Movie Post Mortem: Evan Almighty

I avoided Evan Almighty when it was in the theaters because it had less than stellar reviews and a bad IMDB rating. Too much about it should’ve sent it off the charts: It reunited director Tom Shadyac with screenwriter Steve Oedekirk, with a way more appealing leading man in Steven Carrel. (Jim Carrey was good in the original but Carrel actually steals the movie in the scenes he’s in.)

Now that it’s rolled around to On Demand, we’ve watched it. Actually, The Flower really likes it, so we’ve watched it more than once. We all agree that it doesn’t really work (except for The Flower, obviously).

In the original, you may recall, Jim Carrey was a self-absorbed jerk who caught a few bad breaks and took it out on God (Morgan Freeman, who predicted he would be cast as God after being cast as President in Deep Impact). God responds by giving him unlimited power, thereby giving Bruce enough rope to hang himself. There’re a lot of sight gags and slapstick, and a litle bit of power fantasy, all of which conspire to make a fun watch.

Evan boldly follows up by abandoning the premise and most of the major setups of the original: There’s no extended “you’re not really God” slapstick (some, but nothing like Bruce); Bruce was self-absorbed but Evan, in this movie, has clearly changed to be a caring person with good ideals, though still very flawed; Evan doesn’t get God’s powers and so we don’t get the sight gags associated with the abuse of those powers; Evan’s tasked with building an ark, so we get building and animal gags; Bruce’s lesson of humility has more to do with not being self-absorbed while Evan is more of a Job figure–his lessons are more about listening to God and having an appreciation for small acts of kindness rather than large scale efforts.

This should’ve been a great, great movie, just looking at it on paper. Better than the original, potentially. So why isn’t it?

First, and foremost, there aren’t enough gags, and a great many of the gags are tired. For example, the always enjoyable Wanda Sykes seems to have fallen into a number of roles lately that are less humor and more sassy stereotype, this being a prime example. The animals tend to lend more “cute” than actual “funny”. Jonah Hill (he of many Apatow films like Knocked Up and Superbad) adds a mildly weird edge that provides for a little offbeat humor.

But a great deal of the jokes that are presented are very standard. And there just aren’t enough.

The Boy feels it doesn’t work because Evan is a clearly decent human and God is just messing with him. Bruce needed a lesson in humility because he was completely self-absorbed. Evan is only quirkily self-obsessed with grooming and cleanliness. God totally messes up his life with facial hair and ancient clothing where Bruce only reaps what he himself has sown.

There’s a lesson about faith here, as well, in God and in each other, which is quite nice. But, for example, Evan’s relationship with his wife (Lauren Graham, who’s as cute as can be) is not so well illustrated that her loss of faith in Evan doesn’t seem hard enough. Compare with Jennifer Anniston in the original: Bruce had to pile on insensitivity after insensitivy after self-absorption after complete unawareness of what she wanted.

So that tension is missing the front end.

There’s some attempt to create tension with the kids which is somewhat more successful.

This is not to say there aren’t some good moments in this movie. As much as I hate to lay blame anywhere, I’m inclined to lay it at the feet of Steve Oedekirk.

I love Steve-O. Kung Pow: Enter The Fist is one of the greatest, original comedy ideas in years. I’m seriously hoping he has a chance to make the sequel. But this movie fails in much the same way his Barnyard kid’s movie fails. Which is to say, benignly but under a paucity of jokes and with Wanda Sykes doing sassy. Also, it’s sort of fascinating to look at why it doesn’t work. (In Barnyard’s case, for example, consider the concept of male cows.)

Of course, dying is easy: Comedy is hard, and nobody hits it out of the park every time. With luck Steve-O is back on the ball and turning out some new classics.

Tropic Thunder: Tenacious Iron Zoolander!

Comedians are often the hardest working guys in show business.

You may not like Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson, Jack Black or Ben Stiller, but you know what? These guys never phone it in.

They’ve all been in bad movies, but the movies were never bad because the actors weren’t trying. (I remember Groucho Marx commenting with disdain on a critic’s observation that a mere comedian was capable of dramatic acting, with Marx’s rebuttal pointing out that comedians are required to do all the acting dramatic guys do all the time and often compressed within a few seconds.)

This is a rather odd way to start talking about a movie which, in essence, makes fun of actors. Brutal mockery. And has both Matthew McConaughey and Tom Cruise in my favorite role of his since Rain Man.

Hollywood satires are often dry (Altman’s The Player), ridiculously broad (Edward’s S.O.B.) or ultimately succumbing to what they are lampooning (McTiernan’s The Last Action Hero). This, by the way, would make a great weekend trilogy. Or, they’re just plain stupid, like the recent rash of [blank] Movie ridicule/Airplane!-style fiascos that, for example, make fun of comedies that are way funnier than the objects of their ridicule.

Seriously, this is a good rule: If you’re going to lampoon somebody, you’d better be better at what they’re doing than they are.

I remember a first-gen SNL where Larraine Newman parodies Barbara Streisand by singing a medley of her hits with altered words. Problem is, even if you hate Streisand, you have to concede the quality of her singing and the most prevalent thing I remember about the song (the lyrics of which attacked, perfectly legitimately, her acting and her apparent self-centeredness), is that Newman cannot hold a candle to Streisand in the singing department. (South Parkwas more successful decades later by just painting her as a crazed megalomaniac and not going anywhere near her singing ability.)

But really, movies like The Comebacks(which parodies the far superior Dodgeball–actually, in The Comebacks’ case, it’s clearly a rip-off, not a parody–and Disaster Movie (which parodies the far superior Juno) don’t do themselves any favor by drawing comparisons to other, better comedies.

