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by Bill Gibron

24 Jul 2008


After last week’s Bat-mania, it’s time for Hollywood to trek on, unveiling yet another array of tent pole titles. For 25 July, here are the films in focus:

X-Files: I Want to Believe [rating: 6]

In a summer that’s seen its fair share of outsized spectacle, everything about X-Files: I Want to Believe is somber, subdued, and in the end rather minor.

While some may consider it blasphemous, The X-Files was really nothing more than somber serious science fiction in an era overrun by otherwise slapdash space operatics. It channeled V, various conspiracy theories, and just enough Night Gallery ghoulishness to keep geeks glued to the set. When it failed to fully deliver on its multi-layered mythology (are you listening, Lost?) viewers began packing up and leaving the speculation to the likes of nerds like Whedon. Now, a TV lifetime since it’s last legitimate episode (and a previous film that filled in some midpoint alien invasion blanks), agents Mulder and Scully are back…except they no longer work for the FBI…and they no longer oversee the investigation of the X-Files…and this latest sequel has nothing to do with the show’s previous extraterrestrial cabal. Huh? read full review…

 

Step Brothers [rating: 7]

It’s hard to deny how absolutely hilarious Step Brothers really is. You may feel guilty as Hell for laughing at it, but it definitely does earn its cheap and childish giggles

Embarrassing as it may seem, we’ve all been there - laughing when the fat man splits his pants, fighting off hysterics after an old lady farts. Even the most erudite among us can’t deny that, on occasion, an expletive suits a situation far better then a calmly thought out rejoinder. Let’s face it - buried deep within all of us is a primordial appreciation of the infantile. Whether it is monkeys flinging their own poo or babies whizzing in their parents’ somehow shocked faces, the scatological and the sophomoric twinge an ancient aspect of our genetic make-up.  read full review…

by Bill Gibron

24 Jul 2008


Embarrassing as it may seem, we’ve all been there - laughing when the fat man splits his pants, fighting off hysterics after an old lady farts. Even the most erudite among us can’t deny that, on occasion, an expletive suits a situation far better then a calmly thought out rejoinder. Let’s face it - buried deep within all of us is a primordial appreciation of the infantile. Whether it is monkeys flinging their own poo or babies whizzing in their parents’ somehow shocked faces, the scatological and the sophomoric twinge an ancient aspect of our genetic make-up.

Perhaps that’s why, in spite of our own civilized better judgment, the newest Will Ferrell/Adam McKay effort, Step Brothers, is so funny. Not only does it take foulness to a whole new level of arrested adolescence, but it actually banks on our love of such untenable tastelessness. The storyline is deceptively simple. While at a medical convention, Dr. Robert Doback meets Nancy Huff. Since both are single, they fall into an easy relationship. Fast forward a few months, and they are getting married. This really cramps the style of their sons - both of whom are middle-aged and still living at home.

Brennan Huff is a wannabe singer who refuses to accept his Mom’s new man. He also hates that his younger brother Derek consistently undermines his station and self-esteem. Uber-slacker Dale despises his Dad’s decision. After all, this means that a lady will be part of the Doback design, and this means much less musk-scented machismo. When they are forced to live together as step-brothers, sibling rivalries instantly come crashing to the fore. The result is 80 minutes of profanity, pranks, and the kind of over the top physical shtick that hasn’t been seen since Inspector Clouseau battled his manservant Kato for dominance over their Parisian apartment.

It’s hard to deny how absolutely hilarious Step Brothers really is. You may feel guilty as Hell for laughing at it, but it definitely does earn its cheap and childish giggles. Like a lewd, later day classic comedy team, Ferrell and symbiotic performance partner John C. Reilly make a terrific post-modern mess. They play off each other in ways that signal their same wavelength wantonness, and it’s clear that neither man is a hostage to current trends in male body typing. Though clearly created as a vehicle for both, it’s equally hard to imagine two other actors who could fit as easily into Brennan and Dale’s skid-marked shorts.

