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Thursday, Sep 6, 2007

The death of the western as a viable film genre remains, even to this day, a perplexing motion picture issue. It could be argued that the glut of horse opera product that flooded the pop culture market between 1940 and 1980 extinguished any artistic or commercial viability the category had left. Indeed, Hollywood loved to spread the oater’s morality play mandates as thinly as possible. Part of the reason was popularity. Until political correctness condemned its conceits, kids played Cowboys and Indians and the pioneers were looked upon as great land emancipators, not the catalysts for cruel, cutthroat genocide. How the mythos went from machismo to mass murder is definitely a topic for another time. But it does help explain why the sagebrush saga has seen better days. Along with a draught of compelling creativity, post-modern audiences just aren’t eager to revisit our country’s more primeval past.


Perhaps that’s why James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma is so strict in its storyline dynamics. This second version of Elmore Leonard’s short story (the first, in 1957, featured Glen Ford and Van Heflin) revolves around a simple rancher who, in a desperate act for much needed money, decides to escort a rogue outlaw to the title train, an express that leads to prison, and eventually, the gallows. Actors such as Tom Cruise and Eric Bana were originally considered for the project, but Mangold managed to score a box office bonanza when he cast Christian Bale (Batman himself) as Civil War veteran Dan Evans and Russell Crowe as suave train robber and ruthless killer Ben Wade. Rounding out the supporting parts with Peter Fonda, Ben Foster, Gretchen Mol, and Alan Tudyk, he had performers worthy of pulling off the impossible—making this manner of film compelling to a consumed-by-CGI audience.


For the most part, he succeeds in spades. 3:10 to Yuma has its off moments, and its unexplored potential, but for the vast majority of its running time, this is an excellently made and superbly acted throwback. Mangold is not out to deconstruct the genre ala Unforgiven, nor is he trying to contemporize or reimagine his homage ala The Quick and the Dead. Instead, this is the kind of mild mannered, if action packed, movie that the Italians targeted with their spectacular splatter spaghetti updates. After an exciting opening stagecoach hold up, the narrative becomes a series of metaphysical standoffs waiting for some glorified gunplay to forward the momentum. This is a good looking film, one that captures an Old West authenticity that’s unique among its motion picture peers. This is a grubbier, dustier western, a movie that frequently mentions the hardship and the horror of eking out an existence on the fringes of a still-forming nation. 


In that regard, one has to stop and mention the magnificent work of Christian Bale. Playing a Northern veteran of the War Between the States (with his own humiliating past to protect), there’s a real desperation in his performance, a quiet helplessness that carries over to his gaunt face and hobbled physicality. Missing a foot and more considered than confrontational, Evans makes for an unusual hero. Not only do we need him to buffer Wade’s craven cult of personality, but we hope he will find his inner strength as well. The combination creates real tension, and gives Bale lots of room to play. In turn, he’s both pathetic and powerful, a presence that demands attention even if all it results in is nothing more than mockery. With a scraggly beard and sullen eyes, we witness the kind of alienation and angst we’d expect in a post-modern movie. But thanks to his amazingly accomplished acting, it all becomes part of a much more meaningful whole.


Crowe, on the other hand, is quite the quandary. He’s supposed to be larger than life, a charmer who’d enjoy conning you as much as killing you. Instead of delving deep into his character’s psychosis, or the rationale behind his antisocial stance, the actor merely grandstands. You can practically hear him having too good of a time, a leprechaun-ish lilt in his voice almost mocking everything the movie stands for. It’s a brave creative choice, since it could easily alienate the audience. After all, Wade will go through a last act change that pushes our perspective of him into fairly uncharted territory. One can indeed question whether Crowe actually prepares us for this possibility. When he turns on the intensity, he’s as grave as they come. But in the lighter moments, when he’s joking and jesting, we’re stuck stewing over the man. His rogue routine raises enough questions to turn his character into quicksand—substantive at first, but with some rather shaky foundations underneath.


