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by Bill Gibron

23 Aug 2009

Two years ago, films about the War in Iraq were all the rage - almost literally. Somewhere along the long creative line between idea and greenlight, filmmakers and their supporting studios decided to turn our dedicated men and women in uniform into sad psychological freaks, their post-traumatic time in the Middle East a catalyst for everything from self-destruction and mental illness to out and out serial murder. Turning soldiers into villains may work when it’s the Nazis, or the Viet Cong, but few members of the Red, White, and Blue fraternity want to see their armed forces armed and dangerous - outside of a combat zone, that is. You can see the turn in this year’s celebrated The Hurt Locker. There, cockiness and commitment are channeled in ways that result in more suspenseful heroics and less blood-splattering horrors.

It’s the same with a smaller entry from the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, American Son. Starring Nick Cannon as a 19 year old Marine on 96 hours of leave before heading overseas, this is another examination of the war’s effect that’s reflective, not reactive. Instead of turning this small, simple attempt at individual import into a grand, grating political statement, writer Eric Schmid and director Neil Abramson keep things closed and personal - and for the most part, it works. Sure, there are characters that we don’t quite connect with, and the core love story seems pat and poorly defined, but at least we aren’t witnessing another jarhead on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Indeed, American Son is one of the few modern takes on the material that never once apologizes for its warrior-in-waiting.

When Mike Holland gets the bad news - his company is shipping out to Iraq almost immediately - he hops a bus and heads back home to Bakersfield. He has 96 hours of R&R before he is deployed and he wants to make the most of it. During the trip, he runs into recent high school graduate Cristina. She is taken by his swagger and his strength. He instantly falls for her innocence and sweetness. Once back in his old neighborhood, Mike realizes that little has changed. His father is still struggling, his Mom working way too hard to care for his sister and new non-committal step-dad. Even worse, his older brother is lost in a world of drugs, a deadly domain that also seems to be sucking in best buddy Jake. As he attempts to connect with Cristina, the upcoming journey into battle hangs over his head. Mike enlisted to challenge himself. He didn’t know the war would be fought both at home and abroad.

American Son is a calm, contemplative movie, an attempt to use little moments and revelations to suggest bigger, more meaningful issues. It’s not out to wave the flag and force feed us jaded patriotic jingoism, nor is it a bleeding heart denouncement of the young people taking up the mantle for an otherwise ungrateful nation. Instead, Mike’s inner journey, his hatred of his home life and the possibility of purity with Cristina take center stage - sometimes, to the film’s detriment. It’s almost as if Schmid and Abramson are afraid of the family and ethnic dynamic at work. Race is never mentioned, even with Tom Sizemore as a deadbeat step-father and Matt O’Leary as a cliché-ridden suburban ‘gansta’. It’s refreshing not to hear the black/white issues rehashed, even if Cristina’s family has their own inferred black/brown one. 

But it would have been nice for the film to explore what’s actually going on in Mike’s life, especially since it’s the foundation for why he joined up in the first place. Chi McBride shows up for a few scenes, playing the absentee biological father who no longer seems connected to his kids. When he takes Mike out to look for his doped up older sibling, we sense a wealth of unspoken issues between the two. Yet said history is reduced to a single garage scene set-up with our hero proclaiming “I’m not you” in standard son rebellion mode. Similarly, Mike appeared to be the only kid of color in a group of hard-partying, rap-loving white boys. While it’s obvious the Marines have changed him (“Semper Fi” and all), why he hung out with this bunch of inebriated losers in the first place is almost unfathomable.

Indeed, Mike is so noble, so seemingly centered with his eye on the prize that very little that goes on around him seems to have an effect. Cannon, whose crafty smile appears too casual to be hiding any real angst, gets a couple of emotion breakdowns, but without any conversational follow-up, we’re not sure what he’s worried about. There is a scene with Jay Hernandez as a recently returned vet with a missing leg, but for the most part, the possibility of dying 5000 miles away in some desert Hell hole barely gets a mention. Of course, it’s all part of Abramson’s plan to avoid the epic to focus on the smaller details. But American Son is almost too languid to make this stylistic choice work. We need to feel the film building to something, not just spinning its cinematic wheels as time ticks down.

