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by Bill Gibron

18 Dec 2007

Does it matter if an actor or actress is gay? Beyond all the hypocritical moralizing and dogmatic religious stances, should a film fan really care if a homosexual performer is playing a heterosexual part? We praise the non-handicapped for taking on the role of the regressed, and give out awards to thespians who literally change their bodies to become totally different ‘characters’, so why should it matter if a lesbian plays a leading man’s love interest, or visa versa? It’s not a new discussion in Hollywood, but when you consider the profile of the most recent ‘outed’ superstar, the issue gets raised all over again.

In accepting the Sherry Lansing Award at a Women in Entertainment Power 100 breakfast on 13 December, Jodie Foster offered an emotional speech which included her stating “I would like to thank my beautiful Cydney who sticks with me through all the rotten and the bliss.” She was referring to Cydney Bernard, a one time production manager and coordinator who has been the actress’s significant other since 1993. There’s no questioning their commitment, and recent rumors about the father of Foster’s two sons and the motives for this unusual break in her public facade are specious at best. Besides, Tinsel Town’s been ‘hip’ to the two time Oscar winner’s lifestyle for years, and it hasn’t hurt her box office clout or her standing in the industry.

Yet the question now becomes, will all that change? Nothing affects a star’s status quicker than a scandal, but there’s no chance of that happening here. So the only other factor that could come into play is financial—and in our current cultural state where intelligent design battles science for a place in the classroom and Presidential candidates wear their faith on their constantly self-aggrandizing sleeves, the ethos of Foster’s ‘choice’ will take many aback—one kneejerk reaction at a time. Remember, this debate will have nothing to do with talent, personal principles, or the need for greater tolerance and understanding in a post-millennial world. Your average mainstream moviegoer hears ‘gay’, and an entire universe of propaganda and proselytizing comes crashing down around their already narrow view.

You could call it prejudice, but the proper word is perspective. Sure, some will automatically turn their bigotry switch over to seethe upon hearing this news, but for the most part, audiences will do something akin to backseat driving (or Monday morning quarterbacking) and begin a ridiculous reevaluation process. Since most salient individuals acknowledge homosexuality as a fact, not an option, the idea of pinpointing her ‘change’ won’t be bantered about. But the idea that a lesbian can now play a romantic, passionate heterosexual heroine will definitely be part of the discussion.

Take this year’s excellent The Brave One, for example. Dismissing the vigilante aspect for a moment, the entire movie is based on a simple premise—how the loss of someone you love can lead an otherwise smart individual to the darkest depths of their soul. After the death of her doctor fiancé at the hands of a ruthless gang, Foster must face down the urge to kill as she slowly sinks into a kind of emotional malaise. It’s clear the couple connected—their first act love scene is tender and telling. Yet with this recent revelation, it’s not a stretch to hear audiences asking if Foster is truly capable of sincerely playing this role.

It’s not the first time that such a clouded concern has been forwarded. Right before production on the romantic comedy Six Days and Seven Nights, Anne Heche announced her relationship with comedian/sitcom star Ellen DeGeneres. The massive press coverage that accompanied the disclosure trickled into a less than cogent conversation over whether the actress, currently co-starring with macho megahunk Harrison Ford, could convincingly play someone interested in men. It seems silly now (just like the previous take on Foster), but the quasi-controversy produced pundit after pundit dismissing a gay woman’s ability to be believable as straight.

In general, such a sentiment is ignorant at best, a hate crime at worst. Dozens of homosexual men have successfully mastered the art of pretend known as acting, and while a few have stayed within their own orientation as a matter of pride or principle, others have experimented with all manner of roles, from action to comedy, horror to heroism. It seems downright silly to say this now, but any discussion about Heche should have focused on her limited screen presence and poor overall chemistry with Ford, not who she chooses to sleep with. It’s a standard that someone of Foster’s caliber will never have to address. But there will be those who find their broadmindedness broached, and revising history apparently helps relieve the unease.

