Wednesday, December 17, 2008

To quote Jay Sherman: "Hatchie-Matchie!"

It's been a frequent topic of conversation among my friends ever since we saw, and had our balls thoroughly waxed by, The Dark Knight: how the hell do you follow that? How do you even equal, let alone top, a superhero movie that is now widely considered to be the alpha and omega of the genre? The answer, according to, is to cast Eddie Murphy as the Riddler, Shia LaBeouf as Robin, and Rachel Weiz as Catwoman.

I'll wait for everyone to finish vomiting into their mouths.

Once you've swallowed your chunder, I hope you come around to the realization I did: this is actually brilliant. In fact, it's the only possible way to follow up The Dark Knight. Instead of dealing with the impossible-to-meet expecations set by Knight, Christopher Nolan and company are making a completely different type of movie. You expand the Batman universe, embrace the richness of life, revel in the fact that Gotham isn't just a city of corruption and despair, but of humor and love as well. You make sort of a demarcation line between the paranoia and cynicism of the Bush era and the hopeful humanism of the Obama era.

Now, there's no guarantee that this will work, but I have faith that the Nolans can make a looser, funnier Batman film that doesn't devolve into Schumacher-style leaden camp. The LaBeouf casting is really the warning sign: that little shit does not need to be in every tentpole franchise. Leave something for Jesse Bradford or somebody.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Shitty Action Film Villains Volume Three: General Francis X. Humel

Pretty much the only rule of film villainy more important than "the villain can't be a glorified henchman" is this one: "the villain can't be less bad-ass than his henchmen." In The Rock, Ed Harris' rogue Marine recon officer hijacks a bunch of VX nerve gas and takes San Francisco hostage unless he gets a shit-ton of money from the government. It's a decent start, until we find out that Humel wants the money to go to the families of soldiers who died under his command...and that he's actually bluffing and has no intention of gassing Frisco. Meanwhile, his accomplishes, lead by Tony Todd, are very much willing to kill half of the people in the Bay Area, because they aim to get paid! So the supposed villain of the piece ends up getting lit up by his own flunkies because he won't launch his missiles. Some might call this a pleasantly rich characterization for an action film. Since this movie was directed by Michael Bay, I'm just going to call it lame. Also, dude's named after a line of adorable porcelain figurines. 'nuff said.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Every scene in a traditional narrative film serves a purpose for the audience. This purpose may be to move the plot forward, or provide insight into a character's motivation or create atmosphere, but the mark of a really good movie is the degree to which this purpose is invisible to the viewer. You absorb the meaning of the scene through osmosis, certainty kept at bay by unpredictability inherent in watching a movie for the first time. One of the major weaknesses of the biopic as a genre is the fact that the purpose of each scene is almost always obvious from the jump. Actually watching the scene is beside the point, as soon as you know that you're watching the scene where, say, our protagonist learns how to play the instrument that will lead him to glory, or when he makes the fateful decision to run for office. If a quality movie is flesh and bone, then biopics are X-rays, nothing but bones on film.

Gus Van Sant has made a string of defiantly non-conventional films in the past ten years, from Gerry to Last Days, films that privilege mood and mundane detail over plot pyrotechnics. Unfortunately, Van Sant fails to bring this sensibility to bear on his new film about assassinated gay rights icon Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Instead, Van Sant offers up a large slice of formulaic, telegraphed biopic action. Sean Penn serves up a textured, affecting performance, but his character is given little in the way of an interior life. He is defined by his commitment to gay equality, and even the attempts to detail his relationships with boyfriends James Franco and Diego Luna come across as half-hearted gestures towards dimensions that are never investigated. Van Sant sandwiches scenes dramatizing the high points of Milk's political career; his first, unsuccessful run for the Board, his third, successful one, his campaign against Anita Bryant's attempt to ban gay teachers from California public schools, between bits of contemporary news footage. This roots Milk in a specific time and place, but also blunts the film's momentum, as does a framing device that finds Harvey Milk dictating his life story into a tape recorder. Not only does the narrative purpose of each individual scene announce itself instantly, but these scenes fail to build onto one another to create a cumulative effect. That's another common problem with biopics in general and another area where Milk fails to distinguish itself from the pack. Most biopics feature a bunch of disconnected vignettes of obvious intent that never cohere. Milk is no different, marked only by some strong performances and a few nicely naturalistic sequences. Penn in particular is brilliant. His face is usually a fist of angst and rage, but here he effortlessly assumes the skin of an affable, engagingly humane figure.

But Milk is being embraced by critics as one of the year's best films, not to mention a vitally important film, coming out in the aftermath of the passage of Proposition 8 in California. Part of this because the very conventions that make Milk an exceedingly generic piece of biographical filmmaking are what also make it compelling. This is the first big, sweeping biopic about a gay activist. It's the gay Gandhi, or X, a cinematic validation of the gay rights struggle, with all the attendant airless self-seriousness. You know you've made real progress as an oppressed minority in America when you get your own big-budget encomium to a fallen martyr. So Milk's conventionality and overwrought reach for historical significance make it a celebration of the mainstreaming of the gay community.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Movie Shoot-outs. A Primer

The two most common things people in movies do to each other is kiss and kill. When they kill, they tend to use guns, that most charismatic of murder weapons, and nothing is more charismatic on film than a bunch of people with guns trying to kill one another at the same time. So, if you want to make sure people watch your movie, you could do worse than throw in a few shoot-outs. This raises the question: how do you film your shoot-out? Filmmakers have offered several models to choose from.


Michael Mann's Heat is usually cited as the apotheosis of realistic film shoot-outs, and there's a reason for that. The throw-down between Robert De Niro's bank robbers and Al Pacino's LAPD in downtown L.A. is striking in its comittment to a flat, unaffected sound design and crisp editing. It doesn't hurt that a few years after Heat came out, a couple of bank robbers lit up an LA neighborhood and the news footage was almost indistinguishable from the movie. Still, Heat does not, in fact, feature the apotheosis of the hyper-realistic shootouts. Towards the end of the scene, there's a some close-ups of Pacino that make audience identification a bit too intense to qualifiy as hyper-realism. That honor goes to the climax of Christopher McQuarrie's Way of the Gun, a mind-bendingly pretensious bit of late-90s Tarantino thievery starring Ryan Philippe at his most un-interesting. The only thing to recommend it is that final shoot-out, which is notable for its studied distance and super methodical blocking; the bad guys even use the Weaver stance, for god's sake.

"Ballet of Bullets"

Nowadays, shootouts that feature gushing blood spurts and bodies flying through the air in super slow motion are synonymous with John Woo and his goddamn doves. The style was pioneered by cowboy philosopher Sam Peckinpah, specifically his masterpiece, The Wild Bunch. That was a revolutionary film; the apocalyptic final shoot-out between William Holden's gang and pretty much the entire Mexican army was a sharp break with the strong tradition of bloodless gunplay in Hollywood horse operas. The style has been so overused by now, particularly by motherfuckers from Hong Kong, that the returns have diminished drastically. At this point, the only way to make it interesting is to ratchet up the ultraviolence to stratospheric heights. And yet, it's been over a decade since Chow Yun Fat shot up a hospital full of pregnant women and old folks in Hard Boiled, and nobody has come close.

Rapidly Edited, Music-Saturated Suckfest

If you've seen the ungoldy bad shootout at the end of Enemy of the State, then you've seen the absolute worst this style of shootout direction has to offer. The Scott brothers, Tony and Ridley, are the supreme acolytles of this awful, obvious and migraine-inducing way of doing business. As in most cinematic matters, Ridley is slightly more compotent than his special needs bro. It's also the default style of pretty much every mediocre to bad former commerical director who makes action films, from the braindead likes of 3000 Miles to Graceland to the equally braindead but guility pleasureable Smokin' Aces.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Shitty Action Film Villains Volume Two: Dr. Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow

All comic book movie fans kneel before the majestic awesomeness of Christopher Nolan. Dude took an iconic character who had been turned into a weak camp punchline by cinematic arch-douche Joel Schumacher and almost singlehandedly made him compelling and relevant. Big ups. Still, there is one serious gripe to be had with Mr. Nolan concerning his newjack Batman films, and that is the horrific wasting of Scarecrow as a villain. Not only did Nolan commit the cardinal sin of making a kick-ass bad guy into a glorified henchman, he didn't even let Dr. Crane bust out his whole horse-riding, sack-cloth-wearing shtick until the very end of the movie, and then only for one scene. At the end of that scene, it bears mentioning, this terrifying conjurer of nightmares is felled by a tazer-shot from Katie Holmes. No movie villain of any kind, not to mention no Batman villain of Scarecrow's stature, should be dispatched with the sort of weapon that a middle-aged secretary carries in her purse. He should also not be taken out by the goddamn girlfriend of the hero. What, Bruce Wayne's squash partner wasn't available to dose him with pepper spray? It's a shame, because not only is Scarecrow a pretty neat villain in the Batman canon, but Cillian Murphy's creepy blue eyes and bemused smirk give him a real presence that is never exploited to the fullest. Good thing Nolan learned his lesson.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

Charlie Kaufman’s produced screenplays, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, have been centered on the question of how people tell stories to each other and themselves. His directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York seeks to answer the deeper of why we tell stories in the first place. His answer has a lot to do with the defining characteristic of humanity; the consciousness of our death. The knowledge that we’re all going to die sets the parameters of our existence, fuels all of our darkest fears, and sends us scurrying about for semblances of comfort and meaning wherever they can be found. For Kaufman, any hope for solace comes in the act of artistic creation.

