Saturday, August 29, 2009

Taking Woodstock Immerses In Metaphor


Ang Lee is a director who likes to immerse his films completely in a time and place. Whether it's suburban Connecticut in the '70's (The Ice Storm), classical China (Crouching Tiger), or the '60's West (Brokeback Mountain), he wishes to capture not only the scenery, but the feeling - the essence, if you will - of being in a specific moment in time, in a specific landscape.

His films are also about sexual awakening - whether the awakening is naive and dangerous (Ice Storm), furtive and repressed (Brokeback Mountain), or symbolically coded Freudianism (The Hulk), he's seemingly fascinated with the roles between parents and children and the fraught sexual tensions of adolescent transformation into adulthood.

It's perhaps inevitable, then, that Lee would eventually gravitate towards filming the biggest cultural moment of sexual and adolescent awakening in our collective memories: Woodstock, that late-Sixties concert on Yasgur's farm that became synonymous with a generation's blossoming into sexual freedom.

Yet this is not the straight-on Woodstock movie that many might expect, that a director of realism like Ron Howard or of moral drama like Spielberg might make. There is little of the music, none of the performers - nothing, in fact, of the "subject matter" of the concert itself. What Lee wishes to focus on is the experience - the feeling - in fact, the meaning, of Woodstock, not only to the thousands who attended but to an entire generation, more than anything else. Lee goes so far deeply into the meaning of this moment that what he creates is a supremely "laid back" film - a film with a breezy style and subtly of drama that seemingly might have even been made in the Sixties, but with such awareness and fullness of the moment that it could only have been made from our present perspective.

Taking Woodstock centers on a particular man/boy, if you will, played with halting charm by the young comedian Demetri Martin. Martin is Elliot Teichberg, the dutiful, industrious, creative son of two bat-shit crazy Jewish hotel owners in the Catskills who are going broke in their lazy, run-down old town. (Elliot's mother, an Eastern Europe refuge who looks a bit like a drained beet, drives away customers by charging for towels and showers, berates the banker who's about to foreclose on their property, loves shooing the hippies renting their barn back inside whenever they pop out, and is an eternal albatross and embarrassment to Elliot. Meanwhile, Elliot's father is a thoroughly defeated roofer who lets Mom run the boy around.). This is the story of Elliot, how he ends up bringing the concert to his town, and how the concert transforms Elliot - a buttoned up Jewish intellectual with hidden drives and tender obligations - from a divided, unhappy soul into a fully actualized, integrated human being.

That's pretty much the plot of the film, and as with his movie Brokeback Mountain, the pace of Taking Woodstock is slow and easy, the main character is a gay man (only this time, one who finds comfort in discovering who he is), and Lee is more concerned with building metaphor and moments of beauty than creating drama and tension (this film couldn't be more opposite to something like Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.) I'm afraid all this may make it a bit unpopular for certain theater goers. (Exiting the film, the people behind me said, and I quote: "What happened? Nothing. It was gay. That's all that happened." Then again, I saw it in New Jersey.)

I too was a bit bored during the movie. Lee uses a split screen (as he did in The Hulk), a technique that was too clever by half in The Hulk and which seemed, at first, discredited here (the reason for it I'll explain in a bit). It bothered me, as did a beefed up Liev Schreiber in wig and dress playing an ex-Marine drag queen, the corny little breaks in character (like a cop with a flower in his helmet) and the sometimes slow scenes of spaced-out dialogue. Yes, like many, I wished Lee had used more of the music of the festival to punctuate the soundtrack (were the rights unavailable, or was this a conscious decision?). I sat through the film not sure what I thought about it. But as I left the movie, and as it sat with me, it grew and grew - seeing it was like taking a pill, and as the memory of the movie flowered inside me, it increasingly left me with a good feeling. Finally, as I fully realized how Lee's symbolism had worked throughout, how well he had touched upon a critical moment of adolescence, I realized that a movie hasn't made me feel this good in ages. Lee had done something much much more than simply shoot a boring movie about a gay boy's peripheral view of Woodstock. It's like taking a little bit of the Sixties with you.

How he does that is actually quite complex, and what a director like Lee is so brilliant at is creating layers of metaphor. He does that here and it's just not apparent how so until the movie is over. But start at the opening scene: a shot of flowers growing in the decaying, ordinary landscape of the Teichberg motel, and the empty pool. This landscape is Elliot's landscape. There are flowers growing (Elliot is a painter) but the life is drab and dull. The pool is empty. Lee has chosen these metaphors - flowers and water - because this is Woodstock, a cultural moment about sexual blossoming, and the age of Aquarius.

