schoolmaster sketch — presents the kind of free-wheeling comic anarchy no longer welcomed in our sanitized corporate atmosphere, where uncourageous Establishment types like John Hodgman stand before an audience, tell them the “clever” niceties they like to hear, and fail to challenge their assumptions. (Stephen Colbert, on the other hand, had stones.)

But Policeman stands in the shadow of Pleasure. Unlike Policeman, which features “slight direction by John Cleese,” Pleasure really permits us to see just how brilliant Cleese is on stage. A filmed version of a stage show limits itself by necessity to subjective camera angles, but the sheer authoritative energy that Cleese brings to the Dead Parrot sketch (with the line “This is your nine o’clock alarm call” added when he beats the parrot) is a marvel to behold.

Pleasure‘s vérité format permits us to witness a strange old boy’s world where John Cleese is seen with a McDonald’s cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and everybody is fiercely competitive. There’s one moment in which Jonathan Miller and Barry Humphries puff nervously on their smokes and bitch about who’s the oldest. Small wonder that it took a high-energy legend like Miller to corral these guys together.

But the lack of women in both films, aside from Eleanor Bron and Carol Cleveland, is unsettling. A few decades (and a few more Policeman films) later, women are now finally permitted to be funny, even when Christopher Hitchens declares that they aren’t. It’s just too bad that comedy remains shoehorned by the cobblers who wish to keep talent running inside the track. The Policeman films document a bygone era in which you could get crazy for a good cause. Perhaps it’s still possible today, if some innovator with deep pockets conjures up some charitable comedy that’s feral and progressive and inclusive.

Review: Dead Snow (2009)


Earlier this year, numerous enthusiasts exploded in their pants over a movie that had not yet snagged American distribution. If you were among the throbbing throng to take in the trailer — yet another eyeball-attracting rite encouraged by the Internet’s discouragement of cultural apostasy — you may very well have shouted, “HOLY SHIT! NAZI ZOMBIES! WELL, PINCH MY EARS AND CALL ME A JELLY DONUT! I MUST SEE THIS MOVIE! I MEAN, IT EVEN HAS FUCKING SUBTITLES!” It was the geek equivalent of a thirteen-year-old boy wrestling with a nervous urge to jump any girl in the room, settling instead for the Oui centerfold that some trucker had left behind in a public restroom.

In hindsight, it was probably the subtitles that seduced us. Subtitles, on the whole, suggest rueful miscommunication or a strangeness extant only because we don’t speak the language. And with subtitles applied to a high concept like undead Einsatzgruppen, we conveniently forget the trash cinema innovators who came before. Tommy Wirkola’s Dead Snow is not the first movie to feature Nazi zombies. There was 1977’s Shock Waves, which featured Peter Cushing as a Nazi scientist hoarding SS zombies on a boat. Before that, there was 1966’s The Frozen Dead, which involved Dana Andrews holding onto the heads of Nazi war criminals alive to attach upon ripe bodies for a new Third Reich. (I find it someone surprising that Dana Andrews, a white bread actor who had all the appeal of stale toast, was one of the involved parties. This is a bit like expecting Tom Hanks to be the first Hollywood actor to penetrate an orifice in a Hollywood film.)

While filmmaker Tommy Wirkola includes literal and visual nods to the first two Evil Dead films, April Fool’s Day, Star Wars, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Braindead (aka Dead Alive), and The Simpsons, don’t let these flagrant pop cultural references fool you. Wirkola has robbed from the mausoleum of horror movies that passed on in 1981: Jean Rollin’s Zombie Lake (undead Nazis assaulting isolated setting, emerging here from the snow instead of a lake) and Jess Franco’s Oasis of the Zombies (army of Nazi zombies guarding gold).

Which is not to say that Dead Snow is bad. While the zombies arrive much later than they probably should and the early character development doesn’t quite compensate for the reduced early gore, there is ample intestine ripping and even a few funny lines. “We should have gone to the beach like I told you,” says someone just after the kids start dying. This time, the kids who meet Muhammad at the mountain cabin are medical students — a smart creative decision permitting the characters to take on death and hack off limbs without flinching or freezing up. (One character even stitches up his own neck.) There’s great potential in having more educated youngsters stand in for the usual libertine losers. Alas, the interesting early chatter of how to use spit to escape an avalanche subsides to the accustomed lackluster scenarios.

