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Friday, Jun 20, 2008

Here’s Looking at You, Kid: I came home from work the other day to find my 13-year-old son doing the dishes, voluntarily, to give his mother a break. As I went to him to give him kudos on his act of industry and kindness, I was stunned to notice that the top of his head was no longer at eye level. It’s one of those moments I’ve been having a lot lately, the realization that I no longer have a little boy living in my house but a budding man, with a whole new world of trials ahead for both of us. He’s gotten to an age where he’s vibrating with the need to go and do on his own, but without a clear sense of which of the infinite paths before him to choose. It’s a delicate, dangerous juncture, and as his dad I must be very careful from here on out.


In this place I feel for David Gilmour (the Canadian novelist and film critic, not the overrated British guitarist) as he looked across the dinner table at his 15-year-old son Jesse, flunking out of school and getting into all the worst kinds of teenage trouble. Realizing that the wrong course could well drive his son out the door, Gilmour made him a deal: no school, no work, free rent, in exchange for watching three movies a week of Gilmour’s choosing. It was a risky plan but Gilmour reasoned that if he could not speak to Jesse in Jesse’s language—teen angst, rampaging hormones, depression and self-destruction—then he would use his own, the universal language of film with its capacity to illustrate the wide spectrum of the human condition. This bold experiment is chronicled in Gilmour’s memoir The Film Club (Twelve Books, 2008).


I’m going to drop my usual snarky pseudointellectual pose here and just say it: I loved this book, every word of it, unreservedly. As the weeks roll on and Gilmour shares the richness of the cinematic universe in all its hues with his son, from French New Wave to Kurosawa samurai epics, from spaghetti westerns to goofy pure-Hollywood comedies, the two men begin to form bonds of communication and wisdom that so-called parenting experts can only dream about having. Gilmour writes in unflinching terms about the perils of navigating the treacherous waters of his son’s life—drinking and drugs, his risky foray into white-boy hip-hop, his obsession with a particularly manipulative 16-year-old femme fatale—with patience and firmness and, hardest of all but most importantly, trust in Jesse to do the right thing.


This is not to say that Gilmour makes himself out to be Ward Cleaver with a DVD player. During this period Gilmour struggles with his own demons, out of work and anxious, desperate to save his boy, and always terrified of making that fatal mistake that drives Jesse away. But while Gilmour educates his son, Jesse educates his father in the crucial balancing act between being the child’s friend and being his parent. As so many of us who were raised in the post-Dr. Spock era can attest, that balance is the most difficult stunt to pull off, but the most necessary. The Film Club shows that it can be done, maybe not with a feel-good Hollywood ending, but with something far more substantial.


(Also highly recommended, if you can find it, is Dennis Hensley’s remarkable book Screening Party [Alyson Books, 2002], the story of six diverse friends brought together by their monthly movie gatherings. Poignant, both sad and hopeful, and spank-me funny, it’s worth combing the Internet to find.)


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Thursday, Jun 19, 2008

It’s nothing but comedies (and nothing very good) this week - with one limited release exception. For 20 June, here are the films in focus:


The Foot Fist Way [rating: 7]


Built out of the ‘asshole as hero’ mode of amusement, and anchored by a frightening portrayal by lead actor Danny McBride, The Foot Fist Way is a collection of contradictory ideals gelling effortlessly into a smart, savvy whole.

Comedy can come out of a number of circumstances. Sometimes, all you need is a goofy premise, and audiences will laugh without realizing it. At other instances, carefully drawn characters are required to gain the guffaws. There is parody and satire, high minded intellectualism and low brow slapstick. It takes skill to circumnavigate any one of these tenuous elements, while some filmmakers can manage all of them within a single cinematic setting. Such is the case with The Foot Fist Way, a $70,000 independent offering hijacked by Will Ferrell and Andy McKay for their Gary Sanchez Productions. This fudged up little gem may get lost among all the mainstream merriment, but it far surpasses what your sloppy Cineplex car wrecks have to offer. read full review…


Get Smart [rating: 4]


In a current comedy climate where such scant superficiality just won’t cut it, Get Smart is nothing but shallow.

