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Monday, Sep 17, 2007


For the formerly famous or once noted, the decision on how best to promote a comeback is complicated at best. Do you rely solely on your previous efforts, or do you try and expand or even modify them for a new generation of fans. In the case of Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett, the one time TV icons in charge of the unquestionably brilliant Mystery Science Theater 3000, it has been fan inflexibility, not a lack of inspiration, that’s guided their post-cancellation endeavors. While providing audio only comic commentary tracks for popular blockbuster efforts (via the Rifftrax online brand), they also decided to reconfigure the old MST model. Sponsored by cult cravers Shout! Factory, the new enterprise, entitled The Film Crew, has used DVD’s wealth of public domain dung to bring in-theater quipping back from the dead. And it’s been a remarkable rebirth, to say the least.


With last month’s Hollywood After Dark release already under their belt (the Rue McClanahan stripper fiasco was a great place to start), the talented trio now take on two completely different beyond b-movies. In Killers from Space, Peter Graves is a jet pilot who somehow manages to survive a deadly crash. Turns out, aliens rescued him with the intent of using him as a spy. Their goal? The top secret times and locations of America’s nuclear tests. This is then followed by the proto peplum of The Wild Women of Wongo. In the title village, the gals are gorgeous. Unfortunately, the men are brutish and bad tempered. When a regular Greek god, muscled and well meaning, arrives from the downstream land of Goona, the girls go ga-ga. Turns out, things are the exact opposite where he lives. The guys are hot. The women are definitely not. Naturally, royal rituals and alligator gods must be appeased, even as loin clothed lovers make prehistoric cow eyes at each other.


Clearly functioning under the “not broken, no fixing” formula, The Film Crew set-up has Mike, Kevin, and Bill playing employees of the entertainment eccentric Bob Honcho. He’s a motion picture maverick who believes that every DVD, no matter how nominal, deserves a commentary track. He makes regular phone calls to his cinematic stooges, announcing their assignments and, in general, flaunting his high powered CEO lifestyle. Unlike Mystery Science, which relied on skits every 22 minutes to break up the bad movie monotony, The Film Crew offers a one time midpoint ‘Lunch Break’. There, between bites of sandwich and slurps of diet shake, the men mock contrivances within the film – be it the decision to use exaggerated body parts to suggest that said killers are actually from space, or learning how to locate Wongo on a map. 



As lifelong fans of such external monologue mannerisms will tell you, it’s the movie that makes the mockery, not the other way around. When you have something as lifeless and leaden as Killers from Space, it can try even the wittiest rejoinder’s resolve. But when overwhelmed by atrocious acting, half-baked production design, and various untenable body types draped in fur covered diapers, The Wild Women of Wongo creates a never-ending Arch Hall Jr. foundation of funny business. Both releases offer a ridiculous amount of fun, but Wongo eventually wins out, if only by a horndog hair. Whereas, in the past, the potential comedy was hindered by cable standards and family-oriented programming, The Film Crew can now let their lecherous freak flag fly.


It starts right at the beginning of the otherwise atrocious tale. Kevin Murphy decides that every action taken by the title babes mandates a seedy, suggestive, double entendre. When a battle breaks out between two of the tempting tribeswomen, it’s the sign for a series of catcalls. An embrace between the Princess of Wongo and the Prince of Goona earns a series of sexually suggestive statements, and the beefy chuck steak nature of the bodybuilder cast mandates its own level of man musk bemusement. However, the most mileage is gained out of a Dragon Temple sequence where the matronly priestess screeches that everyone must “DANCE!!!” Thanks to the open format of the digital domain (meaning nothing need necessarily be ‘rated’ by the MPAA), our satiric triptych can let their shorthairs down, so to speak. Of course, their comedy is not really that crude to begin with, but to hear them skirt around the scandalous is really a treat.



As for The Wild Women of Wongo itself, it’s like exploitation without the free flowing flesh peddling extremes. The scantily clad cast is obviously not trying for some manner of archeologically adept realism, and the storyline is Romeo and Juliet with added jungle juice. In fact, the driving force inside the nutty narrative is the notion that male chauvinism is (apparently) part of our primordial DNA. The male members of the tribe sit around and imitate a monosyllabic Homer Simpson as they berate and barter over the ladies like ranchers at a carnal cattle auction. The guys from Goona aren’t much better. They may have overdeveloped lats and too sweet pecs, but they’re backwards as well in the way of the woman. It’s the goofy XY equilibrium between know it all honeys and do nothing hunks that makes this a classic cornball comedy companion piece.


