Saturday, December 08, 2007

Hairspray (2007)

John Waters is the king of grotesque, and his 1988 film, “Hairspray” was a vindication for people who didn’t meet contemporary standards of beauty. The film is full of people like Divine, for example, the corpulent, cross-dressing actor who was a staple of Waters’s movies. Divine plays the mother of chubby, dance-crazy Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake), whose smooth dance moves and sparkling personality win her a spot on her favorite dance show and the boy of her dreams. Tracy also takes a public stand against segregation (the story is set in 1960’s Baltimore), introducing mixed-race dancing to television.

That this film got turned into a Broadway musical show is no surprise to me; they’ll make anything into a musical. I did find it somewhat surreal that there is now a movie based on that musical. I’m sure this has happened before, but for me this seems like a pretty original way for Hollywood to avoid making something original. The new “Hairspray” is also a mildly charming, fun-for-the-whole-family bit of entertainment.

The musical version lacks most of the cutting-edge wit that inspired the original movie. The main theme, acceptance of people who are different, is more in-your-face, but less convincingly developed in the musical. That would be okay except that the musical elements aren’t really anything to write home about either. The songs are fun while they last (They got my wife and daughter up dancing around the room.), but I couldn’t remember a single song five minutes after the movie ended. Probably the strongest points in this film are the dancing and the stunt casting (John Travolta in a fat suit as Mrs. Turnblad seems tres bizarre until you remember that the original Mrs. Turnblad was also played by a man in drag.)

If you only see one version of “Hairspray,” then make it the classic original. Once you have seen that, the musical version makes a nice, fluffy companion piece.

3 stars out of 5.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Hollywoodland (2006)

A while back I came up with a test for potential movies to watch. It was called the “Ben Affleck Test,” and it was very simple. For any movie that I was asked to watch, I just asked, “Is Ben Affleck in it?” If the answer was yes, then I didn’t watch. It’s similar to the Keanu Reeves test. Trust me, even though I made exceptions for some Kevin Smith movies (e.g. “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” and “Clerks II”), this test saved me from “Gigli” and “Daredevil,” and it allowed me to bail out of the Kevin Smith crapfest “Jersey Girl” soon enough to avoid hysterical blindness.

Imagine my surprise, then, to find myself thoroughly enjoying Affleck in “Hollywoodland.” This tale of George Reeves, the actor who played Superman in the old tv series, features a completely non-annoying Affleck doing some real acting. “Hollywoodland” apparently sticks pretty close to history in its depiction of Reeve’s career. His “Superman” tv show was wildly successful, of course, but what he craved was movie stardom. Unfortunately, Reeves was typecast as Superman, and more serious roles eluded him. He ultimately died from what was officially designated a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In “Hollywoodland,” Adrien Brody plays a private investigator hired to prove that Reeves was murdered, which was a widely publicized conspiracy theory at the time. Jumping back and forth in time, the film simultaneously tells the stories of Reeves’s career and the murder mystery spawned by his death.

This film won’t spawn any cults or change your views of the universe, but it is excellent viewing. Brody and Affleck both give excellent performances. We expect quality from Adrien Brody, of course, but I don’t know what got into Affleck. Maybe he was as sick of the old Ben Affleck as the rest of us were.

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Aura (2005)

The most basic convention of noir film is to place an average, basically good man in the midst of evil, then sit back and see what happens. In the Argentinean film “El Aura,” the protagonist is less than average; he is almost non-existent. Esteban Espinosa (Argentina’s prized Ricardo Darin) is a socially withdrawn near-recluse who allows his marriage to deteriorate while he focuses on his work as a taxidermist. He seems to almost be a ghost, barely interacting with those around him, but actually observing everything with the artist’s keen eye for detail. His hobby is planning robberies, and he is convinced that he is so observant that he could pull off the perfect crime. There are a couple of barriers to Esteban’s career as a heist man. One is that he is barely assertive enough to collect his paycheck, let alone demand money at gunpoint. The other is that he has epilepsy, which manifests as grand mal seizures occurring at random times. These leave him temporarily helpless, and are preceded by a beatific moment of clarity and transcendence which is the “aura” for which the film is named.

When Esteban’s wife leaves him, he barely seems surprised, but it does shake him up just enough to make him accept a last-minute hunting invitation from an acquaintance. Alone in the woods, Esteban has a seizure, then, slightly disoriented, he fatally shoots another hunter. This is the first real emotion we see from Esteban, who is understandably shaken to his core by the event. This is clearly the kind of mistake that could ruin a man, driving him mad with regret, even if he avoided jail. Unsure of what to do, the taxidermist silently returns to camp with the dead man’s wallet and cellphone. These objects draw him into the dead man’s world, which turns out to be pretty shady and peopled with characters straight out of a Richard Stark crime novel. It turns out that Dietrich (the dead guy) was planning a robbery, and Esteban gradually worms his way into the plot as Dietrich’s replacement. It is his chance to live out his fantasy, but the reality of a robbery turns out to be messier than any of his carefully laid plans.

