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Saturday, Jul 28, 2007


Don Cheadle’s time has finally arrived. While this may seem a bit contradictory, considering the number of years he has been producing good work, the truth remains that this award winning performer has always been on the very fringes of fame. Unlike other members of the growing and influential African American Hollywood community, Cheadle has concentrated most of his talent and time on smaller, independent fare. While he’ll show up in the occasional mainstream movie (Crash, the Oceans’ films), he tends to be more comfortable in low profile, outsider efforts. As a result, he never seems to get the universal acclaim he so desperately deserves. Consistently great in everything he does, he has yet to find the one role that will spark the superstar celebrity that his abilities triumphantly promise – until now. With Kasi Lemmon’s sensational Talk to Me, the man has finally found a legitimate breakout project.


Cheadle essays the role of real life hustler/Washington DC radio icon Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene. After a stint in prison, he pursues an on-air DJ job from WOL’s uptight station manager Dewey Hughes (an unrecognizable Chiwetel Ejiofor). At first, neither Hughes nor the station’s owner E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen) want anything to do with Petey. He’s loud, obnoxious, opinionated and far too ‘ghetto’ for their upscale ideals. But Hughes comes to see that there is a personality “of the people” in this motor-mouthed maverick, and eventually gives Petey his shot. After some momentary jitters – and a scathing attack on Berry Gordy – the ex-con becomes WOL’s marquee name. Audiences flood his music/talk show with calls, and Petey never lets them down. We follow Hughes and his new star through troubling times (the death of Dr. Martin Luther King) and unimaginable triumphs (TV shows, nightclub appearances). We soon learn however, that such success was not part of Petey’s plan. His frequent bouts with the bottle verify his tortured, tenuous soul.


As biopics go, Talk to Me is really nothing new. It takes a previously unknown personality of some major prominence (time is harsh to memorable individuals) and maneuvers through his story with an engaging combination of myth and reality. In the case of Petey Greene, Kasi Lemmon’s intriguing storyline avoids his stint in Korean and his discharge from the military on drug charges. It also passes over a great deal of his work as an activist for the United Planning Organization and ex-criminal support groups. It does gloss over his love life and fails to mention his four children. And yet, like any good motion picture, the director finds the proper spirit and vibe to make us forget the fudging. Indeed, no matter the factual flaws here, Talk to Me generates so much period appropriate juice and evocative energy that you can’t help but feel caught up in the events transpiring before your eyes. No matter the lack of meticulous authenticity, this is a marvelous cinematic statement.


And it all starts with Cheadle. Ever since Robert DeNiro introduced the notion of metaphysical mimicry as a means of playing a real life person – literal human alteration to capture a person’s actual presence as when he took on the role of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull - actors have decided that the exterior (Monster, Ray) is more important then the interior. Wisely, our star doesn’t try to change his look to match that of Greene, and even as time passes by, Cheadle remains more or less the same. It’s as if Lemmons is asking us to accept the idea of Petey Greene more than the real man himself, and it’s a bold decision. It allows us to avoid all the make-up machinations that can come with such a cinematic stunt (even today, 26 years later, DeNiro’s ‘fat man’ LaMotta is jarring) while truly appreciating the individual within. Similarly, Ejiofor’s Hughes goes through only minor transformations in order to achieve his overall character arc – a man learning there is more to life than Johnny Carson and his Tonight Show style. Together they form the core of what is a very strong character-based piece.


But Lemmons deserves credit as well for creating a perfect ‘60s period feel without going overboard with the era appropriate iconography or symbols. Sure, the wardrobe and attitudes reflect the turbulent times well, and when asked to include some cultural benchmarks, the director chooses a few brave ones indeed. The entire section where the assassination of Dr. King morphs into an all night radio plea by Petey for calm is brilliant, since it includes not only the passion, but the principle behind the notorious DC riots. But then Lemmons goes one step further, and includes a conciliatory concert featuring James Brown to bring the anecdote full circle. Before the performance, Petey (as MC) arrives incredibly drunk and everyone fears he will make the already tight tensions erupt into chaos. Instead, Cheadle delivers a slamdunk monologue which wows both the gathered spectators and Hughes. It’s a perfect illustration of the times, the temperament, and the talent of our amazing main characters.