Synecdoche, New York is focused laze-like on the mind of Schenectady, New York theater director Caden Cotard played with lethal empathy by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and a clear surrogate for the filmmaker. Cotard is plagued by mysterious ailments and a creeping decrepitude that mirror Kaufman’s own well-known hypochondria as well as the inevitable physical decline in store for us all. To distract from his illnesses and to reassure himself that his life has meaning and weight, Cotard sets about writing, casting and rehearsing a massive theatrical performance, staged in a giant warehouse that incorporates every experience in his life, from his failed marriage to artist Catherine Keener to a series of romantic failures with a string of women including box office ticket taker Samantha Morton and actress Michelle Williams.

The film serves to take the top off of Charlie Kaufman’s creative machinery and expose the gears for all to see. As Kotard struggles to make sense of his life (and death) by directing actors in dramatic reconstructions of scenes from his life, the audiences sees how and why this particular artist, and perhaps all artists, can turn pain into creative expression.

Though this movie boasts the same sort of post-modern high concept as his previous scripts, it doesn’t feature the conventional plot structure that made those films more satisfying as straightforward entertainments. Instead, Synecdoche, New York operates on the dream logic of a David Lynch film. Like Lynch, Kaufman seeks to give the audience the experience of being inside his head, but rather than present them with the images of his nightmares as Lynch does, Kaufman shows them the fuel of his nightmares, namely fear of death and obscurity and the bitter memories of anguish endured and inflicted. This approach, with its abundance of absurdity, symbolism, philosophical tangents and studious lack of narrative drive, makes Synecdoche, New York a hard film to love. However, it’s downright impossible not to be moved by its brutal frankness, trenchant insight, and superhuman ambition.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Shitty Action Film Villains Volume One: Raymond Calitri

The Nicholas Cage remake of Gone in 60 Seconds is an awful movie, a Jerry Bruckheimer production directed by one of his sub-Bay minions with all the sweaty bathos and sterile action you'd expect. The only thing memorable about the film besides Angelina Jolie's blonde dreadlocks is the noteworthy lameness of the bad guy. Christopher Eccleston plays Raymond Calitri, the murderous head of an international car theft ring. The problem isn't really Eccleston, who is can convey serious menace, as he did in 28 Days Later and Shallow Grave. The problem is the stunningly lame way that the filmmakers (to loosely apply the word) decide to define Calitri. His "hook" is that...he really likes wood. There's a jaw-dropping scene in which Eccleston gives a whole schpeil about the cleanliness and elegance of wood as a building material in between threatening to kill Cage's younger brother. It's pretty much the only bit of character development Calitri gets and it stands out for the arbitrary stupidity, the naked flailing on the part of hack screenwriters to give their cardboard cutouts something to say. I imagine the room full of script doctors trying to figure out how to make their bad guy stand out as unique, getting bored, turning on the television and seeing a Full House rerun. Dave Coulier and his woodchuck puppet provided the muse of raw poetry that day.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Notes on Cinematic Awesomeness

The highest achievement of cinema, in my estimation, is the provocation of visceral emotional response. I'm not talking about cheap gross outs or easy scares, but reactions provoked by films that create a sense of reality that makes the characters and scenario absolutely real for the viewer in a lightning bolt moment. I'm also a big fan of genre subversion, because the use of cliche tropes are filmic death and should be mocked into oblivion.

There is another cinematic delight of mine, something that gets me pumping my fist in delirious joy in the middle of a crowded movie theater: awesomeness. This isn't the same as a "guilty pleasure" or "so bad it's good." Awesomeness is a triumph of film craft, rather than art. Bad movies can have awesome parts, but the awesome parts cannot themselves be bad. Awesomeness is also without redeeming artistic or thematic value of any kind. Awesomeness is totally visual, and relies on the sort of high priced production design and special effects that only Hollywood films can manage, so it's rare to find in a genuinely challenging and/or non-commercial movie.

Awesomeness is a cinematic spectacle of singular destruction. It can be property destruction or physical destruction, but it must be unique, it must be audacious, and it must be executed with verve and verisimilitude. Unless all of these criteria are met, you just don't have awesomeness. There's a scene in George Romero's Land of the Dead that is textbook awesome: a soldier pulls the pin on a grenade, before he can throw it, a zombie chops his arm off with a cleaver, then chops his leg off. The soldier then falls onto his severed limb, which still holds the live grenade. He is then blown into several distinct pieces that fly across the screen. Awesome. There is another scene in Land of the Dead that attempts awesomeness, but fails. A zombie gets the drop on a soldier, who is relieved to see that it doesn't have a head. Then, the head which is actually attached to the body by a thin string of gristle, pops forward and takes a bit out of the soldier's arm. Now, the inventiveness of this scene means it could have been awesome, but the head is rendered in cartoonishly crude CGI. Zombie movies in general are chock-a-block with awesomeness, because they usually include a whole lot of creative damage done to the human body.

Explosions are generally not awesome, because they are so generic. You've seen one, you've seen them all. Car crashes are rarely awesome because they're usually shot in such a predictable series of quick cuts and overlaid with hysterical musical dubbing. The car crash/mass murder in Death-Proof is indescribably awesome, because it's a dizzying combination of singluar physical damage AND singular property damage. In fact, Quentin Tarantino is probably the most prolific generator of awesomeness currently operating. Marvin getting shot in the face in the middle of a conversation in Pulp Fiction? Awesome. Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs getting lit up by Tim Roth with about fifteen shots to the chest when you thought Roth was unconscious? Awesome. Pretty much the entirety of Kill Bill Volume 1? Awesome. Uma Thurman stepping on Daryl Hannah's freshly-plucked eyeball in Volume 2? Awesome. Remember, awesome is not the same as good, and a lot of Tarantino's awesomeness is tied in to his emotional and intellectual vapidity. It takes a certain childishness to take up the intensely powerful medium of film and use it to creatively replicate the severing of limbs and the implosion of heads.

Michael Haneke does not approve of awesomeness. In fact, he might be the least awesome filmmaker currently working. Him or Ang Lee. That doesn't mean I don't like Haneke's work. He makes some of the most intellectually engaging films out there. (Ang Lee on the other hand, produces thorazine on celluloid) In fact, there is another cinematic phenomenon that gives me a shiver is a similar if less fist-pumping way as awesomeness: anti-awesomeness.

Anti-awesomeness is when a filmmaker deliberately denies the audience a visceral thrill in such a way that makes them aware of their perhaps subconsious craving for the spectacular and asks where such feelings come from. Haneke is a master of anti-awesomeness. The final scene of David Fincher's Zodiac is a triump of anti-awesomeness.

To exhalt in awesomeness is to revel in the aesthetics of the consequence free world of graphic mayhem that movies create. Anti-awesomeness is the pointed reminder that our desire to watch the world and the human body smashed into soggy pieces comes from a sinister place. There is a magnetic beauty to a showering cascade of organ meat. We can reassure ourselves that we only find it beautiful because we know it's fake, but why the hell do we think it's beautiful in the first place? Any answer I would give would have something to do with my dreams of apocalypse, and I do appreciate filmmakers who challenge such dysfunctional narcissism. That doesn't mean I won't keep seeking out an orchestral arrangement of cartwheeling limbs. Anti-awesomeness is penance, twelve rosaries and six hail marys to purify the soul between evicerations.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Happy Go Lucky

The pop culture wizards at the Onion AV Club have coined a term for a ubiquitous film character they call the "manic pixie dream girl." She is an irrepressible, carefree dervish of energy and vitality who invariably blows into the life of a dull stick-in-the-mud and awakens him to life's possiblilites. Examples included Natalie Portman in Garden State, Jennifer Aniston in Along Came Polly and Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown. To a one they are beautiful, "wacky" in a wholesome and totally non-psychotic way, and are defined completely by their need to provide life lessons for the protagonist.

The character Poppy (Sally Hawkins) in Mike Leigh's new film Happy Go Lucky could potentially serve as the Platonic ideal of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She's a relentlessly upbeat kindergarten teacher who has a compulsive need to emotionally engage with every person she meets. The wisp of a plot also calls to mind other films about grumpy men and the two dimensional quirk-factories who love them. Poppy takes driving lessons from a pathologically surly instructor played by Eddie Marsan who goes from loathing her constant chatter and unfailing pep to falling in love with her. What distinguishes Happy Go Lucky from the films of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl variety, and what makes it an ingenious critique of the genre is the fact that Hawkins doesn't blow into Marsan's life. Hawkins is the main character, and the audience is introduced to her bitter driving teacher at the same time that she is. This is a crucial shit that takes a shopworn premise into unexpected, rich new directions.

Hawkins' Sally is not a walking, talking device for the spiritual enrichment of a man. She's a walking, talking person, whose commitment to maintaining a cheerful attitude and reaching out to the people she meets are character traits that grow out of her personality organically. The film is composed largely of a series of interactions between Hawkins' sunny disposition and a parade of bitter, closed-off, wounded, or flat out insane people who are alternately befuddled, amused, enchanted and enraged by her. The reactions that Hawkins' provokes are another aspect of the film that challenges viewer expectations. No one is magically cured of their unhappiness by being around Hawkins. They interact with her the way that people tend to interact with strangers whose behavior confounds social norms, or whose outlook challenges their preconceived notions. These failures to connect serve to isolate Hawkins for the audience as a unique person, and to place her actions and mindset in the a existential context. She doesn't laugh and dance and smile at strangers to make the world a better place. She does it because it makes her life livable.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Quantum of Solace

In the B.C. (Before Craig) era, James Bond films were cinematic bon-bons. Lightweight, sugar-laden confections without context or consequence. Beautiful women were wooed, gadgets were deployed, bad guys were dispatched with a quip, with the audience safe in the knowledge that the next Bond movie down the pike would have an entirely new set of villains and sexpots and Bond, with a bemused smile on his face, would be there to kick butt, none the worse for wear. The Daniel Craig reboot that began with 2006's Casino Royale and continues with Quantum of Solace brings something new to the Bond franchise: an overriding plot and character arc that stretches from film to film. Quantum picks up within an hour of the end of Casino, with Daniel Craig's Bond seeking vengeance for the death of his love, Vesper Lynd, due to the machinations of an shadowy global conspiracy. This ambitious approach has it's advantages: in two films, Daniel Craig's James Bond has made more of an impression as a multi-dimensional character than Roger Moore's did in seven. The danger of a trilogy, which the Craig Bond films are revealing themselves to be, is that the middle film is usually the weakest.

