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by Bill Gibron

9 Aug 2009

He remains one of the few House of Mouse minions who has managed to more or less escape the company’s callous, careerist claws. He appears to be creating a life outside of Uncle Walt’s omniscience, with roles taking risks beyond the uber-successful High School Musical franchise. And with 17 Again, tweenager poster boy Zac Efron proves that he really can act. He’s not Edward Norton, or Ryan Gosling, but he has presence here, and a power that’s usually reserved for someone who hasn’t made their name catering to underage girls and disgruntled spinsters. As Mike O’Donnell, big man on his high school campus, Efron relies on many of the talents that have taken him to the top. But beyond the Tiger Beat pout and underfed frame is a star that, if managed carefully, can become something super.

Not that 17 Again‘s by-the-book plotting will help all that much. After seeing O’Donnell give up on the big game (and the basketball scout securing his scholarship) for his pregnant girlfriend, we fast forward almost two decades to see a bitter, disgruntled Matthew Perry falling apart. About to get divorced from his now wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann, likable) and distant from his semi-slutty daughter Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) and uncool son Alex (Sterling Knight), he lives with best friend - and super sci-fi geek - Ned Gold (Thomas Lennon). After he gets passed up for a promotion, Mike returns to his alma mater, hoping to find out where things went wrong. Instead, he runs into a mysterious janitor who questions the aging man’s motives. A bizarre rainstorm later, and pushing 40 Mike is…you guessed it, 17 again.

Try as it might for something insightful or different, this latest in a long line of hit or (mostly) miss body switching movies can’t help but fall into formula. Mike is not given back his youth in order to see how life would be had he lived up to his expectations or figured out a way to fulfill his dreams. Instead, the focus is family - winning back a saddened Scarlett, teaching a needy Maggie to believe in herself, helping a lost Alex discover his inner chick magnet. It’s all rote, rerouted by Bringing Down the House scribe Jason Filardi and Igby Goes Down director Burr Steers into a combination of cliché and clarity. For most of its running time, you know exactly where 17 Again is going. Even when threatened by Maggie’s bully boyfriend, we just know that Mike is going to have the last laugh.

That doesn’t mean the movie is a flop, however. Efron, whose biggest onscreen drawback is his ever-changing ‘60s mod hairdo, owns almost every moment, milking the minimal laughs available while playing up the material’s maudlin strengths. While we never quite believe he is a middle-aged man “trapped” in a kid’s slight form, there is still an old soul quality to his performance that propels the plot points forward. You can see Filardi and Steers swinging wide and missing - Lennon’s 40 Year Old Virgin-lite persona is just pathetic - yet whenever they keep the camera on Efron and his co-stars, the film more or less works. This is definitely a project driven by the power of one character’s personality. Take Mike out of the mix and the story is stacked with obvious jokes and uninteresting relationships. With Efron as our guide, we actually care about what’s going to happen.

Still, 17 Again does tend to lap itself. The movie starts with Mike missing out on a big game. Guess where the narrative decides the denouement needs to be? You guessed it. Similarly, Maggie and Alex are presented as teens with a one track mind - and it’s not Algebra they’re panting over. While newly minted mini-dad is trying to help them through the sometimes funny little muddle called life, all they want is a little opposite sex companionship. And then there is the whole creepy cougar subplot which might have made sense when Robert Downey Jr. wooed Cybill Shepherd in 1989’s Chances Are. But with today’s unseemly focus on MILF matron exploitation, no amount of Leslie Mann lightness can undermine the sleazy implications. Luckily, the movie recognizes such risky business, and backs off.

In the end, this is Efron’s battle to win or lose. Either his intended demographic will look at his androgynous charms and Clearasil-covered potency and buy into his move into maturity, or they will leave him lagging like the various members of a ‘90s boy band. In an era where a song and dance man was money, he’d be a million dollar dynamo. Yet there are limits to where this version of Efron can go. By constantly having to cater to the prepubescent crowd, by figuring that all he can do is shill to the one’s who have his Troy Bolton talents memorized, he’ll be pigeon-holed without getting the benefit of a chance to grow. With Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles coming out this Fall, and another effort with Steers (The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud) in production, Efron may finally make his getaway stick.