Killers from Space, on the other hand, makes Red Zone Cuba seem like The Missiles of October. The Crew does come out swinging, taking on the military industrial complex, and its apparent appreciate of smoking, for all its non-filtered farce. It’s great to hear the guys giggle as General after Major pull out a pack and light up. When a driven Peter Graves is put under Sodium Amatol, the lack of convincing unconsciousness also provides the perfect platform for laughs. But the choicest chuckling comes when our hero, trapped in an underground cavern, tries to escape. For nearly 20 minutes, he is confronted by rear projection pictures of oversized “monsters”. In reality, they are nothing more than lizards, tarantulas, and iguanas given some silly schlock resizing. As they did on the Satellite of Love, the gang gets a kick out of giving such lame F/X the ridicule rub.



As a movie, however, Killers from Space maintains its mindnumbing mediocrity throughout. This is a terribly talky film, a narrative that substitutes words for vistas unaffordable or unobtainable.  There are significant scenes of cars driving aimlessly, and when we finally meet the title terrors, they’re nothing more than unitard wearing insurance salesmen with painted ping pong balls for eyes. Perhaps an audience still in awe of all the A-bombing going on would cotton to such crudity. But decades of sophistication has rendered such radioactive retardation more stupefying than Larry the Cable Guy. Alongside the Captain Video level of extraterrestrial originality and the elephantine critters, you’ve got a literal compendium of sloppy suburban sci-fi, the kind of speculative fiction that would give Harlan Ellison agida for decades. 


As for packaging and presentation, Shout! Factory and the minds behind The Film Crew have really improved things over the Hollywood After Dark release. The bonus features on Wild Women of Wongo allow you the opportunity to see Mike, Kevin, and Bill cut a movie mandated rug. There’s also a recreation of the snarky “wink” ending to the film. The added content for Killers from Space is even more intriguing. After Murphy shows us how backwards masking was used to emulate alien language in the storyline, we are given the opportunity to watch “outtakes” from the infamous silly talk scene, with the Crew substituting their own dialogue for the scientific read outs. It’s a hilarious extra, and one that shows where this series could go, should it continue.



And here’s hoping that it does. In an arena that takes itself far too serious, which wants to award any and all product made by the hack Hollywood studio system some manner of long deserved classical status, we need entities like The Film Crew. They’re the lampoon equivalent of an uppercut to the chin, a clear comeuppance for a cinematic statement that really does nothing more than stink on ice. Cinephiles can argue over the worthwhile qualities inherent in a dumb as dirt skin epic, or a dialogue driven diatribe against nuclear weaponry, but when all is said and done, The Wild Women of Wongo and Killers from Space are nothing more than misguided motion pictures. They are poorly executed, laughable examples of celluloid as septic tank. Luckily, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett are still around to accessorize the aroma. Indeed, The Film Crew continues to make the most noxious non-entertainment utterly enjoyable. 


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Sunday, Sep 16, 2007


They were supposed to be the saving grace of cinema, the cyberspace tastemakers that provided insight into what would be a hit come theatrical release date. Via their focused devotion and frothing fanbase obsessions, they would function as broad-based barometer, a way to decipher how like minded movie maniacs would respond. Yet ever since Snakes on a Plane significantly underperformed, and Grindhouse ground to a halt, the geek has been getting its commercial clairvoyance kicked. Over the last few months alone, the potential prognostication of these messageboard/MySpace mavericks, luminaries supposedly in tune with the times, has proved to be downright deadly. And in its wake, a selection of stellar and slightly less significant films have been left to flounder.


Of course, a caveat has to be provided before plowing forward. Just because the knowledgeable nerd loves a possible project with all his mint condition action figure might doesn’t mean the movie will actually be good. With large exceptions – 300, for example – the quality of the film actually figures into the failure. In addition, any kind of cult, by its very nature, is limited in scope and design. Unless you can manage a Unification Church level of brainscrubbing, the choir will always be preaching to a smaller and smaller subsect of the converted. And yet Hollywood still rests a lot of its hope on feeding the so-called insider sites with as much pre-production pimping as possible. Rarely does it come back to bite then in the bet (the recent dork nation reject of Rob Zombie’s Halloween a clear anomaly).


