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by Bill Gibron

19 Jun 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.

by Bill Gibron

19 Jun 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.

by Anthony Henriques

19 Jun 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.

by Nikki Tranter

19 Jun 2008

Shows how out of the loop I am—I thought this was still at the discussion stage! Turns out it’s done and ready to go. Sort of, anyway. This promo says “Coming in 2008”, yet the IMDb has it listed for release in January of next year. Either way, it’s one I’m certainly looking forward to. Inkheart is one of the few fantasy stories I actually really enjoyed. It has that added bonus, for me, of centering on the world of books and writers and literary heroes.

Inkheart is about Mo, a man who can bring characters out of the books they inhabit. Trouble starts for Mo and his daughter when the characters lifted from the medieval novel, Inkheart start rummaging around in reality for evil spirits and roads home. The movie stars Brendan Fraser as Mo and Eliza Bennett as his daughter.

This piece from YouTube features scenes from the movie, as well as the actors discussing the film and the book that inspired it:

by Bill Gibron

18 Jun 2008

It stands as one of the most unusual, and blinkered, boycotts ever. For the last few months, self-proclaimed Indo-American leader Rajan Zed has been waging a one man campaign against Mike Myers’ latest live action comedy, The Love Guru. Pointing to the fact that the film features an American Born master who comes back to his native land to help a hockey player in distress, Zed has launched a bi-weekly (and sometimes more) email “awareness” campaign, demanding everything from the MPAA labeling the movie “NC-17” to requesting the same body suspend Paramount for “unethical practices” (anyone whose seen This Film is Not Yet Rated knows that ain’t happening anytime soon).

Naturally, all of this comes from someone who, admittedly, has not seen the final film. Nor can he site specific allegations against Myers and company. All he can do is complain about the trailer “lampooning Hinduism and Hindus and using Hindu terms frivolously”. And without said personal perspective, his screeds come across as horribly misinformed. Over the course of the last few weeks, Zed has also come under fire for mixing fact with a little propagandized fiction. Back in April, he announced that the British Film Institute (better known by the initial BFI) had no intention of supporting, or in their words “screening” the film. Turns out, that’s standard policy for the organization, a procedural loophole victory at best.

As for the rest of his rants, Zed has tried everything and anything. He wanted advance screenings, and when he was awarded them, he still complained. When Paramount finally withdrew the offer, he called conspiracy. He supposedly rallied other religions to his defense, only to have them back off any major pronouncements with a “wait and see” attitude. Now, there is nothing wrong with one ethnic culture or race responding with concern when it appears that someone is about to ridicule their religion or heritage. Even worse, The Love Guru looked like it would indeed use every known concept of Hinduism and Eastern philosophy to fuel yet another regressive Mike Myer’s comedy.

Specifically, the simplistic narrative follows Maurice Pitka, a Western orphan who finds himself learning the ways of the guru alongside the now more famous Deepak Chopra. As he ages, our hero is sick of the comparison, and is looking for a high profile case to bring him to the attention of Oprah, and as a result, the American mainstream. As luck would have it, star player for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Darren Roanoke, is having marital troubles. His wife has left him for the notoriously well-hung goalie of the Los Angeles Kings, Jacques “Le Coq” Grande, and as a result, he can no longer score goals. With team owner Jane Bullard and Leaf’s coach Cherkov desperate, they turn to Pitka and his ‘DRAMA’ method to rekindle Roanoke’s romance and save the organization’s Stanley Cup hopes.

In the end, Zed shouldn’t have bothered. Certainly, The Love Guru gives certain Indian stereotypes a tweaking or two. Ben Kingsley, revered for his Oscar winning performance as the nation’s heroic Gandhi, pisses all over the famed pacifists legacy by playing a cross-eyed ashram teacher who gained his horrendous eyesight from years of masturbation. He speaks in a silly voice, makes students fight with mops soaked in his own urine, and gets a juvenile kick out of keeping Myers’ Pitka in an unnecessary vow of chastity. If it was possible, Zed and his gang should ask the Academy to take back the British thespian’s award. He does more damage to the Asian country’s people and reputation with this performance than all the good his 1982 biopic did.

