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Saturday, Jul 21, 2007


The monster movie has certainly changed a lot over the last 70 years – especially when it comes to special effects. Where once creatures had to be cast out of clay and maneuvered frame by frame to create a static sense of stop motion, or real live lizards festooned with fake fins were utilized amongst miniaturized backdrops, our current crop of film imagineers can simply call on their computer to create eye-popping examples of otherworldly terror. Jurassic Park more or less proved that such a strategy could result in box office gold, and now Gwoemul (The Host, in English) is aiming for the same dollar-rich demographic. Granted, it’s nothing more than The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms assisted by lots of motherboard manipulation, but it’s a wonderful reminder of the genre’s potential and effectiveness.


After the Han River is polluted by a premeditated chemical spill (thank you very much, United States!), a strange sea creature, about the size of a city bus, starts stalking the sewers (and streets) of Seoul, South Korea. An attack on a riverside retreat affects Park Gang-Du, a lazy freeloader who helps his dad run a local snack stand. In an instant, the slacker’s daughter Hyun-seo is taken, and the rest of the family – including an ex-social activist and a beloved female athlete - are in a panic. They also end up on the run from the law. Seems the beast is considered the “host” for a nasty virus, and a major quarantine is in place. Because of their interaction with the monster, the Parks become wanted fugitives. Things get even more complicated when Gang-Du discovers that Hyun-seo may still be alive. He and his siblings must find her before the Americans use something called “Agent Yellow” to kill the creature – effectively wiping out everything and anyone within close proximity of the bio-weapon’s path.


It’s the set up for a standard search and rescue narrative – something lost having to be regained under the auspices of personal gumption and an impending threat. But because this movie was made in Korea, and not inside Hollywood’s focus group fancying mandates, The Host (new to DVD from Mangnolia Home Entertainment) tends to avoid most of the genre’s obvious pitfalls. Indeed, it generates a great deal more interest in areas your typical studio blockbuster avoids, while sticking rather closely to the formula of your standard Bert I. Gordon ‘beast on the loose’ B-picture. With the added weight of CGI (this movie just would not work with some other kind of F/X) and the excellent use of Seoul’s gleaming post-modern metropolis backdrop, we end up with something unique. While the action/adventure aspects of The Host may seem familiar, it has major distinctions that make it wholly original.


The first is the level of sentiment employed to enhance the storyline. It is manipulation at its most enjoyable – direct, unfettered and completely shameless. When deadbeat daddy Park Gang-Du (actor Kang-ho Song looking like a chunky skate rat) looses his daughter in the opening monster melee, we really feel for him. Similarly, when the rest of the family shows up to share their (and give him) grief, the outpouring of pain is exaggerated and majestic. It is obvious that director Joon-ho Bong is elevating the sequence to increase its comic value, but the performances from his actors really sell a sense of sorrow and sadness. Later on, when Gang-Du learns that his daughter, Hyun-seo, may still be alive, his drive to discover the truth and set things straight carries the film past many of its more problematic points.


All of this is purposefully designed on the director’s part. In a genial and informative commentary included on the DVD, Bong explains that he wanted to intentionally thwart convention, to show the beast early on, to make the family fragile and dysfunctional, to emphasize the heart and not the horror. To him, the genre is already submerged in stereotypical concepts and run of the mill approaches. That is why The Host seems so fresh and invigorating. Unlike other recent examples of this kind of movie – mostly found late at night on the Sci-Fi Channel - this is a fright fest more interested in the spaces in between the spectacle than the set pieces themselves. Almost from the first frames, you can see an entirely different cultural mindset at work.


Indeed, the differences can be night and day staggering at times. The police are portrayed as totally corrupt, ignoring the pleas of a plaintive father as the ravings of a lunatic. To make matters worse, they appear capable of action only when a bribe is involved. Similarly, the US is painted as a country of brash, international thugs. They roll over the Koreans, giving orders while simultaneously hiding crucial information in a conspiratorial X-Files like manner. And Bong bobbles things a bit as well. Some of the ancillary characters never pay off, or worse, feel included to complement an eventual popcorn movie action showdown (like Gang-Du’s sister, the Olympic medalist…in archery…wink, wink). We keep waiting for the time spent on them to deliver some manner of denouement. In the end, they are merely cogs in a well-meaning genre effort.


