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by Bill Gibron

27 Mar 2008


Marriage might just be the perfect cinematic allegory. You can infer so many differing metaphoric elements in the dissection of why men and women marry - and sometimes separate - that the permutations appear endless. There’s the emotional facet, the sexual supposition, the commitment and loyalty facets, and of course, the scandal ridden and adulterous angles. Together with an equal array of stylistic approaches, we wind up with a veritable cornucopia of combinations, a wealth of possibilities linked invariably to the age old notion of vows taken and knots tied. So why is it that Ira Sachs period piece drama, Married Life, is so downright flat? Could it be that this filmmaker has finally found the one cinematic category - the noir-tinged whodunit - that defies matrimony’s easy explanations and illustrations?

Harry Allen is a decent guy. He works hard at his job. He’s successful in his career. He has good friends and solid personal relationships. If there’s a weak link in his life, it’s his dutiful wife Pat. Confiding in his drinking buddy and best pal Richard Langley, Harry lets the truth be known. His spouse is only interested in sex, and our harassed, henpecked hubby no longer enjoys the act. Instead, he wants a woman to cater to him, to literally take him in her arms and treat him like a pampered, vulnerable waif. Harry thinks he’s found his answer in the good natured Kay. She’s a young widow wise to the ways of the world. After Richard meets her, he decides to undermine his mate and make Kay his own. In the meantime, Harry can’t bring himself to leave his wife, so he decides the most compassionate way to end the marriage…is to kill her. Once it’s done, he can spend the rest of his life with Kay - that is, if Richard hasn’t moved in already.

If one scene were capable of saving an entire movie, Married Life would be a masterpiece. Indeed, Chris Cooper has one of those amazing actor moments when, just with his face and his reticent body language, we see one man’s entire life literally falling apart. It’s a seminal scene in the film, the culmination of a good 80 minutes of maneuvering, backstabbing, plotting, and preparation. Again, it’s also the only real sequence in the entire narrative, and since it’s clear that one Oscar worthy note can’t salvage an entire story, the rest of Married Life suffers. Indeed, this is the kind of well observed nostalgia that lumbers along like it’s the first feature to discover the sordid secrets of suburbia. Gasp! We’re supposed to stare in wide-eyed amazement as couples cheat, friends betray one another, and an everyday businessman kills his dog in a criminal “dry run” for his wife’s proposed demise.

Sachs makes many mistakes here, none more outrageous than turning Pierce Brosnan’s Richard Langley into one of the more unlikeable characters onscreen. It’s not that the actor is miscast or misguided, it’s just that this playboy lothario is quite the unforgivable lout. He can’t wait to undercut Harry, gives Pat more than a fleeting flirtatious glance (of course, we find out Mrs. Allen has her own pent up agenda), and instantly aims his amorous designs on the easily swayed Kay like a wounded wolf. He goes after each of these targets with a determination born out of entitlement, and barely excuses himself or his amoral actions. Naturally, Sachs makes him our narrator as well, so we have to suffer through many statements of justification and self-aggrandizement. None of it matters to us since there’s nothing to identify with. Langley is more or less an insufferable cipher.

Luckily, Cooper’s Harry Allen is more levelheaded and likeable. While it’s odd to hear a man beg off sex (the scene where the two friends discuss the issue strains for credibility), we tend to buy it here, especially after seeing how our hero reacts to being spoiled. Kay can be viewed in many ways, but she’s not the patsy the storyline plans. Instead, the performance by Rachel McAdams seems purposefully depressed, as if this career gal with a MIA military husband is simply picking up the pieces of what many could see as a shattered life. Dolled up like a Vertigo-era Kim Novak, she really sells the part.

That just leaves Patricia Clarkson as the last link in this lover’s quadrangle, and for the most part, she’s an equally ambiguous cause. Sachs is convinced that the best way to handle this Donna Reed red herring is to have her play every scene like she’s barely conscious. Pat is either asleep, getting ready to sleep, or waking up. In fact, one could argue that our director enjoys getting his ‘50s era details accurate more so than making his relationships meaningful or his characters memorable. This is sumptuous film, a ripped from Look Magazine illustration of Eisenhower era conservatism crippled by the linger desires of a frustrated populace. It’s the time of hats and gloves, three martini lunches and late nights at the office. The backdrop is a clear creative choice, since the murder mystery source material (a beloved book by John Bingham) is set in Europe and begins in the ‘30s.