This is a movie that knows it’s a retread — a dependable retread, but a retread nonetheless. The kid dusting off the mountain cabin kitchen at the beginning could very well be Wirkola himself. The cabin resembles the Evil Dead cabin. Wirkola even mimics Sam Raimi’s chainsaw montage from Evil Dead II (minus the “Groovy”). And it’s often quite frustrating that these characters are developed through Hollywood references instead of human behavior. One wonders if Wirkola even understands young people. These kids actually complain about playing co-ed Twister, failing to consider the libidinous possibilities. Why play Twister? “Because Hollywood told us that it’s so much fun.” But is that line an actual joke or contempt? The movie’s token film geek, Erlend, wears a Braindead t-shirt throughout and is commanded by his peers to stop talking about movies for an hour. But at least he gets lucky in an outhouse. The Seth Rogen archetype has made its way to Norway.

Here is a movie that’s skillful enough to have someone dangling over a cliff with an intestine serving as a rope, but that doesn’t have the instincts to make any of its characters Jewish. (And wouldn’t that present some interesting conflict?) Yes, we do briefly see the remnants of a Nazi lair. And the Nazi zombie leader (named Herzog, perhaps in deference to the filmmaker now gutting Abel Ferrara) does order his soldiers to “arise” from the snow. But wouldn’t these zombies be infinitely more interesting if they tried to mimic behavior from World War II? It’s too easy to have the zombies simply hunt down these kids for gold. This movie might have had real guts — pun fully intended — if these Nazis attempted to carry out the Final Solution.

Of course, any horror movie that stops for a moment of Norwegian hospitality — with coffee unappreciated by the guest — can’t be entirely discounted. Wirkola himself is a hospitable filmmaker and he’s off to a good start. It’s just too bad that he isn’t nearly as cavalier as Don Edmonds — the wild director of the first two Ilsa films who passed away only a few weeks ago. With such audience-friendly horror as Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes and Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell seen in theaters in the past six months, Wirkola is going to have to work harder to make schlock horror fun and dangerous again.

Review: Observe and Report (2009)


Observe and Report‘s most memorable moment involves the appropriately named Randy Gambill’s penis, which flaps in slow motion beneath Gambill’s developing pot belly as Seth Rogen chases him in a mall. Gambill, who the IMDB reports is making his big screen debut with this scrotal ballet, is not an actor of much range. His character has spent a good portion of the film flashing people. And now he has flashed us. I was neither shocked nor offended by Gambill’s flaccid member, but I must commend Gambill and writer-director Jody Hill for going out of their way to give us a flapping penis in a mainstream comedy. Alas, the moment is neither funny nor amusing. Indeed, the penis here is quite gratuitous. It simply just is. Beyond pushing the penis camera time beyond Graham Chapman’s famous flash in Life of Brian, the penis remind us that we’re watching a film that may have been cooked up in a locker room. (To give you a sense of the stillborn thrust here, let’s dispense with Gambill’s penis and observe how disarming it is to see a grown and limited man like Gambill act like a predictable teenager.) The penis bouncing up and down in this mall scene is not really a revolutionary act, but it does tell us that the moment in which dicks are afforded the same cinematic exposure as breasts is inevitable. Cocks are coming to middle America whether the red states like it or not.

I just wish that the occasion for the third leg peek was more momentous. This movie isn’t an outright travesty. I’ve seen many films that are worse. Whoever cast this movie was smart enough to give Collette Wolfe a thankless role as a handicapped employee who gives Seth Rogen his free daily coffee. But Wolfe is good enough to transcend the material with her eyes and her winning solicitude, even if her doting over a jerk is sexist and stereotypical. I am, however, losing patience with Anna Faris’s overacting, particularly with the eye-bulging and chronic face-expanding that is less about making the other actors look good, and more about hijacking a scene for attention. Faris appears destined to play Scary Movie-like bimbos for the rest of her career and she makes Drew Barrymore’s occasional hysterics look like Meryl Streep’s subtle craftsmanship. I’ve set down my issues with Ray Liotta’s acting before. The man once again keeps his mouth hanging open through most of the movie, and the audience feels compelled to bolt Liotta’s mandible in place. Nevertheless, before Liotta explodes on Rogen, he’s actually somewhat interesting as a contained cop trying to stay professional.