Step Brothers is, in essence, cinematic stand-up, all set-ups and payoffs. There is no real narrative nuance on display, the closest we get to reality being the foulmouthed fight between the four members of this cobbled together clan. Even the inclusion of Brennan’s self-aggrandizing brother Derek (a nicely nauseating turn by Adam Scott) is just the fuel for more prurient punchlines. While actual adults Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins definitely get to flex their foul mouthed muscles, it’s purely Ferrell and Reilly’s show - and they make the most of it. As they did in the delightful Talladega Nights, the pair swaps specialties, giving each other the opportunity to shine in ways that feel unique and unusual even if they are merely the same old scatology.

Of course, films like this need nasty set pieces to manufacture return adolescent word of mouth, and Step Brothers has plenty. Ferrell is beaten up and forced to lick a petrified dog turd…by a bunch of grade schoolers. Reilly gets the hand banana treatment from Derek’s wife. Perhaps most memorably, a conflict between the ‘boys’ results in Ferrell wiping a particularly private area all over Reilly’s drum kit…and the camera never flinches. Some might call it repulsive, but McKay understands the allure of such repugnance. In a world where Jackass frequently reminds us that our greatest comedic asset is ourselves, such gonzo groin antics are to be expected. Making them anything other than nauseating takes a certain cinematic skill, something the cast here completely understands.

Ferrell is always getting ribbed for playing the same stunted adult, a manchild incapable of reacting to situations in a grown-up, non-goofy manner. Here, he stands accused, but also adds a nice layer of pathos to his overgrown teen’s social IQ. We expect this from him and he doesn’t disappoint. Reilly is the real revelation however, if only because he moves so effortlessly from serious actor (The Aviator, Magnolia) to roles of outright idiocy. Here, Dale is the more defensive element of the pairing, the midlife crisis kid that fails to understand exactly why he has to conform to a life mandated set of rules. Together, they spark the kind of interest that gets us past the lax story designs and last act upheaval.

As a director, McKay doesn’t get a lot of credit. This happens a lot in motion picture comedy. Everyone points to Judd Apatow as some sort of cinematic savior, but this fails to take into consideration how adept he is behind the camera. The same goes for the man responsible for such broad scoped efforts as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and Talladega Nights. Here, the avenues are much smaller, but this doesn’t mean McKay lowers his aim. There is an ambition here that’s hard to shake, a sense that the filmmaker, in conjunction with his leads, wants to stretch old school slapstick into something almost surreal. Step Brothers is indeed a mind boggler, the kind of laughfest experience that has you shaking your head in dumbfounded disbelief at what has you giggling.

Naturally, any viewer offended by the notion of 40 year old men acting like they’re 14, including all the summer camp crudeness that accompanies the prospect, will despise Step Brothers. To them, it will be yet another example of bodily fluids replacing wit as a means of getting already shell shocked and desensitized audiences to laugh. But that would miss many of the film’s undeniable pleasures. Sure, there is something inherently sick about seeing a balding buffoon kicking the crap out of little kids, and nothing defensible can be found in a grown man groveling like a grounded middle schooler. But Step Brothers is a pristine example of vulgarity taken to endearing extremes. Check your sense of propriety at the door and simply go with the foul flow. Save the shame for another.

by Bill Gibron

24 Jul 2008


While some may consider it blasphemous, The X-Files was really nothing more than somber serious science fiction in an era overrun by otherwise slapdash space operatics. It channeled V, various conspiracy theories, and just enough Night Gallery ghoulishness to keep geeks glued to the set. When it failed to fully deliver on its multi-layered mythology (are you listening, Lost?) viewers began packing up and leaving the speculation to the likes of nerds like Whedon. Now, a TV lifetime since it’s last legitimate episode (and a previous film that filled in some midpoint alien invasion blanks), agents Mulder and Scully are back…except they no longer work for the FBI…and they no longer oversee the investigation of the X-Files…and this latest sequel has nothing to do with the show’s previous extraterrestrial cabal. Huh?

When a bureau agent goes missing, the Washington bigwigs decide to track down former FBI agent Dana Scully, now working in her previous profession as a doctor. They hope she will lead them to the infamous (and disgraced) Fox Mulder. Seems a convicted pedophile, a former priest named Fr. Joe, claims to have a psychic link to the victim, and the current agency has no time for such supernatural falderal. Under the guidance of agents Whitney and Drummy, the former X-Filers head out into the cold West Virginia wilderness, defrocked clergyman in tow. There, they begin to unravel a sinister plot involving missing persons, incomplete visions, and severed limbs. Meanwhile, this return to ‘darkness’ has Scully questioning her connection to Mulder. It doesn’t help that she has a terminally ill patient to contend with…and a hospital administration who wants to merely give up on the boy.