The rest of the company is crafty and first class, with Ben Forster literally stealing the film as Wade’s trusty and treacherous sidekick Charlie. He’s evil personified, a man metering out his own idea of justice one blazing six-shooter at a time. When he appears onscreen, all bets are automatically off, especially during the opening/closing action sequences. He’s ruthless, with just a touch of feyness to render every act doubly despicable. He’s unpredictable and yet totally calculated, a lethal combination indeed. He acts as a counterweight to the cavalier tone taken during some of the movie’s more trite moments. Similarly, Alan Tudyk’s venerable veterinarian is a wonderful reminder of the definite dangers involved. Whether it’s repairing bullet wounds or reminding the posse of their purpose, he’s a wonderful voice of reason. Add in Peter Fonda’s grizzled grimness (including a rather nasty backstory) and a real flair for bullet bravado, and you’ve got a really fine cinematic sentiment.


There are a couple of minor misgivings however. The entire subplot with the son, an ungrateful little knave that eventually comes around to his dad’s way of thinking, asks too much of an already perplexed viewer. Why this kid loves the outlaw life and vicarious violence is only suggested, though it appears to be derived from a love of dime novels and press puffery. He’s worked back into the overall tone about halfway through, even if we’re not sure why he’s around. Then there’s the Civil War angle. Bale wears his service literally, the war wound haunting and hobbling him. Yet other characters who mention their part in the conflict do so without a lick of significance, as if their conscription in the nation-defining event was similar to going down to the local saloon for a snort. It’s confusing, and lacks closure. Still, 3:10 to Yuma does a direct job of both bending and blending archetypes. Luckily, the narrative avoids most of the standard stock personas, even if Crowe ends up bedding one of the cleanest looking whores in all of Arizona.


Most of the praise goes to Mangold, however. He keeps things lively, and never forgets that a contemporary audience likes their wicked weaponry in full muffle blast mode. The gunfights are staged in a highly kinetic manner, the participants constantly plotting and moving in an attempt to avoid that hot kiss of lead. The finale is probably the best two on twenty showdown in the history of the genre, made even more effective by the emotional bond we feel with these characters. Even better, this director lays out the basics for a possible genre rebirth. All that’s required is a simple story, capable stars, an acknowledgement of the current medium trends, and a filmmaker that’s capable of meshing them all together. The results can only hope to be as effective as 3:10 to Yuma. In the realm of remakes, this one surpasses its still significant sources.



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Saturday, Sep 1, 2007


In a society spinning out of control, vigilantism is the public’s panacea. It provides control – no matter how corrupt – within a schism of moral decay, and offers that most fleeting cure-alls - self-described justice and decency. Those without perspective tend to question the police’s problem with citizens taking the law into their own hands, yet what these action apologists tend to forget is that it’s rules and regulations that keep a community contained. Allow those boundaries to be dismissed, or ever controverted, and the result is chaos, the exact opposite of the crime and punishment paradigm you seek to establish with your vengeance. It’s a burden carried by Kevin Bacon in his latest film, Death Sentence. Based on a novel by Death Wish author Brian Garfield, it explores the notion of going numb over the seemingly endless cycle of criminality endured as part of everyday existence, and how it turns one man into a monster.


Nick Hume (Bacon) leads a rather idyllic life. His eldest boy Brendan is a talented high school hokey star with dreams of attending college in Canada. His youngest, Lucas, is the exact opposite – bright and sensitive, and slightly out of place in the family dynamic. Nick loves his wife Helen (Kelly Preston), adores his kids, and sees himself as a happy, settled man. All of that is shattered one night when a gang initiation brings death to the Humes. Grief stricken, Nick hopes the legal system will provide the punishment he seeks. But when he learns that lawyers are merely mechanisms in a quasi-corrupt system more interested in plea deals than maximum prison time, our devastated Dad decides to take matters into his own hands. What he doesn’t know is that his intended victim is part of the deadly Darley gang. Papa Bones (John Goodman) sells illegal guns, while oldest Billy brews dope in an abandoned asylum. They’re the kind of clan that don’t take kindly to having one of their own pushing up the daises. Because of his actions, Nick now faces a Death Sentence from these ruthless murderers.


