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by Bill Gibron

2 Oct 2009

It seems odd, given the immeasurable popularity of his Office sitcom (both in its UK and USA variations) that Ricky Gervais is still not a major movie star. Oh sure, he’s been in several motion pictures, playing bit parts (Night at the Museum 1 & 2), extended cameos (For Your Consideration) and unfairly overlooked leading roles (Ghost Town), but for the most part, audiences see him as a TV type guy and that’s about it. Even a recent HBO stand up concert revealed a side few in his fanbase have seen (and let’s not even mention his status as an ‘80s pop star, okay?). Perhaps all this will change with his newest big screen effort, The Invention of Lying. Co-written, co-directed and starring Gervais, it’s perhaps one of the slyest religious satires since Monty Python’s Life of Brian. No, really.

Religious satire, you say. Indeed, what ads and trailers don’t tell you about the plot is that Gervais’ character, a screenwriter named Mark Bellison who lives in a world where nobody lies, becomes an unlikeable backhanded messiah. Everyone is this peculiar parallel universe is brutally honest, almost to the point of being abusive. Still, it’s how everyone lives. Mark is about to be fired from his job, his 13th Century stories about the Black Plague unable to compete with the far more popular films of star scribe Brad Kessler. He’s also having a hard time finding a girlfriend. One particular young lady who he’s obsessed with dismisses his intentions by citing their genetic incompatibility. Still, he pursues Anna because of his own need to feel special and wanted.

Eventually, he is fired. Out of work, out of money, and with no place to stay, Mark discovers an unusual fact about his social situation. If he makes up something that isn’t, if he lies about life, he can fashion it into whatever he wants. Another incident suddenly skyrockets him into the realm of religious icon, since everyone now believes Mark knows what happens after we die. Thus Gervais takes what could have been a very one note comedy skit idea and twists it into a commentary on faith, conformity, the universal fear of dying and the thoroughly ridiculous nature of organized belief. Within 20 minutes or so, the entire lying dynamic is explored, Mark vying for sex and success with equally unusual results. Then a tragedy takes us out of the sketch comedy motif and directly into something that sends a clear message about God, his prophets, and those who base their life on such traditional “tall tales.”

And again, it’s interesting how no one would know this from the previews. It’s as if Universal, well aware of the reception previous films critical of religion have received, is purposefully avoiding any mention of “the Man in the Sky”, and yet it’s this material that gives The Invention of Lying its verve and long lasting narrative drive. We are curious what will happen once Mark is made messiah, interested in where Gervais and co-conspirator Matthew Robinson will take the story next. We get nods to Moses, the Ten Commandments, evangelism, and the entire interpretation/re-interpretation of teachings that drive so many forward thinking individuals to question belief in general. Toss in Mark’s continued quest for Anna, he weird friendship with fellow “losers” Louis CK and Johan Hill, and a couple of standout dramatic scenes, and you wind up with something that will confuse most, aggravate some, and thoroughly tickle a chosen, clued-in few.

Indeed, there are other elements at play here that many may not see. There is racism in the honest world, the successful shying away and separating themselves from those outside their level of personal triumph and aesthetic. Instead of using some manner of mean-spirited epithet at their targets, the rich and beautiful coin common terms like “loser”, “fatty”, and “biological inferior”. It’s incredible to see the same ludicrous lines of delineation expressed in a world where, supposedly, there is no pretense. Indeed, Gervais seems to be suggesting that, no matter what, truth or lies, honesty or abject deceit, people will still single each other out for incredibly specious reasons. Similarly, when the religious material kicks in, the myth making and false idolatry really undercut the more meaningful elements of personal faith. Religion has really never looked so ludicrous.

Such substance definitely helps get us past the movie’s main flaw - its saggy superficiality. Not of content, mind you, but of character. As our lead, Gervais’s Mark is completely fleshed out, complicated without being dense, likeable while doing some fairly insensitive things. But as for the rest of his cast, they seem unable to find a third dimension. Jennifer Garner’s Anna is so intent on being upwardly mobile - both financially and biologically - that she really has no other personality beat, and Rob Lowe’s smug, snide Brad Kessler was just summed up with those two words. From Jeffrey Tambor’s film boss who’s too cowardly to fired someone to Hill’s singular suicidal tendencies, many of the main players in this otherwise winning farce are as one note as the proposed premise. And yet somehow, even despite himself, Gervais gets it to work - and he does so by risking the alienation of his audience.

Like Mike Judge when he called out his viewers as a bunch of ‘fat retards’ in Idiocracy, The Invention of Lying casts a critical light on the gullible and the guileless, the narrow minded and the unquestioning. It calls out the converted and makes fun of those who still believe that God created the Heavens and Earth. Indeed, in a world where only the truth can be told, how does religion begin or take hold? Unless there’s some fact-based pronouncement that everyone can clamor for and cling to, Gervais argues it can’t exist. Only in a situation where lies trump reality can such an allegorical idea truly flourish. After all, faith is based on belief without seeing, and this goes directly against a situation where seeing is everything. As a work of subversive satire, The Invention of Lying is clever and cutting. As a challenge to all those who still supplicate to a “higher power”, the smart cinematic reality may be too tough to take.

by Tyler Gould

2 Oct 2009

Built to Spill have already given us a sample of their upcoming album, There Is No Enemy, but now they’ve made the whole dang thing available on their MySpace. The real deal will hit stores on October 6th.

by Tyler Gould

2 Oct 2009

Here’s John Darnielle playing the final track on his upcoming album, “The Life of the World to Come”, which comes out this Tuesday.

by Bill Gibron

2 Oct 2009

When push comes to shove, films should strive to do one thing - entertain. They should avoid polemics and high minded meaning to offer the mainstream viewer their carefully crafted and measured money’s worth. No one is suggesting that cinema should be all eye candy or easily digested dramatic swill, but does the possibility of satisfaction have to be constantly weighed out against thematic resonance, psychological symbolism, and the filmmakers desire to work through all phases of their own familial dysfunction? If you’re the wonderful, inspired effort from Drew Barrymoore known as Whip It! , the answer is and excited “Hell No!”. Indeed, for this long time prodigy/first time filmmaker, the need to please provides enough impetus to create a sure-to-be-embraced grrl power classic.