By its very definition, something that’s “generic” is seen as “having no particularly distinctive quality or application”. This doesn’t make the object in question bad, just bland, as (un)exciting as anything else of its kind or type, nothing more or less. When it was announced that the classic Mel Brooks/Buck Henry sitcom from the ‘60s, Get Smart, was getting a post-millennial makeover, fans were skeptical. The hiring of The Office‘s Steve Carrel seemed to smooth things over, and the adding of Alan Arkin and Anne Hathaway were an equally pleasant surprise. Frankly, the filmmakers shouldn’t have bothered. While the casting is keen, the script - and the rest of the film - arrives deader than a double agent during the Cold War.  read full review…
 


Other Releases—In Brief


The Love Guru [rating: 2]


There’s a time, usually between puberty and post-graduate work, where humor revolving around the male genitalia becomes a guaranteed laugh getter. From novel nomenclature (‘wiener’, ‘wang’) to outright male organ riffs, adolescents can’t get enough of the comic crotch shot. This is clearly Mike Myers’ hope as he hurls, trained ape like, his horrendous filmic feces - known as The Love Guru - on unsuspecting summer audiences. As the gamey American Pitka, a self-help hack desperate to beat Deepak Chopra at his own New Age spiel, the former SNL superstar has finally found the proper cement sandals to wear in order to completely sink his career. As our unfunny hero hobbles around Toronto, trying to help star hockey player Darren Roanoke get his scoring groove - and wife - back, we are subjected to an onslaught of penis jokes unseen outside a day camp setting. Toss in bland cameos, Ben Kingsley as a hate crime, obligatory Vern Troyer, and a love interest (Jessica Alba) who’s all stale eye candy, and you’ve got one of the worst movies of the year. Even the most baffling Bollywood extravaganza makes more sense than this meandering mess - and at least it’s trying to entertain its audience. All Myers is doing here is stroking his own ego. The result is nothing short of nauseating.


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Thursday, Jun 19, 2008

By its very definition, something that’s “generic” is seen as “having no particularly distinctive quality or application”. This doesn’t make the object in question bad, just bland, as (un)exciting as anything else of its kind or type, nothing more or less. When it was announced that the classic Mel Brooks/Buck Henry sitcom from the ‘60s, Get Smart, was getting a post-millennial makeover, fans were skeptical. The hiring of The Office‘s Steve Carrel seemed to smooth things over, and the adding of Alan Arkin and Anne Hathaway were an equally pleasant surprise. Frankly, the filmmakers shouldn’t have bothered. While the casting is keen, the script - and the rest of the film - arrives deader than a double agent during the Cold War.


After years pushing papers behind a desk, Maxwell Smart is finally getting a chance to go out into the field. Seems the intelligence organization CONTROL has had its files compromised, and with the face and name of every other operative known, Max is the only one left. He is paired with fatal femme 99, who has just returned from facial reconstruction surgery, and together they investigate whether or not the terrorist organization KAOS is behind all the trouble. Turns out, not only are they out to destroy CONTROL, but the Eastern European leftover is looking to nuke a few friendly countries along the way.


Back in the early ‘80s, Hollywood actually tried to make a Get Smart movie. It was called The Nude Bomb, and it did just that. Even the hit and miss Mr. Brooks disowned it. Now, 28 years later, Tinsel Town is trying again - and this time around, this pointless, action-oriented update could be subtitled “The New Bomb”. Having failed to age gracefully or cleverly, the long standing rivalry between KAOS and CONTROL has been reduced to a series of riffs that have very little to do with spy spoofing, and everything to do with genetically freakish villains and blowing stuff up. Without its numerous nods to every testosterone fueled spectacle that cinema thinks equals excitement, we’d be left with a series of half-baked gags that don’t recall the original’s brilliance as much as dull its timeless shimmer.


As Maxwell Smart, Steve Carrel is no Don Adams, and frankly, this film never needs him to be. Instead of a bumbling boob who constantly seems to stumble his way into winning, this updated spy is just a dorked out spaz. By making Max an accidental know it all, a former analyst whose tireless research and reports actually yield vital counter espionage information, we miss the original’s wacked out whimsy. Sure, there are slapstick moments when our hero hinders his progress by banging into walls and destroying potential evidence, but there’s always a comeback, a moment when Max is pardoned for being a novice, and then celebrated for being right. 


As 99, Hathaway is also hampered with a backstory that does nothing for her character. We are supposed to assume that a simple mistake required this gal’s complete physical changeover, and the moment when she’s outed as almost middle aged rings rather false. Frankly, she’s not even good eye candy, Barbara Feldon fearlessly reflected the pop culture strut of the ‘60s with every move she made. Hathaway appears like a narrative mandate, a underwritten reality existing simply because the old sitcom featured a guy/gal combo as well. Elsewhere, Arkin’s Chief is nothing more than a series of agile old folks gags, while supporting players like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, David Koechner, and Terrance Stamp barely register. And let’s not even mention WWE Wrestler Dalip Singh. He is nothing more than an ethnically diverse Rondo Hatton.


