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Friday, Oct 23, 2009

You’d think in our media-savvy, information overload society that a story like this would be rote. We’d all know the legend of Tillie Edlestein, her years of struggle helping with her immigrant Jewish father’s Catskills hotel, her eventual leap into the limelight as creator, writer, and star of one of radio’s biggest hits, and the reasons why the Red Scare almost ruined her career. We’d acknowledge the fact that she was the first ever winner of an Emmy for Best Actress in a comedy, would recognize her place as the “inventor” of the situation comedy, and champion her ability to make highly ethnic issues mainstream, especially in a time of rampant Anti-Semitism. We also question her continuing mythos even today.


Yet ask your average media buff about Gertrude Berg (Tillie’s stage name), the various incarnations of her Goldberg’s persona and program (radio, TV, and film), and her nearly five decades of superstardom, and they will stare at you dumbfounded, wondering why you’re making this all up. Yet as part of the remarkable documentary Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, director Aviva Kempner hopes to change all that. As the marketing tagline says, Berg was “the most famous person in America you’ve never heard of”, and this smart, sentimental film wants to alter that perception once and for all.


Part of the problem with Berg’s lingering legacy is that she made her name in that now dead artform known as serial radio. Five days a week, 15 minutes each day, the diva-dynamo created a homey comedy sketch of life in the marginally middle class neighborhoods of New York. Her characters were decidedly Jewish, but her stories focused less on religion and more on the pure family dynamics of the time. She had a wonderful ear for dialogue, even if some critics complained that she was making fun of, not having fun with, the very people she was championing and as the years went by, audiences grew weary of the woman’s combination of earnestness, ethnicity, and easy going humor. By the time the ‘60s rolled around, she had been in the business for almost 50 years - and yet today, she’s a virtual unknown.


Yet thanks to Kempner’s clever combination of biography, historical perspective, and talking head appreciation, we begin to understand what made Berg so special. In a unique way, she was both larger than life and yet completely down to Earth. People recognized that her famed persona - Molly Goldberg - was an amalgam of the entire immigrant experience. When the nation was sinking deeper into Depression, the country-loving optimism of Berg’s character helped alleviate some of the country’s ills. Perhaps the most amazing fact about the Goldberg program, aside from its popularity, is its longevity. Throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s Berg was a near constant presence on the air. Not only did she do her show, but she was a successful shill for many of the main products of the time - and this during a time of growing (and often horrific) Anti-Semitism. 


It’s interesting to see these famous and not so famous faces sing Berg’s praises. Everyone from noted actors and activists to a member of the Supreme Court discuss the impact the character and its creator had on their ethnic identity. Like she did with the equally compelling story The Life and Times of Hank Goldberg, director Kempner personalizes the political underpinnings of her narrative. When Berg is suddenly “blacklisted” because she continued to support co-star Philip Loeb after his run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee, the unfairness of the position is supporting by the more modern judgments of those interviewed. There is no attempt to justify it. Berg simply soldiered on, regaining her import by sheer force a will. It is through anecdotes like this that we learn more about the impact the celebrity had on her own life and career than by a simple repetition of facts.


Of course, context is everything, but due to the era in which Berg performed, precious little of her material remains. We hear a few snippets from her radio shows and experience some old kinescopes of her sitcom. Perhaps the most intriguing bits come in the form of a failed Goldberg movie, as well as a filmed comedy in which a now remained “Mrs. G” decides to become a post-war college freshman. It is clear that, up until the swinging ‘60s, Berg was still seen as a hot commercial commodity. The desire to squeeze her into an idea, to continue to provide the audience with exactly what they wanted shows how substantial The Goldbergs trademark was. In fact, many of the participants argue that the series and the character of Molly set the standard for Jewish mothers (both bad and good) for the entire 20th Century.


If Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg has a failing - and it’s really a minor quibble at best - it’s that there’s no attempt by Kempner or her subjects to fully explain why Berg’s star dimmed so quickly. Granted, she died just as the country was going through its own countercultural revolution, and the lack of archival acknowledgement couldn’t have helped. There is also the notion that contemporary comics like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and perhaps most importantly, Totie Fields, deconstructed a lot of what Berg established, tuning it into something to pity rather than celebrate. But when we think about pioneers from the past, when we discuss radio highlights (or in the case of Amos and Andy, notorious lowlights) or early TV icons, Berg is barely mentioned. Again, for many this movie will be the first time they have ever heard of her. And that’s a shame. No matter the accomplishments during her lifetime, Gertrude Berg remains an integral part of the modern media’s formation. Thankfully, we now have a permanent testament to how important - and irresistible - she was.