Lemmons is also excellent at getting the interpersonal element to crackle with vivid life. The scenes between Cheadle and Ejiofor are so kinetic you can see the energy surging between the actors, and whenever Petey and his main squeeze Vernell (played with flawless flirtatiousness by Taraji P. Henson) are on screen, they appear intimate without ever showing it sexually. Some will argue that, by avoiding his obvious faults, Lemmons misses some excellent opportunities for conflict and drama. Yet Talk to Me is the kind of film that argues against constantly requiring confrontations to create gravitas. Had the movie degenerated into a booze soaked Lost Weekend with Petey frequently undermining his career by withdrawing into a fifth, we’d grow weary of its depressive stance. Even worse, it would lessen the parallel rise of Hughes as his own man. Indeed, one of Lemmons’ most fascinating tricks is getting us to forget about the stuffed shirt radio exec, only to find ourselves intrigued when he comes into his own – as a man and as a messenger.


There are times when Talk to Me underperforms, however, buoyed by amazing soundtrack selections to keep it grooving along. Once we reach the sequences where Petey becomes a media star – doing stand-up, causing scandal on his own local TV show – we tend to find the film grasping for relevance. The onstage snippets frequently sound like Richard Pryor rip-offs while the few moments of bravado broadcasting are a tad repetitive. It all leads to a revelatory appearance on Hughes’ dream destination, The Tonight Show, and as well as she does at recreating the look and feel of the classic gabfest, Talk to Me’s script really fails to fully argue how important this moment really was – for either character. Instead, what eventually happens feels anticlimactic, as does the entire subplot involving Hughes and his hatred for his incarcerated brother.


Still, all minor misgivings aside, Talk to Me is a thoroughly enjoyable – and sometimes emotional – experience. It gives us insight into the importance of minority voices circa the late ‘60s/early ‘70s and presents Don Cheadle with the tour de force role that will probably earn him serious awards consideration come end of the year backtracking. There will be those who point out that this fine performer has more than his fair share of accolades, but there is something different about his turn here. Petey Greene was a man who, deep down, wasn’t concerned with being flamboyant or famous. He just wanted to be heard. What Cheadle shows us is how amazing it is to finally find an outlet for said voice…and how horrible it is when celebrity steps up and starts adding on demands. It’s the sad conclusion to what is, generally, an uplifting and soulful experience.



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Saturday, Jul 28, 2007


In auteur/artist Werner Herzog’s world, there are only two major conflicts – man vs. nature, and man vs. his own nature. Such a philosophy encapsulates almost every kind of interaction one can imagine. It also sets up a pretty convenient thematic outline for his various cinematic concerns. Over the course of his amazing career – a 35 year journey that’s included documentaries and fictional features – the German maverick has spent every ounce of his potent creative energy exploring the relationship between humanity and its habitat, as well as the parallel problems of individuals battling their own inner demons. From monumental achievements like Aguirre: Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo to lesser known efforts like Invincible and The Wild Blue Yonder, he’s uncovered the volatility and the healing spirit of nature, as well as its completely personal counterparts.


His latest film, Rescue Dawn, is a perfect illustration of this aesthetic corollary. At first, it seems odd that Herzog would fictionalize the story of Dieter Dengler, German ex-patriot and American fighter pilot shot down over Laos in 1965. After all, he featured the engaging POW’s story in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Yet something about the subject drew the director back, and for years he tried valiantly to get the movie made. Even with Christian Bale attached, it took said actor’s success as Batman to get backers to fork over the funds. In combination with his own critical triumph (2005’s Grizzly Man), the director placed his cast in the middle of the Thailand wilderness and staged a straightforward story of war, duty and the will to live. Though this kind of film has been done dozens of times before, Herzog’s desire for authenticity, along with his unusual approach to the underlying politics of the era, drive Rescue Dawn far above other battle scar epics.


