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by Bill Gibron

20 Dec 2008

There is nothing wrong with earnestness. Trying too hard usually validates the effort. But when it comes to comedy, being obvious can often lead to being unbearable. Sometimes, it’s better to use subtlety to sell your satire than big, broad strokes. Such is the case with Andrew Fleming’s Hamlet 2 (new to DVD from Focus Features). Treading ground familiar to any failed artist in the audience, the director behind Dick and the horrendous In-Laws remake hopes we’ll root for ridiculously eccentric loser Dana Marschz. While it’s true that the farcical pheromones streaming off this failed actor should be enough to keep us interested and engaged, the tone is so wildly uneven and the results so unspectacular that we never develop a vested entertainment interest.

Life is pretty horrible for out of work thespian Dana Marschz. Having landed in Tucson, Arizona and teaching at a podunk high school, he longs for the days when he was a star - or at the very least, the center of a residual providing herpes commercial. When budget cuts force other classes out of the curriculum, Marschz finds his group inundated with thuggish teens with no desire to participate. Then he discovers that drama is the next to go. Hoping to raise spirits - and some money to save the program - he writes his own script, a sequel to Shakespeare’s most famous play. With added musical numbers, and ample sex and violence, the production becomes a lightening rod of local controversy - and typical to his life, Marschz finds few people to stand by and support him. 

Let’s just call Hamlet 2 Waiting for Guffaws, and be done with it. Sadly, said laughter rarely comes, if at all. Treating its sad sack subject as the butt and beneficiary of all its jokes, this one note nonsense hopes to trick us into thinking its irreverent. Some of the subterfuge comes from Fleming’s partner in crime. Pam Brady is touted as one of the minds behind South Park, but her work as both producer and occasional writer cannot begin to match that magic that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone contribute to the show. Somehow, one imagines that if she left the animated series today, Park could somehow muddle through without her. Besides, if her contributions here are to be based on her work with the cartoon, she clearly added little besides scatology and random F-bombs.

No, the bigger problem with Hamlet 2 is with its basic format and structure. Dana Marschz is indeed a douche, an unhinged hambone that doesn’t recognize his own flailing ridiculousness. Watching him struggle and fail should be patently funny stuff. But Fleming and Brady want us to champion his chumpness instead. We’re supposed to see a hyper-sensitive dreamer and hope that all his freak show fantasies come true one day. But he’s not loveable or even likeable. He’s a self-absorbed git. And since that’s the case, most of his backstory is bunkum. His relationship with wife Brie is a radiant red herring, used to add silly fertility jokes and waste time between teacher/student shenanigans. Besides, Catherine Keener is so disconnected from this material she appears to be channeling the spirit of some other actress in a totally different film.

It’s the same with the movie’s pale post-modern gimmick - the ironic introduction of Elizabeth Shue as…Elizabeth Shue. In a Being John Malkovich kind of moment, we get the comment on the comment, the “Hollywood’s a Bitch…and Boy Don’t You Miss It” mantra spelled out in supposed self-lampoonery. Reduced to a wide eyed washout of her former Oscar nominated self, Shue sends signals that mix us up even further. Truly, she’s in on the joke, but in such a blatantly, ‘aren’t I ginchy’ manner that you can’t help but feel sorry for her. The minute star Steve Coogan goes apeshit over her existence in his town (as a nurse, of all things), she gets a few career credits - Leaving Las Vegas, Adventures in Babysitting - and then she’s Marion Ravenwood. It’s like Woody Allen introducing Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall and then not giving the media guru his punchline.

And speaking of Coogan, has any actor been so undeniably good at being so godawful annoying before? He’s like walking psoriasis, his performance making you itch from its outright irritability. He doesn’t interact with his fellow cast mates, many of whom represent the newest level of bottom feeding fame spawns the media has to manufacture. Instead, Coogan comes on like a drunken uncle, palpable and unfiltered, hoping to be inspiration but typically resulting in petulance. We never care for his aims, never want to see him succeed. In fact, the way Hamlet 2 should work is via the standard “failure = focus” paradigm. Marschz should see his play flop mightily, its lack of competence turning him inward and toward the area where his unknown acumen is best suited. Instead, we get a backwards happy ending, one that feels as fake and phony as any other supposedly whacked out aspect of the film. 