“El Aura” is the second and last film by the late Argentinean director Fabian Bielinsky, who became famous for another crime film, “Nueve Reinas” (Nine Queens). His death is a major loss for the world of film, as “El Aura” is a masterpiece. The film is slowly paced, yet I never left the edge of my seat. Ricardo Darin is not much to look at, but he has an insidious screen presence that makes it impossible to look away after a while. His portrayal of Esteban is minimalist but powerful. This film also features a bravura performance by one of the best canine actors I have ever seen, credited as Eva. The character Dietrich has a dog, and this wolf-like specter interacts with the reticent Esteban as if she knows and accepts his every secret. These two actors have something bordering on chemistry!

As for the “aura” itself, there is a great scene in which Esteban describes the feeling. Even though his auras precede seizures, which are obviously a problem in his life, one gets the impression that Esteban would feel incomplete without them.

It’s a shame that we won’t be getting any more films by Fabian Bielinsky, but Ricardo Darin is still making films. I plan to check out some of his other work and obviously watch Bielinsky’s other film, “Nueve Reinas.”

4.5 stars

Sunday, October 14, 2007

La Moustache (2005)

A few years ago I saw a movie at the Sundance Film Festival called “November,” starring Courtney Cox. Her character started to notice a sense of déjà vu that made her think she was living the month of November over and over, but with slight differences each time. Finally, we see her lying in a pool of blood, the victim of a botched robbery, and we are supposed to realize that everything that we had just seen was a hallucination she had while dying. The filmmaker was present for the showing, and during the question and answer session the sense of anger emanating from the crowd was palpable. We were angry with the filmmaker because he had taken us on a ride. He made us care about characters and plot points, only to pull the rug out from under us at the end with his “And it was all a dream!” trick. Plenty of other films have relied on this lazy storytelling device (“Jacob’s Ladder” and “Vanilla Sky” come to mind), and when I was younger and easily impressed, I thought these movies were clever. Now I think they are just a pathetic attempt on the part of a filmmaker to show us how clever he is.

This is not a condemnation of all non-literal fiction. I love absurdist literature like Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose,” and bizarro films like Orson Welles’s stunning “The Trial.” I am perfectly happy to have a storyteller take me on a thrilling ride with bizarre twists and turns, as long as the ride ends up somewhere worthwhile. It’s a question of trust. Sitting down to watch a movie or read a book is an act of faith that your time and energy will not be wasted. When your time IS wasted by a storyteller who strings you along with bizarre plot twists and intrigue, only to throw his hands up at the end and say, “Gotcha!,” that is a betrayal of trust.

It is difficult to define the line between artistry and audience manipulation. Like pornography, you know it when you see it. In “Vanilla Sky,” for example, the ending pretty much negates most of the rest of the film. You just end up feeling kind of dumb for investing so much effort following the story and trying to understand it. Same with “November” and “Jacob’s Ladder.” In a film like “The Sixth Sense,” on the other hand, the surprise ending doesn’t negate what came before. The ending reframes and adds new meaning to the previous scenes. In “The Trial” there is no ultimate explanation (you have to figure it out for yourself), but throughout the bizarre twists and turns of the story, the characters are presented in such a way that it is clear they are allegorical.

I still haven’t decided where “La Moustache” falls in this continuum. This French film by Emmanuel Carrere, based on his novel by the same name, definitely dips into skullfuck-the-audience territory. It is done with such skill and style, however, that I cannot completely condemn it. The story is that a guy named Marc (Vincent Lindon) impetuously shaves off the mustache he has had for years. His wife, friends, and co-workers don’t even notice the change, however. When he points it out to them, they insist that he has never had a mustache. This causes Marc to doubt his sanity, then his wife’s sanity, and then to really begin going insane when other aspects of the life he lived with his mustache begin to be denied as well. At its best, this film forces the viewer to consider essential questions about identity and the relatively small things that we allow to define us. Perhaps the whole story is just an imagined worst-case-scenario conjured up by Marc as he holds the razor up to his lip and reconsiders. On the other hand, the little things really do matter, especially in relationships, and this film may make you think about that. This story also comments on how our grasp of the past and present are so dependent upon other people’s affirmations. Our certainty that what happened as recently as five minutes ago really happened is based upon two rather flimsy foundations. One is the conviction that the present moment must have arisen from some logical source, and that source is the past as we remember it. The other foundation is that other people’s versions of the past agree with ours. In the absence of physical proof, how long could you continue to believe something had happened if everyone you knew denied it?

My complaint about “La Moustache” is that while it takes us on this wonderfully acted philosophical journey, it clings a little too tightly to realism. The earnest, very human portrayals of Marc’s wife and the other people in his life made it impossible for me to enjoy this surrealist ride. For too much of the film I thought that there must be some explanation for what was going on. By the time I surrendered to the fact that the whole thing was some kind of metaphor, I was too exhausted to care and just a little pissed off. Some plot points are infuriating, as well. For example, Marc has photos of himself with a mustache; why does he never show them to his wife?

