Monday, June 30, 2008

How Movies Age

The other day I woke up to a startling realization: I was considerably less annoyed that No Country For Old Men won the Best Picture Oscar than I was just a couple of months ago. Of course, such a statement would lead someone to make a number of incorrect assumptions. Those would be:

1. That I originally hated No Country For Old Men (I actually gave it three and a half stars and it made my runners-up list for the best films of 2007)

2. That I’m admitting I was somehow “wrong” about the film (there’s no such thing as being “right” or “wrong” about a movie. It’s a subjective opinion).

3. That I’m “giving in” to popular opinion on the film and letting it influence my opinion.

I suppose it’s a testament to just how well that movie was received critically that my mostly positive, almost four-star review of it could be misconstrued as being negative. I was having a conversation with a friend a little over a month ago about the film and they happened to be among the many who thought it was hands down the best of the year. Despite our mutual respect for one another’s opinions on film and other matters, I braced myself for a little squabble.

He knew I liked the film but was also one of those viewers who felt “cheated” and let down by the ending. Much to my surprise, he said he could see where I was coming from and rather than argue he just asked me to read this Chicago Sun Times letter to the editor. He said it was from a guy writing how the film basically changed his outlook on not just how he views, but life in general. I thought, “What a load of crap, the guy who wrote it is probably some old man” But I checked it out anyway.
I figured the author would have some heavy lifting to do in explaining how this well-made but mostly sterile and emotionally empty exercise touched him in any meaningful way. When I was done reading what was not only a beautifully written piece, but a passionate cinematic deconstruction of a film that clearly meant a lot to this man I was left pretty much speechless. Whether or not every piece of his analysis of the picture was exactly on point was irrelevant. Only the Coen Brothers could answer that, and judging from their Oscar acceptance speech, you probably wouldn’t get a lot out of them.

I was just impressed the film could even be analyzed so deeply because I never saw that much there. The letter just couldn’t leave my mind so I decided to give the film another watch, which would be my third. I have to say it was by far the best viewing which isn’t a huge surprise since the second was just really to prove to myself I was right in thinking it was overrated.

I still think There Will Be Blood is better and more deserving of the Best Picture Oscar but the gap isn’t nearly as wide now than it was a couple of months ago. If I were to review No Country For Old Men again now I wouldn’t go as hard on it for the ending. I still say it’s overrated and didn’t move me enough emotionally, but I can now at least understand why many would disagree. I definitely don’t expect any kind of pat on the back for revisiting or re-evaluating my opinion of a film but sometimes I think it sure would be nice to not be ridiculed for it.

You’d be shocked how many people are insulted if my opinion of a film evolves in any way over time for whatever reason. I’m willing to see any movie (even one I didn’t particularly care for) twice or more if it means there’s even the slightest chance I’ll take anything out of it I didn’t get the viewing before. So is my opinion “influenced?” I damn sure hope it is. When my mind closes and I’m not willing to hear alternate viewpoints on a film or consider new possibilities when I re-watch them then I may as well hang it up.
My recent re-evaluation of that film got me thinking about a much larger, directly related issue that’s been on my mind a lot lately: How movies age. As months and years go by perceptions of certain films tend to change and evolve and it can happen due to any number of factors. In my case, with the nauseating Oscar hype behind me, I was able to step back and consider a new viewpoint on the film and go in with a more level head. Now more than ever in this DVD age, multiple viewings play a huge role in our perceptions of films over time. No Country For Old Men is a meager example since it was released only last year but that my opinion of it is significantly higher now than it was months ago probably bodes well for its long-term future (at least in my eyes). Still, it’s too early.

When I reviewed There Will Be Blood I remarked that it’s more than likely to show up on the next American Film Institute List of the 100 Greatest Films. But I could be completely wrong. In a couple of years everyone could be going around referring to it as “that milkshake movie starring that guy with the funny voice.” I know, highly unlikely, but stranger things have happened. I always used to think all-time lists like theirs and those of Sight & Sound Magazine (both of which are updated every 10 years) showed a clear bias toward much older titles. They do, but part of me can’t blame them since it seems a lot of time and distance is required to properly judge a film’s place in history. But sorry, I still say it’s kind of ridiculous to claim that no film since 1941 has been better than Citizen Kane.

Whenever I assign a film with a star rating I’m doing it with a pencil since the very notion of star ratings is ridiculous in itself. It’s just a false attempt to hand out quantitative verdicts to something that’s anything but objective or quantitative. I try my best not to adjust a rating after I’ve given it because that just gives the whole system more credence than it deserves but it has happened on a few occasions. With most of my reviews there’s no need to look back but if there is a change in my opinion I’d far prefer to review the film again or express it in pieces like this rather than just adding or subtracting a star.

Lately, I’ve found myself in the strange position of defending 2006’s Miami Vice. I say strange because I bashed it very hard in my review but now when I talk with people about it I have problems naming anything I didn’t like. I've even caught myself calling it the "most beautifully shot movie of 2006" and complaining that Gong Li was overlooked for a Best Supporting Actress nomination. All this for a film I gave 2 stars to. Stuff like this doesn't happen often with me but it does happen. Maybe the proliferation of far worse big screen TV show adaptations has softened my stance or it could be it’s just one of those movies that needs to linger in the mind for a while (highly unusual for an action film).
Looking back I can now respect that Michael Mann didn’t treat the material as a joke and was serious about putting a real cinematic spin on the elements from his show. Did it all work? Of course not, but at least the project had artistic ambitions of some sort. Even if you think he failed, he at least did so with dignity, making the right creative decisions. It isn’t The Dukes of Hazzard or Bewitched. I’ve yet to re-watch it but it sure feels like I have because the movie's been playing in a continuous loop in my mind since. There's little doubt that when I do eventually re-watch it it'll look a whole lot better to me than it did the first time.

In the midst of all the internet controversy surrounding M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening I read many critics and viewers reminiscing about better days in the writer/director’s career and all the potential that’s been wasted. They were reminded of the one time he was able to deliver a true masterpiece bursting with originality and creative energy. Except they weren't talking about The Sixth Sense. They were referring to Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s 2000 follow-up that flopped at the box office.

To say the film’s reception was lukewarm when it was released would be a massive understatement. Now it’s looked at as one our most original comic book movies and everyone’s begging for a sequel. So before Shyamalan goes back to Philly and hangs his head he can at least console himself with the fact that time has reversed Unbreakable’s failure and now it’s as respected as he’d hoped. I always thought I was the only person alive who liked the film so it's great to see it has so many fans.

This happens a lot with “cult classics,” which critics in general have always been awful at predicting. Of course they would be because the movies aren’t made for them. In this case critics really need serious from audiences because movie fans see something in those films that they can’t. Critics can sometimes get too close and become too caught up in objectively analyzing their script, direction and performances.
The cult classics slip through a little space in between those elements and connect with their intended audience in a special way. 90’s era cult teen films like Empire Records and Can’t Hardly Wait are good examples of this. Neither boast great performances or a brilliant script and flopped in every way when they first came out. But the critics couldn’t see what a relatively small segment of the moviegoing population could and what a few extra years would reveal: That both films nailed that time period and age group down perfectly.