Still, The Host has a lot going for it. It is absolutely side-splitting at times. Like the best Bollywood cinema which has no problem incorporating cinematic styles for the sake of a storyline, it uses spoof, slapstick, some pointed political commentary, and a lot of sunny schlock value to keep the entertainment factor lively and up front. This is not a deep thinking film, not a real environmentalist mandate like some of Japan’s Godzilla films can be. On the other hand, this is not a scary film. Not at all. Sure, we experience some minor dread during the rescue sequences, but Bong is too upfront with his fright ideals to trick us into terror. This is also not an action packed epic. The overall filmmaking tends to be more subtle than spectacular in dealing with the monster attacks. According to the DVD’s bonus material, this is exactly the way the director wanted it.


All minor quibbles aside, this is still an excellent example of how foreign filmmakers are taking Western cinema and deconstructing it point by motion picture point. First, the Chinese literally reinvented the crime drama, the Hong Kong style of operatic gunplay eventually giving way to a more metaphysical approach. Then the Japanese stepped in and explored the old fashioned eeriness of ghosts and spirits with the now evaporating J-horror craze. Korea is currently coming up with intriguing combinations, with everything from The Tale of Two Sisters to The Host collapsing categories while dealing with concrete cinematic staples. Call it Leviathan Goes Nutzoid or The Terror of the Truck-Sized Tadpole, but this entertaining monster movie will definitely satisfy your creature feature needs.


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Friday, Jul 20, 2007


It’s intriguing how certain topics remain elusive cinematic subject matter. The Civil War, for example, has yet to be translated into the epic struggle for national identity that the conflict highlighted. Instead, it’s a well loved Ken Burns documentary, with lots of minor motion picture pick-ups along the way. Similarly, the end of the world – Bible style – has a stifled creative history. Unless you’re a televangelist looking to craft more direct to DVD donation fodder, most filmmakers won’t touch the idea with a set of seven seals. And then there is Andy Warhol’s Factory. A veritable hotbed of pop culture karma in the 1960s, this workspace wonderland was the famed contemporary artist’s haven. It was also a hang out for such iconic entities as the Velvet Underground, Paul Morrissey, and multiple underground ‘superstars’. Yet all attempts to capture the man and his mythos have been borderline caricatures, turning the complicated craftsman into a shill in a shabby wig.


Factory Girl hopes to change all that. Focusing on Warhol’s most infamous ‘discovery’, the poor little rich girl Edie Sedgwick, and her rapid rise and even more dramatic fall, director George Hickenlooper wisely avoids sensation to grab a glimpse behind the pair’s infamous façade. Hobbled by issues both premade and unexpected (Bob Dylan threatened a lawsuit to have his name and music removed from the film), what started out as some manner of period fantasy was reduced to a better than average biopic – one that happily avoids many of the genre’s more formulaic facets. On the new Unrated DVD offered by the Weinstein Company, Hickenlooper gets one last chance at commercial and critical redemption. Presenting what he considers as close to the “director’s cut” as audiences are liable to see, there’s also a commentary that completes the overview of a production both mired in controversy and bubbling over with amazing personal talent.


When we first meet Edie, played perfectly by Sienna Miller, we sense something is wrong. Perhaps the least practical gal ever to dream in dimensions, the brown haired beauty believed herself destined to be part of the burgeoning New York post-modern art scene. Running away to the Big Apple, she’s spotted by new craze on the block (the chameleon like Guy Pearce is dead on as Warhol) and soon, the two are collaborating on several of the artist’s notorious underground films. As her profile increases, so do her problems. Cut off financially by her snobby, well to do family, Edie’s party girl persona tends to both cheer up and chafe her brittle mentor. When a famous folksinger takes a likening to the perky pixie, things start falling apart. Warhol grows petty and jealous, while the confused feelings she has leads Edie deeper into drug abuse.


At this moment, that big cinematic spoiler known as melodrama could have seeped in, giving Hickenlooper his mandatory material ending. We’d watch as Warhol’s star rises while Edie continues her self-destructive ways. In a phony final shot, the wildly successful art revolutionary would hold his throne, while our faded heroine lies dead in a gutter, needle jutting out of her arm or empty pill bottle by her side. But the filmmaker refuses to supply such well worn pretense. Instead, he lets Factory Girl fully develop its symbiotic/suicidal attachment the unusual couple possessed, and within that dynamic, gives us clear indication of who these people really were.