Death Sentence is a wonderfully tight little thriller, the kind of statement cinema an up and coming filmmaker needs to establish his overall eagerness to achieve. It’s clear that, after only three films, Saw savant James Wan is becoming a compelling cinematic presence. While the gimmicks of his now seminal first film still stand out, the controlled visual splendor he showed in the horribly underrated Dead Silence shows up here as well. If Saw was a film soaked in slimy greens, and Silence shades of gray, then Sentence is steeped in gritty urban blues. Even the bloodshed – and there is plenty – is toned down, tweaked to maintain an aura of desperation and dread. Wan wants to establish his own aesthetic goals, reasons why his movies matter more than other game genre selections. While there are those who dismiss practically everything he does, this is one novice filmmaker who has made finding his way a compelling cinematic exercise.


As with any story of revenge, everything rests of the reaction of the victim and the reasons for retribution. This means our characters must be clear and the acting on target. Luckily, Death Sentence contains both. Nick Hume, while slightly self-absorbed, does come across as a sympathetic subject. He’s helpful at work – though a little to concerned about balance and “everything lining up” in perfect little rows – and loving to his family. While he does miss the disconnected dimension in youngest boy Lucas, he’s a fine father figure. Kevin Bacon, whose been expanding his range as of recently, deserves a lot of credit for bringing Nick to life, and for being so vulnerable onscreen. While he’s stoic throughout most of the set-up, there are several sequences post-premise where he’s devastating. Ghostly white (again, part of Wan’s weird paradigm) and gaunt, he’s a stick of drained domesticated dynamite just waiting for the proper fuse to set him off.


Enter the Darley Gang. Filled with archetypes instead of actual characters (the doubter, the wisenheimer, the bad ass black dude, etc.) and an inconclusive criminal intent (while the initial act is part of an initiation, everything else they do seems open to conjecture), they’re nothing but manufactured evil. The notion that such blatant, bullish hoods actually exist in a world filled with sting operations, neighborhood watches, and politically mandated task forces is not totally far fetched, but it does cause one to question the competency of the movie’s example of law enforcement. Aisha Tyler is Detective Wallis, a woman who seemingly knows everything the Darleys do, but apparently doesn’t bother to prosecute them. It’s a plot hole that’s never filled. The confrontation between Bacon and the direct DA is also a little forced. While it is a State mandate to settle criminal cases vs. taking them to trial, they’d never be so open about their strategy to a grieving victim.


Since the need for payback is obvious, but the attending consequences unclear, it’s up to the performances and the presentation to get us over the narrative divides. Thankfully, Wan wastes no time in establishing main bad boy Billy as an unfiltered psychopath, a chip off of the old engine block (John Goodman is great as an elephantine ‘boss’) who needs putting in his place. His relentless pursuit of Bacon in one of the film’s signature action scenes - a wonderful return to the days of the foot chase – easily illustrates his demented drive and fury. Later, in a sinister sequence with his father, we understand what made this gangbanger turn to crime. The point where things become mega-personal, where the back and forth kills stop being about retribution and start sounding a little specious (almost as if this was a game where corpses count as wins) may test a viewer’s sense of logic, but Death Sentence isn’t really concerned about being rational. It’s way too wrapped up in parenthood’s precariousness and our own helplessness within the world to consider its creative purity.


Oddly enough, where the movie loses some of its moxie is in the otherwise outstanding finale. Bacon, loaded for bear and – through the magic of the movies – completely capable of conning and killing off a band of seasoned slayers, is far too mechanical in his manslaughter. All the emotion he showed before simply vanishes. Never once do we believe he will balk. Certainly, one of his targets may take him out, but it won’t be because our now inhuman hero will panic. No, Nick Hume turns into The Terminator somewhere around the 70 minute mark, and he never really turns back. The final shot, a smile of self-satisfaction plastered on a mangled and melting mug, is like the robotic response of someone who is dead inside. Perhaps it’s supposed to resonate the same way that Travis Bickel’s bloody finger did in Taxi Driver, but Wan isn’t out to make some metaphysical point. Death Sentence is about brute force and blame. It’s not out to address the morals or mindsets involved.


