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by Bill Gibron

18 Apr 2008


If politics makes for strange bedfellows, then Washington DC must be an orgy of Caligulian proportions. There among the conservative and liberal, special interests and the accompanying pork, lies the inherent evil - and the distinct beauty - of the democratic system. To use another tired cliché, we are what we eat, and by continually electing representatives who put personal agenda and individual power above that of their constituency, our policy dishes have been paltry at best. Back before ‘W’ put us in the center of a Middle Eastern maelstrom, very few career Congressmen were thinking about the rise of radicalism in the region. In fact, the only official paying any attention was a representative from Texas named Charlie Wilson - and he was more concerned about Communism than the Qur’an.

As the unlikely hero of Mike Nichol’s pristine period comedy Charlie Wilson’s War (new to DVD from Universal), our lone star guff-slinger is an endearing ‘80s icon. When we first meet the man - in the person of a terrific Tom Hanks - he’s on a fact finding tour…of a Las Vegas hot tub filled with strippers. Cocaine sitting neatly along the edge, an adult beverage poised precariously in his hand, he’s an old school powerbroker in a glammed up Greed decade domain. Wilson can’t understand why Washington is so complicated. To him, the legislative process is who you know matched with nepotism, ass-kissing, and lots of reciprocal favors. It’s the very definition of ‘politics’. Yet when he discovers the fate of the people of Afghanistan, and the seeming desire for domination by an invading Soviet Army, all Wilson sees it R-E-D.

Luckily Houston socialite Joanne Herring (a wonderful Julia Roberts) has been paying attention, and she wants her local representative (and sometime lover) to help funnel cash to the region. Of course, Wilson doesn’t realize the wall of opposition he’ll face, nor does he lack the nerve to attack such stonewalling head on. He will need some help, however - and Herring can only sweet talk so many of her male admirers. Enter disgruntled CIA operative Gust Avrakotos. Angry at the agency for overlooking hot zones while focusing on less important domestic drivel, he latches onto Wilson in a way that will redefine both men. With the Congressman’s network of string-pullers and promises, an initial outlay of cash from Herring, and a whole lot of chutzpah, this trio will change the face of the Arab world - for short term better, and long term worse.

At this point in his illustrious career, 77 year old Nichols can cruise into legend and no one would stop him. He’s often considered the original rebellious voice of the ‘60s/‘70s post-modern movement (thanks in part to his brilliant The Graduate), but he also helmed other challenging efforts like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Catch 22, and Carnal Knowledge. Yet when it comes to politics, his tendency is to beat people over the head with his agenda, showcasing how corruptible and craven the system can be (Primary Colors) vs. how righteous and reverent his characters are (Silkwood). Those looking for insight usually wind up settling for irony, satire strangulating even the most powerful of big picture pronouncements.

Perhaps this is why Charlie Wilson’s War feels like such a triumph. It’s the first legitimate marriage between Nichols the comedian and Nichols the commentator. Witty, wacky, and wildly inappropriate for our Puritanical PC times, this story of a lecherous wheeler dealer and his anti-Commie compunction sails along on breezes of effortless engagement, filled with performances so potent they act like double shots of soothing Southern Comfort. Sure, the script by West Wing/A Few Good Men scribe Aaron Sorkin is unapologetically insular and Wilson may have been, in real life, a cad of unconscionable proportions, but the message this movie delivers is loud and crystal clear - the US funded covert war against the Soviets in the early ‘80s led directly to the rise of the Taliban, the establishment of Al-Qaeda, and the events of 9/11.

How the filmmaker makes all of this palatable - and plausible - is one of War‘s greatest achievements. Sorkin’s snarky humor helps (everyone here is Algonquin witty and wise beyond their position) as does the wonderful work by all the actors, including current “It” girl Amy Adams as Wilson’s disaster-skirting Congressional aide. But Nichols doesn’t simply pile on the laughs. In one of the most effective moments in the entire film, our hero views a Pakistani refugee camp firsthand, and the brutality and carnage is unbearable: Children missing limbs, adults minus eyes, faces shorn off by shrapnel and bodies battered by an inability to properly defend themselves.