Yet the weakest links in this lightweight loser remain the individuals behind the scenes. Reduced to roles as “consultants”, Brooks and Henry clearly had no involvement here. Even at their weakest, they can dream up better idiocy than this. Instead, the script by Tom Astle and Matt Ember reveals the pairs’ previous stint on the boob tube. Their jokes fall flat because they fail to establish a reason - either individually or situationally - as to why they should work. Even worse, Peter Segal’s hamfisted direction ditches timing (crucial to making a successful comedy) in favor of overdone action scenes and lots of dead air. At any given moment, there are more bullets flying than one-liners…and both tend to miss their mark.


Since the plot is so serious (stealing bombs and nuking LA is not remotely funny in our post-9/11 world) and the pathway there so uninspired, we are left waiting for the laughs. As clues cluster and fall apart, as plot twists turn pointless and perplexing, we wait for the sweet release of humor. As with most of Get Smart, however, we are stuck working for our wit, digging through the endless mugging, the missed line readings, the ridiculous reliance on techno-geek speak (including a cameo by Heroes’ Masi Oka as a CONTROL uber-nerd), and Alan Arkin pratfalling like a Geriatric Lewis. In a current comedy climate where such scant superficiality just won’t cut it, Get Smart is nothing but shallow.


Because it takes no risks, because it refuses to reimagine or deconstruct the original series for anything remotely clever or contemporary, because its cast is given little or nothing to do, Get Smart readily remains generic. It’s a motion picture plebe in a cultural climate that actually embraces such a lack of legitimate talent. Since audiences tend to demand very little of their entertainment, Segal and company can get away with delivering as little as possible. They hope that nostalgia for the past, mixed with the sight of the slightly famous from today, will equal an easy buck. While the dollars won’t be difficult to earn, deserving them remains questionable at best.


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Thursday, Jun 19, 2008

Comedy can come out of a number of circumstances. Sometimes, all you need is a goofy premise, and audiences will laugh without realizing it. At other instances, carefully drawn characters are required to gain the guffaws. There is parody and satire, high minded intellectualism and low brow slapstick. It takes skill to circumnavigate any one of these tenuous elements, while some filmmakers can manage all of them within a single cinematic setting. Such is the case with The Foot Fist Way, a $70,000 independent offering hijacked by Will Ferrell and Andy McKay for their Gary Sanchez Productions. This fudged up little gem may get lost among all the mainstream merriment, but it far surpasses what your sloppy Cineplex car wrecks have to offer.


Fred Simmons, former World Tae Kwan Do champion, runs a small little school in a North Carolina strip mall. His daily activities include grooming his students for a future as martial artists, keeping his eye on his wayward wife, ogling the new female talent taking his class, working on angles for his public demonstrations, and idolizing Hollywood action hero Chuck “The Truck” Wallace. When a chance comes to meet his idol, he takes his two most promising apprentices (Julio and Rick) and his best buddy Mike McCallister on a rollicking road trip, complete with a detour into drugs, self-defense, and debauchery. But when Wallace agrees to come back for the testing of Simmons’ scholars, his presence may be too much for the man.


Built out of the ‘asshole as hero’ mode of amusement, and anchored by a frightening portrayal by lead actor Danny McBride, The Foot Fist Way is a collection of contradictory ideals gelling effortlessly into a smart, savvy whole. Clearly, we are not supposed to indentify with this child-beating, egomaniacal jerk-off, personal philosophy borne out of a shocking combination of Eastern wisdom and way too much near beer. Simmons is given his vulnerable moments - once he learns of his wife’s adultery, a stare down in the mirror brings out levels of hidden horror few could properly manage - but he’s also functioning under a daily delusion. He believes that if he can just follow the mandates of his school’s kung fu oath, he can survive anything. Unfortunately, he can barely get through a beginner’s class without cursing out some five-year-old.


As a cold, calculated character study, The Foot Fist Way feels more like a mockumentary than a standard motion picture. Director (and co-star) Jody Hill applies a found footage style, camera circling the action like a combatant about to enter the Octagon. There are times when the approach breaks free, a music-based montage of the boys’ adventures at Wallace’s suite party proving that sometimes, selected shots edited to songs can actually work. He does it again during our final showdown, Simmons taking on his hero to see who truly is the king of the board/concrete block break. Yet the film really sizzles when Hill lets the lens rest, allowing McBride and the rest of the cast to improvise and react to the surreality surrounding them.


As stated before, our lead is amazing, managing to be both slightly loveable and utterly loathsome at the same time. We understand Simmons’ pain…sort of. He’s a minor fish in an even smaller pond, someone who strove to be the best at what he does only to wind up teaching techniques to toddlers and the borderline infirmed. His trophy wife is more of an aggravation than aphrodisiac, and as embodied (and one does mean “bodied”) by newcomer Mary Jane Bostic, the emasculation of her infidelity is obvious. As Chuck “The Truck” Wallace, co-writer Ben Best is pitch perfect. Imagine a certain ‘Texas Ranger’ wrapped in half-conscious hippy garb, eyes bleary from a life lost in a liquor and lady fueled limelight. His scenes with Simmons are priceless, since they offer an opportunity to see one butthead belittling another.