Still, this is a significant movie, a clear indication that Wan will remain a fixture in film for the time being. Granted, he’s yet to be great, though Saw’s continuing influence and success suggests otherwise, and it would be nice to see him work within a genre that doesn’t demand stunts, splatter, or suspense. But in a realm where made for cable drek stands as the mainstream movie standard, Death Sentence gives good gonzo. It consists of some less than airtight plotting, and tends to understate the obvious, but perhaps that’s better than some regressive Rambo of the suburbs stance. It definitely resides in the realm of flights of fancy and fiction, though it really wants to represent some measure of truth. Unfortunately, the lure of vigilantism is too strong – and too socially acceptable – to avoid…or dismiss.



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Thursday, Aug 30, 2007


Rob Zombie gets it. He understands implicitly what makes horror such a potent genre for fright fans. He’s not quite a full fledged master of macabre, but he’s getting there in amazing leaps and outstanding bounds. Frankly, the grumbling from terror devotees was all but expected when it was announced that John Carpenter’s seminal slasher film, Halloween, was poised for the mandatory post-millennial remake. After all, with already in the can disasters like The Fog to reference, and Zombie’s status as a novice director (the magnificent The Devil’s Rejects not withstanding), there was cause to be concerned. Very concerned. So as the summer season casts its final lots this weekend, the lack of publicity and bifurcated buzz would suggest that all the trepidation was warranted.


Well, that’s garbage. Halloween is brilliant. It’s a stroke of slice and dice genius. It represents some of the most solid film work this growing fright night giant has ever brought to the big screen, and it argues for putting real fear aficionados behind the lens of your latest take on a tale of terror. This is not a rip off of Carpenter’s archetypal effort. It’s also not a sloppy, substandard attempt to cash in on the fanbase’s love of an original masterwork. Instead, this is a genuine and heartfelt tribute to the man who made masked killers relevant in a decade dominated by aliens, giant sharks, and existential human dramas. When it comes to other pioneers from dread’s determined past, Zombie is first and foremost a follower. His unabashed love for the monster movies that make up his novel, no holds barred aesthetic, is obvious in every frame of this brutal, shocking spectacle.


If you don’t know the premise – and Zombie messes with it enough to warrant a repeat – here’s how Michael Myers becomes a maniac. As a kid, young Michael is abused. His horrid stepdad undermines him emotionally, and his mother withholds love as part of her lousy lifestyle coping skills. He is also picked on at school, teased for his mom’s career choice (she’s an advertised stripper at a local dive) and the resulting bullying and bad home life have driven him to a very dark place. He kills his pets, and has frequent violent outbursts. One Halloween, he snaps, and the result is a half dozen corpses. Hospitalized under the care of Dr. Loomis, our jaundiced juvenile doesn’t comprehend the gravity of his actions. After another murderous attack, he turns silent for the next 15 years. On the eve of his prior atrocities, Michael escapes from the mental hospital. With one goal on his mind, and Loomis hot on his trail, he intends to make everyone pay for what they have done to him.


With the focus on Michael as a young boy, and the obvious initial sequences that ask us to sympathize with his sickening psycho-in-training, Zombie is out to, of all things, humanize this killer. Not to apologize for him, but merely clarify. By turning him into a flesh and blood, three dimensional person, we’re better prepared for the senseless mayhem to follow. It’s hard to describe how effective the first act is. While he’s definitely doing nothing more than a hundred FBI profilers and their explanations regarding the grotesque groundwork that predicts future slaughter, Zombie gets us to experience, and better yet, recognize, why these elements result in a desire for death. There is also a clever mask motif which helps complicate the case even further. Michael often expresses that he is ‘ugly’ and ‘not himself’, and the face-shielding symbol is a wonderful way of reminding us of his past…and his penchant.


