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Wednesday, Jul 15, 2009
It's fascinating to watch a young cast grow through the years in (more or less) tandem with the age of their quickly maturing characters. It becomes somewhat less so, however, to watch them undergo the same kind of trials and tribulations from one film to the next.

At what point did the Harry Potter film franchise become a race against repetition? In J.K. Rowling’s series of popcorn-munching fantasy-lite page-turners, the cycle of familiar events is something that helps power them along. Without the susurrus of new classes, new teachers, school holidays, and the rising and falling of friendships and crushes humming in the foreground, the books would have been lost beneath a crashing din of Rowling’s hyperactive plotting. As fantastical fictionalizing of the dreary retread of school years that march one towards adulthood, the books’ magic was rarely about exploration or discovery, but rather about circling the wagons of home and hearth against the darkness outside. Repetition, in the correct dosage, helped reinforce the sense of normalcy and protection that progressively shriveled from book to darker-hued book.


In the film series—which helped instantly transform the books into just another widget in the corporate multimedia entertainment platform before they could really take on an imaginative life of their own—those same guideposts of repetition become less reassuring, though, than they do overbearing. It’s a fascinating thing, as an audience, to watch a young cast grow through the years in tandem with their quickly maturing characters. It becomes less so to watch them undergo the same kind of trials and tribulations from one film to the next.


In film number six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the threatening overtures of the Dark Lord and his wraiths of doom are gathering swiftly. Meanwhile, at Hogwarts, where new security procedures have been put into place, the students go about their business, albeit more nervously than usual. A round of thwarted romance sweeps through the trio of Ron, Hermione, and Harry, aiming to provide some lovesick cheer amidst the gloom. Where director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves go wrong almost from the start is in how they decide to toggle back and forth between the two spheres of dangerous dark-fighting and high school angst, with the latter seeming to get much more attention.


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Friday, Jul 10, 2009
Ridiculing American rubes is like shooting dead, motionless fish in a barrel filled with Jell-O. The only "genius" involved is getting the public to buy it as scandal.

I am tired of all the “social commentary” accolades. I am fed-up with the entire “holding a mirror up to homophobic America” excuses. As I was when Sacha Baron Cohen arrived on these shores with a movie made from his hit HBO TV series, I am still not convinced he is the future of comedy. He did indeed change the face of post-modern humor—over to Judd Apatow and the gang. Now the man who made Borat an adolescent after-party merriment (and in turn, banked a few million bucks in the process) is back, ready to redefine funny business once again (I hope the cast of The Hangover is paying attention…). This time around, it’s gender politics that’s getting the ribbing, and like my last run-in with a British comic as faux foreign correspondent, Brüno is far from brilliant. Indeed, it’s a one note movie that forgets said message early and often. 


Clearly cobbled together after an initial approach didn’t work (got to give the fashionistas credit - they saw through Cohen’s ruse rather quickly) the four credited screenwriters return the narrative right back to Borat country, bringing Austria’s favorite TV boy toy to the bigoted US of A to see if lightning strikes this particular ambush angle another time. In what passes for a plot, Brüno is blackballed by the entire European media, unable to get a job after ruining a runway show with his Velcro suit. Setting up shop in LA with his sycophantic manservant Lutz by his side, he is desperate to be famous again.


He hopes to strike a deal for his own celebrity gossip show. When a focus group is less than enthused with his gay-bating gall, he tries to make a sex tape. After that, he goes charitable and adopts a baby from Africa. After a misguided talk show appearance, he is left with only one choice - go “straight”. Seeking the aid of a Christian ‘converter’, Brüno tries to fit in with a group of rednecks. Eventually, he realizes that his fawning assistant Lutz really does care about him. They go off to get married, secure in their belief that love will find a way.


Now, are you laughing yet? Does the plot description make you giggle uncontrollably? If not, you’re going to have problems with Brüno. This is a movie that relies more heavily on story than the “stop and shock” antics as before. There is clearly more scripted material here, attempts by Cohen and the rest of the cast to raise eyebrows by bringing gay life and its many sexual components to the mainstream. This is a movie obsessed with dicks—full frontal and blacked out, anal and oral acts simulated in order to give Joe Sixpack and his adolescent complements a couple of awkward orientation heart attacks. If you’re naïve, in high school, or a dedicated follower of scatology, you’ll think this is genius. Anyone with world experience, however, will feel left out of the loop.