Whether you think this makes “La Moustache” good or bad art depends on your tolerance for this sort of thing, I suppose. I admit to being divided on the subject. I guess I have to give a thumbs up to any movie that makes me think this hard, whatever faults it may have.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Goldfinger (1964)

A few reviews back I heaped praise on the latest Bond film, “Casino Royale,” and I reviewed the first two films in the series, “Dr. No” and “From Russia with Love.” I finally got around to watching the third film, “Goldfinger,” and while it is, in some ways, the best of the series, it also features some of the flaws that annoy me about the Bond films.

This time around, 007 is sent to investigate Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), a gold merchant who is suspected of illegally smuggling gold out of England in order to trade it more profitably on the world market. After a couple of run-ins with Goldfinger and his burly bodyguard Oddjob (Harold Sakata), Bond learns that there is more involved than gold smuggling. Goldfinger has an elaborate scheme cooking (of course!) involving Fort Knox and a powerful laser, which he uses to almost give 007 a belated briss. Goldfinger has a lovely partner-in-crime named Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), cementing the tradition of gimmicky Bond-girl names and bringing it to an all-time, suggestive low. The character, fortunately, is a refreshingly strong, intelligent female foil for Bond, which is a departure from damsels-in-distress Honey Ryder (Dr. No) and Tatiana (From Russia with Love).

In addition to institutionalizing the Bond-girl name-gimmick thing, “Goldfinger” also establishes, even more than “From Russia with Love,” the fetishism of spy gadgetry in Bond films. This is the film where 007’s Aston-Martin, with the machine guns, smoke screen, and passenger-eject button is lovingly introduced. This would be loads of fun if Bond actually deployed these weapons to any effect. The plot didn’t seem to have room for that, so instead there is one long chase scene in which Bond dutifully fires off all the features of the car only to be rather stupidly captured anyway. This film also features Bond, who is supposedly a weapons expert, misidentifying a .44 magnum revolver, calling it a “Smith and Wesson .45.” (For the uninitiated, .45 caliber is a semi-automatic pistol caliber, unless Pussy Galore was carrying a pistol chambered in the venerable cowboy caliber of .45 Long-Colt, which I highly doubt.) What else negative can I say about “Goldfinger”? In general, this film has less of a hard edge than its predecessors, with more of the 14-year-old-boy esthetic that undermines most Bond films.

On the other hand, Auric Goldfinger is clearly the best Bond villain ever. Gert Frobe forgoes gimmicky “evilness” in favor of genuine menace, playing Goldfinger with an overfed zest and humor that makes him the only real human I have seen in the Bond rogue’s gallery. He truly enjoys jousting with 007, but obviously won’t mind killing him either. In response to Bond’s question “You don’t expect me to talk, do you?” Goldfinger tosses out the classic, “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die,” with a hearty nonchalance that makes the screen crackle. I cannot get enough of this guy!

Going back to watch the old Bond movies in order has been enjoyable so far, but it is a bit frustrating because I can see where they could have been so much better. Sean Connery is the perfect Bond. It wastes his talent to have him tossing off those obligatory one-liners and wasting so much time on spy gadgetry. I know, people will say that the one-liners and gadgets are the point of a Bond movie and what makes it fun. Maybe I shouldn’t hate so much on these movies; they are intended for a teenage audience, anyway. I just can’t let Bond off that easily though, partly because the Ian Fleming novels are so good, and partly because this character still has the potential to be really cool (as demonstrated by Daniel Craig in the latest film.) For future films, Mr. Bond, I expect you to be dark and dangerous. As for “Goldfinger,” despite my negative comments, it’s still must-watch material.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Knocked Up (2007)

Imagine getting together with all your old friends from high school and college, and everybody immediately hits it off and starts joking around and having the best time ever. That’s what watching “Knocked Up” is like for a long-time Judd Apatow fan like myself. I’ve been on the Apatow Train since the classic, underappreciated TV show “Freaks and Geeks,” I was a big fan of his college comedy series “Undeclared,” and I braved the dreadfully titled “The 40-year-old Virgin” and found it brilliant. “Knocked Up” brings together actors from all of those projects. I came into it with huge expectations, and I was not disappointed.

As with “The 40-year-old Virgin,” the title of “Knocked Up” tells about half of the plot right away. The deal is, Katherine Heigl plays Allison, a bubbly, adorable TV assistant who gets promoted to an on-air gig. She celebrates by hitting the clubs with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann), and through the magic of beer goggles she hooks up with the goofy, lovable, barrel-shaped Ben (Seth Rogen). After their one-night stand, Ben goes back to his pot-smoking, slacker lifestyle, while Allison pursues her new career. Six weeks later she is puking all the time, and guess what?