As for Seth Rogen, I should note that I’ve performed my constitutional duties. Without really trying, I have seen a good number of the films in which Rogen has played a prominent or supporting role. I have seen Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Pineapple Express, Knocked Up, Superbad, and The 40 Year Old Virgin. And I have liked the majority of these films. But the upshot is that Rogen does the same schtick every time: that chortle suggesting a cross between Beavis and Butt-Head and some avuncular fortysomething in the making watching the last of his twenties wash away and that deep voice sounding like a harmless Canadian stoner. In fact, it’s fairly effortless to impersonate Seth Rogen. I should report, in the interest of cultural journalism, that a friend and I recently had a twenty-minute conversation, both of us doing Rogen, one of us hungover. Scholars believe that just about any male living in North America can impersonate Rogen, rub his belly, walk, and chew bubble gum at the same time. I don’t really have too many problems with Rogen, but I have a feeling that if he doesn’t shake up his routine in the next few films, his audiences will lose patience with him. Needless to say, Observe and Report doesn’t really give Rogen much to do except, well, play a slightly more psychotic version of Seth Rogen. (The psychosis, of course, is underdeveloped and makes no sense. For example, Rogen effortlessly kils six criminals at one point, but he evades arrest? Rogen takes on the entire police department single-handedly, but he’s still allowed to walk the streets? I guess, if you’re a Seth Rogen character in a movie, you can rape some random stranger’s pet at a Starbucks and invite all surrounding children to join in a bestial gangbang. And you’d still be able to get away with it.)

So, yeah, the movie here is pretty bad. It has some promising ideas, such as Rogen cracking skateboarders over the head with their skateboards, but it has no clue about how to make these ideas funny. To offer one example, there’s a moment in which cop Ray Liotta and rent-a-cop Seth Rogen are talking with a Spanish-speaking employee, hoping to find out who is robbing the mall. Rogen is jealous of Liotta’s attention and gets more frenetic. He claims to know Spanish, but he doesn’t. Jody Hill could have had Liotta effortlessly speak Spanish to the employee and then escalate the conflict between the two characters. With one simple decision, we then would have zeroed in on the conflict. How does a screwup like Rogen operate in a world in which calm competence like Liotta’s is valued? (And had Liotta not freaked out, then Jody Hill would have reversed our expectations. For nearly everybody associates Liotta with his crazy or psychotic roles.) But Jody Hill doesn’t understand that Rogen’s appeal lies in the audience’s capacity to relate to him. Instead of giving the audience what it wants, he simply has Rogen go crazy (the violence described above) and it’s just not funny.

Having not seen Paul Blart: Mall Cop (I presume its success will unleash an endless spate of mall cop movies in the Police Academy vein), I cannot make any serious artistic comparisons between the two films. But Observe and Report has a flapping penis and Paul Blart doesn’t. Given this superficial criteria, I can probably make the wholly uninformed conclusion that Observe and Report may be a better film. The film has the courage to flap a penis, but it doesn’t have the courage to push Rogen beyond type.

New Directors/New Films: Barking Water (2009)

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 25 and April 5 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]


Oklahoma, a state unfairly associated with Rodgers and Hammerstein, is a vast prairie with a pan-shaped territory suggesting a definitive cooking surface for the great American melting pot. It has been dismissed by East Coast elitists as a hotbed of virulent Christianity and backwater intellect. But as Will Rogers famously quipped to the state’s detractors, “When the Oakies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the IQ of both states.”

It’s something of a relief to know that filmmaker Sterlin Harjo has dedicated himself to not only raising the stereotypical plateau with which his homestate is viewed and understood, but by documenting the state’s Native American population over the course of three films. It should be noted that Oklahoma has 25 Native languages, which is more than any other state. The lingua franca is so fascinatingly variegated that the Oklahoma Legislature passed a bill in 1990 that permitted a Native language to serve as the state-mandated high school language requirement.

Language of an altogether different sort is what makes Harjo’s third film somewhat interesting. Here is a young filmmaker struggling to collect the quiet experiences that older people often keep to themselves. At one point, our two heroes — Frankie, a man dying of cancer and hoping to clear up a few fractured relationships before passing on, and Irene, his ostensible soulmate — thumb a ride from a young couple from Tulsa. The young woman, Wendy, remarks to her husband about how adorable they are and how they might be able to forward to a future where they can be just as comfortable with each other. Her husband looks upon this lifelong commitment with a quiet horror. And when Irene brazenly announces that the two are not together, the young couple’s illusion is shattered. But a mix tape serves as a cross-generational point of reconciliation. One particular song proves so intoxicating to Frank that we see him torturing Irene later, playing the tune over and over again in a car. Since the man is dying, he’s excused for this apparent rudeness. But is it really rudeness? Or is this Frank’s way of expanding Irene’s rigidly parochial perspective? Is the lie that Irene committed years ago — a prevarication that Frank himself has quietly braced and has never attempted to clear up with anyone — worse than Frank’s auditory sleight?

