Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Friday, Jun 15, 2007


The ‘50s were so filled with fears – fear of Communism, fear of nuclear annihilation, fear of minorities – why not add zombies to the mix. After all, the living dead have come to symbolize so much in our current cinematic zeitgeist that allowing the undead to combine all the Eisenhower Era horrors into one flesh eating fiend seems like a pretty smart idea. A pretty funny one as well. Conceived as a combination satire and scary film, Fido is a surreal surprise, a genuinely touching tale of tolerance and totalitarianism reminiscent of Bob Balaban’s equally brilliant suburban frightmare of conformity Parents. Canadian filmmaker Andrew Currie has taken the standard iconography of the era – the freshly manicured lawns, the cocktail dress and pearls housewives, the sleek Detroit automobiles – and perverted them, ever so slightly, into a commentary about race, relationships and reality.


After a radioactive cloud blankets the Earth, the dead come back to life. The government responds to the cannibal crisis by launching all an out war. Things do not go well at first. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Hrothgar Geiger, however, the zombies are contained and controlled. He comes up with the ‘head wound’ theory, and the collar that domesticates the creatures. Soon, all suburban households have zombie servants, while the corpses do most of the menial chores and jobs around town. Naturally, there are accidents, but the corporate security forces of multinational ZomCom Industries keep everyone – living AND undead – in check. When the Robinson family gets its first rotting man-monster, it causes a split among the members. Dad hates it. Mom is intrigued. And little Timmy? He names it “Fido” and adopts it as his ‘pet’. Soon, the two are inseparable. 


At first, it’s rather hard to see the parody present. Because of his attention to period detail and desire to make his characters more than just silly symbols, Currie stays subtle – maybe even too much so. Even the black and white ‘educational’ film shown at the beginning of the movie (a nice way to introduce us to this particular take on the zombie’s origins) feels too ‘real’ to be overtly ridiculous. No, it takes a while before the script starts slipping up, tossing in little baneful beauties about “wild zones”, protective barriers, and citizen ‘re-education’ procedures. By this time, we get the idea – the gated community with its internal security and demanding deed restrictions is the ultimate example of ‘white flight’ illustrated and acted upon. And the reanimated corpses carousing around the perimeter? They’re the undesirables (racial or social) that the scrubbed Caucasian citizenry is desperate to avoid. 


Yet there is much more to Fido’s narrative than ‘us vs. them’. There’s a murder mystery thread running through all the stories, hints at aberrant sexuality (thanks to an odd duck neighbor who treats his knock-out zombie servant just a tad too friendly), notions of growing martial unrest, and the erratic beginnings of the freedom and liberation that would come to define the revolutionary nature of the next decade. In between, we have the Conservative Establishment trying to moderate the primal, uncontrollable ‘counterculture’, along with a fatalism that suggests the battle may be already lost. Throughout, Currie paints pictures with a pulsing primary color patina. Everything looks bright and shiny and crazily kitsch. It’s only when we see the rotting facades of the dead-eyed zombies that we recognize how phony this entire world really is.


If one wanted to be cynical, they could argue that Currie is making a comment about traditionalism – and it’s a criticism that cuts both ways. For the Robinsons – Bill (Dylan Baker), Helen (Carrie-Ann Moss) and son Timmy (the excellent K’Sun Ray) – a zombie represents status and standing. Helen even argues that they need this one. After all, there neighbors already have six! Bill’s reactions are more distant. He has bad memories of the initial undead outbreak, and can’t stand being around this constant reminder. Like an episode of Lassie gone loopy, Timmy decides that ‘Fido” would make a good friend. He benefits from his ghoulish presence, but also learns how ill-prepared he is for the responsibility. Still, they want to be part of the planned community, a place that ZomCom runs with a slightly sinister set of kid gloves.