Note that the original, classic Airplane!primarily parodied the melodrama Zero Hour! which nobody on Earth had seen, and a bunch of classic movies, along with referencing the plethora of airplane-based disaster movies, which had been given a decade–that’s a decade without DVDs and Internet–to season. I’m pretty sure that matters, even if I’m not sure how. (I know that when I saw it, despite having seen most of the Airportmovies, I really didn’t think “Hey, that’s from Airport ‘74!” or anything.)

Anyway.

Tropic Thunder parodies Hollywood and actors, and Vietnam war movies–though, again, primarily as they reflect on actors’ desire for legitimacy.

Stiller plays an action hero–fairly believably, for someone who’s played Mr. Furious–searching for credibility by moving out of the straight-action genre and playing a retard, and then doing a “serious” war movie.

Another digression here: It’s appallingly true that the Academy is an absolute sucker for “retard” roles. As Downey’s character points out, though, you can’t be a “full retard”, like Sean Penn in I am Sam, it has to be a half/not-really retard like Hoffman in Rain Man or Hanks in Gump.

For people who know, live with, and love brain-injured people, this fantasy view of the handicapped is appalling, on the level of The Magic Negro. It reduces these people to their injuries plus some bullshit enchantment.

A lot of brain-injured people are savants, mind you. Way more than anyone understands. But this doesn’t change the fact that, this savant-ness doesn’t really improve their quality of life, and most importantly that they are still humans with all the human frailties that we have, plus a few more we can’t comprehend.

Almost weirdly, it’s only comedy that actually respects the brain-injured, by being willing to treat them like everyone else (e.g. South Park’s Timmy or the Farrely Brothers movies, like Stuck On You.

Stiller’s character in the movie is the one I have the hardest time connecting to a real world actor. He’s sort-of Willis. Maybe Schwarzenegger or Stallone? Sort of a melange, or archetype, but a lot of what he did would’ve been physically funnier if he were 6-plus-foot and ripped.

That’s nitpicking, since there’s plenty of absurdity and good jokes to go around.

On the other hand, Downey plays, essentially, Russell Crowe. I don’t know if Crowe is a method actor, but Downey plays one of those guys who gets so into the role, he loses himself. That, of course, is a little nod to himself, since that was reportedly what happened with Chaplain. Since Downey is playing a black guy, he becomes a kind of parody of Fred Williamson and Richard Roundtree–which really pisses off the actual black guy in the cast, played by Brandon T. Jackson (whose character goes by the moniker Alpa Chino and sells “Booty Juice” and “Bust-A-Nut” bars).

Meanwhile, Jack Black plays…Robert Downey Jr.! Not exactly, of course. His character is a melange of those comedians like Eddie Murphy who play all these different roles in one movie and wear a lot of fat suits. But he’s the bad boy drug user who can’t be insured–and if that’s not Downy ca. ’95, I don’t know what is.

So we have these three mega-actors and their mega-egos on set with a green director trying to make a “serious” war movie. In desperation, the director (played by Steven Coogan of Tristram Shandy – A Cock and Bull Story) ends up listening to hard-bitten war vet Nick Nolte (author of the book on which the movie is based) and decides to go guerilla by seting the actors down deep in the jungle and letting them fend for themselves.

Hilarity ensues.

No, really, it does! This movie balances very delicately on the line between dark humor and absurdist comedy. Something that Stiller, the director, has not always succeeded in the past. (Compare to The Cable Guy–commonly regarded as too dark–and Zoolander–which is very broad, and not dark at all, except in the actual filming.)

What I’m saying is that land mines aren’t all in the movie. Kill everyone and you have a movie people aren’t going to see. Make everything goofiness, well that’s a turn-off, too.

On the other hand, paint your characters as ridiculous but still very human, don’t be completely cynical, and be as real as you can without dragging the movie down–this is a damn hard thing to do and Stiller pulls it off.

Cruise’s character is the closest to pure evil, while McConaughey is given an opportunity to do the right thing in the face of a very tempting offer.

Everyone liked it. I found myself wondering halfway through why it was R-rated, until Black, going through withdrawals, described in detail what he would do to Jackson’s penis if he’d let him go. It’s only about 30 seconds long and it’s not that graphic, but, eh, what’s a ratings board to do?

Before closing out, a shout-out to former child actor Jay Baruchel (of Are You Afraid of the Dark?) who plays straight-man to all the heavyweights and does a fine job.

A great close to a pretty damn good summer.

TransSiberian: Like TransAmerica, minus the gender reassignment

A stable, staid couple hooks up with a wilder one causing havoc in their otherwise ordinary lives. Sure, we’ve seen it before, but have we ever seen it on a train crossing Asia?

Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer have just finished helping some orphans in China have decided to take the train back home instead of a plane, when they meet a sexy, sleazy Spaniard played by Eduardo Noriega, and his twitchy, sexy girlfriend Kate Mara. Hard-nosed Ben Kingsley is sniffing around with his lapdog Thomas Kretschmann, ratcheting up the tension.

I actually can’t describe much more without giving away the plot twists. This movie can be commended for missing about half the usual clichés of this well-worn plot. The normal trajectory of the “good couple gone bad” has them clashing with the “bad couple” and doing desperate things to restore normalcy back to their life. The theme of this movie is more about faith and honesty.

This latest film from Brad Anderson lacks the eerie atmosphere of his earlier film The Machinist, though it has much of that movie’s predictability. It generally seems above-average by missing a lot of the typical turns, as I’ve noted.