For all of its slam-bang action, exotic locales and Bond angst, Quantum of Solace is finally unsatisfying, as it sets up an epic confrontation between Bond and a worldwide criminal organization that must be left for the next movie to be dealt with. One hopes that two movies worth of vague suggestions about the nefarious QUANTUM group will eventually pay off, but in Quantum of Solace, all that the audience can look forward to is a plot that is simultaneously overstuffed and thin. There are plenty of globe-trotting action sequences, including a car chase on winding Italian mountain roads, a boat chase in Haiti and an inexplicable showdown in an empty, hydrogen-powered hotel in the middle of the Bolivian desert, but because Bond's enemy is so ill-defined, the stakes are unclear, which makes it hard to invest too heavily in the outcome. It doesn't help that director Marc Forster stages the action with a marked lack of invention, the only exception being a poetic shootout at an opera house that still manages to evoke unwelcome memories of The Godfather Part 3.

Quantum tries to compensate for the lack of a compelling enemy or satisfying plot by focusing on James Bonds' struggle to come to terms with the death of Vesper. Daniel Craig is all coiled intensity and glowering rage, with most of the trademark Bond wit strangled by grief. Bond takes out all this pain on the world, one broken-necked goon at a time. In this film, Bond is absolutely no fun, but his emotional journey is not particularly interesting, either. Like the action scenes, it rings the same familiar tones of a host of other action films. Nothing about the character connects to the rich legacy of "James Bond." This includes the ostensible "Bond girl," Olga Kurylenko, who is far too obsessed with her own personal losses and revenge plans to pay Bond much romantic attention.

After the arc-ridiculousness and nancing-about of Pierce Brosnan, it was clear that the Bond films needed a revamp. Daniel Craig has made a capable, indeed bad-ass Bond, and brings a needed gravity and physical presence to the role. Two movies into his tenure, however, a disturbing trend has emerged. The ambitious plan to deepen the character of James Bond by giving him emotional baggage has, in Quantum of Solace, served to render Bond somewhat generic. The man punching his way across five time zones in this movie could be any number of wronged and broken vengeance-junkies to have graced cinema screens in the past few decades. At some points, he brings to mind the Punisher in a tuxedo instead of Kevlar. "Depth" is thought to be an objectively good thing for a film character to have, but James Bond is somewhat defined by his shallowness, his ironic detachment, his sang froid. Making him into a standard-issue revenge seeker drains him of that electrifying coolness that has made Bond such an indelible figure in popular culture. This grief-stricken James Bond knows how to brood like no other, but he's no longer a guy you'd want to have a vodka martini with. Dude would just bum you out.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Role Models

When deciding on whether to shell out hard-earned (or easily-earned, for that matter) cash to see Role Models, ask yourself one question: do you find the idea of children swearing at adults or vice versa to be inherently hilarious? If the answer is yes, you'll definitely love this movie. If the answer is still might end up liking this movie. I am not usually one to bust a gut over foul-mouthed youngsters (I hate that "Landlord" video), but the way that Bobb'e J. Thompson, who plays Ronnie in Role Models, curses is endlessly chuckle-worthy. He doesn't swear with the cutesy adorable wink that says to the audience I'm a ten-year-old and I'm swearing! Isn't that outrageous? Ronnie swears with total commitment, which is really funny. In that way, Thompson's performance is like Role Models as a whole. It takes a shopworn premise and executes it with memorable verve.

Role Models is a strong bit of evidence that originality is not an essential ingredient to a successful film comedy. The plot is standard issue in every way. Two underachieving schlubs played by Paul Rudd get in trouble with the law and are forced into cour-ordered community service with a Big Brothers-type organization mentoring a couple of friendless outcasts. Rudd is paired with a Live Action Role Playing nerd played by McLovin himself, Christopher Minz-Plasse. Scott must contend with Bobb'e Thompson's hyperactive f-bomb machine. As you might have guessed, the guys bond with the kids, the kids bond with the adults, there is a third act complication, and by the end of the film, everyone has learned something about themselves. If you can't see every plot point coming a mile away, you've probably never seen a movie before. There's even the requisite double montage: an upbeat second act montage of the kids and adults getting closer, and a downbeat third act montage of sadness after the aforementioned complication. What makes Role Models special is that the third act montage features one of the most pants-wettingly funny sight gags in recent film memory.

For all the predictable plot mechanics, Role Models works because of the winning performances and chemistry of the actors. Paul Rudd subverts his usual shaggy charm by playing a bitter failure who projects his self-loathing through withering sarcasm and generalized misanthropy. All of which makes him a perfect foil for Sean William Scott, whose goofy affability is a perfect contrast with Rudd's seething resentment. The real comedy gold is watching them at work: they hawk a sickly green energy drink called Minotaur under the guise of conducting "anti-drunk" assemblies at high schools. No wonder Rudd loses it and crashes their goofy minotaur-shaped SUV into a statue. The dynamic between the leads and their "littles" is just as entertaining, making the by-the-numbers "getting to know you" sequences more fun than they have a right to be. Minz-Plasse's ernest, unironic enjoyment of medevial roleplaying games plays perfectly off of Rudd's ironic detachment, and one of the best parts of the film is watching Rudd's joylessness crumble in the face of unselfconscious fantasy play. Another highlight is the laid-back party boy Sean William Scott connecting with his hyperactive, pint-sized maniac over Kiss lyrics and the best way to subtly ogle the female boob. In a movie this dedicated to letting its characters breath and play off of each other to full comic effect, an original plot is not necessary. The predictable beats don't distract from the smooth transition from comic set-up to comic set-up. You don't want plot trickery, you just want to watch these people be funny.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Zach and Miri Make a Porno

Judd Apatow has made a mint over the past few years producing comedies that follow a consistent template; indifferently directed tales of delayed adolescent man-children groping their way towards maturity and love while spouting filthy one-liners along the way. If that formula seems familiar, it’s because Kevin Smith practically invented it. Yet, while his films have consistently existed as mildly profitable niche entertainments, Apatow has taken Smith’s dude-centric cult sensibility and turned it into a string of mainstream mega-hits.

This is not a great injustice. Apatow produced films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked-Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall are light-years better than most of Kevin Smith’s work. Smith’s raunchy dialogue tends to be awkward, stiff and fake-sounding, his direction is slipshod and the emotional interaction between his characters is over determined and superficial. Apatow movies are upgrades across the board. The improv-heavy dialogue is naturalistic in a way that Kevin Smith and his penchant for baroque diatribes could never reproduce. There is a vastly greater attention paid to cinematography and shot composition. Most significantly, the characters are more vibrant and relatable. Apatow took the slacker-ethos and gleeful crudeness of Clerks and Mallrats and gave it heart and poignancy.

Credit Kevin Smith for lack of ego. Instead of raging against a comedy poacher who found a way to turn his cinematic jalopy into a hot rod, Smith has observed the myriad ways that Apatow has fine-tuned his model and incorporated those changes into his new film Zach and Miri Make a Porno. The result is Kevin Smith’s funniest, most heartfelt and technically adept film in a long time.

Smith’s smartest decision is borrowing Apatow leading man Seth Rogen and casting him in the role of Zach. Rogen’s bombastic delivery gives Smith’s dialogue an organic feel that it usually lacks. Smith also seems to have finally grasped the fact that film techniques and editing can enhance character development.

The story concerns two slackers: Zach and Miri (Elizabeth Banks, looking way too put-together to be working at a mall in Pittsburgh), attempting to get a hold on their mountain of unpaid bills by making a porn film featuring themselves and marketing it to their former high school classmates. In the process, these Platonic roommates discover depths of feeling for each other they’d never admitted to themselves before. None of the romantic twist rate as original or particularly interesting. Still, the relationship resonates thanks to vulnerable performances from the leads. Even in the absence of an innovative plot the usual Kevin Smith parade of Byzantine sexual references prove consistently funny, especially since there is a context for all the raunch.

The frustration of watching Zach and Miri comes from seeing a whole host of comedic premises go undeveloped due to Smith’s choice to focus intently on the evolving relationship of the leads. The mainstreaming of pornography and the rise of amateur porn on the internet are subjects ripe for exploration. Instead of delving into them, Smith treats the porn set-up as a flimsy pretext for unleashing weapons-grade filth and putting his protagonists on a path towards love.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Rachel Getting Married

Johnathan Demme ditches his trademark claustrophobic close-ups and hypnotic tracking shots for a raw, free-wheeling hand-held style in Rachel Getting Married. The result is a movie full of sharp edges and the jittery thrum of real, lived life. With its rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue , it feels like the last Robert Altman film that Altman didn't live long enough to make.