That’s because Brüno never rises to Cohen’s previous levels of truth. When Borat challenged people on their racial or cultural biases, he did so knowing that real reactions merit the biggest laughs. But as we sit through a sequence where desperate stage moms (and a dad) agree to exploit their children for a shot at stardom, the joke is on our lead. All he has to do is watch an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras to see he is years behind the curve in mocking the “anything for fame” mindset. It’s the same when Brüno calls his agent while getting his ass waxed and his anus bleached. We are supposed to snicker at the entire set-up. But outside of a few backwater burgs in the Bible belt, these are subjects spoken about regularly on cable channels like E!


Borat had “gypsy tears” and the whole “stranger in a strange land” strategy. Brüno avoids any such outsider conceits. Our homosexual hero believes he is a player, an icon waiting to be discovered by a populace too dumb to see how fabulous he really is. So how, exactly, does the scene with two incredibly ditzy charity PR gals aid in that intention? Sure, it’s sadly comical, especially when you realize that these bimbos are probably bringing home more money than most hardworking, INTELLIGENT citizens make in a lifetime, but Brüno himself is not sparking their stupidity. Instead, he’s a passive provocateur. He just shows us and lets them destroy their credibility in one amazingly empty-headed example of career suicide.


In truth, Brüno is nothing but 82 minutes of genitals. Its makers want to believe that the sight of a male penis bopping around in extreme close-up will have you rolling in the aisles - and if you are 14, and inexperienced in the ways of the reproduction, it just might. This is a movie that needs you to be as unsophisticated and clueless as the “targets’ being skewered in order to appreciate the “satire” being shoved at the screen. As the line between what has been staged and what is “true” gets blurred and then completely forgotten, all meaning is sapped out of the material. Even the finale, which could have accurately riffed on the overridingly homoerotic nature of mixed martial arts is, instead, another showcase for Cohen to personally “push the envelope” as a performer.


As with all comedy, laughter is subjective, but at this point in the Borat/Brüno game, I’m out. I’m smarter than the people he mocks. I’m too sophisticated to view “found” humor as anything other than an accident. I don’ drape myself over the latest fad and flaunt it as the second coming of anything…and I definitely didn’t buy into the hyper-queer context Cohen was issuing. If I want broad, over-the-top stereotyping laced with genuine comic gold, I’ll dig into my DVD collection and throw on Pink Flamingos, or even better, John Waters’ brilliant deconstructionist camp classic Female Trouble. Ridiculing American rubes is like shooting dead, motionless fish in a barrel filled with Jell-O. The only “genius” involved is getting the public to buy it as scandal. Sacha Baron Cohen has managed that box office bait and switch before. Me? I’m over it.


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Thursday, Jul 9, 2009

Apparently, previous accomplishments and past reputation mean nothing in the “what have you done for me lately” world of Hollywood hackdom. Just because you’ve made excellent films as a director (Adventures in Babysitting, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) or were responsible for several excellent episodes of a seminal animated series (The Simpsons) doesn’t mean you can deliver something special - or even watchable. The sad fact is that, for all it’s post-millennial Generation Z posturing, I Love You Beth Cooper is an abject failure. It’s not funny. It’s not insightful. And just when you think it will wake up and deliver the kind of warm and fuzzy nostalgia that made John Hughes a wealthy recluse, it continuous its path toward complete cinematic incompetence.


Egged on by his fey friend Rich, high school valedictorian Denis Cooverman decides to use his ceremonial speech to say all the things he never had the nerve to during his tenure as resident class geek. During his address, he calls out the bully who beat him up. He points out the snobby girls who wouldn’t give him the time of day. He even shames an ex-student who dates the girl of his unrequited dreams. And yes, eventually, he says the five magic words that will change his life - or at least his graduation party plans - forever. When Beth Cooper unexpectedly arrives at his house, ready to show Denis a good time, little does our dork know that such a special night will include run-ins with her Roid-raging boyfriend, various terrifying traffic incidents, a rabid raccoon attack, and the realization that, sometimes, fantasy is a million light years away from lovelorn reality.


If comedy is all timing, then I Love You Beth Cooper is temporally retarded. It is so bereft of laughs that you can actually watch it leeching them out of surrounding films. This is a low point for everyone involved, even those actors and crewmembers who are just starting out in their big screen careers. There is really nothing shocking about an attempting teen burlesque that doesn’t work. Hollywood has been trading T&A for talent in this genre since Sixteen Candles morphed into Some Kind of Wonderful. But aside from some underage drinking and a couple of references to sex, I Love You Beth Cooper is all (enfeebled) brains and no bawdiness. This is the least titillating coming of age saga since This Boy’s Life, and at least that film had Robert DeNiro to up the “va-va-va-voom” factor.