Take Shoot ‘Em Up! for example. Released at the start of Fall’s frequently confusing motion picture season, it had the earnest earmarks of a surprise post-Summer sleeper. There was non-stop action, loads of gratuitous violence, a scantily clad Monica Belluci, and several deadly carrots. The characters were cardboard cut-outs of carbon copies accentuated with just enough quirk and smirk to make them viable, and director Michael Davis didn’t just bury his tongue in his cheek – he cut the damn thing off and crammed it into your craw. Yet after one week in theaters, and a less than impressive $6 million take at the turnstiles, the movie is headed for a quick take turnaround onto the DVD format. Receipts are down almost 60% in the second week, and the lack of “legs” indicates an audience that’s already climaxed on this kooky crime caper.


So what went wrong? Why is Shoot ‘Em Up! failing to make a major marketplace dent. There are two answers, really. One is a throwback to the days of the VCR. There is still a significant number in the mainstream viewership who will see a title or trailer like this, run the entertainment possibilities through their own aesthetic processor, and determine that a trip to Blockbuster (or a pre-release placement on a Netflix queue) would be preferable to battling crowds and disruptive theaters in exchange for their discretionary income. This “I’ll wait for the (digital/analog) release” has plagued the industry, and the occasional unusual movie, ever since Beta battled VHS for format supremacy.


The other factor is far more fascinating. Call it the “basement” syndrome, or the “Me, Myself, and I” ideal. In general, a geek is a geek because of their solo fixation on something. They love it because of how it speaks to them, not how it resonates with the masses. Indeed, it could be argued that popularity completely undermines the feeb. Once it’s a part of pop culture, it’s hard to feel it belongs only to you. So as long as the material is unavailable, able to be scrutinized, and scanned as part of a personal dynamic, there’s a façade of potential success. All the advance buzz and preview hype does help. But once the movie makes it into the marketplace of ideas, it begins to loose its exclusivity. And with rare exceptions, this means the fanatical will have their moment – and then move on.


Of course, there are those times when Tinsel Town tries the opposite approach. Take the case of Neil Gaiman. Somehow, overnight, he went from well loved literary figure with a few notable adaptations under his belt (MirrorMask, Neverwhere) and an equally devoted following to the latest player in the post-LOTR fantasy adventure face off. Without the prerequisite preparation for a ‘next big thing’ crowning, a version of his Princess Bride like fairytale farce, Stardust, attempted to become a major popcorn movie moment. For months prior to its August release, it was touted on numerous websites as the second coming of sophisticated adult fairy tale-ing. But after a month in theaters, the film has barely grossed $36 million, a far cry from its $65 million budget.


It’s clear that the studio suits underestimated this British writer’s popularity. But it didn’t help matters much that Matthew Vaughn’s take on the material was all mannerism and no magic. People don’t usually go to a sword and sorcery epic to see aging actors swishing around (Robert DeNiro played a closeted gay sky pirate) or noted beauties rendered butt ugly (though Michelle Pfieffer was actually very good as a crabby, craggy witch). No, they want the visual fireworks, the ephemeral eye candy that comes with the genre – and if not that, some very solid satire. Stardust had neither. Instead, Gaiman was garroted, his own unique vision undermined by a movie that skimped on both spectacle and wit. 


Even independents found themselves struggling under the lack of clear geek support. Prior to its coming to our shores, the New Zealand comedy Eagle vs. Shark was being pushed as a Napoleon Dynamite for the Kiwi cult. It even starred the up and coming actor from the acclaimed HBO series Flight of the Conchords (Jermaine Clement). Unfortunately, the movie itself was a bafflingly disorganized dramedy that took a decidedly hard line look at what were, in essence, massively marginalized human beings. Where Nappy co-writer/director Jared Hess felt a kinship with the crackpots he put on screen, Eagle creator Taika Waititi just wanted to mock his morons. Even with the evocative setting, the storyline seemed harsh and the characters more confrontational than charming.