As the people of Woodstock come to town, the pool becomes full - first to bathe in, later to drink. Elliot begins to become more of himself as he bathes in their almost extra-terrestrial glow, and he begins to use his entrepreneurial skills to help organize the concert promoters, to convince his parents and to fight the hostile townspeople. The character of Michael - the lead promoter, who once lived on Elliot's street - is handsome, virile, laid-back, chilled, and completely actualized. He's the dream of what Elliot could be (he even comes riding in on horseback at one point): a combination of a creative soul with business smarts and leadership...the perfect Aquarian.

But Elliot is divided - clearly evident in his paintings, which all exhibit dark and light swatches intersected by a single bright color. In fact, much of this movie is divided into Yin and Yang: there are the two townie brothers, one the uptight older fisherman, the other the war-ravaged whacked out wild soul. There's Elliot's mother and father, who have reversed roles, with the mother dominating and the father shy and shut down. And there's the motel itself - which has both a barn, in which live the Earthlight Players, a communal, semi-naked, pansexual chorus of free thought and love, and the main motel, in which live Elliot's uptight, hostile, repressed parents. The parents, like Freud's ego, must keep the naked players inside the id of the barn. But Woodstock is about letting all that free love energy out...by the millions.

This is why the split screen technique ultimately makes sense: like Elliot, the film is split between repression and freedom, and is about breaking down that barrier through the crucible of the concert (it's also apparently a direct tribute to the Woodstock documentary, which used the same technique). The character of Vilma - Liev Schreiber's drag queen - shows up as the hotel bodyguard, as the first embodiment of that mixing: a hard man and soft woman in one person. But the real mixing happens the first day of the concert, when Elliot is sent "to the center of the universe" by Vilma and his father. What he encounters when he gets to the concert isn't the concert itself but a van, where sits a hippie from California and his chick. The two spot Elliot and immediately deduce that "he's thirsty." He is thirsty - for the age of Aquarius - and they offer him wine, and ultimately seduce him into the van, where he's given a tab of acid. What comes next is probably the most delicately created, insightful, and accurate representation of a drug awaking experience ever put onto film. As Elliot lies in the van, seduced by both the man and the woman, the mandala paintings around him begin to move, swirl, and mix. This is the beginning of the journey to dissolve the dualism, to mix the Yin and Yang of the movie's themes.

When Elliot finally emerges from that van, he's a new man: literally dressed now in the relaxed garb of the Sixties, he goes to a hill to look at the concert with his new friends. What he sees becomes an entire ocean of people, a moving, rolling sea, with the center of it the light of the concert, blossoming and exploding like a verdant flower. This: this moment of sexual awakening, this moment of self actualization and integration - this, Lee is saying, is the center of the universe. But this is not just Elliot's story: this is a story of an entire generation that awakened at that concert, and that's why his film is so powerful. This rolling sea, this is the Age of Aquarius. "Perspective," Elliot is told, "is the death of love." To fully love, one must lose one's perspective: one must become part of the rolling sea.

When Elliot returns home, however, his parents are still there. What he must do then is come back from his journey of self-actualization and fix his life. That isn't always so easy, and Lee punctuates this by giving us a wonderful closing scene of the destruction left at the end of the concert: the muddy fields, the trash, overflowing urinals, the empty stages. After integration, one must still pick up the pieces and carry on.

It might seem to some like nothing much happens in this movie. The concert comes, and the concert goes - we never see Joplin or Hendrix, we never see the guitars and singers. But Elliot knows who he is now, and clearly, that's the most powerful thing that could happen to anyone. It happened to millions of us in that August of 1969, and happens to many more of us every day. It takes a beautiful movie to make us feel that again.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Inglourious Basterds – Kosher Porn for Cinemaphiles

“This may be my masterpiece,” are the final words uttered in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film. Tarantino’s hero, a slow-drawling Tennessee commander (played by the ever scruffier Brad Pitt), who leads a brigade of Jewish Nazi-killing mercenaries, says this as he lovingly carves a swastika into the forehead of another character. It’s no coincidence that these are the last words of the movie, or that Tarantino might wish the audience to take them as his own appraisal of this film. There’s a lot in the movie that’s self-referential, to the point where the movie is much more a cultural pastiche of cinematic techniques than anything else; certainly more so than it resembles anything that might parallel actual World War II history, let alone an Aristotelian story, with beginning, middle, and end.

And presumably, Tarantino wouldn’t have it any other way. Eli Roth, a director whom Tarantino casts as “the bear Jew,” calls the film “Kosher Porn.” What he presumably means by this is that the movie is essentially a Jewish revenge fantasy: a group of Jewish mercenaries so ruthless and deadly that they strike fear into the hearts of Nazis everywhere, bedevil Hitler, and ultimately bring an end to World War II. That may be (though one is left to ask what connection Tarantino feels to such subject matter…as no Jewish director would dare be so disparaging of “real” history). But I think the word “porn” is operative in a different way as well. Like pornography, Tarantino has structured his film as series of character set pieces only loosely connected by a thru-story, with each piece structured as a long, verbal seduction that builds to a sudden release of violence (with the last set being the kind of grandiose all-members orgy of death, the kind of group release the best porn films usually save for last). Porn, indeed.

