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by Bill Gibron

20 Oct 2009

The tragedy of faded beauty has long been a source of literary melodramatics. While limiting in its assessment of female value, it does strike a chord amongst those who view their worth through such slippery sliding scales as talent, skill, and attraction. In her slyly satiric novels Chéri and La Fin de Chéri, famed French author Colette commented on the Belle Époque era of Parisian society with its celebrated prostitutes, idle wealth, and decadent attitudes. Using the story of a retired madam’s son, his wayward youth, and the older woman who would finally teach him about love, the novels contrasted passion with the plain truth, arguing emotional completeness vs. social responsibility. They also addressed the notion of aging and its aftermaths head on.

Now director Stephen Frears brings us his witty, droll adaptation of Colette’s works, offering Michelle Pfeiffer one of her best roles in years. She is Léa de Lonval, friend of former escort Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates). Hoping to steer her son away from the aimless debauchery he insists on partaking in, the women conspire to set Chéri (Rupert Friend) straight. What at first seems like a few weeks in the countryside sewing some wild oats turns into an epic love affair between the boy and Léa. Six years go by and everything is bliss - that is, until Madame Peloux demands grandchildren. Arranging a marriage for Chéri with Edmée (Felicity Jones), the daughter of another former ‘fallen woman’, she sets in motion a series of events that will bring both Léa and her lover to the brink of utter heartbreak.

Clever, charming, and slightly superficial, Chéri is the kind of pert period piece that gets by on a great deal of creative goodwill. For all its narrative flaws - and there are many - we still admire Frears’ delicate direction, the pitch-perfect performances of Pfeiffer, Friend, and Bates, and the consistently catty dialogue from screenwriter Christopher Hampton. This is a movie filled with brilliant putdowns, cutting asides, bubbly bon mots, and enough backhanded compliments to make a contemporary coffee klatch jealous. In the name of gossip and glorified one-upmanship, our haughty heroines use words like weapons, hoping to inflict a little damage during their breakneck back and forth. Pfeiffer and Bates excel in these moments, leaving a memorable impression about the rivalries and responsibilities of being the former toast of the upper crust sex trade.

Where Chéri stumbles a bit, however, is in the relationship between the title character and Léa. We can see the attraction on both sides - Pfeiffer looks stunning, even in her ‘aged’ demeanor, while Friend is all smooth muscled sensuality. The narration keeps us abreast of their developing love, even referencing their occasional spats as nothing more than the arguments experienced by any ‘married’ couple. But they don’t have the same level of discourse as they do with others around them. Hampton’s words let these characters down time and time again. Maybe we are to assume that neither Léa nor Chéri is capable of being truly open and honest. Perhaps it’s simply the way things were in turn of the century society. Gender and power certainly come into play. Yet for all the sensationally snide and humorous quips traded, Chéri can’t work up a decent romantic exchange.

Of course, with Frears fabulous work behind the lens, we tend to forgive such flaws. Chéri is a sensational movie to look at, a lush and opulent work that doesn’t go overboard on the gaudiness or glitz of the era. Instead, the director lets nature do most of the work, gorgeous garden settings and sky blue oceans reminding us of how painfully beautiful the world can be. Even in the baroque homes and hideaways owned by our hookers, Frears is never indulgent. We recognize that these women have means and money. But they also have the sense to realize where it came from, how hard it is to keep, and how to manage it practically while living the good life. All of this is reflected in Frears’ approach. While not necessarily realistic, it does tend to tone down the more arch elements of Colette’s canvas.

But it’s the emotional beats that are supposed to stir us, the raw lust between Léa and Chéri, the sickening realization that age is slowing destroying their special bond. Indeed, Pfeiffer is excellent in those moments when every little wrinkle, every mention of the past, becomes a telling thorn in her side. Similarly, Friend must “grow up” and take on the responsibilities of a gentlemen, even if his status came from less noble origins. But he’s just not believable, not in any rational, understandable way. Instead, Chéri often comes across as whiny, brattish, and too high maintenance to be worth the carnal benefits. We never see a real sense of reciprocity. He’s all puppy dog longing. She’s watching her last chance at youth slowly slip away. One half of the movie is very powerful and prescient. The other gets lost and then limps along.