About the only films in the last nine months that followed through on their omnipresent online anticipation came from one enlightened individual. While his name was already known to many in the motion picture bazaar thanks to certified 2006 hits Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and The 40 Year Old Virgin, Judd Apatow literally stormed the cinematic stocks in 2007 and took over the reign as comedy’s creative king. His Knocked Up was one of the Summer’s certified gems, and his production credit on the equally engaging Superbad gave the smallish coming of age farce a much needed shot of significance. And it worked. Both films remain fan favorites from the otherwise unimpressive sunshine season, and stand as examples of how nerd acknowledgment can lead to legitimate commercial claims.


But these are the rarities, the situations where artistic integrity (read: good filmmaking) meshed with Internet attention to create a cult of profitability. But it’s not really indicative of the dolt demographic’s perceived power. Indeed, both Superbad and Knocked Up got as much conventional support as they earned from the online community. No, in most cases, the fanatical come up rather short in their power to both guide and deride the similarly minded. Indeed, they are equally powerless at stopping a film’s support as they are at guaranteeing its success.


As mentioned before, Rob Zombie’s recent Halloween remake stands as a great example of their overall ineffectual stance. For months, Ain’t It Cool News was gunning for this “unnecessary” horror update. It published pundit piece after pundit piece criticizing the script (even before the film went into production), arguing over Zombie’s approach, and picking apart the casting. As time passed, the mandatory screening reviews started to appear, it was clear that Harry Knowles and his artificial (and actual) industry insiders were of one like mind. Because of their longstanding professional relationship with John Carpenter, they were desperate to undermine anything that challenged his legacy.


Now, this is not just conspiracy theorizing. While no one from the site has actually come out and stated such an intent, it’s pretty easy to infer, given the obtainable facts. Drew McWeeny, otherwise known to AICN readers as “Moriarty”, has worked very closely with Carpenter in the past. He scripted the macabre icon’s Master of Horror segments “Cigarette Burns” and “Pro-Life” and is noted for his connection to the famed filmmaker. It’s no surprise then that McWeeny took Zombie to task in a 31 August review of Halloween that, in brief, referred to the film as “creatively bankrupt from the start”, and incessantly trashed it for nearly 3000 words. Now, there is no denying the man’s entitlement to his opinion. It’s the cornerstone of criticism. But the lack of openness (Carpenter’s name is mentioned, but never the duo’s business relationship) taints any take.


The funny thing is – it really didn’t work. While far from a blockbuster and more or less destroyed by the rest of the fractured Fourth Estate, Halloween did go on to score almost $52 million at the box office, guaranteeing Zombie another stint behind the camera. In fact, your regular movie going audiences have been much more receptive of the film than the so-called clued in, and with its microscopic production costs (approximately $15 to $20 million, by some estimates), it will surely be labeled a decent sized hit. So what does this say about the geek contingent? Are they really a powerful predictor of success? Or are they nothing more than untried tea leaves for a desperate studio system?


The answer is clearly neither. While there is nothing new about gauging fan interest in divining a product’s potential success, Hollywood has forgotten something significant about the online community. Like talk radio and any other forum for public interaction, the squeaky wheels that choose to participate are not representative of the entire population. For every lover/hater of a movie/director/actor, there’s a Nixon-esque silent majority sitting back, making up its own mind. They will ignore the love of a specific author or genre type to simply pay for what interests them. In fact, the louder the screams from the self-imposed about the importance of a project, the more likely the hype will fall on indifferent or just plain deaf ears.


Certainly, the geek will have its failures. All gamblers do. And it is sad when such a flop is fostered upon an undeserving entity (Grindhouse was great, as was Shoot ‘Em Up!). But perhaps it’s time to stop using the overtly zealous as a benchmark for bankability. It’s clear that any position they take – pro or con – still renders a title a veritable unknown quantity. Like the buzz building around a student union, or a high school cafeteria, the new ‘Net water cooler is just one factor in a film’s overall potential success. The rest of the elements tend to render the nerd a minor mirror at best. Hopefully Hollywood will remember that come creativity/concept time. It’s one thing to play to the prone. Relying on them is just a fool’s paradise.


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Sunday, Sep 16, 2007


Back before Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson unleashed Scream on an unsuspecting genre public, no one would have fathomed linking fear and funny business together. Certainly there were specific spoofs of the fright film, and some directors believed instinctually that small amounts of comedy actually aided the dread. But to essentially make the humor as important as the horror seems a filmmaking feat of impossible parameters. Too much wit, and the suspense dries up. Too much fright and the jokes appear intrusive. Heralded by ‘Net head as the second coming of satiric scary splatter, Hatcher has lots of good things going for it. Unfortunately, they do tend to serve the same old slice and dice that hasn’t been relevant since a certain Mr. Reagan left the White House.