But the undead don’t get off so easily. Because he casts them as maniacal flesh eating fiends, Currie can countermand the nuclear family with its own parallel plight. The zombies are definitely supposed to be seen as the harsh underbelly of humanity that we try to keep in check – our unhinged hunger, our predominant pituitary evil. When you think about it, it’s a fairly potent metaphor. It draws directly into the allegorical nature of the genre, and it provides a portal for many of the movie’s more intriguing ideas. The whole whodunit angle, for example, is hinged on the fact that the undead are ‘automatically’ considered the criminals, and while cinematic statistics bear this out, Fido suggests the protector may be more corrupt than the provocateur. Additionally, this is perhaps the first film (after Scott Phillips’ fascinating Stink of Flesh) that actually broaches the subject of sex. After all, if you can get a compliant corpse to do anything, like mow the lawn or take out the trash…ummm…


Naturally, a great deal of the movie’s success rests on the tone taken by the actors. One wink at the audience too many, or a few too many tongues planted openly in cheeks and the whimsy wears off. Luckily, Currie rounded up a cast so sensational that they occasionally feel like subjects in a deranged documentary, not a group of fictional creations. It has to be said that Billy Connolly, the mad Scottish comic, is lost inside Fido’s fright mask make-up, his expressive eyes all that’s left of his standard Glasgow façade. But his performance is exceptional, always suggesting something more complex and compelling behind his rigor mortis movements. Similarly, Carrie-Ann Moss makes frustrated ‘50s housefraus seem like the sexiest soon to be bohemians in the bridge club. Released from her Matrix-imposed S&M ambivalence, she’s down to earth and very endearing. Tim Blake Nelson certainly delivers on his naughty nebbish demeanor, while Dylan Baker remains an actor unstuck in time. He can play both contemporary and Cold War with unimaginable ease.


As for Currie, his lack of outlandishness may put off some macabre fans. After all, he treats his zombie kills in an almost comic book manner, offering them on camera but blotted out by an amazing full moon or a park draped in deep shadows. And still, his undead register real fear – both to the characters and to the audience. It’s the concept of unpredictability that makes them so suspicious. Fido himself seems to be capable of controls that his fellow fiends can barely contain. Still, he happily feasts away when need be. Perhaps the most compelling element of this fully realized film is its ending. Laced with irony and some unsettling comeuppance, it sets the stage for the next ‘evolution’ in the human/zombie order – and the inevitable question of where society goes when intolerance no longer owns its purpose.


For all its grandiose implications and subtle social skewering, Fido remains a wildly entertaining comedy. It has as much humor as horror, and a wonderfully wonky way of making its many cogent social critiques. A few may scoff at a deeper meaning, reducing Currie to a comic resorting to gimmickry to produce his gags. And unlike Shaun of the Dead, this is not a movie macabre homage. Nor is it a 28 Days/Weeks reinvention. No, Fido is a wholly original take on a very familiar film foundation. Ever since DVD destroyed the creepshow category, mainstream moviemakers have been looking for a way to reclaim their rotting corpses. According to Fido, you’ll never beat them, and you really can’t join them. Better to accept them and move on with life. It’s how you finally defeat fear once and for all.


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Friday, Jun 8, 2007


What do you do when the sensation of sex no longer satisfies? What are your options when the adrenaline rush and power of money (and making same) no longer fill the void? Do you simply sit back and wait for the inevitable heart attack, stress striking all viable organs until your Type-A lifestyle eventually kills you? Or do your take matters of life and death into your own hands and use all that pent up aggression as an excuse for dabbling in the darker side of life? If you’re the super-successful business types prowling around the edges of international legality and human morality in Eli Roth’s amazing Hostel Part II, you join an exclusive social club that caters in human flesh as the way to fulfill those fiendish fetishes. And Heaven help the young people being bid on as the murderous means of such psycho-erotic release. 


Roth’s original Hostel, a vision of Europe as one big urban legend and Americans as the ugly within it, continues to stand as one of the most important horror films of the last ten years. Brutal in its vision while equally effective in its subtext, it woke up a waning genre and proved that gore could be both viable and visceral. It even created its own categorical catchphrase – “violence porn” – that has come to define any film where innocents are horrifically used and abused for their value as medical commodities (Turistas) or entertainment (Live Feed). Now mutated into all manner of sensationalized labels – ‘smut snuff’, ‘gorno’ – the inherent worth of Roth’s film has been superseded by media and public perception of a young, cocky filmmaker flaunting the mainstream to make his own craven, cruel statements.


Well thank GOD for that. It’s one thing to play nice in order to keep the PC thugs in check. It’s another to offer up nonstop brutality merely for the sake of shock. The original Hostel did neither, and the new film is even better at tempting taste while staying safely in the realm of reasonable dread dynamics. You’ll be hearing a lot of outcry over the next few weeks about this so-called cinematic abomination. There will be pundits and persons directly linked to the business of show who will argue for Roth’s lack of humanity and inner childishness, but those voices will be self-serving and self-congratulating. When it comes down to it, Hostel Part II is the near perfect sequel, a money mandated continuation that actually works as a companion piece to the original effort.