Little Bliss Cavendar lives outside Austin, Texas, stuck in the kind of going nowhere town that those proverbial single horses avoid like the glue factory. As a teen, she has limited opportunities and almost infinite dreams. Of course, her mother could care less about what she wants. Said matron is desperate for her children to compete in the local beauty pageant (where she was once the fairest of them all). Father is so disconnected that he can’t even watch sports in his own house. Best friend Pash provides some relief, but she too is lost and looking for a way out. One day, Bliss comes across a flyer for a local all female roller derby club. Convinced it might be fun, she decides to try out. Soon, she’s the star player on the ragtag collection of nurses, waitresses, and other middle income mammas. This makes her teammates happy (they’re finally winning). This also makes her competition suspicious (she is underage, after all). Neither is more of a concern than what will happen if her mother finds out.

Whip It! is wonderful, a clap along crowd pleaser that also speaks the language of an underserved cinematic demographic. Young girls are never really given adult movies to mope about in. In 2009, it’s all questionably talented tweens, high school musicals, and failed family film franchises. Instead of our heroine, they’re our halfway point to a snarky one liner or a major last act denouement. So it’s stunning to watch a 17 year old disaffected gal suddenly discover herself in the bruiser babe burlesque of roller derby - especially this new version of the old UHF sport, complete with tattoos, piercings, proto-feminist philosophies, and male-baiting bravado. Everyone on the cleverly named ‘Hurl Scouts’ understands the power they possess, both in the ring and outside the lines. They wield their flagrant sexuality like a carefully draw double edged sword. Sure, there are elements of exploitation here (who doesn’t want to see hot babes beating each other senseless). But that’s not exactly what director Drew has in mind.

No, what Barrymoore hopes to accomplish more than anything is the first ladies-only epic, a solid cine-masterpiece where guys are goony (perfectly personified by Jimmy Fallon’s hopelessly hard-up announcer “Hot Tub” Johnny Rocket) and the woman are wise and wicked as Woodstock. There’s a real sense of camaraderie, of finally discovering which subsection of idiosyncratic society your post-modern adolescent mindset meshes with. Even the ‘villains’ vie for our attention with a calculated combination of she-devil divadom and outright spunk. Indeed, we never really buy into the whole “us vs. them” dynamic. Perhaps that’s why, unlike other sports films, Whip It! doesn’t rely on the stereotypical “big game” to set things right. Whether or not Bliss and her buddies win is beside the point. Being able to express their athleticism and prowess in a way unexpected in this patronizing, paternalistic society seems like reward enough.

Barrymoore takes points as a slightly stoned, amiably out of focus fixture named Smashley Simpson. She then fills out the rest of the cast with a remarkable collection of familiar faces (Eve, Zoe Bell, and Kristin Wiig as heroines, Juliette Lewis as the rapidly aging antagonist) and then lets them sample for her constant stream of spirited sunshine. This is the kind of movie that plants a permanent smile on your face, that has you eagerly anticipating the next scene only to bask in the funky fresh glow of these genial, good natured gals. Providing the proper creative counterbalance are two sweetheart strangers in a bad-ass body art strange land. Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat is more than just the wise best friend. She’s an old soul struggling to figure out why karma has decided to crap all over her. Of all the supporting players, she gets the most grief - both from her best pal Bliss and within their hapless backwater burg life.

But the movie really belongs to Ellen Page, who offers us a version of Juno untouched by Diablo Cody’s purposeful geek speech. The talented 22 year old is picture perfect for the role of Bliss, expertly essaying both the joys of individual discovery and the pain of personal interfamilial defeat. With Marcia Gay Harden has her own personal Mommy Dearest (though definitely not as abusive) and Daniel Stern as a null set father figure, it is up to Ms. Page to pull us through her quagmire, to get us to see why she fervently needs to escape and why roller derby provides said passion. Her chemistry with the rest of the cast is so powerful, their scenes together so telling, that it almost feels like the competitions are rock concerts. We see a group of practiced, in sync stars and then watch as they work together flawlessly to make their magic.

No one, however, is better than Ms. Barrymoore. She announces herself as a truly capable creative force, someone who doesn’t need to sit in front of the camera to offer up something inspired. Whip It! never missteps, is never awkward in its transitions or storytelling, and ends up so effervescent and fun that you can’t help but feel uplifted in the process. During the finale, when Bliss is sitting on top of the BBQ restaurant she waitresses at, Barrymoore holds the lens of Ellen Page’s upturned face. There are no flags waving, no celebratory music spoiling this delicate, individual moment. As the close-up continues inward, the smallest smile passes by the actress’s lips, an indirect acknowledgment of a job well done. We share in that sentiment. You will not have a better time at the movies this flailing Fall season than with this wildly enjoyable experience. Whip It! works…and does so sensationally. Apparently, movies can be fun. It just takes someone like Drew Barrymoore to figure out how. 

by Ashley Cooper

2 Oct 2009

In an alternate world where everyone tells the truth, an unpopular, unlucky writer named Mark (Ricky Gervais) discovers the ability to lie. He begins to realize the power of his words as his life changes for the better and people around him begin to take his word as absolute truth. Mark then has to ask himself about the consequences of lying as his biggest stories get him fortune and fame, but not the good graces of the woman in his heart (Jennifer Garner).

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