Anne Hathaway stars as Kym, a recovering drug addict on a weekend pass from rehab to attend the wedding of her sister, Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt). Over the course of three harrowing days of emotional combat, years of resentment and trauma rupture like ripe boils. Hathaway's Kym is an ego monster of epic proportions, an all-consuming narcissist whose drug-addled antics and rehab-fueled theatrics command the attention of every member of her family, then complains about the burden of such scrutiny. It's a fearless performance. Hathaway refuses to soften her character to gain audience sympathy, but she reveals enough vulnerability and pain to evoke pathos. For their own part, Kym's family, from her sister to her father (Bill Irwin) and her estranged mother (Debra Winger), do more than simply react to her shenanigans. Each one of them display a host of hang-ups, neuroses and weaknesses. Credit Jenny Lumet's tart, crisp script for presenting such a compelling menagerie of wounded characters imprisoned by their pasts and straining to free themselves. Tragically, the only people with the power to validate them are the same ones who bring their pain to the surface.

Witnessing all of this horrifying dysfunction, a sensible audience member could be excused for wondering why these people bother to maintain their relationships with one another. Lumet and Demme smartly leaven the bitterness by lingering on the moments of grace and affection that are just as much a staple of family gatherings as drunkenly hurled accusations. Demme films the rehearsal dinner and the wedding with a winning intimacy. He lets moments of affection, like a heartfelt toast or a raucous dance-off breath, and the on-screen joy proves infections. It reminds you why you put up with the endlessly frustrating people in your life.

These blissful spells prove fleeting relief, though. What lingers is acute awareness of the irreversible damage people do to the ones they love. Despite the relatively extreme nature of the family history on display in this movie, the dynamics of attraction and repulsion, redemption and resentment, are painfully recognizable. That bittersweet pang of familiarity gives Rachel Getting Married a lasting impact.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

DVD: War, Inc

The war in Iraq has been a disaster, sure, but it is also an ongoing crime against humanity. It seems that Americans can agree about the disaster part, but you can't point out the criminal part without being called an America-hater. Eventually, we'll all be calling Iraq a "tragic mistake," just like Vietnam. Now, Vietnam wasn't a mistake, it was a goddamn decade long massacre carried out by the United States of America. Of course, admitting as much would make Americans feel all sad in their tummies, so we've all subconsciously agreed to stick with the "tragic" narrative. In twenty years, Iraq will go under same "regrettable goof-up" section in our collective memory as Vietnam, and the next time a group of lying, corrupt war mongers try to squash another dusty outpost brimming with crucial natural resources through fraud, scare tactics and cluster bombs, we're going to be shocked, SHOCKED when it turns out to be a pointless bloodbath.

One of the noblest and most quixotic missions an artist can undertake is to battle against this collective self-deception, to insist upon a true reckoning with our national crimes, weaknesses and hatreds. Unfortunately, mainstream film artists have generally been complete incompetents at this sort of thing. Take Vietnam; the only Hollywood film that was released during the Vietnam war that directly dealt with the conflict was John Wayne's study in right-wing delusion The Green Berets. In the decade after the war ended, Vietnam films flooded theaters, and almost to a one they described the war as a tragic mistake, with the most terrible suffering being endured by...the American soldiers who fought in Vietnam. Not the millions (MILLIONS!) of Vietnamese who were killed and wounded by American intervention, but the people who killed them. Hollywood has helped codify a collective memory of Vietnam that's rougly akin to Germans remembering World War Two as a time of great suffering by the brave Wehrmacht troops on the Eastern front.

So far, it's looking like the Vietnamization of our memory of Iraq will be aided and abbeded by moviemakers. Unlike during Vietnam, there have already been a number of movies made about the Iraq war while it is still ongoing; credit the 24 hour news cycle. Almost all of them have come at the conflict from the same vacuous, immoral position: whatever you think about the rightness of the war, it sure is hard to be a soldier! Maybe they're scared of being called "un-American," or maybe they just haven't thought about the war deeply enough to approach it with anything other than shopworn cliches that have held sway in war films since John Wayne took Iwo Jima. In any event, pretty much every movie to directly reference the war in Iraq that has come down the pike has been a mushy, pointless snoozefest.

Until Now.

It's a sadly predictable shame that War, Inc was uncerimonously dumped in a handful of theaters earlier this year before limping onto DVD. If all those apolitical Iraq war movies went down in flames, there was no sense in putting a lot of advertising behind an Iraq war movie that plays like Grosse Point Blank written by Naomi Klein. It's too bad, because War, Inc is the first film of the Iraq war to contain the appropriate outrage, passion, vision and fucking BALLS.

John Cusack, that commie, and his cinematic comrades-in-arms have crafted a pitch-black comedy that takes the insights of Klein's Shock Doctrine and stretches them just enough to push the privatized horrorshow of the Iraq war from tragedy to farce. In the near-future, the United States has occupied the mid/central Asian nation of Turaquistan, contracting the invasion and running of the country to a monstrous hybrid of Halliburton and Blackwater called Tamerlane. Cusack, playing an even-more-morose version of Martin Blank, is hired to assassinate a foreign oil minister whose pipeline plans endanger Tamerlane's dreams of energy hegenomy. Cusack's cover in Turaquistan is as an organizer for the trade show "Brand USA" which seeks to introduce the conquered populace to their shiny new future as vassals of corporate America. There are a host of pitch-perfect, bitterly funny jokes about the criminality and corruption of the Iraq invasion, but not many that you'd actually laugh at. More like wince at. Like a chorus line of Turaqi war victims with prosthetic legs made with the very same technology that blew off their real ones! This movie isn't perfect: it really does simply hijack the plot of Grosse Point Blank wholesale, and there are some byzantine soap opera twists that distract more than they enrich, but attention needs to be paid to a film with a real commitment to dramatizing the horror and absurdity that we have all been party to over the past five years.

Score: 8.0

Thursday, October 16, 2008


If you're a fan of verite horror, then 2008 was your year. Quarantine is the third movie since January to feature ostensible first person footage shot by a person experiencing an apocalyptic threat to humanity. While containing effectively visceral moments, Quarantine holds up poorly compared to Cloverfield or Diary of the Dead. At it's best, verite horror can be mercilessly scary by utilizing the hyperrealism of video equipment and long, unedited shots, and by jettisoning the sort of cheap effects, like foreboding music and fast cutting that remind the viewer that they're just watching a movie. At it's worst, verite horror ends up being indistinguishable from a first person survival horror video game, with missions to accomplish and monsters popping up at predictable intervals. Quarantine falls squarely into the latter camp.

The film starts promisingly enough, as a young television reporter (Jennifer Carpenter) and her cameraman (Steven Harris) tag along with a couple of firefighters on an emergency call to a dungeon-like apartment building where an elderly woman has been screaming in her locked apartment. The atmosphere is creepy and realistic, and when the old lady starts biting people, it's genuinely unsettling. But once the military shows up to quarantine the building and the survivors start screaming and running around and getting infected and biting each other, the proceedings dissolve into an increasingly tedious bout of whack-a-zombie as infected people jump out of the dark at the protagonists with numbing frequency. When I needed to go to the bathroom near the end, I half-hoped that one of the characters would reach a save point and I could go grab some Milk Duds.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Everything about the new film W, from its compact, guerrilla-style production schedule earlier this year to its mid-October release, right before the election, suggests that director Oliver Stone wants his film to serve as the epitaph of the Bush administration. Instead, it plays like a highlight reel of live-action political blog posts from the 2002-2004. We get all of George W. Bush's youthful fecklessness, his wacky malapropisms, a decent thumbnail sketch of the run up to the Iraq war, and some dime store psychoanalysis, but nothing that a politically aware person hasn't heard or read about hundreds of times by this late date.

W is Stone's most restrained film in many years, both visually and thematically. There are no randomly inserted mystical Native Americans, for one thing. Also absent are the overexposures, jump cuts and assorted gimmicks that comprise Stone's cinematic bag of tricks. The only time the old, wild Oliver Stone makes his presence known is in a sequence depicting W's conversion to evangelical Christianity. There are a lot of close-ups of blue-eyed Jesus and Bush's pastor, Earl Hund (Stacey Keach) praying fervently. Even this scene is devoid of the queasy, hallucinatory intensity of Stone at his most inspired. It's too bad, because without Stone's vivid personal stamp, W is a beige, by-the-numbers biopic content to touch on the highlights (and lowlights) of Bush's life while failing to offer any real insight. That born again conversion, which had such a tremendous effect on Bush's life and fate, carries no weight and makes no imprint on the rest of the film. It's just one more incident of import to be checked off the list before moving on.

Stone's interpretation of George Bush is as conventional as the presentation. Bush starts out as a charming, aimless hellraiser, crushed by the expectations and disappointments of his powerful father. After years of drinking and business failure, he is rescued, first by the love of Laura Walsh (Elizabeth Banks) and then by the love of Jesus Christ. Fueled by unresolved daddy issues, Christian fervor and his own innate charisma (with a little help from political operative Karl Rove, played with smarm to burn by Toby Jones), he takes the Texas state house, and then the White House. There, in the aftermath of 9/11, his subconscious need to one-up his father is yoked to the imperial fantasies of his Vice President (Richard Dreyfus, in the role he has aged to play) to launch a reckless invasion of Iraq. Along the way the audience is treated to a greatest hits collection of Bushisms, from "is our children learning" to the near-fatal encounter with the pretzel to the immortal "fool me once..." The combined effect is one of empathy cut with gentle mockery. Stone seems to be saying: Bush might not be bright, but he means well.