It’s not just that director Chris Columbus has seemingly lost his creative marbles. It’s not just the fact that the first 15 minutes sit there like a fetid fish carcass bloating in the sun. It’s not the bad casting, the anemic acting, the lack of any plot logic or focus. No, the biggest surprise here is how I Love You Beth Cooper can’t generate a single significant emotion - except anger, or course. We don’t care about anyone here. We find Denis and his decisions about as rational as a stalker explaining their human body part collection. Sure, we all have a high school crush, someone who we always thought was out of our league or incapable of dialing into our own idiosyncratic wavelength. But longing does not equal likeability - especially when it is attached to a best friend who can’t stop spewing meaningless movie trivia.


As Denis, Paul Rust is regressive, acting like someone whose IQ drops at random intervals. One moment, he’s quoting quantum physics. The next, he’s running around in Spiderman Underoos. As his “I’m Not Gay” buddy Rich, Jack Carpenter is all mensch and no meaning.  His performance is wound so tightly, and his mannerism so manufactured and false, that we keep wondering when he will let down the façade and show us the truth. It never happens. Indeed, that’s I Love You Beth Cooper in a nutshell. Instead of giving us real people who act in formulaic ways, we get sad stereotypes who try, unsuccessfully, to overcome the clichés involved.


This is especially true of Heroes honey Hayden Panettiere. As actresses go, she’s one short lived TV series phenomenon removed from a stint in reality TV. As a blond blank, she’s barely tolerable. As our lead, she needs to be irresistible and ingratiating, the kind of gal who stirs your loins as well as your intellect. But she’s really just the typical pretty girl with a sad backstory: a dead brother; a seemingly loveless home life; a need to feel special and wanted by the boys in school. What is this, an episode of The Maury Povich Show? How Beth Cooper survived four years of schooling without becoming a stripper of having her own sex tape makes no sense. But since Panettiere is so distant here, we never get a handle on all the hurt. Instead, Denis looks like a douche for idolizing such a superficial subject.


We may expect better from ex-Simpsons scribe Larry Doyle, but his only other screenplays - the horrid Duplex and the semi-successful Looney Tunes: Back in Action - indicate a level of accomplishment that more or less dooms this particular project. Many found the novel unique in its exploration of the dark side of high school life. But when translated to the silver screen, edge is not endearing. Indeed, there are several moments in I Love You Beth Cooper when you question why the police haven’t gotten involved - not that the adults seem to care. After their car and home is destroyed by random acts of adolescent stupidity, Ma and Pa Cooverman smile like lobotomized cretins and simply accept the vandalism.


Indeed, this is a film that feels bereft of all the wit, style, and substance. Instead of looking at the truth behind teenage cliques and the cruelty they can foster, we get standard he/she awkwardness, drunken antics, and more mangled movie quotes than Ben Lyons could honestly tolerate. Anyone tackling this particular genre has their work cut out for them. Between the past and the present, the sniggling naiveté of the ‘80s and the post-millennial mainstream of porn, a teen romp has a tough row to hoe. Superbad managed by emphasizing the foul mouthed and the filthy. I Love You Beth Cooper crashes because it can’t decide how to handle its many competing conceits. You’d figure with the people involved behind the scenes, this would be an easy clash to conclude. Clearly, it wasn’t.


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Thursday, Jul 9, 2009

It’s lasted over six years. It’s become the buzz in the background of our daily lives. It’s the rote response to any “support our troops” suggestion. And even with a recent ‘withdrawal’, there still seems to be no end in sight. Two years ago, Hollywood tackled the Iraq War and came up losers. It wasn’t their intentions that were flawed, it was there approach. They wanted to make our soldiers into villains, transforming their acts of bravery into the raging outbursts of psychopaths - both abroad and at home. The resulting box office failure of such films as Redacted and In the Valley of Elah should not have been a surprise. After all, with the conflict still garnering national discussion, no one wants to think of the lasting, long range consequences yet. That’s why Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is so special. It’s not afraid to show the heroism along with the personal horror.


As members of the Army’s elite EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit, Sergeant JT Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge stare death in the face every day. Defusing bombs, landmines, and other booby traps in and around Baghdad brings them face to face with an enemy unseen and bent on their destruction. When Staff Sergeant William James arrives as a replacement for a fallen team member, he immediately sets his partners on edge. With his cavalier manner both in the barracks and out in the field, Sanborn and Eldridge fear for their lives. James is a certified adrenalin addict, a man responsible for defusing over 800 devices and yet always flaunting protocol and procedure in the process. As they move closer and closer to the end of their tour, the trio runs up against the biggest problem of all - how to deal with the horrific memories as a civilian back home.