Anyone that age or who grew during that period could relate to the characters and each were made with so much heart and sincerity that you couldn’t help but feel an attachment. It probably helped the nostalgia factor that some of the actors from those films went on to become big stars. The same can be said for the similarly themed teen comedies, Fast Times At Ridgemont High and 10 Things I Hate About You, both of which later gained a sizable cult following.

When you consider the number of movies released every year from all the studios the cult classic club is actually very small and exclusive. I know if I were a filmmaker and my picture won an Academy Award I’d be incredibly honored, but if I ever made a movie that became a cult classic you'd probably have to scrape me off the floor.

To have your movie acknowledged in critical circles is nice but there's something really special about knowing you skipped that step and headed straight to the average moviegoer's soul. It’s one thing to win an Oscar, but it’s another to have fans throwing conventions for your film once a year. There’s a reason you don’t see lines stretching for blocks with people dressed as Gandhi or Forrest Gump. They’re dressed as The Dude. Some movies are made for critics and others are made for fans. Really special ones are made for both.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

10,000 BC

Director: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Steven Straight, Camilla Belle, Cliff Curtis, Joel Virgel, Affif Ben Badra, Mo Zinal, Nathanael Baring

Running Time: 109 min.

Rating: PG-13

* (out of ****)

A lot of people ask me why I’m so down on computer generated effects in movies. I’m not, I just prefer that the effects fit well within the context of the story, and more importantly, they look at least somewhat believable. Now, I won’t even waste my time answering. I’ll just refer them to 10,000 BC, which features some of the cheesiest effects you could possibly see in a film.

Anyone who thinks we’ve come far in movie technology may want to re-think that after the final credits role in Roland Emmerich’s latest misfire. We actually have come far, but unfortunately we’ve gone much farther in abusing those advances as a result. And just when I thought I couldn’t be more devastated over the recent passing of special effects wizard Stan Winston, something like this comes around and reminds us just how great he really was. Jurassic Park this is not. It isn’t even The Lost World.

What’s scarier though is that the effects are the least of this movie’s problems. It’s easily a career worst effort from Emmerich, quite an accomplishment considering this is the man who directed such bloated trash as Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. You could defend him and say that he deliberately set out to make a gloriously bad, campy B-movie (which would at least explain the laughable performances and aimless direction), but if he did, shouldn’t it be a lot more fun?

It has a few lively moments, but in trying to make an “epic” action adventure film, Emmerich succeeds only in making it feel epic in length, despite it clocking in at just 109 minutes. Laughing at the performances and effects grows old after about 15 of those. The rest is a just a wretched bore you hope will eventually come to an end. It’s proves true the theory that the months of January and February really are the dumping ground for lackluster releases. Now that they’re all hitting DVD at once, I’m having a pretty miserable couple of months.

At a time when CGI, I mean wooly mammoths, roamed the Earth a cliché filled voice-over narration from Omar Sharif informs us D’ Leh (Steven Strait) and Evolet (Camilla Belle) have been in love since childhood. However, they’re from different tribes and politics stand in the way of them being together. D’ Leh is also an outcast and somewhat of a coward whose father abandoned his tribe. When evil warriors arrive and capture his people D’Leh manages to escape but Evolet doesn’t. So begins his torturous journey to rescue her and free his tribe. Torturous for us, not him. In one particularly embarrassing scene, we must watch him attempt to engage in a sabertooth tiger in deep, intelligent conversation. He seems disappointed when he fails to get a response.

In another memorable moment he listens to the ramblings of some prophet, who is either deformed or inhuman I couldn’t tell which. Strangely, someone is actually able to translate what this creature-man is saying even though he really isn’t speaking in another language. He’s just mumbling incoherently. By the time the film gets to the predictable denouement I was so exhausted by all the talking and time wasting that I forgot what the purpose of the journey was to begin with.

Anyone who just wants to see this movie because of Camilla Belle, hoping that this role would do for her what it did for Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC will be sorely disappointed. That movie was at least bad in a fun way, and despite some early ribbing, became an iconic part for its star actress. In this, Belle, looks grungy and dirty most of the picture and more like a contestant on Survivor than a prehistoric cave dweller. Perhaps the funniest scene of the movie is when she cleans up later. I had no idea they had eye shadow or mascara back then because all of the sudden, by the last half hour, she looks like she’s ready for a Vogue photo spread.

Her performance does her no favors but she’s at least ten times better than her leading man, Steven Straight, who according to his credits is an aspiring musician and former Hollister model. That seems about right. He has this dumb, wide-eyed expression on his face, as if he’s wondering how he possibly got into this. So am I. He gets a lot of giggles with some of his line deliveries, especially while conversing with computer-generated animals. The only inspired performance in the film comes from Affif Ben Badra as Evolet's obsessed, psychotic capturer. He's at least effectively creepy.

Everything in 10,000 BC is inauthentic looking, from the costumes, to the make-up to the effects. If decades from now they ever decide to bring back Mystery Science Theater 3000 this disaster would make an excellent viewing selection for Crow and Tom Servo. It’s as historically inaccurate as can be but you don’t go into a big budget action spectacle like this expecting a history lesson, nor did I want one. But I do expect to at least be reasonably entertained and ask that I’m able to remain awake.

The only thing this really has going for it is that at least doesn’t look like it was phoned in. It probably took a lot of money and effort to make this look as bad as it does. Everyone does at least seem to be trying, except they’re trying to give us something completely misguided and awful. As much as movies like this deflate me, I’ll admit one good thing came of this experience. It was the trailer for The Dark Knight that preceded the feature. Packed into those two minutes were far more thrills and story than 10,000 BC could muster in its entire running length.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Fool's Gold

Director: Andy Tennant
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Kate Hudson, Donald Sutherland, Alexis Dziena, Ray Winstone, Malcolm Jamal-Warner

Running Time: 112 min.

Rating: PG-13

½* (out of ****)

A deep feeling of embarrassment swept over me as I watched the very appropriately titled “romantic comedy” Fool’s Gold, which is neither romantic nor a comedy despite what its trailers have advertised. I was embarrassed in myself for spending $1.00 to watch it. I was even more embarrassed for anyone who spent much more than that to see it in a theater. But most of all, I was embarrassed for the actors appearing in it, specifically its two stars, since this film couldn’t have possibly come at a worse time in each of their careers.

A couple of months ago I was talking to someone about which celebrities we thought had charisma and it was a surprisingly short list. Not necessarily exceptional acting ability, but are just able to radiate charisma and charm onscreen. Both of us agreed Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey are two of them, even if both have been coasting on that attribute for far too long. It's finally caught up with them.

