Archive for July 2007

The Simpsons Movie

July 27, 2007

As I write this, two days after its release, The Simpsons Movie has grossed over $72 million and made it to #43 on the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 list as determined by voters. That answers the question of whether Matt Groening’s acerbic creation is still relevant and popular. Another question is whether it’s still funny, and it’s been said in muted grumbles (and sometimes not so muted) that The Simpsons is at least seven years past its sell-by date. I can’t verify this personally; after the first couple of years, I wandered away from the show, though I can attest that two of the best episodes emerged in 1997 (“In Marge We Trust,” featuring Mr. Sparkle) and 1998 (“Homer’s Phobia,” the John Waters episode).

In any event, after seventeen years, the dysfunctional Simpsons family — clueless Homer (Dan Castellaneta), long-suffering Marge (Julie Kavner), bratty Bart (Nancy Cartwright), intellectual Lisa (Yeardley Smith), and pacifier-addicted Maggie, along with several billion supporting characters — crashes into the multiplex. It says something that the mere mention of the names brings each character into abrupt, sharp focus, with all their flaws and merits intact; Groening and producer James L. Brooks put down a rock-solid foundation upon which to build the longest-lasting sitcom of all time, scores of merchandise, several albums and comic books, and now the major motion picture. Is it funny? I enjoyed it without actually laughing all that much. Certainly nothing in the film is as crazily inspired as Mr. Sparkle; I can remember “I am disrespectful to dirt” after a decade, whereas I’d be hard put to quote much from the movie mere hours after getting home.

The Simpsons Movie begins as an extended Lisa episode — she undertakes a one-girl effort to save Lake Springfield from pollution — and Lisa episodes are notoriously well-meaning and unpopular among many fans. Then the movie flips into a Homer episode, as the befuddled patriarch adopts a pig, whose voluminous leavings contaminate the lake and get the entire town isolated under a dome (under the evil eye of an EPA chief voiced deftly by longtime Simpsons utility player Albert Brooks). The writers (eleven are credited) take shots at global-warming deniers as well as tweaking An Inconvenient Truth, and there’s some sobering stuff about mob mentality, but mostly the film ends up being character-driven — and nicely character-driven at that, though nothing much that die-hards haven’t seen before. Ultimately it’s a Marge episode, which is all to the good.

And what of Bart, prince of a thousand t-shirts? Perhaps if the movie had been rushed into production in the early years of The Simpsons’ wild crossover popularity, Fox might’ve pressured Groening et al to crank out The Bart Movie. Here, Bart has the movie’s heavyweight sight gag — naked skateboarding, with a long run of precisely timed obstacles obscuring his genitalia from the camera — but he’s just another team player, with a Plot B storyline that has him looking to sappy neighbor Ned Flanders as a father figure when Homer disappoints him one time too many. It’s not a particularly funny narrative thread, except for a flashback to Homer taking Bart fishing, but it does add heart to the proceedings. It’s here that we sense that, as Lisa is a miniature conscientious Marge, Bart may realize he’s a dimwitted chip off the old block, and does he really want to grow up to be Homer?

It’s worth noting that the first major film based on a TV show was Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Trekkies only had to wait ten years for their big-screen fulfillment, yet the enormous, impassioned expectations they brought to that first film would’ve torpedoed an Orson Welles film from an original script by Shakespeare. It’s possible that the less you wanted or cared about a Simpsons movie, the more you’ll enjoy The Simpsons Movie: it’s not bigger than the show, it’s 400 episodes in microcosm, reminding on-again-off-again fans what made the thing a phenomenon and an institution in the first place. It works nicely as both an introduction and a celebration. As for the one-word question voiced by one of the Simpsons during the end credits: Yes, please.

I Know Who Killed Me

July 27, 2007

The plot of I Know Who Killed Me, a coldly ludicrous thriller starring Lindsay Lohan, is so goofily convoluted that I took a tour of various movie-spoiler sites after watching the film, just to clarify the chronology of events. Looking at the movie’s page on Screenit.com, that consistently laughable guide for worried parents, I found this gorgeous line: “Dakota uses her robotic prosthetic arm to break the glass on the top of a coffin.” How can you possibly screw up a movie in which that happens?