The plot, such as it is, is essentially borrowed from a series of World War II and spy movies as wide-ranging as Guns of Naverone, The Dirty Dozen, James Bond, and every movie ever made about the French resistance (with, as Jeffery Golderg points out in The Atlantic, a bit of Springtime for Hitler for good measure). The movie opens as Colonel Hanz Landa – a renowned “Jew Hunter” – interrogates a French farmer about a neighboring Jewish family and their whereabouts. Landa is cultured, charming, and something of a connoisseur, at least when it comes to hunting Jews. Next, we get an introduction to Aldo and his band of Jewish mercenaries (including the “Jewish Bear,” who gives Hitler the schvits); Aldo is the opposite of Landa: the rough American with a Southern drawl and a penchant for scalping his victims. After this, some of our characters start to meet in various combinations, and we are introduced some new and interesting actors, including a British movie-critic-turned-spy and a German-actress-turned-traitor.

Each of these pieces really do, I think, exhibit Tarantino working at the top of his form (pun intended, as you’ll see). I’m reminded of the “Big Mac” discussion in Pulp Fiction: the kind of cultural trivia that fascinates as it builds an undercurrent of tension. That scene became a kind of signature discussion piece of film-students everywhere, and each of the scenes in Inglourious Basterds does the Big Mac discussion one better. We get the clever interrogation of the French farmer, who is cornered into a Sophie’s choice of a decision. We get the nerve-wracking interview of a Jewish woman, passing as French, by Joseph Goebbels, who wants to use her theater for a German movie premier. And we get what probably will go down as a classic scene of espionage as two Jews, a British Spy, and a German film actress leading them all on a secret mission to assassinate Hitler during this very premier, play a game of “what celebrity am I” with a group of German soldiers on leave, trying not to give themselves away. There is no doubt something archly fun in the way the game – in which the players put cards on their foreheads to indicate the hidden personage they must guess at – echoes the game of hidden identity the spies are simultaneously playing…not to mention Aldo’s penchant for marking his victim’s identities on their foreheads. Each of these scenes is individually great, even if taken together they don’t add up to anything more than the sum of their parts. (Intentionally, according to Tarantino’s interview with Charlie Rose, where Tarantino essentially explains that he doesn’t believe in morality. Which explains why his films are absent of any moral character arc. They are, in Tarantino’s own words, written as actor vehicles, not really as expressions of story.) There is no doubt that Tarantino is an actor's director, and he gets fine performances out of his entire cast.

But the real point of this film is deceptive – even if we are meant to focus on character over story, acting over arc, Tarantino’s subject here is not so much the characters of the war as it is the characters who wage a war of cultures. The real villain in the film isn’t Hitler, but Goebbels, the German minister of culture who created a “pure” German cinema that glorified the exploits of the Nazis. Goebbels is after a kind of purification of cinema, and the verbal calisthenics of the other Nazis seems to emphasize this obsession with culture. What, after all, is racial cleansing but a kind of ultimate expression of aesthetics? One wonders if Tarantino isn’t after (or fears) something quite similar, in his own fraught relationship with film form; after all, like his obsessed Germans, Jew Hunters, and Nazi killers, all roads in this movie lead to the cinema, where Tarantino seems to be saying that history can be transformed, if not escaped entirely, by virtuosos with enough courage to “break through” classical sentiments about morality.

However, without the morality, it’s rather hard to tell if Tarantino wishes his film to be a tribute to cinema, a rabble-rouser, a personal indulgence, or just another exercise in stylistic borrowing. But what he seems to be doing in the closing scenes of his movie is intentionally copying the German Nazi film style: He creates a celebratory fantasy of violent triumph that is a kind of catharsis; but so similar is Tarantino’s treatment to the Nazi’s film treatment in the film-within-a-film that Hitler’s salivation over the scenes of Germans killing American soldiers is an uncomfortable mockery of our own. To what purpose might this be done, other than mere titillation? And this scene isn’t the only highly stylized borrowing in the movie. The entire film exhibits this homage of styles, one style each for each of the main characters: the style of French cinema to match the Catherine Deneuve-like French heroine; the style of the American Western to match Aldo Raines and his band of Jewish Indians; James Bond for the British spy (“At least let me go out speaking the King’s English”). The characters speak multiple languages and Tarantino slips in and out of multiple film styles, ultimately going out with his Riefenstahl-ish triumph of the pornographic will over history. It’s fascinating, but ultimately, what’s the point? To exhibit Tarantino’s mastery of cinema? Granted, anyone who’s followed Tarantino’s work takes this as a given. To create lasting art, however, I believe one must ultimately offer more than a study of form.