After wrapping up the last loose end from the previous picture, we are introduced to three young coeds studying abroad – rich girl Beth, spoiled skank Whitney, and depressed loner Lorna. Lured to a Slovakian spa by visiting artist’s model Axelle, the girls soon travel to the far ends of the Easter block, check in to the infamous title inn, and prepare to party and relax. Of course, the audience knows much, much better, and it’s not long before the gals are being bid on like sick corporeal commodities. Two participants in such depravity are Todd and his sheepish buddy Stuart. Traveling the world looking for the ultimate kicks, the pals have shared many deplorable experiences. But this one may be the icing on their desperately distorted cake. Todd sees committing murder as a way of improving your potential business acumen and ‘aura of danger’. Stuart has a far more suspect reason for this descent into murderous madness.


Still as shocking as ever, but more polished and perceptive this time around, Hostel Part II does a rather remarkable thing. Saddled with creating a follow-up to his first film, Roth avoids an actual redo. Instead, he obviously sat down with his original script and decided to fashion a 180 degree opposite take on the subject matter. Gone are the madcap moments of sex, drugs and gore-drenched debauchery. In their place are moments of real tension, suspense amplified by a better knowledge of the sinister circumstances, and killings that are quick, aggressive and highly disturbing. While the female angle is the most obvious twist (more on this in a moment), the real revelation is the creation of the Elite Hunting Club and its collection of corrupt membership. In Hostel, we got a fleeting glimpse of the creepy clientele, most notably an American with more moxie than manners. Here, we are introduced to a network of fiends, and head honcho Sacha who can easily be bought and sold, as long as the price is right.


Even better, Roth delves much deeper into the motives of his victims. Granted, he presents the trio as supersized stereotypes from the Big Book of Female Archetypes, but our wealthy woman isn’t some mean spirited snob, nor is our happy go lucky whore completely without moral fortitude. No, it’s Lorna (essayed by Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Heather Matarazzo) who lamentably plays the role of needy loner to its typically fatalistic ends, and it is here where Hostel Part II makes its first significant statement. In an attempt to keep the spoilers to a minimum, the infamous legend of ‘Countess Dracula’ (the Hungarian “blood queen” Elizabeth Báthory) gets the kind of horrifying update that will keep tongues wagging for weeks. Combining the worst elements of male fantasy and fright film referencing (there’s a noticeable nod to Angel Heart as well) this first major murder scene is destined to go down in movie macabre as the one of the most notorious – and to some, the most noxious.


Of course, said repulsed reaction is only coming from one place, and it’s not as well meaning and high minded as the critics would have you believe. Far worse things happened to the characters in the initial Hostel, and the outcry was not this intense or outrageous. In essence, the notion of gender equity doesn’t exist in the realm of cinematic reality. Kill a beer-swilling dude with his passion in his penis and you’ll get a minor murmur. Cut the throat of a sad, depressed female adult and everyone’s inner parent comes crying. It’s a concept inherent in Roth’s redesign of the film franchise, and you know he has to love all the hand wringing and kvetching. Back in the ‘80s, girls were the notorious targets of all manner of slice and dice serial killer, and except for Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, everyone took it as a gratuitous given. Now, with decades of deconstruction and pro-PC protocols, you just can’t torture and kill young women without accepting some kind of sociological payback.


Roth is way ahead of the game, giving us only one major drawn out damsel in distress sequence. The rest of the time, events happen off screen, or within a unique twist on the aggressor/victim paradigm. Indeed, all of Hostel Part II is about bucking trends. Don’t listen to the messageboards that lament that this is more of the same thing. It’s not. The gore is limited and hardly as excessive as the first time around. The terror isn’t tied to the torture scenes themselves, but what happens in and around them. The characters are more clearly drawn, developed far beyond their archetypal façade. And Roth’s direction has improved by leaps and bounds. Where once he seemed like a homemade movie maven lucky to get his basic b-movie ideas up on the big screen, he now comes across like the beaming bastard son of a dozen equally diabolical cinematic stalwarts.