Up until now, even while making sloppy film choices, both actors were always the best parts of whatever failure they were starring in. How To Lose a Guy In 10 Days may have been awful, but they injected a certain energy and enthusiasm into the proceedings while sharing at least a fair amount of chemistry onscreen. I may not have been having a good time, but at least they looked like they were. Here they appear in a movie so bad that it drains them of any spark they may have had. It was only a matter of time, but finally they’ve caught up and look as bored as I am. I know the year’s still young but I’d be shocked if I see a comedy (or movie in general) in the remaining 6 months worse than Fool’s Gold, which is not only painful to sit through, but manages to plunge the depths of cinematic incompetence.

In the film’s overly complicated plot, permanently shirtless and grungy slacker Finn (guess who), gets a hot lead on a long lost Spanish treasure while sailing in the Caribbean. He brings it to the attention of his now ex-wife Tess (Hudson) whose working as a stewardess on the boat of multimillionaire Nigel Honeycutt (Donald Sutherland). In one of the most boring, long-winded dialogue scenes you could imagine, Finn tells Honeycutt and his visiting Paris Hilton-like daughter Gemma (Alexis Dziena) the sleep-inducing tale of the famed sunken treasure and soon they’re all on their way to find it. But also after the treasure are Finn’s old mentor Moe Fitch (Ray Winstone) and a gangster rapper named “Bigg Bunny” (Kevin Hart) who's hired The Cosby Show’s Malcolm Jamal-Warner (!) to kill Finn.

All of this nonsense and the film’s title may lead you to believe this is actually about a treasure hunt but it’s not. The actual treasure hunt doesn’t begin until the last half hour of the picture. The rest of its running time is spent watching McConaughey show off his six-pack, listening to Hudson’s character babble about her ex-husband’s sexual prowess, being asked to laugh at two cooks because they’re gay and listen to some really bad attempts at accents by the actors. We’re treated to Winstone attempting a Southern drawl (I think), Warner going Jamaican and Ewan Bremner as Finn’s sidekick inflecting (or rather inflicting) Ukranian.

The grand prize, however, goes to poor Donald Sutherland with his take on an aristocratic British accent, since all rich people must have a snooty sounding voice. But the worst part of this isn’t the actors’ poor deliveries of the accents, but rather that they were asked to do them at all. They’re unnecessary and pointless, adding nothing to the story. You could even argue if they were excised it would have made the bad performances a lot more bearable.

The film is also very violent for a supposed romantic comedy and there’s hardly a scene where Finn isn’t being assaulted or getting his ass kicked in some way. It continues non-stop for most of the movie and gets annoying. The guy is essentially a human punching bag who never stands up for himself, which needless to say, makes the character a little hard to root for. Even worse is Tess who complains about her ex-husband’s lack of money and ambition yet when he has a chance of finding this treasure she rides on his coattails like a greedy little gold digger. The ending of the film is a jumbled, action-packed mess as if all of the sudden they realized they had to make up for the lack of excitement in the entire first hour. I knew exactly what the final scene would be but what I didn’t prepare for would be how ridiculous the actors would look posing in it. I almost felt like crying for Sutherland and Winstone. Hopefully they were paid really, really well.

It’s sometimes said that an actor or actress giving an uninspired performance is “sleepwalking” through the film, but this is one of those rare cases where it’s literally true. Kate Hudson looks and acts tired and washed-out here, as if her alarm just went off and someone dragged her onto the set. I wouldn’t even consider it a performance, but rather a continuous series of flat line readings. As I watched I came to a startling revelation: Her career has turned into her mother’s. It brought back painful memories of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell starring together in Captain Ron, which might be an unfair comparison considering that disaster was still far superior to this.

It seems lately Kate has disappointedly decided that she’d rather be a movie star than an actress, which is a shame because she could have been both. Anyone who saw my list of my favorite all-time movies a couple of weeks ago should know just how much it pains me to bash Kate so you can just call this tough love The 8 years it’s been since Almost Famous it never felt so long ago as it did during this. I’ve been defending her choices ever since, but she’s making it increasingly difficult.

McConaughey doesn’t fare quiet as poorly mainly because it’s his comfort zone, but this marks his most uninspired work yet in his trademark beach bum role. If you don’t think this guy is being typecast then consider he’s starring in an upcoming film that’s actually titled…Surfer Dude. He started his career with some promise in films like A Time To Kill and Contact, but by just coasting on his natural charm and likeability he’s since fallen into an awful rut. His one recent attempt to stretch dramatically in We Are Marshall had disastrous results mainly because he’s so used to mugging in inferior junk like this.

In both actors’ defenses I’m only going this hard on them because I like them and want to see them in a good film for a change, with strong writing and a director who can properly channel their strengths. I’m wasting this space because I care, which is more than I can say for a lot of other less talented actors out there making similarly bad choices (paging Ms. Alba). They’re too good for this and should sit down and have a long talk with their respective agents, or better yet, just fire them.

There is one performer who at least manages to somewhat escape complete embarrassment. Alexis Dziena’s bratty rich girl character is annoying as hell but at least she’s SOMETHING. Dziena’s trying, which is more than can be said for anyone else. She’s also gets off the only funny line in the whole movie (involving alcohol), which I’m certain is the result of her delivery rather than the humor-impaired screenplay. Unfortunately, she’s made up to look like a 12 year-old hooker so when the older men ogle and lust after her I was waiting for Chris Hansen and the crew from To Catch A Predator to show up. If they did, we’d at least have something worth watching. The script’s attempt to infuse dramatic gravitas into her relationship with her father is perhaps the film’s most insane development, which is saying a lot.

The director (perpetrator) of this mess is Andy Tennant, whose previous films Fools Rush In and Hitch, while certainly not great, didn’t give us any indication he was capable of such an unwatchable atrocity. The only thing that ends up saving this film from the dreaded zero star rating is Don Burgess’ cinematography. It makes you want to go on a Caribbean vacation…with anyone but these characters. It’s nice to look at, but that’s about it.

It’s toss-up what’s scarier, how bad the film is or that it made box office bank. Probably the latter, but the good news for McConaughey and Hudson is that it means audiences are willing to see them in anything, so just think how successful they’d be if they actually starred in a good film, or even just one that's decent. If nothing else this movie can serve as a valuable teaching tool in film schools across the country. That there can be something as bad as this bad now is disconcerting, but the future is still salvageable. Take notes on everything Tennant and screenwriters Dan Claflin and Daniel Zelman did, then do the opposite. The result is all but guaranteed to be at least twice as good as Fool’s Gold.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Be Kind Rewind

Director: Michel Gondry
Starring: Jack Black, Mos Def, Melonie Diaz, Danny Glover, Mia Farrow, Sigourney Weaver
Running Time: 94 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

They’ll be many viewers who will have major problems with Michel Gondry’s latest film, the VCR era comedy Be Kind Rewind. They’ll have difficulties seeing it as anything but a huge step back for the filmmaker responsible for such visionary achievements as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep. They may even view it as a complete waste of Gondry’s talents.