We are greeted by your standard spookshow premise – a pair of college friends visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras decide to go on a haunted swamp boat trip. It’s not a mutual decision – Ben is trying to get over being dumped by his girlfriend, while Marcus just wants to look at as many bead-less boobs as possible. Eventually, they make it to the launch, and there, among the various archetypal tourists and mysterious passengers, they learn of Victor Crowley. A legend among the bayou people, the story goes something like this – born with a horribly disfigured face, young Victor was kept sheltered from the world by his dad. When a Halloween prank by some local kids caused their shack to catch fire, the sad child’s father tried to save him. Unfortunately, the title implement he used ended up in Victor’s skull, leaving a massive scar. Now, decades later, an undead Victor supposedly stalks the bogs, looking for victims to satisfy his sense of justice.


Now, if this all sounds very Jason Voorhees and/or Freddy Krueger to you, that’s because Hatchet is cut from the same threadbare 1980s creepshow cloth. It is clear that writer/director Adam Green is a big time hack and slash fan, a fervent believer in the cinematic staying power of blood and buffoonery. While a tad too reliant on the post-modern notion of inherently ironic quips (the characters here don’t joke as much as provide a Mystery Science like nod and wink to everything that’s going on), Green does give us some mighty fine gore. In fact, it’s safe to say that Hatchet has some of the most satisfying anarchic arterial spray this side of a Romero zombie flick. This is the kind of film where heads are pulled apart, arms are severed from torsos, and – yes – axes cleave people in two - literally. While there is an over the top nature to the nastiness, it will provide lovers of repugnant liquidity more than enough sluice.


In fact, excessive claret may be Hatchet’s sole strong point. Green’s direction is good, if a tad generic, and he stages everything like one of those Disney Channel Halloweentown titles. There is very little invention, and his stock shocks are obvious and sort of embarrassing. Similarly, his cast offers nothing but stereotyped stops. They’re decent, but stuck essaying standard fright night fools. There’s a chubby Midwestern couple that stumbles around like mashed potatoes looking for the gravy boat, while a pair of pathetic bimbos and their pseudo softcore porn producer provider resemble outcasts from a Girls Gone Mild shoot. Even our evasive chick with a vendetta and a weapon turns into a whiny tart by the time Crowley starts wielding his sharpened stick.


Granted, our Goonies gone gonzo icon is a semi-impressive heavy, the kind of killer that immediately gets us thinking back to a dozen trips to the bottom shelf of a local Mom and Pop video store. But Green doesn’t give him a lot to do. All the set-up, with its sympathetic tone and temperament, never results in this maniac being anything other than murderous. And since a great deal of the action occurs at night and in shadowy locals, we never really get a good look at his fearsome fright mask. In some ways, Green goes to such lengths to keep Crowley in darkness that we never get the eerie epiphany his appearance mandates.


Still, it has to be said that Hatchet’s homage to the goofy, gloppy vivisection-fests of two decades before has a strange way of satisfying. The self-conscious wit actually works most of the time, and the inevitability of the deaths makes the character’s personal standoff seem that much sillier. Also, the bayou backdrop provides a nice amount of local color. Even the opening trips through the side streets of NOLA – and a few funny voodoo shops – puts us in the proper, pro-pus mood. Indeed, Hatchet has to screw up big time in order to have us hating it. When you toss in the production history (it was one of the last movies made in Louisiana before Katrina devastated the area) and the good nature attempt at recreating the genre, this film fairs very well.


Still, one has to wonder if the modern horror fan is ready to return to the days of creaky cat and mouse games followed by mindless mayhem without style or finesse. Over the 30 years since the slasher discovered its sage (either Bob Clark or John Carpenter – you decide), theatrical evil has strived to remove itself from the format’s rote realities. It’s wanted to avoid the carbon copy crappiness of the endless stream of splatter to reintroduce mood, narrative, characterization, and overall creativity back to the macabre medium. Still, when you can’t offer anything cogent, you go for what’s available. Scream substituted satire. Hatchet is hoping that humor pulls it through. The grand gore quotient does elevate an evaluation, but some will see it as noxiousness for novelty’s sake. In fact, that’s a perfect way to sum up this horror hilarity – outrageousness substituting for originality. 