Perhaps what’s most aggravating about this movie though is that while Inglourious Basterds wants to erase history in its wake, and be blissfully free of morality, it’s also trafficking in the morally-weighted subject of the Holocaust. Why this subject matter? It’s weirdly insulting – at first – or possibly insanely brilliant, in the way that sometimes the autistic or the socially inept student can hit upon some brilliant insight in their obsessed recitation of arcane detail. But if it is brilliant, one is still left to wonder why a movie like this is even needed, and why now. Americans certainly aren’t lacking for propaganda, nor does either an homage to Germanic cultural exceptionalism nor an education in an orgy of pornographic cinematic violence seem necessary in our present moment (anyone who saw the G.I. Joe movie this summer must certainly agree). Nor does it seem like the story of the Holocaust need credulous deconstruction…unless you’re a Holocaust-denying anti-semite, which Tarantino (one assumes) is not. So the motivation for the movie is a bit of a puzzle. One imagines Tarantino at the end of the film looking it over and saying to himself either, “I’m a genius, and this is my masterpiece” or “Boy, if anyone actually buys this crap they are such suckers.” One can possibly imagine him saying both simultaneously.

I know, this could be said to be a criticism of the whole Tarantino/Rodriguez nihilistic oeuvre, with its fascination of form over morality and its love of carnage. There is indeed much to be admired here in Tarantino’s facility with writing and directing, and Inglourious Basterds seems to have elevated this sort of thing to a true art, as much as that word can be applied to a formalistic exercise. Yet I fear that Tarantino may have created a masterpiece that has no moral value, other than to exhibit the filmmaker’s fluency with film. In this sense, then, Eli Roth is right: this is a kind of Kosher Porn, though it’s not quite clear who’s supposed to be getting screwed.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Distric 9 - Classic Sci Fi

Way back in the day, sci-fi used to be about something: specifically, it was a coded way of providing a social critique. HG Wells and other writers who invented the form placed their stories in the future, or created metaphors of strange monsters and aliens, as a way to help their readers escape their present social or economic class, in order to see a present-day issue like poverty or class resentment in a new light.

Such is the spirit of District 9, set in Johannesburg and written as a clear metaphor for apartheid.

The movie has sparked some controversy – some who believe its portrayal is racist, others who think it’s merely trivial . Most of these reactions are due to the way the aliens are portrayed: as “digusting” insects who ravage through garbage and seem both disoriented and violent. Then there’s also the portrayal of the society that reacts to them with a mix of fear, revulsion and exploitation.

I think it’s a brilliant film intentionally challenging racial assumptions as well as our reception of news, international events, and our own places in society. It certainly is a challenging movie, extremely violent as well as trafficking in stereotypes both cinematical and racial.

The movie opens in mockumenatary style, interviewing the factotum of a U.N.-like semi-military aid agency (“NMU”), Mathias, charged with relocating the aliens, vernacularly referred to as “prawns,” from their make-shift camps near Johannesburg to a tent-city well away from civilization. The interviews are conducted with members of the press, academia, and general public; we also get the back story of how the aliens came to Earth, the mystery as to who they are and why they are stranded here, and the somewhat threatening and odd behavior of the aliens in their raggedy camps.

That all this has a direct parallel to apartheid is obvious, and the movie doesn’t really get going until Mathias is accidently spayed with some alien gunk. The gunk begins a genetic transformation in Mathias that allows him to operate the advanced alien weaponry (which has been coded only to respond to alien DNA).

The DNA transformation from human to alien is a stock sci-fi trope (Star Trek: Next Generation did a nifty episode on this theme), but what elevates this movie are precisely the controversial chances it takes with its racial/alien metaphor. Much like Bruno, District 9 wishes to explode safe assumptions – in this case, racial assumptions - even as it traffics in the same stereotypes it’s examining.

The “prawns” are not pleasant – they rummage through trash for their meals, respond to the violence of the MNU with equal violence, and are seemingly addicted to cat food (the alien equivalent of heroin?), for which they trade technology, weapons, and stolen goods on the black market supported by an evil Nigerian gang that rivals MNU for their violence and ferocity. They are also trapped here – unable to restart their spaceship to return home. In this sense they also serve as a metaphor for any displaced people, from Palestinians to Afghani’s, who find themselves dispossessed. The mockumentary treatment helps to reinforce our view of this tragedy as something apart from us, the way world news is something we simply watch on our TV. The movie seems to be saying that in our media saturated environment, even the presence of aliens from another world would soon become just another nightly news story, hardly worthy of disturbing our daily routines. The aliens and their situation have become something we can hardly understand, let alone sympathize with.

But when Mathias starts to become a prawn himself, he quickly discovers personally what it’s like to be on the other side of the MNU stick – as well as befriends one of the key prawns, and his son, who equally have to wrestle with their suddenly found allegiance with their former persecutor.