Easily. First you hire a director, Chris Sivertson (who co-helmed All Cheerleaders Die with Lucky McKee), who treats the goddamn thing with utmost solemnity. And not the kind of solemnity that invites unintentional hoots; the boring kind that wants desperately to find art and meaning in this schlock. Sivertson, I’m guessing, has seen his share of Dario Argento, judging from the preponderance of color-coding throughout the movie. Good girl Aubrey Fleming (Lohan) is identified with blue. Bad girl Dakota Moss (also Lohan) is all about red. Are these girls the same person? Could Aubrey, a conscientious student who regretfully gives up piano lessons to concentrate on her writing, be the same person as Dakota, a coarse stripper? Or is Dakota Aubrey’s id playing itself out in delusional, self-protecting fiction? Or is Aubrey Dakota’s dream vision of the way her life should have gone?

You get all the answers eventually, in a half-baked torture-porn plot in which Aubrey is kidnapped and tortured, then winds up in a ditch with an arm and a leg gone. When Aubrey wakes up in the hospital, she insists she’s Dakota. Her parents (Neil McDonough and Julia Ormond) know she’s Aubrey, because this girl looks just like her; but this girl tells a different story, of being brought up by a crack whore and selling her body to make ends meet.

So: madonna and whore. One would’ve thought the familiar sexist duality was put to rest in the movies of David Lynch, particularly Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, in which Laura Palmer was both. I can see why Lindsay Lohan was drawn to I Know Who Killed Me: it gave her the chance, she must’ve thought, to kiss her wholesome Disney image goodbye forever and play two extremes in the same movie. And to be honest, she isn’t bad here; whatever else is wrong with the film, Lohan plays Dakota — who gets most of the screen time — with a hard-bitten exhaustion and a quick, salacious wit. The tabloids may make us forget that beneath all the foolish, self-destructive behavior is a young woman with actual talent and natural charisma. Dakota often seems like the only person in the movie with any common sense.

That’s about the only time the words “common sense” can appear in a review of I Know Who Killed Me, which comes complete with ominous owls, blue roses, a cellar filled with mannequin parts (shades of Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss), and a scene in which Julia Ormond, as the mother going borderline nuts trying to figure out why her innocent daughter is now a chain-smoking slut, angrily scrubs the kitchen sink downstairs while Dakota jumps the willing bones of Aubrey’s boyfriend. Ormond, who had a small but alarming role in Lynch’s Inland Empire last year, seems to want to leave her empty romances behind and be reborn as Charlotte Rampling; age has tightened her features, given her a new, hungry intensity. She seems to want to be in the wild, over-the-top thriller that I Know Who Killed Me should’ve been but isn’t. (Another Lynch footnote: Bonnie Aarons, who played the notoriously terrifying alley bum in Mullholland Drive, shows up here as Dakota’s dyspeptic strip-club boss, known as Fat Teena. With this kind of cast, the movie should’ve been a lot more lovably ridiculous.)

The torture bits are fairly grotesque at times, killing our fun. The idea of a serial killer who carefully removes limbs with dry ice is so absurd that to see it enacted in diffuse close-up is an unnecessary turn-off — the movie isn’t a serious treatise on violence against women, after all. Sometimes I suspected the shots of Lindsay Lohan bound, gagged, and screaming were thrown in there to appease the Lindsay-haters, the way Demi Moore’s ordeals in G.I. Jane seemed designed to stroke the Demi-detesters in the crowd. If the press doesn’t like you, do your penance by being taken apart in movies. It seems to have worked for Mel Gibson (who has moved on to dismantling other people in the movies he directs).

I knew I Know Who Killed Me would be stupid and bad, but I wanted it to be gloriously bad, camp-classic bad, and the movie is too ineptly artsy and unpleasant to make it. And Lohan’s sincerity in the role(s) works against it: she keeps her scenes real, when what’s needed is flailing and shrieking. This is the kind of movie that should rival Juno in the length of its “Memorable Quotes” page on IMDb, but the best line on its page is “Do I look like I’m in a fucking coma?” No, Lindsay, you don’t. And this is too obviously and sadly an attempt on Lohan’s part to reconcile her Ivory-pure screen persona with her increasingly blotto reputation in the tabloids; as it turns out, the white-trash whore with a dirty mouth turns out to be the hero, roundly defeating the villain and saving the virgin. Lohan may be saying that she can be trashy and still be a good person.

Years from now, the movie will likely be more interesting as a case study or a snapshot of a gifted but terribly troubled starlet at (let’s hope) her personal and professional nadir. Right now it plays like a flat miscalculation, too ugly to be goofy fun and too inextricable from a real person’s problems to be laughed off.

