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Thursday, May 22, 2008


Quick - name the last really successful political satire? Was it Wag the Dog? Man of the Year? American Dreamz? Primary Colors? Perhaps you have to go back as far as the Watergate among nuns fun known as Nasty Habits. Whatever the case, the War in Iraq and the Bush Administration’s policies toward same should be rife for some rib-tickling ridicule. Of course, some of the decisions and resulting failures are sad/funny enough to be their own pragmatic parodies. Yet instead of taking on the Commander in Chief and his wayward conservatism, most films about the current situation in the Middle East have focused on the military, and how it turns dedicated voluntaries into outright, detestable villains.


Now comes John Cusack (himself the star of last year’s homeland drama Grace is Gone) and his self-scribed effort War, Inc. His focus isn’t the military machine or the misguided application of same by the government. Nor is he really interested in taking on the whole WMD/selling of the conflict to an easily brainwashed American people. Instead, this obvious lampoon has Halliburton, and one of its former officers, Vice President Dick Cheney, in its sites. Sometimes, the targets are so ripe and readily set up that the laughs come often and organically. At other instances, Cusack and his fellow screenwriters Mark Leyner and Jeremy Pikser miss the mark completely.


After a particularly tough assignment, professional hitman Brand Houser is mandated by the President’s Second in Command to travel to the fictional foreign country of Turagistan. There, he will hook up with a fellow female operative and together they will try to assassinate the CEO of an international competitor. Seems the evil Tamerlane conglomerate wants all the juicy defense/rebuilding contracts for themselves, and needs Omar Shariff out of the way. Houser will accomplish this via a combination trade show and wedding. The convention will showcase Tamerlane’s “Brand America” wares. The nuptials find foreign pop sensation Yonica Babyyeah getting hitched. All the while, the hired killer must avoid the demons from this past, as well as the probing questions of investigative reporter Natalie Hegalhuzen.


It is often said that the key to a really good send-up is an innate knowledge of the subject matter being spoofed, followed by an even keener insight into how to formally deconstruct it. Somewhere between its ambition and its actuality, War, Inc. forgot this formula. Instead of offering a Dr. Strangelove-like look at how Iraq has become a morass of misguided and laughable decisions, Cusack and clan go for the easy joke - the constipated VP, the oversexed pop ingénue, the tough as nails journalist, the slightly ditzy yet very effective personal assistant. That War, Inc. casts competent actors like Dan Aykroyd, Hilary Duff, Marisa Tomei, and the star’s sister Joan argues for its would-be success.


But then documentarian Joshua Seftel steps behind the lens and shows absolutely no gift for comedy. His idea of wit is to overwork a gag until we can no longer stand the sentiment. Cusack’s hitman uses hot sauce as kind of a calming curative. It helps him focus, as well as shut out the constant voices thrashing in his head. We are supposed to view these scenes as comically insightful. While they hint at horrors, the interaction in these flashbacks suggests humor. They’re not funny. Similarly, every time the Cusacks interact, there’s a spark of screwball goofiness to what they accomplish. Yet Seftel isn’t secure enough to explore all avenues of this idea. Instead, he makes do with little flashes of brilliance here and there.


The rest of the time, War, Inc. wades through ideas that are more than self-evident. Is it really surprising that foreign men mimic hip-hop and rap in their goofy ‘gansta’ attitudes, or that Turgistan’s so-called Emerald City (standing in for Baghdad’s Green Zone) is the site of more bombings and violence than in the rest of the nation? One moment, we see a terrifically tasteless chorus line featuring recent amputees. The next, a pro-Peace, Love and Understanding platform is being forced down our throats. The politics of War, Inc. are not problematic so much as pedestrian. There’s nothing new in embracing the anti-conservative screed to show how off kilter the country really is. Yet this is the narrative’s main selling point - and very few will be buying.


Still, there is stuff in War, Inc. that one can enjoy. It’s fun to see Popeye’s Chicken as the foreign franchise du jour, complete with orders for ‘extra spicy all white meat’, and Ms. Duff, a long way away from her own Hannah Montana moment in the sun, is superb as the ethnically unclear (and ambiguously accented) Yonica. Granted, her song parodies are as lame as the actual tunes that brought her into the limelight in the first place, but it’s a hoot to hear Lizzie McGuire swearing like a sailor. In fact, it seems like a great deal of this movie is a mere one or two steps away from being masterful. That those strides are occasionally a million mirth miles away is a sad commentary on all involved.