At the core of this movie is the alien / human bond, which develops richly over the course of the bloody action, giving the film a strong emotional underpinning which I think is the key to the appeal it’s finding with its fans. I complain often in my reviews about movies that lack a character arc; it’s hard to find a more pronounced arc than the one Mathias must travel, changing in the course of two hours not only his social station and his politics, but his species as well. Mathias’s change is met with an equal growth on the part of his prawn ally, who is able to discover a bond of friendship that goes beyond worlds. It’s a classic story of war and oppression, only the alien DNA and weaponry give it a unique kick, and the documentary style ads the right measure of curious distance and subtle, sarcastic humor.

There certainly is some truth to the criticisms about the movie. The Nigerian bad-guys are right out of central casting, and couldn’t be a more offensive stereotype. As are the white military commanders and the bloodthirsty CEO’s. There’s no subtlety lost on this film.

But for a sci-fi that’s mean to entertain, District 9 does so in the best fashion. Like the great episodes of Battlestar Galactica or the sci-fi classics of an earlier generation, it asks us to re-look at our present sociology with the strange orientation offered by an alien culture. It does so originally and with spirited gusto, and for those who love a classic sci-fi yarn told well, it doesn't disappoint.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Julie and Julia: Should Have Halved The Recipe

I can imagine the conversation that must have gone on when Nora Ephram went to the studios to pitch a movie about Julia Child. "Julia Child?" some twenty-two year old executive must have said. "How will movie-goers related to a deceased French cook?" (or perhaps worse, "who's that?"). The solution: license two books, one about Julia Child, and the other the book based on the blog by the young woman who spent a year cooking all of Julia Child's recipes ("The Julie/Julia Project"). It's about Julia, see, but younger audiences will relate to the young chick.

Then mix thoroughly and voila: audiences will flock. Unfortunately, rich as the ingredients are, the final confection falls flat, and probably due to all that mixing.

The Julia story – played by the always wonderful Meryl Streep and supported by an equally wonderful Stanly Tucci – tells a warm and tender story about how an American diplomat’s wife, stranded in Paris, learns to cook in order to pass the time, and eventually finds her m├ętier in besting the stuffy French and translating French cooking for the “servantless” American audience. Julia and her husband are very much in love, and the story is really about how women in the Fifties, servants to their husbands, were still able to occasionally find acclaim and satisfaction by discovering their hidden talents (if they were lucky enough to have husbands with the right careers, and the right politics).

Then there’s the Julie story – about a modern, twenty-something Brooklynite who discovers Julie Child’s cookbook and decides to cook every recipe over the course of a year. This tale is rather the opposite. Dour and unrelenting, this Julie has been turned into a stock Nora Ephram heroine: winey, self-absorbed almost to the point of weird obsession, more than a bit neurotic and the last person any man would want to spend any time with (the voice exhibited in the Julie/Julia Project blog is much more accessible than the character played by Amy Adams, and one feels sympathy with this author for what Ephram has done to the character.)

Ephram chops up the Julia story and sprinkles in the Julie story, shifting the mood between uplift and whiney, to the point that by the time the movie finishes, with Julie reminiscing in the Smithsonian over Julia’s kitchen, we feel cheated of both stories – the Julia story seems to be just getting going, and the Julie story should have ended long before, after an interminable sojourn in Julia’s footsteps with no new insight.

I don’t think the problem is necessarily Amy Adams (who’s serviceable enough) so much as it is Ephram’s cloyingly morose view of her heroine (and the fact that her story line must compete against the incomparable Streep, who elevates everything she touches). Adam’s Julie is a beleaguered assistant at the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation, hating her job and hating her new spacious brownstone loft, with its expansive deck and room for elaborate dinner parties, over a pizzeria in Queens. Yeah, that’s tough. Ephram shoots Julie’s trudge to work through the New York subway system through the “drab” filter, washing out colors and packing the frame with mundane details of office cubicle desk life. In part, this is meant to be a contrast to the romantic view of Julia’s 1950’s Paris, but it struck me as ungrateful: ninety percent of Manhattan’s middle-class intelligentsia lives this life, and enjoy it rather much – thank you. And I know the people working at the Redevelopment offices, and they are quite happy to be doing what they see as important, meaningful work.

Not so our Julie, who is pained by every workplace phone call and finds having a marvelously sexy and supportive husband who actually has a job he likes a real drag. My feeling is that this is all rather changed from the original blog project, which was written for quite different reasons (mainly to occupy time while unemployed, and establish a career). That Ephram changes the motivations of the heroine does significant damage to the story, I believe. I’d find it much more interesting to learn the strategic process of a happy blogger – or to just get the straight story of Julia Child’s life – than to sit through the sad lamentations of a female Woody Allen who draws inspiration from an imagined cooking Yenta. Yes, Woddy populates his New York portraits with nebbishes too; the difference is, he’s funny.