In a summer that’s seen its fair share of outsized spectacle, everything about X-Files: I Want to Believe is somber, subdued, and in the end rather minor. After witnessing the Shakespearean angst of a masked vigilante battling a clown faced psychopath, or the reinvented spy superlatives of a literal ‘iron’ man, a standard serial killer procedural is just not that significant. It’s not that head honcho Chris Carter doesn’t try to artificially load his film with significance. The subtext surrounding this latest stand alone installment (in line with the ‘monster of the week’ work the series initially traded in) deals with several current hot button topics - stem cell research, black market organ transplants, pedophilic priests, gay marriage…even George Bush gets a gentle, sound cue tweaking. Yet all of this social sturm and drang can’t compensate for a narrative that’s made-for-TV friendly, and decidedly out of its medium.

Carter seems convinced that this less showy Silence of the Lambs will truly resonate with audiences. He treats every confrontation - either between Mulder and Scully, Scully and Fr. Joe, Mulder and anyone within earshot - as if the fate of the free world rests on the very next syllable. He keeps his clues close to the vest, making it almost impossible for viewers to follow along (or eventually foil) his dénouement. He gets a lot of mileage out of the bleak Vancouver landscape, and yet the snow-covered vistas hide more than just the film’s muddled motives. I Want To Believe seems locked in a kind of entertainment permafrost, feeling that elements that made heads spin and tongues wag 15 years ago will still seem intriguing in these days of torture porn and gorehound gratuity.

Indeed, the best material here ignores the mystery fully, and instead focuses on the complicated and moralistic relationship between Mulder and Scully. Since this film takes place AFTER the end of the series (Fight the Future was set between seasons five and six), there are lots of references to certain interpersonal cliffhangers. The fate of William, the trumped up charges against our hero, the need to stay in hiding, and the reason behind Scully’s reluctance to rejoin the cause are all addressed, and stalwarts Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny are so familiar with these characters that they nail every emotional beat. Sure, these scenes stop the narratives formulaic forward motion, but without them, I Want to Believe would be nothing more than a run of the mill, slightly more macabre CSI.

The rest of the cast confirm this. Amanda Peet is given the thankless job of playing the agent still willing to give Mulder and Scully a chance, while Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner is reduced to slowburning as the surly ‘bad cop’. Bill Connolly’s boy buggering cleric is all fright wig gray and Scottish brogue, lacking the depth needed to make Fr. Joe anything other than a plot point. Perhaps the biggest mistake a movie like this makes is turning the terror into an unseen item. Since we don’t know who or what is behind the disappearances, and don’t get enough information to connect the uncovered body parts, we have to wait to the final 15 minutes before anything clicks. When it does, we see an intriguing potential in the premise - and recognize how it was more or less scuttled for other storyline significance.

Oddly enough, all would have been forgiven had co-writer/director Carter (who redeems himself in both behind the scenes arenas) simply renamed this project and cast Lance Henriksen as prophet/profiler Frank Black. This is much more a Millennium movie (the horribly underrated X-Files follow up from 1996) than something Scully and Mulder look comfortable in. And in our current political clime, the dour face of a man who’s tuned into the approaching Apocalypse makes for a much better shock conduit. While some fans have longed for the return of the more horror-tinged side of the series’ set-up, the alien invasion conspiracy - and its inconsistent folklore - is what drives most memories of (and messageboard showdowns over) the show.