These scenes are crucial to Charlie Wilson’s War and its effectiveness. A 2008 audience, already sick to death of the morass in the Middle East, has to buy a non-Red State rationale for our lead’s heroics. Jingoism and the pull of the patriot just won’t fly. But when given a human image, and a human toll, we instantly side with the concerned Congressman. Ethics violations or not, his role in Washington has to prompt the appropriate change. The added content on the DVD, including some historical context as part of the Making-Of and personal insight from Wilson himself, helps extend this sentiment. There has always been a very human side to the media-marginalized Arab world. Sadly, few films have touched on it.

From the fabulous acting - Hanks and Roberts make a extraordinary pair, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is flawless as the gruff and grumble Gust - to the ironic present day applications (a celebration is marred by the sound of…a large jetliner) Charlie Wilson’s War is one of last year’s best films. Even better, the movie doesn’t martyr the man. Instead, it continues his position as prescient and prophetic. A final quote before the closing credits reveals such insights, and the cleverly crafted scenes before said statement show just how shortsighted our government can be.

Still, audiences shouldn’t come to Charlie Wilson’s War expecting the kind of political resonance achieved by directors such as Oliver Stone or Alan J. Pakula. Nichols is more than happy to stay solidly in entertainer mode. If some minor message gets out, all the better. Some may see this solid bit of mainstream Hollywood moviemaking as all celebrity smoke and mirrors. In fact, it’s much more biting - and brazen than that. It’s a reflection of the man at the center of this prescient story.

by Bill Gibron

17 Apr 2008


For the weekend beginning 18 April, here are the films in focus:

Forgetting Sarah Marshall [rating: 8]

Written with a sensationally smutty Woody Allen expertise and loaded with big fat bawdy barrel laughs, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is another wacked out winner

Apparently, Drillbit Taylor was just a fluke. After a year which saw comedy giant Judd Apatow score with Knocked Up, Superbad, and the highly underrated Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, 2008 sure started off with a stumble. Though the former Freaks and Geeks creator who literally resuscitated the dying big screen laughfest played a small role in the Owen Wilson flop, some saw the underperforming picture as an indicator of a fleeting 15 minutes. Apparently the funny business funeral was scheduled a little early. Instantly becoming one of this year’s best films—humorous or not—the hilarious Forgetting Sarah Marshall shows that this satire sage and his gang of comic compatriots are not going anywhere anytime soon. read full review…

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? [rating: 7]

While premised on a search for the infamous terrorist kingpin, this is really more of a Lonely Planet for the limited attention span.

The information is eerily the same. A lack of education, unemployment, limited opportunities, rampant poverty, and future prospects that seem dim at best drive the problem. These young men, lives marginalized by a majority that doesn’t care, have no other outlet for their aggression. As a result, they become easy targets for gangs, groups that prey on such a disenfranchised feeling, using the rage to wage war on society. No, this is not some overview of the urban crime scene circa 1988. We’re not dealing with South Central Los Angeles or downtown Detroit. Instead, this is what Morgan Spurlock, famed documentarian (Super Size Me) learns when talking to people in the Arab world. He wants to figure out why Al-Qaeda is so seductive to supposedly sensible individuals. The answer, sadly, shocks no one. read full review…

88 Minutes [rating: 3]

While the actual ending does give audiences a reason to cheer, it’s the final fade out that will make viewers the happiest. It means this tepid terror is finally over.