Still, there’s enough here to warrant attention, especially for those who remember the last time Frears, Pfeiffer, and Hampton collaborated (1988’s Oscar fave Dangerous Liaisons). Chéri may not contain the same authority and intensity as that previous powerhouse, but it’s clear that when these artists get together, something special usually happens. While the recently released DVD highlights how happy everyone is to be working together again, what’s clear is that this latest result pales in comparison. You’ll laugh at this look at faded beauty. You’ll also feel bad for the women who’ve worked exceptionally hard to find a way to live beyond the prying eyes of their snooty, snobby peers. But when the core conflict arises, when we are asked to sympathize with Chéri’s plight and his love for Léa, something goes missing. For the most part, this movie is marvelous. It’s the empty bits that prove the most problematic.

by Bill Gibron

19 Oct 2009

What has Halloween become? For the longest time, this celebration of all things horrific and supernatural seemed the least likely candidate for outright gross commercialization. Oh sure, there have always been the cheap dime store costumes, the mega-caloric piles of candy, and the various hokey harvest festivities. But when thinking back on the holiday some 30 years ago, no one could have imagined theme parks retrofitted with all manner of macabre frights, channels devoted exclusively to terror, and a unreal cultural commitment to making the most out of a former pagan celebration. It’s as if the constant bombardment of violence and shocking imagery has desensitized us to the true nature of the fright festivities. Add in the ever present sugar rush, and Halloween has become a shaky shadow of its former self.

That’s why the new film entitled Trick ‘r Treat is such a welcome addition to the post-modern meditation on the genre. An anthology at its core, but more a triumphant return to old school shivers, this unique narrative experience will instantly remind the viewer of cold Fall nights, years ago, when 31 October was a date to be reckoned with. A quasi-classic, this exceptional look at what Halloween really means is the byproduct of writer/director Michael Dougherty’s desire to craft, what he lovingly refers to, as tales of “mayhem, mystery, and mischief. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this love letter to ghosts, ghouls, and goblins is how accomplished it is. With only a few scripts under his belt (he co-wrote X2 and Superman Returns), Dougherty turns out to be as visually compelling as Tim Burton, or even Terry Gilliam.

The main narrative thread finds a round headed entity named Sam roaming the streets of a small town in Ohio. Warren Valley takes this last day in October very seriously, holding a massive block party and various other festivities. As the ethereal entity wanders the area, watching over the celebrants, we meet a school principal who moonlights as a serial killer. A group of young people visit the site of a horrific local legend, and learn not to mess with the dead. An attractive girl and her friends infiltrate the town, looking to find ‘dates’ for a sinister celebration in the woods, and an old codger, clearly upset over what Halloween means, discovers that Sam can be a very persistent treat or treater - deadly, even. Wrapped within the piles of fallen leaves, hand carved jack-o-lanterns, and unwitting wee ones are nods to previous omnibus films like Creepshow and Dead of Night and sources as varied as fairy tales and ‘80s monster movies. 

Almost too clever for its own good, Trick ‘r Treat is a really good film. In fact, it’s so unusual in its practical F/X approach and retro direct to video charms that a second viewing is definitely needed before confirming its almost masterpiece status. Dougherty delivers in ways unthinkable for today’s blatant battle between PG-13 paltriness and torture porn tendencies. With a color palate so rich it ridicules all those green-gray Saw rip-offs and a tongue and cheek shout-out to dedicated dread devotees everywhere, this is like a fright geek’s greatest hits. Instead of presenting his tales in sequential order, Dougherty makes the wise decision to scatter his story around. One moment, we are watching Anna Paquin and her sexed up gal pals cruising the Warren Valley citizenry for potential “boyfriends”, the next, Brian Cox is getting his butt kicked by a odd little guy in a burlap sack headpiece and dirty long john PJs.

The best stories here are the ones that follow the old EC Comics conceit of O Henry like horror twists. The entire tale subtitled “The Halloween School Bus Massacre Revisited” works so brilliantly, built slowly and steadily like any good ghost story should, that when it also pays off later, we love the fact that Dougherty didn’t keep things compact and concise. In fact, each story here ties in neatly with the others, working themselves into a near perfect ball of paranormal fun. We relish the reappearance of Dylan Baker’s murderous school official, even if he appears relatively doomed. We like the fact that random characters return for later looks just as the new action is starting. Dougherty wants us to pay attention, and by doing so, we are rewarded with lots of little asides to make even the most cynical scary movie buff smile in recognition.

