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by Bill Gibron

19 Nov 2009

Kevin Smith is the Richard Pryor of lo-fi independent cinema. No one in modern moviemaking works better “blue”. He is a sorcerer of scatology, a God of the dick and fart joke. And yet, just like the late, great comic, he’s a wiz at turning profanity into the profound. Unlike some who work in the medium of miscreance, there’s a meaning and a depth to his perversion. Smith is also one of the original “geeks”, standing alongside the Tarantinos and the Andersons of the craft in a desire to take film back for the true film fan. From the movies he’s made to the proposed projects that never really got off the ground, he represents the best of the genre’s original defining DIY spirit. While others merely grab their camcorder and create, Smith does something even better - he let’s his words, and by them his ideas, do the incessant talking.

So it’s odd for a medium that celebrates vision and “the image” (Blu-ray) to now house a trio of the writer/director’s least stylized turns - and yet there exactly is where we find early works like 1994’s Clerks, 1997’s Chasing Amy, and 2001’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Smith will be the first to admit that he knows very little about the optical art of film. He has a journeyman command of mise-en-scene, but beyond that, he’s more My Dinner with Andre than North by Northwest. But when it comes to language, when it comes to making powerful statements out of some of the most repulsive concepts conceivable, he’s a genius. Argue over his ultimate success rate all you want, but Smith stands as a singular artist in an arena overloaded with copycats, wannabes, and deluded never-wills.

True, there is something to be said about the scruffy monochrome charms of Clerks. Smith used his own time in ‘retail’ to revisit the directionless lives of proto-slackers Dante (Brian O’Hallaran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson). The former works at the rundown Quick Stop convenience store. The latter avoids his responsibilities to the video rental place next door. Together, they pick on the customers and each other, using a combination of pop culture trivia superiority and four-letter denouncements to get their point across. When Dante is coaxed into working on his day off, he figures it will be a typical shift filled with idiots and weirdoes. Instead, he learns some shocking news about his current girlfriend and some equally upsetting information about the long lost love of his life.

With its focus on fellatio, its random lapse into implied necrophilia, and the nonstop curse laden assaults of its leads, Clerks would seem like the perfect candidate to have its motion picture mouth washed out with soap. As a matter of fact, as part of the many bonus features provided on this 15th Anniversary Blu-ray Edition of the title, Smith explains how the MPAA, horrified by the onslaught of F-bombs and graphic descriptions of genitalia, went and awarded an NC-17 to the film - not for hardcore sex or mindlessly gruesome violence, but for mere extrapolation of the English language. While he won the eventual legal battle, he set himself for a reputation that, often, he truly doesn’t deserve. Certainly there are times when Smith relies of crudity to sell his humor. But there are just as many laughs gained from Star Wars, dairy product expiration dates, and - of all things - lung cancer.

At its heart, though, Clerks is about relationships. In fact, almost every film Smith has made centers around friendship, love, the trouble with both and the devastation that comes with the loss of (or threatened loss of) same. For Dante and Randal, it’s all about being partners in crime, about wasting their lives in a mutually agreeable state of discontent. While they struggle against the connection between their shoddy life and their sense of self-worth, they are a cocksure illustration of the phrase misery loving company. For them, life is hockey, handing out, and complaining…a lot! Even when Dante goes off and deals with the various ladies in his life, we sense how out of place they are in his existence. Smith mines this material for lots of insights, as well as many moments of outsized wit. As a result Clerks remains a defining debut, a symbolic shot into the darkened domain of legitimate moviemaking. Oddly enough, it turned him into a rebel, a tag he wouldn’t shake until three years later, if then.

For most, Chasing Amy is Smith’s “mainstream” film, even though it deals with such unusual storyline topics as outsider comics, alternative lifestyles, and racial/gender intolerance. Artist Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) and “inker” Banky Edwards (Jason Lee) are responsible for the cult creation Bluntman and Chronic, featuring the fictional adventures of two stoners based on real life dopers Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith). While at a convention in support of their militant black (and closeted gay) friend Hooper X (Dwight Ewell), Holden meets up with fellow ‘funny book’ author Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams). Instantly smitten, he tries to hook up with her. He soon learns that there is a barrier to their future love affair - she’s gay. In fact, she is adamant about not being “into” men. This doesn’t deter Holden as much as quicken his resolve. Of course, the eventual highs and lows of their courtship puts a strain on everyone…even Banky.