When we first meet Dengler, he’s joking with his buddies onboard a Vietnam-bound aircraft carrier. As lifesaving lessons in survival are spelled out in dull military training films, the proud pilot is just one of the boys, laughing and mocking the material presented. On his first mission (as part of the US government’s unauthorized and secret bombing campaign) Dengler is shot down. Almost immediately, he’s captured by local guerillas, who take him on an arduous journey through the jungle. After reaching a small village, he is turned over to some unidentified soldiers, who run a prison camp for the Communists deep in the wilderness. Upon arriving at his new ‘home’, Dengler meets a pair of fellow Americans – the tightly wound Duane (an excellent Steve Zahn) and the laidback and blitzed out paranoid Gene (a revelatory Jeremy Davis). Aside from some native sympathizers, and a group of angry guards, there is no one, and nothing, around for miles and miles.


Avoiding confusing context and anti-war preaching, Herzog allows us to follow along with Dengler as he gets to know the ropes. At night, the prisoners are locked into their huts via interlocking handcuffs and large wooden ankle stocks. During the day, the men are fed slop and forced to endure demeaning behavior at the hands of their desperate sentries. Unlike a movie like The Deer Hunter, where torture and cartoonish violence are used to illustrate the horrors of enemy incarceration, Rescue Dawn maintains its matter of fact approach. Characters discuss soiling themselves with apologetic frankness, and when confronted by the unhinged enemy, guns aimed directly at their dirty and diseased faces, our heroes don’t grandstand and puff their chests. Instead, they cower and cringe like any ordinary normal human being would. It’s clear that Herzog is redefining bravery here. As a matter of fact, he’s making a clear statement between histrionics and true heroism – false bravado vs. maintaining one’s safety…and sanity.


Almost from the moment he arrives, Dengler wants to plot an escape, and much of the film’s fascinating first act centers on getting his fellow captives to go along with the plan. It is here where Herzog’s choice of Bale as a lead is crucial. As he has proved in numerous films since his stellar debut in another war time epic, Steven Speilberg’s underappreciated Empire of the Sun, the actor currently known as the Caped Crusader is capable of multiple layers in his performances. In Dawn, he must be winning, deceptive, determined, scared, and one step ahead of everyone else, and Bale delivers. As a matter of fact, he turns Dengler into something almost surreal – an optimist surrounded by nothing but abject pessimism. It’s clear that this aspect of the story really stuck with Herzog, and why he decided to dramatize this adventure. In retrospect, Dengler’s escape can seem a little like burlesque bravery. When we actually witness it, we realize how difficult and complex it really was.


It’s the same with the inherent brutality in the tale. Dengler and his fellow prisoners were put through Hell, and while we never see all the sordid details, the actors wear their abuse like a badge of dire dishonor. Much has been made about Bale and Zahn’s turns, and in truth, both men are amazing. They balance realism with just enough added edge to get us involved in their plight. But the real revelation here is Jeremy Davis as Eugene from Eugene (Oregon, that is). Locked in his own Loonyville and never quite ready to relocate (if ever), his burnt out captive is the existential cousin of Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist in Apocalypse Now. Both men are functioning on fumes, and Davis (so bone thin it’s frightening) brings an additional level of unpleasantness to his part. Afraid of messing with the sordid status quo that he’d rat out his own friends, he’s a loose canon as walking skeleton, an unfathomable factor destined to destroy Dengler’s plan.


After the matter of fact material of life in captivity, Herzog makes the wise decision to spend an equally effective period of time on the eventual escape. It doesn’t ruin anything to know that Dengler does finally get away, and yet oddly enough, the breakout becomes the easy part. Indeed, some of Rescue Dawn’s most engrossing material is the aimless wandering through perilously overgrown jungle. Watching Dengler battle the underbrush with his machete, seeing Zahn’s swollen feet blister and peel, seeing the two men scavenge for any food or water they can find is far more harrowing than watching DeNiro and Walken play Russian Roulette with some clichéd Cambodian bad guys. One of Herzog’s genius strokes is that he presents the enemy as ambivalent – doing their job and yet not necessarily loving or hating it. Unlike other war films where the villain must be some kind of sadistic pervert, Rescue Dawn shows them for what they are – people.