Trick ‘r Treat also offers some compelling performances, Cox and Baker especially good as two different reasons to avoid collecting candy by yourself. The former has the more impactful story arc, a last minute revelation really amplifying his apparent problems with the holiday. Also excellent are the various underage actors who avoid the jaded gestures of contemporary youth to play their suspense and shock scenes with abject authenticity. One of the best things about this film is its wistful nostalgia for Halloween’s past, a time when kids were the center of the situation, not adults dressed up like idiots trying to relive their usually lame childhood. Such a pre-teen-ccentric pose gives Trick ‘r Treat a lot of its staying power. We easily identify with our onscreen familiars, remembering what it was like when we were lost, alone, and suspicious of everything around us.

It’s a shame than that this DVD doesn’t offer more in the way of context. There is a clever animated short introducing Sam - and that’s it. Dougherty is present to comment on said cartoon, but he really deserves more time to discuss his intentions with the film proper. And since the movie itself looks so good (while a full screen version is offered, it definitely destroys the interesting compositions here - stick with the anamorphic widescreen instead), it’s a shame to not hear how this first time feature filmmaker realized his goals. Sadly, this lack of respect is par for the course regarding this fine film (it didn’t even warrant a theatrical release).

For some, Trick ‘r Treat may be all too cute and self-referential. Dougherty has clearly made a movie for everyone who loves Halloween for what it means outside of the drunken parties and Goth gal/guy gloom merchandise. Films like this are the reason for the season however, a smart and funny experience that will hopefully be embraced by viewers wanting something other than the latest overhyped Hollywood crap. One can easily imagine a day when the cult surrounding Trick ‘r Treat pushes it into the big leagues, where it definitely deserves to be. Until then, it can be our little spook show secret - a devilish delight that definitely earns its wicked wizened wings.

by Bill Gibron

16 Oct 2009

Wow - did we have Brad Silberling all wrong. The director of this past Summer blankbuster Land of the Lost wasn’t insane when he decided to turn the beloved Sid and Marty Krofft semi-serious sci-fi kid show classic from the ‘70s into an over-meta irreverent romp. He wasn’t misguided when he cast Will Ferrell as the heroic father figure, Danny McBride as his snide sidekick, and Pushing Daises’ Anna Friel as a decidedly grown-up female adventurer. Every oddball turn - the exploring of sexual and scatological boundaries, the surrealism by way of Stuckey’s production design, the complete and utter reinvention and perversion of every character and concept forwarded by the original - was preplanned and approved by a studio that saw nothing but dollar signs. But after it bombed, barely covering a small percentage of its elephantine budget, dissatisfied viewers still apparently have the right to question his decisions.

The answers can be found on the commentary track to the newly released Blu-ray version of the film. Loaded with the kind of self-affirming explanations that help someone sleep at night, Silberling makes one thing very clear - everything you see onscreen was done on purpose, accomplished to take his memories of geekdom over the Saturday morning show and twist them into a pure post-modern mess. For this director, perhaps best known for guiding the first (and so far, only) Lemony Snicket film, as well as Caspar and City of Angels, there is nothing insulting here, nothing disrespectful to the nature of what Sid and Marty once created. For him, it’s all about artistic choices, about allowing his actors to adlib in surefire comedy creativity. So what if some of the humor is inappropriate, or even worse, unsuccessful. It’s all part of a bigger picture production ideal, one based on paying homage to the TV treasure while dumping all over it at the same time. If you can figure that backwards logic, you will love this film. If you can’t, a pristine 1080p image isn’t going to save you.

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

Take Step Brothers, remove all the sibling rivalry humor, insert plenty of pee and poop gags, set it all in a surreal backlot that’s half Dino-Lion Country Safari, half Salvador Dali product placement dreamscape, and then pump as much Ferrell and McBride at the audience as possible. Call in the Kroffts, give the old coots a paycheck, and name the creation Land of the Lost. Then, sit back and watch as audiences…well, that’s the kicker, isn’t it. This remake/reboot/reimagining of the ‘70s stalwart about a family suddenly stuck in time and space is so uneven, so scattered in both approach and tone, that you don’t know whether to laugh or wince, shudder or simply stand up and walk out of the theater. If this is what $150 million buys today, then our country is really in a complete and utter economic meltdown.