Perhaps the lingering question here is one of motive. Why make this movie? What was so enthralling about the script that this particular story demanded the attentions of the talented cast assembled? Even better, what in Sachs limited resume indicated that he could pull this off with the necessary panache and perfectionism required? In many ways, Married Life is a Coen Brothers knock-off without a bit of the boys accomplishment or bravado. It wants to pay homage to films and filmmakers past, but can’t quite figure out how to make the references fit together. There will definitely be an audience for this kind of slow burn situational potboiler, but for many, there will be too much stagnancy and not enough sizzle. When a planned poisoning can’t ratchet up the suspense, there is something wrong with the equation - and Married Life just can’t get the calculations right.

by Bill Gibron

27 Mar 2008


Romantic comedies are, by their very nature, saddled with two completely different sets of motion picture hurdles. First, the story needs to be quixotic, dealing with the emotional bond between two typically star-crossed individuals. If the chemistry or the charisma is not there, part of the filmic formula fails. Then there is the humor. While not needing to be outrageous or riotous, there should be a fairly consistent level of laughs. Both of these prerequisite issues come to bear when discussing the Simon Pegg vehicle Run, Fatboy, Run. Directed by ex-Friend David Schwimmer and co-written by The State‘s Michael Ian Black, what we have is an attempt to turns a sullen London slacker into a loveable determined dreamer. The movie only gets part of this right.

After leaving his pregnant fiancé at the altar, life has been tough for lingerie store security guard Dennis. He is constantly being harassed by a leggy transvestite, and his steady diet of beer, cigarettes, and take away has left him pudgy and out of shape. When he learns that his former betrothed, the lithe and nibble Libby, is now dating a new man, he sees green. When Whit, this suave American businessman starts coming between Dennis and his Lord of the Rings obsessed son Jake, he sees red. Learning that his rival is a marathon runner, our hero decides to throw his Keds into said arena as well. With help from his gambling addicted buddy Gordon, Dennis hopes to finish the race, impress Libby, and in the process, win back her heart. But Whit won’t go down without a fight - literally.

It’s hard to sum up what’s wrong with Run, Fatboy, Run. It boasts an impressive cast - Pegg, Thadie Newton, Hank Azaria, Dylan Moran - and some spirited cinematics from the noted Yank behind the camera. The script, which our UK cult comic also had a hand in, does a decent job of setting up the whole contention and challenge element while adding a few laugh out loud moments to the mix. We sympathize with Dennis, even though he’s a sod for leaving Libby like he did, and Whit comes across as both too good to be true and an easily taken down dunce. And the last act run is handled with style, even if some of the beats are as cliché as they come. So why doesn’t this film work better? Why does it appear as if, sometimes, Schwimmer is phoning it in - or worse - incapable of creating the aesthetic presence needed to make things gel?

Part of the problem is the plot. It’s hard to buy Pegg as such a coward or cad, especially since it looks like his case of cold feet turns into a raving psychosis within a matter of seconds. Next, Newton seems more sensible than to simply drop the man after her humiliation. She loves their son together, and wants nothing but the best for the boy. Helping Dennis turn his life around seems reasonable, especially since she’s got one of those unimaginably successful movie jobs (she owns a bustling bakery) that indicates a real lack of desperation. And Azaria adds very little as Whit except for suit and tie savoir fare. He’s not a compelling mate, nor does he do much except use materialism and power as a way of manipulating situations. Heck, even Moran’s betting problems seem tacked on from a different Guy Ritchie oriented effort.