It seems that, somewhere along the line, John Cusack has gone from accomplished actor with a high degree of industry cred to a descending, desperate star trying anything to realign his passing power. Even with the success of last year’s 1408, his career arc has definitely taken a downturn. War, Inc. won’t help. Sure, it will sell to a chosen few audience members who don’t mind their humor ladled out in oversized doses of blatancy. The rest, however, will wonder if the situation in Iraq is all but entertainment-proof, incapable of sustaining any movie, be it drama or comedy. Of course, War, Inc. doesn’t give the humor side of the dispute a fighting chance. It’s a pretty one sided argument - just like the film itself. 



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Thursday, May 22, 2008


Uwe Boll is no longer just a filmmaker. He’s become a cultural icon of the whipping boy variety. Granted, he’s earned every inch of his horrid hack status. Anyone who has sat through Bloodrayne, Alone in the Dark, House of the Dead, or his recent In the Name of the King understands this. But to totally dismiss him as Ed Wood’s Teutonic twin does both men a massive disservice. After all, Mr. Glen or Glenda was working with a no budget handicap. Boll makes his cinematic affronts with the full faith and credit of his homeland’s moneysaving tax laws. Postal is his latest videogame based endeavor. As a motion picture, it’s garbage. But as a statement of the rest of the film loving world, it’s a gloriously tasteless middle finger.


In the tacky town of Paradise, the Dude lives an awful life. His obese wife spends her days spouting epithets, her nights cheating on him. At his job, his boss is a dick and all around him the world if falling apart. Unable to take it anymore, he decides to join up with his cult leader relative, the drug addled sex fiend Uncle Dave. Together, they plan on robbing a local amusement park. Meanwhile, Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda cohorts are plotting the very same thing. Their eventual confrontation will result in massive bloodshed, lots of freshly killed corpses, and more than a few ethnic and intellectual slurs, just to keep things politically and personally tense.


Any movie that starts off with an extended riff on the terrorist attacks on 9/11 is either bucking the pro-PC trend, or as misguided as a Bush Administration missive. Yet Postal does indeed offer a pair of Islamic hijackers arguing over the number of virgins they’ll each receive when they meet their maker, followed unceremoniously with a World Trade Center view of the impending crash. If that kind of ‘irreverent’ shock value gag gives you giggling goosebumps, you’ll adore Postal. It plays directly into the most toilet bowl basics of the biggest arrested adolescence, making Mad Magazine (or perhaps, its lesser knockoffs like Crazy) look like the Harvard Lampoon by comparison. This is the kind of film that believes random farts are funny, that sees racial and social insensitivity as a proud papa selling point.


Leave it to the man who still thinks minor console titles from 10 years ago make viable source material to suddenly discover Farrelly like gross out humor. Postal positions itself as a raging political satire, supposedly arguing against the War on Terror, America’s fundamentalist religious views, the ticking time bomb status of white trash, and any other obvious target you can point to. But instead of eviscerating each and every one with the sharp knife of satire, Boll brings a blunt piece of movie metal and simply stabs blindly. One minute, a stateside Osama is having a big time policy pow-wow with buddy George Bush, the next, little kids are being picked off one by one, squibs sprouting bloody bullet holes in their Garanimals.


Indeed, Postal is THAT kind of movie, one that substitutes rancor for real wit, that utilizes splatter when a few script rewrites would have worked much better. To call the film ballsy would be a slam at testicular fortitude. To call it crass would give insensitivity a stain it could never recover from. Yet there is a level of pot-smoke induced ludicrousness here, a ‘late night when there’s nothing else watchable on cable’ conceit that gives this film a sheen of semi-likability that’s hard to ignore. In the right frame of mind, this might actually seem - dare it be said - funny? All of us have guilty pleasures piled up in our inner movie warehouse, marginalized efforts like Ultraviolet, Brain Donors, or Lucky Stiff. It appears Postal is ‘gunning’ for acceptance into that often uncertain arena.


Typical of his current casting ideal, Boll overloads the frame with a number of recognizable, if not necessarily famous faces. Zack Ward, otherwise known as Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story, is our unnamed hero, the trailer trash everyman who ends up going the title temperament. He makes for an interesting lead, but not much else. On the other hand, confirmed funnyman Dave Foley is forced to rely on full frontal male nudity to earn his taboo-busting paycheck. His cult leader character is never, EVER funny….EVER! Various supporting players like J. K. Simmons, Verne Troyer, and Seymour Cassel wander aimlessly, their dialogue delivered in ‘hurry up and pay me’ spurts. Boll himself even shows up as the owner/operator of a German-themed concentration camp themed amusement park built with Nazi gold. Ha.