Kathryn Bigelow has always been one of Hollywood’s greatest untapped directorial resources. After amazing films like Near Dark and Blue Steel, she was sunk in the backsplash of her marriage to/divorce from James Cameron, and the inevitable suspicion that most of her accomplishments clung neatly to his creative coattails. Underperforming efforts like K-19: The Widowmaker seemed to confirm the critic’s doubts. With The Hurt Locker, however, all bets are off. This is Master of Suspense filmmaker crafted by someone who understands the nature of nail-biting thrills. From the opening set-piece which offers an unexpected narrative twist to the moment when our main hero James discovers a series of interconnected bombs beneath his feet, Bigelow infuses her war-torn saga with the kind of white hot dread that so many modern ‘action’ films fail to provide.


Of course, the subject matter lends itself to such intensity. Based on journalist Mark Boal’s first hand experiences in Iraq (he also wrote the script), The Hurt Locker crackles with authenticity. The lingo is there. So are the props and procedures. And oddly enough, so is the attitude. These soldiers take their aggressive machismo into the countryside, forced to deal with situations that are terrifying in their randomness. One moment, you could be taking out a single shell imbedded in the ground. The next, an entire gang of insurgents appears, armed to the teeth and ready to riddle you with bullets. As a director, Bigelow understands how to manipulate the audience. Like Hitchcock, she finds the MacGuffin within the sequence, and then exploits it with a magician’s agility.


This is especially true of a brilliant moment when James, Sanborn and Eldridge come across a group of British operatives in the desert. Before they can get their bearings, they are under sniper attack, and with every precise hit, our heroes come closer and closer to the end. After setting up a massive gun and targeting the terrorist’s far off safe house, the trio waits…and waits…and waits. Because she has established that oft forgotten rule of successful fright filmmaking - anyone can die at any time - we worry about the fate of these men. We’ve come to care about them and their dedication to duty. Then Bigelow revs up the potential danger by throwing in the kind of whip smart direction that made her early reputation in Hollywood.


While the big names listed here seem to get all the pre-release glory, the real stars of The Hurt Locker are mostly unknown: Anthony Mackie (as Sanborn), Brian Geraghty (as Eldridge), and in an Oscar worthy turn, Jeremy Renner as danger junkie James. Bringing the necessary bravado to carry his character across the blurred lines between death wish and duty, we never once question the newcomer’s cowboy manner. Instead, we look at how present he is in the face of almost constant hostility and recognize that he’s one of the few soldiers who is meeting the war head on. He laughs at the tricks the terrorists use to foster the insurgency. He scoffs at the notion of doing things “by the book” or “halfway”. While he pretends to have a heart, he is quite taken with a young Iraqi boy who sells bootleg DVDs. And when Hell literally leaps up around him, he spits Satan in the eye and waits for a response.


Sure, it all sounds like testosterone and threats, explosions used as accents to the whole notion of America’s futility in the Middle East - and for the most part, Bigelow manages said stance quite well. Toward the end, when we see what life is like back home for these raw nerve recruits, how everything relates back to their time in the line of fire, we finally see the deeper, more indelible scars. Men like James, Sanborn, and Eldridge were never meant to be part of a peace time power shift in a steamy foreign location. They didn’t ask to play political arbiter. While never unprepared, they do seem unmotivated, having to manufacture purpose by playing their professional life so close to the edge.


This then is the modern military, a high trained group of able individuals who see the enemy as an all encompassing classification, something that can’t be easily deciphered or quickly negotiated away. In the face of such hatred, the only appropriate response is to literally ‘defuse’ the situation. Firefights are pointless. Both sides are armed and willing to die for their cause. But for the men capable of walking into a potential hurt locker and face the penalty head on, there is more natural nobility than any speech from a fancy flag waving politician. For once, someone got it right. Kathryn Bigelow’s main contribution to the story in Iraq is her desire to make it seem all ring true - and terrifying. The Hurt Locker is said reality check - and it’s excellent. 


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Friday, Jun 26, 2009

Up until this point, they had avoided responsibility. They lived like nomads, sequestered from family and friends while indulging in their own insular (and happy) homebound careers. But biology - like money, and power, and the possibility of same - changes everything, and for unmarried couple Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) and Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph), the lack of a legitimate home for their newborn child brings about the need for change. But with only the slightest connection to the rest of the real world, such a massive personal modification will require a point by point breakdown of the possibilities. Thus begins a road trip which takes the couple back home (to his parents) to Arizona (her friends and family), Wisconsin, Montreal and Miami - and in the process, our expectant parents learn that home is not necessarily where the heart is. It’s actually where true happiness dwells.