If he does managed the switch from idol to iconoclast, if he can prove that his onscreen power is more than just proper marketing, Zac Efron could be huge. 17 Again proves that - in bits and pieces. Clearly New Line Cinema and new parent company Warner Brothers are a little lukewarm on his chances. The recent DVD version of the film has absolutely no bonus features to speak of (apparently, all the Efron-ccentric extras were left for the Blu-ray release - boo!) and that’s too bad. This is a decent enough entertainment, a movie that succeeds because of its star’s ability to project flash in the face of formula, to produce heart where others would find a hack. Sure, Matthew Perry is just a casting ploy 10 years too late. Yes, Ms. Mann has delivered finer turns in her husband’s (Judd Apatow) films. But this movie belongs to the former prisoner of a certain Magic Kingdom. Not only has Zac Efron triumphed, he’s paved a path guaranteeing he’ll never have to go back again…probably.

by Amy DePaul

9 Aug 2009

Investigative Reporting Conference: “It’s Over”

In “State of Play,” a recent movie set in the last-gasp world of newspaper journalism, Russell Crowe’s character is an investigative print reporter who joins forces with a young blogger to bring down a powerful senator and expose the evil intentions of a Haliburton-like company bent on world domination. It’s a great flick for celebrating old-fashioned shoe leather journalism.

But only briefly. The final image on screen is a sobering reminder of reality, i.e., printing presses stamping ink onto the front page of the paper while a mournful ballad fills the soundtrack. Message to old-fashioned shoe leather journalists everywhere: It’s over.

As it turns out, “State of Play” was a perfect set-up for the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors conference I attended in Baltimore earlier in the summer. Because even as industry leaders tried to be as optimistic as possible about the prospects for investigative journalism in a post-newspaper world, and even as they tried to extend a hand to Internet pioneers and talk up blogging, there was a palpable sense of doom.

The signs were everywhere. First of all, many of the presenters were wearing name tags that said “free lance” under where you were supposed to identify your news organization, which in most cases meant they had been laid off, some only the week before. During one session, I ran into an old friend with a highly successful political blog who said he expected his newspaper to terminate his contract shortly—as in, it could happen any day, which it did.

To its credit, IRE addressed employment anxiety at its conference by organizing a panel on free-lancing and setting up sessions such as “Doing great work in tough times.” The panel on “Alternative models for investigative reporting” was a slice of good news, a reminder that not-for-profit investigative journalism is increasingly finding a home on the Internet. Meanwhile, IRE also offered its usual sessions on court reporting, database searching and watchdog investigations to keep government accountable—all of which remain necessary endeavors in a democracy, to be sure.

It was hard to see so many worried faces and it probably didn’t help when former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr., himself the recipient of a buyout, bluntly told a packed auditorium that “It’s over,” meaning that the network and newspaper news monopoly had ended and that a new model has yet to emerge. He acknowledged that it was going to be tough times for traditional news reporters in their 40s and 50s. (It should be noted that Downie, unlike many displaced reporters, has a lifeboat available to him: academia.)

Downie was part of a two-man “Showcase panel” at IRE in which he shared the stage with Bob Woodward (portrayed in another great journalism movie, “All the President‘s Men”).
In their dialogue, the two commiserated over the torment of enduring lunch with the long-winded Al Gore. They promoted Woodward’s new book in the works, an examination of the Obama Administration—not exactly a departure from his old books on previous administrations. Downie got to throw some jabs at Internet maven Arianna Huffington and then managed to get himself elected to IRE’s Board of Directors during the course of the conference.

As always at professional conferences, some unfortunates drank the Kool-Aid: One starstruck man in the audience prefaced his question for Woodward by saying that it was “an honor to breathe the same air” as the journalism legend. (Hey, I show “All the Prez” to my journalism class and I respect the man’s body of work. But this was overkill.)

If, at IRE, Woodward-Downie’s message was “see ya, wouldn’t want to be ya” to the rank and file journalists in the crowd, it was refreshing to see other presenters offering more inspiring and empowering lessons. The panel I liked best was an all-female trio under the heading of “Invisible populations.”