Take the two Academy Awards she owns. Silence of the Lambs is such an asexual picture, and the acting in it so flawless, that no one could question any of the stars’ believability. Foster is Clarice Starling, flirtatious inferences with the entomologist and Dr. Lecter in equal uneasy amounts. There is nothing about the turn that speaks to stereotypes. But Foster’s first Oscar, for The Accused, may flummox some uninformed heads. In said film, she plays a white trash slut who fails to get the ‘no means no’ benefit of the doubt from a gang of barroom rapists. While many praised the actress for such daring and boldness, the ‘gay’ angle will keep the already tacky up at night.

Again, it all becomes a meandering matter of acuity. Does her ice queen bitchiness now come off differently in Spike Lee’s Inside Man? Was playing a 14-year-old prostitute for Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver more difficult for a young woman just growing into her sexual identity? Will there be some who from this point forward never believe her opposite a leading man, and are there others who will demand she take up a cause and outward agenda that she chose to embrace privately for decades? Insane as it sounds, does someone’s sexual orientation, a subconscious, private position, manifest itself in ways only outsiders can see? And will future flops—and all superstars have them—be blamed on issues other than creative bankruptcy?

In truth, these are the career concerns that arise whenever a performer is finally ‘outed’. It’s not really a question of hiring and firing—it’s a question of cash. The biggest heterosexual lothario can spread squalor and STDs all over the industry, and if his movies make money, he’ll be first in line for the next high profile project. Yet, as we’ve seen with Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, bad judgment and lifestyle lunacy can lead to a never ending barrage of bad press and—even worse—audience backlash. All the limited access minds of moviemaking need is a single hint that an actor or actress is box office poison and their prospects almost instantaneously dry up. And in our ridiculously fundamental social order, being gay could signal the start of such a downward trend.

As one of the best actresses of her or any generation, Jodie Foster has earned the right to be left alone. She’s been nothing but professional, and even centered in a swirling media firestorm over her link to the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan (she was relentlessly stalked by shooter John Hinkley), she remained a calm, considered antidote. Luckily, most of her growing pains occurred outside of the media morass that tends to permanently taint everything it touches—but this latest hackle raising headline will take a while to significantly blow over.

Until then, Foster will have to walk the mandatory tabloid tightrope. Every decision she’s made in the last 20 years will be front and center for speculation and aspersion. The next moves in her otherwise flawless occupational arc will be fodder for further dissection and disparagement. If her next film fails, will it be perceived as some form of audience message? And if it succeeds, does it stand for anything besides a superstar’s continued well-traveled track record? Someone’s sexual orientation should never be part of any aesthetic evaluation. It’s the work that should stand, not issues outside of it. Sadly, our society hasn’t learned that lesson just yet. Maybe Foster will change that. Odds are, she won’t.

by Bill Gibron

17 Dec 2007

It stands as one of the big debates among critics. It surpasses annual best of lists and arguments over overrated/underrated directors/writers/actors. For purists, the answer is obvious. Film is meant to be an isolated and individual experience, especially for someone given the charge of examining it for consideration and comment. On the other hand, the post-modern movie scribe believes that as populist entertainment, a film should only be considered as part of a group dynamic. Only with an audience can a comedy’s humor be judged correctly. Only with a crowd can a fright fest’s shivers be accurately gauged.

Of course, as we’ve come to discover over the last two pieces in this prolonged Fourth Estate examination, viewers and reviewers don’t mix. Even worse, many publications and their editorial staff are not looking for the mob mentality - at least, they didn’t used to. To say that an audience’s reaction SHOULD be important to a critic is like suggesting that they can’t do their job without it. And yet they are asked to all the time. Naturally, if you visualize your aesthetic purpose as playing reporter, delivering plot and how the reader might react to it, the forced guffaws and freely shed tears are your basic bread and butter. But if your job is more in line with classic criticism - viewing each movie as it applies to the overall artform - some complimentary ticket holder’s take means very little.

Let’s face it - your typical critic is not out to pander. Pauline Kael didn’t establish her legacy by listening to the amplified ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ of a packed Cineplex. Roger Ebert didn’t win his Pulitzer by gauging the number of shrieks a Poltergeist play date received. A reviewer takes the job because they love the medium, and their approach to same and how they view it is intensely private…until made public. While it’s nice to hear an audience sigh in appreciation of a motion picture job well done, it’s never mandatory. Even worse, some suggest that hearing crowds crow over an obviously hackneyed effort actually amplifies their contempt. It can be confusing at best.