Hairspray (2007)

July 20, 2007

If we can’t have a new John Waters movie this year, a movie based on a musical based on a John Waters movie will have to do. Hairspray began life in 1988 as Waters’ first all-ages film (after he’d spent many years scandalizing the prudes with such kamikaze efforts as Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble) and then, in 2002, blossomed into a popular Broadway musical. At first, I couldn’t see the point of making a movie based on the musical, when there was already a perfectly good and funny movie. But this Hairspray honors its source and emerges as a relentless joy machine, always ready to belt out a song or launch into dance. I like to think this is the movie Waters might’ve made if he’d had the budget back then.

As the chubby heroine Tracy Turnblad, who yearns to dance on The Corny Collins Show, newcomer Nikki Blonsky, a cherubic gumdrop of a girl, takes the screen with grace and charisma and no visible sweat, just the way Ricki Lake did nineteen years ago. It’s 1962 — in other words, the extended ‘50s before JFK fell and the sky darkened — and Tracy’s favorite dance show is segregated. One day out of the week is Negro Day, where the real excitement and nasty dance moves happen; the rest of the week is lily-white, lorded over by bleached station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer). Corny Collins himself doesn’t have much of a problem with giving the floor over to Negroes or chubbies, but Velma, who wants her own daughter Amber (Brittany Snow) to win Miss Teen Baltimore, seems to be the one calling the shots.

The look of Hairspray is inspired, starting with the exuberant and ironic opening number “Good Morning, Baltimore,” in which Tracy bops through the city among women in pastels and gray, depraved men. Very much in keeping with Waters’ vision, this Baltimore is like a dead skunk wearing pink hair rollers. (The movie was shot in Toronto, though.) Hairspray is loaded with idiosyncratic characters, which I think is what has made it a success in any version; for instance, there’s Tracy’s lollipop-sucking best friend Penny (Amanda Bynes), who falls in love with Negro dancer Seaweed (Elijah Kelley), whose mother is the legendary Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), who oversees Negro Day. Everyone has kinks and quirks; this is Waters’ dream Baltimore, his valentine to the days when things were still square and could be shaken up.

As Tracy’s doting mother Edna — a role filled by the late, great Divine in the ‘88 film and by Harvey Feirstein on Broadway — John Travolta, broad of body and with dark brown ringlets framing his moon face, transcends the trap of novelty. His Edna is a gently insecure creation, and the pairing of him and Christopher Walken as Edna’s devoted husband Wilbur is more funkily bizarre than a lot of things in actual John Waters films. Old pros Travolta and Walken, both with backgrounds in song and dance, sing the lilting duet “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” and the damn thing overrides its own subtextual strangeness and becomes sweetly daffy. If I hadn’t already fallen in love with the movie, this number would’ve sealed the deal. (One quibble about Travolta: In the ‘88 film, Divine played both Edna and, in boy mode, racist studio chief Arvin Hodgepile; I wanted to see Travolta put in a quick appearance as Hodgepile too, but no such luck.)

In any incarnation, but perhaps especially this one, Hairspray’s main currency is a sort of naïve perversity. It comes down specifically in favor of fat chicks and interracial love, but the coded message is tolerance in general. Its sensibility is strongly gay — via Waters, of course, but also composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman and this film’s director-choreographer Adam Shankman. The movie loves its pre-PC Baltimore, with its Negro Day and its glimpses of pregnant women casually drinking and smoking; this Baltimore is a semi-slimy caterpillar about to morph into a butterfly. In the meantime, the women all look like the AbFab duo (or junior versions thereof), while the straight white men are drunks, pervs, or haplessly harmless joke-shop proprietors like Wilbur. But there’s redemption available for almost everyone, and Hairspray puts you in a good mood. It’s probably the most generous and loving story Waters will ever tell, and it’s retold here with verve and an infectious sense of fun.

Captivity

July 13, 2007

The stalker-torturer in the abysmal Captivity is apparently motivated by rage at his druggie mother, who molested him as a boy. He ended up knifing her to death. How do we know this? Because there’s video footage of it. Not only that, it appears to have been filmed and edited by a camera crew, since the footage cuts back and forth between at least two cameras. Or is this a re-enactment? Did the villain hire two boys and an actress to act out the defining trauma of his youth for his cameras so that he could show the video to his captives? Wait a minute — is there a video company that provides this service to diabolical killers? “Your Oedipal Murder Re-Enacted! Now Offering High-Def DVD Transfers.”