Another issue is the ancillary characters. Pegg lives in the only basement flat in London run by a Bollywood poster boy. Harish Patel does his damnedest to overcome the rampant stereotyping (he has a nice scene in reminiscence of his late wife), but he’s stuck in a pile of Indian clichés as Mr. Ghoshdashtidar. Similarly, the criminal element out to get Dennis and Gordon seems stolen from the extras call for Eastern Promises. The amalgamation of accents and attitudes is occasionally off putting. Schwimmer does try to keep things light and airy, allowing times when Fatboy gets questionable to skate on by unscathed. Still, we remember the initial minor shock.

For all its faults however, this is a romantic comedy that works - if just barely. We want Newton and Pegg to get back together, to see the supposed passion they once shared. They are a smart couple. Azaria does just enough to make his villainy viable without overplaying his hand, and the wager subplot loses enough of its tacked on quality by the last 10 minutes so that it starts to actually matter. Indeed, what we wind up with is an effort that tugs at our heartstrings while we’re sitting back, scratching our often confused heads. We don’t get much of the logic or rationality here. We’re afraid to look beneath the surface to see if this entertainment emperor really has not clothes. In the end, we’re relieved to see that he’s at least outfitted in some running shoes and shorts.

Anyone coming to this film hoping to see the kind of celebrated comedic wit that made Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead such winners will definitely leave disappointed. In addition, this is not a soaring love story like those witnessed in such quasi-classics as Sleepless in Seattle or When Harry Met Sally. In some ways, Run, Fatboy, Run is a post-modern generation’s interpretation of a revisionist rom-com. It does away with some of the genre’s truisms while taking embracing a few too many. It fails to be full-on funny or five hanky weepy. In the end, we get a sometimes solid, frequently uneven mixture of jokes and underplayed emotion. It’s clear that Schwimmer has a career behind the camera. Perhaps next time he should pick sounder material. Fatboy is too fragile to withstand much scrutiny.

by Bill Gibron

20 Mar 2008


Is it fair to judge a comedy as a failure if it doesn’t make you laugh? That’s not really a rhetorical question. Indeed, it is meant to be more reflective than anything else. If an action spoof satisfies genre requirements without ever making you giggle, is it an outright failure, or something more complicated. It’s the issue that arises when discussing Drillbit Taylor, the newest offering from the Apatow et. al. inspired humor conglomerate. On the one hand, screenwriters Seth Rogen and Kristofor Brown (based on a story by none other than John “Breakfast Club” Hughes) do a wonderful job of recreating the awkward freshman dorkdom of early adolescence. But as an intended riotous rib tickler, there is barely a belly laugh to be found.

For skinny, geeky Wade and chubby, curly haired Ryan, the first day of high school is supposed to begin their ascension into cool. Unfortunately, after sticking up for the wussed out, braces wearing idiot Emmit, they become the ongoing target of big time bully Filkins and his ferocious flunky Ronnie. Hoping to find some personal protection, the trio decides to hire a bodyguard. Into their life walks Drillbit Taylor, self-proclaimed Army Ranger and master of martial arts. For a fee, he will guard the boys and help them avoid any further humiliation. What they don’t know is that Taylor is a con man, a beach dwelling homeless bum who needs some quick cash for a planned exile to Canada. Wade, Ryan and Emmit are hoping for a miracle. They get a messed up proto-hobo instead.

Bereft of jokes while overloaded with keenly observed individual moments, Drillbit Taylor can best be described as an almost success. This also means it’s a figurative failure. Like Superbad without the potty mouth, or any number of Apatow-inspired efforts sans the sexual obsession, what could be a bright and breezy coming of age effort gets bogged down in an unnecessary desire to be clever and cutting. Unfortunately, by staying within the confines of a PG-13 rating while pushing the very envelopes of such a standard, Taylor gets equally confused. Instead, it accurately recreates how teens talk and act while failing to illicit a single snicker from the adaptation.

Part of the problem is the now familiar ‘skinny and fatty’ set up to the friendship. It’s becoming an archetypal Apatow trademark. Wade and Ryan are nothing more than surrogates for other symbols from the writer/director’s cinematic setup. One gets the characteristic nerd voice (in this case, a love of magic) while the other is a frat boy without the grain alcohol gimpiness. Nate Hartley and Troy Gentile are winning enough, but since each is doing little more than extending an already formulaic routine, they aren’t offered much room to explore. And things are even worse for Ring boy David Dorfman. His Emmit is a missed opportunity, a Broadway musical loving loser who gets more mugging time than Jerry Lewis during the Labor Day Telethon. But we sense there are other facets to his character than the endless flashing of his metalled mouth.