Perhaps, by example, the problems in both approaches can be better highlighted. Let’s take a crass, horribly unfunny comedy like Rush Hour 3. Screened for the press in a preview audience-only offering, fans of both Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker lined up hours before hand to support their favorite onscreen action duo. So when they finally find a seat, complain about the critic’s row, and settle down for some cost-free entertainment, they’re ready to react. All throughout the lame, nonsensical 90 minutes of movie, the crowd cheered. They literally rolled in the aisles as obvious jokes limped by, and they rallied like less than sober sports fans when the finale unfolded. Praise poured out of the mouths of all but the critics. They were too stunned to speak.

Then there’s Sweeny Todd. The Sondheim musical, brought to wondrous life by director Tim Burton, was a terrific tour de force, the kind of operatic experience that allows a viewer to escape and explore. Though the songs can be difficult and the amount of blood overpowering, the film is a literal work of art - and yet, in the half-full preview screening it played in, the crowd was subdued to the point of possible boredom. There was a smattering of applause as the credits rolled, and the comments given to the studio representatives suggested an alarming level of discontent. Of course, most of the critics found it masterful.

So, which reaction is valid, and which one is not. From a professional perspective, Todd is the clear winner. It has a 90% positive rating vs. Rush Hour 3‘s 20%. Yet box office is usually the final word, and in the case of the tired tre-quel, Chan and Tucker are destined to come out ahead. So what is the audience reaction actually predicting? If not artistry, than mere appreciation? And is that really a critic’s job - to determine what’s saleable vs. what’s skillful? Under a traditional career definition, that goes against everything a journalist represents.

But what about the private screening? Does the lack of an audience matter there? It’s clear that, in the case of movies like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, the added involvement of a crowd would not matter. In fact, their presence could have cancelled out the magical spell being weaved by the able bodied auteurs behind the lens. On the other hand, the odd family film fragmentation of something like The Water Horse, or the quirky indie issues at the heart of Wristcutters: A Love Story might have actually benefited from an audience’s input. Not every movie announces its intentions in obvious ways. If a viewer can offer up some insight, igniting a reaction in a critic’s head, then it’s a clear case of win/win.

This almost never happens, however. Instead, inappropriate laughter and unnecessary communal commentary are the norm. At a screening of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a man was so amazed by the fate of Mary, Queen of Scots, that he reacted to her dramatic execution by shouting “DAAAAMN! They cut her head off!” In another case, while a character in Feast of Love (and otherwise awful film) was dying, snickers could be heard from various members of the movie going multitude. The misplaced giggle is probably the most blatant audience offense. Just because you’re not frightened by a scary movie doesn’t mean some other member of the attending throng isn’t. Your disrespectful defense mechanism is not really appreciated.

Still, it’s hard to argue with this core concept of the theatrical experience. All three Apatow efforts this year - Knocked Up, Superbad, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story played so well with an audience that it’s hard to imagine experiencing each without them. Similarly, I Am Legend needed its fan-base support, if only to help keep viewers awake during the dull third act build up. The audible gasps during The Kingdom and The Bourne Ultimatum did argue for both film’s action acumen, and genre workouts like Rob Zombie’s Halloween and The Mist played much better with an exponential level of fear.

It really doesn’t answer or even address the question, however - and drama remains the twisted trump card. Serious films play on so many differing levels and emotions that they can quickly bifurcate a crowd. Reactions to something like Rendition were all over the map, while American Gangster fell across clear actor/demographic lines. Michael Clayton and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford didn’t play like end of the year candidates in their private morning screenings, but when shown with a crowd, both received realistic, indirect boosts.

Just like judging movies for a living, prognostication by popularity is a horribly incomplete science. Evan Almighty flopped, yet the audience who attended the preview lapped up every uneven minute. Bee Movie made viewers buzz, yet it looks to be one of the least successful CGI efforts ever. On the other hand, Stardust and Sunshine had strong critical approval and yet turnstiles remained relatively still. It’s been said that if one could predict - within an acceptable frequency - what will work and what will fail, they’d be the richest man or woman in Tinsel Town. It’s just not that easy.