It featured Mimi Chakarova, who combines photography and recorded interview on dark topics such as human trafficking in Eastern Europe and rape in post-invasion Iraq. (Memo to Downie and Woodward: while you guys were suffering through lunch with Gore, Chakarova was posing as a prostitute in Eastern Europe and had to run for her life before the pimps settled on a price and conscripted her into human slavery!) She said it took years to earn the trust of the women she interviewed and photographed, and that many don’t have an understanding of what being on the Internet means, which poses an ethical dilemma as she approaches them about sharing their stories and being identified in photographs. She said some human trafficking victims have offered to remove their shirts in photos to show the burn marks of cigarettes that were put out on their breasts by abusive johns. In a rare show of concern for subjects by a journalist, Chakarova declined to take them up on their offer, powerful as these photos would have been.

Two other women on the panel also showed the kind of passionate commitment that makes the best journalism so fresh and exciting. Karyn Spencer, of the Omaha World-Herald, investigated the state of Nebraska’s irregularities in medical examinations. It seems that autopsies in Nebraska are routinely performed by county attorneys with no medical training and they often take their best guesses at cause of death—not a bad deal if you plan to murder someone. The other panelist, Ruth Teichroeb, who worked at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it closed in March, talked about the importance of reporters giving vulnerable people control over when and where the interview takes place, and how they want to be quoted.

Teichroeb and her fellow panelists represent a newer school of journalism in which reporters think about the effect of their work on the lives of the subjects they write about. But as IRE proved, it wasn’t time to write off old-school journalists yet.

In a lively panel discussion with Sy Hersh and James Bamford, prize-winning journalistic veterans who both write about national security, the outlook was a bit more uptempo than among some of the other old-timers. Bamford said he loved alternative media, citing Alternet in particular, and Hersh disparaged editors (“We could probably lop off 70% of editors and be better off”) and pretended to scoff at the notion of reading up on a topic before writing about it. He even mocked the New York Times for raising its rates while offering “an inferior product.”

Not surprisingly, Jill Abramson, managing editor of the Times, projected a far more sanguine outlook on the ‘grey lady’ during another IRE panel discussion. She told the audience she was “bullish” on her paper’s future, citing its still-large newsroom, successful website and undiluted commitment to news.  While I am a great fan of her newspaper/website, I didn’t quite believe her words of cheer. I hope I’m wrong on that one.

by Rob Horning

9 Aug 2009

I have another post up at Generation Bubble, about consumption deskilling.

by Bill Gibron

8 Aug 2009

Pity the poor independent or foreign film company that wants to break into America’s CG animation marketplace. Just from a commercial standpoint alone, you have to battle Disney and its flawless filmmaking minion, Pixar, Dreamworks and their jaded joke-a-thons, Fox and their equally failed pop culture rifftrax, and numerous studio sponsored brandings that have fits of artistic flourish, but very little to offer in the source/story department. Only the brave, the strong, or the inherently stupid even try, and when they do, the results are almost always awful. Sure, there are the rare rays of sunshine (Dragon Hunters) within the darkness, but for the most part, what works outside the confines of the U.S suffers from the same kind of culture shock that other imported titles have to deal with.

Take Donkey X (or Donkey Xote, as it was labeled in its native Spain). This supposedly spirited retelling of the classic Cervantes adventure Don Quixote offers up Sancho Panza’s mule Rucio and his desire to be taken seriously…as a horse. He does this by accompanying his master, his master’s famous friend, the heroic (if slightly over the hill) steed Rocinante, and a rather irritating rooster as they all travel to Barcelona for a big knight’s festival. There, Quixote will once again battle the many flowing figments of his imagination, as well as his notions of duty, honor, and chivalry to win the hand of the elusive damsel Dulcinea. In between, we have to deal with the conspiring head of Quixote’s home town, a weird evil wizard (?), a visit to a desperate Duke and Duchess, and one of the oddest cases of equine gender identity ever.