After two hours, that's not much to hang a movie, or an analysis of an eight year presidency, on. Still, there are more mundane pleasures to be had while watching W. Josh Brolin is funny and relatively subtle; he avoids caricature while still channeling Bush's most indelible mannerisms. Some of the behind-the-scenes machinations of Bush's war cabinet make riveting, horrifying viewing even if the overall sense is of drastic abridgement of crucial details by Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser.

The question that lingers after watching W is: since none of this is news to any person who has been paying the slightest bit of attention to politics for the past eight years, and it's hard to imagine why someone who hasn't paid attention to politics would watch a movie about George W. Bush, what exactly is the purpose of this movie? It may well be that making this movie is catharsis for Stone and company, a chance to cleanse the artistic palette of George Bush and all his attendant pathos and absurdity: a cinematic washing of hands before the dawning of a new political era. Whatever the motivation of the filmmakers, and whatever one thinks about Bush's legacy, his impact on the country and the world deserve a more thoughtful epitaph than this movie.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Your Guide to Character Actors: Middle Aged White Guys Edition

I'm a big fan of character actors. A good character actor can turn the most one dimensional placeholder role in a film into something memorable, usually due to the charismatic constellation of wrinkles and/or jowls that your movie star types are simply not allowed to sport. Here are some of the pluggers who make cinematic reality possible, and whose crucial contributions are so often overlooked.

Crusty Southern Authority Figure:

Barry Corbin and Noble Willingham

This character actor subgenre is dominated by two guys who are so similar in bearing and accent and head shape that they might as well be fused at the torso. The easiest way to keep them straight is to remember that Barry Corbin was on Northern Exposure and Noble Willingham was on Walker, Texas Ranger.

Pudgy Jewish Authority Figure:

Maury Chalkin and Saul Rubinek

As in the Crusty Southern catagory, the role of the older Jewish gentleman of position in any given movie is usually played by either Maury Chalkin, probably most well known as the cavalry officer is shoots himself in the beginning of Dances With Wolves or Saul Rubinek, who was famous gunned down while trying to buy a suitcase full of coke in True Romance.

WASPy Authority Figure:

James Rebhorn and Bob Gunton

So you want your mayonaise-eating district attorney or corporate bigwig to be tall and slender? That calls for the rawboned, hawkfaced badassery of James Rebhorn, whose highest rank in a film came when he played Bill Pullman's Secretary of Defense in Independence Day. If you're looking for more a stocky, fireplug of a man, but want to stick with the Mainline Protestant vibe, you can't go wrong with Bob Gunton, best known as the evil warden in Shawshank Redemption.

Vaguely Effeminate Authority Figure:

Stephen Tobolowsky and Jeffrey DeMunn

The word "vaguely" is pretty capacious in this case. Stephen Tobolowsky, ("You know, Ned....Ryerson!") is really quite effeminate, wearas Jeffrey DeMunn, who's been a bunch of movies, but never really in a notable, he was the sheriff in the original Hitcher, is just slightly effeminate. I guess if you put both levels of effeminate together, they even out to "vaguely."

Sleazy Dirtbag:

Mark Boone Jr and Richard Edson

Richard Edson is actually sort of well known for his roles in Jim Jarmusch movies, but he gets his most consistent work playing skeevy lowlives in Hollywood films like Strange Days. He always looks incredibly dirty and in the early stages of heroin withdrawl, which is a very good look when you're getting rousted by a cop played by, I dunno, Russell Crowe or somebody. Mark Boone Jr is known basically for being a guy who shows up in a lot of movies as an unwashed scumbag looking like a chubby Tom Waits. He was Gordon's crooked partner in Batman Begins.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

DVD: The Foot Fist Way

This movie was made by a bunch of dudes from North Carolina a few years ago for roughly fourteen pesos. It sat largely unwatched and unreleased until Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, who have made it their mission to become arbiters of the comedic for all of America via the internet and film, got a hold of it and secured a limited release this year. Not many more people saw it in theaters, but the I'm sure the recent DVD release will see a solid cult following develop around this movie. Not only does it have the endorsement of comedy samurai like Ferrell, McKay, Judd Apatow and Patton Oswalt (who is a quasi-evangelist for the movie), but it's got the sort of perfectly quotable dialogue that can be dropped without notice into any conversation. I personally can't wait until the next time I'm sitting in a restaurant before the meal arrives to say "I'm so hungry I could eat a grown man's ass." However, the theatrical release did see a bit of pushback develope among critics who found the film mean-sprited towards its characters in a way that poisons the humor.

The story of Tae Kwan Do instructor Fred Simmons, played by co-writer Danny McBride, who is coming off of a monster year in which he was the funniest thing about the two biggest comedies of the summer, Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder, and his struggle to come to grips with his wife's freely dispensed handjobs, has some of the DIY vibe of Napoleon Dynamite, mixed with the existential bleakness of Your Friends and Neighbors. The film is loosely assembled, episodic and largely plotless. More importantly, there is very little in the way of character development. Fred Simmons is a preening dick at the start of the film, and slightly concussed preening dick at the end. In the context of the movie, these aren't really demerits; if the filmmakers had tried to affix a redeeming character arc to their collection of brutal, awkward-comedy vignettes, it would look like a cheap concession to audience expectations. As it stands, the defiantly unsympathetic characters and stunted emotional growth give the proceedings a sense of tactile reality. You don't get the sense of smart-ass filmmakers mocking a bunch of karate-chopping crackers. Rather, it feels like a rancid, sad but bitterly hilarious slice of life culled from experience. The last shot of the movie is a freeze frame of Fred Simmons looking defiantly, yet stupidly into the middle distance. The look on his face brings to mind a line from American Psycho: "this confession has meant nothing." Coming on the heels of ninety minutes of failure and obvliousness and deadly killing systems, the moment is a dark comment on the American psyche. Plus, there seriously high-level comedy in this movie, most of it of the squirm-inducing variety. Not to mention all of those delicious dialogue nuggets that you can hold onto for use at the perfect during a gang-rape situation.

Score: 8.7

Monday, September 15, 2008

Burn After Reading

In the world according to Joel and Ethan Coen, humans are driven, at base, by two equally powerful and equally dangerous character traits: greed and stupidity. Almost every character in the vast and ever-expanding Coen-verse is defined by their possession of these attributes. The only way to be a hero in a Coen brothers movie is to be stupid without being greedy: I'm talking, of course, about the Dude, here, but also noble idiots like Norville Barnes and H.I. McDougnah. These heroic dunderpates have no opposite number: there aren't a lot of smart but greedy people in the Coen pantheon. Greedheads like Carl Showalter and Jerry Lundegaard are as dumb as you please. This goes to support another central Coen premise: greed makes you stupid.

That premise is on glorious display in the brother's new movie. Two gym employees, the stupid-but-joyful Chad (played by Brad Pitt) and the stupid-and-desperate-for-money-to-pay-for-an-extreme-makeover Linda (Francis McDormand), stumble across a computer disk full of gobbledegook from the harddrive of a recently fired CIA analyst played with vertigious arrogance and seething rancor by John Malkovich. Their bone-headed attempts to extort the analyst and/or sell the "raw intelligence shit" on the open market ripple through the Georgetown townhouses of government middle management, ensnaring, among others, George Clooney's federal marshal, who brings a welcome addition to the Coen cavalcade of character types. Stupid and greedy, meet stupid and horny.

Not to sound too much like Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale, but Burn After Reading is decidedly minor Coens. None of the characters (save Malkovich) make an impression beyond their outsized comic stupidity. The performances are generally amusing. Clooney, in particular, seems to have perfected portraying "smug and oblivous." Brad Pitt is the exception, giving a painfully labored attempt at carefree vapidity that leaves you swearing you can see the flop sweat glistening in his pompadour. The farcical plot machinations lack any sense of forward momentum, with the clockwork seeming to wind down rather than speed to a satisfying conclusion. Part of this is by design: the comedy comes from observing the vast chasm between what the individual characters think is going on and what the audience knows is going on. What seems world historic to them is laughably slight to the observer. But the ramshackle plot reinforces the sense that the whole movie is an undercooked goof, a chance for the Coens to put on screen some random bits of comic business that wouldn't fit in any other project.

Still, it's a wonder that even when the Coens are sipmly having fun with genres and over-the-top mugging by A-list stars, they still manage to inject toss-offs like Burn After Reading or The Ladykillers with a singular, and singularly cynical, worldview. McDormand's character in particular has a tragic edge to her bufoonishness. Her single-minded pursuit of life-altering plastic surgery is what starts off the whole bloody debacle, and there is a great sadness in this that McDormand smartly suggests between her moments of thundering stupidity. Linda Lipske wants to be loved, and only way she thinks that is going to happen is if she mutilates herself into a grotesque parody of the women she sees on television. Like all the ill-fated dim-bulbs who come to grief while scrambling for money in Coen brothers movies, she's making a desperate grab for a cruelly illusory and wholey destructive American dream. Give it up to the Coens: whether it's Granny Smith or carmel-coated, the apple always has a razor in it.

Score: 7.5

DVD: Postal

The comedic sensibility of this film, the first attempt by cinematic abortionist Uwe Boll to make a movie that is funny on purpose, is encapsulated by one striking scene. Boll, playing himself and wearing leiderhosen (because he's German, get it?), gets into a gunfight at his Nazi-themed amusement park, and someone shoots him in the balls. It's filmed with the same sort of flat-footed, wah-waaah style as any other bit of nut-based humor. Of course, Boll, being some sort of Teutonic robot demon from beyond the grave, is unaware that damage inflicted on the human ball sack is only funny if the damage is not permenant. Smacking a dude in the nuts with a nerf bat? Funny. Smashing a guy's nuts until they explode like hairy pinatas? Horrifying. Poor Uwe, he wants to be humorous, but the subtleties get lost in translation. Still, this is by far the best film Boll has made. For the first time, Boll shows an ambition besides exploiting German tax loopholes and the misguided enthusiasm is sort of the clap.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Blogging for All!

