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Thursday, Mar 20, 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?



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Thursday, Mar 6, 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.



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Thursday, Mar 6, 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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Thursday, Mar 6, 2008


During its heyday, the heist genre was a quick witted assemblage of action and antics. It represented a combination of smarts and savoir faire, breaking and entering tricks matched to jet set cocktail party wits. In recent years, the mechanics have taken over the mirth, turning many of these tales into high tech actioners with low levels of actual fun. Roger Donaldson’s The Bank Job doesn’t change that formula. In fact, it frequently embraces the serious side of its material much more than is necessary. But when you’re dealing with a supposedly true story, involving the loftiest levels of British Intelligence and the Royal Family itself, humor is hard to find.


Terry Leather is a scrappy London car dealer, his gambling problems placing both his business and his marriage in deep, deep trouble. When an old flame named Martine Love turns up on his stoop, he’s open to her somewhat surreal suggestion. She wants Terry to put together a crew and rob a bank. She will handle all the details. He just needs to find the manpower. Set up in an adjoining shop, the plan is to tunnel into the vault and rob it. Whatever Terry and the boys get, they can keep. Martine is after a specific safety deposit box. Turns out, a Black Militant group with ties to London’s underground pornography trade has compromising pictures of one of the British royals. Their leader is using the snaps to keep out of jail. But the heist uncovers more than Terry, Martine, and government intelligence want to know. As the main instigator of the crime, even the Crown could be compromised.


As with all ‘based on a true story’ narratives, the events in The Bank Job have to be taken with a small grain of cinematic salt. In essence, what we are getting is a thirty year old account from a supposed participant in this crime, claiming that the highest levels of UK intelligence staged a robbery to protect the image of Princess Margaret. If we are to believe the facts presented, the compromising images of the noblewoman in steamy sexual congress would destroy the Monarchy (proving, once again, that this really is the early ‘70s). Equally suspect is the notion that a street hood like Terry Leather - name changed to protect the ‘guilty’, or so the pre-credits screen card reads - could literally outsmart MI5, powerful mobsters, shady radicals, and his own character issues to make this all work.


Oddly enough, the heist is not the most compelling part of this film. The set up takes a bit to build, since Donaldson clearly wants to establish character and tone here. There is a nice squalid London vibe, a real sense of time and place. And the actors make good with the limited material they are given. Jason Statham is once again the balding British bulldog with an ever present muzzle and a head butting approach to problem solving. Saffron Burroughs is very believable as the aging model turned drug mule, forced into the service of the government thanks to a boyfriend in the Agency and a taste for cocaine. As suave flesh peddler Lew Vogel, David Suchet provides the perfect combination of sleaze and sensibility. And Daniel Mays leaves a large impression as Dave, one of Terry’s accomplices.


But weak links also abound - and not just in the performance pool. Peter De Jersey’s black radical Michael X is nearly comic in his chest-puffing arrogance. The entire subplot involving another secret agent (a hippy-dippy white girl) working within his group seems senseless in both its support of the story and its finale’s brutality. Also odd is the other main narrative - the potential impact of some additional scandalous photos on high placed British officials. It makes sense in the long run, especially when you consider the criminal element the movie is dealing in, but it frequently comes across like a bad joke. It’s like a punchline without a point. Of course, the era defines such reactions. We are so much savvier in our post-modern cynicism. But that doesn’t mean it helps the movie.


Still, Donaldson’s direction guides us through the rough spots. He’s efficient without being pedestrian, tweaking the suspense here and there to add the proper amount of intrigue to the elements. The screenplay also strikes an interesting balance between crime and punishment. We want to see Terry and his blokes succeed, if only because these thieves are the most jovial lot on the screen. But we are constantly reminded that their felonious acts don’t often pay, and on a couple of occasions, a character’s fate seems unduly harsh. Donaldson does tie it all up in the end, and we feel a sense of satisfaction with the way things play out. But The Bank Job tends to remain an epic shorn of its scope. If Martin Scorsese were behind the lens, he’d have us at “allo”. Instead, everything stays a small little bit of relatively unknown British history.


Indeed, before the gag order turned the media labeled “Walkie Talkie Robbery” (a ham radio operator overheard signals being sent between Terry and his outside lookout) into a myth, there was substantial buzz about this incident. Why no one ever attempted a fully fictional adaptation of the facts seems strange - as does the arrival of this so-called ‘insider’ version. In part, the movie works because it’s offering us a previously squelched story dealing with inherently engaging material. But The Bank Job could be so much more. Sadly, Donaldson doesn’t strive for same.