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Friday, Oct 9, 2009

When Swingers stumbled onto the scene back in 1996, it was championed as a brilliant piece of indie smarm. With Jon Favreau providing the script and Doug Liman directing, the cast (including then unknowns Vince Vaughn, Ron Livingston, and Heather Graham) took the tale of a group of fun loving friends and, for a moment, transformed it into a one way ticket to Coolsville. While the cult didn’t last long, it catapulted the cast into the lower levels of Hollywood’s soon to be heavy hitters. In the 13 years since, Vaughn has transformed into a comedy chameleon while partner Farveau has gone on to become an A-list director, thanks in no small part to Elf and Iron Man. Now the duo are reteaming for a relationships laugher called Couples Retreat. Sadly, it appears their sense of humor is stuck squarely in the middle of the Clinton Administration.


With their inability to have kids complicating their marriage, anal duo Jason and Cynthia are desperate for a solution. So they sign up for an exclusive couple’s retreat in a fabulous tropical locale. The only problem? In order to afford it, they have to get six more of their friends to join in. This means convincing the happily married Dave and Ronnie, the headed to divorce court Joey and Lucy, and the already single Shane (hooking up with a horny 20 year old) to come along for the therapeutic fun. Naturally, they all say “No”, that is, until Jason more or less begs. Before they know it, they’re in Eden, a gorgeous getaway that offers jet skiing, kayaking, snorkeling - and of course, endless sessions of intense analysis and soul bearing with founder Mr. Marcel. All seems to be going well until Shane’s gal pal bails, heading over to the singles side of the island for a little fun. With the rest of the group heading in that same direction, it looks like this is one marriage oasis that will result in more break-ups than make-ups. 


Couples Retreat is well-meaning but dull, really nothing more than a retread update of the far superior 1981 comedy The Four Seasons. While not an actual remake, writers Favreau, Vaughn and What Happens In Vegas’ Dana Fox obviously recognize the potential in putting four paramour pairings together, letting their various idiosyncrasies and thoughts about love seep into the silly stuff. They also more or less mimic the Alan Alda/Carol Burnett offering, giving us the settled couple with some minor issues (Vaughn and Malin Akerman), the duo who just don’t connect anymore (Favreau and Kristin Davis), the weirdoes who think that a Power Point presentation on Testicular Cancer it a good reason for a party (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell), and the recently divorced sugar daddy (Faizon Love) whose brought his braying whiny baby doll (Kali Hawk) into this mix.


By throwing all these types at the camera, director Peter Billingsley hopes to offer an overview of commitment and complaints circa 2009. Instead, Couples Retreat feels decidedly old school. In a current comedy climate which sees shock-a-thon masterworks as The Hangover rake in millions of dollars, poking gentle fun at New Age marriage counselors is not the most up to date means of making people laugh. Even more disconcerting, Favreau and Vaughn overload the film with all manner of touchy feely gender clichés. The men here all think with their privates - except Vince, who is constantly mocked for being so libido-less. The gals all complain about a lack of romance, their otherwise complicated lives easily appeased with a simple trip to an ethereal waterfall. In between, RomCom formulas are dusted off and discussed, tired vaudevillian portraits of psychotherapy are brought out of mothballs, and the entire premise pays off in ways that even a novice to the world of husband and wife narratives could easily predict.


Of course, if the material is making you roll in the aisle with laughter, all of this tried and true treacle won’t matter. But aside from some obvious giggles, Couples Retreat is more of a smile producer than a side splitter. Sure, we chuckle when Vaughn’s infant son relieves himself in a home improvement store toilet, but its one of several such bodily function gags. Faizon Love is a massive mountain of a man, so it makes perfect sense that his bare buttocks get a huge audience reaction. Then there is the yoga scene, already hinted about in the trailer. Going on for far too long, we get stud boy sex puppet Carlos Ponce as Salvatore, a man who doesn’t mind shoving his groin into provocative places - female OR male. The first few crotch thrusts are funny. By the ten minute mark, we want out.