All of which makes it more painful to report just how wonderful Steep is in the backstory role. Julia Child is a character of easy parody, but Streep creates a person that is far deeper than, yet still recognizable as, the character we think we know. As Child, she brings the same kind of kooky intensity to discovering Paris and ingratiating herself into Parisian society that she later does to cooking and writing. Stanley Tucci lives up to his role as Mr. Child, loving his wife and lending his sympathetic ear as she finds her passion, and the straight story line of how Julia became Julia is the most moving and interesting thing in the film.

All the more reason to be disappointed by that ending in the Smithsonian, which stops us short of finding out the really interesting parts of Julia’s life, and refocuses back on the sad symbolism of our nebbishy heroine. I was fascinated by Julia Child’s kitchen – and curious to learn more of how she mixed her home life with her career. But by this time, I was thoroughly fed up, as it were, with the elaborately layered soft terrine of audience appeal Ephram was trying to make instead. Julia herself would have stripped out all that gooey gunk and served it to us straight, and perhaps raw.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Hangover: ReDefining "Night on the Town"

This nice little misogynistic movie, The Hangover, actually is rather entertaining, if you're willing to overlook it's anti-female attitude and buy into its improbable premise.

That is, four friends (each of a certain type, which we'll delineate momentarily) decide to head to Vegas for a wild night for one of the friends - Doug's- bachelor party (the wedding in this film is entirely ancillary). The wild night becomes a bit more wild than they anticipated when someone slips the group of "Micky." Three of the friends wake up the next morning with a tiger, a chicken, a baby, and a naked lady in their hotel room, entirely unable to remember the night before. Oh, and Doug is missing.

The log line makes a nice joke, but the real test in a movie like this is where they go from there. The movie is essentially a treasure hunt, as the free friends must use the clues they discover to re-trace their steps from the night before.

What makes the comedy here work, mostly, is that the friends are four distinct personality types: Doug is the cuddly, good-natured groom, who ends up getting the worst of it. Phil is the pretty-boy womanizer, who also happens to be the only married member of the bunch. Stu (played nicely by Ed Helms) is the neurotic dentist, who in his micky-induced stupor somehow pulls out one of his own teeth and marries a hot stripper; and Alan is the not-all-there, tag-along, brother-of-the-bride, in the nominal "John Belushi" role.

Naturally, the movie lavishes oodles of time nicely characterizing our four fellows, while reducing all the women in the film to caricatures (the bride, the whore, the police dyke).

Despite that, it has some good moments, and the comedy is more self deprecatory than mean (the film is a spiritual inheritor of the Meatballs and Caddyshack school). Some jokes work better than others (I found the gangster bits a bit lame, and the tiger more growl than bite, but I loved the naked Asian in the trunk of the car and some amusing bits involving a grade-school taser demonstration).

In other words, it's a light-hearted romp with a number of the standard "Daily Show"/"Saturday Night Live" graduates making appearances; on the whole probably more entertaining than egregious. It won't end up in any comedy hall of fame: However, the final sixty seconds of the movie - when the four friends find a camera and are finally able to see the shots of what happened that night in sequence - are laugh-out-loud hilarious, and worth sitting through the film to see.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

G.I. Joe Deserves Dishonorable Discharge

I guess I could have more fun making up snarky review titles about this film than I did seeing the movie. Let me start by saying that I found the trailer intriguing, and was actually looking forward to a solid summer action pic. The super-suits seemed cool, and I loved the effect of flying through the light-rail train and leaping over cars.

It turns out that scene is the high-point of the film. Everything else is a sour mashup of Team America and Star Wars. Maybe that's not quite fair: the team America puppets had more life than the actors in this film. (Though we do get a couple of gratuitous male beefcake shots. Who's the audience for this again?)

The film opens with a flashback to fifteenth century France, where a Scottish arms merchant is tortured for selling arms to both sides. The merchant turns out to be the distant ancestor of our movie villain, modern-day arms merchant McCullen (I don't think I'm giving too much away here - it's not like his villainous role isn't obvious from the start). Since when did Scotts get a reputation as super villains? I've always thought of them more as bumbling well-intentioned tinkerers, like Simon Pegg and other incarnations of Scotty on Star Trek. Well, if nothing else, maybe this movie will do something to toughen the Scottish reputation.

McCullen sends a group of U.N. troops to escort some nasty nanobites in a silver briefcase across an ambush; two troops who survive the ambush get recruited by the G.I. Joes (run by Dennis Quaid as General Hawk); the shadowy COBRA, behind the ambush, finally get their hands on the nanobites, and the Joes have to get them back. That's about as basic a "get the briefcase" movie plot as you can get.