And speaking of the much maligned director, the good doctor is clearly having a blast belittling everything he can. Since he’s more or less capable of doing anything he wants (no studio controls his actions), he takes a haphazard Hellsapoppin’ approach to spoofing. Pacing is also a problem here, especially since Boll overloads the top half of the movie with mindless scatology. After a while, all the poo and pee jokes begin to sound (and stink) alike. The scattered violence will make gorehounds unhappy, since Postal appears to be dialing back the offal in favor of more idea-based grotesqueries. By the end, we’re desperate for some massive arterial spray. All we get is a minor vein draining allotment.


Still, Postal is bound to get messageboard tongues wagging. It will be the dividing line between Boll apologists and those who remain appalled by his oeuvre. It’s not the cinematic stool sampling of his previous creative canon, but it definitely doesn’t deserve the praise it’s been getting inside the online critical community. Somewhere between a cult conversation piece and an assault on one’s intelligence, Postal proves that some filmmakers are destined to remain forever locked in their already established reputations. To call this the best film Dr. Uwe Boll has ever made is faint praise indeed. Sadly, it may also be the truth. 



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Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Icons earn their status by never changing. What they represented the moment they gained said mythos remains steadfast and sturdy, with only occasional minor alterations along the way. This is why it’s never wise to revisit a symbol, cinematic or otherwise. The moment you do, the carefully constructed barriers you built around the legend start to shatter. Unless you’re out to really revise (or even implode) the idol, what was once beloved is never quite the same. For many, this is exactly what happened when George Lucas decided to go back to his Star Wars universe. Well established - and beloved - characters like Darth Vader and Yoda were systematically reconfigured to fit a new, and not necessarily complimentary, ideal.


The good news is that everyone’s favorite action adventure archaeologist, Indiana Jones, manages to make it unscathed through this fourth installment of the long dormant franchise. Even with the massive passage of time - it’s been 19 years since Last Crusade saw our hero ride off into the desert sunset - Harrison Ford and his famed fedora are rock solid. Sadly, the rest of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not so secure. Swinging wildly between popcorn pomp and cornball circumstance, this mostly unnecessary sequel tries to update the character by bringing him into an ‘I Like Ike’/Red Scare timeframe. Yet for every element of obvious nostalgia - both internal and external - there’s an ancient astronaut plotline that gets in the way.


In the middle of the Nevada desert, Indiana Jones and his British spy sidekick George “Mac” McHale have been captured by Russian agents. Brought to Area 51, the baddies want the famed finder of antiquities to locate an object he retrieved as part of a mission for the government in Roswell. Under the steel-eyed guidance of psychic researcher, Irina Spalko, Jones locates the artifact. Soon, he’s back at the University of Chicago and under scrutiny by the FBI. When a young thug named Mutt Williams approaches him about his mother, Marion, and a mentor/friend named Professor Oxley, Jones finds himself headed to the Amazon. There, he hopes to locate one of the fabled Crystal Skulls, a relic with a link to the Lost City of Gold. Oddly, enough, Spalko and her crew are there as well, looking for the same thing. This won’t be the only surprise for the aging archaeologist, however.


Here’s the biggest problem facing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - and it’s not Shia LeBeouf playing a ‘50s era juvenile delinquent with a boarding school education. No, the main problem facing our famed archaeologist is that this third sequel is, yet again, NOT Raiders of the Lost Ark. Of course, it never had a chance. It can’t be as fresh as when that 1981 gem first fired moviegoer’s action imagination. It can’t replicate the novelty of bringing the ‘30s/‘40s era serial into the post-modern film world. It doesn’t have the kind of cosmic import that drove the original narrative (Commies don’t make good Nazi substitutes) and it can no longer get away with being a really good romp. No, what Kingdom of the Crystal Skull‘s audience mandates is nothing short of a bigger, badder, broader, more ballistic and bombastic take on their favorite part-time grave robber, and not even the majesty of Steven Spielberg can fulfill those unreasonable requests.


Nor can the narrative’s inherent wistfulness satisfy said cinematic itch. Seeing Karen Allen back as Marion Ravenwood Williams is a treat, but her entrance is handled clumsily, given little chance to resonate. Similarly, the opening sequence at Area 51 (where we eventually learn the Ark of the Covenant was taken) recaptures the prior installments’ magic, but it quickly peters out the minute the FBI shows up and declares Indy a Red. In fact, a lot of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like an old jalopy, starting and stopping, racing and then stalling until it can get into a settled sense of story. Yet the script (by David Koepp, with direction from producer George Lucas) is too enamored with its genre-jumping tendencies to stay grounded. One moment we’re back in butt kicking territory. The next, it’s the X-Files circa 1959.