Though he denies it in his discussion, part of the blame for this overripe frat house flop goes directly to Silberling. As the commentary makes abundantly clear, he feels that the best way to handle the Krofft’s cracked fantasy realm is to simply stick smarmy actors in the middle of a glorified greenscreen and let them riff until something salvageable can be created. It’s actually not a wholly bad idea. When placed in the right realm, Ferrell and McBride can be electric. They can be and usually are funnier than numerous lame laugh-fest wannabes. But here, they do nothing but tread water - and they do so poorly. We except a certain level of irreverence from the duo. What we get instead is an attitude so mocking that it makes the whole experience pointless. If the people on screen aren’t taking things at least semi-seriously, why should we.

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

But the biggest mistake that this Land of the Lost makes is the total disregard for the sci-fi setting created. Nothing is ever explained here - not even when plot point Enik shows up to send the narrative careening off into heroes and villain mode. Leonard Nimoy’s cameo is cast aside with complete disregard, and the ending is given over to cheap F/X and stunt work. Yet we’d buy all the bumbling and burlesque if we just understood the rules of this particular parallel space. Why the various derelict ships (including a couple of flying saucers)? Why the old school motel with convenient pool (ready for a pointless drug dream montage)? If the dinosaurs and Sleestaks don’t get along, how did they survive each other until now? And why does everything in this particular domain revolve around feces, phlegm, and numerous man/animal bodily fluids? Of course, once we hear the reasoning (in both the alternative narrative and the endless bonus features which produce their own kind of cynical backslapping), it still makes no sense.

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

by Bill Gibron

13 Oct 2009

For many a devoted Talking Heads fan, 1983 was either the best year ever for their favorite band, or the telltale beginning of a slow and often painful end. It marked a break with Brian Eno, the producer extraordinaire who helped guide the group’s seminal albums More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and most importantly, Remain in Light. It was the moment when David Byrne went from wiry wizened frontman to egomaniacal despot, shaping both the sound and the visual representation of the music and its members until their break-up eight years later. They even scored their first Top Ten hit that year, “Burning Down the House” becoming a favorite among the burgeoning MTV generation and fratboys everywhere.

It was also the moment in time when the foursome expanded into a nine-piece and let director Jonathan Demme film their performance art like concerts. Twenty-five years later, Blu-ray technology is ready to reintroduce Talking Heads’ seminal Stop Making Sense to fans far too young to recall the group’s post-punk no wave reverie, or its eventual spiral into shameless squabbling and infighting. For nearly 90 glorious minutes, the band reduces the stage to a symbol-filled symposium on musicianship, craft, sonic bliss, group jams, individual acumen, and balls out greatness. It also offers enough sweat-filled dancing to inspire even the most stoic member of the fanbase to get up and shake their groove thing.

Honestly, the new digital update really isn’t necessary. From an audio and visual standpoint, nothing can beat Demme’s definitive work. Redefining the concert film for decades to come, the filmmaker manages the stage in ways that today’s modern quick cut stylists can’t even comprehend. Instead of using multiple angles and editorial overemphasis, Demme lets the lens linger. He follows certain segments of the band as a song simmers, allowing bassist Tina Weymouth or drummer Chris Frantz to steal the spotlight. Original fourth Jerry Harrison is often seen trading keyboard fills with former Parliament-Fundadelic ace Bernie Worell as backup divas Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt give Byrne a running in place rave for his vocal mania. With Steve Scales bringing the percussive noise and Brothers Johnson sideman Alex Weir working his six stringed magic, the movie is a collection of creative calling cards, skills all rolled into one amazing amalgamation of harmony and heroics. 

Byrne has to be credited for the “design” of this show, utilizing a highly suggestive structure that sees the band grow from its original minimalist art school roots (the frontman solo, followed by the gradual inclusion of bass and drums) to is then current multicultural co-op. By the time “Found a Job” arrives, we have the initial Talking Heads available, the entity that turned a hardcore CBGBs into a head scratching experience with this rhythmic preppy posing. Slowing adding more “spicy” to the mix, we eventually find all nine touring members onstage, driving such amazing songs as “Life During Wartime”, “Once in a Lifetime”, and “Take Me to the River” to stunning rock and roll heights. The highlight for many remains the infamous ‘big suit’ sequence, set to another classic workout from the Speaking in Tongues LP, “Girlfriend Is Better”. Quickly becoming the film’s most iconic image, it is also the first indicators that Byrne was bypassing the rest of the group to focus on his own ideas and image.