If Hamlet 2 has a single saving moment, it’s the play within a film fiasco which gives this entire exasperating effort a title. Much of the material on the relatively basic DVD - commentary, behind the scenes feautrette, deleted sequences - centers on it. While much of the material tanks, the song “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” manages to overcome its lunkhead lyrics to get us clapping, and you can’t help but cheer when the amateur performers put on the Bard. But even then, there is so much ancillary anarchy surrounding it (including an unnecessary Amy Poelher as an angry ACLU attorney) that our focus is constantly forced elsewhere. As a matter of fact, much of this movie is misdirected, literally walking away from what’s witty to indulge in situations that seem left over from earlier, unpolished drafts of the script.

Indeed, Hamlet 2 feels like initial ideas not fully fleshed out - the components of a comedy quickly and cheaply crammed together to see if they will actually meld into something special. While it’s never easy to grade humor - it’s as personal a genre as horror or romance - it is simple to see where someone’s idea of cleverness goes instantly off the rails. Hamlet 2 is preplanned irreverence, offering nothing organic in the way of cheek or mockery. Though it offers up ideas and individuals who should find a way to work, the movie just tries too hard to find an answer. The result is more scattered than a sophomoric slam dunk.

by Bill Gibron

20 Dec 2008

Remakes are like those proverbial Tribbles in the classic Trek episode. Give them a creative inch - or in the case of Hollywood, a recognizable box office return - and they’ll overrun your aesthetic starship, and last time anyone checked, Tinsel Town was plowing through them at warp speed. In a clear case of ‘the new generation needs its own version’, everything from the last three decades is now being restructured to appeal to a tween, PG-13 demo. A rare exception is Death Race, an ‘update’ of Roger Corman’s action spoof that’s been given a gritty, grimy, hard-R polish. Gone are the cross country premise and “people-as-points” fun. In their place is a Rollerball meets ridiculousness ideal that’s, oddly earnest if ultimately empty goofiness. 

In a future overflowing with poverty and violence, the prison based demolition derby Death Race is the most popular online entertainment extravaganza. Run by warden Hennessey and starring masked prisoner Frankenstein, the web event draws millions of viewers - and dollars - for the private penitentiary corporation. When a mishap threatens the spectacle, the stern female steward turns to new inmate - and convicted wife killer - Jensen Ames as her new driver. Once he meets up with chief mechanic Coach, and his main competition Machine Gun Joe, he discovers that there is more to his incarceration than crime. Seems this ex-race car jockey turned steel worker may have been set up specifically to save the three day competition - with no hope of he, or anyone else, making it out alive.

Like big steaming chunks of charred animal flesh, or a fleeting glimpse of a gal’s ample cleavage, Death Race (new to DVD in an “Unrated” version from Universal) taps into something very primal (and very male) about the action movie experience. It’s all noise, bluster, and torque-testing horsepower. When it moves, it travels at unlimited overcranked rpms. When it stops to focus on exposition and depth, it’s like listening to the set-up for a very bad, very superficial pulp novel. That Paul W.S. Anderson, film geek scourge that he is, could find a way to make both elements work is surprising enough. That he winds up delivering one of the year’s shockingly guilty pleasures is indeed ‘fuel’ for thought.

Don’t think this was some project pulled out of a bored executive’s yoga-toned behind, however. As part of the Unrated DVD experience (note, of the five added minutes of material, very little do with sex and/or violence), Anderson is one hand to provide a fun and spry commentary track. He indicates that he’s wanted to tackle Death Race ever since famed indie producer Corman bought the rights to his first film Shopping. That it’s taken 14 years from greenlight to gear box is something Anderson laments, but he’s also glad that it took this long. The special effects necessary to realize his over the top aims would have been far less spectacular than in 1994.

Speaking of Roger Dodger, all those with fond memories of the Corman cult classic from the ‘70s take heed - there is very little here to remind you of that cheesy schlock stunt piece. Paul Bartel’s even if effective direction is nowhere to be found. In its place is a style reminiscent of a poorly designed carnival ride, one where you can anticipate the thrills by the logistics of the layout. When the narrative announces that there will be three stages to the title competition, you’re already aware of when Anderson will turn up the adrenalin. And since the trailer more or less give away all the possible plot twists, what happens during the each and every race is fairly obvious.

Also, at many times during this otherwise engaging Farm Film Reportage that Anderson gets in his own way. You can sense he was striving for something more serious, a speculative fiction that says something about our love of violence, corporate greed, morbid curiosity, and outright love of velocity. In its place however is the satisfying crunch of metal and an equally rewarding sense of mindless mayhem. All the action centers around explosions and bullets, revved up hunks of machinery destroying each other in all manner of logic defying permutations. Characters who we barely know are killed in massive sprays of body parts and blood, and everything is soaked in a sinister despotic aura that demands redress.