It’s the same for our so-called champions. While Dengler does do things that warrant our awe and respect, Rescue Dawn wants to remind us that it’s not being done out of some noble belief in God or country. While our lead does love his adopted homeland, his motivation is more mercenary – he just wants to live to fly again. He’s not out to win the war in some microcosm of combat ala Rambo. He doesn’t need the verification of immorality on the side of the opponent to verify his actions. No, as with all of his films, Herzog saw in Dengler’s defiance of the odds the two hemispheres of his well considered worldview. On the one hand, Dieter Dengler needed to face the elements in order to guarantee his survival. But the most important confrontation came with who he was inside. The answer provides the foundation for one of 2007’s best motion picture efforts.


 


 


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Thursday, Jul 26, 2007


You’re gonna hear a lot of talk in the next few days about The Simpsons Movie - and not all of it will focus on the film itself. Some of it will center on Fox’s failed strategy to keep the movie away from critics, and the clandestine, last minute appeals that saw the press finally viewing the finished product the night before it officially opened. Others will question the legitimacy of an effort that flaunts the fact that, as an audience, you are paying for the privilege of seeing something that the boob tube provides for free. Heck, Homer even makes a joke about it. There will be a few who frown on the lax language issue, their favorite family using the mildest of profanities to express some of their concerns. And a couple may complain about the abomination which is animated genitalia.


Well, you can tell all these wannabe experts and misguided moral watchdogs to eat your ever lovin’ shorts. After 18 years on the air and nearly 400 amazing episodes, The Simpsons Movie delivers the entertainment equivalent of a 90 minute greatest hits package. Jam packed with jokes, insider references, unique cameos and characters, and just a smidgen of sentiment and heart, this is the kind of stone cold genius creation old school fans have been longing for and demanding since around Season Four. Indeed, the most striking thing about this luminous bit of social satire is how fully realized and completely linear it is. Most episodes of the series, especially in the last few years, are tangential, vignette oriented, and elliptical. A weird event will trigger another oddball happenstance before the whole things blows back and up in Homer’s fat face. Here, we begin with a basic storyline, and the jokes grow organically and effortlessly from its finely honed foundation.


It all begins with that current crisis du jour – our volatile environment. In typical surreal Simpsons fashion, Homer adopts a pig. When he can’t figure out what to do with his new pet’s “leavings” (to quote wife Marge), he decides to dump an entire silo full of feces in local Lake Springfield. Coincidentally, daughter Lisa has been protesting the continued polluting of this body of water (with the help of her new Irish boy buddy Colin), and the town has placed a moratorium on further befouling, afraid of a horrible natural disaster. Of course, our favorite bald buffoon doesn’t listen to them, and soon, things are at a crisis point. The EPA – under the direction of Chairman Russ Cargill (a hilarious Albert Brooks) and President Schwarzenegger – finally comes up with a plan. It will dome the town, trapping everyone inside forever. Then when things get too bad, they’ll bomb the city. In the meantime, Springfield has driven the Simpsons away, and they begin life anew in Alaska. Yet, even with all the hard feelings, the family can’t resist the urge to return and help save their threatened town.


And just to keep things frisky, there are a couple of clever subplots involving Barts’ growing affection for the Flanders, Grandpa’s religious hissy fit, and Homer’s interaction with the native Inuit peoples of America’s 49th State. Yet instead of distracting us from the main plotline, these asides help us appreciate the level of intelligence and wit the show’s creators carry over into the film. They even add in a very touching moment where Marge speaks from her heart. To any fan of the wonderful voice acting the cast produces on a weekly basis, this heart-rendering reading by Julie Kavner will all but unhinge you. It’s very, very powerful. The rest of the actors are also uniformly excellent, managing to make us care about the outcome of certain situations that, within a cinematic fantasy paradigm aimed directly at the PG-13 demographic, are more or less predetermined from the start. In fact, the script (credited to 15 of the show’s most inspired scribes) does a great job of poking fun at the whole doomsday action adventure genre.