At its core, this new version of Halloween focuses on those most primal of emotions – rage and fear. The characters here are not smart aleck a-holes scoffing as knives are brandished at their drunk and debauched faces. Instead, Zombie really emphasizes the inherent terror of the slaughter sequences we witness. Individuals plead and panic. They fight back in fits of blind horror and suffer in ways that are more realistic and repulsive than some showy stunt special effect. This is a very bloody and brutal film, but Zombie never goes for gratuity. Instead, it’s all a matter of explaining and expressing how fright fuels a human’s instinctual desire to live. Conversely, Halloween is also heavy with anger. This is a mad movie, a narrative soaked in the infinite ire of a powerless persona seeking security – and some self-serving revenge – from a rotten, regressive existence. Michael is an abomination because he can only be satisfied by suffering.


When Carpenter created his film nearly 30 years ago, he was working as a journeymen hoping to branch out into the realm of the artist. He cribbed from Hitchcock and Hooper, as well as drive in titans like Bob Clark. His version of events was all about style – the extended tracking shot that starts the film, the moments where Michael and his intended victims play an apprehensive game of hide and seek among the massive shrubbery of Haddonfield. For his part, Carpenter was going for the glory as well as the gonzo, and that’s why his brilliant merging of vision and vileness still works today. Zombie’s efforts are no different. There are amazing directorial flourishes in the film, including a compelling use of freeze frame as well as an evocative moment were all movement stops except for the camera, which swings around to capture the young Michael in menacing, dead eyed mode. Anyone who says that Zombie is not a full fledged filmmaker should have their critical credentials revoked. Of course, with the way horror is routinely marginalized by the mainstream for the masses, such a sentiment is not such a surprise.


It also should be pointed out that the acting here is superb, with performances that really sell the entire sordid storyline. Oddly enough, Malcolm McDowell is one of the weaker links. He’s far from bad, but his Dr. Loomis is not given much to do except act as a catalyst for the last act police hunt. On the other hand, the director’s wife, Sherri Moon Zombie, finally emerges from under her husband’s nepotistic shadow to give a wonderful turn as Michael’s messed up mom. There’s a tenderness and a tentativeness in how she interacts with her son. As the young killer, Daeg Faerch is fascinating. He does a great job of precariously balancing his underage demon between kid and killer concepts, and Scout Taylor-Compton is fine as Laurie “Scream Queen” Strode. Perhaps the biggest revelation among many is former Halloween heroine Danielle Harris. When she was younger, she played the original Michael’s niece, as part of the fourth and fifth installments of the franchise. Now, she is Annie Bracket, and her interaction with the new slayer is sensational. It’s a brave, bravura effort.


Upon reflection, one has to feel sorry for Zombie. The overblown press who believes horror is nothing but entertainment excrement to be endured on behalf of an ever shrinking paycheck are going to ream him six ways to sundown. They’re going to reference the original (though it’s a guarantee most have not see it in 29 years, if ever) and call it a day, using Carpenter as a crutch to argue that Zombie should have never been handed the remake ropes. Similarly, current horror fans who consider Scream the genre’s shining post-modern moment and lack the basic context to consider anything different will complain like cowards about how ‘routine’ and ‘not scary’ this take on their hallowed hack and splat is.


In both cases, they’re missing the bigger picture. In the first film, John Carpenter was concentrating on the citizenry of Haddonfield. Michael was a monster – the real bogeyman – and for them, it was a question of survival. In Halloween circa 2007, Rob Zombie decided to focus on the fiend. As with most senseless crime, the victims are important, but not iconic. No, in this case, the making of a murderer and the consequences of his cravenness are what really intrigued this fan. The result becomes one of the smartest, most shattering horror films in a very long time. Don’t worry if you end up liking what you see. The wet blankets usually come around once the wool is dry. No, Rob Zombie definitely gets it. And if you do as well, then you’ll understand exactly what’s so special about this amazing movie.