Up until that point the film is just good, solid comedy. After Allison tells Ben the news, the comedy starts getting mixed with some really good, human moments. Despite her Mother’s advice to, “Just get it taken care of,” Allison decides to have the baby. Meanwhile, Ben’s dad (Harold Ramis) offers him some much better fatherly advice about playing the hand you are dealt, “Life doesn't care about your vision. You just gotta roll with it.” As Ben and Allison try to determine the parameters of their own relationship, they get a funny/poignant look at the dark side of marriage and family from Allison’s sister (Leslie Mann) and brother-in-law (Paul Rudd). On the career front, Allison learns that Hollywood is much more comfortable with pretty, young blondes than with pregnant ones, and she gets a taste of the amazingly insensitive things that people actually say to pregnant women (Does anyone really think that a woman wants to be told she is “huge”?).

Apatow’s work shines for two reasons. One is the humor spiked with reality that never loses sight of his characters’ humanity. Characters that, in lesser hands, would be simple comic foils, always manage to have a scene marking them as real people. The other strength of Apatow’s work is the stellar acting. He has something of his own troupe of guys, and he recycles them through all his productions. One by one you cannot help falling in love with these guys, and “Knocked Up” brings the whole crowd together in one film.

I hesitate to name “Knocked Up” the best movie of the year, because I haven’t yet seen Apatow’s other 2007 release “Superbad.” Until then, I’ll just rate it 5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Idiocracy (2006)

Eugenics, the concept of worrying about whether the best-quality people are reproducing enough and passing on their superior genes, has a bad reputation from its association with the Nazis. People say that the evil of the Nazis was just the logical conclusion of Eugenics, which makes it an evil science. I have always thought that was overstating it a bit, but the damage is done. In polite society, saying, “Stupid people shouldn’t breed,” gets you branded as either racist or elitist, and probably plotting genocide.

If anyone could bring Eugenics back, it would be Mike Judge, creator of those two candidates for forced sterilization, Beavis and Butthead. He takes his shot with “Idiocracy,” a cautionary tale about the long-term outcome of a society whose every institution encourages and even celebrates stupidity. Private Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) is an extremely average guy picked for a military experiment in which he will go into suspended animation for a year. Alongside a female subject, a hooker named Rita (Maya Rudolph), he is sealed into a sleep capsule. As movie experiments always do, this one goes awry, and the capsules are lost for about 500 years. When Joe and Rita finally emerge, they find an America hideously dumbed down by hundreds of years of bad breeding egged on by a popular culture dominated by shows like “Jackass” and Fox News, not to mention lots and lots of commercials. As Joe picks his way through this depraved new world, he is forced to take an aptitude test which shows that he is now the smartest person on Earth. By a lot. You can probably guess the rest of the story from there.

“Idiocracy” is not distinguished by great writing, spectacular camera work, or even good acting (although Luke Wilson’s sleep-acting style actually fits this character). What makes this movie great is its sheer audacity in attacking some very powerful institutions. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to figure that the reason this movie got pulled from wide release was that it simply pissed off too many people. Plenty of other movies have cast a critical eye on big box stores and violent entertainment, but Mike Judge takes a more comprehensive (and humorous) look at the underlying patterns involved. “Idiocracy” comments fearlessly on the constant push for us to consume (Costco’s of the future cover square miles), the increasingly blatant sexuality of marketing (chicken wings with “full release”), and the mad rush to sell out that has put a corporate name in front of every single event (In the future, even Presidential Cabinet members sport corporate sponsorships.) Judge’s story line also fires a shot across the bow of the soft drink industry. His assessment of the news media’s role in dumbing down the country is no kinder, and was probably easier. His “busy” news broadcast, with split screens and scrolling text, is only slightly busier than MSNBC, and he hardly had to tweak Fox News at all to make it the premiere news network of Dumb America. Likewise, the portrayal of the future president as a showy professional wrestler isn’t that far from reality.

Mike Judge could probably have gotten away with riffing on big corporations, the media, and dumb politicians if he had put some kind of liberal, politically correct slant on his film. Alas, any commentary to the effect that not everyone should be encouraged to reproduce is the ultimate in political incorrectness. “Idiocracy” hits close to home, and it has something to piss off everybody (That includes you, sport.) That brings us to the real story of this film, which is that it was essentially suppressed. After some initial buzz about an upcoming Mike Judge movie, all official talk of this film ceased. It was hardly advertised at all, and it only showed in a few big cities. Some will argue that this was because the movie wasn’t as good as it could have been, but given the crap that Hollywood regularly tries to shove down our throats, that argument doesn’t hold water. It’s obvious to me that the subversive, anti-corporate messages in this film are not what Big Media wants us to hear and see.

As pure entertainment, “Idiocracy” manages to sustain at least a mild level of amusement throughout, but the humor pretty much peaks in the first 20 minutes. At any given point in the film, I was more likely to be saying, “That’s so true!” rather than, “That’s hilarious!” That’s a shame, because Mike Judge has done much, much better. It seems like the creator of “Beavis and Butthead,” “King of the Hill,” and especially “Office Space” could have done more with this subject. Oscar-level acting isn’t really needed in a broad comedy like this, but “Idiocracy” might have been more fun with a more engaging female lead and some funnier supporting actors. Overall, this movie felt like a great idea that wasn’t sure where it was going. It makes me wonder if this is really the movie Mike Judge meant to make. Whatever the case, this is a mostly fun movie that makes some great points. Watch it just to piss off the corporations!