Sometimes, the creative writing is splashed all over the workprint walls. Anyone seeing John Avnet’s name on the directing credits should take a moment to contemplate asking for their money back. After all, he’s been responsible for mindless dreck like Fried Green Tomatoes, The War, Up Close and Personal, and Red Corner. Not the greatest big screen resume. To make matters worse, he has teamed up with screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson, whose poisoned pen scribbled slop like K-911, K9-PI, Hollow Man, and The Fast and the Furious. What made either man think they could take on the by now stale serial killer thriller begs the question of their individual sanity. How they conned one of our greatest actors to lower himself to such a paycheck cashing conceit borderlines on the criminal. read full review…
 
Other Releases—In Brief

The Forbidden Kingdom [rating: 6]

One of the glorious things about Hong Kong action films is their unusual cultural conceits. Aside from all the butt kicking, the ability to see another tradition’s myths and legends brings a necessary surreal suspension of cinematic disbelief. So when West meets—and then mimics—East, the result is typically an awkward mishmash of misinterpretations. This is exactly what happens in Rob Minkoff’s routine rip-off of every Chinese folktale ever told, The Forbidden Kingdom. Representing the only time that martial arts icons Jackie Chan and Jet Li have appeared together in a film, the sloppy set up has the Monkey King frozen in time, waiting for a prophesied pawn to bring him his magic staff. Naturally, the immortal Jade Warlord wants to prevent his resurrection, so he sends out his many minions, including a white-haired witch, to battle our heroes. Chan and Li are magnificent, their big confront one of the most amazing fight scenes of all time. But it’s the American presence—Minkoff behind the lens, lame male lead Michael Angarano in front of it—that constantly countermands the action. We expect nothing but brilliance from our kung fu gods. Sadly, they are surrounded by entertainment-sapping stooges.

by Bill Gibron

17 Apr 2008


Apparently, Drillbit Taylor was just a fluke. After a year which saw comedy giant Judd Apatow score with Knocked Up, Superbad, and the highly underrated Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, 2008 sure started off with a stumble. Though the former Freaks and Geeks creator who literally resuscitated the dying big screen laughfest played a small role in the Owen Wilson flop, some saw the underperforming picture as an indicator of a fleeting 15 minutes. Apparently the funny business funeral was scheduled a little early. Instantly becoming one of this year’s best films—humorous or not—the hilarious Forgetting Sarah Marshall shows that this satire sage and his gang of comic compatriots are not going anywhere anytime soon.

After five years of heartfelt togetherness, TV actress Sarah Marshall and her cop series composer boyfriend Peter Bretter are breaking up. She’s started seeing UK rock sensation Aldous Snow. He’s suddenly alone, devastated, and lost his will to live. Luckily, Peter’s stepbrother Brian suggests he take a trip. Our hero picks Hawaii, one of Sarah’s favorite destinations. Sure enough, the star is there with her cocky British boy toy. Undercut by the coincidence, he sinks into himself. Quite by accident, he ends up befriended by sympathetic hotel clerk Rachel Jansen. As their relationship blossoms, Peter still carries a torch for Sarah. Somehow, he believes, the feeling may be mutual—and he just might be right.

Written with a sensationally smutty Woody Allen expertise and loaded with big fat bawdy barrel laughs, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is another wacked out winner. It continues the solid ‘buttheads getting hot babes’ formula that fueled last year’s Seth Rogen hit while proving that Apatow remains the MSG master of crudity. Everyone he works with—in this case, writer/actor/friend Jason Segel—sees their game enhanced ten-fold. This is a wonderful film, a foul-mouthed fiesta of heart and true human emotions. One of the things that critics constantly miss when musing on the Apatow-supported oeuvre is that the dialogue is never overly cute or purposefully ‘written’. Instead, the characters communicate like real people do, from the sex-obsessed teens of Superbad to the depressed dramatics here.

Casting is crucial to making a movie like this work, and first time director Nicholas Stoller does an amazing job in choosing his actors. Segel, who usually sinks into the background as a second banana’s second banana, is wonderful as Peter. He is just pathetic enough, wussed out and whiny without completely getting on your nerves. When things start to turn around for him romantically, we instantly root for him. We want to see him happy. The same can’t be said for Kristen Bell. Her title tart is the film’s most complex part. She has to be selfish without being totally self-centered, driven without seeming drastic. Her break-up scene works well since it comes right up front, before we learn more about Sarah’s flaws. By the end of the narrative, we’ve grown to both hate and pity her.

