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by Bill Gibron

12 Jun 2009

Michael Keaton has one of the most unusual career arcs ever. He began as a wild man stand-up, the kind of mirth maniac that typically lands a smalltime movie deal. He parlayed film success in such comedies as Night Shift and Beetlejuice. But when Tim Burton pegged him to play the Caped Crusader in his reboot of Batman, his trajectory took a path that proved both profitable and yet perplexing. There were successes (Much Ado About Nothing, The Paper) and failures (Jack Frost, where he was reduced to playing a rock star turned into a snowman - no seriously), critical acclaim (Jackie Brown) and commercial paydays (Pixar’s Cars). But nothing could have prepared him for the professional happenstance of The Merry Gentleman. Keaton originally signed on as an actor. Fate put him into the role of filmmaker as well - and believe it or not, he succeeds.

Escaping her abusive husband, young Irish girl Kate Frazier picks up and moves to Chicago. There she hopes to start a new life, free of her painful past. One night, she witnesses a man on the top of a nearby building. She’s afraid he wants to jump, and her scream shakes him back into reality. Turns out, the individual was a professional assassin who indeed was contemplating suicide. But when haberdasher turned hitman Frank Logan meets Kate, he is instantly smitten. They soon start seeing a lot of each other. This makes the police suspicious, especially recently divorced ex-alcoholic Det. Dave Murcheson. He too feels affection for Kate, but wonders why this new man has entered into her life. Things grow even more complicated when Kate’s hubby tracks her down. Claiming to be “reborn”, he wants his wife back.

Set up like a short story in both tone and approach, The Merry Gentleman is not out to make some grand cinematic statement. Though Keaton shows amazing vision as a first time director, this is not crime as some manner of glorified Greek tragedy or uber-cool familial opera. Instead, we are dealing with the lives of small timers, people who don’t really matter much in the grand scheme of things. Kate is an abused woman who can’t get the safety and security she needs from the system. Taking matters into her own hands, all she wants to do is escape. It’s something similar for Frank. Though we are never quite sure why he kills people as a sidelight (or if the tailoring business is merely a front for his felonious activities), he is clearly at the end of his rope as well. There are several silent sequences where the agony on Keaton’s face registers the world of pain he is in as well.

But it’s Det. Murcheson that ties this all together, the link between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and romantic fantasy. Even though he carries his own oversized baggage into the fray, we can see him picking apart Kate’s convoluted story about how she got her ever—present black eye. And while he barely knows Frank, he can sense something is amiss with both the mystery man’s demeanor and determination about the girl. As a kind of creepy three-way without any of the carnal considerations, The Merry Gentleman asks us to size up the potential relationships and choose up partners. Would Kate really be better off with a killer than some cop who can’t seem to control his gut instinct, especially when the hired gun seems, outside of his amoral behavior, like a genuinely lovely and needy man. It’s these avenues that Keaton must maneuver through and around, and he does so majestically.

Because he himself is an actor and starring in the film, you’d except The Merry Gentleman to be purely character driven, and for the most part, that’s true. Keaton does give his actors room to stretch and expand, and costars Kelly Macdonald and Tom Bastounes take full advantage of the space. This is especially true of our leading lady. She turns Kate into such a mousy mess, so frail and shy that she seems barely present, that the sudden spirit she shows when Frank is around is mesmerizing. Their time together is both bittersweet and biting, an inevitable confrontation always a single conversation away. But Keaton never lets things grow maudlin or clichéd. We know Kate will eventually find out about Frank. The good thing about The Merry Gentleman is that their reaction is much more important than the implied dramatic of such a scene.

Some may be put off by Keaton’s underplayed approach. This is a movie that unfolds in quiet, reflective moments, like a flower that’s petals are slowly opening and revealing. There is a lack of action, though the film still finds a way to provide some disturbing killings along the way. There is a rather inconsistent tone here, yet one imagines if original director (and screenwriter) Ron Lazzeretti had been able to see the project through, he would have handled the material differently. Keaton is playing it safe here, letting the realities play out in ways that stay true without completely mimicking the facts. We know that hitmen don’t act this way, that this kind of abused woman is more of a symbol than a solid individual, and that Det. Murcheson is pushing his advantage in ways that would compromise any case. But because The Merry Gentleman embraces those truisms, the entire project sparkles.