While I can see where they’re coming from, I would urge them to take another look and pick up on the small touches that make this a trip worth taking. It’s the second movie in the past couple of weeks I’ve seen that’s about how we watch movies and what they may mean to us. Except this one’s also celebrates how we make them. It’s a fascinating mess that’s at times probably more a mess than fascinating but that it works at all considering its ridiculous premise is a huge accomplishment.

There are actually many times it comes close to failing completely since it wants to do a million things at once and through most of its running time only succeeds doing one of them really well. But by the end it won me over with its creativity and Gondry convinced me he knew what story he was trying to tell the whole time, he just took some crazy detours getting there. It will also go down as the most confusing chapter yet in the polarizing career of Jack Black. If you hated him before, you’ll feel even more validated now. Yet if you’re a fan, you’ll probably find this to be one of his more satisfying performances. I’m neither, so his manic work here really did nothing to sway my opinion of him in either direction. I still don’t know what to make of the guy as an actor.

Mike (Mos Def) an employee of the neighborhood VHS rental store Be Kind Rewind is temporarily put in charge by its owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) as he goes on a little field trip to spy on West Coast Video, who rake in the dough by renting out DVD’s. This change in format is Fletcher’s last hope to increase revenue for the store, which is to be demolished and replaced by a new business complex if he can’t bring it up to code within 60 days. Mike spends most of his time at the store hanging out with his best friend Jerry (Black) and obsessing over a story told to him by Mr. Fletcher about legendary jazz musician Fats Waller who supposedly was born in that very store. Fletcher’s final (and for a while indecipherable) instruction to Mike before leaving is to “Keep Jerry Out.”

It’s good advice because after the hyperactive and over ambitious Jerry suffers an electrical shock while attempting to sabotage local the power plant he becomes magnetized, erasing every video in the store he touches. They panic and figure the best way to solve the problem is to re-shoot the films with their camcorder and cast themselves as the leads. It starts with Ghostbusters and Rush Hour 2, but when word gets out just how entertaining their versions are they’re taking requests and filming most of the stores’ catalogue. The process of them recreating these films is referred to by Jerry as “Sweding” (as in coming from Sweden) a term that seems destined to enter the pop culture lexicon if this movie catches a cult following. Lines are forming down the street for these hometown celebrities and the pressure is mounting to raise enough money so Mr. Fletcher’s store isn’t demolished.

At first I wasn’t quite sure what this film wanted to be and it took a while to find its groove. It actually reminded me a lot of Clerks, not just in setting, but in terms of tone and the types of characters that are presented. There are even arguments with batty customers, like the loyal Miss Falewicz (played memorably by Mia Farrow). That gets thrown for a loop when Gondry introduces the magnetism element to the story, which feels more like sci-fi but then that is quickly discarded when it no longer serves the purposes of the story.

With the video store potentially being demolished and its fate depending on two down on their luck losers I thought we were being set up for a clichéd feel-good comedy as well. It is, but ends up going a little deeper than that and is memorable in that it gives Danny Glover his best supporting role in years. It was great to see him finally given a real person to play for a change and he takes full advantage of it, giving his best performance in years. He has a hilarious scene where he’s browsing the DVD rental store taking notes, as if categorizing films by genre is the most ingenious thing he’s ever seen in his life.

What works in this film REALLY works and it’s obvious right off the bat what that is: Their re-creations of these films. I could have probably watched these all day and the only thing I didn’t like was that there weren’t more of them. The big joke here for movie fans will be that you could argue some of their versions, which in quality resemble those bootlegged tapes you’d get off the street (not like I would know or anything) are more entertaining than the original films. That’s definitely true of Rush Hour 2 and the laughs keep coming as they shoot homemade versions Robocop, The Lion King, Driving Miss Daisy, 2001: A Space Odyssey and When We Were Kings.

It’s ingenious how Gondry uses these junkyard props and just two or three actors to create these homemade movies and the entire exercise can almost be viewed as a celebration of not only independent filmmaking, but creativity in general. It was central to the story that these movies look really bad, but bad in a fun way so you’d understand why all of Passaic would be camping out on the sidewalk to see them. Those are difficult waters to navigate but Gondry does it perfectly. At one point there’s a thrilling montage showing us the movies theses guys are shooting (all at once) as their titles pass across the screen. Its moments like that that help give the film some focus and bring clarity to all the different tones fighting for screen time.

You never know which Jack Black will show up when he’s headlining a film. Will it be the insufferable, annoying actor who tries way too hard to please (Saving Silverman, Nacho Libre) or the one capable of great work when a good director reins in his manic tendencies (High Fidelity, King Kong, Margot at the Wedding)? This may be the first time both show up in the same film and battle for dominance. He starts off rough since at first the plot is just one big excuse for him to go over-the-top but when the film starts to find its dramatic focus so does he and the good Jack Black eventually wins out, if just barely.

Mos Def counter-balances him well with a low-key performance and when the extremely likable Melonie Diaz enters the picture as the third member of their crew things get even better because the three leads have great chemistry together. What started out as Clerks starts to feel more like Clerks 2, which isn't a bad thing at all. Against my better judgment I really started to care what happened to all three of them and the fate of Fletcher’s video store.

The message Gondry is trying to present here is clear. It’s a statement against today’s mass commercialization of movies and in taking us back to the VCR era he’s trying to remind us of a time when it was all about passion rather than the big bucks. Mike and Jerry’s homemade movies could very well be viewed as a shot against all those mindless big budget remakes Hollywood has felt the need to punish us with these past few years. Except these remakes are made by fans with a genuine passion and respect for the original, a trait severely lacking in all the blasphemous big budget disasters we've suffered through.

I was waiting to see if the movie would bring up what should be the obvious issue of copyright infringement or just ignore it. Much to my delight, Gondry put it in. Sigourney Weaver’s appearance as a corporate big wig protecting the studio’s rights was clever and funny, and a reminder that those who needs their rights protected the least often get the most help. Everything pays off at the end with a near-perfect and somewhat ambiguous finale that delivers its message clearly without hitting the audience over the head with it. I’m betting some may even find themselves moved. It’s no coincidence that the best movie these guys end up filming isn’t a remake.

Coincidentally, a couple of weeks ago I hooked up my VCR again and was amazed just how terrible the quality of VHS tapes looked. I actually watched those? We’re definitely spoiled now with this technology and I don’t miss the format but I agree with Gondry that there’s been a lot of change both inside and outside the film industry since we abandoned them…and much of it hasn’t been good. Despite a really rough start this movie is too creative and contains too much heart for me not to endorse it. Material like this, in the hands of another writer or director could have been a real disaster. Instead given the wacky, gray area Gondry’s working in, Be Kind Rewind ends up being be a lot smarter and funnier than it should have been.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Bucket List

Director: Rob Reiner
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes, Beverly Todd, Rob Morrow, Rowena King

Running Time: 98 min.

Rating: PG-13

**1/2 (out of ****)

When you have two actors the caliber of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman headlining a film together for the first time certain expectations accompany it, all of which are incredibly high. If you’ve seen any of the commercials or trailers for The Bucket List you already know they play two terminally ill cancer patients who, with only less than a year left to live, make a list of everything they want to do with the time they have left.