That such character questions are buried inside this film is a testament to Harjo’s talent. Perhaps it’s the landscape itself that’s cloaking these concerns. Harjo frequently cuts away to shots of rusted stop signs and the flat terrain, as if to suggest that the patient and restricted Oklahoma culture may be responsible for some of these communicative failings.

There is one unexpectedly flamboyant scene at a diner that suggests an alternative Oklahoma. Irene, who only has a ten dollar bill for their journey, is in the habit of calling friends and relatives to get people to buy the two meals. She calls on a nephew that neither Frank nor Irene are particularly crazy about. The nephew and his friend are delightfully boorish. (The pal insists on ordering nothing but “a whole mess of bacon.”) And Harjo films this scene using wild and often low diagonals, even capturing the large deer’s head at the top of the wall. The glum waitress taking the order insists that every breakfast platter requires toast. And one gets a sense of the need to resist such rigid folkways by the bacon enthusiast’s baseball cap reading RESIST.

“That’s what I miss most about being young. Magic,” says one character at one key point in the film. And this sentiment reveals the film’s major flaw. Harjo doesn’t quite have the chops to present us with the magic dazzling at the other end of life: that jam-packed existential epoch just after sixty troublesomely incompatible with Hollywood’s commercial emphasis on the young and unshaped. Frank and Irene keep a very interesting enigma to themselves. But instead of permitting these characters to communicate the edges of this mystery with a telling look or a curious conversational fragment, Harjo spoils it all with that most amateurish of film narrative devices: the flashback. And once this mystery is revealed, Frank and Irene become thinner in character dimension than they have every right to be.

Here is an ambitious film that knows its underserved state very well, but it doesn’t quite know people as well as it should. But I harbor a faith that Harjo’s subsequent films will become more expansive as this young filmmaker matures with time. Let us hope that some benefactor permits him to make more films and hone his craft. His voice, as unformed as it is, is needed.

Review: Friday the 13th (2009)


Why in the hell would anyone want to see a reboot of Friday the 13th? Well, the killings, of course. Jason has such a physics-defying command of the machete that he can stab the top of a woman’s skull through the floorboards of a dock, pull the woman up with the machete so that the camera can conveniently film her tits, and then plunge her back into Crystal Lake. I’m surprised that Jason never made an appearance on Letterman’s Stupid Human Tricks or Playboy After Dark.

Over nearly three decades, the people who have made the Friday the 13th movies have transplanted Jason into Manhattan, shot the undead psychotic into space, and pitted him against Freddy Krueger. But the silent and murderous hockey-mask-wearing killer is such a bore that even these “high-concept” storylines have revealed just how utterly hopeless this horror series is. Jason has spent too many years lumbering like a dopey hulk with a chip on his shoulder. He’s the kind of mindless zombie who could probably use some therapy, but he never seems to talk back. Although he does stop sometimes if you’re a woman who looks like his mother with the talent to shout “Jason!” in an obvious and peremptory tone. Which is too bad, because even Michael Myers — the character who Sean S. Cunningham ripped off — had Sam Loomis. And unlike Freddy Krueger, you don’t even get the benefit of the wisecrack when the blood gurgles from your throat. Which seems impolite at best and a missed opportunity for full-scale vengeance at worst.

It doesn’t help that the people killed are just as vapid as our intrepid murderer. Jason’s victims, by and large, are dopey teens who like to fuck each other’s brains out. Jason — that great American Puritanical impulse — is always there to redefine the terms of afterglow. His victims have included Crispin Glover and Erin Gray. But Corey Feldman was recast between films before he could be eviscerated for popular audiences. At least there’s some more explicit sensuality in this film. Characters jack off to Hustler (and a winter catalog, of which more anon) and, put their noses close to bottles of alcohol and marijuana crop. Presumably, this permits them a last fix of living in lieu of the Krueger bon mot. Oddly enough, nobody in this film smokes cigarettes. I can really see Jason making a mortal statement on behalf of the Surgeon General.