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Tuesday, Aug 28, 2007


Sometimes, dumb is all you need. Not a Larry the Cable Guy level of retardation, or a Carrot Top concept of the doltish. No, what really gives the cinematic pallet a high-quality cleansing is a ripe old fashioned dose of certifiable stupid. And Balls of Fury is that heaping helping of sensational single digit IQ-uity. Actually, it’s unfair to call this witty, borderline satiric spoof of martial arts movies and sports films brainless. It’s actually very smart in its silliness, a good natured goof that wants to earn its hilarity any witty way it can. Yes, it’s frequently sophomoric and slightly scatological, and it riffs on so many comic cross references that you can get lost in all the homages, but the fact remains, this is a wonderfully effective little film. It’s the kind of insane entity that will probably get lost in all the summer shilling. But here’s betting it becomes a major cult classic once it dives onto the digital domain.


In standard overreaching athletic film style, we are introduced to a young Randy Daytona, known everywhere as the best table tennis player in the world. It’s the 1988 Olympic Games, and our hero is out to win the gold. Only two things are stopping him – his overly aggressive and wager-addicted dad Marine Sgt. Pete (an aging Robert Patrick) and an obnoxious competitor from the German Democratic Republic named Karl Wolfschtagg (co-writer Tom Lennon). Defeated almost immediately, the young Daytona grows up to be a slovenly lounge act (and is played to perfection by Tony Winner Dan Fogler). When the FBI wants to investigate the criminal activities of a reclusive ping pong impresario named Feng (Christopher Walken), they try to hire Daytona to help. But he’s unsure that the agent assigned (a good George Lopez) is capable of carrying out the mission. Eventually, our down and out paddle jockey winds up at the Wong School. Run by the blind Master (a jovial James Hong), Daytona learns the ricochet shot ropes from sexy Maggie Wong (Maggie Q). Soon, he is ready to take on the best competitors on the planet as part of Feng’s illegal, underground tournament.


Right, you guessed it. It is Enter the Dragon with dorks. Director Ben Garant - who along with Lennon is responsible for such half-witted hilarity as Reno 911 and the beloved MTV sketch series The State - recognizes the hoops he has to jump through, and never once misses a formulaic beat. Yet it’s another show that the two were involved in – the highly underrated Comedy Central spoof Viva Variety! – that best coincides with what the duo accomplishes here. For those not paying much attention, the obvious slapstick and dialed down dopiness earn the requisite guffaws. But there are several sensational throwaways, lines and moments where a tuned in viewer will find pinpoint lampoon accuracy. The most obvious example is Christopher Walken. It’s clear he was given a single mandate from the moviemakers – mock yourself. In line readings and adlibs that seemingly come from another consciousness, the king of quirk really ratchets up the purposeful oddness.


He is matched by a cavalcade of cameos, brilliant bits that really sell the film’s freakishness. Stand up God Patton Oswalt shows up as the most asthmatic mouth breathing feeb in the history of regional recreational sports. His single sequence is sensational. Also aces is Terry Crews as a muscle bound paddle head whose entire shtick centers around his inherent bad-assness. Aisha Tyler as the necessary villain sidekick eye candy is a Rosario Dawson role away from real stardom, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is officiously ominous as the henchman with a bad sense of direction. When you toss in the fine supporting work from Maggie Q (though she’s given little to do), Hong (Lo Pan LIVES!) and Lopez, you have a wonderful collection of creative supplements. Without a workable star, however, all of this would be for naught.


Luckily, Dan Fogler is dynamite. He’s an overnight – and slightly overweight - sensation that’s been busting his doughy rump in minor movies for far too long. Like a combination of Tim Curry, Curtis Armstrong, and some roadie for Molly Hatchet, he brings a kind of nuanced knuckleheadedness to what could easily have been a wash out waste of time. Randy Daytona has to come across as a lump, a loser, and likeable all within a single situation. We want to root for him, but recognize he wears his limitations like the sweat-stained Def Leppard shirt he’s constantly sporting. Similar to any slacker savior, Daytona has to eventually ante up and set off his skills, and when Fogler mans a table tennis paddle, all bets are off. Sure, what we see is basically CGI and stunt work, but you choose to believe the illusion. That’s how important and how powerful this actor’s work is here. Don’t be surprised when, decades from now, his celebrated resume cites Balls of Fury as his first legitimate step into the limelight.