If you haven’t already guessed by now, Donkey X doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Perhaps in its native tongue, with the Spanish cast giving the proper vocal flair to every line, we’d appreciate this cloying, confusing effort. Even if the subtitles ended up being as disconnected and mystifying as the new English dialogue utilized here, at least we could defend the film’s heritage. But laboring under a new no-name cast and a script that literally throws plot logic out the window, this shoddy Shrek rip-off barely deserves a mention. Indeed, without Eddie Murphy’s lightning fast quips to keep things buoyant, this clear copycat of the worldwide phenomenon simply drowns.

It all starts with the smarmy premise. Cervantes story has already happened, Quixote has become an icon, and everyone is Spain wishes to mimic him. Panza, on the other hand, is just pissed that he didn’t get a royalty check from actually living the now best-selling tale. He only agrees to a new journey under the guise of getting p-a-i-d! In the meanwhile, Rocinante has spent his retirement training chickens to walk in militarily precise order while Rucio fights off the anti-mule sentiments of the local horse population. When a chance to finally find Dulcinea comes along (a plot by the aforementioned bureaucrat to get Quixote and his celebrity out of his life once and for all), our crew gathers back together and goes wandering - endlessly wandering.

Try as he might, director Jose Pozo just can’t hold his second animated movie together. He shows some spark in one single scene - Quixote dreams that Dulcinea is lost in a dangerous thicket, only to have the briars turn into ogres and other beasties - but for the most part, The Veggie Tales show more cartoon imagination. The blocky, basic computer generated imagery offers none of the current creative visionary pizzazz, and the character design is so Shrek-like, the studio should sue. There are some moments of decent action and Pozo does mix it up in the framing and composition department. But the reliance of oddball covers of antique rock songs (“True Colors”, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”) and the bland, unrecognizable names behind the characters is truly depressing (original rumors had Alfred Molina and Jeff Daniels as Quixote and Panza, respectively. What happened?).

Yet none of this would matter if we could simply understand just what in the windmill is going on. Conservations contain both expositional and interpersonal non-sequitors. One moment a potential Dulcinea is a bitchy, bosomy gold digger - the next, she’s a whiny over 30 brat. Quixote’s quest is never full fleshed out, though we do get to hear how noble he is ad nauseum. Panza finally gets a payout, and then turns it all down to admit some sordid secret to his friend? And then Quixote’s horse falls head over heals for a stallion in filly drag??? By the time we get to the knight competition, complete with the clichéd stand-off between good and evil, the various loose threads come completely unraveled. We are stuck with a silly twist, a lame comeuppance, and an ending that makes even less sense than the rest of the film.

Again, this could all be a matter of translation. Ever input a foreign website into one of those online language converters? Donkey X plays a lot like one of those results, or better yet, a badly dubbed martial arts movies that loses all its dignity when recast into problematic pigeon English. Then again, when the storyline is stitched together and then deciphered, it’s hard to see any reverse back to a romance language helping this muddled mess. Kids will clearly think its all pretty colors and confusing ideas while adults will hit themselves over the head for introducing this dullness into their standard electronic babysitting cycle. Granted, when you go up against Wall-E, or Kung Fu Panda, or any of the Ice Age films, you’re bound to look second-tier. Donkey X is so lame, however, it shouldn’t be considered. It should be shot.

by Bill Gibron

8 Aug 2009

Gallows humor, with its dark and often subversive nature, remains a hard sell in modern cinema. Not only does it take a certain droll oddball proclivity to truly appreciate, but the subject matter involved can often be an equally hard sell. That’s why we critics end up seeing so many hapless horror comedies. Filmmakers, convinced that macabre and merriment go hand in hand, try to balance out fear and funny business. Few succeed. 

Now imagine Sam Raimi circa Army of Darkness taking on a delirious version of a Merchant/Ivory period piece, complete with cockney criminals, corrupt priests, and enough crown Victorian flavor to turn a standard motion picture meal into steak and eel pie. That’s the beauty (and the bedevilment) of writer/director Glenn McQuaid’s goofy I Sell the Dead. Part slapstick shocker, part uneven horror romp, this tale of a grave-robber’s apprentice and his frequently supernatural travails offers some intriguing ideas. They don’t always work, but when they do, the film finds a groovy, ghoulish eccentricity.