Then there is the core relationship between Mike and Cristina. It’s hard to see an attraction beyond the physical, and when the two get together, it’s the usual sexual stand-offs and maneuvers. We can understand why she might be willing to jeopardize her future and fall for this boy - he’s confident, polite, and easy going. But beyond the curves and coy innocence, Cristina herself is a cipher. All we really know about her is that she has a strict Hispanic family and that she wants to go to college. That’s not a lot to hang your major plot points on. While Cannon and actress Melonie Diaz have a decent chemistry, the automatic affection is one of the film’s weaker elements. Even with Abramson and his producers on hand for a detailed DVD audio commentary, we get little insight into this couple.

The rest of the digital package is equally oblique. The Making-of material is more behind the scenes shenanigans and struggles than perspective, and the deleted scenes suggest a different, more direct kind of movie. In fact, what one takes away from American Son is a sense of caution. Instead of getting into the sadness and psychological trauma Mike might feel, it’s all about stoicism and inner strength - and in some ways, that’s invigorating. Sure, the movie ends on an ambiguous note, some situations resolved, others left raw and unhealed, but for the most part, Abramson plays it safe. When compared to other Iraq-themed stories of late, that’s a welcome change of pace. For the particular characters and circumstances here, however, a little more complexity would have turned something good into something great. 

by Bill Gibron

23 Aug 2009

Boxing used to be called “the sweet science.” It was considered one of the more rarified sports, even within its blood, grunt, and sweat domain of violence and pain. Then the modern era occurred, fighters like Ali and Tyson turning the competition into the exclusive kingdom of almost impossible to defeat gods. By the mid ‘80s, scandal and crime undercut the activity, slowly turning it into a living, lying joke. Today, it’s all about extreme, and ultimate, and mixed martial artistry. A boxer can’t get arrested unless he’s wants to - or is on HBO or Showtime. But put a few thick-headed hunks in a cage and let them beat the snot out of each other for public consumption, and Generation Next can’t get enough.

So a film like Fighting should seem like a Tinseltown no brainer. Take a cult figure filmmaker (Dito Monteil of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints), toss in a few famous faces (Oscar nominee Terrence Howard, MTV muscle boy Channing Tatum) and put them into the grimy and gritty world of NYC underground boxing. Sprinkle with the standard boy meets girl from around the way melodrama, add in a few can’t miss character actors (Luis Guzman) and everything should pump with testosterone-laced fisticuffs. Unfortunately, the casting causes more problems than it solves, the love story stinks, and Monteil may have a feel for the city, but he has little flash when it comes to crafting onscreen action. Fighting is one of the most inert bare knuckle brawlers ever.

Tatum plays Shawn MacArthur, an ‘ah shucks’ transplant from Alabama who is carrying a bit of failed family baggage on his meat puppet shoulders. Keeping to himself, he tries to make it selling fake IPods and counterfeit Harry Potter books to gullible Manhattan suckers. One day, he runs across a Fagan-like ticket scalper named Harvey Boarden. Seeing that Shawn can rumble, the two team up to make some quick cash. Before they know it, they are traveling to Brooklyn to face off against a Russian bad-ass, and then entering the Bronx to battle a beefy, blinged-out homunculus. All the while, Harvey promises a massive payday, but Shawn is sick of seeing little green. When he meets a waitress at the local gangster’s club, he is momentarily misdirected. But then Harvey sets up a huge fight with an old rival from our heroes past - and worse yet, they must throw the match in order to get their cash.

If it all sounds familiar and formulaic, that’s because Fighting is carved almost completely out of the efforts that have graced the street scrapper genre before. There are bits of Rocky here, nods to Fat City and Hard Times along the way. Monteil certainly believes he is making a motion picture completely in touch with the streets. He tosses in so many references to urban archetypes, borderline clichés involving pitbulls, tattoos, and leather that he appears a single step away from restaging Scarface for the late 1990s. Unfortunately, nothing feels that authentic. Instead of seedy, it’s all stagy - and showy. Fighting wants to go for truth and brutal honesty. But its scam sham narrative is about as fictional as such forced storylines get.