I know that a few months ago I heralded the return of my political blog, but I ended up just putting one one little, limpdick post. Too much of the stuff I've been thinking lately has been put more eloquently at any number of political blogs, so I didn't feel the need. But the twin inspirations of an absolutely dire movie month and the vile spectacle of the Republican National Convention have propelled me back into pontification mode. I don't know if such inspirado will strike again, but I wrote a couple of long-ass posts that I'm relatively proud of, so please check them out.

September should be a better month for films, what with the Coen brothers laying the smack. I'm also going to post more random crap and lists and such. I don't want to lose you people.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Tropic Thunder

None of the elements of this film that have caught the attention of the media: the 'tard baiting, Robert Downey Jr's blackface, Tom Cruise playing a foul-mouthed, krumping film mogul, are very funny. They're gimmicks, and gimmicks can work as long as they're also something besides gimmicks, which sadly, none of these are. Yes, the film is a satire of Hollywood vanity, but considering the fact that so much of this material has been mined before and to better effect in other insider Hollywood satires, AND that the very act of making a movie about actors is an act of Hollywood vanity, these "audacious" gambits end up playing like desperate stabs at relevence. This script has been circulating for over twenty years, and the endless rewriting process shows. There are at least three "high concepts" competing for screen time in this movie, and they all end up diminishing each other.

It's too bad, because there are some really good gags in here, they're just buried under two movie's worth of creaky plot machinations and tonal whiplash. Tropic Thunder is instructive, though, on how not to do an action comedy. Coming on the heels of the deft and witty Pineapple Express, it illuminates the difference between scenes that work as comedy and as action, and scenes that recycle dumb action film cliches. Still, there were at least three moments of explosive laughter and several more solid chuckles strewn throughout, so that's something.

Score: 6.4

Monday, August 11, 2008

Pineapple Express

The Judd Apatow comedy mill has a sterling reputation for delivering the funny. Not so much for delivering cinematic virtuosity. Movies like The 40-Year Old Virgin and Superbad are undoubtedly brilliant comedies, and even contain powerful emotional beats, but no one remembers the technical filmmaking. That's as it should be: comedy isn't a director's genre. In an Apatow production, all the director generally has to do is get as much coverage as possible for the free-form riffage of the actors and let the editor turn it into something coherent.

In what is in many ways the most ambitious production yet to come out of Apatownia, Seth Rogen and writing partner Evan Golberg have written an action comedy about potheads on the run. Action, unlike comedy, is very much a director's genre and it's to the great credit of Apatow and company that they were aware enough of the limitations of their inert, sitcomy house style to look outside of their fraternity for a director. David Gordon Green's directing job on Pineapple Express is a remarkable balancing act. For the most part, he sticks to unobtrusive two camera set-ups that allow Seth Rogen, playing a process server who witnesses a murder, and James Franco, his constantly-baked pot dealer, to play off of each other in a relationship that deepens as the film progresses, while still featuring tons of truthful, funny moments. When it comes to the action sequences, Green tightens his grip on the material, delivering some genuine ass-kicking scenes while maintaining a light tone, like Walter Hill with a smaller dick. He even finds a few moments to indulge in the sort of charming, time-out-of-time reveries that mark his previous efforts like All the Real Girls.

The story is a by-now-familiar Apatowian bromantic comedy, with Rogen realizing that the pot dealer he had previously kept at arms length is really the best friend he has in the world. What makes the film distinctive is the action movie gloss. Like last year's Hot Fuzz, Pineapple Express satirizes the conventions of action movies while simultaneously providing plenty of earnestly awesome action movie fun. The self awareness of the characters is what makes the comedy. Not only are the stoned schlubs on display wholly unfit for action hi jinx, they know that they are hopelessly out of their element, giving the shootouts, car chases, and fight scenes an absurd edge. At the same time all these ridiculous action hysterics are staged with a riotous energy that works together with the reaction shots and pained awkwardness to heighten the comedy and the excitement. This synergy is on perfect display in a fight scene between Franco and Rogen and a drug dealer played by Danny McBride that is both goofy and undeniably badass. The self awareness extends beyond the characters: late in the film there's a bit of shamelessly raunchy physical comedy between Rogen and Franco that parodies the latent homoeroticism of the buddy action genre, but also dramatizes the logical endpoint of the Apatowian bromance.

Score: 8.0

Monday, August 04, 2008

To Supe' or not to Supe'

With Hancock out of the way, my personal experience of the Superhero Summer of 2008 has become complete. What did we learn from this bumper crop of films featuring capes, superpowers and high tech gadgetry on display? From The Incredible Hulk, we were reminded, once again, that you can never trust people you meet on the Internet; they might strap you to a table and inject you with mysterious juices. Hancock taught us that public relations flacks are the real heroes. And Hellboy 2: The Golden Army hammers home the point, for those too dumb to notice, that water-based superheroes (in this case, Abe Sapien), are completely, totally, lame. Mostly, though, we learned that superpowered dudes going upside the heads of assorted crumbums gets old. The exceptions to this trend are the two "tentpole" superhero films, that opened and closed the Superhero Summer: Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Not only do these two films represent the absolute best efforts in the history of the genre, they also feature perfectly opposite attitudes to the very idea of the superhero.

First, the similarities. Unlike the other superhero films of the year, Iron Man and The Dark Knight both feature superheroes who have no superpowers. Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne can't fly or punch through walls or deflect bullets with their skin. They're just a couple of dudes with billions of dollars and some technological savvy. Mark Cuban could probably join them if he wanted to. The lack of superpowers grounds both movies in the real world, making the issues raised by them more practical than airily hypothetical. The political themes are more pronounced, and easier to contrast between the two movies: you could imagine Iron Man and the Batman coexisting the same universe...ours.

Now, to the differences. They boil down to this: Iron Man is an exuberant celebration of the potential world changing good that can be accomplished by a righteous billionaire with a robotic suit. The Dark Knight, on the other hand, calls into question the very idea of costumed vigilantism. If, as is the custom, we take these superheroes as stand-ins for American force, then their radically different takes on the efficacy of superheroism reflects a divergent view of the role of America in the world.

Iron Man is essentially a fantasy of American techno-competence as the solution to world problems. Sort of like a Tom Clancy novel with more character development. Tony Stark uses his wits and resources to create a device, the Iron Man suit, that can act with the sort of precision and stealth that the American military is incapable of. As such, he can zip into messy conflict zones like Afghanistan, take out a bunch of insurgents and not worry that he might accidentally blow up a wedding party, as the Air Force tends to do over there on a monthly basis. The film revels in the awesome amount of good a well-intentioned high tech ass-kicker can accomplish. It's a post-9-11 neocon dream of American facility, purpose and effectiveness.

Iron Man's sense of giddy possibility and thrilling exertion of power started the summer movie season off with an adrenaline jolt. After two months of superhero films that dwelt more with the personal angst, isolation and burden of being a superhero, it's fitting that the bookend to Iron Man is a movie that challenges the legitimacy of the sort of extra-legal wrong-righting in which Iron Man revels.

Some people have criticized (or praised, depending on their political views), The Dark Knight for endorsing the Bush administration philosophy of the "war on terror."* Gotham (America) faces a terrorist threat that cannot be reasoned with in the form of the Joker (Al Qaeda) and Batman (Bush) has to ignore legal niceties in order to protect the citizenry. This ignores the fact that the "transcendent threat" (as John McCain would call it) of the Joker is conjured up by the very presence of Batman in Gotham! He's essentially blowback created by Batman's extralegal and audacious war on Gotham's criminal underworld. Moreoever, Bruce Wayne realizes that his role as a vigilante hero is not a long term solution to the problems of Gotham's corruption. That's one of the reasons he seizes on Harvey Dent as the potential savior of Gotham; he's a man of Batman's principles working within the law, because only a white knight can put Gotham on a stable footing. Batman's nighttime shenanigoats will only encourage Gotham's criminals to escalate their violence and inspire more and more sociopaths to put on their own costumes and match Batman's outsized heroism with outsized villainy. This is what puts the lie to Dark Knight-as-paean-to-Chenyism interpretation of the film: not only is Batman indirectly to blame for the terrifying specter of the Joker, his methods are inherently destabilizing of society, no matter how much short term benefit they might have in stopping the killer that his presence inspired in the first place. And, it's important to remember that, if you want to take the Dark Knight characters and transport them to the current political arena, Bush's equivalent isn't Batman, it's Harvey Dent. He's an elected leader, sworn to uphold the law and work within the established system. One thread that runs throughout the film is that the methods of the Batman are absolutely off limits to Dent if Gotham is to be saved. Bush's contempt for due process and constitutional protections would disgust Dent, and Batman for that matter. The Joker's successful attempt to push Dent over the edge of legality and sanity is his ultimate victory, and Batman's cover-up of Dent's descent into madness is a sad and dirty compromise that merely buys he and Jim Gordon time to allow Gotham to recover from the trauma of the Joker's reign of terror. Remember, the Joker was only drawn into the realm of theatrical criminality by the Batman's own attempt to shape the Gotham imagination with symbols and propaganda of the deed. It all leaves the viewer with a lingering sense that it might have been better for everyone if Bruce Wayne had just tried to buy the Cubs or something.