Like a raw nerve tweaked over and over again by emotions both radiant and revealing, Chasing Amy is as close to a masterpiece as Smith has ever created. While Clerks II and Zack and Miri Make a Porno also share such a tag, the writer/director delivers a devastating deconstruction of the male ego with this ‘penetrating’ portrait of affection and defeat. Smith knows the territory - the accompanying commentary track makes it very clear that Silent Bob’s title “tale” hits rather close to home. He also finds actors in Affleck and Adams who aren’t afraid to bare it all - including their most intimate fears and vulnerabilities - in service of a narrative which finds them fluctuating between the joys of passion and the anger of insult. Even Banky gets involved, his narrow view of Holden’s feelings turning a childhood spent inseparable into suspicion and subterfuge.

Of course, Smith keeps everything bubbling away with his standard flurry of foul-mouthed inspiration. Before their friendship turns sour, Banky and Alyssa share a Jaws-inspired conversion over cunnilingus-derived injuries that is priceless, while a high school nickname - “Finger Cuffs” - gets any equally unhealthy going over. Adams does lipstick lesbian chic really well, but she’s also great at what Smith labels “the experimental chick.” You see, Alyssa is not all she claims to be and by his horrible actions, Holden turns equally questionable - and inexcusable. Yet we care about them and want to see their relationship blossom. While the last act decision by our hero on how to “solve” things seems shockingly stupid, the rest of Chasing Amy is magnificent. It reminds even the casual Smith fan of the man’s mastery with people, and the particulars of their lives.

It would be nice to say the same about Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. However, this full blown “fan film” (as former Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein labeled it) really has its weaknesses. When our two pot dealing dipsticks learn that Bluntman and Chronic has been optioned for a Hollywood movie, the boys seek out old pal Holden McNeil (Affleck in a funny cameo) to get their movie check. They soon learn that Banky (Lee) owns the rights to the property and that there are hundreds of Jay and Silent Bob hating fans on the Internet. Determined to silence Messageboard Nation once and for all, the guys decide to hitchhike to California and stop the production. Along the way, they learn some ‘rules’ of the road, befriend a group of gorgeous jewel thieves, and wind up confronting their clueless onscreen doppelgangers - James Van Der Beek and Jason Biggs.

Like one massive inside joke that only regulars to the View Askew Universe will get, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is the ultimate measure of Smith’s undeniable nerdiness. It is top heavy with homages to everything the filmmaker holds dear - genre types, character cliché, longstanding personal and professional friendships, spot-on satiric spoofs of Tinseltown types - that when it ends up less than successful, you wonder where the problem lies. Of course, you have to have a working knowledge of 2001 popular culture to get some of the jokes (like why Biggs is constantly called “pie-f*cker”) and the Good Will Hunting sequel stuff is obvious in a still rather clever way (no one does self-effacing better than Matt Damon). Yet these are mere moments in a movie made up of lots of Jay and Silent Bob buffoonery - and while it may seem sacrilegious to say it, the pair tends to wear out its welcome.

It’s not just the incessant talk about “feline femininity”. It’s not the whole acronym as dirty joke dynamic. Heck, we even buy the duo as craven monkey caretakers (or in this case, a great ape). It’s just that, with all the things Smith could have had his iconic duo participate in, a weird hybrid of hot chick crime spree, road picture, and dweeb romance just doesn’t seem to work. Sure, we’re laughing, especially when Wes Craven and Gus Van Zant show up, but we aren’t getting the reciprocal depth that usually comes with a Kevin Smith movie. There are no grand insights here, no interpersonal inspirations of epiphanies. You want to hear Luke Skywalker curse like a sailor? No problem. Need Chris Rock to relish in his pissed-off African American activist bit? You got it. Want cameos from almost every Smith film and character to date? Here you go. But if you want the same kind of emotional impact of Chasing Amy, or even Clerks, you’ll be looking for a very long time.