And again, the acting is problematic. Guzman is good (he always is) though his dialogue appears made up of repeating Howard’s character name over and over again. Speaking of Mr. Hustle and Flow, there is a real desire on his part to come across as nonchalant, almost comical, about the life and death deals he is making. Howard puts on a slight high pitch pith, languishing over his lines like he’s just remembered them. He’s not bad, but he’s definitely not redefining the thespian art. And then there’s Tatum. The human equivalent of a mathematical null set, he’s so blank, so completely dead emotionally or dramatically, that we aren’t sure why Monteil is making us follow this lox. Surely there must have been someone better to champion - perhaps a really nice cut of prime rib, or a random slab of concrete?

As the script struggles for significance, fake insights giving way to reams of conversation contradictions, Monteil keeps piling on the implied local color. As a director, he has his specific beats down pat. He loves the overhead and underneath set-ups, the better to witness his actors grappling in yawn-inducing, you-are-there closeness. Similarly, his fighters can’t seem to stay in their proscribed arenas. One moment they are surrounded by spectators, the next they are careening through convenience stores and inside apartments. And it has to be said - Tatum’s Shawn never really “shows” why he’s such a great fighter. Fate always seems to step in and aid in his pursuit, be it a handy porcelain water fountain, a hyped up babe with a gun, or a well-placed plaster pillar. If he wanted to win us over, Monteil would have put two men in a ring and let them go at it in an as realistic way as possible.

Even in an unrated version (don’t get excited, all we get are a few extras seconds of mano-y-mano action, along with a dialogue addition or two) Fighting fails to excite. Deleted scenes added to the new DVD offer nothing new or interesting, and the reinserted material does little except add three minutes to the running time. In fact, it’s safe to say that whatever intentions Monteil and his co-writer had for this project appear lost in a haze of faked authenticity. You can just see the sets, reeking of male machismo and stunt coordinator cockiness. We never once feel like Shawn is someone worth investing in and Harvey is just as flawed as a focus. At the turn of the century, when the populace was desperate for some manner of entertainment, bare knuckles boxing was the gentleman’s pursuit. Fast forward 100 years and Hollywood has turned it into a test of tedium. The only thing you’ll be ‘fighting’ is your lagging attention span.

by Brian Parks

23 Aug 2009

It has been quite a while since we’ve seen a really good werewolf movie, hasn’t it? Well, fellow movielovers, butter your popcorn and buckle your seatbelts because if the highly-anticipated trailer to The Wolfman is any indication, we’re in for… you know what, I’m not going to lie to you. Grab a seat. Looks like we’re going to be waiting a bit longer.

Benicio Del Toro (Che, Traffic) reapplies the makeup from his early role as “Dog-Faced Boy” in 1988’s Big Top Pee Wee to star as the lycanthropically challenged title character while Anthony Hopkins is stuck providing fatherly support (or more accurately, lack thereof, judging by the archetypically overinformative Hollywood trailer).

A disparate melange of accents unheard since Oliver Stone’s Alexander populate the film’s overly familiar Van Helsing-esque landscape. Hopkins again inexplicably chooses not to alter his Welsh accent, Geraldine Chaplin utilizes the generic creepy Eastern European affectation which only exists in movies, while one can only assume that Del Toro was born and raised in Mumblevania.