Leaving the theater after The Dark Knight, on the heels of a slew of movies featuring disillusioned superheroes who have to fight the urge to kill every puny human they see, the joy of consequence free humanitarian ass-kicking that buzzes through Iron Man has been fully stomped out. To once again bust out a geopolitical analogy: Iron Man is the invasion of Afghanistan (up to November 2001, anyway) and The Dark Knight is the invasion of Iraq (up to right this second).

*"War on Terror" is a copyrighted slogan of BushCo and is not an actual war.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


With the release of The Dark Knight, 2008's "summer of superheroes" (say that three times my SLAUGTHERTORIUM!) comes to an end. So far, I've seen a workmanlike superhero movie (The Incredible Hulk), a superhero/Tolkein mashup (Hellboy 2: The Golden Army), an ebullient superhero movie (Iron Man), and a bleak, brilliant superhero movie (The Dark Knight). I realized, though, that I've so far missed the one superhero movie this summer that features an "original" hero with no comic book pedigree. So today I watched Hancock; let's call it the half-baked superhero movie.

I've long wondered why movie studios create their own superheroes rather than exclusively mine comic books for their material. A successful original superhero film would be a potential billion dollar franchise with no need to split the take with DC or Marvel. Hancock helps answer that question: the problem with creating a superhero out of whole cloth is the insurmountable challenge of introducing the movie going public to a brand new character, brand new powers, and a brand new creation myth while still providing your standard rousing action plotting. Hancock struggles with this problem throughout, hinting at a dense back story, but relying on blunt exposition that is at the same time overly explicit and maddeningly vague.

On top of all this, Hancock also tries to do the superhero deconstruction thing. This charges the film with the task of simultaneously building a fully realized superhero world while subverting it at the same time. It's a daunting mission for any filmmaker, not least Peter Berg, the poorer man's Tony Scott. The film fails for the most part, leaving a collection of interesting ideas that never develop or cohere. Every attempt to make sense of the muddy mythology just raises more questions, but not in a "let's deepen the mystery" way, more of a "boy, this is some annoying, scatterbrained mishmash," way.

Ignoring all the silly Hancock-orgin myth shenanigoats, the film asks some interesting questions: how would an all-powerful being deal with the essential isolation of his condition, how would the American public really react to the latent threat of an uncontrollable omnipotence in their midst? Answering these questions lead into some fresh, funny terrain before the film disappears up its own ass in the third act. Will Smith tempers his inherent Will Smithyness with some angst and a slight edge of menace. Jason Batemen is gold as always. Charlize Theron is...tanorexic. I just wish the filmmakers had concentrated their efforts on the stuff that they clearly had a good handle on, like Hancock's struggle to relate respectfully to people who he could kill with a flick of the wrist, rather than trying to tease out a sludgy miasma of character histories and undercooked relationships.

Score: 6.1

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Dark Knight

"Criminals aren't complicated" says Bruce Wayne and for the most part, he's right. At their core, most criminals, especially of the organized variety, are nothing more than supremely unscrupulous businessmen. As such, when The Dark Knight begins, the Caped Crusader's war on crime that began in 2005's Batman Begins has reached an equilibrium of sorts: the gang bosses try to extract as much money from Gotham through drugs and racketeering as they can, and Batman tries to stop them, with both sides battling for the souls of the city's police officers, judges and politicians. The question: will these bureaucrats be corrupted by the mob's money, or inspired by Batman's unyielding crusade? It's a straightforward, rule-bound dynamic, almost...boring. At least that's what a greasepainted, costumed freak calling himself "The Joker" thinks. He's not interested in anything as banal as money; he wants to upend every system of belief and code of behavior adhered to by Gothamites of all stripes, from city fathers to godfathers. Robbery, murder, arson, he commits these crimes with gusto, but they are not ends to themselves. No, the Joker wants to strip the veneer of civilization from the Gotham citizenry and enjoy the show as they tear themselves, and all of their illusions of decency, to pieces.

How do you respond to a malevolence such as this? That's the central question of Christopher Nolan's film, easily the best movie every made about the usually farcical or dull world of costumed superheroes. Like the best film of 2007, No Country For Old Men, The Dark Knight explores how people choose to engage with an absurd universe ruled by random chance and casual cruelty.

Bruce Wayne deals with the guilt, pain and fear that accompany such an existence by creating "the Batman," a heavily armored crimefighter without guilt, fear or pain. He escapes from the powerlessness of life by embodying omnipotence. He escapes from the meaningless of life by dedicating himself to one cause with total focus: justice and the meting out of said. In the short term, this means jumping from rooftops and striking fear into the Gotham criminal element through the liberal application of fists, batarangs, and keen detective work. In the long term, this means inspiring the citizens of Gotham through his example to live honestly within the system they profess to uphold. If cops would stop taking bribes and start taking down gangsters, Batman would be able to ride off into the sunset...if he could bear it. In the meantime, Batman can work out his demons by tuning up the demimonde. The cost of all this power and purpose is alienation and unresolvable internal conflict. Batman fights to defend the system, but he breaks the law with every ride in the Batmobile (no way is that thing street legal). His most important goal is to make Gotham's criminal justice bureaucrats honest guardians of the public trust, but his liaison with the Gotham Police Department requires Lt. Jim Gordon to ignore the law by failing to apprehend him. This conflict, coupled with the oppressive secret that Bruce Wayne must carry with him every day, make him utterly isolated from the system and the city he loves. It also keeps him from the woman he loves, Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes, forcefully played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who knows his secret identity, and who refuses to be with him as long as "Bruce Wayne," the man she loves, is merely a front for the Batman.

When non-caped crusader District Attorney Harvey Dent takes office (and starts dating Rachel), with a promise to clean up Gotham using proper legal channels, Bruce Wayne sees the chance to retire his cowl for good. But not if the Joker has anything to say about it.

Most of the time in films, comic book villains seem to wear silly costumes for no more reason than...that's what villains in comic books DO. Heath Ledger's Joker is a different breed. Every sinister giggle, every guttural snarl, every nauseating lick of the lips, show the audience what the face paint and motley mean. For the Joker, every concept of humane behavior, from love to honor to dignity, and every human institution, is a fraud, a hideous joke people play on each other and on themselves. But nobody acknowledges this, and the Joker's mission is to let as many people in on the joke as he can. Ledger channels the manic nihilism of the character through a live-wire intensity and a parade of textured tics and vocal mannerisms, transforming him from a mere symbol of anarchy into a nightmare made flesh. The Joker is made even more compelling by the fact that he has a good point. Who among us hasn't been sickened by society's smug hypocrisy? There's a perverse pleasure in watching him torment pillars of righteousness like Dent, Gordon and Batman, using their principles as weapons against them, forcing them to reconcile the essential paradoxes of their natures through the gleeful application of savagery.

All of this angst and moral ambiguity plays out through a dizzying action plot that features some of the most purely entertaining and unnerving sequences in the Batman canon. the intensely focused performances of Ledger, Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart as Dent are matched by a dread-soaked atmosphere, propulsive direction, and a canny editing choices. Crucial events happen offscreen, forcing the audience to piece things together as they go. It enhances the Joker's seeming omnipresence and the sense that Gotham is slowly succumbing to chaos. A prominent feature of the film's score is a unbroken, atonal note that sings in the background whenever the Joker is about the strike. It's deliciously unsettling, and it reflects the nature of the movie as a whole: it's one long, sustained note of heightened tension and fear, with no prospect of release, even as the credits role. Similarly, the movie channels anxieties about terrorism and the ethical response to it without offering the comfort of resolution or pat answers. It's all accumulated tension, the only catharsis available in the amazing action scenes, with the knotty philosophical and personal questions left unanswered. You laugh, your jaw goes slack on numerous occasions, and you actually think a little bit.

The Dark Knight is a singular achievement; a comic book movie that treats its subject seriously, deftly develops characters, oozes relevance and still delivers the action and iconography that the genre demands. Ang Lee and Bryan Singer, let it be known: you are Christopher Nolan's bitches for all eternity.

Score: 9.5

Saturday, July 19, 2008


Pixar knows how to make a fucking movie. Ever since Toy Story, Pixar has consistently produced animated films that are enthralling to kids, enrapturing to adults, chock full of powerful themes, vivid characters, clock-work physical comedy and rousing action. Films like Toy Story 2, The Incredibles and Ratatouille are all-time animated classics. But, with Wall-E, the Pixar team, helmed by director Andrew Stanton, has created a completely unique, hauntingly powerful piece of pop art.

Seven hundred years after humanity abandons a trash-strewn, poisoned earth, Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth Model, or "Wall-E," carries out his mission of turning massive piles of garbage int compact, orderly cubes, long after the rest of his robotic comrades have powered down. Hundreds of years of rooting through the detritus of civilization has given Wall-E an intimate knowledge of society, and his mimicry of human behavior has morphed, over time, into the makings of an authentic personality. Part of that personality is a yearning for interpersonal connection that explodes into intense longing when a hovering, ipod-like probe called EVE arrives on earth searching for signs of organic life. Neither robot can speak, so their tentative courtship is dramatized in wordless rituals, the boiled-down essence of romantic bonding. The result is rarest sort of cinematic alchemy, scenes that are involving, funny, and most impressively, offer insights into just what it means to be human, what we need from other people, and how we go about loving them.