All the while, Smith and several in his cast and crew offer alternate narrative overviews of the productions. Each disc comes with these definitive conversations, chances to hear the true dirt behind the frequently filthy get-togethers. Smith can be self-deprecating to fault and he tends to point out things we’d otherwise ignore, but he is such an exceptional storyteller, so swollen with the gift of gab that he can’t help but be enchanting. The rest of the scattered features tell the rest of the tale. The same goes for his movies as well. Be they no budget or Summer blockbuster, heavy with star power or captained by capable nobodies, Kevin Smith makes movies that are a triumph of talent over taste, of linguistics over lewdness. Even if a 1080p transfer and beefed up audio do little to amplify these titles limited artistry, they can’t dilute Smith’s scribing superiority. It’s what makes him this generation’s fresh prince of the foul.

by Bill Gibron

18 Nov 2009

It holds too many titles to be totally beholden to just one: most popular movie of all time (adjusted dollars or straight admissions, of course); greatest example of classic Hollywood filmmaking ever; best adaptation of an otherwise questionable work of popular fiction; greatest film of all time; racially insensitive embarrassment (and often, downright horrific in its intolerance); over the top; melodramatic; superbly acting; and a fascinating piece of filmmaking. Still, for all the badges it’s forced to wear, Gone with the Wind never really gets the tag it seems closest to actually achieving - that of a modern day Greek tragedy. You see, built into Margaret Mitchell’s highly romanticized vision of a pre/post Civil War South is a central figure so flawed, so twisted by destiny in both successful and sinister ways that you just can’t help but see the artistry of ancient civilizations at work.

Our tragic “heroine” is, of course, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh) - spoiled brat daughter of Irish plantation owner Gerald and his distant wife Ellen. Long in love with neighboring well-to-do Georgian Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), the belle is devastated when she learns that the man she adores plans on marrying another. Even though Melanie Hamilton (Olivia De Havilland) is the salt of the Earth, Scarlett is convinced that Ashley can be hers. When she is rejected, she runs off and marries the first man who asks - Melanie’s brother Charles. Suddenly, the Civil War starts, putting everyone in peril. It is also at this time that Scarlett meets the man who is destined to wander in and out of her life for the next few years - Charleston dandy and all around he-man gadfly, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). The battles both personal and sovereign begin, and Scarlett is soon a widow.

When Sherman finally reaches Atlanta, the O’Haras and Hamiltons must find a means of escape. Naturally, Capt. Butler finds a way of saving them. Returning to her home plantation, Tara, Scarlett discovers her mother dead and her father demented. Determined to “never be hungry again”, she woos the interloping carpetbaggers who come to Georgia after the war while taking up with older man Frank Kennedy (who just so happens to be one of her sister’s beaus). When he dies in a skirmish with “the Yankees”, Scarlett becomes a rich widow - and soon, an even wealthier business owner. Of course, Butler has never gotten over the wily little vixen, and they soon are married. They even have a child - a young daughter named Bonnie Blue. But as Butler dotes on his offspring, Scarlett is still pining for Ashley. It’s an obsession that will lead her down a path of personal ruin.

Even 70 years after the fact, Gone with the Wind remains the stuff of legend both on and off the screen. Over the decades, a dedicated scholarship has surrounded the film, the kind of in-depth discussion and analysis reserved for only the finest works of cultural significance. In the case of Wind, what Producer David O. Selznick went through to realize his vision of Mitchell’s best-selling tome is indeed filmic folklore made even more mythic. We see it scattered throughout the amazing 70th Anniversary Edition box-set - from commentary tracks that explain the lengthy development process to documentaries which dig deep into every facet of the film. Perhaps the most crucial was the casting, a literal free-for-all that saw many of the modern Tinseltown luminaries (Errol Flynn, Bette Davis) vie for roles that would eventually go to others - and then become iconic.

Selznick somehow stumbled upon British unknown Vivian Leigh (amidst a who’s who of available superstar talent) and the perfect tour de force of nature was unleashed. Everything about the actress’s portrayal is dead-on: Scarlett’s conniving juvenilia; her unwilling stubbornness; her passion and drive; her flitty sexuality, her untethered heart; the fiery jealousy, the inherent weakness; the hubris that makes her think she can succeed at all costs; the blindness to unwittingly destroy the innocent; the balls to break the strong. When she points a pistol at a Yankee soldier, determined to defend her birthright, you just know the man is getting a face full of lead. That it barely fazes her speaks volumes for what Leigh brings to Scarlett. Without a deft touch, the character would be hateful. The Oscar winner makes her truly epic.

The same goes with Gable. He is locked in a roll as sideline to Scarlett, given a last act trifecta of moments to finally shine. But when he’s standing there, moustache speaking volumes and squint substituting for libido, we can feel the sexual chemistry boiling in the broad shouldered hunk. Gable was only 37 when he took the role of Butler, but he comes across as a man more worldly wise and school of hard knocks educated than individuals twice his age. When he tries to talk down the Southern “gentlemen” who are fired up to defend the honor of the South against Lincoln, you can see his smug resolve in every syllable. Similarly, when defending the madam who has helped both him and various Atlanta causes from behind the shadows of social scandal, you will never see a more fierce protector. Granted, he gets his blubbery bow when disaster hits a little too close to home, but for the most part, Gable’s Butler is the cocksure calm within a halting historic maelstrom.