Naturally, it’s up to human adrenal gland Jason Statham to supply the permanent five o’clock shadow musk. Making a living out of being buff, unshaven, and incredibly surly, the British thesp provides his accustomed glower power, if little else. He’s always an appealing anti-hero, but this time around his vacant Jensen Ames appears inane. Sure, there’s his baby daughter’s salvation to be considered, and his desire for outright revenge, but none of these motives resonate. Instead, Anderson offers Statham as emaciated male musculature, ripples replacing anything remotely resembling characterization or a rooting interest.

Equally out of place, for different reason, is Joan Allen. Yes, the Oscar nominated lady gets to put on her F-you bitch bomb pumps and play baddie, all in the name of authoritarianism and conglomerate insatiability. With a single personality beat - make dat mon-ey - and a sexless disposition, she’s villainess as placeholder, a fashion plate prop waiting for a better menace to take her position. Do we cheer when its comeuppance time? Sure. Do we really understand the reasoning behind her choice of chump (Statham) and destruction of all that he held dear? Huh? She at least fairs better than Tyrese Gibson and Natalie Martinez, both reduced to obligatory eye candy for the requisite sides of the gender aisle.

Anderson, who is often marginalized by a fanbase that has seen him turn some of their favorite geek obsessions (Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator) turned into mindless mainstream mush, does a decent, journeyman job here. He doesn’t strive for some kind of dystopic dream state or visual allegory. Instead, it’s all screeching engines, smoking lighting and heavy pedal to the metal thunder. For someone who still manages a paycheck for what he accomplishes behind the lens, Anderson remains an enigmatic cinematic shoulder shrug. But nothing he does in Death Race convinces you that his detractors are wrong…or that his employers think outside a very small, very specific financial box.

The DVD itself spends most of its bonus feature cache on the aforementioned commentary. It also plans to get a lot of digital context goodwill be offering the Rated and Unrated versions. Again, don’t be fooled by this plot - studios often inject unimportant material back into a movie to thwart the original MPAA determination, even if the new stuff is just boring exposition. Here, we get a few more seconds of human combustion, but that’s it for the gore score. Everything else is added plot ticks. The two making-of featurettes are fun, since they give the cast and crew an EPK-lite ability to wax poetic about a big, dumb car crash film.

Thankfully, most of the major quibbles with this film drift away in a cloud of oil smoke and exhaust will stand as this last gasp popcorn pitch’s only hope. In a critical community that rightly targets the mindless and aimless as celluloid sputum, Death Race sure smells like something spoilt. But after a year of angst-ridden superheroes whose complex character complaints drive even bigger narrative ambitions, its good to simply sit back and feel your brain cells systematically shut down. This doesn’t make this unnecessary ‘reimagining’ good, merely tolerable. If you want some real kicks, head back to the original. It’s far more enjoyable. Death Race refuses to take itself seriously - and sometimes, that’s all that’s required. 

by Rob Horning

20 Dec 2008

Though the idea of using potlatchess to take the edge of of capitalism often seems appealing, I’m not big on programmatic gift-giving. It seems to me that the spontaneous gift generates far less angst, simply because it need not ever be given. You just give something when you happen to come across something you know would be appropriate for somebody. Of course, if there is no schedule for gift-giving, you may not make a point of looking for such things as would be appropriate and never come upon them. Giving gifts is something of a full-time hobby, and requires certain habits of mind—reading magazines, taking frequent trips to stores, having conversations with people about their stuff, etc.—if one is to be successful at it. I don’t do any of that, so I only ever know what stuff I want for myself, and even that sometimes can make for a paltry list. (I try to be wanting for as little as possible; if it occurs to me that I want something, I go out and buy it.) In general, I don’t like the routine of showing consideration for other people by paying attention to their stuff; I’d rather be considerate by listening to their ideas, responding to them, and in general spending time with them. Gifts can materialize that sense of simpatico, but they also seem to threaten to replace it. Though I like it when someone buys me an apropos gift, it also makes me feel a little uneasy, as if the giver has secured themselves a get-out-of-jail-free card with their gift and now don’t have to put in any time with me. Gifts express our social relations in things; that can seem like an amplification and a realization of them, or it can seem like the termination of the relation as a living, changing thing. In particular, unwanted gifts can make a healthy relation suddenly seem dubious. If its the thought that counts, what in the hell were they thinking?