Captivity is the worst, stupidest, and most pointless movie I’ve seen in a very long time. How much of it can be blamed on credited director Roland Joffé (who in sunnier days helmed The Killing Fields and The Mission) is up for debate; word around the campfire is that the movie was once more of a conventional thriller (i.e., without the torture-porn aspects) before Courtney Solomon of After Dark got his claws into it and added such appetizing bits as a woman’s face destroyed by hot oil and a woman forced to drink puréed body parts. This, presumably, was meant to jump on the hot bandwagon of Hostel and its ilk; this was also before Hostel Part II arrived in theaters earlier this summer to the sound of crickets and slouched dejectedly off of the nation’s screens after a fortnight.

The lacquered nonactress Elisha Cuthbert stars as Jennifer Tree, a jaded New York model often heard in interviews saying bubbleheaded things like “Beauty rules” and “My parents didn’t pass on the loving gene to me.” A magazine cover identifies her as “The Girl With No Heart.” So will Captivity be a life lesson roughly administered, like the torments visited upon the insufficiently life-embracing in the Saw flicks? Nope, nothing at all is done with that angle. Jennifer is singled out because she resembles her captor’s mother. (Which doesn’t explain why, early in the film, we see a guy being tortured. Who knows, maybe he looks good in high heels?) At two points, especially in a scene guaranteed to drive dog lovers nuts, Jennifer is given a choice to save her own skin or save someone else. Each time she chooses her own skin, which doesn’t endear her to us. Neither does her sudden sexual avidity when she discovers another captive, Gary (Daniel Gillies), who must also look good in high heels. Or maybe, just maybe, he’s in cahoots with the killer.

Some of Captivity is authentically sleazy and unpleasant in a way that recalls the grindhouse crap of the early ‘80s. You may recall there was a bit of a kerfuffle over the film’s marketing campaign, which promised deep dark misogyny and maybe, just maybe, a memorable if ugly horror movie (the genre has never given a whit about hurting people’s feelings). But nothing in the movie is felt. If we’re supposed to see Jennifer as a snotty little fashion plate who needs a reality slap, the movie isn’t structured that way. She’s kidnapped for reasons that don’t have a lot to do with her personally. So the film comes off as being impersonal and pointless. We get to watch disgusting things for no apparent reason, and Joffé or Solomon or whoever actually filmed the atrocities don’t seem invested in the carnage. It’s just plopped in front of us like lukewarm macaroni and cheese, and we’re supposed to eat it.

Was this going to be a PG-13 film at one point? I ask because the movie shows us an eyeball and other organs being whipped up in a blender, and then later has a character saying “You sick piece of crap!” to the torturer. That’s where a far stronger choice of language should go, given the context, but sometimes the movie watches its mouth and sometimes it gives us gore, nudity, and F-bombs. The theatrically released version of Captivity may serve one important function, though; it could be shown alongside Joffé’s original cut in film-school classes to show how a good movie can be made bad, or a bad movie can be made worse, by ham-handed businessmen chasing a supposed horror-movie craze that was already dead a year ago.

Mad Cowgirl

July 6, 2007

I…got nothin’. Gregory Hatanaka’s Mad Cowgirl is either brilliant or awful. I honestly don’t know which. Five stars? One star? I can’t give it an average of three, because on eFilmCritic that means “Just Average,” and this movie rips the molars out of “average” and fucks the tooth sockets. Four stars, then. I dunno, man, I just work here.

Mad Cowgirl might be the sort of film that gains clarity on repeated viewings, except that sitting through it even once is more than a little punishing. Hatanaka has crafted a deliberately off-putting and alienating narrative about Therese (the brave and potent Sarah Lassez), a health inspector who scrutinizes beef. Mad-cow disease is much in the news, but Therese, even after looking at rancid meat all day, loves to tuck into rare steak at night. She also enjoys — if that is the word — trysts with various creepy men, including a televangelist named Pastor Dylan (Walter Koenig!) and her own brother Thierry (James Duval), who packs meat.

Therese is all about forbidden flesh — animal flesh, male flesh. When she’s not fucking, chowing down on beef, or vomiting from the brain illness that’s probably killing her (a tumor? mad-cow disease?), she’s mesmerized by a cheezoid TV show called The Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick. She spirals further into self-annihilating sex, consumption, and hallucinatory flights of gory fantasy. Or maybe it’s real, to the extent that anything in the context of Mad Cowgirl is real.

It’s absolutely one of those movies that wouldn’t exist if David Lynch had never been born: the sound mix has the familiar Lynchian rumble of brain cells sliding into irreversible obsession. Now and again I was reminded of Donnie Darko, not only because both films share James Duval (completing his trilogy of Fucked-Up Protagonist Indie Flicks, including Lucky McKee’s May), but because it has a similar restless yen for pop culture and a comparable roster of wackos adorning an aggressively surreal and interiorized mindscape.