Warhol’s posthumous world, built as much on his reputation as his reality, fails to really explain what drove this aesthetic deconstructionist. Factory Girl suggests that, as a gay man veiled behind social norms and personal problems, Warhol was a creator incapable of properly channeling his talents. He needed an almost constant stream of stimulation to bring his ideas to life. His was an art of slapdash successes, a never-ending experimentation to see what would cause a stir. His love for Edie was partly based in such interchangeable conceits. But unlike other cogs in his manipulating machine, the sunny socialite really got to him. She touched a part inside Warhol that few women – perhaps only his mother – ever really connected to. That’s why his apparent rejection (for Dylan) turned so spiteful. It was really nothing more than the pathetic misplaced pain of a confused manchild.


Similarly, Edie is viewed as a damaged individual looking for someone to care for her. She doesn’t want to set trends as much as find someone who will simply let her be herself. The constant inference of sexual abuse from family members (her father Fuzzy) and friends suggests this core of wanting. Her inconsistent actions – never good with money, always asking for help, rejecting responsibility for her hedonistic aims – makes her the perfect target for fame’s traps. The lure of the limelight is what draws her in. The emptiness in what she finds inside is what leads her toward more extreme escapes. This is why she takes Warhol’s rejection so hard – she needs the security and hates being accountable for her indiscretions. The relationship with Dylan would never have worked. He is portrayed as wanting her to take blame as much as give it. All Edie wanted was a cocoon to crawl into. There she could manage the metamorphosis she wanted to achieve. And for a while, Warhol provided that.


To capture this subtle shift between characters on film requires actors of great skill, and in at least two of his three leads, Hickenlooper discovered some amazing talent. Guy Pearce plays Warhol in a way that seems inconsequential at first. He’s got the look, and the lost wandering gaze, but we initially feel this will be a performance geared in kabuki instead of practicality. But then our director drops the iconography and lets us see the anemic artist for who he really is. Pearce pulls off the fragile, flawed persona brilliantly, turning Warhol into a three dimensional, less opaque individual. Similarly, Sienna Miller really surprises as Edie. This kind of loopy, misplaced character would be easy to overplay. She’d be so much larger than life that we’d never once believe her hopes or her horrors. But thanks to a desire to both mimic and expand on who Edie Sedgwick was, as well as some interesting directorial choices, Miller makes us experience who this broken babe really was. It may not be the tour de force Hickenlooper believes it is, but it remains a solid piece of interpretation.


The weakest link here is Hayden Christensen as a character known only as “the Folksinger” (though we do hear Edie call him “Billy” more than once). Cast because of his obvious resemblance – when properly made-up – to Dylan circa 1965, the actor forever tied to George Lucas’ horrendous Star Wars prequels can’t find the proper balance between caricature and clarity. His put-on voice sounds like a bad imitation half the time, and he plays this important man as bursting with nervous frustration, not poetic ideals. Even when he’s waxing philosophically about following your own path, he sounds irritated not inspired. Had a way been found to keep Dylan happy and out of the courthouse over this project, it’s possible that Christensen would have more to work with here. As it is, his minor time on screen distracts us from the real relationships at hand.


Still, the draw between Warhol and Sedgwick is so strong and handled so well that Factory Girl manages to easily overcome its other minor flaws. We don’t really get to know the whole Factory scene, especially important elements like the other iconic leeches who made the warehouse space their home away from home. The Velvet Underground is lightly touched on (apparently, Lou Reed is none too happy with this movie as well) and some of the more important films to feature Sedgwick (Chelsea Girls, ****) are barely mentioned. True, the interpersonal element is the draw, and thanks to Pearce and Miller, it works incredibly well. But the backdrop is still one of the most intriguing aspects of pop culture’s past. Even on a small budget, some of the significant signposts need to be featured. Of course, Hickenlooper has an answer for why he made the creative choices he did. His DVD commentary is a snarky slam on everyone who doesn’t get his approach.


But there is also an inherent flaw in such motion picture narrow-mindedness. Warhol, like the Civil War and the End of Days is a subject so large in scope and significance that an insular ideal robs the material of its meaning.  Unless it can resonate beyond the myopic, we literally loose the big picture. Factory Girl is still an effective, well made dissection of two flawed personalities playing each other for the ultimate ends. It may not be the whole story, but it’s a good one told very well. Too bad it couldn’t broaden beyond its self-imposed horizons to show us the prominence of pop art in the overall ‘60s revolution. Maybe Hickenlooper believes that by illustrating Warhol and Sedgwick’s volatile time together he’s done that. In his defense, he’s made a fine film.  Unfortunately, there is more to the tale than this. 