The Boy liked it but felt it was a bit slow in parts. I didn’t find it such, but with movies with foreign languages I (sorta) know, I’m always trying to parse out the foreign language.

Bottle Shock: “It’s just that I’m British…and you’re not.”

‘Why don’t I like you?“
"Because you think I’m an ass. And I’m not really. It’s just that I’m British…and you’re not. ”

If there’s a danger in Randall Miller’s new flick Bottle Shock, it’s that it might be just one big pro-America pander. Which, I confess, is not much of a danger, both because it’s unlikely and because it would be refreshing.

This neat little film is “based on a true story” and centered around the 1976 wine-tasting competition in France where California wines beat out French wines in a blind tasting.

It’s really two stories (and perhaps weaker than it could be as a result): The first is the story of affable Brit snob Steve Spurrier (Alan Rickman) who, with his Wisconsinite friend Maurice (Dennis Farina) contrives the contest as a way to raise his stock with the elite French wine culture.

Rickman and Farina are a delight, as might be expected, as Farina mooches off Rickman’s failing wine “Academy” business, and as Rickman travels around Napa valley, tasting a variety of wines along with Kentucky Fried Chicken, guacamole, and whatever else American cuisine has to offer.

This is a fun story and the better (and smaller) part of the movie.

The other story concerns xenophobic, perfectionist, pig-headed wine owner Jim Barrett, who’s watching his dream go down the drain with debt as he refuses to release his wines before their time. (“Gallo” is a name spoken with disdain in this movie.) Barrett is played by Bill Pullman, who seems to be channelling Martin Sheen with this uncharacteristicaclly harsh (but compelling!) character.

A burr under Barrett’s saddle is his son, a fun-loving late-hippie ne’er-do-well named Bo. (Bo is played by Chris Pine, who will probably become a lot more famous once he’s known as Captain Kirk in the new “Star Trek” movie.) As Bo comes out of his daze and starts to take action, he actually pisses his stubborn father even more. (Jim is convinced the wine-tasting is a setup to bash America on the bicentennial.)

This story is a bit sparser and somehow less compelling–perhaps due to shortage of Rickman, though Pullman gives a great performance. It may be because it’s the more traditional of the two stories. Or maybe it was because I spent the whole movie thinking, “Get a haircut, ya damn hippie!”

But it’s not a bad son-vs-father-vs-hot-chick-who-thinks-he-can-be-more story, as those go.

Rounding out the cast is Freddy Rodriguez as the son-of-a-migrant-worker who’s building his own vinery on the sly, Rachel Taylor as the hot-n-sexy intern/love interest, not nearly enough Eliza Dushku as the local bar owner, and character actor great Joe Regalbutto, whose role I won’t elaborate on, since it would be a spoiler.

Other points of interest: Mark Adler’s score recalls (not unfavorably) David Newman; the movie has a nice, authentic ’70s feel, not too camped up or bogged down in bell bottoms and disco; I wanted more from the cinemtography–Napa is beautiful and this doesn’t really showcase that, except in one or two places–but it is a low budget film so I suppose the budget wouldn’t allow for much; and the attitude is affable but not cloying.

On that last point, the moviemakers seemed not to be trying to Make A Point, much, about anything. Rickman brings real humanity to a character who could have been completely unsympathetic (as could Farina’s). Pullman is hard to get along with, but for understandable reasons. Bo is a screwup, of sorts, but he finds in the girl a reason to not be.

It’s not super-deep or nothin’. But it does demonstrate that you can make a good popcorn flick for a few bucks that doesn’t need a lot of profanity, nudity or violence to hold an audience’s attention for a 100 or so minutes.

The Boy sez, “I liked it very much.”

A documentary of the event would also be cool.

Mirrors, The Playthings of Men’s Vanity

I was not particularly optimistic about seeing Mirrors, the latest Asian horror remade American-style, but the initial buzz was pretty good and, as I’ve pointed out before, horror movies are substantially better in the theater.

OK, so, Kiefer Sutherland is a down-on-his-luck cop whose life fell apart after shooting another cop the previous year. He’s estranged from his life, sleeping on the couch at his sister’s, and working as the night watchman in a burnt out department store where the former night watchman (seen gruesomely dispatched in the opening scene) kept the store mirrors meticulously clean.

Shortly after beginning his new job, weird things start happening to him, and he’s ultimately forced to go on a sort of mini-quest to save his family. Think The Ring.

This movie initially annoyed me as it seemed to not have a consistent internal logic. The opening scene suggess what happens in the mirror happens in the real world: Just as you control your reflection, generally, your reflection controls you. But in other situations merely the effect shows up in our world.

The effect seems less egregious as time goes on, and the movie builds nicely to a somewhat odd action-y climax. (This modern trend of ending horror flicks with explosions is not that appearling to me.) Then there’s a stinger.

The stinger is often the worst part of horror movies, as filmmakers try to recapture that feeling they had when they were ten and first saw “The Twilight Zone”. This one was not so bad, though I felt it was either pointless or a set up for a sequel. The Boy liked it because, as he said, it didn’t undo the entire movie.

Yeah, that’s a real problem. “It was all a dream” or “If only I had thought of that sooner” tends to feel like a rip off.

Plus, it was new to The Boy, and I have to admit, I haven’t seen that twist used in 30 years or so.

Anyway, Keifer pretty much dominates the film, though Paula Patton does a good job as his wife–who thankfully gets on board sooner than in most horror films. They shouldn’t have put her in so many low-cut outfits, though. It was distracting. (They were distracting?) The children were beautiful and did their parts well, too.