But perhaps the most underrated turn belongs to Olivia De Havilland as the Christ-like angel Melanie - a woman Capt. Butler refers to as the only genuinely nice person he ever met. While Leslie Howard’s Ashley is so weepy we hardly see what Scarlett wants with him, we get the connection between the wimp and his wondrous wife. She’s non-judgmental (at least, not outwardly), finds the good in almost everyone, and even when she fails to fully disclose someone’s better nature, she inherently realizes why they are hiding behind such vile hatefulness. Some have found her openly naïve (she never seems to “get” that Ashley and Scarlett are smitten with each other) and generous to a fault, but when she helps Scarlett dispose of a recently deceased intruder, you can tell that the goody-goody act is covering up for a much stronger, much braver soul.

Together, this talented trio takes Gone with the Wind through its most unusual narrative structure. Indeed, this may be the first film that plays like its set-up and sequel all in one. Both stories are jumpstarted by Scarlett throwing herself at - and being resoundingly rejected by - Ashley. In the first half, she suffers through the Hells of war. Men dying. Brutal surgery and rampant disease. The destruction of her family and home. The loss of her social identity and heritage. While it may take some viewers aback, Gone with the Wind laments the loss of Southern gentility (and the people as property aspects that go with it). Even Butler chokes out a few words about “dem darkies” every now and then. While the African American cast including Butterfly McQueen, Hattie McDaniel, and Oscar Polk do their ethnicity proud, the first part of the movie is like a mint julep smothered in a minstrel show.

The second part - much better, as it gives the former servants some humanizing scenes - is more of a battle for individual valor. Scarlett gets rich, continues to ruin lives, and becomes a scandal. Her new husbands hand her money and prominence, but the unrequited love she feels for Ashley is destined to destroy her. She just can’t help it. It’s her nature…the core of her being…her fatal flaw. This is why Gone with the Wind is so much like a work by Aeschylus or Sophocles or Euripides. Heck, even during those moments when Leigh and Gable conversationally spar like players in a screwball comedy, we think more of Shakespeare than Hawkes or Capra. While the film is definitely locked into the era-appropriate manipulations of highly drawn dramatics, there is a darkness to the last act of the film that really burrows beneath your skin. Indeed, when Gable renders his classic line, it’s less of a slap in the face and more of a three hour in the making epiphany.

With bravura director from Victor Fleming (though many have been credited, it is his Technicolor vision, along with that of replacement cinematographer Ernest Haller that makes this movie look like a series of canvas masterpieces come to life) and a script agonized over by Selznick and several of the 1930s best writers - including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ben Hecht - Gone with the Wind is still dated, but it’s a dynamite kind of antiquity. The new DVD (and even better, Blu-ray) brings out the marvels in old form moviemaking: the controlled camerawork, the gorgeous lighting, the then-experimental and boundary pushing special effects. Of course, once we get into the meat of the added content and learn of the various tricks employed, including several dozen dummies substituting for wounded war casualties during the famous train yard triage scene, the power of such old fashioned flash is minimized. Bu it cannot be discounted.

Nor can one ignore the wealth of information in the bonus features. Full length overviews of the production provide as much detail as currently possible. Archival footage shows director Fleming in full-blown dictatorial mode, while actors and historians are interviewed about the film’s lasting appeal. Impact is gauged with a comparison to historical accuracies (and many inaccuracies), while 1939 is celebrated as ‘the greatest year in Hollywood’. We even get bits on the restoration process, the reasons behind the Civil War, and a TV movie starring Tony Curtis as a desperate-for-a-leading-lady Selznick. Topped off with a six hour retrospective on MGM entitled When the Lion Roars, the red velvet box set almost crumbles under the weight of its attempted thoroughness. While it could never be all encompassing, it definitely stands as one of the definitive compilations of the digital era.

