Christmas crunch time, people. You really need to stop all that present-buying procrastination and, to paraphrase a line from Total Recall, get your ass to the mall. With only six full days before a certain St. Nick is supposed to show up with many material goods to illustrate just how much you love your faithful family members, consuming, not time, is of the essence. Luckily, those marketing wizards over at DVD Central have stockpiled a few first-class titles to tempt you back into the unruly shopping hordes. Of the seven featured films discussed, at least two are major must-own offerings, with another couple completely acceptable, depending on your love of football and/or failed fairytales. There definitely is some digital dung out there too, especially in the realm of romantic superhero comedies and ridiculous remakes of past horror classics. Add in an unique animated sci-fi thriller and you’ve got something for everyone on your “buy or die” list. And with less than a week, slackers can’t be choosers, right? So break out the billfold and line up like lemmings as 19 December delights you with the following prospective giftage:
Somehow, Hollywood is stuck in a discernible cinematic rut when it comes to sports movies – even one’s supposedly “based” on a true story. There always has to be an underdog, a cause worth fighting for, and a last act contest or confrontation that challenges the mantle and make-up of the characters we’ve watched for the last 80-plus minutes. In the case of this footnote in the career of coach Dick Vermeil during his tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles, we see bartender/team walk-on Vince Papale live out the dream of every drunken football fan in America. Anyone familiar with the tale will tell you that in the City of Brotherly Love, where Vermeil was hired to turn around a failing franchise, those open try-outs were both a blessing and a curse. The city has never forgotten that singular season where they felt really connected to the players. Sadly, it’s a sentiment all but lacking in the multimillion dollar era of the sport.
It was either the biggest leap of filmic faith ever made by an up and coming superstar director, or the sloppiest example of uncontrolled hubris ever exhibited by a yet to be fully established filmmaker. Angry that Disney would not develop his latest script (a project they feared would flop) M. Night Shyamalan pulled up production stakes and turned his talents over to Warner Brothers. Of course, the competitor was more than happy to have the man who helmed The Sixth Sense and Signs under their moviemaking moniker. Then, just to pour cinematic salt in the wounds, Shyamalan cooperated with a book blasting the whole House of Mouse approach to his project. Unfortunately, what got forgotten along the way was the movie. And in this case, the film is a frustrating, forced fairytale that takes up too much time establishing its parameters with not enough effort going toward enchanting the audience. While it has some interesting moments, it’s Uncle Walt’s world that’s having the last laugh now.
Ever since it hit movie screens more than five months ago, this delightfully deranged comedy/road film has really been racking up the respectability. Even at this late stage in the award season game, the story of a little girl named Olive Hoover and her desire to hold the title…title is ensemble excellence at its most satiric. Sure, our plucky heroine is surrounded by one crazy, dysfunctional family, but thanks to the amazing acting by a terrific cast – included Greg Kinnear, Toni Collettte, Steven Carell and Alan Arkin – and sound direction from the famed team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, we never once view the Hoovers as anything other than your typical post-modern mob. They wear their identifiable idiosyncrasies like brazen badges of honor. Such smart filmmaking has always been the benchmark of the independent effort and Sunshine is no different. It proves that characterization more than anything else can successfully sell any storyline.
Most filmmakers will tell you – casting is crucial to the success of any entertainment endeavor. Someone should have reminded director Ivan Reitman of this fact when he was filling out the cast for this feeble, unfunny flop. You’d think the man who produced Animal House and helmed Ghostbusters would know better than to stick Luke Wilson in role seemingly written for a Jack Black style of actor, or to toss Rainn Wilson in as the sidekick when all the genial performer has is a one-note Office-ready routine. Granted, Uma Thurman is a natural as the anxiety-riddled super-heroine who doesn’t take getting dumped all that well, but there is no support around her. Even Brit wit Eddie Izzard, as a criminal mastermind with a personal reason for being displeased, looks more fed up than fiendish during his brief moments on screen. With more of a spotlight on the superhero angle, this could have been good. Instead, it’s desperately dull.
A Scanner Darkly*
In blending Philip K. Dick (author of the book upon which this film is based) with the stunning computer generated rotoscoping animation he used in Waking Life, director Richard Linklater has reinvented both serious science fiction and the visual viability of 2D cartooning. Relying on that time honored plot of a super-addictive drug and the people who use and abuse it, Linklater utilizes his unusual cinematic approach to completely blur the lines between fantasy and reality, making the trials and turmoil experience by our hero – undercover cop Bob Arctor – that much more compelling. With Keanu Reeves in the lead, and a supporting company including Robert Downey Jr. Winona Ryder and Woody Harrelson, Linklater follows the author’s storyline to a fault, proving that even something written in the 1970s can have cultural resonance today. Along with the trippy pen and ink imagery, Scanner becomes a manipulative mindfuck, a movie adverse to giving away its secrets and requiring an audience to really think to discover its designs.
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts*
While this devastating documentary is considered a TV mini-series (it premiered on HBO), SE&L cannot avoid a mention here, since it guarantees you will not see a better fact-based film this year. Spike Lee, who worked his moviemaking magic on the story of 4 Little Girls (about the bombing of an Alabama church during the Civil Rights movement) and Jim Brown: All America, takes on the Federal Government, George W. Bush and the lack of effective emergency relief for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and provides a ballsy blueprint for EVERYTHING that’s wrong with America circa 2006. Moving, infuriating and loaded with unconscionable criminality (one critic said it best when they opined that, upon seeing the film, they hoped someone would be arrested), the most shocking thing about this four hour visual essay is how unfinished and open-ended it feels. Indeed, Lee has publicly stated that he intends to continually follow-up on the New Orleans story, similar to how Stephen Spielberg used Schindler’s List for the Shoah Project. This masterful movie is a sensational start.
The Wicker Man (2006)
Neil LaBute, best known for his small, ensemble dramas like In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors was definitely an unlikely candidate to helm a remake of this well regarded 1973 British occult thriller. And his decision to turn the focus away from the original’s male-dominated domain to a realm overrun by women seemed like a logical revamp move at the time. But somewhere between the idea and the execution, this film got way off base. Nicholas Cage plays a cop who investigates the disappearance of a young girl in a remote island village. He soon discovers that there is more to this place than its unusual atmosphere and pagan ways. Totally lacking in anything similar to suspense and constantly undermined by a script that makes very little sense, even LaBute’s best bet – the matriarchal society – is underdeveloped and unexceptional. Considered by many to be one of the worst movies of the year, the original cult classic needn’t worry over having its cinematic mantle usurped anytime soon.
And Now for Something Completely Different:
In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 19 December:
The Illustrated Man*
It was one of Ray Bradbury’s most intriguing creative conceits – the story of a man whose tattoos come to life, showing the unsuspecting viewer one of the author’s many inspired and imaginative tales. With Method madman Rod Steiger in the lead, and Claire Bloom as the lady responsible for the enchanted body art, what we really have here is an anthology film wrapped up in some very intriguing linking material. Bradbury’s tales told here include “The Veldt”, “The Long Rains” and “The Last Night of the World” and many find the interpretations charming, if rather routine. Indeed, it’s odd that Bradbury is not used more often in these days of CGI and advanced moviemaking technology. His works are loaded with the kind of inventive intricacy that your average F/X whiz loves to linger over. Perhaps not as powerful as it was upon its initial release, this is still an intriguing look at one man’s meaningful literary influence, and the frequently flat efforts made from it.