One thing that makes this work, I think, is the change-up of horror “effects”. (Not as in “special effects” but as in “effects used to create fright”). Any movie is a series of scenes, and in horror movies, there are certain clichés used to pad things out till the real action starts. Things like the frightened cat, the phone ring, the door slam, etc. This movie rather successfully keeps you uncertain as to when you’re getting a fake-out versus when you’re getting the goods. It’s not always sensible, but it’s fairly entertaining.

The Boy liked it quite a bit. And if you like Sutherland II, he does his thing here. Since only a few characters know what’s going on, it’s up to them to sell the horror–and Kiefer most of all–and they do a good job.

How About a Nice Pineapple Express?

From the guys who brought you Superbad, as the tag line goes, comes another film which curiously blends ‘00s sensibilities with a ’70s feel. What is this movie, anyway? Comedy? Action? Love st–okay, nobody’s thinking it’s a love story. (Though it is, kinda.)

Drug comedy–at least the old style stuff, whether it’s Cheech & Chong or, hell, even Dean Martin or Foster Brooks staggering around–doesn’t really do it for me. I find the humor to be overly broad, without the cleverness of a Chaplin or something else to ameliorate it. I enjoy Kevin Smith’s stuff, I think, partly because the stoner characters are comic relief, not the main focus. Also, they’re just as dopey when they’re clean and sober (as in Clerks II).

I’ve noticed with the Judd Apatow guys that they take a lot of conventions of the genre they’re working in, and render those a lot more realistically than previous movies have, and then stylize some other aspect instead. Superbad, for example, was a lot more realistic in terms of how the kids acted, on the one hand, but on the other hand, the subplot with McLovin and the cops was surreal.

In Pineapple Express we have the story of lovable stoner/loser Dale Denton (Seth Rogan), a process server who smokes pot all day while driving between jobs, and waiting for his targets, and dressing in costumes, who has no apparent ambition and a girlfriend who’s still in high school (Amber Heard).

After receiving the titular marijuana from his dealer Saul Silver (James Franco in a wonderful change from his usual, more intense roles), he witnesses his next victim (of service) murder a person with the help of a cop (Rosie Perez). This murderer is Ted Jones (Gary Cole), who just happens to be his dealer’s dealer’s dealer.

The “love story” aspect is between Dale and Saul, by the way. They’re both losers, sure, but they both have potential, unlike the other losers they deal with, and they sort of recognize that. Dale feels superior to Saul because, hey, Saul is a drug dealing felon. Saul’s sensitivity, which shows up in many ways, is what makes him lovable, despite his dependence on the loco weed (and his subsequent lack of good judgment).

Anyway, Dale, also not functioning at peak efficiency, tosses his pineapple express out of the window after witnessing the murder, which allows Jones and his cop accomplice to track him down through Silver’s dealer, Red (Danny McBride). Hilarity, or at least a few good chuckles, ensue, and along the way we learn the dangers of smoking too much dope. (See? There’s a moral! Heh.)

So, first off, the cast: Yeah, pretty top-notch. There’s a weird, great chemistry between the always fabulous Cole and Rosie Perez, to say nothing of the relationship between Franco and Rogen (occasionally with McBride). James Remar and Bill Hader show up in an amusing opening showing how marijuana came to be banned. Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson (the bouncer in Knocked Up) play the heavies sent to kill Dale, Saul and Red with a mixture of humor and menace. And the whole rival Asian (Chinese? Japanese? Indian? Who knows?) gang is amusing as well. And Ed Begley and Nora Dunn turn up as the girlfriend’s parents.

So even though you have a buddy movie, essentially, it’s also a nice ensemble piece, with each new character bringing their own little twist to the proceedings, so that you keep going, “Oh, and remember when this character showed up?”, like Cleo King as the school cop who arrests Dale.

I think they call that good writing. It reminds me of Hitchcock, actually. Very seldom did a characer show up on screen who wasn’t a character, i.e., who didn’t seem to have their own life and their own problems, and just because the movie’s about you doesn’t mean they’re going to roll over.

The last set of the movie, a shootout in the drug lord’s hideout, is necessarily somewhat goofy. But the movie walks the fine line between slapstick and gory-realism very well, as the characters are only required to be just heroic enough, and not suddenly Willis, Stallone and Schwarzeneggar.

Although Rogan does that jump from the second floor on to Cole near the end–they show it in the commercial–is sort of unexpected and cool, even if you just know that he’s got the safety harness on and needed a lot of editing and multiple takes.

Those things usually do, of course, it’s just–you know–Seth Rogan. (Though, honestly, the guy just has a round, five-o-clock-shadow face; he’s not really very fat. He’s probably reasonably fit.)

So, all-in-all, a pretty entertaining couple of hours. Not your thing if drugs are offensive to you. And possibly not your thing if you’re into the whole drug scene and find anti-drug moralizing off-putting (though there’s not much of that, it is there).

Better than it had a right to be. The Boy approved, and particularly of the last action scene which he thought had just the right feel.

Cinematic Titanic Stings The Wasp Woman

The first fifteen minutes of this is blazingly funny. Non-stop, high-octane riffing. (Actually, the last fifteen minutes is also terrific. And the in-between 50 minutes are pretty dang hilarious.) Maybe the best yet.

In the latest Cinematic Titanic, the guys take on Roger Corman’s ‘50s classic The Wasp Woman. “Classic” may be too strong a word here, but actually, it’s a real movie with a beginning middle and end, real actors, and a real plot which makes sense, after a fashion. In typical Corman low-budget style, of course, it has little in the way of action, giving lots of space for riffing.