On the supporting side of things, Mila Kunis is incredible as Rachel. Her demeanor has to be faultless in order for us to champion Peter’s ultimate choice. She works the focused freespirit angle expertly, and we sense a real chemistry with Segel. Indeed, Stoller’s major achievement is finding performers who are both individually fearless and totally in sync with each other. No one catches a break here—all the characters are uncloaked, purposefully presented warts (STDs) and all. About the only awkwardness comes from Russell Brand’s Snow. He’s such a Brit band cliché, a worldview wimp who believes sex is a God given bad boy birthright that we just want to smack him silly. Luckily, Segel’s script takes him down a notch to a semi-human level before simply restating his repugnance.

But the humor here goes far beyond the plausible personal interaction. Apatow typically champions an “anything for a giggle” dynamic, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall follows this mandate magnificently. Some of the best moments are derived from genitalia based putdowns and sexual pantomime, but there’s also some very inside wittiness (Bell’s actress gets blasted for being in an unsuccessful horror film in which cellphones kill people ala Pulse) and a brilliant puppet musical spoof that ends things with a bravura bang. Toss in gratuitous male nudity, a wonderful sibling rivalry between Peter and Brian (Bill Hader is brilliant in the role) and you’ve got the standard Apatow cocktail—heavy on the vulgarity, incredibly light on the lameness.

Perhaps the most stunning part of Forgetting Sarah Marshall isn’t how clever or unconventional it is. No, what really sets this film apart is its dark and rather desperate tone. Peter is not the fun-loving loser who just can’t get lucky in the love department. He’s a self-loathing lump who uses rejection and domination as a means of emotional connection. When he learns to have fun, to simply sit back and let life have its way with him (for bad and for good), he finally finds freedom. He’s still a bitter man, and this is a narrative that definitely thrives on such acidity. The Woody Allen allusion is totally apropos. This is a film filled with angst-driven head cases hoping to avoid the classic “dead shark” analogy. Watching them try is what makes Forgetting Sarah Marshall work.

With the Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly effort Step Brothers coming out in July, and the Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg scripted Pineapple Express arriving in August, Apatow shows no signs of slowing down—and if either of those films is as funny and fresh as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, here’s hoping he never does. This is the movie last years horrendous Heartbreak Kid remake wanted to be. The only things missing then were nerve, talent, foresight, and intelligence. A broken heart can be a bitch. Thanks to Jason Segel and his sensational screenplay, it can also be a beautiful, laugh out loud thing as well.

by Bill Gibron

17 Apr 2008


Sometimes, the creative writing is splashed all over the workprint walls. Anyone seeing John Avnet’s name on the directing credits should take a moment to contemplate asking for their money back. After all, he’s been responsible for mindless dreck like Fried Green Tomatoes, The War, Up Close and Personal, and Red Corner. Not the greatest big screen resume. To make matters worse, he has teamed up with screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson, whose poisoned pen scribbled slop like K-911, K9-PI, Hollow Man, and The Fast and the Furious. What made either man think they could take on the by now stale serial killer thriller begs the question of their individual sanity. How they conned one of our greatest actors to lower himself to such a paycheck cashing conceit borderlines on the criminal.

The result is a pile of contrivances called 88 Minutes, and our above marquee name is none other than Al Pacino. In this tortuous career killer, the artist formerly known as a ‘70s stalwart plays Dr. Jack Gramm. A high profile forensics psychologist, he has successful profiled everyone from Ted Bundy to “Seattle Slayer” Jon Forster. Of course, our smooth talking slayer claims innocence, and nine years later, he’s about to be executed for his crimes. Suddenly, a copycat murder occurs, and Forster’s guilt is thrown in jeopardy. Even worse, Gramm’s ethics are questioned. As his students react to the news, our headshrinker gets a strange call. The voice intones something very sinister—Gramm only has 88 minutes to live. Even worse, it looks like he’s being framed for the latest round of corpses.