Still, it will be hard to hear your own thoughts over the media din about to accompany this film. Grassroots campaigns will start, backlash will begin, and Roth will be labeled everything from a slick charlatan trading arterial spray for actual talent to a chauvinist shilling his perverted perspective to a desperately under-educated fanbase. Of course, none of this is true. If do-gooders want a collection of movies to grumble over, this critic could give them a laundry list – Scrapbook, Murder-Set-Pieces, I Spit on Your Grave, Last House on the Left, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, plus many, many more – of deplorable efforts. While it’s true that in our current mainstream perspective, violence against women is a rightfully taboo subject, in the context of a FICTIONAL horror storyline, it’s desperately old hat. Leave it to Eli Roth to make the ancient seem appalling once again. It’s just one of Hostel Part II’s many unconventional conventions. It’s the reason why this sequel is as successful as its precursor.


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Saturday, Jun 2, 2007


Post-millennial audiences have basically forgotten how to go to the movies. The home theater experience and its myriad of personal perks (readily available bathroom breaks, unlimited snacking, selfish screening time management) have turned the average film fan into an impatient instant gratification addict. A big screen release has to deliver, and deliver quickly, or attention spans shift and butts begin to stiffen. This may explain the near 50/50 split on the viability of Gore Verbinski’s amazing old school blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Half the critical community found the film an honorable companion piece to the previous buccaneer blasts. But an equal number are not that happy at all, arguing that whatever entertainment value Parts 1 and 2 contained, this one is adrift on a sea of stunted amusements. 


Let’s start with the chief complaints against this final facet of the ‘current’ franchise (don’t worry, more movies are inevitable – Tinsel Town never kills outright this kind of cash cow). First off, there’s the grievance that, at two hours and forty-nine minutes, the narrative goes on for far too long. Well, when you’re working through an entire mythology that reaches back across two complete films, as well as a great deal of suggested storylines, you’re wrap-up is going to be gargantuan. Besides, like Roger Ebert once said, no ‘good’ motion picture is ever too long, and Pirates 3 is an amazing entertainment. The second objection rides on the so-called ‘ridiculous’ amount of characters connected to the resolution. Yes, there are a lot of loose ends to tie up here, but who would you eradicate in the process? Would you pull an Aliens3 on some of the supporting cast and kill them off during the opening credits? Perhaps put a few familiar faces in the gallows line-up that opens the film?


No, epic scope and far too many important personalities are what this incredibly accomplished send-off thrives on. For those who hated, or couldn’t handle the introduction of Davy Jones and his craven crustacean crew during Part 2, or longed for the sudden surprise of finding a Disney attraction offering that didn’t instantly suck on ice (ala Part 1), this will not be the movie for you. Instead, this journey to the ends of the Earth in search of closure – and a certain suave scallywag – is anxious to amplify the overall importance of events we’ve seen previously, while adding even more outlandish elements to the already overreaching yarn. Indeed, like the first films founded in the pure popcorn paradigm, director Verbinski is out to change the overall flavor of motion picture eye candy. No matter your issues with the overlong narrative or wealth of unnecessary characters, no one can deny the spectacle of the final pirate stand-off deep inside a whirlpooling maelstrom. It remains one of the series most sensational defining moments.


Equally impressive is the first act descent into Davy Jones’ notorious ‘locker’. Turns out the place is more like purgatory – a lonely, desolate locale where Sisyphean tasks await the unlikely visitor.  For those in the audience who’ve sat back impatiently wondering just where the Heck Johnny Depp has been hiding for the last 45 minutes, his clone-addled insanity (Capt. Jack is confronted by multiple version/visions of himself) is like a Super-Sized helping of the popular knave. Our unlikely superstar still finds ways of making this character likeable and unique, but it’s important to note that Jack will not be the sole focus here – and Depp knows it. He makes the most of his moments without overstaying his welcome. Instead, he provides the usual cinematic spice this entire series loves to thrive on.


Once we’ve move beyond Chow Yun Fat and his Hook-like seaport of Shanghai (the most unrealistic element in this entire fantasy film) we get locked into the storytelling mechanisms moving briskly by. Again, there’s no denying that the movie is plot driven, but to call it overdone or confusing is hogwash. In fact, the plot often feels like the Lucas crafted designs for Star Wars. The original 1977 blockbuster was a clever combination of recognizable genres types (the Western, the serial) with self-started and generated mythology interspersed throughout. Here, Verbinksi takes the typical high seas adventure yarn, mixes in a few post-modern references of his own, and then inserts lots of lore about ocean goddesses, afterlife debts to pay, and personal crises that must be confronted and conquered. As long as you’re attentive and open to the overall experience, you’ll easily comprehend the movie’s motivational machinery. If you’re too busy text messaging your “bff”, you’ll likely get lost.