And yet, for all its ballyhoo and cleverly marketed merchandising, it’s the characters from Gone with the Wind that continue to stir our imagination. Sure, Mammy, Pork, and Prissy are about as close to an all out hate crime as Golden Era Hollywood ever comes, but they aren’t completely demoralized by their human chattel challenges. Similarly, for all his lily-livered laments, Ashley Wilkes loves his wife and son. Rhett Butler may be a cad, a rogue, a scallywag, and any number of additional outdated epithets you want to hurl. But he’s also suave and smooth - and a savior when situations demand it. As two sides of the strong Southern Belle symbol, Melanie and Scarlett stand as pillars in a sea of quicksand, women willing to use their guile and their wits to work wonders on an antebellum arena torn between two conflicting ideologies (and too much male pride). Naturally, it’s that fatal flaw that keeps coming to the fore, leading to only one creative conclusion -  tragedy. That’s why Scarlett O’Hara is so put upon, and powerful. That’s why Gone with the Wind remains a certified cinematic gem.

by Bill Gibron

17 Nov 2009

Who would have thought it? Marla Singer is the sanest, most honest person in the entire piece. Even through all her hypochondria and emotional rollercoasterism, she puts the cracked combination of Tyler Durden and “Cornelius/Rupert/Everyman” in its place. Revisiting David Fincher’s fascinating post-modern masterwork Fight Club on Blu-ray for its 10th anniversary reveals a wealth of these kinds of previously undiscovered gems. What about Chloe, the dying woman so desperate for a last act roll in the hay that she advertises her various pleasure devices during her support group? There’s Raymond K. Hessel, the freaked out liquor store clerk who becomes Tyler’s first (of supposedly many) “human sacrifices” and, Lou, the faux Mafioso who gets a ‘mouthful’ of Fight Club’s foul purpose. And of course, there’s Robert Paulson, the big softy with “bitch tits” who ends up representing the most powerful of Project Mayhem’s many ubiquitous symbols.

Far beyond Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, who play the rebel yell yin yang of a split personality with revolutionary leanings better than any single actor ever could, and a director so in tune with the material that it seems to be flowing directly out of his own Id, it’s great to see this adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s perturbing novel get the afterthought critical respect it so richly deserved (and yet missed) the first time. Yes, Messageboard Nation loves to rewrite the history books on all their favorite films, and to read their various rants on the subject, you’d swear this was 1999’s most heavily praised and commercially successful film. In truth, the controversial nature of Fight Club‘s material - which many saw as a celebration of mindless violence and individual brutality - saw it as one of the decade’s most divisive efforts. Only in hindsight did it become the black-eyed Mona Lisa.

Indeed, a few short years later, it is now viewed as a milestone, a benchmark in the careers of everyone involved. For Fincher, the story of a young man discovering the beauty - and the inherent danger - in embracing your inner maleness become a commentary on an entire sub-generation of dejected men. Thanks to Palahnuik’s brilliant deconstruction of the bottomed-out baby boom, complete with IKEA “nesting” instincts and designer mustard mandates spoke volumes back when Clinton was canvassing the White House, and now, two regime changes later, it seems even more prescient. Fight Club has always been about taking back your life from the corporate schism, about beating the system up before it beats you down. Now, in a world where bad decisions, not bombs, caused many of the most prestigious lending houses to crash and burn, Tyler Durden’s chemically-induced chaos doesn’t seem so outlandish. In fact, it seems downright reasonable.

The main story remains as strong as ever - a young liabilities analyst (Norton) for a major auto manufacturer has trouble sleeping. Seeking solace from local self-help groups, he realizes that getting lost in other people’s problems helps him cope better with his own. Then another treatment “tourist” named Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) shows up, and throws our hero off his game. He tries to negotiate with her, but she’s more desperate than he is. During a lengthy business trip, our lead meets up with designer soap maker Tyler Durden (Pitt). They strike up an awkward friendship that finds the duo eventually living together in a run down house on the edge of town. From there, they begin something called ‘Fight Club’ - a weekly meeting where men can get together and blow off their frustrations and fears in a flurry of fists to the faces and solar plexus. 

Before long, Tyler decides to take the recreational release to new levels. He recruits an army of sorts, and soon, the newly named “Project Mayhem” is tackling corporate greed, franchised phoniness, and the continued dehumanization of the entire race via less than legal means. When our unnamed player complains, Tyler grows more distant. After a particular tense exchange, they part company. But Project Mayhem is now going international. It is up to our guide to discover Tyler’s motives, his true identity, and how an aggressive type of non-erotic male bonding turned into a terrorist organization.