More coherent than The Doomsday Machine, and less oozy than The Oozing Skull, I’m sensing a new Golden Age Of Riffing with this latest one. Josh seemed a little subdued this time, and the “Board Meeting” and “Buddy Rich” sketches still didn’t quite come off–though the Board Meeting just needed a little more tweaking to go from mildly amusing to a gem–but overall the flow is flowing, and the shape is shaping up.

Oh, and unlike most movies, the mixing is kick-ass. You can hear what the guys are saying, you can hear what’s going on in the movie, the music is often obnoxious but, hey, it’s B-movie music, and it doesn’t blow your eardrums out so that you’re fiddling with the remote constantly.

Problems? Well, while I’m still not crazy about the political humor (Trace! A John McCain is old joke? Really?) they’ve kept a lid on it. I know this stuff goes down big at the cons and live performances, guys. Hell, even I’ll laugh and clap with a bunch of other morons at a reference like that. It just falls flat in the living room.

Worse, for me, though, is the swearing. I’m no shrinking violet. I can quote Chapter and Verse in “South Park”. Hell, I could probably act out the entire movie, complete with musical score, which isn’t something I’ve been able to do with a musical since The Muppet Movie.

But one of my favorite aspects of the old MST3K was the gentle ribbing and walking-the-line profanity (“Is dickweed a bad word?”) and the clever censorship. (Remember City Limits where Joel opens his umbrella to cover the nudity?) All that stuff was funnier than working without a net is.

Now, I’ll admit, Trace’s line about “I’m just going to fill my nostrils with your perfume before returning to the world of rat shit” was pretty good. But there was another “shit” right after that, and then the Buddy Rich sketch with the “goddamns”.

It’s a slippery slope. You could doubtless do 80 minutes of political clap humor and working blue, and probably some people would eat it up. It’s a way to go, and it’s gotta be easier than actually being clever. But it won’t fly here.

P.S. We sill miss the robots.

Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne)

Margot and Alex are childhood sweethearts (ignore that there’s 15 years age difference between them) who grow up to be a happily married couple, until Margo ends up dead and Alex ends up in a coma for three days, with no explanation for what happens.

The official story is that Margot was killed by a serial killer, though the police suspected Alex.

Flash-forward eight years, as the still morose Alex, mourning his wife on the anniversary of her death, receives an e-mail linking him to a live security camera where a woman who looks a lot like his wife can be seen staring upward.

Meanwhile, two bodies have been found in the woods near where Margot and Alex were attacked, and evidence on these bodies raises questions about the official story. The police once again turn their attention to Alex.

Meanwhile, some mysterious thugs are going around killing people and Alex must consort with some unsavory characters while getting to the bottom of the mystery.

This is a heavily plotted film. There were a couple of moments where I went “Ohhhhh” as I had figured out what was going, only to find another layer of plot deeper. It’s not, however, too much plot gettin’ in the way of the story, as Joe Bob Briggs would say. It all works except, to a degree, the final, ultimate exposition.

Which isn’t to say that the final exposition is bad, since the character’s motives all work out. But the actions, as described, are fairly improbable.

The Boy had trouble following it. He got distracted by trying to read things that were in French. He liked it, but it wasn’t until the end that he figured out what was going on, and even then I had to fill in some blanks. There’s a bit of exposition at the end that I thought was overlong but that helped him catch up.

But it still works. It’s interesting, there’s some good action, and the actual motivations are pretty clear. Things not quite hanging together doesn’t kill a movie like the characters acting inappropriately. It’s good drama.

François Cluzet is the lead, turning in a tightly wound performance that reminded me of Dustin Hoffman. Marie-Josée Croze, as Margot, necessarily has a smaller role, being killed in the first scene, and thereon living in flashbacks. But there’s good chemistry there.

Kristin Scott-Thomas, last seen (by us) as the suspicious wife in The Valet plays the savvy lesbian lawyer, married to Marina Hands (from The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, which Croze was also in), who is…uh…Margot’s sister?

One thing that confused The Boy and also confused me was keeping everyone’s relationship straight and, in fact, keeping the characters straight. It might’ve been the subtitles, which occasionally were white-on-white (doesn’t someone check these things?) and so demanded attention at times long after the subtitles usually disappear. (If you watch movies with subtitles a lot, you often forget you’re reading them 10-15 minutes into the movie.)

Not a perfect film, perhaps, but quite enjoyable and with a nice emotional depth you don’t usually get from a summer thriller. Of course, this is a fall movie from 2006, but still. New direcctor Guillaume Canet–an actor from one of my favorite films of 2005, Joyeux Noël–does a commendable job with a difficult script.

Smart Gits

Get Smart was still playing and a movie was needed. The new Mummy flick doesn’t look too good, and 3-D doesn’t work for me, ruling out the other Brendan Fraser.

He’s doing cute spots with Maria Bello on cable, though. (Cinemax?)

The movie is not as funny as the old show, but in fairness, the old show isn’t as funny as it once was. As a summer movie, it’s good fun, with wall-to-wall comedian cameos; as nostalgia, it’s not bad, there are some good references to the old series; as a sitcom remake, it’s one of the better ones (if not the best of what is a horribly weak field).

Some details:

They made a lot of good choices. Instead of Maxwell Smart being a complete boob, he was a highly competent desk jobber who wanted to be an agent, but was too good at his data crunching to be field agent. And actually, many of his failures were not in execution, but in timing or just plain luck.