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Thursday, Jul 19, 2007


Can you see it? That little speck way off in the distance? That’s the light, baby. That’s the end of the 2007 Summer Movie Season slyly making its first true appearance on the horizon. With only six weeks left, Tinsel Town is still trying for a great big finish. Indeed, over the next few Fridays, we’ll see the big screen debut of America’s favorite cartoon family, a trequel from our man Bourne, a bland biopic about salsa ‘legend’ Hector Lavoe, and Rob Zombie’s reinvention of the Halloween franchise. Toss in a fractured fairytale, a bad idea family film, and a useless remake of an overdone sci-fi thriller and there’s plenty to keep you occupied. So where do the premium movie channels stand during this last big motion picture push? Very well, actually. Two of the four features presented on 21 July are definitely deserving of a Saturday night at home, and the outsider/alternative choices aren’t bad either. Just avoid the fishtailing cars and the well-meaning urban farce and you’ll be just fine. Of course, there’s always something playing down at the Cineplex, should you not enjoy what SE&L selected:


Premiere Pick
The Illusionist


Last year (2006), there were two highly touted movies centering on magic. One was a box office flop that didn’t generate much concerned critical buzz. The other was a clever period piece that gave away its twist ending about halfway through. The so-called ‘bomb’ went on to score many kudos come end of the year best-of voting. The moneymaker with the insufficient denouement was more or less ignored. So in the conflict over prestidigitation as big screen entertainment, it’s clear that this amiable effort featuring fine performances by Edward Norton, Jessica Biel and Paul Giamatti won the battle, but lost the war. And the reasons why are obvious. While Christopher Nolan turned The Prestige into a sensational psychological thriller, Neil Burger stayed solidly in Harlequin romance territory. The results are sumptuous yet simple, and a tad too obvious to sustain their storyline. Still, this is a fine feature, one worthy of your time and viewing leisure. It’s commercially unviable competitor on the other hand remains the timeless work of motion picture art. (21 July, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Little Miss Sunshine


It was the small independent movie that almost pulled off the upset come Oscar time – almost. Few outside the truly obsessed thought this marginal movie about a dysfunctional family dragging their precocious child to a beauty pageant was Best Picture bait. Still, the hype machine went into overdrive, convincing many that this screwball satire had a chance. Oddly enough, the small screen both enhances and erases some of the films fault, making the praise all the more perplexing. (21 July, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift


Same premise, same storyline, different locale. For this third go around in the FF franchise, our pissed off pre-adult heroes head to Japan, where drifting is all the rage. Apparently, this means kids destroy their brakes and alignment by purposefully fishtailing their back tires. Peachy! As an aside, beware of those earworm masters The Teriyaki Boys. Their hideous theme song plays throughout this derivative action pic. (21 July, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


Madea’s Family Reunion


Tyler Perry tweaks another of his many urban stage plays, removing all the music but keeping the calm Christian message. As a result, he walks away with another demographically precise hit. Far less melodramatic than his Diary of a Mad Black Woman, this tale of an upcoming wedding, and the various trials and tribulations surrounding it, makes for another generic yet warm family comedy. He may have flaws as a filmmaker, but his drag creation remains potent. (21 July, ShowTOO, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll


It started out as a normal idea for a documentary – follow around Chuck Berry and modern day fan Keith Richards as the two prepare for a 60th birthday tribute concert to the early rock guitar hero. Little did filmmaker Taylor Hackford know, what started out simple would grow exponentially as egos and agendas clashed over and over. In essence, Berry didn’t appreciate the pip squeak upstart from those know nothing newbies The Rolling Stones telling him, a walking talking living myth, what to do. For his part, the gnarled Glimmer Twin was disillusioned by his idol’s lax attitude toward rehearsal and performance. He only wanted to see his mentor shine, not settle for subpar effort. The end result was a fiery behind the scenes scandal merged with a tremendous onstage spectacle, a character study studded with old school riffs. Many feel this is the ultimate combination of man and material. Berry may have been an unbearable bore and a mentally unstable cheapskate, but he also forged many of the moves that turned simple cultural heritage into the music we know today. (23 July, Sundance Channel, 4:15PM EST)