It’s a “can’t miss” premise I assumed that if executed even half as well as it could be would still have the potential to be one of the most entertaining and emotionally moving pictures of the past year. Instead, it ends up being a dreary slog and a harsh reminder that even the best actors still need intelligent material to support their well-intentioned efforts.

That it still almost manages to get over the hump is a testament to the skill of these two acting icons, who share a great onscreen chemistry and for the most part deliver terrific performances. They deserve none of the blame and the amount that can be placed on director Rob Reiner is surprisingly minimal. It’s a breezy, predictable film with an uninspired screenplay that too often goes on autopilot, so in love with its central idea that it completely forgets to develop it. Instead it seems more concerned with long-winded soliloquies, mundane philosophizing and marital strife. I was actually worried the two central characters would bore themselves to death before they completed the list and we got to a resolution to the story.

Hard-working blue-collar auto mechanic Carter Chambers (Freeman) has lived a life plagued with some regret despite a healthy marriage to his wife of 47 years with whom he has two sons and a daughter. When he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer he ends up sharing a room with the hospital’s cranky billionaire CEO Edward Cole (Nicholson), who’s also dying of cancer. The roommates get off to a rocky start but before long they start to hit it off and become fast friends, commiserating over the pain of chemotherapy. I really enjoyed the first half hour of this picture when these two guys were getting to know each other and Reiner was smart enough to not try anything fancy and just let the two actors play off one another. The result is we get to know and care about these two characters and they come off as real people, not stereotypes.

When the idea of the bucket list is introduced everything goes downhill. I say “introduced” because I’m convinced that only if screenwriter Justin Zackham had physically walked onscreen himself and handed the list to the actors could its appearance have come off more clumsy and obvious. What started as an emotionally involving story of two men from different backgrounds growing closer turns into actors reciting clumsy dialogue to explain the purpose of the list, which is one of the most unambitious “to do lists” you’re ever likely to read from anyone who’s near death. Here’s a sampling:

1. Go race car driving
2. Go sky-diving
3. Go on a safari
4. Get a tattoo

There’s more (much of which is barely completed by the end of the film) but it doesn’t get any better. I know these guys are supposed to be up there in years, but that’s the best they could do? The script introduced an interesting aspect to Freeman’s Carter in the beginning when we find out he’s a history buff whose ambitions to teach fell by the wayside when his wife became pregnant. Wouldn’t he want to follow through with that life goal and earn his degree? Scenes of Nicholson and Freeman in a frat house surely would have been more entertaining than any of the above options. It sure worked for Nicholson in a far superior comedy about a man entering the twilight of his life, About Schmidt. Wouldn’t they hit Vegas? I mean, really, who wouldn’t hit Vegas with only a couple of months left to live? What about past girlfriends? This list is the centerpiece of the film so it’s important that it seems like someone dying of cancer wrote it, not a Hollywood screenwriter.

I wonder if Zackham actually asked cancer patients what their list would look like, and if he did, something tells me at the top wouldn’t be: “WITNESS SOMETHING TRULY MAJESTIC.” The only audience likely to be moved by that is the studio executives Zackam pitched the story to in meetings. What’s funniest about the list is it’s often forgotten about for most of the film so the two main characters can drone on and on about the ghastly pallor of death and their shattered family lives. It’s a shame because with two actors who project so much energy and an important message about embracing life, this movie could have really inspired people who have gone through a similar situation, or known someone who have. Instead, because of the script’s laziness a film that should be striking a universal chord comes off as a picture aimed only at the elderly.

Another problem is a very poorly written and even worse acted supporting character. Looking at the credits you probably think I’m talking about Will and Grace’s Sean Hayes, who plays Edward’s sarcastic but loyal assistant, but he actually gets off some great lines and his interplay with Nicholson was a highlight of the film. I wish there was more of it. The offending character is Carter’s wife Virginia (broadly caricatured by Beverly Todd), who objects that her husband is going on a silly road trip rather than staying with her and fighting his illness. That’s a perfectly reasonable complaint for a loved one to have and I commend Zackham for thinking to put it in. Unfortunately, she’s portrayed as a raving lunatic.

All Todd does is scream and nag as if she’s carefully studied clips of Thandie Newton’s performance in The Pursuit of Happyness. There’s a rational argument in there somewhere but it doesn’t come through, and as a result, she comes off as selfish and unlikable. Carter should have added "FILE FOR DIVORCE" to the bucket list. She’s so bad that when he has a chance to cheat on her with a prostitute (played by Rowena King) I was hoping he’d do it. He’s more than earned a freebie after putting up with this woman for 47 years. I found spending five minutes with her challenging. Reiner has to take most of the blame on this one for thinking it was a good idea for her to carry on like that. In attempting to give Carter resonating marital difficulties he forgot that we actually have to root for the couple for it to work.

The film fares better with Edward as he’s given a much better sub-plot involving his estranged daughter, although even that isn’t as effective as it should be because of the long-winded back story accompanying it. The film does really start to find its footing in the last half hour and a big part of that is due to Jack Nicholson’s performance, which never wavers throughout but really kicks into high gear as we approach the finish line. The list miraculously reappears as if everyone suddenly remembered there were still items left to check off and Nicholson really delivers here, almost saving the film. We know how this will end but the script does find a clever way to surprise us within the context of its predetermined outcome. Unfortunately, there were just too many problems earlier for the story to pack the full emotional punch it could have.

The two leads carry this entire film on their backs with very little help from the screenplay but I’d say Nicholson does the better work, if only because he has the more complex character while Freeman’s old wise man routine is starting to get a little too familiar. You could argue he’s just giving us another variation on his role as God from Bruce Almighty here. His character also narrates the picture, which is physically impossible for obvious reasons, but Freeman’s voice-over work is always so good I was willing to give that a pass. I

It’s impossible to hate this picture because it’s heart is in the right place and the premise and performances hold your interest. But it could have been so much more. There’s nothing wrong with a film being sappy or predictable, but for too much of its running time The Bucket List just phones its story in.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Funny Games

Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet, Devon Gearhart

Running Time: 112 min.

Rating: R

***1/2 (out of ****)

No, I have not seen Michael Haneke’s 1997 Austrian film Funny Games, from which this shot-by-shot remake is based. It’s an important point to make because whenever a film is a remade or adapted the temptation is always to draw comparisons to the material from which it was derived. That I don’t have that cloud hanging over my head is a relief considering this version alone is tough enough to think about and analyze on its own terms. Going in all I knew was that this was one of those suburban American nightmare movies (my favorite genre of film) and I figured that if it was a quarter as good as its teaser poster suggested I was interested.

The obvious point of comparison, other than the original film, is Gus Van Sant’s ill-fated 1998 remake of Psycho, but one could reasonably argue Haneke’s idea of adapting his own film is actually worse in conceit. At least Van Sant was tackling material that was fresh…to him. But its clear Haneke isn’t doing this for himself, but rather to expose the film to an American audience for whom he claims it was originally intended. Intended to punish. To reprimand us for our enjoyment of “torture porn” films by rubbing our noses in it and mocking the very conventions we’ve come to expect from them. There’s no point to it all, or more accurately, the point of it all is precisely that there is no point.