Which is fine, and Hasbro turned another children's toy, Transformers, into a simple action pic earlier this summer. But Transformers had Michael Bay. This movie just has only...extreme violence, and juvenile back stories, which seem to be built on the level of five-year-old sibling rivalry, and targeted directly at a kiddie audience who need to see everything at least five times in order to place a connection (the movie isn't taking any chances on subtly). It's also assembled from an uninspired assortment of stolen action movie scenes. I know, I was asked to see Julie and Julia, but to my regret, insisted on this macho confection instead. Anyway, let's see if I can re-create the recipe for this film:

Day the Earth Stood Still: three measures of nanobite special effects
Men In Black: teaspoon of testing procedure
Team America: sprinkle with lair banter, and loaf of Paris destruction
Kung Fu Panda: lightly toasted back story resentment
Star Wars: two cups of Darth Vader, and a dash of Sith fight in reactor room

Pound heavily with metal music, chop finely, then flame broil on high violence.

What results is not really digestible, if you ask me. It's more like an extended ad for G.I. Joe action figures, and I already got enough ads before the trailers (seeing the trailer for Tim Burton's "9" was actually the best moment in the theater). But what bothers me most about this film is that it's clearly targeting children, and yet I haven't seen a more violent movie in years. The movie kills probably two or three hundred innocent civilians, but with no more a care than a video-game. I'm not usually sensitive about these things, but I feel it my civic duty to warn any parent who cares at all about their children's mental health to keep anyone under twelve out of this movie, which since it has no real character development, has no real moral message to speak of, and does nothing except desensitize the viewer to killing.

As for the rest of us, why bother? The movie is almost five minutes from the ending when it suddenly realizes it needs to set itself up for a sequel. Hence, "The Rise of Cobra." It's obvious this G.I. Joe is the first in a planned line of seasonal movie merchandise. Put me on the 'do not call' list for the rest.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

In The Loop: Great Political Satire, Lousy Title

If there were a movie store somewhere where I could go order a custom movie, filled with all the humor, insight, cleverness, biting political satire and wit that I'd ever want to see from a film, then the new British comedy, In The Loop - loosely about the British and American political culture that led to the Iraq invasion - would be that movie.

It's hard to imagine a cultural product that has been more spot on in satirizing the Bush/Blair culture of the early decade that led to the stove piping of made-up intelligence justifying the march to war. Though the movie never once mentions the words Iraq, Bush, or Blair - and introduces characters who in the first thirty minutes could really be any politicians in any modern times - you soon get enough background to surmise the real targets of this laugh-a-minute lampoon.

John Stewart would be hard-pressed to come up with a five minute routine this good, but director Amando Iannuci and writers Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell (behind some popular British TV comedies) have an intimate knowledge of their subject and the political animal rarely scene on screen, and they keep the keen entertainment going for a solid hour and a half. Someone on that team must have spent time as either a Washington intern or British communications officer, as the characterizations are just filled with such subtle insight it's hard to imagine any writer coming up with these characters out of whole cloth.

The movie opens with British political communications chief Malcum Tucker chewing out the somewhat inept minor cabinet official Simon Foster for inadvertently suggesting on a radio programme about some interior health blah blah that the eventuality of war in the Middle East was "unforeseeable." The inscrutable "unforeseeable" comment naturally opens a whole can of worms for Simon (as well as Malcum), as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karen Clarke comes to London, seeking support for her political machinations against the power-hungry Linton Barwick (a Donald Rumsfeld stand-in) and his secret war planning committee (which goes by the intentionally boring name of the "Future Planning Committee").

The ensuing shenanigans ensnare a riotous assemblage of political consultants, planning secretaries, diplomats, army generals, assistants, and seventeen-year-old cabinet appointees on both sides of the pond. The sacred cows that get skewered are too numerous to name, but do include Oxford-educated Debussy-listening diplomats, U.N. protocols, Rumsfeldian declarations about altering the text of meeting transcriptions to make them, as John Stewart would say, "truthier," office politics between twenty-somethings and fifty-somethings -- and probably the most humorous bit of the film, in which the army general and the secretary of state plan out the number of troops needed for war on a three-year-old's speak-and-spell adding machine (the bit is pure genius).

There are also some truly inspired running gags that are done with just the right level of subtlety: "communications" officers who can do nothing but cuss; seventeen-year-old planning secretaries who get chewed out for ordering "I Heart Huckabees" for viewing by the troops. A rickety garden wall that's a bit like Checkov's loaded gun, just waiting to go off at a critical moment in the plot.

There's much much more: the movie is just chock-a-block with gags and two viewings minimum I think is necessary to catch them all. But don't worry: even getting half the humor of this film would be tens times more than any movie I've seen in the last decade. Yes, this is not just the best movie of the summer - it's the best in years. It's not a perfect movie by any means: though the script is witty, it does have a bit of a TV feel: more craft could have gone into the locations and cinematography, we get a bit lost navigating the various scenes around the U.N., and Gandolfini is mis-cast as the General. And that title does nothing to sell the film. But if there's been anything of late with the insight and wit to cheer me out of the Bush years, this movie is it.