It wouldn’t be The Simpsons without the goofy asides and borderline crude cracks, and leave it to the brains behind the scenes to keep things as imbecilic as possible. Homer doesn’t suddenly grow smarter, or stumble onto the truth after several sincere conversations. Instead, he remains regressive and childlike, amiably screwing things up with a sense of wide-eyed wonder that’s a sidesplitting joy to behold. Similarly, both Bart and Lisa are toned down here, each one getting a solid sequence of their own before giving in to the needs of the narrative. There will be a decided outcry from fringe favoring fans about the lack of extended scenes of Apu, Krusty, Principal Skinner, Mrs. Crabapple, and many others. Indeed, aside from Kent Brockman and the brazen bumpkin Cletus, the rest of Springfield’s citizenry are reduced to perfectly honed cameos – introduced and exploited as needed and necessary. The family members are the real focus.


Are there things here that don’t work? Not really. Hans Zimmer’s score barely stands out above the comedic din, his mundane music cues doing very little until the final confrontation with fate. Similarly, the animation takes a bit of getting used to at first. Fans familiar with Futurama will instantly appreciate the combination of 3D CGI and standard pen an ink cartooning. But it’s still odd to see the Simpsons home swallowed up, Poltergeist style, or a massive deep focus mob containing possibly every character ever conceived for the show. And of course, the continuity police will be up in arms over how Marge and Homer’s marriage has, once again, been reimagined into a familiar formal setting (they eloped, as all true Simpsons savants remember). Yet none of this really matters. In fact, any quibbles over content or approach are incredibly minor when compared to how effortlessly this movie delivers its many, many delights.


On par with South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut in the way in which a beloved TV series can be broadened and deepened by the cinematic experience, The Simpsons Movie is a major triumph – and that’s saying a lot considering its stance as a creative enterprise overflowing with consistent genius. The direction (by David Silverman) has a decided artistic bent, several shots announcing their compositional and framing freshness with major impact (this happens frequently during the last act). The Inuit dream sequence is especially impressive, riffing on symbolic ideas fans will remember from past character interactions with the cosmic. Perhaps the best thing this fine film does however is treat its audience with intelligence and respect. It doesn’t try to cheapen our yellow-tinged icons by making them into a sloppy, saccharine example of kid vid corniness. All The Simpsons Movie emotion is earned honestly, and all its humor is unforced and very, very funny.


So let them all talk. It may not be a return to the glory days of phenomenon formation, when the series finally found the courage to take the show outside the boundaries of your typical animated TV experience, but The Simpsons Movie argues that there’s plenty of life left in this clever collection of characters. Whether Fox decides to keep renewing the series, or simply allowing film to fill in the future blanks, one thing is certain – The Simpsons remain one of the classic comic creations ever. Their big screen debut may have taken over a decade to arrive, but it was well worth the wait. Here’s hoping one family member’s statement over the closing credits comes to fruition - the sooner, the better.


(PS: Make sure you stay until the very end – the writers have some extra rib-ticklers as a reward for those who don’t just jump up and leave.)


 



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Wednesday, Jul 18, 2007


No one in Hollywood ever went broke underestimating the entertainment taste of the American public. I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry is proof of such a sentiment. Geared directly toward the lowest common denominator, with occasional side treks into PC-lite pronouncements of tolerance and acceptance, this is comedy as callous homophobia, a movie constantly having to apologize to the audience for its crass, crude approach to its poorly chosen subject matter. In a current social climate where same sex marriage has been bandied about as a powerful political and pundit tool, to treat the issue as the basis for a frat house level of funny business is disturbing. But then to watch as the plot purposefully backtracks in order to make amends for such lampoon-based insensitivity is disingenuous at best.


You see, this gay marriage movie isn’t really ready to deal with the overriding disputes that arise whenever civil rights and civil unions become part of the human dialogue. Indeed, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry wants to avoid the conversation all together. That’s probably because the premise is so preposterous – more on this in a moment – the film realized it couldn’t make a solid, sincere satire out of the whole comedians as a couple scenario. So the script – written by Oscar winners Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne, along with Barry Farno – more or less balks, piling on the overt stereotypes and statements of support in an attempt to keep the easily fooled fanbase at bay. There will be people who love this film and never once think about exactly what they are laughing at. And as long as the creators can keep such up cinematic stealth, everyone will feel vindicated.