So what do director Marcus Nispel (who also remade The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift bring to the formula? One of the most deafening sound mixes I’ve ever had the misfortune of being subjected to. Nispel is so incompetent at executing a proper shock that he’s had the sound designer on this show crank up the volume at the highest fucking decibel level. And this is perhaps a worse crime than the feds blasting heavy metal to ferret out Manuel Noriega. He’s even added in inexplicable whooshes of the flashlight. So be sure to bring your earplugs. That is, if you haven’t lost your hearing already. (And perhaps that’s the demographic this film has been designed for.) There’s also been an effort to incorporate present technology into this movie. You’ve got your GPS systems, iPods, and the cell phones that malfunction at convenient moments. Jason now has a mine beneath the dilapidated camp, where a victim has been held for six weeks and still manages to have impeccable hair and makeup. I presume that Jason has offered full continental breakfast service between murders. Or maybe she was fed and kept hydrated by the random rats running around.

We also meet some of the people who live around Crystal Lake, which include a redneck stereotype fond of smoking and dealing weed and permitted to live until Jason feels the need to kill him to obtain his hockey mask. (That great Puritanical impulse again. The redneck stole the weed from Camp Crystal Lake.) And I’d hate to be employed as the poor cop, who doesn’t seem to be fully aware that there’s been a major spike in disappearances and murders. There’s product placement for Pabst Blue Ribbon and Aquafina, explicit in the dialogue, which I believe may be a first for the Friday the 13th series. The murky photography is perhaps the grainiest of any of the Friday the 13th films. The dunces who shot this movie don’t seem to understand that low light, high speed stock, and silver halides aren’t the best combo.

Perhaps the film’s greatest innovation is the introduction of racism to the Friday the 13th series. We’ve come to expect sexism. But here, we get a token Black Guy and a token Asian Guy (and I hope that Angry Asian Man will be on the case with the latter). There’s initially some promise with the former, as he confronts a white woman who assumes that his music career involves rap. “Because I’m black, I can’t listen to Green Day,” says the Black Guy. And there was a brief moment in which I thought to myself that the filmmakers might actually subvert the formula. Alas, Caucasians are the only ones who get down to business in this movie. Our Black Guy, hearing all the white people getting lucky upstairs, is forced to sift through a winter catalog so that he can masturbate to a rich-looking white woman. And he doesn’t even get the consolation of ejaculating. For the door is opened, the Black Guy zips up his pants, he rushes out to look after his friend, and is then axed (asked?) in the back by Jason, wailing at the top of his lungs for his friends to save them. Well, they never do. He’s bait, you see. And Jason turns him around and punctures the axe through the front of his chest. The brother always gets it.

The Asian Guy appears inspired from the Long Duk Dong stereotype in Sixteen Candles. He drinks from a shoe and is mocked for purchasing condoms at a store. He knows how to fix things. And even the Black Guy persuades all that he knows how to fix things. (Presumably, the Asian Guy operates a rickshaw business too.) He expresses sexual interest in one of the white girls and, as he’s about to down a flaming shot, he’s too clumsy and falls over. He is mocked further. And then he goes out, drinking directly from a bottle of scotch, and is found chopped up in a meat locker.

So if you’re white, you’ll get laid. In the view of Nispel and company, you are the bacchanalian master race. And you have to hand it to Nispel and his collaborators for making Crystal Lake a world where the whites win. Where douchebags named Trent may whimper like a coward when faced with death, but inevitably get cowgirls bouncing up and down on their cocks.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Friday the 13th becomes a big hit among Ku Klux Klan members. It does succeed at upping the stakes in the Friday the 13th series, but then the stakes were atavistic in the first place.

Review: Fanboys (2009)


There have been nearly eighteen months of production problems for Fanboys, the comedy film made by geeks for geeks involving a 1998 pilgrimage to Skywalker Ranch to steal a rough cut of The Phantom Menace. A rough cut of Fanboys made the rounds in 2007, earning plaudits from George Lucas and Kevin Smith, with the former granting permission to use Star Wars sound effects and the latter asking for and receiving a cameo. More money was allocated to director Kyle Newman to shoot additional scenes that were prohibited by the original version’s five million dollar budget. Months passed, as Newman attempted to extricate the actors from their respective obligations. Additional scenes were shot. Then there were reports that the film was being saturated with more crude jokes with the cancer plot removed. (Having seen the film, I can report that the cancer plot has metastasized.) Fanboys was scheduled to come out last year, but it remained in the vault. There were delays and a few inquiries from online circles, and an Internet campaign eventually emerged demanding that Newman’s original vision be restored. But this week, Fanboys is finally being unfurled into theaters, perhaps with a few “Greedo shoots first” compromises. And I’m pretty certain that additional speculation will spiral into more online melees.