3 stars out of 5.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Bad News Bears (1976)

If you haven’t seen this movie, then it’s a cinch you have at least seen one of the sequels or one of the many imitators. I’m sure there were kid-sports films before “The Bad News Bears,” but I doubt that any of them were as successful or as influential. It had been quite a long time since I saw this, and my memories of it were all mixed up with the sequels, so it was good to go back to the original and be reminded how superior it was.

Walter Matthau plays Morriss Buttermaker, a washed-up ex-minor leaguer who gets tapped to coach a little league team. Turns out the team is made up of all the misfit kids who couldn’t get on the regular teams and are only allowed into the league because one of the dads sued. Buttermaker doesn’t care about any of that at first; he is just doing it for a covert paycheck. As he gets to know the kids, however, he comes to feel the pathos of their losing situation. In what is one of the contradictions of the movie, he helps them reverse their losing streak, partly by coaching them into better players, but mostly by bringing in a couple of ringers. One is a local hooligan, Kelly Leak, played with skinny swagger by Jackie Earle Haley. The other is the daughter of Buttermaker’s ex-girlfriend, a curve-ball throwing 11-year-old played by Tatum O’Neill.

These two put the Bears on the road to the championship, and anyone who finds this unrealistic has obviously never played or coached kids’ sports. It really only takes a couple of good players to make a winning kids’ team. Of course, that leaves the other kids with nothing to do, and that is one issue that surfaces as Buttermaker tries to rectify his desire to win with the need to make sure the kids get a chance to enjoy playing ball. This is a perpetual problem in real-life sports, as parents tend to get overly competitive, and “The Bad News Bears” does a pretty decent job exploring that dynamic. Vic Morrow deserves kudos for his portrayal of Coach Turner of the rival Yankees. Rather than simply playing the villain, he is very realistic as an overly-competitive coach and dad. In fact, the movie is pretty dead-on with its portrayal of screaming Little League parents. As for Walter Matthau, his bravura portrayal of surly alcoholic Buttermaker is what makes this movie worthwhile.

To my taste, the portrayal of the kids in this movie is somewhat hit or miss. Much has been made of Tatum O’Neal’s performance, and everybody these days wants to drop Jackie Earle Haley’s name, but I found their characters to be overly sassy and annoying. Actually, Chris Barnes’s bellicose little Tanner Boyle character was a lot more fun. His classic line, “All we got on this team are a buncha Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eatin' moron!” could actually serve as a plot synopsis for this film.

In spite of a few punky kids and a formulaic plot, “The Bad News Bears” ends the day as it began it, delivering a good time. Foul-mouthed kids, the brilliant Walter Matthau, hey, hand me a hot dog and a beer and let’s watch this sucker again!

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, May 13, 2007

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

I like it when a movie lives up to expectations. A flick doesn’t even have to be all that great, as long as I know going in that I shouldn’t expect greatness. That’s what keeps me coming back for the X-men movies; they aren’t the greatest ever, but they are consistently at least as good as I expected them to be. I go in expecting some fluffy fun, and I always have fun. The latest installment in the X series is no exception. “X-Men: The Last Stand” delivers plenty of super-powered action, with just enough character development and political commentary to keep my brain from shutting off entirely.

Picking up where the last film left off, “The Last Stand” starts with Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Cyclops (James Marsden) both seriously bummed about the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) when that lake collapsed on her at the end of X2. When Grey comes out of the lake seemingly intact, however, the celebration is tempered with anxiety. Professor Xavier reveals that the mild-mannered hottie has always carried within her a second personality: a horny, destructive id of a telepath who calls herself Phoenix. Sure enough, the lady who rises from that lake is the Phoenix, and she turns out to be the most powerful mutant ever. Needless to say, telekinetic hell breaks loose.

Meanwhile, the mutant-related political hoo-ha continues, as the government develops a cure for mutant genes. Suddenly the political jargon changes, and mutants aren’t described as a threat but as people with a disease who need to be “helped.” This splits the mutant community into three factions. Some, like Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose essentially useless mutation causes her to uncontrollably suck the life out of anyone she touches, see the cure as an opportunity to be normal. Magneto (Ian McKellen) on the other hand, is predictably enraged at the notion that mutants need “curing,” and he finds plenty of new mutant allies who agree. Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his crew continue to hold the middle ground, working with mutant diplomat Beast (Kelsey Grammer) to ensure that mutants retain individual freedom of choice in the matter. It all naturally builds to a big good-mutant/bad-mutant/human battle with tons of bloodless violence.

Naturally, this disease-versus-alternative-lifestyle debate on mutantism raises parallels to the real-life plight of gays in America. It’s not just gays, though. The mutants are an allegory for anyone pressured to assimilate with the majority while trying to maintain his or her own identity.