The literal read would be that Mad Cowgirl — or “Mad-Cow Girl” — examines the deteriorating consciousness of a woman whose brain is being corkscrewed into bloody spongy bits by bovine spongiform encephalopathy. I would guess, though, that Hatanaka intends nothing so banal. Everything in the movie clings to the mad-cow metaphor like barnacles on a leaky ship: big Catholic guilt, self-loathing promiscuity, overidentification with a cheesecake ass-kicker on TV. Therese is America! A sack of undigested meat, emotion, longing! Or something like that. I can trace the tone and style of Mad Cowgirl to this or that, but the way it’s assembled is fiercely personal and unique.

For all that, I’m glad the disc is getting sent back to Netflix tomorrow so it won’t be in my home anymore. I wonder if Hatanaka would find that response pleasing. Designed to be unpleasant, Mad Cowgirl rams a rough, cactusy finger in your rawest open wound and grinds it around in there for 89 minutes. I sure wouldn’t want a steady diet of movies like it. But I find it oddly comforting that movies like it are still being made. 4

Transformers (2007)

July 3, 2007

I’d like to meet the person who genuinely finds Transformers exciting. I’d like to know how the person’s eyes and brain are wired. I’m legitimately curious. Like all other Michael Bay films, Transformers sets up potentially exhilarating action sequences and then stomps them into tedium with a combination of unscannable editing and inept camera placement. Is it a generational thing? Are my eyes too old to process the genius here? Do the people who love Michael Bay’s movies find films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Aliens, and the original Die Hard too sedate and visually bland?

Critics who’ve registered a formal complaint about Transformers have been lambasted left and right by the fanboy community, who tell us to stick to Citizen Kane and sensitive art films. Let me be clear: Not one of us developed our love for movies by watching Tarkovsky or Antonioni. We grew up on Disney, Star Wars, Saturday-morning cartoons. We know what expectations to bring to a movie like Transformers, thanks very much. And by any standard, the movie is lumpy, hectic and impersonal, and the kids who are now growing up on movies like this deserve a lot better.

Shia LaBeouf, the current It Boy, just about rescues his small wing of the movie. He’s playing a smart kid (not geek-smart or book-smart, just a kid who can think fast on his feet) who finds that his new Camaro, jointly paid for by Dad, is actually a Transformer named Bumblebee. Bumblebee is an Autobot, or good Transformer, and he and other Autobots have come to Earth in search of the Cube, a mystical bit of hardware that must not fall into the claws of the Decepticons, or bad Transformers. LaBeouf makes his scenes bearable by reacting to all this as a normal person would, though God knows he doesn’t have much help from his castmates, either robotic or, in the case of Megan Fox as his school crush, slightly less robotic. LaBeouf invests his performance and even his throwaway lines (like his repeated “No nononono!” whenever something disastrous happens) with an urgency that Bay would’ve done well to learn from.

There are many sad attempts at humor, often involving clownish black people (Bernie Mac, Anthony Anderson), sometimes involving the innate goofiness of giant robots trying to hide themselves outside Shia’s parents’ house. At a couple of points, crappy heavy-metal kicks in on the soundtrack during a chase scene, and I actually sat up in my seat a bit, hoping for a sign that the movie was about to go all the way into ‘80s cheese. Sadly, the chase scenes are as stubbornly mishandled as everything else. A lot of people spent a lot of hours and money to create the battle sequences, only to have their work ruined by Bay and his three editors. The last act of Transformers could have been filmed in someone’s backyard for two dollars with close-ups of toasters being bashed into each other. For all I know, toasters are what we’re watching. The climactic face-off between Optimus Prime and Megatron clanks by in a blur of metal and motion.

Forget the racism (including a jive-talking Autobot and a nose-picking Indian phone jockey); forget the near-total lack of human interest (I don’t know why John Turturro is in this movie, and I don’t think he knows either); forget the Cuisinart editing; forget the ridiculous running time (two hours and twenty-four minutes); forget all the lore and all the expectations. Why is this, a movie about good giant robots fighting bad giant robots, so punishingly boring? How can you possibly screw that up? How could $150 million buy such a lackluster-looking film? How could two (credited) writers sit in a room and not know that what they were writing was neither entertaining nor funny? Finally, how could people so enjoy Transformers that they actually applauded (at the show I went to) and take the time to compose sneering rebuttals to every critic who didn’t like it? Is there some mass hypnosis going on? I don’t get it. I honestly don’t.


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