So convoluted that ADD addled teenagers find it unfocused, and lost in a cinematic situation of unfinished scenes, awkward dramatic pauses, and random illogical tangents, 88 Minutes is a mess. It’s a futile attempt at making a CSI mountain out of a mediocre Silence of the Lambs molehill, and never establishes a realistic look at how professional profilers earn their keep. Wasting the talents of much of its cast—though many deserve their “who’s that?” sense of relevance—and using Seattle for its apparent nonstop supply of dank, Avnet and Thompson test the patience of even the most ardent Pacino fan. Granted, the Oscar winner has made a lot of lame choices in the last 10 years (Gigli? Two for the Money?), but this pompadoured doc has to be a new low.

At first, we’re not sure what to make of Jack Gramm. He seems deeply troubled, losing himself in casual sex, professional spite, and a curmudgeonly classroom manner. He’s supposed to be a superstar of his trade, and yet nothing he does appears born out of his abilities. Instead, it all feels written, the product of a computer, not a plot. This is one of those “of course” movies, the kind of entertainment were information is given, and then when additional facts are added to ratchet up the supposed suspense and/or drama, we smirk to ourselves and say…“of course”. A character will have an abusive boyfriend… who turns out to be her violent ex-husband…who happens to have spent time in prison…at the same place that the Seattle Slayer has been sitting on Death Row. Of course.

This is also a film clearly set in the only part of Washington State where the elusive red herring lives. There are so many individuals subtlety screaming “I DID IT”—from a tattooed twink campus security guard to the world’s most obvious non-doorman doorman—that you wonder how the cops missed these particular “individuals of interest”. Gramm is also surrounded by several manmade MacGuffins. His secretary is a lesbian with something potentially damaging to hide. Several of his students know way too much about Forster and their teacher’s involvement in the case, and one henna-haired harpy carries a loaded handgun—you know, for kicks! The list of showboating suspects grows so great that you wonder how Avnet will explain them all. Believe it or not, he doesn’t. He just lets them drop.

Indeed, Avnet’s directing here is jaw-droppingly bad. There’s a moment where Pacino is after an important suspect. He and his costar pull up to her home, get ready to exit, and then everything stops so Al can deliver a speech about the death of his little sister several years before. At least it ties into the reason behind the title. But early on, the man behind the lens lets time fritter by as grown men sample cookies and milk and Pacino has randomized, unfiltered flashbacks. Individual moments appear endless, there is no real sense of mise-en-scene (meaning one sequence doesn’t successfully segue into the next) and the pacing provides zero dread. Had the movie tried for a real time conceit, maybe such a strategy would work. But at 105 minutes, it’s bloated and boring.

The final nail in 88 Minutes pauper’s coffin is the premise itself. Since Gramm is told he has less than an hour and a half to live, it seems like a trip to the local police station, or his buddies at the FBI would be a reasonable first step. Tell them what’s going on, give them all the facts (the escort he slept with, the potential connection to Forster) and sit back and enjoy a cup of justice. Ninety minutes later, all should be right with the world. Even if our determined doctor decides to do a little private dicking on his own, he can engage the help of individuals actually trained in the art of detection. Instead, Thompson gives us a group of groan-inducing coeds who can’t seem to find the course syllabus, let alone a viable lead.

One hopes this is all in service of some sensational twist where we learn that Gramm is actually a mentally unstable man who believes himself to be…well, you get the idea. Instead, one of our maroon fish finally plays their hand, a formulaic standoff occurs, and we get the deathly dull villain with no internal monologue vs. the shifty eyed, ever-plotting victim. While the actual ending does give audiences a reason to cheer, it’s the final fade out that will make viewers the happiest. It means this tepid terror is finally over.

by Bill Gibron

17 Apr 2008


The information is eerily the same. A lack of education, unemployment, limited opportunities, rampant poverty, and future prospects that seem dim at best drive the problem. These young men, lives marginalized by a majority that doesn’t care, have no other outlet for their aggression. As a result, they become easy targets for gangs, groups that prey on such a disenfranchised feeling, using the rage to wage war on society. No, this is not some overview of the urban crime scene circa 1988. We’re not dealing with South Central Los Angeles or downtown Detroit. Instead, this is what Morgan Spurlock, famed documentarian (Super Size Me) learns when talking to people in the Arab world. He wants to figure out why Al-Qaeda is so seductive to supposedly sensible individuals. The answer, sadly, shocks no one.