Believe it or not, there’s even more food for thought in this popcorn flick. The complex Magneto, played with panache and subtlety by Ian McKellen, is my favorite in this series. A childhood survivor of the Jewish Holocaust, he is merciless because he was not shown mercy. His character demonstrates that there are two ways a strong person can respond to being oppressed. He can determine that oppression is wrong and vow to fight it, or he can decide that oppression is inevitable and resolve to be on the winning side next time. Magneto has taken the latter course, and the X-men series is courageous enough to allow just a little ambiguity about whether Magneto is completely wrong.

“The Last Stand,” stumbles here and there, particularly in the more emotional scenes. In one particularly verklempt scene, which takes place after a major tragedy, the X-men almost decide to give up and shut down the mutant school. In after-school-special fashion, they find the inner strength to give it their all and make a last stand! It’s almost unwatchable, folks. The scenes of teenage puppy-love are also a bit tough to take. They should have shortened those scenes and used that time exploring the Phoenix character and having her make out with Wolverine in her underwear. Just my opinion.

Other than those weak points, “The Last Stand” delivers all it promises. I’m sure that fans of the comic books could find more to quibble over, but for the rest of us, this is good, solid entertainment. I’ll be back for the next sequel.

4 stars out of 5.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Nashville (1975)

Robert Altman died recently, and there was a lot of stuff written about his work in magazines and papers. I got intrigued and put some of his movies on our Netflix queue. Two problems: 1) Most of his stuff is rated R, so it becomes hard to watch these around my daughter. 2) The first one that came was “Nashville.”

I never knew much about Altman, but I have seen two of his movies, “Popeye” (1980) and “M.A.S.H.” (1970). “M.A.S.H.” kicked ass, and I seem to remember liking “Popeye”. (I was a kid when I saw it.) Considering how prolific Altman was, I am surprised I haven’t seen more of his films. He is clearly considered one of the great American filmmakers. I’m not a movie expert, but it seems that he was one of the pioneers of a filmmaking style where you jump from one set of characters to another without a clear narrative, ultimately tying the disparate storylines together at various points. Films like “Slackers,” “Magnolia,” and “Dazed and Confused” seem like they may have been Altman-influenced.

In any event, I can’t tell you much about “Nashville,” as I only made it through about twenty minutes. In that time the film jumped around between a lot of people involved in the Nashville music scene in some manner. I didn’t like any of them, and all they did was jabber away at each other with annoying noise in the background. They were all also a bit grotesque. Even the attractive actors are dressed and made up so garishly that the film is just hard to look at. So I found “Nashville” painful to the eyes and ears. I’m sure if I had stuck with it some really interesting things would have happened, but life is too short. Maybe some other time.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

For Your Consideration

Early in “For Your Consideration” someone asks Eugene Levy’s character, Hollywood agent Morley Orfkin “Why are you here?” At that point in the film, I assumed that for Levy, the unspoken answer was, “To wash off the stink of all those ‘American Pie’ sequels.” Unfortunately, “For Your Consideration” won’t redeem his career. If anything, it’s a black mark on the once-bright Christopher Guest legacy.

For those not familiar with that legacy, Guest helped write 1984’s classic “This is Spinal Tap.” He was the “These go to eleven” guy in this mock documentary about a fading heavy metal band. Twelve years later he returned to the mockumentary format and made it his trademark with “Waiting for Guffman” (1996), a fake doc about a small-town theater troupe. He followed up with “Best in Show” (2000) and “A Mighty Wind” (2003), hilarious send-ups of dog show people and folk music, respectively. With his core group of actors including Michael McKean, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Parker Posey, and several others who appear in all his films, it seemed that Guest had the comedic Midas touch.

Conceptually, there is no reason “For Your Consideration” shouldn’t be completely hilarious. Catherine O’Hara plays Marilyn Hack, an aging C-list actress appearing in what promises to be yet another lame issue-movie-of-the-week. The film, “Home for Purim” is filled with obscure Jewish cultural references (like the holiday Purim). The characters mouth statements like “It’s a mitzvah” in a rural southern drawl, which is actually amusing for a while. The film is obviously headed for oblivion until some random internet blogger praises Marilyn Hack’s performance as Oscar-worthy. The film’s publicist, who at first isn’t even sure where to look for the blog (“The Internet is that thing with email, right?”) uses the comment to generate considerable Oscar buzz for the film and several of the actors. The big joke is that in tinseltown, a little bit of buzz goes a long way. Unfortunately, it’s a joke that never gets quite as funny as it should.

Maybe part of the problem with “For Your Consideration” is that these actors have just hammed it up one too many times. Instead of the over-the-top-yet-strangely –subtle performances they gave in the brilliant “Best in Show,” we get scenery-chewing at its most world-weary. Catherine O’Hara, in particular, looks strained in this film. After “Home for Purim” filming completes, her character gets botoxed, lip injected, and augmented to prep for Oscar season. It’s an old joke that is timely again due to the ridiculous cosmetic adventures of some modern actresses. Unfortunately, the mild amusement it creates in this film isn’t worth how hard it is to look at O’Hara’s face for the rest of the movie. Most of the other main players are equally lackluster. Eugene Levy just looks like a broken man. Maybe he can’t remember how to act opposite a character that isn’t named Stiffler.