Keaton clearly has a future behind the lens, should destiny push him in such a direction. Indeed, it would be interesting to see what he does with a slightly broader canvas and more subtexts to consider. His eye is remarkable, keen without every being obvious or flashy. And his way with actors is, as stated before, exceptional. Still, The Merry Gentleman is not destined to be some massive mainstream hit. Instead, it’s a slight indie effort that offers innumerable charms without totally testing your patience. In a world where such novice entries would be embraced instead of marginalized, this movie would be indicative of good things to come for all involved. Sadly, something like The Merry Gentleman may simply remain an anomaly - a case where the stars all lined up right, and then glowed brightly instead of simply fading away.

by Bill Gibron

5 Jun 2009

Listen up, Hollywood! There is only one way to handle the remake of a kitschy, campy, ‘60s/‘70s fever dream classic - and, no, we aren’t talking about the way you typically treat this kind of material. Remember Rocky and Bullwinkle (both versions???). Or how about Lost in Space? Does the Scooby-Doo debacle ring a bell? If you take things too seriously, you end up with ineffectual dramatics and mostly maudlin pap. Take it to comic extremes, and you run the risk of ruining the original source in the process. This is exactly what happened when you decided to turn Sid and Marty Krofft’s time traveling dinosaur adventure Land of the Lost into an inappropriate prop comedy nightmare. With or without the casting involved, taking a beloved piece of pop speculative fiction and turning it into a crude, rude gross out just wasn’t the right way to go.

For research scientist Dr. Will Marshall, life as a laughing stock has taken its toll. With everyone from Stephen Hawking to Today‘s Matt Lauer mocking his theories, he’s been reduced to a running joke among local grade school science classes. When a visiting Oxford gal named Holly Cantrell comes calling, she wants to know about the success Marshall has had with his hypothetical time travel device. Sadly, it’s very little. Inspired by her sudden interest in his work, our hero fashions his amazing machine, and the pair go to test it at a local “mystery” spot. There they meet proprietor Will Stanton, a crude man with an even more rudimentary grasp on reality. Suddenly, Marshall’s contraption causes a spike in prevailing “tachyons”, and soon the trio is sent hurtling down a raging rapids and through a waterfall-inspired vortex. Waking up, they find themselves in the proverbial Land of the Lost, a oddball universe filled with ape creatures, lizard men, and rampaging dinosaurs.

Take Step Brothers, remove all the sibling rivalry humor, insert plenty of pee and poops gags, set it all in a surreal backlot that’s half Dino-Lion Country Safari, half Salvador Dali product placement dreamscape, and then pump as much Will Ferrell and Danny McBride at the audience as possible. Call in the Kroffts, give the old coots a paycheck, and name the creation Land of the Lost (after the siblings’ seminal show). Then, sit back and watch as audiences…well, that’s the kicker, isn’t it. This remake/reboot/reimagining of the Saturday Morning stalwart about a family suddenly stuck in time and space is so uneven, so scattered in both approach and tone, that you don’t know whether to laugh or wince, shudder or simply stand up and walk out of the theater. If this is what $100 million buys today, then our country is really in a complete an d utter economic meltdown.

Part of the blame for this overripe frat house flop goes directly to director Brad Silberling. Responsible for past artistic underperformers like Casper, City of Angels, and the should have been Potter Lemony Snicket, the filmmaker feels that the best way to handle the Krofft’s cracked fantasy realm is to simply stick smarmy actors in the middle of a glorified greenscreen and let them riff until something salvageable can be created. When placed in the right realm, Ferrell and McBride can be electric. They can be and usually are funnier than numerous lame laugh-fest wannabes. But here, they do nothing but tread water - and they do so poorly. We except a certain level of irreverence from the duo. What we get instead is an attitude so mocking that it makes the whole experience pointless. If the people on screen aren’t taking things at least semi-seriously, why should we.