In fact, it’s easy to see Stop Making Sense as one man’s attempt to exorcise his celebrity demons while searching for his true ‘self’. Byrne plays many “parts” here, from solo showman to solid sideman to over the top center of attention. Each persona comes across organically and naturally, an outgrowth of the music being made and the lyrics being sung. Sometimes, Stop Making Sense is nothing more than the skill of perfect recreation. Many of the early numbers resemble their album counterparts, down to specific sequences and changes. But once Byrne is free to follow his own growing insanity, the paranoia becomes part of the subtext. Soon, as the rest of the group is headed into overdrive, he is reluctantly reduced to playing sideshow geek, given over to his insular flash dance-ability and transformed into something almost inhuman. As a journey through one man’s many mental states, Stop Making Sense is an eye (and ear) opener. It’s also Byrne unhinged and unhindered by the nature of playing nicely with others.

From a presentation standpoint, the Blu-ray doesn’t change much. The film still looks great, the slightest amounts of grain resulting from Demme’s lo-fi shooting style. The lighting was also intense (per Byrne’s instructions) leading to a loss of color throughout. No need to worry, however, the remaining imagery more than makes up for a lack of rainbow brightness. The 1080p does reveal more detail, like the copious amounts of perspiration generated by the band, or the various technical adjustments going on in the shadows. The aural reproduction is equally adept, the DTS HD Master Audio mix providing tons of dynamic display. As for added content, the new format mimics the old DVD by providing some bonus songs (“Cities”, “Big Business/I Zimbra”) and a commentary track featuring Byrne, Weymouth, Frantz, Harrison and Demme (all recorded separately, sadly). The best new bit is the 1999 press conference for the film’s theatrical rerelease. Several years since the break-up, the band is personable yet tense as they take questions from an audience eager to dispel myths while creating new ones.

In fact, Stop Making Sense is the kind of concrete legacy maker that’s hard to live down. Should they ever reform - and the mountain of animosity between the band members is a hell of a range to overcome, even for professed professionals - recreating what they accomplished back in the early ‘80s would be a daunting if not impossible task. The reason this concert film remains so revered, the explanation for its lasting impact and appeal remains that clichéd concept of capturing lightning in a bottle. When they took the stage in 1983, none of the band could envision the reception they’d receive, or the fact that it would be the last time they’d perform together until the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2002. In many ways, Stop Making Sense would come to represent the apex of the group’s appeal - both commercially and as a personal concern. From then on, things got very complicated indeed. Luckily, we have this reminder of when things were practically perfect, a rarity for almost any artistic collective. That’s the magic in Demme’s movie. That’s the brilliance of one of music most memorable acts.

by Bill Gibron

12 Oct 2009

What did Dr. Seuss ever do to Hollywood? How did the genial children’s author, responsible for many of the most memorable kid lit classics of all time turn into such a cinematic pariah? Granted, last year’s Horton Hears a Who was a wonderful CG miracle, an update of the favored tale that added just the right amount of contemporary comedy zing. But sadly, such an accomplishment remains a real rarity when it comes to adaptations of Theodor Geisel’s works. In 2003, Mike Myers urinated all over the memory of Thing One and Thing Two with his horrific hackneyed take on The Cat in the Hat. But the whole anti-Seuss vibe probably started when a then hot Jim Carrey soiled the stellar reputation of Chuck Jones and Boris Karloff when he turned How The Grinch Stole Christmas into a distressing example of star hubris excess.

By now, everyone knows the story of how a mean old monster with a hatred for the holiday season tried to steal the celebration away from the Whos down in Whoville. As with any good fable, the Grinch has a last minute change of heart, recognizes the reason for the season, and saves the day. This updated version has a terribly trite backstory which sees the character, now a decidedly freakish member of the Who clan, pining away for a cutesy classmate, later played by Christine Baranski. When he is ridiculed by his peers, he turns into a meanie, makes his way up Mt. Crumpit, and becomes the city’s resident urban legend. When little Cindy Lou Who decides to nominate the myth for a festive Yuletide award, the town balks, including the Mayor played by Jeffrey Tambor. When the Grinch accepts, and is mocked again, he decides to teach the Whos a lesson once and for all. So it’s on with the familiar Santa suit, off with the village’s many merry Noel trappings.