During every previous Chris Guest movie, my face has hurt from laughing almost constantly. I went into “For Your Consideration” ready for some pain, but unfortunately, my face felt just fine by the end. There are funny moments, of course. Don Lake and Michael Hitchcock provide a bright spot as bickering film critics, and the Fred Willard/Jane Lynch Entertainment Tonight spoof is dead-on and dead-funny. Ricky Gervais does his thing as a studio exec (“Tone down the Jewishness.”), but as much as I like Gervais, his shtick was actually a bit out of place here.

I hope that high expectations aren’t making me judge this film too harshly, but I was completely disappointed. I’m not sure I would even recommend watching this on cable unless you have nothing else to do. All artists have their ups and downs. Let’s hope that for Guest and company, “For Your Consideration” proves to be a temporary low.

2 stars.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Early Bond

I was so impressed by the new Bond film that I put a bunch of the original ones on my Netflix queue. After watching “Dr. No” (1962) and “From Russia with Love” (1963), I think I may have been a little harsh on Connery’s Bond in my “Casino Royale” review. Connery did some fine work in these films. “Dr. No” in particular is spare, brutal, and cool. There is nothing cute about Bond in this film. The closest thing to gadgetry involves a detailed discussion of the merits of a .32 caliber Beretta (Bond’s preference) compared to a Walther PPK in .380, which of course is the gun he ultimately made famous. The dialog in “Dr. No” is also nice and spare, without the lame attempts at glibness that later defined the franchise.

“From Russia with Love” is also a fine Bond film, but with all due respect I feel that the cracks are already beginning to show here. While the dialog is mostly excellent, there are a few attempts to give Bond clever one-liners that just fall flat. After killing a SPECTRE agent who is armed with a poisoned blade in the toe of her shoe, Bond comments, “She had her kicks.” The problem with lines like this, in this film and in the other Bond films, is that they are so obviously intended to be noticed that they stop the flow of the story. They also aren’t usually funny. I prefer the more natural, but stylish, dialogue in the film. When Bond discovers, too late, that his supposed contact is actually a SPECTRE assassin, he recalls his adversary’s odd dinner choice and remarks, “Red wine with fish. Well that should have told me something.” The assassin replies, “You may know the right wines, but you're the one on your knees. How does it feel old man?”

Despite a few complaints, I am enjoying re-watching these old Bond films. “Goldfinger”, the third in the series should be on its way soon.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Casino Royale (2006)

Fans of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels know that Bond was never meant to be some pretty-boy casting off lame one-liners. He’s a badass who is so good at what he does that he is allowed to kill anyone he deems necessary. He isn’t supposed to be cute, but unfortunately the Bond movies have always leaned towards a cutesy version of Bond. This is true to some extent even in the Sean Connery movies, although he is clearly the best Bond of the bunch. Until now, that is. With “Casino Royale’s” Daniel Craig, Hollywood has finally made a Bond movie worthy of the book, and they may have found the best Bond ever.

The groundswell of fan-boy whining that greeted the announcement of Craig as the new Bond illustrates my point. The loudest complaint seemed to be that Daniel Craig is blond, and Bond is supposed to have dark hair. That people would focus on so superficial a concern shows to what extent the Bond character has been diminished in the films. For years now, Bond has just been there to show off increasingly silly gadgets and toss off cringe-inducing one-liners. The show always gets stolen by whatever larger-than-life villain the screen-writers piece together. That’s why fans grew to care so much how Bond looks. He has become nothing more than a model. It’s no wonder fans were so excited to finally see Pierce Brosnan play Bond; he looks so handsome in a tux.

Well, Daniel Craig looks good in a tux, too. He also looks like someone who would kick your ass if you got in his way. Maybe even kill you. Which brings us back to that license to kill thing. “Casino Royale” is set in 2006, but it portrays James Bond at the start of his career as 007. This Bond looks just like what James Bond probably is: a resourceful, former Special Forces soldier who uses his license to kill with cold precision.

The story of “Casino Royale” involves an international banker who specializes in servicing terrorists, warlords, and the like. This banker, who calls himself Le Chiffre (French for “the figure” Other translations include “the number” or “the cipher”), tends to use his clients’ money for high-risk, high-profit investments, which is how he ends up in a high-stakes ($100 million) poker game. (In the book, it was some French casino game called chemin de fer, but for today’s audiences, the filmmakers decided on Texas hold-em.) Bond, who is apparently known as a good gambler, is sent to play and beat Le Chiffre, thus bankrupting the banker and forcing him to flee his terrorist clients, right into the arms of England’s witness protection program. Hot poker action ensues.