As if it weren't enough that Wall-E offers soul-stirring transcendent peons to love, there's also powerfully hilarious satire of corporate stupefaction when the 'bots end up running around on the massive cruise ship in space where earthlings have been living since the environment death of earth. The image of morbidly obese, unitarded folks zipping around obliviously on hover-chairs along lighted pathways, drinking their dinners from giant cups, surrounded by a blur of video screens is cutting and funny in the bittersweet way of knife-trenchant observation. In between moving scenes of Wall-E and EVE and Pixar's particular brand of frothy, kinetic comedy, Stanton and company put together a bracing critique of modern techo-complacency and a rousing call for all of us to renew and enrich our relationships with each other and the world around us.

All of these subtly evocative touches of humanity and piercing social commentary, have a cumulative effect that makes the film's climax wrenching and harrowing and finally blissfully life-affirming. It's a singular accomplishment: a mass audience blockbuster that conveys a authentic emotions, a poignant call to conscience living, and the sheer power to leave the audience with a heightened sense of what it means to love and be loved.

Score: 9.4

Monday, July 14, 2008

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army

When Guillermo Del Toro made the first Hellboy in 2004, he was still basically a horror film director for hire. Then, he made the critically ejaculated-upon film Pan's Labyrinth, which gave him massive artistic credibility as an auteur. It might seem puzzling on the surface that Del Toro would use his newfound clout to do a sequel to one of his mercenary jobs. Turns out, though, Hellboy 2, which Del Toro also wrote, is much more of a sequel to Pan's Labyrinth than it is to the first Hellboy. Sure, it has the same characters, cast and basic premise as Hellboy, which originated as a Dark Knight comic, but Del Toro is much less interested in developing the Hellboy universe than he is in taking the ideas that animated Pan's Labyrinth and injecting them with the ambition that only a summer blockbuster budget can provide.

Pan's Labyinth explored the idea of fairy tale creatures living secretly amongst humans. Hellboy 2 takes that premise and runs with it in audacious directions. One of the chief deficiencies of Pan's Labyrinth was best articulated by my good friend and retired archduke John Muther, "not enough monsters." Hellboy 2 corrects that with gusto. Pan's Labyrinth has a dude with two eyes on his hands. Hellboy 2 has a dude with, like, 30 eyes on his...wings! That's the main gag in Hellboy 2: taking Pan's Labyrinth's secret fairy folk and pumping them full of steroids, creating an unstoppable parade of magnificently inventive beasts. Del Toro's aim with all these impeccable CGI creations (and they really are impeccable- the creatures are all part of a seamless universe where the spell is never broken) is to ask the question: what if Tolkein's Middle Earth (or an off-brand facsimile of same) coexisted alongside the modern world? It's a gripping idea that pays off spectacularly in a few scenes: particularly the sequence where Hellboy blows the head off of a giant tree god and a corner of the Lower East Side slowly turns into a garden as the monster dissolves into moss and flowers. That one scene is a more poignant, majestic expression of Del Toro's vision of fairy tale wonder interacting with the mundane familiar than anything in Pan's Labyrinth. Unfortunately, Del Toro chose to shoehorn his personal vision inside the established framework of the Hellboy universe, which just doesn't have room for it. As a result, the fairy tale elements end up fighting for screentime with the same stale schtick and well worn conflicts that animated the first film: Hellboy struggles to come to terms with his uniqueness in the world, Hellboy fights with his bosses, Hellboy agonizes over his relationship with firestarter Liz Sherman, Hellboy cracks wise all over the place.

For all the wow moments, and there are more than a couple, Hellboy 2 never really comes together because Del Toro's world and the prefabricated Hellboy world fail to gel. This is a common pitfall when directors with ambition and a strong viewpoint tactle comic book fare. It's difficult for even the canniest director to avoid getting tangled up in the broad characters, inherently ridiculous dialogue and unavoidably clunky exposition that the genre requires. Still, even a mixed effort like Hellboy 2 contains more than enough eye candy and pathos to make me thankful that dudes like Del Toro are still willing to make a go of it.

Score: 7.8

Monday, July 07, 2008

Schizophrenic Double Features

This week, I watched both Wanted and In Bruges, two films about the world of hired killers that take radically different approaches to the subject. Wanted is practically a recruiting film for an assassination squad (or maybe the Army), with its whizz-bang action setpieces, sultry, gun-toting Angelina Jolie, and a general message that killing people is the surest way to raise your self-esteem and overall quality of life. It's a gas, man. In Bruges, on the other hand, deals with the aspect of killing people for hire that is almost completely absent in the vast majority of films about hitmen, especially Wanted: the guilt. In fact, the entire film is about Colin Ferrell coming into awareness of his own conscience after a botched hit. It's a wrenching character arc that it's hard to imagine would ever occur to Wanted's James McAvoy, who leaves a life of office drudgery for the fun and excitement of whacking bad guys. He never has to worry about guilt, because his targets are chosen by a secret code written into fabric weaved by a Loom of Fate! It occurred to me that watching Wanted and In Bruges back-to-back could induce thematic and stylistic whiplash. That made me think: are there any other potential double features of films that make dramatically divergent interpretations of similar material?

Glory and God's and Generals

The American Civil War: a crusade to abolish the wicked institution of slavery and assert to equality of all men, or a noble stand by god fearing Southern patriots intent on seeing their precious folkways unsullied by foreign interlopers? It's a debate that has defined the terms of discussion of the Civil War era, and you can play along at home by sitting down to watch these two films one after the other. Ed Zwick's Glory tells the story of the all-black 54th Massachusetts volunteers, who distinguished themselves in battle during the struggle for Charleston. The centrality of slavery to the cause of the war is never questioned as the soldiers work their way from being a ragtag collection of ex-slaves to a lethal fighting force intent on destroying the institution that largely defined their destinies. By the time the 54th sees action, the Confederate soldiers may as well have horns for all the hatred and violence they represent. Ronald Maxwell's Gods and Generals, on the other hand, gives the viewer four and a half hours of footage of pious, honorable Southern generals, including Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, as they assert their righteous duty to defend their homeland. The only black folk in the film are Jackson's loyal servants, who of course, love him like a father and sho don't cotton to none of that "freedom" foolishness. Now, I'm hugely biases against the Confederacy in all things, but if you watch these films back-to-back and aren't fully convinced of the awfulness of the southern cause, then you, my friend, must be a huge fan of horrible, horrible movies and incredibly fruity musical interludes.

Signs and Independence Day

Things these two movies have in common: they're both about alien invasions, and they're both movies. That's about it. Independence Day is an epic action film that jumps across the country and the world, documenting the impact of a massive alien attack that leaves most of Earth's major cities destroyed. Signs is an intimate thriller about one families reaction to a mysterious, slowly escalating series of alien encounters, culminating in an alien attack on their home. The aliens in Independence Day use moon-sized death ships and lazer canons. The aliens in Signs use their bare hands and the poison gas that their hands emit. Independence Day seeks to capture the global sweep of such a crisis, while Signs wants to show how a small group of people, cut off from that bigger picture, make sense of the terrifying changes around them and seek to cope. There's even a subtle but significant difference in the two film's political visions. Independence Day makes a Franklin Roosevelt-style case for a robust government response to the catastrophic. Whether it's a Depression, a world war, or a genocidal alien invasion, there's nothing folks can't overcome if they work together under the inspiration of a charismatic leader. Signs displays a more Reagan-esque take on the efficacy of collective action: when the shit hits the fan, the government won't be there to help, not even your neighbors. It'll just be your family and your faith to get you through the night.

Kelly's Heroes and Three Kings

These two films take the same premise: soldiers in the waning days of a war sneak behind enemy lines to steal a bunch of gold, and spin subversive, seriocomic tales out of them. What's interesting is the different ways the two films are subversive. Three Kings, one would think, should be the more cynical of the two. It's directed by indie stalwart and crazy-person David O. Russell, makes a biting critique of American cynicism and self-righteousness during the first Gulf War and features some dazzling cinematography and use of unconventional film stock. Yet, the character arcs of the protagonists in Three Kings is utterly conventional: they set out to steal some gold, and after witnessing the horrors of Saddam's post-war suppression of the Shi'ite rebels, they discover their consciences and learn to fight for something bigger than themselves. Kelly's Heroes, made in 1970, featuring Clint Eastwood, and helmed by a dude whose last directing job was an episode of the show Archer before quitting Hollywood to become a plumber, manages to blow the doors off of a whose slew of war movie cliches. When Kelly and his band of misfits rush ahead of the Allied forces during the German collapse in WWII, they are wholly focused on nabbing a bunch of Nazi gold from a bank in France. And, as the film progresses, they stay completely focused on nabbing a bunch of Nazi gold from a bank in France. There is no soul searching, no devotion to country or a burning need to rid the world of Fascism. In fact, you get the distinct impression that if these guys knew about a stash of gold in a British bank, they wouldn't hesitate to try and steal it. These guys are the GREATEST GENERATION, the citizen soldiers who saved the world, and in Kelly's Heroes, they may as well be the James gang. Plus, the tank commander, played by Donald Sutherland, is a hippie...a hippie in World War Two! That'll rescrew your carburetor.

The Blob and The Blob

The original Blob from 1958 features a giant red Jell-o mold from outer space that devours everything in a small mountain town. It's a classic piece of cold war sci-fi, in which the threat of an external, homogenizing force is symbolized by a destructive alien. The 1988 remake, on the other hand, is a angst-riddled scream from alienated liberals trapped in Reagan's America. Here, the creature, much more viscous and prone to dissolving the flesh off of people's bones, is created as a result of covert military experiments in space, and government scientists want to capture it for use as a weapon. The other villain in the piece is a crazed millennial preacher who sees the blob as man's just punishment for his wickedness, and seeks to save it so that it can fulfill its divine purpose.