But I have only the version I screened to go by. If there are better versions of the film to be made, this will likely have to be settled by Phantom Edit man Mike J. Nichols. As cheap thrills go, Fanboys isn’t bad. The film won me over. It plays like an Animal House for geeks, and, if Jeffrey Lyons snoring through half the movie is any indication to go by, it will likely not appeal to entitled snobs who remain incurious about this subculture. But I think it has a pretty good shot of finding an audience in the heartland.

Ernest Cline’s screenplay has reportedly been bouncing around since 1998, but his collaborators (Dan Pulick credited on the story and Adam F. Golberg credited on the screenplay) have transformed the film into a celebration of geek culture just before the dawn of a new millennium. After a scrolling yellow prologue with a “Sent from my iPhone” postscript, we’re then taken to Ohio 199 days before the Phantom Menace release date. Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping” blasts at a house party, where stormtrooper and Super Mario costumes are copious, with a “Picasso’s blue period” thrown in for good measure. This is still the time of dialup, and a bespectacled geek named Windows (Jay Baruchel) has secured an online girlfriend. Windows is so consumed by his perfervid IMing that he cannot even notice a geek girl flashing her breasts in his direction. Hutch (Dan Fogler) lives in a garage, paying rent to his parents. He insists that he lives in a “carriage house.” Then there’s Eric (Sam Huntington), the “responsible” character you typically find in these teen comedies who works at his father’s car lot and is primed to take over the business. This trio learn that their pal Linus (Christopher Marquette) is dying of cancer. A trip to California is agreed upon.

As you may have already guessed, this setup follows any number of cinematic formulas. But much like the original Star Wars trilogy, Fanboys is more about the journey, rather than the destination (or even the beginning). It does find a few funny moments that prevent this film from entirely succumbing to stereotyping. An R2D2 Pez dispenser is confused with a prominent member. Hutch, who drives a van adorned with Star Wars detailing, sets a few ground rules: “All Rush, all the time” is the only music to be played during the cross-country journey. There’s a side quest to Riverside, Iowa — the birthplace of James T. Kirk — in large part because Hutch says, “I’ll drive all night for the chance to pimp dog some Trekkies.” And this pugilistic vow is carried out over the preposterous question of whether Han Solo’s a bitch. A Star Wars fan has unthinkingly burned in a Jar Jar Binks tattoo without knowledge of the character.

A sequence involving peyote and stripping, suggesting that geeks are as marginalized as gays, doesn’t quite live up to its potential, nor does a running gag about Hutch having one testicle. But the film does poke some insinuative fun at all the forthcoming junk that those associated with Star Wars will soon be involved in. When the group discusses whether or not Harrison Ford is the greatest actor of all time, the van passes by a Six Days Seven Nights billboard. I also enjoyed the idea of Harry Knowles portrayed as an ass-kicker in the know, where trust is established by the number of esoteric film facts at your immediate disposal.

Many of the film’s cameos — which include William Shatner, Carrie Fisher, and Billy Dee Williams (as Judge Reinhold) — are funny. Some, like Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes, are just pointless. The film quotes lines from the original Star Wars trilogy liberally, but not obnoxiously.

The film also delves a bit into geek double standards pertaining to gender. During a moment in Vegas, the aforementioned geeky girl Zoe (played by Kirsten Bell) flirts wildly with Windows, but he and Hutch see only the airbrushed professionals. And while Windows and Hutch do receive a collective comeuppance for their oversight, I wondered whether there may have been something more here lost in all the reshoots and the rewrites.

Fanboys isn’t as good as 1998’s Free Enterprise, largely because Mark A. Altman and Robert Meyer Burnett went to the trouble of portraying geeks as real people. It doesn’t quite have the guts to plunge completely into the complexities of geekdom. And my main gripe with Fanboys is that the “real” moments here were terribly treacly. Perhaps there was some reasonable justification for attempts to rework the cancer plot. But I did laugh, and the film that emerged from the fracas does entertain.

Review: New in Town (2009)


I am not necessarily opposed to romantic comedies. In fact, I even confessed to my moviegoing companion on the subway ride back that I enjoyed Notting Hill. I’m pretty certain that, given the choice between rewatching a Lucio Fulci film or Notting Hill, I would opt for the former. But the truth is the truth. Notting Hill more or less works and has some good dialogue, even if Julia Roberts plays Julia Roberts and the narrative is more obvious than the need to apply suntan lotion in 120 degree weather.