Unfortunately, the movie loses its way about two thirds of the way in. It doesn’t turn bad or horribly unwatchable. Instead, it just appears as if Lennon and Garant simply ran out of inspiration, and decided to tread celluloid for a few scenes before righting the cinematic ship and sailing the satire home. The ending is an excellent revamp of the great fortress escape stereotype, and the electrified ping pong armor showdown is a nice touch. Still, right about the time Daytona learns of Feng’s “preference” in concubines, and just before our long awaited rematch between Wolfschtagg and our hero, there’s some significant downtime. In fact, the whole film has a slight truncated feel, as if honed by one too many trips to the editing bay and far too many focus group/industry screenings. With a potent premise like this, the filmmakers could have easily squeezed another 10 minutes into the movie and no one would have really cared. 


With its unabashed love of all things idiotic and a humorous heart situated in the proper place, Balls of Fury could have been a classic contender. Maybe 10 years ago, in a less than impressive season that didn’t see a certain industry juggernaut ‘Apatow’ everything in its path, that would have been. And the film really does deserve it. You’ll be reading a lot of reviews that marginalize this effort, reducing it to a lower than lowest common denominator and wondering over who, exactly, would find any of this even remotely funny. To turn the tables for a moment, it’s the same sentiment that could be offered for Lennon and Garant’s entire career. They were responsible for the painfully dull Night at the Museum, and put the NASCAR spin on the unnecessary Love Bug remake. They even perpetrated The Pacifier and Let’s Go to Prison on an unwitting ticket buying public. So either they’re the smartest simpletons in all of screenwriting, or they’re the dumbest geniuses ever to cash a series of Tinsel Town paychecks. It’s an ambiguous dichotomy that makes Balls of Fury an incomplete success – or perhaps, a nicely noble failure. While not quite a sleeper, it’s definitely a surprise.


 


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Saturday, Aug 25, 2007


Physical comedy is officially dead, and Rowan Atkinson killed it. Well, not the actor himself, but with his inexcusable desire to keep destroying the reputation of his resplendent Mr. Bean with all manner of mediocre motion picture incarnations. That sunny British series, with its reverence for silent film funny business, was a class act of timing and treatment, using old school slapstick to illustrate an eccentric’s uneasy way in this button down, conformist cock-up called society. Now, on celluloid, he’s nothing more than crass kid fodder, a G-rated response to the parental cries of media inappropriateness. Once he was a mean spirited plank who saw the entire world as worthy of his slightly askew scorn – yes, even women and little children. But now he’s been transformed into a gangly, goofball Gamera, friend to everyone except the sideswiped member of the audience who didn’t see such a tiresome trainwreck coming.


Helmed by British TV director Steve Bendelack (proving that the UK boob tube can match its American counterpart in producing horrible hack auteurs) and written by actor Hamish McColl (with appropriate credit to Robin Driscoll for all the original series bits being stolen) Holiday offers very little that’s new. Bean – embodied by a rapidly aging Aktinson – repeats shtick from previous so-called ‘adventures’ while proving that new ideas are few and very, very far between. The story has our hapless hero winning a trip to the French Riviera. Along the way, he prevents an important Russian director from boarding a train to Cannes, befriends the man’s smart alecky son, and disrupts the set of American moviemaker Cason Clay’s (a lost Willem Dafoe) latest epic. He eventually makes it to the big time film festival, where more mindless hijinx (and a case of mistaken kidnapping) ensues.


Back in the days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, broad farce founded on the fragility of the human body was a cheap and effective means of making audiences laugh. Without the ability to used words and sounds, the visual element was crucial. That’s why writers would spend hours working up elaborate gags, recognizing that the viewer was relying on said set up and pay off for their entertainment value. In the post-Jazz Singer era however, only The Three Stooges managed to carry on the tradition. In their case, they merged recognizable types (the bully, the mensch, the idiot) and accented the byplay with equally emblematic noises (watch one of their shorts with the sound off and see how successful it is). Aktinson and Bean have none of this. At first, he was a novelty for mining this vast untouched vein of humor’s history. We laughed not only at the pratfall, but the audacity to attempt it in a post-modern media.