The reference to a certain motion picture set in a ‘galaxy far, far away’ is also apropos for what Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End strives for, from an entertainment standpoint. Like the popcorn movies of old, this is an experience as much as it is a film, a chance for audiences to get lost in elements they rarely experience in life. Oddly enough, the year before Wars arrived at theaters, Universal tried to jumpstart the pirate movie with Swashbuckler. Featuring Robert Shaw, James Earl Jones and Peter Boyle, it didn’t do well at the box office, but did set the contemporary schematics for future attempts at the sea-faring saga to follow. By utilizing the ‘yo ho ho and a bottle of rum’ archetypes within a new kind of updated narrative, director James Goldstone overhauled the entire formula. Seventies audiences just weren’t ready for the retrofitting.


Something similar could be said for modern crowds. When the first Pirates hit, it’s clear that Producer Jerrry Bruckheimer felt it was the superb supernatural angle that wowed viewers. That’s why the sequel is inundated with as many CGI and make-up monster men as possible. In Part 3, all that’s been abandoned. Now we get more of the sensational swordplay and keel-hauling adventure that recalls the grand spectacles of old. In some ways, these movies are like templates, picking and choosing the homages and references they need to succeed before moving on to another character’s individual dilemma. Without the numerous personalities to contend with, the plot would become needlessly repetitive. With a merry band of important entities, every turn of the storyline screw is important.


Still, it’s not hard to see fans giving up on this entire enterprise. They’ve been fed a failed bill of goods by a critical contingency that can’t make up its mind on what is acceptable and what is awful. For everyone comparing this film to the Matrix or Terminator titles, the point has some validity. Both initial movies were made as stand alone statements, lacking the open ended leanings that something similar to Spider-Man offers. To flesh them out, one had to use the original idea as ballast, while battling the demands of studio interference and fan anticipation. That something remotely entertaining comes out of such a schism is high praise indeed. In the case of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, the successes far outweigh the incredibly minor quibbles - not that the present demographic is patient enough to see it for themselves. 


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Tuesday, May 29, 2007


If big screen comedy has an assigned savior, it just might be Judd Apatow. With the beloved 40 Year Old Virgin fresh in everyone’s minds, and his producer’s imprint on other humor hits like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, this is one comic genius who is definitely on a roll. Need further proof? Well, look no further than his most recent masterpiece of mirth Knocked Up. Not only is it the funniest film in decades, but its easily one of 2007’s best efforts. It’s hilarious, heartfelt, endearing and just a wee bit evil in how it depicts the rigors of adult responsibility, and the inherent human desire to shirk same. Instead of presenting the standard Hollywood party line about biology being the balm for all individual issues, Apatow shows procreation for what it really is—a physical act that leads to seismic psychological shifts.


The interpersonal earthquake here occurs when E! Entertainment producer Alison Scott (an amazing Katherine Heigl) learns she’s been picked to be an on-air personality. Desperate to celebrate the promotion, she gets her married sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) to join her for a night of drinks and dancing at a local hot spot. There, Alison meets the bumbling Ben Stone (a brilliant Seth Rogen). Endearing in a shaggy dog sort of way, he’s a wannabe Internet entrepreneur who hopes to start a website database of famous film nude scenes. The two take an alcohol fueled liking to each other, and after a protection free one night stand, the pair have a potential pregnancy to deal with. Support is shaky from both sides. Alison’s family fluctuates between flabbergasted and favorable. Ben’s bevy of slacker roommates can only think in terms of sexual conquests and scoring.


It requires someone of substantial cinematic ability to balance this clever career girl catastrophe with the Beavis and Butthead viewpoint of Ben’s buddies, but Apatow manages remarkably well. The movie never misses a beat and finds infinitely imaginative ways to brilliantly highlight both the sacred and profane. Unlike other R rated efforts that trade gratuity for genuine wit, Knocked Up is crude, obscene, crass…and utterly charming. Apatow’s characters talk like real people talk, including all the off color craziness and foul mouthed philosophizing that comes with hanging out. Thanks to some equally inventive running jokes (Ben’s friend Martin finds himself the butt of dozens of hirsute-oriented slams when he decides to grow his hair for a bet) and a unique knowledge of when and where to push the gross out gags (always right to the edge of repugnancy), the comedy covers all aspects of the genre.