At least the performances pack some punch. Vaughn and Akerman make a good team, and she’s excellent when not required to act like an idiot. Favreau and Davis are so busy making cow eyes at the available paradise playthings that we never really discover why they no longer lust after each other (it has something to do with getting pregnant at prom, supposedly). Bateman and Bell take the type A personality to its logical, and sometimes laughable, ends, while Love is always likeable as the big black teddy bear who just can’t keep up with his much younger bed buddy. Perhaps the only embarrassed member of the cast is Jean Reno, who seems stuck in a role Ben Kingsley obviously abandoned. We are supposed to be shocked at seeing the familiar French treasure taking on such silly material. Instead, we are just embarrassed.


While Billingsley acquits himself well in the directing department, it’s the script that finally sinks Couples Retreat. Perhaps five years ago, before Judd Apatow irreparable turned cleverness toward the penis, this would have worked. But ever since The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, relationship comedies have to be over the top, scatological, and loaded with F-bombs. At PG-13, this movie is playing in a completely different cinematic territory. There is no denying the talent on display. Everyone involved has been better, and more importantly, more box office friendly than where Couples Retreat finds them. A mere 13 years ago, such a film would seem like a major leap forward for Favreau and Vaughn. Today, it’s like a look back - and not a very fun bit of unnecessary nostalgia at that.


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Friday, Sep 11, 2009

A slasher film is only as good as its slice and dice. That’s a given. It also needs a compelling killer that instills a sense of monstrous mystery within the narrative and a group of victims that are interchangeable without being totally vacant. Oh, and there must be blood - lots and (c)lots of blood. Find a way to make all these elements work in some sort of plausible proportion and you’ll give an already suspicious fright film audience their basic money’s worth. Earlier this year, My Bloody Valentine 3D and Friday the 13th 2009 brought the aging horror format back from the commercial dead. Both films found a compelling way to sell their systematic slaughter. Now comes another remake, this time of 1983’s House on Sorority Row, and while it remembers to address the basic tenets of terror, the uneven way it gets there eventually undermines its effectiveness.


Senior sisters Cassidy, Chugs, Ellie, Claire, and Jessica are the queen bees of the Theta Pi house. Along with fellow fembot Megan, they reign supreme over their particular plot of the on-campus clique community. One night, during a massive party, the girls decide to pull a prank on Chugs’ unstable brother Garrett. Fast forward a few hours and things have gone horribly wrong, requiring the disposal of a body and a strong arm vow of silence. Eight months later and it’s time to graduate. Just one more blow out shindig and a year of death, decisions, and deception will be forgotten forever - except, there’s a hooded figure roaming sorority row, and it has only one thought on its mind…revenge. That’s right, someone is targeting the gals for their part in the awful events of that long ago night, and they won’t stop until every last one of them has paid…in blood.


As long as you understand what Sorority Row is, as long as you don’t go into it expecting some snarky reimagining or straight forward shocker, you’ll survive. You won’t always enjoy the experience, but the overall effect remains solidly stuck in the ‘80s. Director Stewart Hendler, a clear student of the Greed Decades defining genre subcategory, does his best to inject a kind of snide cynicism into the mix, making his uptight college gals as bitchy and belittling as a TMZ byline. When these proper young ladies deliver an insult, it’s bound to sting - and badly. But he is also considerate of the cinematic shorthand mandated by this kind of movie. We get the typical cat and mouse moments, the false scares and preplanned shocks - and when necessary - the cruel and heartless hacking that gorehounds have come to love.


But don’t get the wrong idea - journeyman efficiency is not the same thing as outright entertainment value. Like a celluloid seesaw, Sorority Row rocks back and forth between fun and forgettable, drawn out moments of catty character interaction dulling the otherwise razor-sharp ripping. In order to maintain the proper victim to red herring ratio, the script by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger keeps introducing new characters, including a bunch of meatheaded frat boyfriends, a politically ambitious Senator, a sexually perverted psychologist, a suspicious collection of ancillary sisters (one who actually pays for her shower stall eavesdropping), and the arrival of a spectral sibling whose only purpose appears to be out witching the already established campus coven (SNAP!). They provide a diversion, but not the kind that keeps you invested in the mystery.