As a stand alone title, something to remind fans of how chilling The X-Files used to be, I Want to Believe does a decent job. And when compared to other similarly styled thrillers, including recent rejects like Untraceable and 88 Minutes, it is definitely a clear cut above. But in a season where a sort of creative classicism rules, resting on one’s laurels just won’t do. X-Files: I Want to Believe, for all its interpersonal intrigue and controversial context, feels like the proverbial little fish in a very, very big cinematic sea. No matter its many strengths, it just can’t compete. 

by Bill Gibron

23 Jul 2008


How do you like your comedy - serious (meaning witty without being wanton) or scatological (bring on the feces and the farts!)? Do you prefer your laughter driven by sparkling dialogue, insightful characterization, and tasty interpersonal bon mots, or do you favor giggles glazed over with expletives, bodily fluids, and the fun that can be found in both? It’s a contention that’s as old as the genre itself. For centuries, jesters have lived (and often died) by mocking the rich, ribbing the poor, and playing to both’s baser instincts when the subtler forms of funny didn’t do it. In the movies, it seems the two are often mutually exclusive. After all, no one mistakes The Marx Brothers for the Three Stooges. With the sensationally sophomoric Step Brothers hitting theaters tomorrow (25 July), it’s time to look back on some illustrations of how clever and crude in combination - or C3’s for short - end up being a source of undeniable hilarity. 

While the latest from Adam McKay, Will Ferrell, and newest creative soulmate John C. Reilly is all foul mouthed frat boy toilet trade-offs (and damn funny in the process), it’s really nothing more than an extended series of splatter jobs. There’s no important message, no attempt to find reality in its ridiculousness. Yet there are many actual examples of where the two seemingly divergent styles of comedy have meshed quite effectively. Some would even argue that, when done properly, the clever/crude combo gives rise to another alliterative adjective - classic (anyone for C4?). Below are just a few non-inclusive illustrations of the best of both wit worlds expertly fused together. The only comic continuity present is that both types are offered equally, and balanced to make sure neither completely overwhelms the others. If one or the other is out of whack, they fall back into their home category for easier examination.

And let’s get some debatable punchliners out of the way right up front, shall we? The Producers? Too brilliant to be considered crude, even given the bad taste hippie Hitler subtext. There’s Something About Mary? Jokey juvenilia without a stitch of socially redeeming value. The Blues Brothers? The outsized physical shtick and stunt set pieces override the craven culture steals from the black community. Animal House? Something serious? Come on…it’s college after all. Certainly, one could go out on a limb and champion subversive standard bearers like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, groove on the gore-laced lunacy of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead or Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, or defend the dick driven delights of something like Superbad. But when it comes to the C3’s, the comparison goes beyond good. There must be a visible inclusion of both the dignified and the dumb within final framework. Let’s begin with:

Knocked Up

While many people write off this Judd Apatow masterwork as just another example of his communal comedic approach (same group of actors, different storyline and setting), there is really much more going on here than slackers obsessed with sex. The message of maturity, about facing life’s unexpected events with candor and personal power are unmistakable. Toss in a few priceless takes on marriage and parenting, and a group of computer geeks that give both delineations a bad name, and you’ve got one of the greatest laugh-fests ever. If Mr. Apatow is remembered for nothing else, this stellar reflection of reality circa 2007 will stand as his best.

Blazing Saddles

You can tell Mel Brooks meant to be confrontational when he helmed this racially charged laugh riot. After all, he was working from material co-written by Richard Pryor, and a few of the original titles for this crazy comic western were Black Bart and Tex X. This remains one of the few non-blaxploitation films to drop the “N” word with intense regularity (up to 70 times, almost always exclusively by whites), and even today, it’s depiction of Old West prejudice still stings. Beyond anything PC, this is one terrific satire, a film that competently comments on the civil rights movement while incorporating a campfire sequence filled with air biscuit floating cowboys.

Female Trouble

John Waters always wanted to make a mass murder melodrama, a combination of Douglas Sirk and Charles Manson. Inspired by Helter Skelter participant Tex Watson, he succeeded with this outrageous sudser, the story of Dawn Davenport, her retarded daughter Taffy, and her rags to riches to repugnance career as a ‘crime is beauty’ supermodel. Loaded with the kind of dialogue that bears constant repetition and the sort of over the top plot points that make Peyton Place seem like The Seventh Seal, this bad taste treat only gets better with age. Along with the equally unsettling (but not quite as funny) Pink Flamingos, it proves Waters’ reputation as the genuine Prince of Puke. 