Both PsyBlog and BPS Digest have taken timely note of recent research by psychologist Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues into how men and women react differently to unwanted gifts. The PsyBlog posts points out the problem with gift-giving in romantic relationships:

Psychological research on how gift-giving affects relationships hints at this no-win situation. Studies suggest that good gifts only affirm similarity between couples, and so do little for the relationship. Poor gifts, though, may lead people to question their similarity with each other, thereby damaging the relationship.

Dunn’s research shows that the intensity of revulsion felt at a bad gift varies by gender. Men readily interpret an ill-suited gift as a sign that the relationship won’t last; women are more likely to rationalize away a bad gift to protect the relationship: “women are more motivated than men to marshal psychological defence mechanisms to protect against the damaging effects of poor gifts.” Obviously, this reflects a certain power dynamic at work, likely a legacy of patriarchy. Part of the “domestic angel in the household” stereotype for women involves “effortlessly” coming up with the right gifts for people while evincing all sorts of inherent holiday cheer. The holidays become an arena where those confined to the domestic sphere can show off their worth and excel, demonstrate competency and secure recognition for it. But the consequence is that the effort starts to be taken for granted; men expect the elaborate holiday performance of women as a domestic tour de force; women don’t expect the same from men.

To me, the clear response to this is to rid relationships of gift-giving expectations to remove this patriarchal hangover. And then give gifts when you feel like it. If you dare it, you might declare that every moment you spend with a partner is your gift to them, and vice versa.

by Jason Gross

20 Dec 2008

First, the supposed good news.  The RIAA says that it’s going to stop the flood of downloader lawsuits.  The reasons are obvious for this: 1) they weren’t cost-effective, 2) they made the industry look even worse.  On the first point, the majors had to spend millions of dollars in litigation fees to do the lawsuits in the first place and the money they were getting in return for settlements wasn’t coming close to making up for it.  That didn’t matter since the point was to scare people and not really to even out the field in terms of finance/balance sheets.  In terms of looking bad, the settlement money wasn’t going to the artists involved and didn’t exactly make home users embrace label-approved download sites.  In the last few years, a number of studies have said that unauthorized downloading had actually increased since the wave of RIAA lawsuits began.

And now for the bad news.  In a puff piece that’s slanted heavily towards the RIAA, the Wall Street Journal reports that the RIAA won’t totally end the lawsuits, which means that they’ll do them on a smaller, more individualized basis.  That means that they’re still going to use these scare tactics to single out and bully users in the hopes that others will cower though now, it’ll be less likely.  One reason for this may be that judgments haven’t been going the way of the RIAA lately, with some cases even questioning the whole legitimacy of the suits in the first place.

The WSJ article also notes that the RIAA will now go after ISP’s (Internet providers) to do their dirty work- they’ll try to make them hand out warnings and then cut off service to users.  As the article notes, it remains to be seen how compliant the ISP’s will be with that.  Most likely, any of them that snuggle up too close to the RIAA will be shunned by users in favor of other providers who don’t get as chummy with the labels.

Most importantly, the RIAA will still be around and still likely use more and more heavy-handed, wrong-headed tactics.  The lawsuits didn’t work so now they’ll find other ways to beat people up and try to stop unauthorized downloads.  Of course, the best way would be to find ways to make users want to pay for product in the first place but we’re talking about an industry group that values ligation over innovation so don’t be too surprised if they don’t change their ways any time soon. 

The majors have a remarkable talent for sinking themselves deeper and deeper.  If they go to Washington asking for a bailout like other industries are doing now, likely dragging along some stars for recognition, they’ll still likely to get a chilly reception and they’ll have have no one to blame but themselves (even though they never do take blame or responsibility for their own problems).

FOLLOW-UP: The Recording Industry Vs. the People blog (an excellent source of RIAA hijinx) says that the RIAA reports that it ended its mass lawsuits months ago is B.S. as they actually brought to court a bunch of them only a week ago.  Wonder what else they haven’t been truthful about…

by Bill Gibron

19 Dec 2008

Man is not a perfect machine. He is flawed, easily broken, capable of incredibly feats and destined to die off damaged and corrupt. Luckily for most of us, we don’t rely on our bodies to earn our keep. While we need our physicality to function, we are usually not graded or rewarded on it. The athlete, on the other hand, sacrifices his engine every competition, seeking out the structural disrepair we strictly avoid to march one inch closer to immortality. What they never quite understand, however, is that such everlasting fame is elusive and very rare. Even worse, there’s dozens of wannabe replacements all eager to prove their indestructible mantle.