In its defense, the film’s special effects appear to be a respectable step above its increasingly effect-laden, quantity-over-quality competition. Also, the potential camp factor on this one is enormous. (Hopkins as Del Toro’s father? Seriously?)  At best, this one looks like passable popcorn-chewing summer entertainment. Problem is, this comes out in November. *sigh*

by Bill Gibron

22 Aug 2009

How is it that great movies end up forgotten, or worse, undiscovered? How does a masterpiece, meaning some important work clearly recognized as having amazing artistic merit or qualifications, wind up sitting on a shelf in some studio, quietly distributed and then all but disregarded? It seems to happen all the time - a director’s magnum opus newly uncovered, an actor’s best role just recently released. Such is the case with the flawless Australian film Bad Boy Bubby. Before hitting DVD a few years ago, this 1993 wonder from Downunder was celebrated by a select few, known among cinephiles as an explosive tour de force. But to the rest of the cinematic status quo, Rolf De Heer’s allegory of purposefully arrested adolescence was that lost diamond in a celluloid cave full of rhinestones and fool’s gold - and it definitely didn’t deserve to be.

The story centers on Bubby, a deranged manchild who has been living in the horrific Hellhole of his mother’s bunker like home for over 35 years. Cautioned that the real world outside the barricaded front door is dangerous and poisoned, he spends his days isolated and afraid, his only friend a feral cat (which, in pure psycho-logical profile style, he relentlessly torments). Mother makes demands of Bubby, her menopausal loneliness leading to inappropriate acts of abuse and incest. When a stranger arrives at their door, claiming to be the overgrown boy’s Dad, our stunted savant goes crazy. Soon, he’s escaped his dungeon-like domain, and goes on a perplexing Pilgrim’s progress through a series of social interactions. In the end, Bubby winds up a vitriol spewing member of a rock band. He also helps those unable to communicate to “voice” their heretofore unheard thoughts.

Imagine Christ born, not in a manger, but in an abattoir, the Virgin Mary so lost and biologically bonkers that she beds down the matured messiah any chance she gets. Now turn our soiled savior into a combination Johnny Rotten and Sigmund Freud, disconnected from the real world but capable of linking with society’s frightening fringe. Wrap it all in an amazing performance by actor Nicholas Hope (who is truly remarkable) and exceptional direction by A Quiet Room‘s De Heer, and you’ve got some idea of the level Bad Boy Bubby exists within. In this uneasy, unforgettable portrait of pain amplified into aggression, we see humanity defiled, personality perverted, compassion corrupted, and the healing power of love tossed aside for an equally therapeutic dose of hate. In fact, convert the aforementioned Biblical angle on its head and this could be the Antichrist’s biopic.

Told in movements, each one meant to mimic our lead’s claustrophobic sense of the world, De Heer manages the unthinkable. He turns the derelict into something defendable, the sadistic and malignant into the somewhat soured milk of maternal kindness. We get why Bubby’s mum is the way she is. It all comes back to her - and us - when “Dad” returns. Her demented defense mechanisms have colored her son’s 35 plus years on the planet, making him completely ill-prepared for reality. This in turn sets up the finale for the first act, a disgusting, destructive jag that indicates just how deep Bubby’s bruises go. Sure, there are elements that seem excessive, but in comparison to what we’ve seen in the set-up, our heroes acts are some of the most cruel - and cathartic - of any movie ever made.

Thus we enter De Heer’s second “symphony of struggle” and the outside world is just as traumatic. Bubby is inundated with goodness and badness, both sides of the social coin unprepared to make sense of, and or exploit, his naïve nature. It’s like a Pynchon novel as envision by the two Davids - Lynch and Cronenberg. Toward the end, when his stardom and psychic abilities are secured, the final movement manages the truly remarkable. Here, in this stunted, stifled human being is potential fully realized, acceptance gained without a moment’s hesitation or a single personal compromise. Bubby might not be settled, but he sure as Hell is happy…for once.

Indeed, like any struggle for enlightenment, Bad Boy Bubby is about channeling the past in an appropriate and productive manner. It’s about finding your place, no matter how long you’ve been out of the currently running rat race. In this case, the outrageous physical and sexual abuse he’s been subjected to, in combination with the limited purview of his experience, results in Bubby’s uncanny ability to communicate. He’s not special, he’s just really, really tuned in. The punks respond to him because he knows pain, knows it like an unnatural love (and lover). Similarly, the physically handicapped connect with him because he’s used to reading minor changes and gestures as details. With De Heer presenting everything in a kind surreal puzzle box of pleasures, visual - and most importantly aural - approach simulating Bubby’s perspective, we become lost in this undeniable stunning cinematic exercise.