Fight Club is still today a definitive film, a statement as strong as any rock anthem and twice as packed with power chords. It reels from flights of vivid imagination and keens with art so impressive that few can fathom its brilliance at one sitting. To hear Fincher tell it (his commentary is one of several spellbinding additions to the Blu-ray release, along with a fabulous 1080p transfer and audio update), the movie was a compact experience - scripted, storyboarded, cast, and presented without any major studio input or interference. Even when they balked at some of Palahnuik’s more maverick ideas, Fincher fought for the essence, if not the actual scene or line of dialogue. Sometimes, the reinvention made things much, much darker (Marla’s classic “grade school/abortion” lines). At other instances, the film version of Fight Club fleshed out the author’s ideas, giving realism and authenticity to what could be viewed as the fictional version of The Anarchist’s Cookbook.

But as the wealth of bonus features argue, Fight Club endures because its about the shared experience - between cast and crew, characters and audience, philosophy and individual ethos. It’s about emasculation and the inability to overcome same. Fincher surprises us when he explains how uncomfortable the MPAA got with any questions of sex (especially Tyler’s “rubber glove” bit with Marla) but then passed on most of the violence. Instead, Britain made him trim material from the infamous Angel Face (Jared Leto) beat down, arguing it was too horrific (we see both versions, and other deleted scenes here as well). As the actors share anecdotes and discuss motivation, we begin to understand how forward-thinking this movie really was. While Fight Club argued for a dethroned patriarchy to rise up and reestablish their place on the social food chain, it also illustrated the indirect rise in geek empowerment. Of course, the men in the movie pounded each other into submission using physical force and stamina. The nerds beat them to prominence with a motherboard and a highway full of information.

Indeed, in today’s gloomy, Palin obsessed media-cracy, a planet where information overload takes the place of rationality or true thought, Fight Club is more of a distant voice that a shouting street preacher. It still resonates in ways Palahnuik and Fincher can only imagine and truly helped redefine a demo in peril. But now, even in a fully fleshed out home video primer, it remains a lesson to be studied and learned, a series of lunatic lectures you either buy into, or berate as being out of touch and troubling. At its core, it can seem like sinew and sweat, testosterone and ‘roid rage rebellion. But inside of each one of these little boys lost is someone who has seen the systematic re-sensitizing of the father figure turn the powerful into the pathetic. As Tyler Durden says during one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, “If our father is our basis for God, and our fathers abandoned us, then what does that tell you about God?” In Fincher’s effective masterpiece, the answer is on every single frame. It’s up to you to find it.

by Bill Gibron

14 Nov 2009

Sometimes, the process is more interesting than the final product. Even the most mediocre effort—be it song, film, or novel—has a motive and a meaning to those who created it, and there are clearly instances where that impetus is more intriguing (and entertaining) than what’s actually placed before the consumer. Take British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest, Brüno. Based on the flamboyant Austrian fashionista character from his Ali G series, this clear gay stereotype is meant by its maker as a way of exposing homophobia, media mediocrity, and the insular world of haute couture and tawdry tabloid culture. That none of this actually comes across in the film is part of its failing. But to hear Cohen and his partner in queer mime, director Larry Charles tell it, the purpose was willing, but the execution clearly was weak.

You see, every scene in Brüno (new to Blu-ray from Unviersal) is meant as a commentary, an illustration of one of Cohen and Charles many scurrilous attacks on the vain and shallow world of celebrity—both real and phony. Like their previous smash, Borat, it is also meant as a means of exposing a secret world of racists, bigots, prudes, and perverts. But somewhere between the idea and the instigation, a connect was clearly missed. What ends up on the screen - slapdash, hurried, rambling - doesn’t mesh with what the duo discuss as part of their otherwise spellbinding picture-in-a-picture behind the scenes narrative as part of the Blu-ray bonus features. Sitting together in a small studio setting, the duo dish on death threats, legal admonishments, personal dismay, and the alarming idea that sexual preferences may be the last “legitimized” form of discrimination left in the world.

For those unfamiliar with the movie itself, Brüno follows the adventures of a deluded talk show host from Europe who loses his high profile gig when a trip to fashion week in Milan ends in disaster. Determined to be a certified A-lister, he travels to Hollywood to “become famous”. At first, he tries a different version of his gab fest. Unfortunately, American focus groups don’t cotton to its abject cruelty and full frontal male nudity. Next, he decides to do some charity work. Sadly, the PR people he contacts are more clueless than he.