And audiences aren’t the answer. While the clash over private vs. public will probably end up remaining a matter of personal preference, the conversation will continue. As stated in other installments of these ‘confessions’, there is an automatic bias from the professional community against being herded and harassed. Major markets probably never even consider the issue while smaller regions wrestle with it week in and week out. Obviously, the studios think that some films play better with more people present. Others are for media minds only. Perhaps it’s not a matter of right and wrong after all. It may not even be an issue at all. But in light of the way criticism is marginalized nowadays, one thing is obvious - all reaction is taken with a huge grain of cinematic salt, both inside and outside celluloid. 

by Bill Gibron

16 Dec 2007

Only time will tell. It’s been very helpful to other struggling scary movies. When it was first released in 1974, most critics considered Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be the most disgusting, debased effort in the history of the shock genre. Today, a copy of the film sits in the vault of the Museum of Modern Art. When Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead hit the Cineplex, a positive blurb from horror master Stephen King couldn’t keep the splatter fest from ending up on many writer’s year end “Worst” lists. Now, it’s seen as a powerful and effective chiller. So there’s hope for Rob Zombie yet. Upon its arrival in theaters this past August, many despised his intriguing remake of John Carpenter’s classic slasher flick, Halloween. Here’s hoping that a few years from now, when the controversy has passed and new eyes have viewed this exceptional effort, the film and its maker will get the respect and reevaluation they so richly deserve.

It wasn’t an easy choice for the rock star turned filmmaker to make, initially. After two very difficult and very different self-styled films (the average House of 1000 Corpses and the amazing exploitation update The Devil’s Rejects), taking on the myth of Michael Myers was bound to get more than a few geeks’ goats. After all, in a post-Internet world where everyone’s an expert of cinema, tampering with the genius of Carpenter’s creation seemed ludicrous. No matter that the Michael Bay produced Chainsaw update ended up being something to celebrate, there was a metaphysical quality about this seemingly unnecessary revamp that had webheads ready to tussle. And when early script reviews foamed over too much backstory and not enough slice and dice, the worst fears of the fans were apparently about to be realized.

So where, exactly, was the subterfuge? Maybe it was the release date. After all, who offers a blood-filled terror title in the middle of summer? It could also be the continued marginalization of Zombie. While a few support his work behind the camera, there are others who hate the very notion that he’s even allowed to make movies. There’s the standard anticipation to reality ratio, a slippery sliding scale that measures viewer expectation against the usually crashing facts of a film. And then there’s an odd “X” factor, a kind of mob mentality that works like the juvenile piling on from the days of the old school yard. It seemed like, once the negativity began, critics came out of the woodwork to belittle and demean this film. Even those who never sully their synapses with a genre effort took time out of their otherwise busy screening schedule to rip the remake.

Yet all this antagonism fails to convey the aesthetic truth - Halloween 2007 is a great film. It’s the ballsy byproduct of a horror fan who ‘gets’ the concept of cinematic fear. While having to fill some mighty elephantine shoes, Zombie established his worth as a director of imaginative skill, and by bucking the trend toward defanging an original via a pointless remake, he proved that a new vision - especially a bold and bloody one - can countermand any artistic apprehensions. Still, the aura surrounding this breakthrough effort is confused and cold at best. It will take time to heal it’s damaged import. The rehabilitation of this movie can begin with the 18 December release of the essential two disc ‘unrated’ DVD. It argues for one man’s persistence in light of the numerous needs of a mainstream motion picture (and the studio supporting it).

If you don’t know the premise – and Zombie messes with it enough to warrant repetition – here’s how Michael Myers becomes a maniac. As a kid, young Michael is abused. His horrid stepdad undermines him emotionally, and his mother withholds love as part of her lousy lifestyle coping skills. He is also picked on at school, teased for his mom’s career choice (she’s an advertised stripper at a local dive), and the resulting bullying and bad home life have driven him to a very dark place. He kills his pets, and has frequent violent outbursts. One Halloween, he snaps, and the result is a half dozen corpses. Hospitalized under the care of Dr. Loomis, our jaundiced juvenile doesn’t comprehend the gravity of his actions. After another murderous attack, he turns silent for the next 15 years. On the eve of his prior atrocities, Michael escapes from the mental hospital. With one goal on his mind, and Loomis hot on his trail, he intends to make everyone pay for what they have done to him.