Blown up on a big screen, our loveable lox loses that framework. Because of the immediacy of cinema, the larger than life facets of a 50 foot tall screen, Bean’s basic stumble bum approach is lifeless. It lacks energy and verve, scuttled by Bendelack’s complete disregard for comedy basics. Examples abound, as when Mr. Bean constantly undermines a film set. The various ‘jokes’ utilized to establish the characters complete lack of regard are telegraphed so far in advance that there’s more suspense in when they’ll start than snickers once they arrive. Even more frustrating, Bean borrows a great deal from its British betters. Snippets of the classic Goon Show wit (especially circa Peter Sellers) are wedged into elements borrowed from Monty Python (silly walks, anyone). Add in some sloppy satire, including the obviously aimed at adults lampoon of pseudo-serious Hollywood dramas (personified by Dafoe’s self indulgent film) and you’ve got a grab bag of gunk.


So little works here in fact that you can actually count the effective sequences on one hand – maybe even a single finger. When our inconsiderate dope derails the young boy’s reunion with his dad, they wind up with a telephone number missing the final two digits. Bean’s solution? Call every possible combination of numbers until they find his father. These quick cut moments, various archetypal individuals answering their phones in all manner of blackout buffoonery, have a nice, nonsensical randomness that actually gets us to giggle. But then Bendelack does nothing with it. A long sequence of our hero hitchhiking goes nowhere, and when Bean arrives in Cannes, he becomes a prop in a more and more preposterous chase. Even bubbly actress Emma de Caunes is wasted as the good natured Sabine. She’s saucy Parisian pulchritude, that’s about it.


Now there will be voices vehemently opposed to such a harsh stance, arguing that this is nothing but good, clean, wholesome fun. The rarity of fare that the whole family can enjoy – or at the very least, tolerate – apparently usurps all other artistic considerations to these supporters. It’s part and parcel of the new marketing mindset, a dynamic where watchability equals worth. But even under such a lax standard, Mr. Bean’s Holiday fails. Jacques Tati, a fairly obvious influence, managed to transform his bump and scrape situations into some manner of high art, using both the material and the method of its presentation in tandem to illustrate the chuckle. Here, Bendelack believes that frequent forays into handheld digital dreariness (our dithering dimwit carries around a camcorder) will emphasize the “you are there” feeling. Unfortunately, it merely muddies an already ambiguous ideal. 


As an avant-garde notion of throwback homage, Mr. Bean’s Holiday is awfully cute. But it’s not funny or fresh. Its mixed message ideal of all ages appropriateness (the vast majority of the movie’s subtitled, oddly enough) lashed to a character that’s no longer a loveable louse renders the entire enterprise pointless. Fans of the original series will shudder at how soulless this all is, while anyone coming from the first film deserves this kind of dead-eyed sequel. Gearing everything to kids may make sense in light of the one off Mr. Bean animated show, but even those offered more imagination and sophistication that what’s offered here. And then there is Aktinson, a truly talented man who deserves much, much better. Anyone who has seen his work in Black Adder, or The Thin Blue Line can attest to that. Mr. Bean appears to be the legacy he can’t live down, an international nudge like Baldy Man or Dame Edna.


Yet none of these criticisms will matter in the end. The previous Bean outing was a huge worldwide hit, and the DVD became another in a long line of digital babysitters disconnected parents could use to safely keep the wee ones at bay. Holiday will be no different. It dives directly underneath the lowest common denominator to look for primordial approval, and even then it fails to generate much gregarious goodwill. While it’s inoffensive (unless you’re French) and even tempered (unless you’re America) it’s also dull, lifeless, and slack. Every once in a while, a movie comes along that has we critics scratching our head in ‘who demanded this’ confusion. Mr. Bean’s UK run ended more than a decade ago, and the first film came and went way back when President Clinton was still in residence at the White House (1997 to be exact). A great deal of silent era slapstick has only grown better with age. The exploits of Mr. Bean have vinegared.



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