When most movies are over I usually have a pretty good idea of what worked and what didn’t and might offer suggestions as to what could have been improved upon. Funny Games is a different story. It isn’t a film. It’s an experience, and a grueling, unpleasant one at that. Actually, it’s more of an ordeal. It forces the viewer to look at their reactions to it and at times implicates them in the action, although that description makes the movie sound much deeper than it is.

It isn’t as timely or thematically important as Haneke thinks (and at times is way too artsy and pretentious for its own good) but as an experiment that gets you thinking it’s perfect. Some of that thinking may consist of wondering how anyone could make this piece of trash. And Haneke’s response would be to ask what piece of trash would enjoy watching it, even though he thinks he knows the answer-- “YOU!” And I can actually picture him screaming that in a scolding, arrogant tone while waving his finger incessantly. But he gets away with it because the experiment is often terrifying, well-acted and cleverly directed.

He’s definitely not changing the face of how we view movies with this but he has offered up one of the more polarizing, ambitious efforts of late and one that’s sure to have everyone split right down the middle. In other words, the only thing I enjoy more than reviewing movies like this is sitting back and watching people’s reactions to them. Does that make me as bad as Haneke? Probably not, since I can’t claim I enjoyed watching it nor would I have a strong desire to see it again. No one could. As a film I still don’t know what to make of it, but as a cinematic case study it’s fascinating.

Right from the bright red opening title sequence introducing us to George Farber (Tim Roth), his wife Ann (Naomi Watts) and their 10-year-old son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) Haneke lets us know who’s in charge here. Interrupting the sedate classical music they have playing through the car stereo is the loud thrashing of heavy metal, as they head to their Long Island vacation home for the weekend. While there Ann gets some unexpected company from two polite young men in white polo shirts and gloves who refer to themselves as Peter (Brady Corbet) and Paul (Michael Pitt). They also refer to themselves as “Beavis” and “Butt-Head” and “Tom” and “Jerry” at various points but that’s neither here nor there. It doesn’t matter who they are, but rather, what they’re going to do.

Peter wants to borrow some eggs and has an awkward (at times flat-out creepy) interaction with Ann before “accidentally” dropping them. There’s something really off about this kid and Haneke cleverly but subtly lets us know that Ann’s on to him right away. This brings in Paul, who’s even creepier and the uncomfortable situation escalates into unbearable suspense by the time they shatter George’s leg with a golf club. He wasn’t as clued in as Ann, but now he is. They take the family hostage and place a bet: That none of them will be alive at 9:00 tomorrow morning. The games begin. Both games. The game these sadists are playing with the Farber family and the one Haneke is playing with us. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the two and often they overlap.

Well-spoken and polite the intruders seem almost offended that this family would question what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. Truthfully, there is no why, as is so often the case in random acts of violence. George, as the man of the house reacts to the situation as best he can but he’s still wrong. Anything he does is wrong because these guys aren’t playing by any rules and neither is Haneke. The couple is smart and resourceful but that’s just not enough. The victims exist only to be mocked and laughed at by the perpetrators, one of which (Paul) is fully aware he’s in a film being put on for our “entertainment” and breaks the fourth wall to talk to us. There’s been a lot of hoopla over Haneke implementing this device but everyone has gotten worked up over nothing. Its inclusion doesn’t do damage to the film, nor does it really help it tremendously. It slides right in without distraction and is strategically placed to get the point across. More importantly, though, it isn’t overused. If I had to pick I’d say the controversial method helps.

Are we REALLY rooting for Ann, George and their son or do we just want them to stay around so we can see them suffer more? That’s the question Paul is asking us the audience. Haneke wants us to root for the victims so when we do he can quickly remind us these two psychopaths hold all the cards and there’s nothing we can do about it. We have certain expectations about what a “torture porn” movie like this is supposed to do and what should happen, but Haneke subverts them all. He’s more interested in how we’re viewing it. There’s a scene where Ann disrobes and Haneke refuses to show us anything. He instead wants us to feel guilty for thinking about seeing Naomi Watts topless in a situation like this and punish us for it. I’m not sure he succeeded there since the thought of Watts naked isn’t likely to have me paralyzed with guilt or running to confession anytime soon.

Haneke wants to have his cake and eat it too. It’s awful that we’re watching such filth…but it’s perfectly fine for him to film it? The movie’s centerpiece, an uninterrupted nearly 10-minute long shot of Watts in her underwear struggling to find the fortitude to survive, will have you wondering if Haneke is guilty of the voyeurism he’s trying to condemn. And he probably wants you to wonder. In his defense no matter how he approached this material he would have faced those accusations so it’s almost beside the point. He drags the shot on forever in a blatant attempt to make us feel as uncomfortable as possible, almost daring us to look away. I couldn’t. With all these long, visually meditative takes everything plays almost like a 70’s era film, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange being the obvious inspiration.

Haneke also accomplishes, maybe as a side effect of his actual goal, what today’s modern horror entries can’t in creating terror without actually showing anything. His goal is to deprive the viewer of exactly what they came to see and he goes out of his way to do it. When a horrible act of violence is committed it happens off-screen as we’re instead forced to watch a character prepare a sandwich in the kitchen.

The victims may be smart and resourceful, but they’re also ignorant and have their heads in the clouds, prisoners of their own false sense of security. They’re oblivious that any chance they have for survival is minimal in a game like this and they fight an uphill battle. George is portrayed as a wimp who, beyond being unable to defend his own family, can’t even bring himself to punch Paul. The most he can muster is an open hand slap.

More uneasiness comes into play with another never-ending scene involving a cell-phone. All possible methods of escape are not only avoided, they’re mocked cruelly, as if Haneke’s thumbing his nose at all those dumb horror movies where we know exactly what will happen next. There comes a point in the story where we expect the tide to turn in a certain direction because it does all the time in films of this genre. Instead, we’re reminded who’s really pulling the strings here with another bold cinematic device. It’s brazen arrogance on the part of Haneke but doing anything else would almost seem like a betrayal of the story. The outcome was predestined and the only thing we could have done to avoid it was to stop watching, but he knew we’d never do that. He may have inadvertently sent horror movie fans running and crying back into the welcoming arms of Eli Roth, who dishes out safe, comfortable mainstream torture porn compared to this.

I always thought it might be interesting to see A-List actors act in a torture porn film. I wondered what it would be like to maybe see Reese Witherspoon or Tom Hanks fighting for their lives in Saw V as they try to escape Jigsaw’s deadly traps. The closest we’re going to get to that is with Roth and Watts here and now I know why not too many do it: It’s an ordeal. I’m not sure why Naomi would agree to be put through the wringer like this but that she has a producing credit on the film indicates this was a project she was passionate about for whatever reason. Roth plays against type as a passive wimp, conceding the spotlight to his co-star who has the more emotionally draining role. And I worry if young Devon Gearhart will be traumatized for life after acting in this film.