Just hours before his execution, accused fiend Arthur Blake is visited by a kindly priest. The purpose? To record this notorious criminal’s last thoughts before the guillotine. Along with former colleague (and already disposed of) grave robber Willie Grimes, Arthur is indeed guilty of several gruesome acts. As he discusses his introduction into the body part trade (and his work for the horrific hack medico Dr. Quint) we learn very quickly of blackmail, mortuaries, missed opportunities, and a band of equally terrifying rivals known as the Murphy Clan. Made up of cutthroats, killers, and one demonically domineering father, Willie and Arthur soon find themselves battling the heinous forces of this determined family - as well as the occasional zombie. Indeed, as their business turns from the recently deceased to the “undead”, our duo discovers how profitable, and problematic, a career as a body snatcher can be.

There are times when you just want I Sell the Dead to settle down. This is perhaps the most “inertly hyperactive” movie ever made. Such a contradictory statement needs a bit of an explanation. McQuaid is clearly a fright film fan. He’s got the references and implied homages down pat. But he’s also like the 13 year old scary movie buff who is full to bursting with his own opinions and ideas about cinema - and you can see that scattered, ADD like attention span right up there on the screen. Instead of letting moments play out organically, building tension and laughs from within some exceedingly sinister material, he gets the basics down and then jumps right to the next set-up. This works during the initial scenes when Arthur explains his beginnings. But once we get to the more “monster” oriented material, the approach does some damage.

Take Arthur and Willie’s run-in with a vampire. She’s fetching. She’s voluptuous. She’s a corpse. Everything is set for a ripe bit of Hammer-era bodice ripping. Instead, the aforementioned maker of The Evil Dead is channeled, the bloodsucker appearing and disappearing in a series of silly Loony Tunes like false shocks. Indeed, the Murphys with their various superhero/graphic novel style backstorys are far more terrifying than any creature we see here. But at least McQuaid is borrowing from the best. The Raimi touches are everywhere, from weapon POVs to sly bits of Abbot and Costello like humor. As always, casting is crucial to making this work, and filmmaker Larry Fessenden and eternally Lost hobbit Dominic Monaghan are fine as the intrepid tomb raiders. Their personalities don’t dive below the fundamentals - cowardly/cautious - but they have their own brand of onscreen charisma to help them along.

Sadly, McQuaid utilizes several other quality cult stars in underwritten or little seen turns. Phantasm‘s Tall Man, Angus Scrimm himself, has a blink and you’ll miss it turn as the evil doctor demanding corpses from our heroes, and Ron Pearlman channels his Name of the Rose past playing the cockiest clergyman in the history of the Holy Sea. Yet both men feel like fanboy additions, ways for McQuaid to make good with nerd nation and the majority of movie fans who will read about this movie and want to check it out. The rest of the cast is competent, but clearly molded out of journeyman level of career. As for the main man himself, McQuaid has an interesting filmic frame of reference. Inspired by EC Comics, Stephen King, Charles Band and almost the entire ‘80 direct-to-video catalog, this Irish maverick wants to be both rebel and realist. I Sell the Dead does have a subtle satiric edge. When it goes a bit bonkers, however, things get way out of hand rather quickly.

Indeed, for its short running time and rapid fire vignette like approach, this is a movie that can feel a bit bogged down at times. While McQuaid keeps up the atmosphere and the kitschy CG backdrop dynamics, his narrative occasionally lets him down. Once we see that things are going from gruesome to Ghostbusters, the gimmick gets in the way. Certainly I Sell the Dead is never dull or disposable, offering every bit of its low budget invention up on the screen for everyone to see, and it’s clear that McQuaid, properly funded and flush with available talent, could turn in something really super. As it stands, this delightful bit of gallows humor has its high points. It also suffers from occasional stumbles. Still, in a genre that sees more misfires than masterworks, I Sell the Dead is an excellent minor example of the latter. While it could have possibly been better, fans know it could be a whole helluva lot worse. 

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