In his full length audio commentary, Zombie addresses all the issues that gave purists pause. He defends his use of backstory, explains the way actors gravitate toward their own interpretations of events, and rallies around the archetypes that make up standard scary movie mythos. It’s the DVD equivalent of a mea culpa combined with an “I told you so.” One thing is clear in this conversation - Zombie completely understands what he’s done. He too is an addict to the genre he works in, and wants to be as faithful to the demands of the horror film as anyone working in the category. Unfortunately, the wavelength he’s vibrating on clashes with the mindset of minions who believe fright got its bearings during the direct to video variables of the 1980s…and it’s a volatile cocktail that just doesn’t mix.

There’s also a second disc loaded with deleted scenes, an alternative ending, a three part look at how the movie was made, interviews with the cast and crew, and a featurette focusing on Zombie’s decision to use and the movie’s obsession with masks. One of the main sticking points for critics was the notion that Michael Myers, as a famed spree killer, has a background seemingly torn from an FBI primer on behavioral dysfunction. Yet in this piece, we discover a much deeper psychological stance. In many ways, the masks represent the link between the character as an angry child and what he will become as a psychotic stalker adult.

All this context argues for a movie much more complicated than initial reviews indicated. While comedy is always gauged on its ability to make audiences laugh, horror suffers from a similar kneejerk acumen - that being, if it doesn’t make you shiver, it’s somehow worthless. However, in a post-millennial world, where everyday existence bears out a palpable level of terror, it’s hard to create genuine dread. Reverence to a film type can be just as important as delivering the mandatory mannerisms. In the case of Halloween, we get a dimensional character study where emotions battle the eerie for total shocker dominance. That both elements exist, side by side, remains one of Zombie’s - and his film’s - greatest assets. 

With the focus on Michael as a young boy, and the obvious initial sequences that ask us to sympathize with his sickening psycho-in-training, Zombie is out to, of all things, humanize this assassin. Not to apologize for him, but merely explain. By turning him into a flesh and blood person, we’re better prepared for the senseless mayhem to follow. It’s hard to describe how effective the first act is. While he’s definitely doing nothing more than a hundred profilers and their explanations regarding the grotesque groundwork that predicts future slaughter, Zombie gets us to experience, and better yet, recognize, why these elements result in a desire for death.

At its core, this new version of Halloween focuses on those most primal of emotions – rage and fear. The characters here are not smart aleck a-holes scoffing as knives are brandished at their drunk and debauched faces. Instead, Zombie really emphasizes the inherent terror. Individuals plead and panic. They fight back in fits of blind horror and suffer in ways that are more realistic and repulsive than some showy stunt special effect. This is a very bloody and brutal film, but Zombie never goes for gratuity. Instead, it’s all a matter of elucidating and expressing how fright fuels a human’s instinctual desire to live. Conversely, Halloween is also heavy with anger. This is a mad movie, a narrative soaked in the infinite ire of a powerless persona seeking security – and some self-serving revenge – from a rotten, regressive existence. Michael is an abomination because he can only be satisfied by suffering.

At this point, it needs to be pointed out that the acting here is superb, with performances that really sell the entire sordid storyline. Oddly enough, Malcolm McDowell is one of the weaker links. He’s far from bad, but his Dr. Loomis is not given much to do except act as a catalyst for the last act police hunt. The addition of scenes in this “unrated director’s cut” adds more heft to his onscreen persona. On the other hand, the director’s wife, Sherri Moon Zombie, finally emerges from under her husband’s nepotistic shadow to give a wonderful turn as Michael’s messed up mom. There’s a tenderness and a tentativeness in how she interacts with her son that’s both horrifying and heartbreaking.

As the young killer, Daeg Faerch is fascinating. He does a great job of precariously balancing his underage demon between kid and killer concepts, and Scout Taylor-Compton is fine as Laurie “Scream Queen” Strode. Perhaps the biggest revelation among many is former Halloween heroine Danielle Harris. When she was younger, she played the original Michael’s niece, as part of the fourth and fifth installments of the franchise. Now, she is Annie Bracket, and her interaction with the new slayer is sensational. It’s a brave, bravura effort.