But there are holes the size of Christian bigotry all throughout this scattershot story. In order to guarantee that his kids receive his fireman’s pension, decent dude Larry Valentine (an acceptable Kevin James) asks his best friend and noted man whore Chuck Levine (an old looking Adam Sandler) for a favor. Seems if they can establish a believable domestic partnership, the benefits will inure to Chuck, who will gladly turn them over to Larry’s motherless wee ones. All they have to do is convince the City of New York and its crafty, cartoonish investigator (a weirdly arch Steve Buscemi). Calling in the services of sexy attorney Alex Donough (a very good Jessica Biel), the boys hope to bamboozle everyone. Unfortunately, Chuck’s uncontrollable heterosexuality has him lusting after the lawyer, and their ruse, in general, is causing a lot of complicated feelings among their friends and co-workers. If they tell the truth, however, they are looking at long stints in jail for fraud.


The first major fallacy this movie manipulates is that Larry is such a grief-stricken lunkhead (his wife has been dead three years) that his far too clever central casting children - one’s a whiz, the other is a Broadway loving wuss – would be the last thing on his mind. In essence, what I Now Pronounce You wants us to believe is that our heartbroken hero wouldn’t have immediately looked into securing their future. Instead, he has moped around to the point where his application time limits have run out. Even more perplexing is the solution – pretending to be gay. No one is suggesting that Sandler or James are playing geniuses, but even the most feeble minded of village idiots would have thought this plan out a little more thoroughly. Okay, so they fool the city. The government approves their partnership and Chuck is now the appointed beneficiary. They can’t go back to their regular lives now, can they? The first time Sandler’s sex addicted lothario bags another collection of Hooter’s Girls, the jig will be up.


Even worse, the narrative never understands this. Instead, the storyline just keeps stumbling along, waiting for the inevitable moment when an ending will be required. It drifts over into toilet humor (the guys save an obese man from a burning building, and he repays Sandler in particular by farting in his face), high drama (lots of close calls on fire calls) goofy ‘girl power’ montages (Sandler and Biel go ‘shopping’ as a Cyndi Lauper standard bops in the background), and sequences of insincere soap boxing. When confronted by a group of Pro-God gay bashers, Chuck decides to take matters into his own hands…make that fists. He punches the preacher out. Similarly, when asked to an AIDS awareness ball, we anticipate the moment when either lead lets loose with an ersatz hilarious harangue about homosexuals in general. Instead, the script lets the gay party members do it themselves, expressing the kind of archetypal swishery that your average ‘Amurican’ thinks constitutes queer behavior.


Yet perhaps the biggest humor as hate crime committed comes at the expense of usually reliable actor Ving Rhames. Initially viewed by his fellow firefighters as an angry serial killer type, Chuck and Larry’s union brings out the Minnelli in the man, and before you know it, the African American icon once known as Marcellus Wallace is wishing those hillbilly rapists would make a return. He goes from tough to touchy, mincing like a Food Channel chef preparing a delicate bisque. All of this is supposed to play as liberating and empowering, but when a butt naked Rhames is wiggling his ass in an extended “don’t drop the soap’ shower gag, it’s all too much. He, and the character of Biel’s out and proud brother played with far too much ‘fabulousness’ by Nick Swardson, are merely distractions, means of easy laughs at the expense of several decades of prejudice and perception. Instead of concentrating on the relationship between James and Sandler, how the cad makes the depressed dad appreciate his kids while the family man forces the man skank into appreciating the notion of commitment, we wind up with malapropisms about the male anatomy.


And then we come to the finale. As part of some Tinsel Town mandate regarding all hot button issues, our heroes status as a gay couple is challenged in a courtroom setting – in this case, a hearing in front of the City Council. As Buscemi tries everything he can to con a confession out of his witnesses, we can literally observe the moment when the screenplay shifts over from white pages to last minute rewritten colored ones. It’s as if director Dennis Dugan (who helmed Sandler’s Happy Gilmore and Big Daddy) realized at that instant that the narrative was indeed painting itself into a corner that no normal contrivance could free it from. So what did these highly paid hacks come up with? Why, that standard of any ‘issue’ movie – the self-righteous, sanctimonious speech. And just to make sure we got it, several other characters are allowed to wax poetic to save their pals’ kiesters. While the movie tries to mess up the formulaic follow through that usually results after such overdone oration, we’ve long since given up hope of anything original or novel happening here.