Richard Curtis would go on to make one of the most unpardonably atrocious films of all time. New in Town thankfully isn’t as bad as Love Actually. But that’s hardly a consolation, for it isn’t nearly as good as Notting Hill, and Notting Hill isn’t nearly as good as at least a hundred wonderful romantic comedies. By the time you get to New in Town‘s schmaltzy tapioca spraying scene (which reminded me of Zoolander‘s satirical gasoline montage), you know that any sliver of faith you’ve placed in the film can’t possibly be redeemed.

You see, New in Town is a romantic comedy that has a modicum of charm and better acting than a derivative movie of this type has any right to possess. Here is a movie that has pilfered elements from other rom-coms: the corporate crusader vs. the working man advocate at the heart of You’ve Got Mail, the city slicker humbled by the charms of small town life from Doc Hollywood (complete with a David Odgen Stiers-like character played by J.K. Simmons), and the romantic protagonist as a business exec who busts up companies in Pretty Woman (Renee Zellweger has replaced Richard Gere). It’s a movie so quaint and anachronistic that it even has the opening credits at the beginning. The way they used to. The way that audiences conditioned themselves to accept condescending junk without question.

I felt a strange emotional conflict sitting through this movie. I was appalled by the Minnesotan stereotypes, the obvious music cues (“Walking on Sunshine” when Zellweger attempts to escape to Miami), the reliance upon coincidence (a snowstorm), the pat happy ending, the union rep who doesn’t object to unpaid overtime, and the terrible Jesus jokes (redeemed by a better populist joke about belief later in the movie). I wanted the people of New Ulm, Minnesota to hail their conquering hero or make more intriguing efforts to welcome the woman who came to dinner. If only the filmmakers could understand that small towns are laden with life and a lot of fun, that the people who live there aren’t caricatures, that having a good ear for regional dialogue is a must, and that this movie’s potential audience would have augmented tenfold if the New Ulmites hadn’t been treated like one-dimensional rubes. Unfortunately, screenwriters Ken Rance and C. Jay Cox seem to think that phony parochialisms like “Ain’t that a kick in the keister,” “Oh for crying in the bean cheese soup,” and “We don’t give a goose fart on a muggy day” represent verisimilitude. It’s abundantly clear that these two Hollywood hacks whipped this shit up in a room and genuinely thought they were being clever. If only they were real writers who headed to Minnesota on Hollywood money to get their dialogue right. There’s also the token guy living in his ex-wife’s basement, the unbelievable idea of a woman as capable as Zellweger’s character not heading to Minnesota without winter wear, and a ruthless company not cutting Zellweger loose after she’s defied orders for tapioca pursuits and tapioca storytelling.

But just as I was about to give up, something slightly interesting would happen. Frances Conroy would evade bad direction to speak like the Fargo people by speeding up her line delivery, and it was a marvel to watch her improvise under the circumstances and bring something to lackluster material. A New Ulm resident would momentarily evade the stereotypical trappings with a small irony on how only city slicker idiots froze to death while walking down the highway in subzero temperatures. The camera would linger on Zellweger’s hair for more than a minute as she was emerging from a hangover. (No, you’re not exactly going to get Eric Rohmer takes in a movie like this, but, really, how often do you see a long take like that in a mainstream comedy?)

Such moments were too few. When Harry Connick Jr. told Zellweger, “You know you’re not so bad when you’re unconscious,” I had the strange feeling that he was talking directly to me. Maybe he might take me home and try to molest me. Perhaps he might show me his package. (Does he have a decent package at 42? I certainly hope so.) Or maybe he wanted me to be unconscious so that I might forgive the movie a little more. Maybe if I “wouldn’t be so bad,” I might wake up in a snug bed and pretend to watch wrestling on TV after we lip locked. Because that’s what Minnesotans do apparently: watch and elect wrestlers. Maybe I could take Connick’s daughter to the big city for shoes and I could walk around airports in high heels to show that I was just as assertive as Zellweger. This was, after all, what womanhood was to director Jonas Elmer. For all I knew, this definition extended to manhood. Walking around in high heels and having a man like Connick unzip a suit while I was trying to pee. Romantic escapades like that.

You get the picture. I honestly didn’t hate this movie as much as I probably should have. But I didn’t like it all that much either. Ain’t that a kick in the keister?

The Bat Segundo Show: Chazz Palminteri & Robert Celestino

Chazz Palminteri and Robert Celestino both appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #259.

Chazz Palminteri is the star of Yonkers Joe. Robert Celestino is the writer and director of Yonkers Joe. The film opens in theaters on January 9, 2009.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Fleeing the scene to avoid “coming together” with the imposing Mr. Palminteri.