Additional Choices
Naked


To describe the ‘plot’ of this Mike Leigh movie – an antisocial Manchester man escapes to London to avoid the consequences of his actions – is to remove most of its magic. Granted, it remains a film in which the central character (played brilliantly by David Thewlis) meanders around, philosophizing out loud. Yet what he has to say, and the secrets revealed, turn a regular road movie into one of the ‘90s most meaningful films. (22 July, IFC, 9PM EST)

Dangerous Game


After the dopey disaster known as Body of Evidence, this independent hokum helmed by Abel Ferrara was meant to be Madonna’s cinematic redemption. After all, she was paired alongside actor anchor Harvey Keitel, and both he and the maverick director had a recent critical smash with their Bad Lieutenant. But just like anything celluloid the Material Girl touched, this art imitates life lameness was another first class flop.  (23 July, IFC, 10:40PM EST)

Assisted Living


Similar to a Christopher Guest mockumentary, filmmaker Elliot Greenebaum created a fictional story about a nursing home janitor, and then decided to stage and shoot the movie in an actual assisted living facility. It gives this otherwise conventional slacker comedy a real air of authenticity and realism. Of course, the history inherent in the residents is far more compelling than anything Greenebaum and his actors can generate. (26 July, Sundance Channel, 8:30PM EST)

Outsider Option
A Family Thing


Co-written by a then struggling Billy Bob Thorton and featuring the intriguing onscreen pairing of James Earl Jones and Robert Duvall, this engrossing drama deals with, of all things, an usual sibling situation. When his mother dies, Duvall’s backwoods hick Earl learns that his real mother was a black woman, and that he has a half brother living in Chicago. Deciding to get his life in order, he heads to the Windy City and winds up on the doorstep of Aunt T. A refined woman of color, she helps the confused visitor understand his circumstances. She also aids in bridging the cultural barrier between the white Southerner and his distrustful urban kin. Both Jones and Duvall are magnificent here, selling a similar sentiment of hurt and suspicion. But the real revelation is Irma P. Hall as the blind substitute matriarch. She is the life at the center of his confused situation, and uses her undeniable wisdom to explain that blood remains the same color, no matter the skin it’s in. A forgotten classic from the mid ‘90s, this movie deserved to be rediscovered. (26 July, Indieplex, 12:45PM EST)

Additional Choices
I Bury the Living


Richard Boone works in a graveyard. Whenever he inserts a pin into the cemetery map, the owner of said plot dies. Imagine what happens then when all the pins fall out. This early zombie stomp has already been featured as part of this ongoing TCM series, but it’s worth a second look. The atmosphere of dread is delightful, and the finale fulfills its premise’s promise – approximately. (20 July, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Reeker


When you read the synopsis for this film – a group of travelers, stuck in a desert oasis, are preyed upon by an unknown evil force – you think you’re in for a standard fright flick. Then you learn that the main creature is a decaying fiend with a noxious odor that’s capable of killing. Oh, and there’s a twist ending, Sixth Sense style. Still, any movie about a monster with a murderous ming has SE&L’s full support. (24 July, Showtime 2, 8PM EST)

Ride in the Whirlwind


Prior to his days as a certified Hollywood superstar, Jack Nicholson was a struggling actor. He also made a living penning genre efforts for Roger Corman (horror) and Monte Hellman (thriller). Here, he creates an existential western about three lawless men on the run from a posse. Thanks to Hellman’s crackerjack directing and its overall counterculture approach, this is one horse opera that stands on its own. (25 July, Drive In Classics Canada, 10:45PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Jul 18, 2007


No one in Hollywood ever went broke underestimating the entertainment taste of the American public. I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry is proof of such a sentiment. Geared directly toward the lowest common denominator, with occasional side treks into PC-lite pronouncements of tolerance and acceptance, this is comedy as callous homophobia, a movie constantly having to apologize to the audience for its crass, crude approach to its poorly chosen subject matter. In a current social climate where same sex marriage has been bandied about as a powerful political and pundit tool, to treat the issue as the basis for a frat house level of funny business is disturbing. But then to watch as the plot purposefully backtracks in order to make amends for such lampoon-based insensitivity is disingenuous at best.