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Saturday, Sep 15, 2007


Sometimes, as a critic, you’re stuck for a motive. You work your brain around the history of cinema, and while potential reasons seem to reverberate, you still can’t comprehend what inspired a specific motion picture decision. In this case, we are dealing with the confounding decision by Broadway director Julie Taymor to tackle the Beatles masterful catalog as part of some post-modern musical experiment. Certainly, one senses an aesthetic in the right place – the Fab Four remain pop benchmarks and cultural earthquakes, individuals who redefined the very life and times they lived in. In addition, the ‘60s still reverberate with messages of peace, love, and equality - ideals that have just as much import today as they did forty years ago. Yet how all this ended up in the wildly uneven and creatively confused Across the Universe will remain a mystery to even the most insightful movie mind.


Telling the barest of stories and sprinkling an odd amalgamation of Northern Songs throughout, Taymor tries to achieve the same level of visual insanity and emotional power as Ken Russell managed in his adaptation of the Who’s Tommy, and Milos Forman found in his reinterpretation of the rock opera Hair. In fact, you’d be better served seeking out a rental copy of each of these gems and watching them side by side. Unfortunately, such a celluloid clash would only minimally mimic the mess Taymor achieves. This is either the most brilliant disaster ever helmed, or the most abysmal masterpiece ever crafted, a blunted gem that can’t make up its mind if it wants to shine, stumble or just plain stink. For every element of originality and invention, there’s a stereotypical take that destroys the atmosphere. Further more, the minute the music stops and the actors attempt to deliver their dialogue, all the energy dies. We soon find ourselves awash in clichés and cryptograms.


Our journey begins with Jude (and yes, there will also be a Lucy, a Sadie, a Prudence, a Max, and a JoJo, just to keep the Lennon/McCartney obviousness intact), a Liverpool shipyard worker who wants to find his American dad. Jumping ship in New Jersey, he locates his father working as a janitor at Princeton. After befriending fun boy Max, Jude winds up having Thanksgiving with the Ivy Leaguer’s definition of WASP-ish Americana. There he meets and falls for Lucy. Soon, everyone has relocated to the Big Apple, where Jude gets a job as an artist, Lucy becomes an activist, and Max is drafted.


They rent their communal pad from the Janis Joplin-esque Sadie, who has a Jimi Hendrix-ish guitarist boyfriend named JoJo. Along the way, we see the birth of campus revolution, the death of a black child during the Detroit Riots, and the introduction of acid by a LSD Guru named – wait for it – Dr. Robert. Eventually, Jude is deported, Lucy is feared dead, and Max comes back from his tour of duty in a less than sane state. Of course, all they need is love and everything is tangerine trees and strawberry fields…forever.


From a casting standpoint alone, Across the Universe suffers from that supposedly sincerest form of flattery – imitation. Sultry singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs) is the spitting image of Joan Osborne, while JoJo (Martin Luther) is Ritchie Havens in a purple haze. It’s not the actual actor’s fault – they’ve been cast and presented this way. Less obvious are the three main leads. Both Joe Anderson as Max and Evan Rachel Wood as Lucy are supposed to be carved out of suburban symbolism, but both have the generic appeal or your typical Tinsel Town target audience. They aren’t individuals, they’re icons to wholesome hollowness, ex-Mickey Mouse Club members not invited to the reunion. In fact, the only performer who seems specifically selected for his combination of aura and singing chops is UK thesp Jim Sturgess. When he interacts with his fellow failures, he brings an inherent depth the others don’t possess. Even better, when he sings, he adds nuance and feeling to what is, for the most part, bland bombastic vocalizing.


Which brings us, naturally, to the music. Taymor wants to be innovative and unconventional in the way she interprets the Beatles songs, and with rare exception, her muse misses the mark by a long and winding country mile. The opening parallels between the US and the UK, set to the groove of “It Won’t Be Long” indicates where this project could have gone, and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is given a mournful ballad feel (and a sly subtext) that’s truly moving. But then there are outrageously awful misfires like Eddie Izzard’s atrocious reading of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” or Bono’s bloated take on “I Am the Walrus”. Both numbers immediately bring to mind the cameo-packed claptrap from 1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Apparently, no one on this production learned a single lesson from that fiasco. Otherwise, they’d never consider putting a non-singing comic (Steve Martin) in a role where he’s required to belt out an incongruous joke tune (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”).