While the film may fall way short of A Clockwork Orange one area where it comes close is in Michael Pitt’s brilliant, terrifying embodiment of Paul that would attract awards consideration is this material wasn’t so problematic and the film wasn’t dumped into limited release in March. Brady Corbet has the quieter, less showy role as the shy, socially inept Peter but we’re never sure how much of that is a put-on. Both actors skirt the line between preppy annoyance and cold-blooded sadism like skilled pros.

Right now anyone reading this knows something I don’t: What my star rating for this film is. Usually I have a good idea what it is before I type a review, but sometimes I don’t until it’s completed. This is one of those times. But whatever it is it can’t be interpreted as a “recommendation” or any kind of admission that I “enjoyed it.” This isn’t a film you can enjoy or recommend.

I’m convinced a zero star review of this film would read exactly the same as one that’s a four-stars. 2 people could take the same things out of this movie with one loving it and the other hating it and they’d both be completely right. It’s just that kind of film. Maybe I’m just happy these days when anything gets me to think or argue. In trying to make a serious statement about the world we live in and turn the camera on us, Haneke has unintentionally turned it on himself. As a deep examination of violence in the media Funny Games may be a joke, but as an experience, it’s impossible to shake.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Hayden Christensen, Samuel L. Jackson, Rachel Bilson, Jamie Bell, Diane Lane, Max Thieriot, AnnaSophia Robb, Michael Rooker
Running Time: 88 min.

Rating: PG-13

** (out of ****)

I can’t stand it when a movie botches an intriguing premise. I think I’d almost rather see a film that’s consistently terrible and has no potential for success because being teased is never fun. The teleportation sci-fi adventure Jumper opens with a fascinating prologue and then completely blows it, dropping the ball the rest of the way through. Before popping in any DVD I always take a glance at the running time on the back of the case just so I know what to prepare for time-wise. You never know when you need a bathroom break. I was surprised to read that this was going to be 88 minutes (insert your Al Pacino joke here), an unheard of display of restraint in today’s age of bloated, overlong blockbusters. I took it as a good sign, that maybe it would do what it needs to and get out quick. I should have known better. What’s not going to work won’t, no matter how many minutes you’re filling. A shorter film isn’t necessarily a tighter one any more than a longer film is guaranteed to be an epic masterpiece.

A great movie could have been made from all the questions that go unanswered in this screenplay and maybe one day someone other than Doug Liman will decide to make it. And when they do they might realize it probably isn’t a good idea to make your hero an arrogant brat who physically and emotionally abuses his girlfriend. Or waste talented actors in nothing roles. Or cause motion sickness with dizzying special effects. It’s a shame because this really could have been something, had they chosen to really explore an idea brimming with dramatic possibilities. Instead, it’s just a big mess with a very few bright spots, most of which come within the first ten minutes.

The opening of the film is so good that it’s almost hard to come to terms with what follows. A childhood accident prompts teenager David (Max Thierot) to discover has the unique ability to teleport or “jump” from one place to another instantaneously. This incident separates him from his childhood crush Millie (AnnaSophia Robb) and his abusive alcoholic father (Michael Rooker), both of whom believe him to be dead. What he’s doing is transporting across the globe, gaining control of his powers and robbing banks for some extra cash. That last part is what attracts the attention of NSA agent Roland (Samuel L. Jackson) who tracks down jumpers and kills them because…well, we’re never really quite sure. He’s just a bad guy.

It’s when we flash forward a few years into the future with David as an adult (played by Hayden Christensen) being pursued by Roland and reuniting with Millie (now Rachel Bilson) that the movie starts to develop some major problems. Thieriot and Robb gave absolutely sensational performances in the opening minutes as the younger versions of David and Millie. I was captivated by their story and couldn’t wait to see where it would go in the future. I knew Christensen and Bilson would have their work cut out for them attempting to follow it, but I couldn’t have been prepared for results this disastrous. The two older performers are out-acted in every way possible by their younger counterparts who opened the film. I felt like getting on my hands and knees and begging Liman to bring them back.

When they reunite, adult David has suddenly transformed into an egotistical, self-entitled jerk and Millie has turned into Summer Roberts from The O.C. I can almost picture Liman (who not so coincidentally was a producer on that show.) telling Bilson: “Rachel, just act like Summer ” Insulting, really, because at least that character had a lot more depth to her than this. Anyone who's seen The Last Kiss knows Bilson is capable of delivering in an important supporting role but this isn’t one. It may as well be described in the script as “SOME GIRL.” The only actor who effectively conveys the adulthood transition is Veronica Mars’ Teddy Dunn, who hilariously recaptures the childhood bully we saw in the film’s opening. He disappeared into the role so well it actually took me the entire length of the movie to finally realize who the actor was.

David and Millie have morphed into different (and noticeably more unlikable) people and their big reunion falls flat. She doesn’t even seem to care that he’s alive and he doesn’t care that she doesn’t care. So of course minutes later they’re jumping into bed together. Since she doesn’t know his “big secret” he’s literally dragging her on the vacation from hell when he’s being chased by Jackson’s Cisqo look-alike and trailed by another jumper (played by Jamie Bell). I find it ironic that the filming of this led to a real-life relationship between Christensen and Bilson because they share ZERO chemistry on screen. They actually seem more like bickering siblings.

The character of Millie often comes off as an idiot by putting up with David’s cocky attitude the entire time and never questioning him. It sets female characters in films back about 50 years. And sorry, but there’s no other way to put it: Christensen plays David as a complete asshole. He’s rude and sarcastic to everyone he encounters and we’re supposed to have sympathy for him because he leaves “I.O.U” notes at the banks he robs. At this rate Christensen seems destined to spend the rest of his career paying for George Lucas’ sins, which is a shame. The worst thing he could have done was take another role as an unlikable, angst-ridden man-child in a science-fiction film. I actually think even Annakin Skywalker was more likable and had greater depth than this guy.

Why shouldn’t I root for Jackson’s character? If nothing else he’s dedicated, which, unless I’ve lost count, is one more positive attribute than David has. Or at least I would root for Jackson’s character if I knew the slightest thing about him. Why does he want to kill jumpers so badly? He says that all jumpers “go bad,” whatever that means. Maybe he’s talking about David’s selfish behavior and abuse of his powers. If that’s the case I can’t say I blame Roland for wanting to kill him, which is a problem if you’re trying to root for the hero.

No one’s given any motivation or development. We never know how David actually feels about jumping or why he feels the need to do it so often. And when I say often I mean like every two seconds. Wouldn’t he get dizzy or sick? I know I was starting to after a while just watching him with all the hand-held camera work and cheesy special effects. The intriguing notion of jumping, set up so well in the prologue, is overused to the point where it isn’t important or special anymore. We just want it to stop. At one point Jamie Bell’s character says that he likes to just walk sometimes rather than teleport because it makes him “feel normal.” In that one line he suggests all the possibilities this film failed to exploit.