Yet the biggest letdown comes from Owen Wilson as our so-called adult hero. Smacking of later day Hughes - think Dutch, Uncle Buck, or any number of his substitute parental surrogates - Drillbit possesses a bumbling oaf quality that no longer seems endearing. In fact, it can grow grating at times. And just like almost every movie the Sixteen Candles man has been involved in since Home Alone, burglary is an important plot point. Thankfully, director Stephen Brill doesn’t turn the heist into a slapstick set piece. It happens organically, without any cartoon histrionics. That Wilson waltzes through most of the movie like the sour smell emitted from a pair of rank gym socks is one thing. But his motiveless maneuvering (he doesn’t raise a fist against the bullies because…they’re underage?) and lack of comic bravado deadens his impact.

Indeed, it’s up to the boys to carry this film, and for a while, they do. Brill doesn’t do much more than provide the kind of snapshot touchstone montages that recall Reader’s Digest condescended memories of high school life, and the times when he turns things down (Wade’s crush on an Asian gal named Brooke), the drama barely breathes. In fact, Drillbit Taylor manages to feel like two separate and wholly incompatible movies tossed together and forced to make nice. Instead, they constantly pick at each other like unsettled siblings in the backseat of a long cross country car trip. Eventually, it’s the audience that gets nauseous and needs a rest stop to pull over.

By the time we get to the big showdown, the standoff between the unfathomably evil bully and our newly gonad-ed guys, there’s not much more to do than cheer on the fisticuffs. Drillbit Taylor even allows both kids and adults to get their own special brand of comeuppance. Since entertainment is subjective, and comedy specifically is the most personal of all genres for responses, it’s clear that this film cannot really be universally judged. It comes down to a person-by-person response, a case-by-case reaction to misfired jokes, unexplored cleverness, and a constantly competing sense that a simple, My Bodyguard like story would have worked much better. In the end, Drillbit Taylor is not an awful film. It simply fails to deliver in one obvious way while providing some unexpected insights. Not the greatest recommendation for an all out laughfest, huh?

by Bill Gibron

6 Mar 2008


When you see the name Roland Emmerich on a film’s credits, you expect a little cheese. After all, the cheddar-fied flavor of wildly uneven spectacles like Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow mandate such an evaluation. But no one can prepare you for the ungodly Gouda of 10,000 BC. An amalgamation of much better movies, riffing on offerings as diverse as Quest for Fire, Apocalypto, The Ten Commandments, and any number of creaky ancient myths, Emmerich has finally hit the Monterey Jack-pot. This is a film so completely devoid of creative invention that it entertains by rote, using CG-eye candy and narrative familiarity to barely get by.

Somewhere in a mixed up pre-history, the father of D’Leh leaves his hunter/gatherer tribe and sets out for unknown territories. This labels him a coward, and his son an outcast. When a blue eyed girl named Evolet shows up, village shaman Old Mother predicts doom. The proposed wooly mammoth hunt will not go well, and even worse, ‘four legged demons’ will arrive and decimate the clan. Sure enough, an invading horde of evildoers arrives and takes all available inhabitants hostage. They will be marched across the empty wilderness and then used as slave labor for a sitting ‘god’ of a legendary domain known as ‘the head of the snake.’ Along with elder Tic-Tic, and a few remaining men, D’Leh builds up his courage and follows the kidnappers, rallying the remaining tribes along the way. He then plans to take on the imposing figure building an empire off the backs of some very unwilling captives, and rescue Evolet.

As a series of set pieces looking for any available fable to keep it afloat, 10,000 BC is really nothing more than computing power and implausibility. It is cinema that strains to be relevant while failing every test of scope or significance. Emmerich, who has made chicken nuggets out of pullet poo in the past (Independence Day remains a relatively guilty but undeniable pleasure) never fully realizes his aims here, instead squandering potential moments of power for ambiguous folklore, prophetic convenience, and a true sense of scattered purpose.