Still, Spielberg is not one of the greatest moviemakers of the post-modern era for nothing, and his undeniable brilliance brings Kingdom of the Crystal Skull back from the brink time and time again. The opening sequence shifts seamlessly from a familiar backdrop to an amazing moment with a mushroom cloud. It stands as one of the director’s most masterful stunts. Similarly, a motorcycle chase through a crowded university campus has the old fashioned zing we’ve come to expect from the series. Certainly there is very little the auteur can do with page after page of expositional muck, but thanks to the evocative cinematography of longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski, we love looking at the conversational backdrops. Even the finale, filled with enough CGI to choke a Jedi, gets by on the standard Spielberg shimmer.


Not everything works out as well. For all his UK bluster, Ray Winstone’s character is ill defined and rather pointless. He’s a conflict catalyst, that’s all. Equally problematic is John Hurt as Professor Oxley. While he’s always a welcome addition to any film, he’s stuck supplying the odd moment of forced insanity funny business. Perhaps the most disconcerting though is the wasted opportunities surrounding Cate Blanchett and her cool KGB dominatrix, Irina Spalko. One thing Indy villains never lack is a clear cut motivation, be it greed, god-like powers, or everlasting life. Here, the Russian’s plan seems unclear, and even worse, slightly ridiculous. We never see Spalko really use her supposed power, and the ending does little to confirm her ability of authority.


Yet none of this will really matter to an audience primed to revisit an old franchise and friend. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is clearly a movie geared toward anyone under the age of 30 who memorized every moment of their Raiders VHS. It’s not out to revamp the series of say something significant about the aging of an action icon (Ford’s ‘maturity’ is the butt of some jokes, nothing more). By harkening back to the first film, Spielberg spends its goodwill wisely. Even Lucas’ madcap story suggestions aren’t quite as lame as all that mindless midi-chlorian business. When it was first announced that Indiana Jones was coming back, the mix of anticipation and trepidation was understandable. To paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, it’s hard to go home again. Thankfully, this return leaves our hero unharmed. 



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Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Even for a preview audience, jazzed on free popcorn and the chance to catch a summer blockbuster days early, the waves of cheering and the palpable sense of sheer jubilation that went up from the crowd once the mountain in its Paramount logo did its dissolve (this time to the lowly dirt-mound home of a prairie dog), was something to behold. It wasn’t quite the roar that one would have expected from those keyed-up to see a new Star Wars flick, but it was certainly a more intense outpouring of anticipation than one sees at such box-office-stoking events. There was something else going on there besides the return of a beloved film icon whom many of us had first seen before even exiting grammar school. Maybe they actually don’t make ‘em like they used to.


In any event, the audience’s pent-up thrill upon seeing Indiana Jones first appear on screen and put on that hat (in heroic shadow of course) is quickly compounded by a clutch of tightly shot and smartly fun sequences that come rocketing out of the screen one after another. With its 1950s setting allowing Harrison Ford to act his age, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull also wastes no time in digging into the era’s other obsessions: fast cars, aliens, nuclear war, rock and roll, and of course villainous Commies. It’s impressive enough that Spielberg manages to act as though it hadn’t been over a decade since he’d last directed an utter popcorn picture (The Lost World), but just as impressive is the fact that Ford coasts so comfortably through this performance it’s as though he’d barely gotten out of wardrobe from 1989’s Last Crusade. Consider this: when last we saw Indy, Harrison Ford still had Presumed Innocent, Air Force One, a couple Tom Clancy adaptations, and several late-period misfires ahead of him. But here he is, serving up haymakers to the bad guys, quipping with his smart-ass sidekick, and regularly getting the tar smacked out of him, as though not a day had passed.



Of course, nothing great lasts forever in film these days, and so the energy began to leak out of the theater. By the time the last third of David Koepp’s strangely laborious screenplay creaked into place, all the frenetic chase scenes and swiftly accumulating guest performers (Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, to name a few) couldn’t erase the feeling of tedium; much the same as one experiences when watching, say, Temple of Doom, which Kingdom of the Crystal Skull easily tops. When the film coasts into its all-too-pat finale, the applause is notedly muted, though still genuine.


Some things about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are nearly irrefutable. First, Cate Blanchett does a fantastic Greta Garbo. Second, swarms of deadly ants are possibly scarier than tombs full of venomous asps. But most important is this: the audience opened their hearts and expectations to this film because “they” (Hollywood) in fact doesn’t make them like they used to. Maybe they never did. But with moviegoers facing a grim season of pallid CGI battle-toons like The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and Prince Caspian, even the problematic adventures of one Indiana Jones can feel like a rich banquet in comparison.