This…works. If you recall the original series, Don Adams’ Smart was a constant goof. But in order to forward a plot with an incompetent protagonist, you have to rely on others (which diminishes your lead) or you have to rely on luck, which gets tiresome. Adams did both, which was fine, because the series was composed of 22 minutes shows, stuffed with sight gags and other absurdities. This movie gives Smart enough skill to make him less irritating than he might have been.

Carrel is just right. He could do a fairly good, dead-on, Don Adams imitation if he wanted. But that wouldn’t have worked for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s weird. The guy’s dead, but only for about five years. Second of all, the original character wouldn’t have fit due to the changes made in the setting.

Like an Owen Wilson or (in most cases) a Will Ferrel, Carrel has created a persona that works in a wide variety of situations, and that means he can do the goofy stuff and switch into a more serious–though never too serious in this movie–mode. In this movie, that means, completely missing a stunt on the one hand, and then moments later doing something competent, and then doing something movie-competent (like avoiding lasers with Olympic-level gymnastics).

The movie walks this line, too.

In the originl show, you had to sort of wonder what Agent 99 saw in Agent 86. And Barbara Feldon can hardly be commended enough for convincingly conveying real love in an absurd sitcom. I’ve heard people–guys–pining for her decades after and in retrospect, it’s probably because she managed to adore Agent 86 and respect him, even though her skills were far superior.

Not really my type, I do see the appeal. Now compare her to Anne Hathaway, also not my type.


I’m putting these here because I these pictures may say something about changes in taste, at least as presented by Hollywood. Beauty, in the ‘60s, had a rounder face, and smaller nose and eyes, as this picture of Feldon doesn’t actually illustrate all that well.

Hathaway is more in the Julia Roberts/Uma Thurman mold, with a longer nose and wider mouth, to say nothing of enormous eyes. Her eyes are so strikingly large that it’s easy to forget she’s not really my type. (Not that she’s been hounding me for attention anyway.) Is it just my imagination? I see more Hathaways than Feldons these days.

Anyway, I don’t really “get” the appeal of Hathaway. When I see her in a movie, I think, “Why’d they pick her?” And then at some point during the movie she wins me over, as she did here. Right about the point she donned a 99 wig and was doing the goofy laser-dodging thing that’s been all the rage since Entrapment, and actually gave us a husky voiced (momentary) Feldon imitation, I was swayed.

The supporting cast is superb: Dwayne Johnson as the uber-buff super-agent; Alan Arkin–man, this guy’s been funny since before I was born; Terence Stamp just-so in the Bernie Kopell role as head of KAOS; the versatile Terry Crews; Masi Oka and Nate Torrence as the uber-nerds; Ken Davitian as Stamp’s lower-key right-hand man; and the ginormous Dalip Singh as the sensitive crusher, whose domestic problems make him grumpy at work.

On top of that, we got cameos. Bill Murray as Agent 13. Patrick Warburton as Hymie. James Caan as the Presdient. Larry Miller and Kevin Nealon as agents of a competing bureau. Etc. What’s cool is that they’re not just gimmicks. Everybody does a good job both fitting in and being funny in their own ways.

It’s fair to criticize the movie for not being funny enough. One character appears to get killed–in a non-funny fashion–and that felt wrong. The original would’ve shown him in tattered clothes and smudge-faced, I think. (Though if memory serves, the original show did have people dying, but off-screen due to some sort of “missed it by that much” deal.)

But ultimately, this movie works pretty darn well, has a lot of the spirit of the original, and showed proper respect. Name a movie based on some other ’60s sitcom that does the same.

Reprint: This Film Is Not Yet RatedI

Lori Ingham (a very cool blogger indeed) stopped by the Bubba Ho-Tep thread to praise it and while browsing her many blogs, I came across a positive review of This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a documentary I also found interesting. So I dug up my old review from the Loaded Shelf and have reprinted it here.

Check out Lori’s review on her site.

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I have, in the past, been a bit of a censorship buff (which, sadly, is neither the least weird nor the least boring thing about me) so I was much intrigued by Kirby Dick’s film exposé of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) This Film Is Not Yet Rated. The film, of course, is not actually rated, severely limiting it’s options for box-office success—the point of the film—but given the way most people reacted when I said I had seen it, I doubt this made much of a difference. Sample true dialogue:

I just saw a film about the MPAA.”
The what?
The MPAA! The Motion Picture Association of America.”
Oh.” Blinks of non-recognition.
They rate the movies!”
‘kay.”
They’re also lobby for the studios.”
Got any dip?”

People do not seem to be fascinated by the topic. I first became aware of the ratings board through the late H.B. Halicki who griped that his film Gone In 60 Seconds (the 1974 classic, not the recent remake) had gotten an R-rating instead of a PG because he was an independent and not a big studio. (By the way, I was told this story second-hand as a young child, so it may be entirely apocryphal.) Nonetheless, indies getting a harsh rating where the board was lenient with the big studios are a fair chunk of this film’s exposé.

The reason I’ve been fascinated with censorship in the past is precisely because it is, almost by definition, arbitrary. One use of the F-bomb gets you a “PG”, unless you use it to refer to the act, in which case it gets you an “R”, to use one of the few, semi-hard-ish rules that the basically free-wheeling MPAA uses. The excellent Gunner Palace is riddled with swear words and gets a PG-13, presumably because it’s a documentary, and because the director appealed (and won).