For Randy “The Ram” Robinson, eternal stardom came quickly and burned very, very bright. As one of the ‘80s premiere wrestlers, he was a title holder and a public draw. He was so popular he even had his own action figure. Now, two decades later, he is battered, bruised, and broken. Taking menial matches on the weekends to supplement his food service, trailer park existence, he’s desperate to reclaim his past glory. While in remarkable shape for a man of his age, life is apparently set to beat him down one last time. A literal busted heart, a grim diagnosis, and it looks like The Ram’s career is done. But for this former fan icon, an anniversary rematch may be the very thing that keeps his legacy and hopes alive. It may also kill him outright.

Taking its tone from Rod Serling’s memorable Requiem for a Heavyweight while utilizing a breathtaking neo-realistic approach, Darren Aronofsky’s sensational The Wrestler marks a major comeback for Mickey Rourke and ‘70s style filmmaking in general. Offering up characters of quiet charms and deep emotional pain and a cinema verite cinematography that frequently feels like a documentary, this is a tour de force of acting, directing, and stripped down motion picture passion. It’s rare when a film can make you feel such emotional extremes. On the one hand, the story of The Ram’s rise and fall is truly heartbreaking, helped in no small part by Rourke’s Oscar worthy performance. But there is so much more going on here, from the concept of a career lost long ago to an attempt at redemption that almost anyone can relate to. It makes for a truly remarkable entertainment experience.

It’s impossible to explain how amazing Rourke is here. Bulked up beyond recognition, wearing his own battle spoils from a decade of debauchery and failed plastic surgery, he stands as a warning to anyone who thinks the acting profession is all red carpets and E! News Daily. Sure, most of the damage is of the self-destructive and inflicted variety, but in the chew ‘em up and spit them out world of Hollywood, that someone like he survived is stunning enough. Now take The Ram’s similarly styled story - early instant fame, a life in pursuit of ever increasing success (and the harmful perks that come with same), the inability to recognize the need to slow down, a current situation marked by dishonesty and despair. Together, this amalgamation of persona and performance marks the kind cinematic synergy that makes movies truly magic.

But amazingly enough, he’s not the only great thing here. Proving to those who questioned her Academy Award for My Cousin Vinny, Marisa Tomei continues her own reclamation of her career (after last year’s similarly spectacular Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) with her turn as sensible stripper Cassidy. While she definitely shows off her incredible post-40 physique, there’s a naturalness and nurturing quality to her character that’s warm and inviting. As the other main female in his life, Evan Rachel Wood is an interesting enigma as The Ram’s abandoned daughter, Stephanie. Though she only has a few scenes here, the combination of hurt and longing is more than memorable. There is one moment in particular where her little girl feelings are forced to confront a man whose still capable of great compassion - and great disappointment. It’s just one of several sensational scenes.

Clearly, working outside his comfort zone inspired Aronofsky. Known for his flashy, in your face directorial flare, The Wrestler is miles away from his formalized work on such films as Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain. Instead of going for bright lights and auteur-ish bravado, Aronofsky strives for authenticity. The background is loaded with former and current wrestling notables, and when the supposedly “scripted” elements of each match are discussed, there’s no elaborate storyline or set-up. A quick shorthand regarding moves and potential weaponry (including barbed wire and a stapler!?!?) is all these seasoned veterans need. The matches are magnificent, each one presented in a unique and uncompromising manner. Even better, Aronofksy sticks around to show the aftermath - the blood, the sweat, the stitches, and the wholly professional clannishness and camaraderie.

There may be those who think the medical crisis subplot is to formulaic and manipulative for this kind of movie, and when the advertised rematch turns into a kind of Death of a Salesman send-off (though no clear resolution, good or bad, is offered), some may sense a bit of a heavy hand on the script (expertly put together by former Onion scribe Robert Siegel). But thanks to Rourke’s sensitive, well observed turn, the rest of the dominating cast, and Aronofsky’s courageousness and artistic risk taking, The Wrestler overcomes all clichés to redefine the sports film for a post-millennial audience raised on the very subject being explored. It may be hard for some to watch their heroes take a fall, but until you reach the bottom, there’s no way to possibly come back up.

As he stalks the counter behind the deli of the grocery store where he works at, desperately trying to avoid recognition while serving the customers with the kind of charm and grace that made him a wrestling champion, Randy “The Ram” Robinson is like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim - unstuck in time and having difficulty dealing with the passage of same. There’s only one place he wants to be and he can never really return there. Still, the lure of the crowd is unnerving to those addicted to its trappings. As the last gasp of someone who has had more than a few of those life leaking final breaths, The Ram is nearing the end. Thanks to this sensational motion picture, we have the opportunity to watch him struggle yet again…at least for as long as it lasts. 

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