Tootsie

Before you start squawking and defending this brilliant Dustin Hoffman romp as a pure example of serious, straightforward comedy, remember one very important thing. This movie is entirely premised on one of the most hackneyed, lowbrow facets in all of humor - a guy in a dress. Drag has been a staple of the genre since the all male days of the ancient Greeks, and from burlesque to Benny Hill, it’s been viewed as the cheap and easy way to tweak an audience’s funny bone. In this case, all parties involved raise the vaudeville stunt into something sublime. And don’t forget the less than subtle amorous advances of the dirty old man soap star. Now that’s disgusting!

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut

Kids spewing profanity. Movies as bad influences. Grassroots campaigns against flatulent Canadians. A useless war fought over stupid USA entitlements. Political hot potatoes tied tenuously to the First Amendment and the right to free speech. These are just a few of the areas creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone mine for this flawless big screen adaptation of their hit animated TV series. Taking on the then simmering subject of the media’s influence on the young (Columbine had just occurred four months prior) the duo drove a massive middle finger directly into the eye of dim-witted pundits and self-proclaimed know-it-alls everywhere. It remains the best miscreant musical of all time.

by Bill Gibron

22 Jul 2008


It’s time to get out the black wreaths and the ceremonial armbands, especially if, like this critic, you grew up on a steady diet of Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, and their exemplary movie review program Sneak Previews/At The Movies. With the duel announcements this week that Richard Roeper (the replacement for the late Chicago Tribune icon) was leaving the show, and that Roger Ebert was done with his participation, Disney finally felled the giant they’d been gunning for since cancer caused the Sun Times scribe to walk away from his on-air participation. It’s no secret that the House of Mouse wanted the series gone - or at the very least, significantly cut back, reconfigured for a new demographic, and bolstered by a bigger piece of the potential pie (Ebert maintains the symbolic “Thumbs”, At the Movies greatest inadvertent asset). Now they’ve got their wish, much to the dismay and detriment of the serious filmgoer fanbase.

While the pro/con summarization of cinema clearly goes against the intellectual approach to film (movies are much more than a recommendation or rejection), the format created by the legendary Midwest columnists would come to symbolize the video age vitality of the medium. With more and more access to movies - thanks in part to technological advances like cable and VCRs - there needed to be a standard bearer for the post-modern motion picture storm. Enter Gene and Roger, two seasoned salts who braved the bad weather of offering opinions on what many saw as a no win, highly personal proposition. After all, just like music and humor, entertainment evaluation can never be communal or completely universal. Still, they tried, and in the interim, they created consensus, addressed issues threatening the artform (colorization, rampant and gratuitous violence) and even stepped in it now and again.

With Siskel’s passing in 1999, many felt the show would simply fade away and die. Ebert tired diligently to maintain the profile, and after a series of guest hosts and high profile ‘auditions’, he settled on Mr. Roeper. To many outside of Chi-town, he was an odd choice. While the native was born in the city of big shoulders, his columns (and eventual reviews) were of regional interest, mostly. When he was tagged to replace Siskel in 2000, he met with some initial resistance. Some saw him as too mainstream, preaching the studio press kit while his partner kept the criticism ‘real’. Over the years, Roeper has gained the respect of both the industry and the audience. When Ebert himself took ill in 2002, the relative newbie grabbed the reigns of the again shaken showcase and continued to foster its importance.

And now, it is no more - at least, not in the way we remember it. In some ways, it’s unbelievably sad the way this all happened. A few months back, there was a dispute over whether the show could actually use the infamous hand gesture. Ebert, who maintained the rights to most of the format with Siskel’s widow Marlene, felt slighted by Disney’s lowball figure to re-up their interest, and so the pair prevented At the Movies from giving the thumb. Then, this year, with the improving critic returning to his 41 year long print gig, it looked like the non-renewal writing was on the wall. Roeper’s “retirement” from the show is further illustration that, aside from certain financial considerations, Uncle Walt’s ‘yes’ men were no longer interested in keeping the series alive. Both men issued press releases, taking the high road in what was, for both, an understandably painful professional chapter.