In fact, a lot of Sorority Row feels superficial, fashioned out of pieces that will trigger thoughts of excitement in the viewer’s head without actually sparking any real enthusiasm. This is especially true for students of the fear format, those long haul horror mavens who’ve championed the style ever since Christmas went Black and Halloween turned even more terrifying. Granted, it’s easy to appreciate the combination of humor and hacking - it’s been a long standing tradition in the slasher film. It’s just too bad then that more attention was paid to the jokes and personal put downs than the means of dispensing death. A retrofitted tire iron, complete with a bowie knife, is a rather limited means of dismembering and while our killer uses a couple other devices to get his (or her) murderous point across, this is not an exercise in unique methods of maiming.


As for the acting, no one is earning their scream queen mythos from this group of good looking ciphers. Only Rumer Willis (daughter of Bruce and Demi) leaves an impression, and that’s mostly because she’s a one note blubbering idiot most of the time. Looking for misplaced emotional outbursts? The former power couple’s kid is ready to weep like a wounded war widow. Elsewhere, The Hills’ Adrina Partridge is typecast - as a personality free corpse - while Margo Harshman turns Chugs into every father’s binge drinking, drug taking, boy screwing, future porn starring nightmare. Only Leah Pipes seems locked into her character’s ripe royal smarm, delivering her cruel criticism with a wicked wink toward the audience. And Greg Evigan’s daughter Briana is deliberately dour as vexed voice of reason Cassidy. For the most part, however, everyone here is interchangeable, the kind of ill-defined mannequins that have you questioning individual and importance time and time again.


Still, for anyone who spent a dateless Saturday night perusing the bevy of b-titles malingering along the bottom shelf of their local Mom and Pop video store (remember those?), Sorority Row will be a pleasant bit of nostalgia. Sure, the girls are far more “fake” in their various forms of undressed physicality and Hendler has a ways to go before he can be called a master of macabre, but for the most part, this film promises little and then delivers. Nothing fancy. Nothing forward thinking. And sadly, nothing very frightening either. Perhaps because of its status as an overused commercial gimmick to get ‘80s adolescents into movie theaters, the slasher film has lost most of its luster. Sorority Row won’t restore it, but it also won’t tarnish it further.


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Wednesday, Sep 9, 2009

There are very few visionaries left in Hollywood, with even fewer arriving every day - and with good reason. It’s not easy pitching your quirky, esoteric product to a group of suits solely interested in the bottom line. Today’s business model is about money, not the mind’s eye. Not matter how artistically pleasing or aesthetically sound, you just can’t stay completely true to your muse and not face some strong commercial (and career) backlash. That’s why Shane Acker’s story is so intriguing. After an Oscar nomination highlighted his beautiful, baroque animation approach, filmmakers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov championed his jump to feature films. The result is 9, a stunning, if narratively stunted exercise in optical bliss and plotting hit or miss that could have been better if it wasn’t so basic. 


As one of nine living burlap puppets in a desolate, post-War environment, our title hero hooks up with the rest of his reanimated brethren: 1, a despotic leader; 2, a kindly sage, 3 and 4, twins who work in an information archive; 5 whose one eyed façade hints at the horrors in this frightening new domain; 6, who sees prophecy in the images he draws; 7, a female fighter with more nerve than other of her kind, and 8, a lumbering bodyguard to 1’s stern leadership. Together, they must figure out what happened to the human population while stopping a massive factory-sized machine from creating destructive devices bent on bringing about their own demise. Eventually, 9 uncovers a secret about why he’s alive, and the power that such a status holds in bringing humanity back from the brink of utter extinction.


9 is the kind of movie that breaks your heart. It shows so much promise, but then wastes it on the same old fuddy duddy future shock storyline. After all, how many times do we have to sit through a “man vs. machines” parable where our arrogance and technological drive leads to our eventual undoing. Sure, director Shane Acker dresses it all up in World War I/II paraphernalia, the Nazi/Fascist overtones carried throughout with sledgehammer like subtlety. True, the tone is not child friendly, but geared more toward the Goth guy/gal and geek mentality. And yes, the voice work is absolutely amazing, everyone from Elijah Wood (as 9) to Crispin Glover (6), John C. Reilly (5), and Jennifer Connelly (7) spot-on in their delivery and demeanor.