This is not to say that Ferrell and McBride are bad, or miscast. Indeed, they are only playing to their preplanned strengths and to an audience ready to lap up every bit of their anger-spawned spoofing. But like Mike Myers in The Love Guru, this is a film for confirmed fans only - and even that’s a stretch, quality wise. Anyone hoping to glimpse a bit of the old Land of the Lost magic will wince when the Sleestaks are transformed into Alien rip-offs, or when beloved Neanderthal Chaka turns out to be a hopeless horndog. There’s nothing wrong with tweaking a nostalgic favorite from several decades ago (right, The Brady Bunch Movie?). But this version pisses all over the original - literally. Indeed, there is a sequence dealing with dinosaur urine that has to go down in history as one of the most pointless bits of forced scatology ever.

But the biggest mistake that this Land of the Lost makes is the total disregard for the sci-fi setting created. Nothing is ever explained here - not even when plot point Enik shows up to send the narrative careening off into heroes and villain mode. Leonard Nimoy’s cameo is cast aside with complete disregard, and the ending is given over to cheap F/X and stunt work. Yet we’d buy all the bumbling and burlesque if we just understood the rules of this particular parallel space. Why the various derelict ships (including a couple of flying saucers)? Why the old school motel with convenient pool (ready for a pointless drug dream montage)? If the dinosaurs and Sleestaks don’t get along, how did they survive each other until now? And why does everything in this particular domain revolve around feces, phlegm, and numerous man/animal bodily fluids?

For those who like their satire glib, snide, and on the decidedly stupid side, Land of the Lost may satisfy. It defiantly builds up a big head of silly steam trying. But in the end, the lack of any real affection for the original series will ward off the Krofft faithful, and Ferrell’s fans haven’t actually been reliable when it comes to making his movie’s consistently successful (right, Semi-Pro and Stranger than Fiction?). Indeed, the only demographic assured of enjoying themselves are the same ADD-addled viewership that makes random hit or (mostly) miss shows like Family Guy a Fox favorite. In fact, if you didn’t see the other names listed among the credits, you’d swear Seth MacFarlane and his band of comedically challenged cronies were responsible for this hopeless hatchet job. As long as you enjoy the actors involved, Land of the Lost will mostly deliver. If you don’t, you’ll vanish into an entertainment void all your own. 

by Chris Barsanti

5 Jun 2009

A wonderfully well-intentioned flock of stock American-indie scenarios wrapped up in a cosy, folky soundtrack and lavished with charming comic interludes, Away We Go never strives to be much of anything and succeeds quite well in its aims. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing, as all works of art should always know their limitations, but it seems like somebody might have tried a little harder. Maybe it’s asking too much, but for the screenwriting debut of two literary wunderkinds (married duo Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida) that just happens to be shot by a director (Sam Mendes) whose last film was one of the great literary adaptations in recent memory (Revolutionary Road), one expects at least a couple attempts to swing for the fences.

It’s possible that the film’s lackadaisical attitude came about quite organically after coming up with such a sparklingly perfect and well-tuned cast. As Burt and Verona, the low-key early-30s couple who set off to find a new place to live after Verona becomes pregnant and they discover Burt’s parents are moving abroad, John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph fit together like peanut butter and jelly. Their muted, lo-fi way of living is more than just some hipster statement like the soulful voices always murmuring on the overused soundtrack; their easy-come easy-go attitude and lightly jabbing verbal interplay feeling as lived-in as their junked-up and falling-down house in the sticks.

As Burt and six-months-pregnant Verona make their way around the country in search of a new home, they’re thrown into prepackaged comic encounters whose excellent players almost overcome the caricatured nature of the writing. A fiery Allison Janney and gloomily apocalyptic Jim Gaffigan present a sun-dazed picture of suburban psychodrama, while Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton perform a breathtakingly obnoxious satirical take on foggy-brained college-town intelligentsia smugness. Both segments—in addition to a too-brief appearance by Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels as Burt’s alarmingly selfish parents—appear as self-contained little playlets whose sudden rush of freakish energy leave the rest of the film unbalanced.