There is very little that makes sense, from the reason our hero can’t carry the sacred white spear, the entire Saber-toothed Tiger sequence (which plays out like a sloppy Aesop version of Hercules and the Lion) to the last act almost reveal of our villain. And then there’s the malarkey of the “magical” ending. In many ways, 10,000 BC feels like a badly constructed parable, the ever-present narrator (Omar Sharif) getting many of the facts wrong and more or less making it up along the way.

The references to other movies are so readily apparent you can practically smell them wafting off the screen. Emmerich must have been moved by Mel Gibson’s Mayan bloodbath. He’s incorporated many of that film’s white hat/black hat simplicity and foreign language oddness. Instead of going all native, however, this director gets mixed linguistics, meaning some characters speak English, while others use their own words with (or without) translation. Nothing inspires drama quicker than waiting for a day player to explain what a supporting hero just said. Sometimes, Emmerich supplies subtitles. At other moments, the words supposedly have no meaning. When it tries for significance, it sinks. When it simply goes along lumbering under bitmap versions of ballyhoo, it’s mildly endearing.

Better casting definitely could have helped this film. 10,000 BC relies far too readily on pretty faces with empty magnetism to power its purpose, with even the more unusual and unknown foreign actors rendered generic by Emmerich’s ham-fisted touch. Our leads could easily be lumped into the “anyone from the OC” category, and we never care about the outcome of our lover’s dilemma. There’s a real sense of situational contrivance here, bad things easily circumvented by plot point coincidence or storyline self-adjustment. You can actually feel the screenwriters reacting, seeing a potential pitfall and then cooking up a clunky way out. Your unconscious viewership shifts so often under the weight of so many unexplained issues and phony motion picture happenstance that you get woozy.

While no one goes into this kind of movie expecting absolute authenticity and scientific accuracy, some of the taken liberties are downright insane. There’s a moment where pissed-off dino-birds go Jurassic Park on our traveling warriors, and the ancient priests who serve the villainous uber God look like rejects from a drag version of 300 by way of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Emmerich pitches everything so high, so vast if clearly vacant, that we get a strange feeling of entertainment vertigo. It’s as if, at any moment, the massive holes in 10,000 BC will open up and swallow us up. Unlike past attempts to revive dead genres - Gladiator and the sword and sandal peplum, Lord of the Rings and the entire fantasy film category - there is no way this movie would resurrect the caveman picture. It’s not engaging or original enough.

In the end, 10,000 BC fails because its unwieldy parts can come together to create an intriguing whole. Emmerich constantly goes for the money shot, making F/X rule where people should actually count. But since he’s gotten away with it before - The Day After Tomorrow is mostly event driven - this is one director who figures that such a strategy will always work. It doesn’t. Unless you like your fromage on the incredibly stinky and stale side, kitsch or camp value overwhelmed by a Limburger level of ludicrousness, then avoid this fossilized flop. Roland Emmerich can make decent disposable entertainment. This is one effort that’s more of a throwaway than a treat.

by Bill Gibron

6 Mar 2008


No one remembers Vantage. It crashed and burned on the launch pad. A few may recall Explorer, our first legitimate unmanned orbital mission. But mention the name Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that literally shocked the world, and you’ll get all kinds of learned and intransigent responses. In 1957, the US seemed like heaven on earth. Post war prosperity was creating a considerable Middle Class, while an unprecedented military strength suggested a sense of infallibility.

But when Russia launched the 185 lb metal sphere into the ionosphere, it signaled the start of two major international confrontations - the Cold War and the Space Race. According to David Hoffman in his excellent archival documentary Sputnik Mania, no other action would push the globe closer to the brink of nuclear annihilation than this peaceful scientific folly to explore the unknown mysteries of our galaxy.