Last year, A&E released a lovely little TV movie about same sex marriage and strange political bedfellows entitled Wedding Wars. It featured James Brolin as a pandering politician and John Stamos as a gay activist helping to plan the Governor’s daughter’s nuptials. While it suffered from some pie in the sky fantasizing about a world where homosexual rights would eventually be respected (if not implemented), it was funnier, more emotional, and far more convincing than this flailing, forced farce.  I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry is not as hilarious as it thinks it is, profound as it pretends to be, or tolerant as it intends. Yet none of this will matter to the throngs who only think of film as a way to waste two hours. For them, this crackerjack comedy will allow them to remain bigoted and have a belly laugh or two.  And Hollywood scores another monetary hash mark in the category of knowing audience underestimation. 


 


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Tuesday, Jul 17, 2007


When Hairspray is good, it’s fantastic. It radiates an energy and a joy that’s beyond infectious. As a matter of fact, it’s safe to say that the pleasure one derives from the first fifteen minutes of this movie should be made illegal, it’s so superbly addictive. On the other hand, when Hairspray is only mediocre, it’s…aw heck, who cares! In fact, whatever minor flaws this movie may have (and they’re barely recognizable against the sunshine daze) are frivolous in comparison to the triumph taking shape before our eyes. Fans of the John Waters original – more a celebration of youth and dance than race and social commentary – have worried that the Broadway version of the ‘60s Baltimore spree would forget what made the prince of puke’s PG perfection so much fun. Instead, this amazing musical has found its own level of exhilaration, and the delights are palpable indeed.


With some minor changes here and there, the story has basically stayed the same. Tubby Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky) lives with her joke shop owning father (Christopher Walken) and laundress mother (John Travolta). She hates school, and along with best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes), she rushes home every day to catch the locally produced dance extravaganza, The Corny Collins Show. Among the series regulars are The Council, a group of talented teens that are supposed to symbolize clean cut American values. But under the surface, Station Manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfieffer) is forwarding two private agendas. The first, and least noxious, is her daughter Amber’s future career. The other, more loathsome design, is the continued segregation of on-air programming. African Americans in the area only get one day a month on Corny’s show, and substitute host (and record shop owner) Motormouth Mabel (Queen Latifah) barely tolerates such treatment.


Anyway, Tracy’s dream is to be part of the show’s elusive clique, but her audition is nixed by Ms. Van Tussle. A stint in detention along with Motormouth’s son Seaweed (Elijah Kelly) improves the plump gal’s hoofing skills. Before you know it, she’s part of the Council, wooing the male star of the show (a teen idol wannabe named Link – Zac Efron) and getting into hot water over her views on integration. With the Miss Hairspray crown up for grabs, Amber’s mother will do anything to see that her child wins, and she comes up with several subversive plots to guarantee victory. But Tracy’s indomitable spirit, along with Mabel’s desire to stand up for her people lead to a march on the station, and an arrest warrant for our heroine. Naturally, it all comes down to the night of the big pageant. If Tracy shows up, she’ll be arrested. If she doesn’t Amber, will win the crown – much to the chagrin of almost everyone involved.


Bubbling over with entertainment effervescence and a wealth of award wining performances, Hairspray is the perfect example of cinematic synchronicity – flawless casting, amazing material, brilliant production design, stellar songs and directorial magic all rolled up into one big wad of motion picture cotton candy. Far more effective than Dreamgirls or Chicago, what has been accomplished here is nothing short of a miracle. For many, the last great example of this kind of effortless exuberance was Frank Oz’s adaptation of the Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s smash Little Shop of Horrors. There, as here, the combination of motion picture parts produced a movie musical engine that purred like a well creamed kitten…with just enough quirk to keep things safely off the sappy side. Hairspray mimics that sort of success, selling its unapologetic philosophies with expertly tempered heart and soul.