But that doesn’t make the mechanical monster mash any newer or more novel. 9 constantly reminds the audience of The Matrix (especially in the look of its villains), The Terminator (in it’s A.I. gone gonzo themes), and numerous other examples of the speculative type. Along with an equally schizophrenic spiritual message - more on that in a moment - we are stuck following formulas that would barely work at all if not for Ackers amazing artistry. Indeed, the one thing that saves this proposed CG epic is the jaw-dropping production and character design. Whenever the story starts to lag, whenever the references become too recognizable or obvious, Acker delivers a robot or wide reaction shot that will absolutely floor you. He crafts vistas that take your breath away while populating them with particulars of equal optical excellence. Like the best kind of magician, 9 misdirects you from the misguided man behind the curtain to visual splendor that steals the show.


Still, we are stuck with narrative facets that don’t feel right. The whole “soul” situation makes little or no sense, the ability to trap such an enigmatic ideal in a tiny doll appearing counterproductive to the rest of the story’s set-up. In fact, it feels like a cheat, a way of showing audiences that, in the end, the human race will be saved. It doesn’t help that each of our nine leads are locked into caricaturist confines - champion, coward, iron fisted ruler, deliberate dreamer - making their path to the planet’s repopulation sketchy at best. And Acker never really explains his sci-fi rules here, something that is imperative in making this material work. Clearly, he was busier with the nuts and bolts of the film’s look than in trying to make everything in his wistful wasteland work in a literarily sound way.


And yet 9 defies you not to be moved by its visual acumen. Acker is clearly a genius in combining ideas, using a clever combination of the Victorian and the high tech, the junkyard and the completely foreign to forge a unique and memorable ideal. Sure, his puppets are nothing more than your standard sell-through figurines, but the rest of this rotting world has a perverse polish all its own. The villains here are undeniably evil in their cobbled together terror tenets. While the story never knocks us out, the action sequences and attention to detail certainly do. By the end, when we’ve wandered over from battles to matters of belief, the contrasts become more obvious. We need the bad to shore up the good. Without it, the treacle takes over, and the result is something that never quite feels new, even with all the up-to-date aspects of its approach up on the screen for all to see.


With an inferred demographic who will find this frequently flying way over their grumbling gradeschooler heads, it’s hard to see 9 becoming anything other than an obvious cult classic. Those who adore it will excuse the lack of narrative nuance, while others in the cinematic sect will worship individual elements like they are sure signs from God himself. One thing is for certain - Shane Acker has a seemingly boundless imagination that can salvage even the most simplistic, standardized sci-fi plot. 9 could have been a true animation masterpiece, the kind that rarely come along outside of a place called Pixar. Instead, it wastes a lot of creative energy on a concept that’s been before - and frankly, outside of the CG eye candy involved, better. 


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Thursday, Sep 3, 2009

For Mike Judge, the world is divided into the fringe - and then everyone else. His movies don’t center around young urban professionals living angst-filled lives in the big city, or high powered businessmen transacting trepidation from their unsure international connections. No, for the man responsible for a couple of backward adolescent metal heads named Beavis and Butthead, the marginalized members of society offer a far more appealing source of inspiration. The working Joes, the suffering single mothers - these are the people he wants to party with. And in his latest live action film, Extract, that’s exactly what he does. Within the small Texas town where flavoring manufacturer Joel Reynolds has set up shop, an entire universe of karma, pro and con, is about to unravel - and Judge can’t wait to show us how it happens.


Things are not going well for our eager entrepreneur. He is married to a woman who uses sweatpants as a barrier toward sexual intimacy and his workers run the gamut from the socially awkward to the borderline retarded. One day, wannabe floor supervisor Step suffers a horrible accident that almost costs him his testicles. Simultaneously, Joel gets a buy-out offer from General Mills. The potential lawsuit turns the deal from certain to unsure. Still, our hero is convinced he can work things out. Into his life walks smoking hot temp Cindy. Seeing her as someone who sympathizes with his plight, Joel gets bartender buddy Dean to set up his wife with a gigolo. That way, when she cheats, he can be with Cindy blame free. What he doesn’t know, however, is that this new girl is a con artists, using Step to set up Joel for a huge multimillion dollar settlement.


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