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Thursday, May 15, 2008


There is a big difference between interesting and intriguing. The former identification can be connected to any subject that spikes our attention. We may not enjoy everything that we hear, but at least we wanted to listen. The latter is far more fascinating. It’s indicative of something that transcends the initial curiosity, and moves us to consider ideas far beyond the scope of the subject matter. Clearly, documentarian Jyll Johnstone believes that 93 year old actress and free spirit Mimi Weddell is intriguing. Her unlikely life story, filled with personal pitfalls and minor professional triumph definitely feels like the stuff of modern mythos. But something in Hats Off, the film focusing on this driven diva, falters. Instead of winning us over, we’re only mildly interested.


Though she always fancied herself a star, Mimi Weddell spent the first 60 years of her life as a wife, mother, and unexpected career gal. While never earning much money, she helped her beloved husband Dick through many a hard time. When he finally lost his job with RCA, it almost destroyed him. Yet Mimi was there, working two or three jobs, getting up at six and coming home at eleven, just to maintain the household. Of course, this didn’t leave much time for her daughter Sarah or son Tom. They were lucky to catch a moment with their mother before she collapsed to catch a few hours sleep.


When Dick finally died, Mimi decided to pursue her dream. She loved the theater and acting, and with perseverance and some unusual casting stock (there aren’t a lot of viable 70, 80, or 90 year olds out there), she soon landed small parts in film and television. She also became a sought after model, and in the process, a New York staple. Now, at 93, she looks back at her life and offers a simple philosophy - rise above it. Life isn’t supposed to be all happiness and fun. When problems come (and she’s faced a veritable mountain of them), she simply stands strong and tries to go beyond them. It’s just too bad that the movie of her life can’t do the same.


Sometimes, blame is easily laid at a film’s foundation. In the case of Hats Off, the critical culprit is Jyll Johnstone. Sometimes, a story is just not worth telling, and while Mimi’s life is definitely an unusual one, it’s not iconic. Indeed, one of the key things we learn about the aging actress is that she’s not an eccentric by circumstance, but by choice. Her idiosyncrasies come from a concerted desire to be different, to stand out in a system that saw her as a nothing more than a gender stereotype. While hopelessly devoted to her husband (the only time we see Mimi tear up is when discussing Dick), she also needed to be her own person. So she developed a mindset, played by the standard social rules, and waited for her moment. 


That it came when she was 70, not 20, is nothing novel. In fact, the concept of the elderly doing unbelievable things has become a Baby Boomer cinematic subject du jour as of late. Luckily, Jonstone doesn’t treat Mimi like a too cute cuddly toy. We get to see her in all her cynical, snarky glory. From the time she rises in the morning to the moment she turns in for the night, our heroine acts like the most put upon person in all of entertainment. She tolerates every audition, reminiscing about jobs she landed and lost (we see clips from her few featured parts). She walks around her cramped apartment, showing off the many hats that define her late in life look (the better to hide her unruly hair).


But Hats Off misses the more absorbing moments. We learn that Mimi is a devotee of Elizabeth Arden, sometimes going to the exclusive NYC salon two or three times a week when she has the money. Yet aside from a tossed off anecdote (Sarah claims that, in response to the death of her dad, she was sent to said beauty parlor on the day he passed), we don’t learn the rationale or reason why. Similarly, both adult children still live with Mimi, though the explanation for such a set-up is specious and lacking vital familial information. Johnstone clearly believes that her star is more than capable of carrying the narrative. Unfortunately, the weight of such an aesthetic want is too great for this nonagenarian to manage.


As we watch her work out, tumbling through gymnastics and stumbling through dicey dance routines, we get hints of hospital visits and advancing physical frailty. With money troubles a constant, we also learn very little about how the clan makes ends meet. The directing would have us believe that the Weddells have always been impoverished, and if not outright poor, generally lacking in anything like disposable cash. Yet Mimi takes off to Florence in an unexpected last act dash, and the before credits title cards indicate that both Sarah and Tom are gainfully employed. There are several creative contradictions in Hats Off, statements starting off along one path only to double back and deaden the impact of previous pronouncements. Mimi may be the most compelling old lady in all of Manhattan. We wouldn’t know.


And in the end, that’s Hats Off biggest problem - a lack of knowledge. Audiences need to walk away from such films feeling something of an identification and a kinship with the subject. It’s an emotional bond that has to move beyond the superficial and the strained. While it’s never boring or lacking in intellectual color, this is one fact film that forgets to add in the “stranger than fiction” facet of the overall picture. As a result, we feel satisfied, but sadly underwhelmed. Mimi Weddell probably deserves better than this. Or maybe, this is all her story demanded. Either way, she makes for a strange subject.



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