We begin with the event itself, the launch ‘heard’ all over the planet. On 4 October, the secret project successfully beat the Americans at their own progressive game. Within weeks, President Eisenhower was challenged as to the superpower’s response. In between, the media went wild, frenzied over the event and its significance. Equally insightful was the Russians continued confidence that they would be the leaders in space exploration. But soon, the military began suggesting something far more sinister - Sputnik was merely a decoy, a chance for the USSR to test the effectiveness of its Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (or ICBMs). Previously, the US felt confident that its chief enemy couldn’t reach its borders with an H-bomb. Sputnik’s delivery system instantly changed that perspective.

From this point forward, Hoffman builds a convincing case for outrageous reactions, political subterfuge, and eventual acquiescence by Eisenhower. Before long, he is caving to demands both inside and outside the Oval Office. He greenlights Vantage, only to see it fail. He’s suspicious of Explorer because of its Army connection and the input of ex-Nazi rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun. Success leads to short term elation. But when the Soviets amplify the stakes by putting a dog named Laika into orbit, it appeared the US would never catch up. Luckily, the canine suicide mission, turned into a PR nightmare for the Communist nation.

There are lots of insightful moments like this in Sputnik Mania. While some may find it nothing more than an inflated History Channel special, there is a definite message beneath Hoffman’s fact parade. The key point made by this movie is that, for the most part, the satellite’s launch was wildly misinterpreted. While intelligence suggested a nuclear capability, all signs pointed to a purely scientific design. The other intriguing element is the back and forth beneath both leaders - Eisenhower in the West and Nikita Khrushchev in the East. At a summit near the end of the film, both men discover that the post-Sputnik Arms Race was more of a generals and majors idea than a clear mandate from the Commanders in Chief.

With access to a wealth of stunning stock footage and a talking head approach from those who were on the sidelines during the growing conflict, we get a wonderful overall picture of the times and temperament. The information on Vantage and Explorer is eye opening, as these American attempts at besting the Soviets are frequently forgotten in the situation’s mythos. There is also an Atomic Café style sequence where propaganda films and other media maelstroms are exposed for the short-sighted misinformation they were. Certainly, some of Hoffman’s choices are odd (pro-Communist rants fro Khrushchev’s son, comedian Robert Klein discussing civil defense dog tags) and there are moments of planned overkill (the notion that, in 1958 alone, Russia and the US detonated a nuclear weapon once every three DAYS! ). But there are also revelatory incidents, like the accidental bombing of a South Carolina city (a nuke came loose from an overhead plane and struck the town without exploding).

When it stays in this arena, when it plays to our sense of selective memory and fills in the blanks on issues long forgotten, Sputnik Mania is masterful. But just like the title, which seems a tad twee for the material, Hoffman tends to add unnecessary satire to the mix. Sure, the clips from A-bomb era movies are fun, but they tend to diminish the impact of the actual truth. Also, there are times when a surreal sense of inadvertent hero worship unfurls. When he appears indecisive and ill-prepared to respond to Sputnik, Eisenhower is viewed as a fool. But the minute he makes space a “peaceful” proposition - including the last minute stunt of Project SCORE and the championing of NASA - he’s seen as almost saintly.

It’s a weird juxtaposition, and argues for the difficult balancing act that any director must maintain. On the one hand, there is a desire to view this all as ridiculous, to see the struggle between two mighty nations for some proposed Star Wars scuffle in space to play like Buck Rogers gone potty. Yet some of these confrontations are laughable, legitimate fears exaggerated out of a lack of information and a sense of sudden morality. MAD - or mutual assured destruction - is never mentioned outright, but it is clear that the massive build-up of arms in the year after Sputnik may have actually saved the world from a nuclear holocaust.

Still, there is a lot of chest pounding and hand wringing here, the feigned nobility of the many boy’s rocket clubs that grew out of the era matched against the passionate animal lovers who challenged Russia about purposefully killing their space dog. Yet we buy most of it, if only because we believe so strongly in the storyline. Just like the attacks on 9/11, Sputnik reshaped the American mindset in a single foreign act. Responses, naturally, would be all over the map. Whoever breached the heavens first was more or less destined to determine the fate of mankind - if only for a little while. Sputnik Mania argues that, while the Soviets started the fire, the US clearly fanned the flames. Luckily, both sides came to their senses before it was too late.

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