You see, this gay marriage movie isn’t really ready to deal with the overriding disputes that arise whenever civil rights and civil unions become part of the human dialogue. Indeed, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry wants to avoid the conversation all together. That’s probably because the premise is so preposterous – more on this in a moment – the film realized it couldn’t make a solid, sincere satire out of the whole comedians as a couple scenario. So the script – written by Oscar winners Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne, along with Barry Farno – more or less balks, piling on the overt stereotypes and statements of support in an attempt to keep the easily fooled fanbase at bay. There will be people who love this film and never once think about exactly what they are laughing at. And as long as the creators can keep such up cinematic stealth, everyone will feel vindicated.


But there are holes the size of Christian bigotry all throughout this scattershot story. In order to guarantee that his kids receive his fireman’s pension, decent dude Larry Valentine (an acceptable Kevin James) asks his best friend and noted man whore Chuck Levine (an old looking Adam Sandler) for a favor. Seems if they can establish a believable domestic partnership, the benefits will inure to Chuck, who will gladly turn them over to Larry’s motherless wee ones. All they have to do is convince the City of New York and its crafty, cartoonish investigator (a weirdly arch Steve Buscemi). Calling in the services of sexy attorney Alex Donough (a very good Jessica Biel), the boys hope to bamboozle everyone. Unfortunately, Chuck’s uncontrollable heterosexuality has him lusting after the lawyer, and their ruse, in general, is causing a lot of complicated feelings among their friends and co-workers. If they tell the truth, however, they are looking at long stints in jail for fraud.


The first major fallacy this movie manipulates is that Larry is such a grief-stricken lunkhead (his wife has been dead three years) that his far too clever central casting children - one’s a whiz, the other is a Broadway loving wuss – would be the last thing on his mind. In essence, what I Now Pronounce You wants us to believe is that our heartbroken hero wouldn’t have immediately looked into securing their future. Instead, he has moped around to the point where his application time limits have run out. Even more perplexing is the solution – pretending to be gay. No one is suggesting that Sandler or James are playing geniuses, but even the most feeble minded of village idiots would have thought this plan out a little more thoroughly. Okay, so they fool the city. The government approves their partnership and Chuck is now the appointed beneficiary. They can’t go back to their regular lives now, can they? The first time Sandler’s sex addicted lothario bags another collection of Hooter’s Girls, the jig will be up.


Even worse, the narrative never understands this. Instead, the storyline just keeps stumbling along, waiting for the inevitable moment when an ending will be required. It drifts over into toilet humor (the guys save an obese man from a burning building, and he repays Sandler in particular by farting in his face), high drama (lots of close calls on fire calls) goofy ‘girl power’ montages (Sandler and Biel go ‘shopping’ as a Cyndi Lauper standard bops in the background), and sequences of insincere soap boxing. When confronted by a group of Pro-God gay bashers, Chuck decides to take matters into his own hands…make that fists. He punches the preacher out. Similarly, when asked to an AIDS awareness ball, we anticipate the moment when either lead lets loose with an ersatz hilarious harangue about homosexuals in general. Instead, the script lets the gay party members do it themselves, expressing the kind of archetypal swishery that your average ‘Amurican’ thinks constitutes queer behavior.


Yet perhaps the biggest humor as hate crime committed comes at the expense of usually reliable actor Ving Rhames. Initially viewed by his fellow firefighters as an angry serial killer type, Chuck and Larry’s union brings out the Minnelli in the man, and before you know it, the African American icon once known as Marcellus Wallace is wishing those hillbilly rapists would make a return. He goes from tough to touchy, mincing like a Food Channel chef preparing a delicate bisque. All of this is supposed to play as liberating and empowering, but when a butt naked Rhames is wiggling his ass in an extended “don’t drop the soap’ shower gag, it’s all too much. He, and the character of Biel’s out and proud brother played with far too much ‘fabulousness’ by Nick Swardson, are merely distractions, means of easy laughs at the expense of several decades of prejudice and perception. Instead of concentrating on the relationship between James and Sandler, how the cad makes the depressed dad appreciate his kids while the family man forces the man skank into appreciating the notion of commitment, we wind up with malapropisms about the male anatomy.