Hoping to inspire peace in the Middle East, he travels to Jordan and tries to bring both sides together for talks. When that doesn’t work, he insults a local terrorist. Finally, after adopting an African baby, he gets a small amount of Jerry Springer-like success. Naturally, it doesn’t last. There’s also an on-again/off-again love affair with his doting assistant Lutz, an attempt to “turn straight” thanks to some Christian charlatans, and a last act ultimate fighting competition that ends up exposing Brüno’s true feelings about himself and life.

Unlike Borat, which tied a continuing story about reaching Baywatch’s Pamela Anderson as part of its narrative, Brüno is more a series of skits that never quite gel into something satirically sound. Even as Cohen and Charles argue over the various success rates of their individual vignettes, we instantly recognize the off-the-cuff, almost unscripted nature of the film. There are several times throughout the commentary when the pair stop the actual movie to elaborate on a particular problem (a failed reveal, an unwilling participant), and in those sequences, we hear about last minute meetings with writers and collaborators. Clearly, after the triumph of his previous effort, Cohen wasn’t capable of the same level of anarchic ambush as before. Everyone was out to ruin his good time. The more material they had to make up in order to compensate, the less like its far funnier predecessor this movie becomes.

Besides, there’s now nothing novel about swinging some toned body double’s dick at a bunch of dumbfounded US rubes. Part of Cohen’s problem remains his decision to go after the easiest targets imaginable. As he discusses the fear he felt spending an uncomfortable night with a bunch of gun-totting rednecks, he still takes the joke to its logical ends by paying a naked late night visit to one of his clearly intolerant camping buddies…and we’re supposed to laugh when the frazzled son of the soil goes ballistic. Getting a hillbilly to hate on homosexuals is a heckuva lot easier than finding unmarried cousins at a South Carolina tractor pull. If Cohen were really the “genius” everyone claims he is, he’d have found a way to turn the situation into something smart and insightful, to manipulate the hate into something truly hilarious. Instead, it’s predictable and painfully obvious.

Even the alternate/deleted/extended scenes argue for the cut and past path to a Summer 2009 release. We get weird little non-moments like the much publicized and ‘infamous’ LaToya Jackson segment. Tossed before the premiere because of a certain Pop King’s passing, the bit is so bland that it barely registers as anything other than filler. Other edited material maintains the same “who cares” response. Even Cohen himself will point out included elements that he feels really don’t work. For him, the run and gun nature of the production, rife with threats of arrest and deportation proved almost insurmountable. Had he and director Charles managed to make something great out of the continual chaos, we’d more than support the inconsistency. But all Brüno has is its hit or miss nature, and for the most part, the targets are too easy and often sideswiped instead of struck head on.

And yet the Blu-ray release is still a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at Sacha Baron Cohen and his methodology. We see how he processes information, how he uses the whole spectrum of world and domestic culture to premise his often abusive burlesque. We sense how fearless he is and how calculated his brand of confrontational comedy can be. And he clearly has a talent for voices and attitudes. Yet none of its turns Brüno into a better movie. Indeed, whatever flaws the film had before—and there are many—remain securely in place, accented only by the occasional insightful supplements from those who aimed high and failed. There will always be those who appreciate what Sacha Baron Cohen stands for. Few in today’s creature comfort conformist society want to take on social and interpersonal stigmas and skewer their illogical philosophies. For his chutzpah, and admission to same, we applaud the man. For the so-so comedy that comes from it, the jokester jury is still out.

by Bill Gibron

11 Nov 2009

By the fourth film in their then fledgling catalog, Pixar was at a crossroads. They had seen Toy Story make money hand over fist, becoming a recognized commercial and critical hit. They were honored with an Oscar, and almost immediately, every studio that could foot the bill began trading in their pen and ink efforts for the new frontier of CG animation. It took three years before their next project - A Bug’s Life - hit theaters, and the response wasn’t as resounding. While still successful, it wasn’t seen as some great leap forward for the company. Things got even worse when it was rumored that Disney, then distributor of the production house’s product, was seriously considering releasing Toy Story 2 as a direct to video title (never a good sign). Even when it eventually arrived in theaters to even greater public and pundit appreciation, it looked like Pixar had a lot to prove with its next release - Monsters, Inc.