Similarly, Myers does make it seem like all gurus are money grubbing materialists who pervert faith and inner peace into a series of babbling best sellers and a collection of high concept catchphrases. Pitka is always ending his mantras with a tiny “TM” tag, indicating that the wisdom he just quoted is trademarked, and therefore subject to copyrights and royalties. He has personal servants who handle all of his affairs, including a few that are far more intimate than one imagines real gurus require, and there’s a seismic, show business flare to everything Pitka does. Alongside his hopped up horndog tendencies, Myers makes his hero so flawed that we’re not sure if he’s meant as a comment on, or a crass, crude put down of, true Indian wise men.

Such a confused purpose regarding the source material leaves Zed and all others on the outside looking rather confused. Myers personal adoration for Chopra is legendary, and interviews add another level of respect to a figure the comedian feels helped himself - and millions more - find some manner of ersatz enlightenment. So it’s clear the actor would claim comedic poetic license when it comes to how he depicts guru nation. In addition, Pitka’s pitch works. Whatever wacked out system of suggestions and rituals he demands seem successful. Roanoke gets back with his wife, he leads the Leafs to the final game of the Cup, and he even overcomes his phobia regarding his mother. Of course, it takes a pair of elephants having sex to cure that sports performance anxiety ailment.

Indeed, if Zed wants to really get angry about something, one suggests he take the MPAA to task for awarding this tawdry, salacious comedy, overflowing with as many dick and diarrhea jokes as possible, a lowly PG-13 rating. That’s right, kids between the ages of eight and twelve, guided by the unmitigated buzz of an MTV saturated media hype, will be able to witness more penis humor than a dorm room full of drunken frat pledges. The movie starts with a dong joke and goes from there - and repeats said wang witticisms over and over again. If Myers is not making fun of Vern Troyer’s size (a given in this kind of film) he is finding new and novel ways to reference the male member. To say it grows tiresome would be giving tediousness a bad name.

Similarly, Myers clearly believes that Judd Apatow and his go-to gang of regulars have failed to fully develop and explore all levels of gross out juvenilia. So The Love Guru skips things like characterization, plot development, drama, insight, and substance to swim in oceans of personal offal. There are farts, snot rockets, dung, numerous mention of skidmarks (and other verbal variations on the dirty drawers), and the aforementioned wiener-palooza. While the sequence with Kingsley and the nauseating pee fight tops them all, there is still enough mind numbing noxiousness to get your gag reflex good and active. While Apatow can claim scatology with subtext, Myers is like a monkey, flinging his poo at the screen for audiences to enjoy.

Zed is wasting his breath if he thinks anyone will actually boycott this unsuccessful swill. The demographic - read: teen boys and their text-tweener dates - will giggle their way to a Summer full of sympathy mimicry, and Pitka is so completely unrealistic that anyone thinking Hindus are being defamed will look like an idiot in the claim. In fact, The Love Guru has so many insider winks to the viewer that it seems to have anticipated the fuss and foiled it by taking absolutely nothing seriously. Had this campaign actually raised the hackles of grass roots organizations everywhere, there would have been a lot of wasted protest breath. Myers’ intent is obvious - do anything, including the slightest of ethnic slams, for a laugh.

Sadly, the only honest snickers will come from anyone who has read Zed’s missives over the last few months. This does not defend The Love Guru - it’s a god-awful anti-comedy, unfunny in unfathomable, almost heroic ways. But it should teach anyone who wants to openly complain about an upcoming project (and the supposedly negative depiction within) to get their facts straight before starting to complain. This is one of those cases where everything, and nothing, could be twisted into being racially insensitive or just downright dumb - and sometimes, both.

Rajan Zed has every right to protect his people and his place among them. He also has the freedom of speech to voice his well meaning and thoughtful concerns. But like the boy who cried wolf, arguing against something you’re not sure exists means that, when the time comes to really go after an abuse, you’ll be viewed less like a savior and more like a stooge. One imagines that no one could stop Myers in pursuit of his big screen muse. It’s too bad Zed didn’t wait until he knew what he was actually attacking before taking up the cause. Anything to keep this crappy movie out of the cultural mainstream would definitely been welcomed. 

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