And then we come to the finale. As part of some Tinsel Town mandate regarding all hot button issues, our heroes status as a gay couple is challenged in a courtroom setting – in this case, a hearing in front of the City Council. As Buscemi tries everything he can to con a confession out of his witnesses, we can literally observe the moment when the screenplay shifts over from white pages to last minute rewritten colored ones. It’s as if director Dennis Dugan (who helmed Sandler’s Happy Gilmore and Big Daddy) realized at that instant that the narrative was indeed painting itself into a corner that no normal contrivance could free it from. So what did these highly paid hacks come up with? Why, that standard of any ‘issue’ movie – the self-righteous, sanctimonious speech. And just to make sure we got it, several other characters are allowed to wax poetic to save their pals’ kiesters. While the movie tries to mess up the formulaic follow through that usually results after such overdone oration, we’ve long since given up hope of anything original or novel happening here.


Last year, A&E released a lovely little TV movie about same sex marriage and strange political bedfellows entitled Wedding Wars. It featured James Brolin as a pandering politician and John Stamos as a gay activist helping to plan the Governor’s daughter’s nuptials. While it suffered from some pie in the sky fantasizing about a world where homosexual rights would eventually be respected (if not implemented), it was funnier, more emotional, and far more convincing than this flailing, forced farce.  I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry is not as hilarious as it thinks it is, profound as it pretends to be, or tolerant as it intends. Yet none of this will matter to the throngs who only think of film as a way to waste two hours. For them, this crackerjack comedy will allow them to remain bigoted and have a belly laugh or two.  And Hollywood scores another monetary hash mark in the category of knowing audience underestimation. 


 


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Tuesday, Jul 17, 2007


When Hairspray is good, it’s fantastic. It radiates an energy and a joy that’s beyond infectious. As a matter of fact, it’s safe to say that the pleasure one derives from the first fifteen minutes of this movie should be made illegal, it’s so superbly addictive. On the other hand, when Hairspray is only mediocre, it’s…aw heck, who cares! In fact, whatever minor flaws this movie may have (and they’re barely recognizable against the sunshine daze) are frivolous in comparison to the triumph taking shape before our eyes. Fans of the John Waters original – more a celebration of youth and dance than race and social commentary – have worried that the Broadway version of the ‘60s Baltimore spree would forget what made the prince of puke’s PG perfection so much fun. Instead, this amazing musical has found its own level of exhilaration, and the delights are palpable indeed.


With some minor changes here and there, the story has basically stayed the same. Tubby Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky) lives with her joke shop owning father (Christopher Walken) and laundress mother (John Travolta). She hates school, and along with best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes), she rushes home every day to catch the locally produced dance extravaganza, The Corny Collins Show. Among the series regulars are The Council, a group of talented teens that are supposed to symbolize clean cut American values. But under the surface, Station Manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfieffer) is forwarding two private agendas. The first, and least noxious, is her daughter Amber’s future career. The other, more loathsome design, is the continued segregation of on-air programming. African Americans in the area only get one day a month on Corny’s show, and substitute host (and record shop owner) Motormouth Mabel (Queen Latifah) barely tolerates such treatment.


Anyway, Tracy’s dream is to be part of the show’s elusive clique, but her audition is nixed by Ms. Van Tussle. A stint in detention along with Motormouth’s son Seaweed (Elijah Kelly) improves the plump gal’s hoofing skills. Before you know it, she’s part of the Council, wooing the male star of the show (a teen idol wannabe named Link – Zac Efron) and getting into hot water over her views on integration. With the Miss Hairspray crown up for grabs, Amber’s mother will do anything to see that her child wins, and she comes up with several subversive plots to guarantee victory. But Tracy’s indomitable spirit, along with Mabel’s desire to stand up for her people lead to a march on the station, and an arrest warrant for our heroine. Naturally, it all comes down to the night of the big pageant. If Tracy shows up, she’ll be arrested. If she doesn’t Amber, will win the crown – much to the chagrin of almost everyone involved.


Bubbling over with entertainment effervescence and a wealth of award wining performances, Hairspray is the perfect example of cinematic synchronicity – flawless casting, amazing material, brilliant production design, stellar songs and directorial magic all rolled up into one big wad of motion picture cotton candy. Far more effective than Dreamgirls or Chicago, what has been accomplished here is nothing short of a miracle. For many, the last great example of this kind of effortless exuberance was Frank Oz’s adaptation of the Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s smash Little Shop of Horrors. There, as here, the combination of motion picture parts produced a movie musical engine that purred like a well creamed kitten…with just enough quirk to keep things safely off the sappy side. Hairspray mimics that sort of success, selling its unapologetic philosophies with expertly tempered heart and soul.