I have to say before I get into specifics, that while I went into the film thinking ratings boards and censorship were generally stupid, I actually came out with a bit more respect for the ratings board, especially when presented with the film’s idea of alternatives. This is probably a bad sign, like when I came out of Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room thinking that the media had unfairly demonized Ken Lay. I’m sure that this wasn’t the filmmaker’s intention but then, I can get a little contrary if I think I’m being manipulated.

In between making various points, the film shows largely gratuitous clips of (mostly sex) scenes that got other films “NC-17” or “X” ratings. This was the most entertaining aspect of the film. Also, the film maker hires a detective to “out” the members of the ratings board, who are generally kept anonymous. This felt a little creepy.

So, what are the movie’s basic points?

  1. The MPAA, a private organization, holds tremendous power that favors its members and locks indies out of theaters.
  2. The MPAA ratings process is ill-defined and mysterious. Its appeals process is even more so.
  3. The MPAA claims not to be a censorship board but, in fact, is, since an NC-17 kills a movie’s box office.
  4. People should be aware of what’s going on.
  5. A more sensible ratings system should be used. One that reflects a broader set of values.

Other minor premises:

  1. The government should do the rating, if there’s any rating to be done.
  2. Sex should be less strongly rated than violence.
  3. The movie studios have been colluding with the US military for the past 40 years to inure the public to violence so they’ll be more amenable to war.

I’m not joking about that last point, either. But let’s take the first five points first: First, the MPAA is a private organization and it most certainly favors the big studios that formed it. The film’s most correctly damning example comes from Kevin Smith, whose film Jersey Girl is a solid “PG-13”, or even a “PG”. There’s a discussion about masturbation that pushed it into an “R” because one of the raters would be uncomfortable if her 16-year-old daughter heard about that mysterious practice. This is such a mild film and such a mild discussion—about on a par with a “Seinfeld” episode—that the “R” seems absurd. It also seems unlikely that they would’ve given an “R” to a major player in the same circumstance.

Second, the MPAA is mysterious, weird and, em, obtuse. This is a big deal for the filmmakers who appear in TFINYR. But honestly, what do I care? The bulk of the greatest movies ever made were made under far more restrictive rules. Do I find it weird that the MPAA sometimes seems to penalize filmmakers for showing female orgasms? I suppose. Is the point possibly undermined by having the lesbian director of the dishonest Boys Don’t Cry whine about not being able to show Chloe Sevigny’s orgasm as given by Hillary Swank to the degree she’d like? Probably, yes, for most people.

Also, the murky appeals process involves clergy, which seems to appall Mr. Dick. It’s not clear whether they vote or not, but they probably have a “chilling” effect in some fashion. The process being already weird is made that much weirder and perhaps anachronistic, given the diminished role of the church in society.

Third, the MPAA is a censorship board. This is true, but it’s not really their fault that large chains and newspapers won’t play or run ads for NC-17 films. So, what it comes down to is that you can do whatever crazy thing you want in your movie, but you’ll pay the price for it. And what we really have is filmmakers bitching about that price. But, it’s not really clear what would happen in the absence of the NC-17. Surely the objections to the material being shown would not evaporate. Here, we clearly have a situation where (once again) people fail to realize the difference between “nobody wants to listen to me” and “I’m being censored!”

Fourth, sure, people should know. Why not. But do they care? Probably not as much as passionate filmmakers believe.

The movie disintegrates on point number five. There is no such thing as a sensible ratings system, especially in a country like the U.S. of A. In order to establish what is offensive, you have to be able to catalogue all the things that offend people. And we are too diverse. Nowhere is this made more hilariously obvious in the parade of filmmakers discussing what they would consider unsuitable for younger audiences. At this point, I began to feel sorry for the raters. The chestnut always dredged up is that sex should be more permissible than violence. (For some people it’s always 1969 and we need to “make love, not war”.) Kevin Smith offers the most interesting suggestion: Hackneyed plot ideas should be given severe ratings.

Perhaps surprisingly, listening to the litany of things that the various directors themselves find offensive, you realize they’re not at all against censorship: They’d actually impose more of it. They just want to pick what gets censored.

About 2/3rds of the way through, the movie swings to the far left, starting with the observation that war movies that want the Pentagon’s help have to be approved by the Pentagon. (What a shock: An organiztion doesn’t want to help you make them look bad!) This culminates in the idea that Hollywood is part of a grand conspiracy to make war acceptable to the general public through film. (Like I said, for some people, it’s always 1969. And the guy who said that apparently hasn’t seen a movie since 1969.)

Finally, the film swings back to reality, showing us Dick’s own attempt to get a rating—which must, by definition be NC-17, since it’s laden with scenes from other films that got them NC-17s. This was, at least more interesting than the conspiracy silliness but the documentary seemed to be dragging at this point. Only a few minutes are spent at the very end with the MPAA’s lobbying efforts, which are highly destructive and against the public interest (copyright extension and the reduction of “fair use”, the DMCA, etc.). The actual substantive destructiveness of the MPAA as a lobby would have been more interesting than the trips to la-la land, and the extensive sub-plot where lesbian detectives reveal the identities of people you don’t really care about.

Once again, it’s weird and it’s arbitrary, but that’s what the “Director’s Cut” is for. And that’s what this film skirts, and has to skirt to be relevant at all. Box-office receipts account for an increasingly small percentage of a movie’s total receipts. DVDs are constantly released in “unrated” versions, and the film itself comes on the (cultural) eve of Internet distribution, threatening to render all ratings boards and censorship irrelevant. It was kind of a gutsy move to make the movie, sure, but I somehow doubt most people are going to feel the outrage that filmmakers do when they feel like some talentless hacks have say over their work.