But there is more to what Apatow is doing than simply larding on the laughs. His moviemaking ideal is a throwback to the days when people, not plotpoints, drove the delirium dynamic. It’s nothing overly complicated. In fact, his secret is something very simple—he lets the characters play out organically, developing along legitimate logistical lines while occasionally tweaking the situational elements to accent their advancement. By the end, we are not only invested in the individuals suffering at the center of the narrative, but we can’t wait to see how the ancillary players pull their weight and supplement the story. When done right, the result is something entertaining and engaging. In Apatow’s case, his accomplishment far exceeds expectations. What he delivers is something close to definitive.


Of course, his actors help out tremendously. Rogen, a longtime comic collaborator, is the perfect sad sack hero. He’s not solidly self-deprecating, nor is he cravenly cocky. He exists right in the middle of both emotional extremes, and when you add in his solid sense of sarcasm, he becomes someone we can instantly identify with. Heigl, on the other hand, has the much harder role. She has to play TV personality perkiness without becoming an irritating shrew, and the moments where she has to act selfish and superior never come across as harsh or horrible. Of course, this couple will have more than its fair share of ups and downs – compatibility is not high on their initial meet-cute conceit. But as they grow, as Apatow allows them to flower and fail, we find ourselves lost in their developing love story. Soon, all we care about is how destiny will determine the pair’s possibilities. The penis and vagina jokes are just a wondrous addition to the emotional mix.


By contrast, Leslie Mann (Apatow’s real life wife) and Paul Rudd (as Debbie’s beleaguered husband Pete) are a fascinating study of responsibility ruining an individual’s hope and compassion. With two precocious daughters determining their every move, the film appears to be setting them up as the cautionary example to guide Alison and Ben. We are supposed to see how marriage and maturity undermine one’s personality to create a kind of composite shell of one’s former self. But Apatow adds layers that indicate something much stronger than that. Indeed, Knocked Up‘s entire raison d’etra appears to be acknowledging that the arriving adventures in child rearing can be just as life affirming as the old habits we so desperately hold onto. But he’s clear to show that there’s no bed of roses at the end of the reproductive rainbow.


Thanks to a remarkable ensemble made up of pals from Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks days (Jason Segel, Martin Starr), a few freaky star turns (Ryan Seacrest and Spider-Man‘s James Franco are wonderful) and some surprising cameos (SCTV’s Harold Ramis as Ben’s dad, Joanna Kerns as Alison’s mom), Knocked Up becomes a surprise a minute sensation, a film that never lets on where it’s going next, or how it will foster its next line of laughter. Make no mistake about it – this is one incredibly funny film, the kind of gasping for air joviality that hasn’t been seen since Trey Parker and Matt Stone delivered their manic musical South Park movie.  In an era when the big screen comedy has been reduced to either an exercise in insular irony or bad taste level ludicrousness, it’s refreshing to find a film that actually earns every second of side splitting splendor.


It is clear that, come December, Knocked Up will remain a member of 2007’s hit hierarchy. If it doesn’t become a big time blockbuster, earning ample accolades on top of its barrelful of greenbacks, there is something wrong with the post-millennial movie going public. Reaching across demographic designs to endear itself to oldsters and adolescents alike, and achieving that legitimate rarity in rib-tickling—that is, comedy that actually has something profound to say about the human condition—this is what pure popcorn entertainment is all about. Hollywood should scuttle its subjective sequels and ridiculous remakes and study Apatow for his take on things. Cinema would definitely be a more joyful artform because of it.



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Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Sometimes, a sequel just shouldn’t bother. No matter what the project thinks it has to offer that’s ‘new’ or ‘unique’, no matter what novel twist it wants to put on the same old storylines, it is almost always destined to fail. Of course, there are exceptions (Godfather Part II and Spider-Man 2 instantly come to mind), but more times than not, what we end up with is something dull (Fly II), derivative (Halloween II), or a startlingly sour combination of the two (any of the Jaws follow-ups). And it gets even worse when you start stringing out a flimsy foundation into some kind of series. The more Roman numerals on the end, the more potential for pointlessness. Such is the case with Shrek the Third. This is the kind of sloppy, generic follow-up that will have you wondering why anyone found the first movie the least bit entertaining.