It’s an experience accented by the new Blu-ray release from Blue Underground. Porting over all their extras from the original DVD, we are treated to interviews with De Heer, Hope, and a strange short film, Confessor Caressor (the catalyst for landing the actor this part). There is also a trailer, as well as an accurate audio track which recreates the binaural set-up the director used to put the viewer directly into Bubby’s brain. It can be disorienting at first, especially when you consider that the technique was meant to capture the craziness going on in the character’s head. While some may be sad that a rumored commentary track from other region releases didn’t make the switch to the new format, the updated technical attributes (including an amazing 2.35:1, 1080p image) more than makes up for its absence.

In fact, Bad Boy Bubby is one of those rarities that requires little actual supplemental support to matter within the motion picture artform. Sure, it’s a set example of its time and place, a reflection of the unusual filmmaking fervor overtaking Australia during the ‘90s. But it’s also a potent metaphor for the horrors of youth translating into an equally scary adult sense of dread. As the old saying goes, Bubby was not born bad. He was made that way after years of neglect and trauma. But if the results lead to a kind of redemption, to a freedom forced through violence and aggression, then maybe it was worth it. To suggest that something good can come out of depravity and disease is just one of this film’s finer pleasures. Then again, that’s the great thing about lost gems - they’ll surprise you every time.

by Bill Gibron

22 Aug 2009

They really shouldn’t call it coming of age. That simply suggests the passage or arrival of time. Instead, they should label it “the moment of transcendence”, the sequence or frame of opportunities when life clarifies itself in plan and purpose. In retrospect, we make the link to maturation because of the unusual perspective aging provides. But while it does infer growth and a movement away from youthful exuberance, it really is a clever combination of the two - each one finding their place in the personality pecking order. For James Brennan, the hero of Greg Mottola’s magnificent Adventureland, the Summer of 1987 was indeed that meaningful three months of Zen. It remains the moment when what he meant to the world finally matched what he believed about himself.

James always knew that the 12 weeks before graduate school meant Europe. Along with his college roommate, he planned on traveling the continent before heading off to Columbia for an advanced degree in journalism. But when his father’s secret drinking problem gets him demoted, James’ parents renege on their plan to support his trip. Instead, he is forced to return home and look for a job. Disheartened, James winds up working at a local Pittsburgh amusement park called Adventureland. While he would like to man one of the rides, supervisors Bobby and Paulette put him on games. There, he meets nerdy intellectual Joel, adult handyman Connell, racy ride operator Lisa P., and most importantly, the distant and distracting Em. It’s not long before James is spending all his time with the cool, compelling girl, their lives apparently paralleling each other. What our hero doesn’t know, however, is how complicated things really are - not only with Em, but with his own lost life as well.

Adventureland is a classic, a great film fashioned out of truths, consequences, and half-remembered conclusions. It’s a love letter to independence discovered and emotions stripped bare. It’s funny but not farcical, natural and organic without a hint of the whack job perversion that colored writer/director Greg Mottola’s previous film, Superbad. Indeed, audience failed to respond to the film when it was released in theaters because the geniuses behind the movie’s marketing kept repeating the Apatow angle over and over again. But unlike that updated teen sex romp, Adventureland is more like Mottola’s first film, the critically acclaimed effort from 1996, The Daytrippers. The humor here is not outrageous, peppered with every curse word and innuendo possible. Instead, this is the standard slice of life, carved with precision and purpose. The results surpass anything his previous canon could have suggested.