In his fascinating, fly by night overview of the Middle East crisis, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden, Spurlock uses the impending birth of his first child as a catalyst for cutting through the political rhetoric and the international posturing. While premised on a search for the infamous terrorist kingpin, this is really more of a Lonely Planet for the limited attention span. It does its job remarkably well, and is eye opening in ways both important and superfluous. But just as he did with his attack on McDonalds (and to a lesser extent, his otherwise excellent 30 Days series for FX), Spurlock stuffs the cinematic ballot box. He hedges his bets, going for the obvious score vs. the insightful if complicated underpinning.

It happens almost immediately upon entering Egypt (the film is built around a multi-country tour with our grinning guide playing a terrorist-trailing Tony Bourdain). Whenever he comes upon a disgruntled group of citizens, the message is repeated like a mantra - we don’t HATE the people of the US, just their horrific, misguided, and totally out of touch government. Over and over again it is repeated: we love you, we despise your failed foreign policy. Even in occupied territories outside Israel, where Palestinian refugees suffer unusual and horrid hardships, few are fuming at Uncle Sam’s nieces and nephews. Aside from one or two obvious militants, the same sentiment is voiced over and over - population good, president bad! 

Yet there is more to Spurlock’s madness than just delivering this one note communication. Unlike so many news reports that want to cast Muslims as one big bearded bunch of Islamic radicals, Where in the World… gives faces to this decidedly foreign issue. They are no longer villains in veils and headdress. Instead, they are actual human beings (Shock! Horror!) who just want schools, drinking water, financial help - oh, and some minor sovereign recognition and democratic rights would be great as well. The whole Jihad angle is substantially downplayed, the interviewees more than willing to rag on their radicalized brethren as not “representative” of the Middle East. As stated before, this is far from a revelation.

Where Spurlock stumbles is in the follow up department. He never gets to the Mike Wallace/60 Minutes question. Instead, it’s all passive aggressive acceptance. In Saudi Arabia, he gets the party line and nothing more (including a memorable scene where two teenage school boys are questioned under the watchful eye of their suspicious teacher and principal). A group of Hassidic Jews paint the people of Israel in an equally unappetizing light. They rant and rave, screaming their hate filled threats, before literally pushing the filmmaker off their part of the world stage.

In both cases, our host doesn’t try to contradict or add context. He just lets jerks be jerks and moves on. Similarly, one senses that all these pro-peace pronouncements could be easily countermanded by a look at the cutting room floor. Like the director he’s most often compared to - Michael Moore - Spurlock clearly has an agenda. He’s more interested in fact flagging than finding. The viewpoint he puts out in Where in the World… may indeed be his overall experience, but it’s clearly one filtered through careful editing and a specific unbalanced viewpoint.

A well-defined motive is also missing here - and the ‘what are we afraid of/my baby’s future’ angle is specious and frequently forgotten. We understand implicitly that the world is not the way our power-mad officials make it out to be. We also are clear that not everyone in the Middle East wants to hug a Westerner or adopt an Israeli. Somewhere in between lies the truth, and yet Spurlock is only interested in putting forth his ‘Kumbaya’ concept of globalization (though he purposefully mocks said message toward the end).

Still, as the magnificent strains of Elvis Costello’s reading of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” start up, as the credits roll and the people we’ve met smile kindly for the camera (even the radicals), something strange happens. Beyond all the ADD inspired graphics, the video game goofiness, the Charlie Daniels on Demerol theme song, and the overall reliance on generics, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden becomes a very effective film. It’s as if the music makes the points that Spurlock avoids, questioning and commenting on the tenets he tries to expose. There was never a chance he would find the fiery fundamentalist. Yet somehow, Spurlock still found the truth - or at least part of it.

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