Someone should have stopped director Ron Howard when they had the chance. You can tell he thinks he’s making the most magical, spirited seasonal masterwork ever conceived. His intentions are so obvious, his frame so overfilled with as many eye candy confections as possible, that claims of excess become understatements. Indeed, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is so big, so bloated with unnecessary red and green froufrou, that Seuss seminal message gets lost - nay, trampled on, tossed aside, and treated like an afterthought. Even more overly complicated thanks to the new Blu-ray version from Unviersal, this hallucinogenic horror is half ego trip, half toddler night terror fodder. Between the Whos who look like shaved mice (take that, Rick Baker’s undeserved Oscar for Best Make-up) to the dogged Disney-like art design (no straight edges or recognizable geometrical shapes in this chaotic creative hodgepodge), we are treated to a craven cake overflowing with too much icing, too many nonpareils, and not enough sugar-less substance.

It’s not all the filmmaker’s fault. Howard casts his film with a group of likeminded movie minions who take the notion of fantasy to nauseating, nonsensical extremes. For every Bill Irwin, quite capable as the clown, we have Baranski, or the leaden Tambor who both believe that playing wistful requires a combination of the cloying and the creepy. It’s the same with Molly Shannon as Irwin’s wife and Clint Howard as Tambor’s Mayoral assistant. In fact, the Whos are so uninvolving and uninteresting that we could care less if their Christmas is ruined. We simply see their dilemma as part of Seuss story and wait for the plotpoint to payoff. Everything else here is narratively unnecessary. The grade-school Grinch sequence is painful in its pat psychobabble tone and the Baranski love interest is borderline sickening. Indeed, the whole concept of the Grinch is never given much clarity. If he’s not a Who, why is he treated as one? If he is, why is he the only odd looking member of the clan?

Of course, Carrey is no help. He’s his typical mid ‘90s scene stealing hog here, taking control of every moment to work through his various levels of adlib (in)efficiency. Sometimes, he scores. Most times, he misses by miles. His mountain retreat is part horror film, part theme park proposal, and his dog Max (turned into a live action cur) is less a silent Greek chorus and more canine comic relief. By the time the movie gets around to actually investing in Geisel’s moral, we’ve sat through endless shouting and shenanigans that fail to provide a single saleable laugh. Carrey is complete adrift here, doing his shtick without recognizing how ineffectual and inappropriate it is (should a children’s film really revel in shrill, softcore asides?). If the rest of the movie weren’t so distended, the former superstar would be the goiter giving How the Grinch Stole Christmas its swollen spirit.

The desire to pack in as much as possible is apparent throughout the bonus features included on the Blu-ray release. We are taken to Who School (?), shown the various details in the production and art design, witness the way in which Carrey constantly countermanded the script to exercise he proposed purposeful witticisms, and watch as the special effects give overkill a comfy new motion picture home. There are deleted scenes a’plenty (which is stunning, considering how crammed full the film already feels), a look at Baker’s make-up techniques, and a vile music video from Faith Hill. Perhaps the most telling piece of added content is the commentary by Howard. Ported over from previous DVD editions of the film, it offers no perspective on the critical consensus on the film. Instead, it plays like a pep talk, the filmmaker convincing himself over and over again that he made the right decision in turning Seuss’ legend into a spotty, slapdash spectacle.

Well, at the very least the image and sound get a much needed format update, the better to show off the senseless surplus within How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ vision. One of the worst elements of the revamp is turning buttinski urchin Cindy Lou into the voice of reason amongst a populace already clueless as to how to control themselves. Her arguments about sensing inner beauty and de-commercializing the date are so shrill, so saccharine in their cutesy pie approach, that you hope this Grinch grinds her bones to make his bread…or something like that. If you want to see what Dr. Seuss’s amazing message can look like when properly treated and translated, seek out the 1966 cartoon classic. The original celebrated the triumph of the individual spirit. This one is nothing more than a crass mainstream cash grab. Though the sentiment is apropos, the packaging is just awful.

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