Funny People: Apatow’s 40-Year-Old Comedian

Ambitious as it is, the more you know about Judd Apatow’s latest excursion - Funny People, about a 40-year-old comedian (played by Adam Sandler) who’s diagnosed with cancer, and the twenty-something comedian wannabe (played by Seth Rogan) who tries to cheer him up - well, the less exceptional it seems.

For instance, I didn’t know, going into the movie, that Sandler was Apatow’s college roommate. I didn’t know which of these guys, Sandler’s George Simmons - the successful, cynical elder comedian, or Seth Rogan‘s younger and inherently funnier Ira Wright, that Apatow was intending as his stand-in (probably both). I also didn’t know how much of the story was based on Apatow’s real life.

Even though there's much excellent material here, it's just hard to take away from it the kind of sharp mental picture a movie like this needs; the screenplay is written with the Apatow breezy style but much more of a ‘slice-of-life” plot than we’ve seen in his earlier films. This is a comedian attempting to broaden his wings into more serious matters of life, death and everything in between. It’s not unexpected that comparisons would be made to Woody Allen’s transformation from his early career. Because Apatow, a talented comedic writer/director in his own right, has succeeded, in the most part, in tackling these more serious issues, even if he hasn‘t delivered a supremely crafted movie experience, I think the Allen comparisons are apt.

George Simmons (the name sounds more like a lead guitarist for a rock band than a Jewish comedian born in the early 60‘s) lives in a celebrity world of sea-side mansions, instant pussy, and well-paid servants that a) pretty much seems to be what we would expect and b) probably pretty much, I imagine, reflects the real life of Adam Sandler. When he receives his diagnosis of terminal cancer, Simmons finds that the only person around him capable of exhibiting any real emotion is Ira, Rogan’s eager puppy of a student comedian. Simmons takes Ira under his wing, introducing him to a corporate gig at MySpace and showing him the ropes at various stand-up and theater venues, while Rogan attempts to keep Sandler‘s character from sinking into a morose depression.

Those expecting the film to be a light-hearted romp a la 40-Year-Old Virgin are likely to be disappointed. As are those who think Adam Sandler is inherently un-funny. Rogan and his pals (played by the other two new younger statesmen of Jewish comedy, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman) get the good jokes and the easy Apatow banter. Sandler, meanwhile, plays his irascible character from Punch Drunk Love, not being funny so much as darkly nuanced: his character is meant to be a fame-seeking narcissist, beaten as a child, who now makes big-budget Hollywood fluff and engages in comedy in order to get attention and keep darker demons at bay. The operational insight in the film is that this, essentially, is the personality type of all comedians (though one must wonder what Sandler’s parents - who give a walk-on as Simmon’s parents - think of this premise). Various other real-life comedians make walk-ons in their failed attempts to “be George’s friend,” further demonstration of the thesis that comedians use humor to keep real emotion at bay. Many of these appearances work, some don’t (the best is an interaction between Emenem and Ray Romano, culminating in Rogan’s observation about Romano that “I thought everybody loved you.”)

All this seems to be building to a breezy but slyly-crafted Allen-esque triumph of writing and direction when Apatow carelessly runs in to the accident of his third act. Here it seems real-life may have overshadowed the writer‘s craft, as Apatow introduces George‘s ex, Laura (played with perfect pitch by Leslie Mann), an ex-actress now married to a supposedly overbearing Aussi played w/ irritating gusto by Eric Bana (Apatow’s daughters play Laura’s daughters in the film). George must woo Laura away from the alpha-Aussi’s muscles, with Rogan looking on providing comedic relief. What results is mostly sit-com shtick, and though the act has the movie’s best moment - Sandler, Rogan, and Mann watching Laura’s daughter and realizing that Sandler’s character is simply incapable of relating to other people - even this moment is over directed and lacks the subtly that would have made it the core insight the film wanted.

It’s unfortunate that Sandler’s George, cynical and gifted as he is, can’t really find any truly comic moments in the film. Whether this is due to the inherent sentimentality of Apatow’s premise or whether the Sandler critics are right, it’s hard to tell. (I think Sandler is an oddly effective dramatic actor, but didn’t find Zohan funny, either). In the end, it’s clear then that this is more like an Oxygen channel version of a bromance, and not so much a “ha ha” comedy. As a bromance, it tackles subjects that I wish more movies would tackle: Geroge’s character arc is driven by serious issues about loneliness, talent, and family that go more deeply to the heart of the nature of friendship between men than most movies care to. Even though the relationship with George’s ex is badly handled, the one between George and Ira evolves well, ending with George’s gesture to Ira at the end to finally offer him the career help he needs. But since Ira is basically a younger version of George, even this nice final moment is a narcissistic reflection as well.