The mangy Magic Kingdom proposes to have the last laugh, however. Just yesterday 22 July, the studio announced a “new” version of At the Movies featuring E!‘s Ben Lyons and Turner Classic Movies’ Ben Mankiewicz. While they hope the fresh faces will bring in a “younger, hipper” audience, the 26 and 41 years olds, respectively, have little else to offer. Both are considered seasoned professionals, and yet they lack the background, and more importantly, the perceived authority of Roger and Gene. Remember, Sneak Previews was a PBS program specific to the Chicago area before hitting syndication. And both critics were well into their time stint as print critics. Lyons is just a few years into his current career path, while Mankiewicz can rely on his illustrious heritage (related to Frank, Herman, and Joseph L.) to buy him some early respect.

One wonders how the reduced viewership who made the show a must-watch requirement before hitting the Cineplex feel about both moves. Ten or fifteen years ago, yours truly would have been devastated. Even though he frequently had to fish about to discover what elusive cable station was syndicating the show (and when), Siskel and Ebert were an essential aesthetic guide. Sure, they could be incredibly wrong (Gene adored Saturday Night Fever, while ‘Uncle’ Roger continues to hate on the brilliant Blue Velvet), but more times than not, they tempered their judgment with insights that smacked of that critical rarity - perspective and insight. Rare was their’s a declarative or assertive opinion. They always provided analysis with their sometimes snap judgments. Siskel championed polished and professional scripts, while Ebert longed for directors capable of commandeering the various nuances of cinema.

Yet as with all film journalism, the duo appear destined to be boiled down to a rather superfluous set of symbols. As with numerical ratings or alphabetical/iconographic scores, the thumbs were a concession, a way of giving the casual filmgoer a shorthand commercial calibration. If Siskel and Ebert gave a movie “two thumbs up”, it was probably very good. If they declared the opposite, you could easily write it off your list. When they differed, and they did so frequently, an inferred sort of interactivity was necessitated. You had to match up your own idealized view of what movies meant with the men on the screen, and then indirectly gauge accordingly. Many remember the memorable arguments the pair would participate in, each knowing their particular view made the most sense. Over time, bias and age would play a part, but for many, it was all about those up/down digits.

With Internet illiteracy slowly corroding the world of legitimate publishing (and the accompanying professionalism of actual writers), it’s sad to realize that the ‘yes/no’ dynamic has become At the Movies’ lasting legacy. As stated before, no website which offers reviews does so without such shortcuts. Rotten Tomatoes has the whole “fresh/rotten” routine, while others provide stars, popcorn kernels, or film reels as a means of giving you the gist of the scribe’s ideas. Turning 600 to 1000 words into a series of cartoon clapboards may feed the masses, but it’s also a lazy man’s means of understanding cinema - and if there was one thing Siskel and Ebert (and eventually Roeper) were not, it’s indolent. They took their job seriously, even when it looked like VHS (and then DVD) would reduce all cinema to a series of direct to tape travesties.

Business models are entitled to treat inventory in the most effective way possible, capitalizing on its worth while making sure it doesn’t depreciate enough to warrant a sell-off. In the case of Disney and At the Movies, they clearly believed in two indisputable facts - Ebert was the show and Ebert wasn’t coming back. For all his syndicated steadiness, Roeper never felt irreplaceable. He was a place holder - albeit a damn fine one - for some ethereal pairing that could never occur. No one could replace the show’s curmudgeonly conscious (which Siskel clearly was), and Ebert’s importance to the mediums he helped maintain meant that his continued departure invalidated the show’s worth. No offense to anyone involved, but the At the Movies of 2008 - excellent guest hosts and repeat reviewers or not - was not the series of 1978, or 88, or 98.

Naturally, none of that matters now. Both Ebert and Roeper have vowed to soldier on, and with new on air outlets opening up all the time (HD NET, Reelz cable channel) there are soft places for both to land. And Mickey has his revamp, which while already starting to stink, at least seems evocative of the show’s spirit. Whatever happens, film criticism has lost one of its most important links to mainstream meaningfulness. Thanks to the talents and tireless efforts of Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and Richard Roeper, an otherwise out of touch audience had a reliable source of EPK-less, non-Infotainment Tonight-lite movie information to draw on. Call it the continued tabloiding of TV, or the web’s final revenge on the Fourth Estate, but the absence of At the Movies will definitely be felt. Even in the most inclusive environment, there needs to be a leader. Here’s hoping this is one champion that’s down, but not out. 

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