But it’s Tommy that keeps reverberating in your head, the wild eyed weirdness of Ken Russell’s slightly controlled chaos reminding one of how good this kind of material can be. Naturally, said rock show was specifically created as a character study, not cobbled together out of a classic band’s hit tracks. But Taymor is still trying to fill in the narrative and contextual gaps by the application of imagery, and it’s here where her status as a rogue surrealist wannabe finally fizzles and fades. During “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, refugee Marvs from Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City do a dopey ballet with army recruits in their underpants. A CGI montage of pre-induction tests battles against the same semi-clothed dudes carrying the Statue of Liberty like coffin bearers. Near the end, when Max is mental, multiple Salma Hayeks show up to administer pain killers as “Happiness is a Warm Gun” plays. Before long the entire hospital room is spinning like a carnival ride while a priest has a conniption fit. Groovy. 


Even the more normal takes on the material let the director down. JoJo arrives in New York to the strains of “Come Together” (featuring the brilliant move of having Joe Cocker play the ersatz narrator), but the obvious discomfort onscreen continues, mostly because of the incongruous nature of the images with the lyrics. In addition, a poignant moment set to “Let It Be” equally looses all its steam. The singing is miraculous – the metaphors are mixed. While there’s no denying that Taymor hits on more than one sequence of solid inspiration, it all becomes a question if it’s the material (it’s pretty near impossible to screw up an “All You Need is Love” singalong) or the mannered approach (overripe fruit as a symbol of destruction linked with “Strawberry Fields Forever”) that finally does her in.


The truth is, it’s neither. Had this filmmaker fumbled through the last four decades of rock and roll, picking out the purposefully obtuse and long since forgotten, found a non-derivative tale about growing up in turbulent times, and tried to meld her story with her symbols, we’d have a much better effort than anything Across the Universe attempts. The problem is an iconic cloud cast by The Beatles themselves. This was a group that literally shifted the cultural dynamic, leaving behind a lasting impression as both brilliant songwriters and social barometers. Like trying to import Picasso into your production designs, or using a shot for shot Hitchcock as your frame of reference, the music of John, Paul, George, and Ringo had too much baggage to stand on its own. While Taymor may admit she took that into consideration when making this movie, given the deconstructionist nature of some of her choices, it’s a patina she can never fully overcome.


That’s why Across the Universe is so uneven. You have to work so hard at forgetting everything you know about the boys from Liverpool, even as the movie constantly throws their monumental achievements directly at you, that it’s frequently not worth the effort. In addition, the lack of insight and artistic shortcutting produces an overlong, laborious crusade. In many ways, this remains one of the worst ideas in the entire pop culture lexicon. Yet somehow, the individuals in charge of Cirque De Soleil managed to find a happy medium between creative and crass when they turned the Beatles Love into a Las Vegas strip hit. Of course, the free form acrobatic show doesn’t have a lax narrative, cardboard characters, uninspired imagination, or a rose colored glasses view of the ‘60s to hamper it. It simply treats the Fab Four as they deserve to be. This movie avoids such direct respect - and pays the price.


 


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Saturday, Sep 15, 2007


They don’t call them ‘the formative years’ for nothing. Our past constantly crashes into the present reminding us of the many reasons we become the people we are. As a result, we love to wallow in such nostalgic glimpses of shame, frustration, and accomplishment. They seem to support our own shaky self image, and add up to a universal connection between generations and personalities. Perhaps one day, a filmmaker will come along and find a way to tap into the inherent satiric possibilities of such blissful backwards glancing. If you’re looking for a joyless, toothless mess of a comedy that tries to use individual development as a means of metering out laughs, than the sad excuse for entertainment known as Mr. Woodcock will be right up your mangled memory lane.


There is a decent idea for a movie buried somewhere in this attention span testing nightmare. It floats along the surface of what is, in essence, a very forced bit of funny business. Even the story screams stupidity. After years away, self help guru John Farley (a desperate Seann William Scott) is awarded the Golden Corn Key by his Nebraska hometown. Using a trip back as an excuse to avoid a mind numbing book tour (organized by agent as soused aggravation Amy Poehler), John reconnects with his Mom (Susan Sarandon) and discovers the shocking news. The widow has been dating again – as a matter of fact, she’s going out with her son’s sadistic gym teacher from middle school, Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thorton). The news dredges up painful, problematic memories for John, reminders of being mocked and abused by the buzz cut wearing jerk. He decides to use any means necessary to stop this possible partnership, especially now that wedding bells may be about to ring.