 


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Thursday, Feb 28, 2008


Will Ferrell seems to have fallen into a groove as of late. Ever since Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, his pure comedies have developed their own unique universes, worlds where the actor and his crack team of costars can play and pretend. In Talladega Nights, it was NASCAR. In Blades of Glory, it was the surreal stage of competitive figure skating. Now comes the solid Semi-Pro, a movie that perfectly mimics the debauchery and malaise of the 1970s in all its leisure suit loving, animal fur wearing, pop culture vulgarity. While not as immediately outrageous as his other onscreen turns, Ferrell fulfills the promise of the ultra-wacky premise, delivering another collection of crudities, gaffs, and expletive laced plot twists.


It’s the middle of the Me Decade and ABA basketball is dying. While the other franchises pray for a merger, the Flint Michigan Tropics and their player/coach/owner/former soul star Jackie Moon is having a ball. Sure, his team sucks, and attendance is more than lousy, but he is living his dream. Unfortunately, many of his players don’t share his outsized optimism. They feel their hope of playing professional sports slowly slipping away. When he learns that the NBA will only take four teams, Moon convinces the league to let the best record decide who goes. With his last place Tropics consistently stinking up stadiums around the country, he needs a ringer to help increase his chances. In walks Monix, a former Boston Celtics star whose career has seen better days. With his skills and experience, Moon hopes to capture fourth place. Teammates like Clarence “Coffee” Black aren’t buying the effort, however.


With a collection of period piece beats that perfectly emulate the era of Watergate and wavering morality, and a story that sticks to the standard sports underdog dynamic, Semi-Pro may seem pointless, especially to the culturally clueless. Back before the game was a Jordan and Kobe cavalcade of rock star like sports icons, the American Basketball Association attempted to enliven a seriously struggling sport. With its emphasis on offense and flash, and tendency toward tacky self-promotion (they were in direct competition with the far more established NBA), the 12 teams that made up the two competing conferences gave the three decade old guard a run for their money. An eventual merger in 1976 brought four new teams into the fold, and it is within this last act of negotiated desperation that Semi-Pro is set.


Of course, many will wonder what such a perspective brings to the film, especially when it is humor, not history, that’s important…and it’s a fair question. But what the ABA backdrop adds to Semi-Pro is a sense of inevitability, a reason for the characters to feel at wit’s end throughout the entire story. This helps sell the occasionally outrageous antics that would otherwise overpower everything. First time director Kent Alterman definitely has his work cut out for him here. Not only does he have the expectations of every Ferrell fan on the planet, but there are some die-hard fans out there that will be watching for some manner of ‘fictional’ accuracy (if such a thing is possible). Luckily, much of Scot Armstrong’s script seems to have skirted such struggles, allowing for far more effective improvising from the cast.


And it’s a strong group of performers. Woody Harrelson has been outside the mainstream for the last few years, but his turn as the over the hill Monix is a real return to form. Newcomer Andre “3000” Benjamin is also very believable as the Tropics breakout star, Clarence “Coffee” Black, while current comic sidekicks Rob Corddry, David Koechner, Will Arnet, and Matt Walsh make a nice collection of satiric satellites. There are a couple of wonderful, off the wall surprises as well. Oscar nominee Jackie Earle Haley shows up as Dukes, a pothead who wins a $10,000 Tropics contest, while Tim Meadows steals his only scene as an injured player who lets go with an unfortunate racial epithet. Together, they generate the kind of genial crassness that carries this movie beyond the standard humor hi-jinx.


Of course, Ferrell is the focus for much of the film, and it’s odd that he’s never given much to do except play the fool. There’s no family issue for him to deal with, no outer circle or sphere of influence working their way inward. Instead, he’s set up as a joke machine, a cartoon creation limited in scope and structure. Heck, he doesn’t even get the girl - Harrelson is rewarded with a relationship with underwritten co-star Maura Tierney. This may cause some in the demo no small amount of consternation. If this is a Ferrell vehicle - and it really doesn’t play like an ensemble, no matter the size of the cast - we want his antics to be more or less front and center. In Semi-Pro‘s case, they are more like slightly to the left.


Still, there is a lot of enjoyment to be had within the confines of these peculiar surroundings. Sports fans may scoff at the various stats, skills, and shots taken, but the end result remains a clever take on the material. Besides, any film that can channel The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh and Kansas City Bomber can’t be all bad. Semi-Pro may look like recycled Will Ferrell, outrageous personality and all, but there is an attention to detail and a surreal ‘70s splash that makes it all work. Like a crass Christopher Guest, this former SNL superstar has a way of making even the most unusual environ funny.The old peach basket bop - and its high flying ABA makeover - will never be the same.



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