Naturally, they rose to the challenge. Utilizing advances in technology that allowed for more detailed and accurate character mapping (including the latest tweak - lifelike fur!) and the potent imagination of directors Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, and David Silverman, the company took a massive leap of originality toward the sense of cartoon classicism they eagerly carry today. Looking over the new Blu-ray release of the title, including dozens of in-depth making-of featurettes and commentaries - we begin to see the reasons behind Pixar’s consistency. As filmmakers known for their vision and attention to onscreen spectacle, there is a real reliance on the trademarks of bravura cinema - character, story, performance, and the well combined coalescing of said facets. Like other titles in their canon, the final version of Monsters, Inc. is as much about what’s included in the story as what was purposefully left out.

Would it surprise you that Billy Crystal’s Mike Wazowski was not part of the original plan? Or that Boo might have been nothing more than a throwaway cameo. These were just a few of the humble (and frankly half-baked) beginnings to what would eventually become one of Pixar’s most powerful films about the loss of innocence and the specialness of childhood. The narrative revolves around furry beast James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) who is the Number One “scarer” at the title company - a place that collects child’s screams as a means of energy for the otherworldy realm of Monstropolis. Assisted by best buddy Mike, he is adored by big boss Mr. Waternoose (James Coburn), and hated by arch rival Randall (Steve Buscemi). They achieve their daily quota of fear by transporting through children’s closets, collecting their shrieks in ready to use fuel cells.

One night, while helping out his friend, Sully stumbles across Randall illegally accessing one of these doorways. When he investigates, he accidentally brings back a female human toddler whom he nicknames ‘Boo’. Children are considered poisonous in Monstropolis, and just having contact with one is a crime. So Sully seeks Mike’s help, and together they resolve to return Boo to her home. What they don’t realize, of course, is that Randall wasn’t working alone and the secret project he is part of may mean the end of Monsters, Inc. forever. In between, we learn about the everyday existence of our pre-adolescent nightmare fodder, as well as how laughter could be a better substitute than any continuous conspiracy of fear.

With its buddy comedy comfort levels and undeniable talented cast, Monsters, Inc. wouldn’t have to be a wild-eyed wonder to work. We’d laugh out loud as Crystal and Goodman exchange barbs, snicker as little Boo causes nothing but chaos for supposed experts at scary, and marvel at how the old growing pain of being afraid of the shadows in your closet is transformed into this terrific entertainment. Had they just stopped there, had Docter and the gang done the same thing for the fanged and the clawed as Pixar in general did for various playroom amusements, we’d have a clever almost-classic. Kids would marvel at the whole humans vs. monsters dynamic and never once question the heart and the heroism of all the major players involved - Mike, Sully, and cute little Boo.

But there is more to the movie than this - much, much more! From a warehouse holding every doorway between the real world and the monster world to a rousing rollercoaster ride on same, the level of creativity and invention inherent in Monsters, Inc. makes other examples of computer animated genre pale in comparison. It’s not just rampant eye candy and ADD-inspired flash. No, Pixar is one of the few film houses that meticulously re-imagine their ideas, working them over and over and over until they are as polished and near perfect as possible. So the epic elements utilized, the sequences that illustrate scope and innovation all work together in logistical lockstep seamlessness. Each piece falls into place with the others, creating a patchwork of artistic triumph that is hard to beat. Even in their later efforts when divergent ideas - lovesick robot, a post-apocalyptic Earth - seem at practical loggerheads with each other, Pixar finds a way to make them work - and Monsters, Inc. was the first time we saw it so blatantly.

Thankfully, the blu-ray bonus features shed new light on the process. We hear about story meetings and grueling “brainstorming” exercises. We see rejected ideas and almost completed casualties. We hear from the members of the team, each one feeling empowered to guide the project in the direction they feel would be best, and we see their results revisited and reexamined, arguments for and against said aesthetic connections being reinforced and redefined. And all the while, the movie continues to speak the loudest. Monsters, Inc. is the kind of motion picture magician that still amazed you several years later, even when you’ve learned all its best tricks by heart. Here, the prestidigitation is as powerful and pleasing as it ever was (especially in 1080p High Definition).

Of course, the next great step in the company’s creative progression would come with the follow-up film, Finding Nemo. There, Pixar managed the near impossible - the film became everything to everyone: young, old, cynical, and naïve. Yet within the often unforgettable elements of Monsters, Inc. was the foundation for such future mass acceptance. Today, CG settles, using cheap gimmicks and stale clichés to make up for a clear lack of creative mantle. Such a substance it definitely not lacking in Pixar’s fourth film. More than anything else, Monsters, Inc. was the confirmation of what the previous three efforts promised - that this company would be front and center of the computer animation boom for years to come. Thankfully, that motion picture prophecy did indeed come true. 

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