Still, upon reflection, it’s easy to see why people didn’t like this confrontational film, why one should feel sorry for Zombie. He was really lost in a no-win situation. On the one hand, anyone who believed Carpenter was something more than a joyful journeyman working out his Hitchcock fascinations with this 1978 low budget experiment obviously would detest the fact that his most famous early film received the crass commercial Tinsel Town treatment. They were destined to hate the results no matter how good or bad. On the other hand, there are the know-it-all members of fear nation whose endless hours in front of a VCR, absorbing every thriller from here to Helsinki, lend them the false credibility that only obsession can validate. Since they are superior in their informed (if insular) opinion, they have the implied right to ridicule this filmmaker and the man behind the mask.

In both cases, each group is missing the bigger picture. In the first film, John Carpenter was concentrating on the citizenry of Haddonfield. Michael was a monster – the real bogeyman – and for them, his reemergence was a question of survival. In Halloween circa 2007, Rob Zombie decided to focus on the fiend. As with most senseless crime, the victims are important, but not iconic. It’s the making of a murderer and the consequences of his descent into unfettered madness that certify its status as a classic. It also formed the foundation for one of the smartest, most shattering horror films ever. Unfortunately, few can see that now. It will take time for the truth to emerge - and when it does, Zombie’s efforts will finally be justified. Better late than never.


by Bill Gibron

15 Dec 2007

Every season, some film has to sacrifice itself for the greater good. Either it’s badly marketing, the release is poorly timed, or the concept just doesn’t connect with ticket buyers. Whatever the case, these misplaced movies are often left for dead, swept under the rug of retail for a quick turnaround DVD release. Some, on the other hand, are sleepers, quality efforts that could battle the bad luck that’s befallen them if only given a chance. In this case, the digital domain is a Godsend, allowing audiences who failed to find the film the first time around a second chance to discover its delights.

Thus we have the situation with the ping pong parody Balls of Fury. This little gem from August deserved better than the mediocre response it received both critically and commercially. Thanks to Universal and the current film format, it’s getting another shot at stardom. In standard overreaching athletic film style, we are introduced to a young Randy Daytona, known everywhere as the best table tennis player in the world. It’s the 1988 Olympic Games, and our hero is out to win the gold. Only two things are stopping him—his overly aggressive and wager-addicted dad Marine Sgt. Pete (an aging Robert Patrick) and an obnoxious competitor from the German Democratic Republic named Karl Wolfschtagg (co-writer Tom Lennon).

Defeated almost immediately, the young Daytona grows up to be a slovenly lounge act (and is played to perfection by Tony Winner Dan Fogler). When the FBI wants to investigate the criminal activities of a reclusive ping pong impresario named Feng (Christopher Walken), they try to hire Daytona to help. But he’s unsure that the agent assigned (a good George Lopez) is capable of carrying out the mission. Eventually, our down and out paddle jockey winds up at the Wong School. Run by the blind Master (a jovial James Hong), Daytona learns the ricochet shot ropes from sexy Maggie Wong (Maggie Q). Soon, he is ready to take on the best competitors on the planet as part of Feng’s illegal, underground tournament.

Right, you guessed it. It is Enter the Dragon with dorks. Director Ben Garant—who along with Lennon is responsible for such half-witted hilarity as Reno 911 and the beloved MTV sketch series The State - recognizes the hoops he has to jump through, and never once misses a formulaic beat. Yet it’s another show that the two were involved in, the highly underrated Comedy Central spoof Viva Variety! , that best coincides with what the duo accomplishes here.

For those not paying much attention, the obvious slapstick and dialed down dopiness earn the requisite guffaws. But there are several sensational throwaways, lines and moments where a tuned in viewer will find pinpoint lampoon accuracy. The most obvious example is Christopher Walken. It’s clear he was given a single mandate from the moviemakers: mock yourself. In line readings and adlibs that seemingly come from another consciousness, the king of quirk really ratchets up the purposeful oddness.