Indeed, the great thing about Mottola’s movie is how subtle and sly it is. This is not some broad burlesque with little bits of truth sprinkled within. Instead, it’s a wonderfully realistic portrait of mid-‘80s angst, of going nowhere relatively fast in a small suburban Pittsburgh town. In turn the laughs are generated directly from how authentic and recognizable it all is, not based around caricatures, clichés and classic songs. Granted, in Mottola’s Greed Decade design, music is very, very important. But instead of working in every ditzy dance and new wave pop track from the past, this filmmaker filters his sonic support through his characters. That’s why we get big, brilliant doses of The Replacements. It’s why Lou Reed runs ramshackle over tired takes like “Point of No Return” and “Obsession”. In fact, such a personal purview is how Mottola handles everything in Adventureland. He is so sure that his experiences circa 1987 were universal that they will translate across most audience memories - and he’s right.

At it’s core, this is a film about finding oneself, about digging beneath the surface scoured by parents, friends, teachers, television, film, music, mistakes, accomplishments, dreams, defeats, and more importantly, one’s own awareness. It’s about taking a chance, risking it all, and losing most of it in the process. It’s about rebuilding from the mix tape up, about recognizing your limits and striving to move beyond them. For many, Mottola may be trying to craft a calmer, gentler John Hughes charade, The Breakfast Club without the slapstick setpieces or sit down confessionals. But unlike the late great director who redefined the teen comedy, Adventureland is about being stuck and stunted long after you’ve graduated and gone to college. What many viewers fail to realize is that James and Em are headed to graduate school. They are in their early 20s and still stifled by families who make dumb, selfish decisions and a world that’s not quite ready for their prone and perplexed contributions.

In both Eisenberg and Stewart, Mottola finds the perfect insular companion pieces. She is all anger swallowed up in a desperate desire to be wanted. He’s a weak-willed wallflower who has never found the proper outlet for his well-educated shrug. In combination, they become the Zen reflection of each other, yin and yang muted of philosophical significance only to end up players in a game of “Who’s Life Sucks Worse?” Together, they give each other solace. Apart, the merely amplify each other’s misery. While Mottola may not be suggesting that James and Em are destined for a life as partners, he captures that post-adolescent ‘click’ between similarly stunted wanderers flawlessly. From an acting perspective, both rising stars give very special performances. Eisenberg may be channeling a Michael Cera type of deadpan, but there’s more in his looks of longing than in a dozen Superbads. And Stewart, currently trapped in the Twilight zone of hysteria, proves she is more than just a future Convention fixture with her turn as Em.

Mottola also makes the wise decision to surround his lovebirds with actual people instead of satiric comic pawns. Martin Starr is marvelous as Joel, uber-dorky, pipe in mouth, and fated for a life as a misunderstood, cynical loner. It’s a type we’ve seen before, but as with all of Adventureland, presented in a prescient manner. Similarly, Margarita Levieva’s Lisa P. is the iconic ‘easy’ girl, slut dance moves making all the boys (and a few of the men) hot and very bothered. Yet she too is hiding some undeniable pain, the product of a home life which fosters a softer, sweeter, more sensitive side. In some ways, this movie is about matching, about finding who fits and who doesn’t. Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig illustrate this concept wonderfully. As park managers Bobby and Paulette, they were clearly meant for each other, and are 1000 times better for it. 

Oddly enough, the new Blu-ray release of this film fails to tap into much of said specialness. The commentary from Mottola and Eisenberg is barebones and genial, more about themselves than the film. Similarly, the promised “Unrated” content turns out to be deleted scenes that don’t have to pass MPAA muster to be included - thus the PR come-on. There’s a decent Making-of, and the ability to single out specific songs, but once again, Miramax treats this title like a gentle failure. Instead of increasing its profile, the format packaging offers a great picture and sound with only a smattering of substance.

Still, if the film itself is all that’s important Adventureland more than delivers. For a generation tired of the same pat answers and an array of meet-cute determinations about their meaning, Greg Mottola creates the ultimate expression of the truth. This is a movie that feels real, that projects certain fictional facets within a construct that comes from actual pain and interpersonal perception. If you missed it the first time around, word of mouth making this perceived indirect Superbad sequel into something less scatological, step right up and try your luck. You’ll almost certainly find something worth celebrating, even if the victories are small and oh so human. Maybe you’ll discover your own transcendent moment.

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