As for its overall narrative structure, The Foot Fist Way is a tad scattered. There is a vignette oriented quality to the storyline, Simmons and his class introduced before random acts of oddness happen. There are times when things fall flat, as when our lunkhead chastises his wife for not thinking he’s ‘great’ enough. But McBride and Hill are totally committed to this material, never once breaking that all important Fourth Wall to wink at the audience in “aren’t we rotten” recognition. Naturally, this adds to the film’s sense of authenticity. We are supposed to see Simmons for what he is - an uncomplicated dullard dealt a real world raw hand by a society that wants to complicate things.


Of course, it helps that there are plenty of laughs here. One scene in particular is so scatologically brilliant (Simmons berates his wife one last time) it will be quoted by broken hearted jarheads for decades to come. In other places, the blackly comic sight of kids getting kicked and punched by an adult offers a gut load of guilty pleasures. Hill and company never go for the obvious joke, instead hoping our collective involvement in these characters’ dilemmas lead to the laughs. Most of the time they do, and this is The Foot Fist Way‘s greatest strength. Even when opportunities are missed or just improperly paid off, the spunky, go for broke spirit remains.


It’s a shame that, in a current marketplace that favors marginal comedians (Steve Carrel, Mike Myers) going gonzo for supposed laughs (Get Smart and The Love Guru, respectively), a movie like The Foot Fist Way is being unceremoniously dumped. Like Napoleon Dynamite, or Juno, this is the kind of film that could, with proper cult creativity and strategizing, become a subtle sleeper, destined to keep college kids and like minded moviegoers doubled over in reverse ironic joy. They say that everyone loves a hero and pities a loser. Fred Simmons is neither, both, and a pretty bad example of each. He’s also far funnier than any old school secret agent or American born guru. Unfortunately, unless you look hard, it may be difficult to discover why.


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Thursday, Jun 19, 2008

The opening track on 1968’s Music from Big Pink is one of the most perfect pop compositions ever. It is a perfectly atypical opening number and a perfect introduction to the intriguing style of The Band. It is also a depressing suggestion as to how much more perfect they could have been had Richard Manuel been able to keep himself from himself.


Co-written by Manuel and Bob Dylan, “Tears of Rage” is the painful lament of a betrayed parent. The first recorded version of the song is the Dylan-sung one that was released on The Basement Tapes. Dylan’s – usually extraordinary – ability to capture the essence of the song was utterly obliterated by Manuel’s on the official Big Pink reading. The extraordinary anguish in Manuel’s voice added exponentially to the already heartbreaking lyrics. The slower composition, Garth Hudson’s haunting organ, Robbie Robertson’s swirling guitar, the unparalleled rhythm of drummer Levon Helm and bassist Rick Danko (who also provides backup vocals), as well as Manuel’s own piano work combined for one of those very rare occasions in which Dylan was completely schooled on one of his own songs (ironically, Manuel does it again on the same album with his version of “I Shall be Released”).


Sadly, the mood of “Tears of Rage” was forebodingly symbolic of the pain and suffering that would eventually consume Richard Manuel – who hanged himself in 1986 after two decades of extreme substance abuse. Perhaps the rarest attribute of The Band was the deficiency of a definitive front-man. With three lead singers and all five members’ status as exceptional musicians, there was no member of The Band who was more important to its achievements than the other; but for the first five minutes of their first album, they seemed to revolve around one genius.


Though the introverted Manuel would continue to prove integral to The Band’s success with his singing and playing abilities, his contributions decreased to the point that Robertson was getting credit for writing all of their songs (whether he actually wrote them or not has been debated) and Rick Danko became, more and more, the go-to-guy for mournful ballads.


The final and lasting image of The Band, for many, was Martin Scorsese’s documentary of their farewell concert, The Last Waltz, in which Manuel sang only one complete on-screen song (“The Shape I’m In”) and the middle verse of the closer “I Shall be Released”, during which he is barely visible, eclipsed by the throng of superstars on stage (Dylan, at center stage, sings the other two verses). As great a movie as it was, The Last Waltz did not portray Manuel in a way that would provide those unfamiliar with him any insight into just how important he was to The Band.


To this day, most people seem to know of The Band, but few know much about them outside of their association with Dylan and would probably only recognize the name “Robbie Robertson”. Their eponymous second album is generally regarded as their definitive statement. While I wouldn’t deny that it is a pretty great album, I feel that Music from Big Pink and, more specifically, “Tears of Rage” are perfect examples of how much better “The Brown Album” could have been had Richard Manuel conquered his inner demons a bit more and played a larger role in the songwriting.


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