Major kudos must go to whomever decided to hire this remarkable company. Every performer here is faultless, adding to the overall feeling of comedy and camaraderie. Even the two main villains – Amber and her mother Velma Von Tussle - are more to be laughed at then feared. Their stances are so outrageous and their sense of self so ludicrous that their eventual tumble is bound to be a treat. Of course, what makes this even better is Michelle Pfieffer’s return – after a five year absence – to big screen prominence as Velma. She’s an aged ice queen so accurately archetyped that all she’s missing is the dangle of a cigarette and a coarse, cancerous croak to turn her into the ghoul that’s hiding inside. Even though we had to wait for the actress’s return from self-imposed exile, it was well worth it.


Similarly, Queen Latifah shows that the Oscar nod for Chicago was no fluke. In Hairspray, she finds the ideal combination of groove and grace, making her both a viable disc jockey and voice of reason. She’s matched by James Marsden, who finally gets a chance to crawl out of Cyclops’ shades and deliver a knock ‘em dead turn as the eternally preening Corny Collins. Throughout the course of this toe-tapping, smile mapping spectacle, brilliant supporting performances by Zach Efron, Elijah Kelley, Amanda Bynes, and Allison Janney really help to flesh out the fabulousness. Of course, the biggest kudos will be saved for formidable newcomer Nikki Blonsky. A portly little fireplug, this is one plus size gal who can swing and sway. She belts out her songs with steadfast determination, and moves her body with undeniable agility. As the glue required to hold all the cheerfulness and mirth together, she’s great.


And then there is John Travolta. From the moment that a musical version of John Water’s nostalgic knock-off was announced, the main question on everyone lips was who would – or possible could/dare – replace Divine. That magically effete phenom, that late great drag dime store diva left some mighty big shoes (and other garments) to fill as sheltered mouse mother Edna Turnblad. On the Great White Way, the solution was simple – another larger than life gay performer, Harvey Firestein. But movies require superstars, and for a while, an unusual collection of actors was considered. But once you see Travolta inside the fascinating fat suit and utilizing what has to be one of the most bizarrely authentic Baltimore accents ever, you’ll realize that his was more than stunt casting. This is a fully realized performance, an acting tour de force that requires and earns your unbridled attention. Sure, he can sing and dance like a dream – we’ve always known that about him. But there is a depth to what Travolta does here, an unnerving authenticity that makes us forget the façade and see the fragile female inside. It’s a stunning, award worthy piece of work.


But perhaps the biggest shock overall is the surprisingly solid direction from the otherwise average Adam Shankman. Known previously for such uninspired, generic dogs as The Pacifier and Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Hairspray makes it appear as if the filmmaker has been holding back all along. Case in point – the opening number “Good Morning, Baltimore!” As Tracy’s sonic celebration of her city, Shankman wisely opens up the number, taking us up and down the streets and shops of her neighborhood. But then, he adds little visual gags and some hilarious physical comedy along the way. By the time Tracy is riding the garbage truck to school, our hearts are in our throats. As a former choreographer, Shankman “gets” movement. Unlike other helmers of recent song and dance cinema, Hairspray is a movie that understands staging without relying on MTV like variables to save its strategies.


Which brings us to the final facet of the film – Marc Shaiman’s ‘60s suggesting songs. One of the most interesting aspects of his score is how important context really is. When heard outside their setting, when played as mere souvenirs of the show, lyrical larks like “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs”, “Big, Blond and Beautiful”, and “(You’re) Timeless To Me” really have a hard time resonating. They need setting, circumstance, and perspective to play properly. Here, Shankman gives the composer just that, and what sounds trite and cloying outside the silver screen comes alive with undeniable potency. You’ll be snapping along with “The Nicest Kids in Town” and clapping along with “You Can’t Stop the Beat”. Even the more dramatic numbers – the racial call to arms “I Know Where I’ve Been” – echo more effectively thanks to the film.


Indeed, Hairspray stands as one of 2007’s great films. It dares to reach for the stratosphere and manages to move far beyond said stars. It’s intoxicating and invigorating, jumpstarting your long dead belief in the art of the movie picture while systematically saving the summer from such standard operating ordinariness as sequels and remakes. Of course, purists will palpitate over the a few missing numbers (got to add new material to get the Academy’s attention) and there will be the naysayers who can’t cotton to a musical made outside the defining era of 1930 – 1950. But this is one time when you can easily believe the hype. Hairspray is one brazen bouffant of a film. It’s very high and oh so mighty. 


 


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