Mendes, whose instincts have remained more theatrical than cinematic, throws so much effort into these sequences that the thinness of what holds the rest of the film together becomes readily apparent. When Eggers and Vida’s screenplay calls for Burt and Verona to meet up with comparatively normal people—a couple of college friends in Montreal, or Verona’s lovelorn sister—the resulting scenes play like something from another film. The screenplay’s sketchy, post-slacker, underdeveloped adult melodrama never finds a workable mix with its interruptions of Meet the Parents-like manias. And Mendes’ decision to just string it all together with chapter titles (“Away to Montreal,” etc.) and an amped-up soundtrack meant to carry too much weight makes the whole affair come off like a pack of dashed-off index-card scenes flung into some order and forced to stand on their own. As a filmmaker, the British Mendes seems more at home in stylized settings like the glossy living dead suburbs of American Beauty and Revolutionary Road than the fly-by-night road-trip Americana he wrestles with unsuccessfully here.

Like its leads, Away We Go doesn’t want to make too much of a fuss about any of its components, a decision that leaves many of its more meaningful (and sometimes quite lovely) ruminations on love and finding one’s place in the world stranded without context. What’s left is a finely pedigreed comic road film that, when all is said and done, is too finely-tooled for the NPR set to have much life left in it.

by Bill Gibron

31 May 2009

Language is a virus. William Burroughs made that sentiment popular, and post-modern cultural has made it Gospel. We thrive on the communicable nature of words, drink in their poisonous purpose and pray that more people find your disease desirable - and more importantly, repeatable. Idiom infects us. Jingoism germinates and turns gangrenous within us. More so than at any other time in our civil lives, the message is purely the medium, the statement the status of how we irrevocably view the world. Now imagine a world where such viral verbalization is literally true - where what you say could turn someone from human to homicidal. That’s the basis for Bruce McDonald’s fascinating horror thriller Pontypool. While some may see it as a far too metaphysical monster movie, others will see - and more importantly, hear - the defining difference.

Disgraced shock jock Grant Mazzy finds himself exiled in the small Canadian town of Pontypool, a place where the most important news story of the day is a little old lady’s lost cat. Working with producers Laura Ann and Sydney, he tries to put on the best morning show possible while working within the confines of local special interests and rural concerns. On this particular winter’s day, traffic reporter Ken Loney creates quite a panic with his story of a riot at a doctor’s clinic. Soon, major news outlets are asking Grant if reports of government roadblocks and quarantine are true. Slowly, the situation starts to dawn on these isolated individuals. Something is turning the population into raving, insane killers - and they are headed to the radio station. Later, the trio learns an uncomfortable truth: their broadcast may be the reason for all the mob violence…not the signal, no. The actual words being spoken.

Pontypool is a sinister symphony told in three distinct and very diverse macabre movements. The first resembles a radio play, a War of the Worlds circa 2008 with actor Stephen McHattie stepping into the Orson Welles role as wisecracking DJ Grant Mazzy. Starting out his broadcast with a typical bravado born out of decades of “taking no prisoners”, the opening 15 minutes are more a primer on insular radio realities than a standard fright flick. Soon, we start to hear snippets of a supposed attack, facts so scarce that, several times, our hero’s producers pull the tall tale from the air. It’s all setup smoke and mirrors - is Grant making a media mountain out of a local journalist’s jive? Or is he missing the opportunity of a lifetime by mocking the invisible mob scene playing out over the speakers?

The second part offers up the typical living dead dimensions - reports of cannibalism and killing, victims trapped by the angry and uncontrollable throng, an eventual raid on the radio station - and it is here where director McDonald (with ample help from screenwriter Tony Burgess) introduces the real dread. The “zombies” in Pontypool are unlike any others you’ve seen before. They are not really undead creatures. They are, instead, bewildered people, chanting an individually unique mantra that makes them confused, crazy, and highly dangerous. We never really see the violence they symbolize - we just hear about the risk of same. Indeed, McDonald uses the main theme of words and their meaning to amplify the fear. The suspense here doesn’t come from what we witness, but from the unknown threat that is only spoken of in broken, hushed tones.