It all begins with our large green hero wrapped in a quandary. He must make a very important decision – accept the throne from the dying frog King Harold, or head out to Worcestershire and find Arthur, the next in line to inherit the empire. As part and parcel of this franchise’s meta-mannerisms, we are of course talking about the legendary owner of the mythic round table here, except he’s depicted as an awkward loser. Even more confusing, our adolescent ruler-to-be attends a Harry Potter like school where magic makes up most of the curriculum. So, while Shrek is off trying to convince Master Pendragon that the land of Far Far Away needs him, and his sweetie Fiona is preparing to bring a few ogre offspring into the world, the disposed Prince Charming – whose been relegated to doing lame dinner theater for a living – plots to retake the crown that the storyline from Shrek II stole from him. Gathering together all the known villains in the fairytale universe (including Capt. Hook and Rupelstiltskin), he plots a full blown fictional character coup.


Though it sounds compelling and intricate, the truth is that Shrek the Third‘s narrative more or less sits there, lifeless and limp, waiting for the already creaky cogs in its comedy machine to make up for the lack of complexity. Indeed, this type of clothesline yarn is ripe for many a hilarious animated set piece, but aside from two stellar moments (Shrek imagines life as a father, and the Gingerbread Man literally sees his life flash before his eyes), the quartet of screenwriters can find very little to do with it. Indeed, jokes that seemed to work the first two times (lame rap lingo, prevalent pop culture references) now come off as amateurish and pat. Even the standard star stunt casting has been lowered a couple of notches, resulting in good but generic voices (Ian McShane as Hook, Justin Timberlake as Arthur) looking to enliven things.


It has to be said though that Eric Idle, who arrives late in the second act as a blithely blitzed out Merlin, does bring a great deal of madcap amusement to his twisted take on the old wizard, and Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas still sparkle as Donkey and Puss in Boots, respectively. But Mike Myers’ Scottish shtick has grown grating and unappealing. Instead of making Shrek sound continental and crafty, the character is now bordering on the ethnically insensitive. He’s like Groundskeeper Willie without Matt Groening and the gang’s sense of satiric edge. But at least he’s still given something to do. Cameron Diaz is delegated to a substrata supporting role, her Fiona required to do little else than pine for her monster-man and remain vigilant. Now that’s some gutbusting cleverness, huh?


Indeed, most of Shrek the Third plays like missed opportunities purposefully planned out that way. It’s a film so afraid of letting down the demographic that it never ventures beyond the safe. Actually, if you could merely jerryrig the first two films into some manner of comic collage, injecting Charming’s take-over bid somewhere in towards the middle, you would have this tre-quel’s entire creative conceit. It’s just shocking that after three years, an open checkbook, and a studio more than willing to let the animators take this franchise wherever they want, the result is this lackadaisical and unfinished. The motivation for our character’s concerns is left unexplored, the events in the story appearing to occur as if part of some planned animation autopilot. Even the big showdown at the end is anticlimactic, playing more like a cop out than a rousing conclusion.


Still, this movie will probably make scads of money. It offers all the standard CGI stereotyping that has come to define the genre. Where once we had a quasi-clever take on fairytales and fantasy archetypes, the twisting of well known characters into anxiety ridden entities with dimensions beyond their pen and ink particulars, now we have expertly rendered stand-up comics, each one waiting for their moment to drop another onerous one liner. We even get the mandatory musical number over the credits, Murphy’s ditzy Donkey going all Sly and the Family Stone on us as Shrek’s stumpy children make goofy “goo-goo” noises. In fact, the real reason this movie feels so familiar isn’t just its debt to the first two films. No, the Shrek schema has been adopted by so many other derivative 3D disasters (Barnyard, Robots, any Ice Age film) that there can’t help but be a little backsplash.


With Shrek 4 already greenlit, and a healthy return at the box office for this latest release, it is clear that audiences don’t mind these increasingly dreary offerings. As long as they stay as true to their past particulars as possible, turnstiles will be spinning. This means we can expect more Puss in Boots suave sensuality, more dizzying Donkey dorkiness, lots more of Arthur’s gee-whiz boy band blandness, and supplementary silliness by the barrelful. Again, this latest installment in the already stale series will give the wee ones something to obsess over once the DVD arrives, and there’s no denying the increase in artistic approach and design. Many of the sequences razzle with plenty of bitrate dazzle. But filmmakers have yet to learn that any animated feature needs something more than pretty pictures to solidify its significance. Shrek the Third is nothing more than a previous pastiche with very little if anything new to add.


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