He is matched by a cavalcade of cameos, brilliant bits that really sell the film’s freakishness. Stand-up sage Patton Oswalt shows up as the most asthmatic mouth breathing feeb in the history of regional recreational sports. His single sequence is sensational. Also aces is Terry Crews as a muscle bound paddle head whose entire shtick centers around his inherent bad-assness. Aisha Tyler as the necessary villain sidekick eye candy is a Rosario Dawson role away from real stardom, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is officiously ominous as the henchman with a bad sense of direction. When you toss in the fine supporting work from Maggie Q (though she’s given little to do), Hong (Lo Pan LIVES!) and Lopez, you have a wonderful collection of creative supplements. Without a workable star, however, all of this would be for naught.

Luckily, Dan Fogler is dynamite. He’s an overnight—and slightly overweight—sensation that’s been busting his doughy rump in minor movies for far too long. Like a combination of Tim Curry, Curtis Armstrong, and some roadie for Molly Hatchet, he brings a kind of nuanced knuckleheadedness to what could easily have been a wash out waste of time. Randy Daytona has to come across as a lump, a loser, and likeable all within a single situation.

We want to root for him, but recognize he wears his limitations like the sweat-stained Def Leppard shirt he’s constantly sporting. Similar to any slacker savior, Daytona has to eventually ante up and set off his skills, and when Fogler mans a table tennis paddle, all bets are off. Sure, what we see is basically CGI and stunt work, but you choose to believe the illusion. That’s how important and how powerful this actor’s work is here. Don’t be surprised when, decades from now, his celebrated resume cites Balls of Fury as his first legitimate step into the limelight.

Unfortunately, the movie loses direction about two thirds of the way in. It doesn’t turn bad or horribly unwatchable. Instead, it appears as if Lennon and Garant simply ran out of inspiration, and decided to tread celluloid for a few scenes before righting the cinematic ship and sailing the satire home. The ending is an excellent revamp of the great fortress escape stereotype, and the electrified ping pong armor showdown is a nice touch. Still, right about the time Daytona learns of Feng’s “preference” in concubines, and just before the long awaited rematch between Wolfschtagg and our hero, there’s some significant downtime.

In fact, the whole film has a slight truncated feel, as if honed by one too many trips to the editing bay and far too many focus group/industry screenings. With a potent premise like this, the filmmakers could have easily squeezed another 10 minutes into the movie and no one would have really cared. That’s why the new DVD is so wonderful. Packed with seven deleted scenes, an alternate ending, and two EPK style making-ofs, we are given a great amount of context for a film that’s begging for a little more backstory. 

With its unabashed love of all things idiotic and a humorous heart situated in the proper place, Balls of Fury could have been a classic contender. Maybe 10 years ago, in a less than impressive season that didn’t see a certain industry juggernaut ‘Apatow’ everything in its path, that would have been. And the film really does deserve it. You’ll be reading a lot of reviews that marginalize this effort, reducing it to a lower than lowest common denominator and wondering over who, exactly, would find any of this even remotely funny. To turn the tables for a moment, it’s the same sentiment that could be offered for Lennon and Garant’s entire career.

They were responsible for the painfully dull Night at the Museum, and put the NASCAR spin on the unnecessary Love Bug remake. They even perpetrated The Pacifier and Let’s Go to Prison on an unwitting ticket buying public. So either they’re the smartest simpletons in all of screenwriting, or they’re the dumbest geniuses ever to cash a series of Tinsel Town paychecks. It’s an ambiguous dichotomy that makes Balls of Fury an incomplete success - or perhaps, a nicely noble failure. While conceivably not quite a sleeper, it’s definitely a surprise.


by Bill Gibron

13 Dec 2007

For the weekend beginning 14 December, here are the films in focus:

I Am Legend [rating: 6]

I Am Legend is a depressing experience. For everything it gets right, dozens of things go horribly, horribly wrong