You may have noticed in the credits that Diane Lane is in this, She has a scene as David’s long-lost mother where she runs into a room and screams like a lunatic for 15 seconds then leaves. It’s embarrassing, but not even the worst scene she has. That comes later. Kristen Stewart appears…to open a door and deliver one line of dialogue. Why cast talented big name actors in cameo roles where they do absolutely nothing? It’s a waste of money and a sure sign something went horribly wrong at the production stage. When you have actors of that caliber you try to get the most out of them that you can. As bad as the movie is, it’s compulsively watchable because of its premise, which in a way just makes all of it that much more disappointing.

I’ll give author Steven Gould (who wrote the 1992 novel from which this is based) the benefit of the doubt that his ideas were completely thinned out if not altogether eliminated by David S. Goyer and Jim Uhls’ script. I know this is an action/adventure and don’t expect characters to pause every second and explain there motivations but it isn’t asking too much for there to be a clear set of rules and the characters’ desires come through in their behavior. The ending hints threatens they’ll be a sequel and Christensen has stated in interviews there may be as many as two more Jumper films. I hope for his and Bilson’s sake that’s not true. If it is, I’m teleporting myself out of the theater.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


Director: Kent Alterman
Starring: Will Ferrell, Woody Harrelson. Andre Benjamin, Maura Tierney, Andrew Daly, Will Arnett, Andy Richter, Jackie Earle Haley

Running Time: 91 min.

Rating: R

*½ (out of ****)

Will Ferrell’s sports act has officially gotten very, very tired. When I reviewed Blades of Glory I said that while I enjoyed it, it was probably the last Ferrell sports comedy I could take. Boy was I ever right. In the basketball spoof Semi-Pro it’s as if all the deleted scenes and outtakes from every Ferrell comedy that weren’t funny enough to make final cut were combined into one movie to torture us all. I don’t think I laughed once during this. There may have been a tiny giggle, but definitely not a laugh. Forget about the shot clock. I was too busy watching the actual clock on my wall, waiting painfully for the very long 90 minutes to pass.

To call this Will Ferrell’s worst onscreen outing is almost too kind as the star really phones it in here in a performance of insufferable laziness and egotism. Come to think of it, there aren’t many other characters in the film worth liking or rooting for either. Like Nacho Libre, which assumed just the sight of Jack Black in wrestling attire could sustain a feature length film, this script believes Ferrell with an afro and dressed as a basketball player is the most hilarious concept ever devised.

Now Ferrell finds himself stuck in the same boat as Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler before him. Rejected by audiences when he attempts to stretch as an actor and do more meaningful work, he feels forced to retreat and act in sub-par comedic rip-offs of his earlier films. The film is so standard and predictable it has me fearing that those claiming Hollywood is all out of fresh ideas may be right. But what’s even more frightening is the notion that there are still many sports left Will Ferrell can attempt to send up in his career.

Somewhat arrogantly, the film picks up in the middle of the action in 1976, expecting us to care what happens to Flint, Michigan’s Tropics basketball team of the American Basketball Association, owned and operated by its goofy star forward Jackie Moon (Ferrell). Plans are put forth to merge the ABA into the proposed National Basketball Association and the Tropics, whose record and attendance is abysmal will not be one of the four teams selected to go and instead dissolve. That is unless Moon can find a way for the Tropics to rise from the basement and become the fourth ranked team in the league.

Moon already has his star player in the showy Clarence “Coffee” Black (Andre Benjamin), but soon he trades up for aging veteran shooting guard Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson) who once won a championship ring riding the bench with the Celtics. Nearly the entire film consists of Ferrell entertaining himself with various sight gags and one-liners (hardly any of which has a thing to do with basketball) until we reach “the big game,” which turns out to not be that big at all because screenwriter Scott Armstrong unwisely decides to throw in a late development that makes the game mean essentially nothing.

The film is filled with jokes that either just fall flat or trail into the distance without a punch line or resolution. The script is so lazy at times it seems as if it’s half-completed. The best example of this a gag involving a poker game and gun everyone believes is loaded. The scene goes on for what seems like an eternity and then just kind of fades away, leaving us wondering what the point of the entire thing was, like a tree falling in the forest. A sub-plot involving Monix’s ex-flame (a completely wasted Maura Tierney) and her sexually curious boyfriend seems like it’s out of another movie…one almost as unfunny as this.

Ferrell wrestles a bear (but you knew that from the trailer), players wear eyeliner and vomit, Patti LaBelle shows up. I thought the horror would never end. There a few funny moments though. All of them are provided by Andrew Daly and Will Arnett as a couple of vulgar, clueless announcers. I wished everyone else would just leave the film and let these guys go back and forth for an hour and a half. That would have been entertaining. The only other actor who escapes with his dignity is Harrelson, which isn’t a surprise since he has experience doing this before in a far superior sports comedy, Kingpin.

The best word to describe Will Ferrell in this is “SMUG.” He has a certain smugness in this role that I haven’t seen from him before and I hope I never see again. He plays the part as someone so full of himself it stops becoming funny and crosses the line into being pathetic. He’s just unlikable and you’re more likely to want to see him get injured and his team lose than root for the guy. He’s played hapless, unlikable losers before but something about this performance really rubbed me the wrong way.

I guess it’s a delicate balance between being funny and unlikable and Ferrell doesn’t quite pull it off this time. It’s like watching an unfunny, stand-up act with a performer in love with his own jokes. He pulled it off in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, which, incidentally, also took place in the ‘70’s. Maybe the filmmakers thought by setting the film in that decade again they could recapture some of that magic except that movie had a clever script that knew how to exploit that setting. This one thinks that wearing polyester and playing Pong is so funny there’s need for little else.

It’s the dubious directorial debut of Kent Alterman who (get ready for this) has produced such films as A History of Violence and Little Children. Speaking of Little Children, an Oscar nominee from that film, Jackie Earle Haley, appears here as a stoned-out homeless man who makes a big half-time shot. THIS is his follow-up role to an Academy Award nomination. It looks like Burt Reynolds finally has some competition.

Perhaps the funniest thing about the movie is that a PG-13, an R-rated and an unrated version of the film were all released on DVD as if it even makes a difference. I saw the R version and can tell you the profanity and vulgarity did nothing to hurt or heighten my enjoyment of the film. A bad script is a bad script no matter how many four-letter words it contains. Although I described this as a spoof it really isn’t. It actually has the nerve to play it mostly straight and expects us to care what happens to these guys. The result is a terminal lack of laughs and a spoof that becomes what it’s spoofing.

I had a choice between renting this and Meet The Spartans and when it concluded I was left with the sinking feeling I may have actually picked wrong. We’ve seen it coming for a while but now Will Ferrell has officially hit the wall and should reassess the direction he wants his career to take. The best news here is that the movie underperformed at the box office so maybe now he’ll get the message and try to diversify a little bit more in his film choices. As a sports comedy, or any comedy, Semi-Pro shoots a brick.