For Sam Mendes, such cinematic ground seems strikingly similar to the territory he traversed with such suburban nightmare masterworks as American Beauty and Revolutionary Road. This time around, however, instead of equating ennui and malaise with an upcoming interpersonal Armageddon, the English filmmaker finally finds a funny bone. Scripted by A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius scribe Dave Eggers (along with wife Vendela Vida) Away We Go first appears to be a collection of Americana clichés. But then it actually evolves into a telling statement on growing up, taking charge, and realizing that life cannot be a constant struggle to continuously stray off the beaten path. Sure, the examples that Mendes and his collaborators use seem arch in their stereotypical approaches. But with each chestnut comes a rejection, and a realization.


The trip begins at the Farlander house, where SCTV‘s Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels give middle age wistfulness a wacky, uneven coating. One moment they are celebrating their son’s upcoming parentage. The next they are abandoning him for a long planned pilgrimage to Europe. To the Farlanders, two years seems like nothing. But to new mom to be Verona, it’s like a declaration of grandparental abandonment. Things don’t get better in Phoenix, where ex-coworker Allison Janney puts on one of the worst displays of post-modern maternal cool ever conceived. In both of these sequences, Mendes relies on a kind of Caucasian white face, a blanket denouncement of white man’s culture combined with obvious sitcom types. But by making Burt and Verona disgusted by such outbursts, by giving them the silent critical eye the material mandates, the movie manages to override the Galleria burlesque.


Things change radically once we get to Wisconsin. Maggie Gyllenhaal practically steals the film as LN (“Ellen”), a New Age joke who buys into every organic composting conspiracy theory in the realm of ridiculous hands-off guardianship. Along with her semi-conscious partner Roderick (underplayed brilliantly by Josh Hamilton), they provide Burt and Verona with the chutzpah to finally stand up for themselves. Up until this point, our leads were likely to sit back dumbfounded, politely nodding as one ridiculous idea after another is fostered toward their future. But the minute LN starts her frazzled family bed routine, a light bulb goes off in our heroes’ heads. This is the where their formerly unfriendly and close realm mindset will lead them - into a similarly styled space filled with made-up philosophies and arguably insane pronouncements. And their dinner table reaction to all the hedonistic nonsense is one of Away We Go‘s greatest comeuppances.


At this point, Mendes can no longer avoid the melancholy. Montreal sees the couple facing mortality - both their own and the still unborn child’s - with uneasy trepidation, and an emergency mission to Miami underlines the fragility of their common law relationship. It’s interesting that Away We Go champions such unconventional ‘marriages’, offering Burt and Verona as the far more spiritual and centered pair in a whirlwind of crude and incomplete couples. It’s the same with almost every aspect of the film. As Mendes mocks child rearing and prenatal psychobabble, he gives us a duo that seem so present, so completely in tune with each other and their situation, that we hope none of this nascent negativity sticks. By the time they realize that they simply have to take that necessary leap of faith (during a conversation on a trampoline, no less), we wonder where the jump will take them.


In the end, it’s not very surprising where they land. What’s really amazing is how moving the revelation becomes. For all its jokey upscale jive, the occasional smug self-satisfaction Burt and Verona use to calm their frazzling nerves, Away We Go provides the kind of closure that elevates our ongoing worries. They may not have it all figured out, and there are moments when even their soothing tone of optimism seems blind and unbelievable, but the bottom line remains - these are two people who realized they were wrong and then tried to do the right thing. They took on the list of social requirements for happy families and found the flaws in each and every one. Luckily, Mendes has an amazing cast to collect his thoughts. Krasinski’s Burt is beautiful in his deadpan directness. He doesn’t mince words so much as carefully pick the ones he know will do the most damage. Rudolph elevates her status as a legitimate movie star, looking both stunning and scared as the portal from which all the promise - and problems - commence.


Yet the final shot is something worth celebrating, a moment of perfect peace after 90 minutes of pinball emotions and crisis-like upheavals. As Burt and Verona sit, their arms interlaced, they appear to finally realize that they can have it all - social acceptance and isolated exclusivity. They don’t need to be unhappy married making fun of their own offspring, or miserable martyrs to some unspoken sense of personal diversity. They can be themselves while still seeing the best that the real world has to offer. They are smart enough to accept the good and conscious enough to reject the bad. It may be tough to tell if their arriving daughter will recognize the lengths they have gone to in securing her future. Luckily, they’ve done the leg work for her - and the journey is well worth taking. 


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