But the point missed, overall, is that the board ostensibly exists for the public. The real question is does the public feel served by the ratings board? Dick never asks that question, preferring instead to take the opinions of people who are, by definition, outside the mainstream.

As a documentary, I give it fair marks: it makes most of its points pretty well, though veering off occasionally. As entertainment, it’s uneven. The killer, though, is relevance: It’s not the ’50s, the MPAA isn’t the Hayes Commission, and the film treats the real, modern threat of the MPAA (as a lobbyist group) almost as an afterthought.

As a postscript, I saw this movie at the Laemmle in Encino, which is about a mile from the MPAA headquarters. So, it was pretty cool to be watching them drive around my stomping grounds for most of the movie. I also feel like I should add that as a child, I flouted movie ratings, and I still do as a parent. I guess some people actually look at these things, but I’ve always felt them to be silly.

Fractured Plot

SPOILERS about Fracture forthwith, in the form of questions:

Why the hell didn’t our high-powered lawyer (played by Ryan Gosling, who’s so distraught over his loss, he ends up with a Real Doll) bully the security at the ICU? Lawyers are all about throwing their weight around and he had a court order, however dodgy.

Why the hell was he so interested in “saving her life” in the first place? She was a vegetable. It wasn’t like she was going to wake up suddenly and finger Anthony Hopkins. (Maybe he was thinking she was going to rise from the dead?)

When all is said and done, the “gotcha” moment comes because the cop who commits suicide (Billy Burke, who’s killed his wife before) used the same gun that killed Embeth Davidtz. But wouldn’t that just fit in with the notion that he had killed Embeth, framed Hopkins and killed himself out of remorse?

Double jeopardy doesn’t work that way! No matter what Ashley Judd says.

Irritating movie on several levels.

Fractured Eardrums

We watched Fracture yesterday, a film I had avoided in the theaters due to its alleged mediocrity. (It is fairly mediocre, but before you see a movie, you have to assume that it was alleged, right?)

It suffered from precisely the situation I talked about here. At one point, the music kept getting louder and louder while the dialogue kept getting quieter and quieter.

This almost never happens in the movie theater. Mix it for stereo TV, jerkwads!

The Boy’s perception is pretty keen. He noticed the movie was good while Hopkins was on, and pretty much un-engaging otherwise. The lovely Rosamund Pike (Pride and Prejudice, Doom) is overly made-up and has no accent. Actually, it’s a fine cast, with David Strathairn and Ryan Gosling, etc. etc. etc. But it’s a by-the-numbers cat-and-mouse detective/killer story.

I realized early on the movie was in trouble because I was rooting for Hopkins. I wanted him to get away with killng Embeth Davidtz. Now, I love Embeth Davidtz, from Army of Darkness to Junebug, and from Matilda to Thi13een Ghosts (is that how you spell that stupid title?). She was in Schindler’s List for cryin’ out loud.

Hopkins kills her, and I’m still rooting for him to get away with it. He’s the shoring member that holds up the creaky mineshaft. Or something.

Anyway, director Hoblit has done better, particularly with his uneven but very touching Frequency, about a son whose radio allows him to talk to his (now dead) father. That one doesn’t really work logically, either, but it makes up for it with some great chemistry and a novel concept.

A Man Named Pearl

The documentary-as-hagiography without a political end is a neglected genre.

I say this non-facetiously. A lot of people have done really cool things, and we don’t really need to know about the not cool things they’ve done. We’ve all done those, for the most part, and it tends to trivialize the really good things.

Just an opinion, of course. Some of us do seem to enjoy a good wallow. And it’s hard to imagine some documentaries, like Crumbor Bukowski – Born Into Thiswithout considerable examination of these men’s flaws.

But it’s nice to have a movie that’s along the lines of “Here’s a cool dude and here’s the cool stuff he’s done.” Exempli gratia, A Man Named Pearl. The only remote negativity is the ghost of racism, which is ameliorated by the fact that his current best friend is a white 40-something female museum curator.

Pearl Fryer bought a house nearly 25 years ago in Bishopville in South Carolina, not welcome in certain areas because, apparently, he wouldn’t keep his yard up. So, the marginally educated, 3 decade veteran of a can company bought his house elsewhere (with 3 acres of land! we who live in L.A. salute you!) and embarked on a horticultural journey which may ultimately have the effect of revitalizing his somewhat backward hometown.

First, he had no training, apart from a four-minute how-to on “bonsai”. Second, he builds his garden entirely with cast-offs from the local nursery. Third, he has plants thriving in his yard that really shouldn’t be. Fourth, he uses a hand chainsaw, which is totally inappropriate.

Most importantly, however, Pearl worked weekends–and nights, using a big lamp–for decades and turned his yard into a masterpiece.

And there’s your story.

It’s simple. It’s got lots of great pictures of sculpted bushes and trees, and Pearl Fryer working on them. It’s got his church group, a museum curator, the manager of the local Waffle House, and lots of kids talking about the inspiration the old guy gives them.

There’s a nice message about race relations, God, and the value of hard work–and the value of hard work doing something you love.

I confess, about 20 minutes in, I thought, “Oh, my God! It’s a real live magic negro!” But in that thought, I realize the problem with that stock character: Fryer isn’t magical, he just works his ass off. He’s not a saint, he’s just a really good role model. He’s actually a living example of why that stereotype is offensive.

It’s a nice, hopeful movie with nice, hopeful people in it. It’s about ten minutes too long. Even at that, it’s hard to object too strongly.

And if the people of Bishopville work half as hard as Fryer does, they’re going to be all right.