Speaking of hot action, we might as well get to the Bond girls. Apparently the British government trusts James Bond with a license to kill, but they don’t trust him to carry a suitcase full of money to a poker game. To carry the case for him and provide backup they send a 110 pound 23-year-old girl. God, I love Bond movies! As Vesper Lynd, Eva Green is a fine Bond girl. She wears a ridiculous amount of eye makeup in some scenes, but she has nice tits, so we’ll call it even. For extra eye candy, they also have Bond hook up with a smokin-hot Italian actress (Caterina Murino). The obligatory bad girl (Ivana Milicevic) is Le Chiffre’s girlfriend, but she doesn’t do much in this film. Not the most memorable bunch of Bond girls, but they get the job done. Judi Dench, on the other hand, continues to shine as Bond’s boss, “M”. I like the way “Casino Royale” showcases her as something of a mentor to Bond in his early spy years.

“Casino Royale” is the best Bond experience I have had in a long time. It has great action, hot babes, good acting, and a hard-boiled edge that I think Bond films have been lacking. I’m going to have to re-watch some of those early movies, because (Connery fans, cover your eyes.) I am tempted to call this the best Bond movie ever.

4.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

Borat takes some explaining. He is part performance artist and part practical joker, with some satire thrown in. It helps to start with Sasha Baron Cohen, the genius behind it all. Cohen is a British comedian who made his name on British TV by creating goofy characters and taking them out into real-world situations, where he made the brilliant discovery that people’s reactions to his characters were even funnier than the characters themselves. After a couple of successful years on BBC TV, however, Cohen’s game was played out in the U.K. Everyone there recognized him, so the joke was over. Fortunately, most people in the U.S. were still oblivious, which paved the way for HBO’s “Da Ali G Show.” This show featured Cohen doing interviews as one of three characters: a white, wannabe rapper named Ali G; a flaming Austrian fashion reporter named Bruno; or smelly, anti-Semitic Kazakh reporter Borat. The common thread was that the interviewees had no idea that the interview was a put-on. Cohen mined a deep vein of comedy in the reactions of American politicians, religious leaders, and celebrities to his outlandish questions.

Cohen first crossed over to the big screen with “Ali G Indahouse,” a mildly amusing scripted comedy that lacked the sparkle of his ambush interviews. I was relieved to learn that for the Borat movie he was returning to his roots, filming Borat mostly with non-actors who thought he was a real Kazakh reporter.

The Borat movie is loosely arranged around the premise that Borat is in the U.S. filming a documentary to be shown in Kazakhstan. While here he happens to catch a Baywatch rerun and falls completely in love with Pamela Anderson. This sets him off on a low-budget trip across the continent to find and marry her. Along the way he interacts with a number of regular people, who respond in various ways to his outrageous comments. In New York, most folks tell him to “F--- off.” People in the south are much more tolerant of his bizarre behavior, going to great lengths to be polite to him. I suspect this is why much of the film is set in the south. It also allows some of the southerners in the film to be unjustly stereotyped as racist.

Much has been made in the media about how Borat exposes people’s hidden racism, sexism, or homophobia, and to some extent he does. I think the point has become a bit overblown, however, and I disagree that his movie has single-handedly exposed some vast, dark underbelly of American society. There are certainly dark moments. When Borat tells a rodeo organizer that gays are hung from the gallows in Kazakhstan, the fellow replies, “That’s what we’re trying to get done here.” In another scene he hitches a ride with some criminally obnoxious frat boys whose misogyny and racism is truly disgusting. These guys are offensive, but if they are shocking, it is only to people from big, liberal cities. The rest of us have always known that these attitudes were out there. As for some of the other “shocking” scenes bandied about by the media, most of them just involve people trying to be polite to what they believe is a foreigner with limited English. When Borat asks a gun shop salesman “what kind of gun would be good to kill a Jew?” the clerk recommends a Glock. (A good choice for killing anybody who needs killing, in my opinion.) Many journalists have touted this scene as an example of anti-Semitism (and just what you would expect from someone in a gun store), but there is no actual endorsement of Borat’s comment on the part of the clerk. He is just being polite. Likewise, a car salesman doesn’t blink when Borat asks for a vehicle that will survive running into a group of Gypsies; he just leads Borat to a Hummer. These guys are SALESMEN, people. What would you have them do, start lecturing some foreigner about his racism?

As with the interviews on “Da Ali G Show,” the schtick in “Borat” sometimes falls a little flat. When Borat insults the looks of a preacher’s wife during a southern dinner party, I just felt sad for his victims. Most of the time, though, he had me chuckling, sometimes rolling, either at Borat’s antics (laughing derisively when a feminist suggests that women are equal to men) or his victims’ reactions (When Borat expresses his hope that George W. Bush will “drink the blood of every man, woman, and child in Iraq,” the dawning look of horror on the rodeo fans’ faces is priceless.) Even viewers too obtuse (or young) to get the more subtle aspects of this humor will find something to laugh at; the naked wrestling scene is classic, pants-wetting physical humor.

The tragedy of the “Borat” movie is that it is the funniest thing I saw this year, and it still isn’t as good as the “Ali G Show” Borat skits. It’s still worth the price of admission as long as you aren’t squeamish, and I am happy to see this brilliant comedian exposed (literally) to a wider audience.

4.5 stars