Major kudos must go to whomever decided to hire this remarkable company. Every performer here is faultless, adding to the overall feeling of comedy and camaraderie. Even the two main villains – Amber and her mother Velma Von Tussle - are more to be laughed at then feared. Their stances are so outrageous and their sense of self so ludicrous that their eventual tumble is bound to be a treat. Of course, what makes this even better is Michelle Pfieffer’s return – after a five year absence – to big screen prominence as Velma. She’s an aged ice queen so accurately archetyped that all she’s missing is the dangle of a cigarette and a coarse, cancerous croak to turn her into the ghoul that’s hiding inside. Even though we had to wait for the actress’s return from self-imposed exile, it was well worth it.


Similarly, Queen Latifah shows that the Oscar nod for Chicago was no fluke. In Hairspray, she finds the ideal combination of groove and grace, making her both a viable disc jockey and voice of reason. She’s matched by James Marsden, who finally gets a chance to crawl out of Cyclops’ shades and deliver a knock ‘em dead turn as the eternally preening Corny Collins. Throughout the course of this toe-tapping, smile mapping spectacle, brilliant supporting performances by Zach Efron, Elijah Kelley, Amanda Bynes, and Allison Janney really help to flesh out the fabulousness. Of course, the biggest kudos will be saved for formidable newcomer Nikki Blonsky. A portly little fireplug, this is one plus size gal who can swing and sway. She belts out her songs with steadfast determination, and moves her body with undeniable agility. As the glue required to hold all the cheerfulness and mirth together, she’s great.


And then there is John Travolta. From the moment that a musical version of John Water’s nostalgic knock-off was announced, the main question on everyone lips was who would – or possible could/dare – replace Divine. That magically effete phenom, that late great drag dime store diva left some mighty big shoes (and other garments) to fill as sheltered mouse mother Edna Turnblad. On the Great White Way, the solution was simple – another larger than life gay performer, Harvey Firestein. But movies require superstars, and for a while, an unusual collection of actors was considered. But once you see Travolta inside the fascinating fat suit and utilizing what has to be one of the most bizarrely authentic Baltimore accents ever, you’ll realize that his was more than stunt casting. This is a fully realized performance, an acting tour de force that requires and earns your unbridled attention. Sure, he can sing and dance like a dream – we’ve always known that about him. But there is a depth to what Travolta does here, an unnerving authenticity that makes us forget the façade and see the fragile female inside. It’s a stunning, award worthy piece of work.


But perhaps the biggest shock overall is the surprisingly solid direction from the otherwise average Adam Shankman. Known previously for such uninspired, generic dogs as The Pacifier and Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Hairspray makes it appear as if the filmmaker has been holding back all along. Case in point – the opening number “Good Morning, Baltimore!” As Tracy’s sonic celebration of her city, Shankman wisely opens up the number, taking us up and down the streets and shops of her neighborhood. But then, he adds little visual gags and some hilarious physical comedy along the way. By the time Tracy is riding the garbage truck to school, our hearts are in our throats. As a former choreographer, Shankman “gets” movement. Unlike other helmers of recent song and dance cinema, Hairspray is a movie that understands staging without relying on MTV like variables to save its strategies.


Which brings us to the final facet of the film – Marc Shaiman’s ‘60s suggesting songs. One of the most interesting aspects of his score is how important context really is. When heard outside their setting, when played as mere souvenirs of the show, lyrical larks like “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs”, “Big, Blond and Beautiful”, and “(You’re) Timeless To Me” really have a hard time resonating. They need setting, circumstance, and perspective to play properly. Here, Shankman gives the composer just that, and what sounds trite and cloying outside the silver screen comes alive with undeniable potency. You’ll be snapping along with “The Nicest Kids in Town” and clapping along with “You Can’t Stop the Beat”. Even the more dramatic numbers – the racial call to arms “I Know Where I’ve Been” – echo more effectively thanks to the film.


Indeed, Hairspray stands as one of 2007’s great films. It dares to reach for the stratosphere and manages to move far beyond said stars. It’s intoxicating and invigorating, jumpstarting your long dead belief in the art of the movie picture while systematically saving the summer from such standard operating ordinariness as sequels and remakes. Of course, purists will palpitate over the a few missing numbers (got to add new material to get the Academy’s attention) and there will be the naysayers who can’t cotton to a musical made outside the defining era of 1930 – 1950. But this is one time when you can easily believe the hype. Hairspray is one brazen bouffant of a film. It’s very high and oh so mighty. 


 


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