Yet it is the final sequence of Pontypool which is the most intriguing, a linguistically dense dissertation on the meaning of language and why we “understand” what we do. As part of the narrative, Grant determines that certain words trigger the homicidal urges within the populace. He believes that by undoing their typical interpretation, he can “cure” the ongoing plague. As the military uses a far more destructive means of dealing with the situation, Grant honestly believes he can ‘talk’ his way out of what appears to be the end of the world. One of the more beautiful things about this film is the desire on the part of McDonald and Burgess to keep the true essence of the danger at arms length. Just when we think we have a handle on how normal rural folk are turning into vicious, angry killers, the concept gets lost in a kind of logical gobbledygook which makes the situation all the more unsettling.

Indeed, there is a certain subtext to Pontypool which suggests that nothing we hear, nothing we know, is really the “truth”. Even the eyewitness reports from Ken Loney are suspect, and not because the ‘eye in the sky’ helicopter ace is actually driving around town in a broken down car, not a high tech flying machine. No, the core theme here is that we take so much of what the media offers us at face value that we tend not to use the common sense given to us to see the factual forest for the tabloid trees. Grant initially reacts badly to the mixed messages he’s given on the crisis. “I have to see it” he shouts, walking out of the booth and towards the exit in an attempt to be his own spectator. With the slightest confirmation, however, he goes full bore into panic mode, required by the rest of the film to tone down the rhetoric and come up with some plan of action.

Don’t get the wrong impression, though. Pontypool is still a very visceral horror film. There is a singular sequence where someone we know turns into a fiend, and her final bleed-out is shocking in its biological brutality. Similarly, there are false scares and intentional shocks in abundance. McDonald gets great performances out of McHattie and his wife, Lisa Houle (as a stunned Sydney). The singular setting may remind some of a stage play, and Pontypool often exposes its low budget roots in such a small in scope manner. But the material works much better within such a microcosm. It makes the messages and symbolism all the more potent. Indeed, this is the kind of film that reminds you of the typical 24 hours news response when something happens. The initial reaction of Grant and the crew sounds like the ill-prepared comeback to a growing crisis, the kind of guesswork and speculation that comes from people never, ever challenged in this manner.

In fact, it’s easy to see Pontypool as a direct response to the kind of post-9/11 predilection toward alarm and then retraction, of falsification for the sake of ratings. Grant clearly wants back in the big time. When we first see him, he is arguing with his agent over the realities of radio in this backwater Canadian burg. Later, when the publicity light goes on in his head, he’s all seriousness and sonorous tones. And yet, no real “news” is getting out. Instead, it’s all incomplete and conjecture - and there is nothing more frightening than realizing a threat exists, and not really knowing what it is. While most horror films spell out their scares in specific, genre terms, this is one time where the terror is vague, and as a result, all the more disquieting. Pontypool may not be everyone’s cup of creature feature tea, but this is one smart, heady brew - intoxicating, and all too telling.

by Bill Gibron

29 May 2009

Perhaps it’s time to stop wondering and simply believe. Every year, like cinematic clockwork, we critics hear about the latest release pending from Pixar and our thoughts notoriously turn to the big question - will this be the one? Will this be the computer-generated title from the company that literally invented the genre type to fail to live up to audience expectations? Nay, could it be the well-meaning movie from Lassiter and crew that actually fails? Well, those looking for the bullseye on the back of these geniuses can definitely rest easy. Up is not the target for an elongated discussion on the company’s first failure. Instead, it’s yet another trophy in a digital display case loaded with such accolades. It’s as serious as Wall-E, as action packed as The Incredibles, and hides a mysterious core of sadness which the company has never really explored - until now. 

For Carl Fredrickson, old age has its trials. He’s recently lost his wife, and with that, the will to live, and a construction concern is trying to kick him out of his house. A momentary act of self-defense has the court interceding, and it looks like he will have to move after all these years. But Carl remembers a promise he made to his dear departed Ellie at the start of their life together, and he’s determined to make it happen. Tying balloons to his house, he lifts the building from its foundation and plots a course for South America. Unfortunately, earnest Wilderness Scout Russell “accidentally” tags along for the ride. Upon arrival, Carl has one goal - to get the house to the top of a gorgeous waterfall his late spouse idolized. But when a huge bird stumbles into their path, and with it an aging adventurer and his pack of trained dogs, our elderly hero and his under-aged sidekick must save the creature…and the day.

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