With the proper, no holds barred approach melded with a mean-spirited, manipulative script, this could be some hilarious stuff. But because of a preemptive PG-13 mandate from the studio, and a lack of any real intelligence or insight, this potential testosterone-laced standoff ends up a panty waisted wuss-out. It’s not just that the film is painfully unfunny – it fails to even understand why its jokes don’t begin to work. For example, when John complains to Woodcock that he doesn’t want to conform to some request, the emotionless man deadpans “do what you want. This isn’t Russia”. Similarly, during a last act battle royale for some manner of interfamilial superiority, every cornball catchphrase the PE coach has pulled out over the running time is regurgitated, as if to reemphasize how one note and completely superficial his prickly personality really is. Had the movie spent more time in the setup, showing John Farley as a sad little boy in a constant war with Woodcock, any payoff would have some context. But all we get are lame ‘lame’ kid riffs, followed by more dull Wood-cockiness. 


In yet another variation of his by now stereotypical ornery, wiry SOB persona (something he popularized with similarly styled efforts like Bad Santa and The Bad News Bears remake), Thorton plays the title character like a man wearing a peanut sized jock strap. His body suggests a few stints in rehab, not a lifetime in service of the President’s Physical Fitness Program. As a star, he really only has two modes – passive and peculiar – and yet he manages neither here. There is no chemistry with co-star Sarandon (who seems to be following the Diane Keaton “do any script that comes your way” version of a late in life career change) and very little believable combativeness with Scott. Indeed, when watching him work, you’d swear that Thorton was phoning this one in – and using one of those early ‘80s shoe box sized suckers to do it with.


The story also suffers from being wildly unfocused and full of unexplored tangents. Scott is given a gal pal, apparently, to prove he’s not some manner of failed momma’s boy, yet the possible plot thread NEVER goes anywhere. Similarly, he hooks up with one of his old classmates (My Name is Earl’s Ethan Suplee) in his plot for revenge. After one stint with a video camera, and another involving a little breaking and entering, said avenue of discovery is tossed aside. Even during one of several false finales (Scott lets the town have it in a pseudo scathing, subpar speech) we feel the ethereal brakes constantly being applied, filmmakers or fixtures behind the scenes stopping the comedy from ever getting too extreme or biting. Indeed, when a raging lush like Poehler’s character can’t get her alcohol fueled groove on (she has a sad seduction sequence in a bar), we’re witnessing watered down humor at its most bland.


None of this speaks well for novice director Craig Gillespie. A creator of TV commercials for the last two decades, his idea of cinematic innovation and intrigue is to preprogram specific beats and overlong laughter pauses into the actually narrative. Thorton will let rip with one of his listless macho man maxims, and the movie will actually wait until you’re done chortling. Even worse, sight gags and slapstick are regularly stifled so that the accompanying audience appreciation can be metaphysically measured. If timing is everything in comedy, Gillespie is a broken Bulova that’s lost its quartz crystal. From the lack of any realism in the performances (though humor can be fanciful, it should have an anchor in some kind of authenticity), to the sloppy and unsatisfactory wrap up, to the various dangling plot points, this is a director who suggests that every new film will be another act of apprenticeship.


Mr. Woodcock is not really a crowd pleaser or some kind of ‘dumb as dirt’ delight. Instead, it’s an apparent attempt to reset the demarcation when determining the lowest common denominator. If you enjoy wit wrapped around the repetition of one single snicker (John has to hear the employees of a pizza parlor constantly referencing his mother’s sexual prowess with the title character), or an obvious joke name (the brain pan appreciation of Beavis and Butthead immediately comes to mind), then this cinematic sludge is your perfect escapist exercise. Finding it mindless won’t be hard, since there’s not a single slice of gray matter swimming in its spoof. Perhaps the only thing more depressing than a movie that can’t manage the opportunities it has is one that specifically ignores them to go for the crotch shot. This is the filmic version of a football to the groin – with only the plentiful pain remaining.



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