Richard Matheson should have never written his now classic genre novel I Am Legend. Over the four decades since its release, great names in horror (Vincent Price) and mainstream cinema (Charleton Heston) have tried to bring the book to life. In the case of the Italian made The Last Man on Earth, Price had to deal with poor production values and budgetary concerns. And Heston’s Omega Man tried too hard to be faithful to both the creature community as well as standard ‘70s speculation. Now comes Will Smith, Mr. Summer Blockbuster, trying to establish a new seasonal shilling post with his winter waste of an adaptation. Scribbled by that talentless hack Akiva Goldsman and directed with little flair for the epic by Constantine‘s Francis Lawrence, what wants to be a potent post-apocalyptic shocker ends up as bereft of energy as the deserted New York streets depicted.  read full review…

Margot at the Wedding [rating: 7]

Busy, overdrawn, and working much too hard to get to its less than impressive point, Margot at the Wedding is entertainment as inference.

To steal a line from one Homer J. Simpson, familial dysfunction is the Washington Generals of the independent film genre. When writers and directors want to work outside the parameters of the mainstream, they typically use their own autobiographical angst to portray parents as insensitive louts, brothers and sisters as distant and depressed, and their own immediate relatives as messed up, maudlin burdens. From their perspective, there is no such thing as a happy brood. Instead, every clan is a craven collection of psychosis just waiting for an event to well up and erupt. In the case of Noah Baumbach, it’s a marriage that causes the commotion. Unfortunately, what happens in the days since the arrival of Margot at the Wedding add up to very little that’s believable or enjoyable.  read full review…

Alvin and the Chipmunks [rating: 2]

Alvin and the Chipmunks is, what we call in the profession, a “-less” film. This means it’s point-less, joy-less, soul-less, and worth-less.

When one reviews the history of pop culture fads and phenomenon, the unlikely popularity of Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. (aka ‘Dave Seville’) and his studio experiment known as The Chipmunks remains a certified oddity. By speeding up the tape during the recording of an otherwise silly tune (1958’s “The Witch Doctor”) the struggling songwriter came up with a gimmick that wowed a pre-Beatlemania public. Using the woodland creatures as a hook, he crafted the hilarious holiday classic “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”. From then on, the imaginary trio took on all subjects, from ‘60s pop to ‘90s urban country. When Bagdasarian died in 1972, his son carried on the family legacy. After numerous cartoon incarnations, Fox is finally releasing a ‘live action’ version of the squeaky voiced combo. Based on the results, daddy should come back and haunt his misguided progeny ASAP.  read full review…

Look [rating: 7]

Like Short Cuts absent Altman’s metaphysical heft, Look is an oddly compelling little film.

There is no such thing as privacy. Stop kidding yourself. From the moment you leave the house to the second you step back in your supposedly secure abode, the world’s many Big Brothers are constantly watching you. There are cameras on street corners, lenses trained on you as you drive, fill up, or pay your daily tolls. Once at work, bosses monitor your computer, gauging Internet access for abuses and reading email to gain a managerial advantage. In the mall, every fitting room is monitored, every store a shoplifting prevention zone with more manpower than on a military base. Even our leisure is a source of surveillance, marketers and advertisers buying credit histories and charge plate purchases info as a means of making informed demographic decisions. Yet as writer/director Adam Rifkin points out in his intriguing new film Look, life goes on - and we seem oblivious to the fact that someone is constantly watching. read full review…

The Singing Revolution [rating: 7]

Though it proposes to discuss how music made all the difference in Estonia’s fight for independence, The Singing Revolution is actually more focused on the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that helped determine the end of Russian influence in the Baltic region.

The fall of the Berlin Wall. The break up of the Soviet Union. The independence of the many former Communist satellites. To Western eyes, these were events that were never going to happen in their lifetime…or even their children’s lifetime. Yet with the introduction of glasnost and perestroika by then Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the openness and tolerance presented as part of the new policy led many dissidents to test the limits of their ruling regimes. What makes the case of Estonia’s fight for independence so unusual is that it wasn’t based in acts of overt defiance. Instead, they relied on history, tradition, and a rich musical heritage to start their own Singing Revolution - and once it began, there was nothing any army could do to stop it.  read full review…

//Mixed media

U2's 'The Joshua Tree' Tour Reminds the Audience of their Politics

// Notes from the Road

"The Joshua Tree tour highlights U2's classic album with an epic and unforgettable new experience.

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