Guests: Chazz Palminteri and Robert Celestino

Subjects Discussed: Robert Mitchum’s theory of the actor merging into the landscape, cinematic tempo, research for Yonkers Joe, eye contact, the script as the authoritative text, script embellishments from actors, overpreparation, performance in relation to camera placement, “artistic differences” with directors, the thespic advantages of wardrobe, playing an entire scene with a newspaper under your arm, the national revival of A Bronx Tour, the future of theater in an economic crisis, wasted talent, whether the casino heist genre now requires an unusual secondary plot, balancing intuitive insights about human behavior and cinematic reality, the inability for most people to observe mechanics in action, the distinctions between con men and mechanics, how Celestino was able to film in casinos, advancing the narrative while sacrificing believability, concocting the big score, the qualities of casino dice, the eleventh-hour casting of Christine Lahti, keeping symbols in the background, symmetrical semiotics, layering visual elements, and establishing the tell signs among the actors.


chazz-4Correspondent: Going back to the issue of preparation, perhaps you can talk about it in light of this particular movie. I’m curious if there is such a thing as overpreparation for you. For a performance like this, for a performance elsewhere. Where if you plan something too much, then you’re going to lose the spontaneity, you’re going to lose the naturalness of human behavior, and the like.

Palminteri: Right.

Correspondent: Has this been a scenario with you? Have you had to…?

Palminteri: That never happened to me. Because I don’t overplan things. I plan it. I know where I’m going. I have a road map. Okay, and then I’m able to change that roadmap if I have to. You have to. Because you meet with the director, and you meet with the other actors. And all of a sudden, you get on the set and it’s not like you thought what it was going to be. It changes. For some reason, an actor does something else and it doesn’t match what you felt what you should do. Alright, now we got to talk about this now. Is this going to work? Maybe it works better or maybe it works worse. So if you think that your way might still be better, that’s when you have to talk with the director, and say, “Well, I’m feeling this way.” And that’s why sometimes people leave movies. There are artistic differences. It doesn’t work. I usually try and make it work. I hope I can.

Correspondent: Are there such situations in which you’ve felt hamstrung by a particular director’s decision? Or do you simply work within those particular confines?

Palminteri: I’ve always been able to work with directors who respect my opinion. And no director wants an actor to be uncomfortable.

Correspondent: Sure.

Palminteri: “To be uncomfortable.” I mean, once you say those words to a director, “I’m just not feeling comfortable here,” then he’s willing to listen to anything you’ve got to say. I mean, one thing, I’m a director. You know, I’m directing movies. If an actor’s telling me he’s uncomfortable, I’ve got to make him comfortable. No matter what.

* * *

Celestino: I don’t know of too many filmmakers who get to shoot in casinos. Because casinos are not in the business of making movies. They’re in the business of making money. So we were very fortunate, as some of our investors were casino owners. So not only did we get to shoot in the casinos, but we got to shoot it during the day. And they would rope off a section to us. And they really opened up everything to us. There’s five people who work in a casino, who are allowed into the surveillance rooms. So we were allowed to go into the surveillance rooms just to look around. We didn’t actually shoot in there. We built that set. But we did match it identical to what we’d seen. And also, they’re not ever going to bring a suspected mechanic up into the surveillance room. So what they do have is an outer room, where they would show somebody something in case there was a question. Like they did in Yonkers Joe. But the surveillance room was actually in another room where Yonkers Joe got to take a peek at.

Correspondent: Some suspension here to move the plot. Again, this goes back to the other question about how much you stray from reality. In this case, certainly, you had to in service of the narrative. But perhaps when you were writing the script, were there questions that you were asking? “Well, okay, I need to move the narrative along. So there’s a tradeoff here.” I mean, what criteria was here? Okay, I have to advance the narrative. But there’s this tradeoff in believability. Was this an issue when you were writing the script?

Celestino: Well, that’s always a balancing act. Ironically, in this script and movie, it really didn’t come about that much. Pretty much, everything that happens in the movie pretty much can happen. You know, the thing at the end and all that. That all can really happen. In fact, when the security people — the surveillance people — were reading the script, they said that when this movie comes out, casinos will probably start putting blacklight gel in their dice. And that was where I had to reinvent a bit. Because loaded dice are very easy to see. That’s why they make the dice clear. So you can see the loads in them. But if you have something in them where you don’t have to look at the dice, like blacklight gel, then there’s no reason to even look.

BSS #259: Chazz Palminteri and Robert Celestino (Download MP3)

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