Archive for July 2005

The Aristocrats

July 29, 2005

thumbnailBob Saget, of all people, reigns supreme as the foulest, sickest mind in The Aristocrats, a galvanizing new documentary. Known to millions for his innocuous TV persona on Full House and America’s Funniest Home Videos, Saget — who’s notorious for his raunchy humor in his stand-up act — comes alive here in a way that shocks even him.

Saget tells a joke — a joke legendary among comedians but unknown to general audiences. The set-up is simple, the punchline nonsensical and not especially funny. There’s a guy, see, who walks into a talent agency. Talent agent says, Whaddaya got for me? Guy says, I got a family act. Talent agent says, Okay, what do you do? And the rest of it is as vile and obscene as the teller can make it, varying from comedian to comedian. The family’s act consists of them engaging in all manners of revolting behavior, wallowing in the perverse, the incestuous, the scatalogical, the bestial. Finally, the talent agent says, “That’s some act. What do you call it?” The guy says, “The Aristocrats.”

No, I don’t get it either. And neither do most of the comedians. The joke is an anti-joke — an engraved invitation to fill the middle void with elaborately vulgar riffing. The Aristocrats, directed by comedian Paul Provenza and executive-produced by him and Penn Jillette, is a loving act of meta-comedy, bringing us infinite variations on the joke, dissecting it, critiquing it, ruminating on the best ways to tell it. Drew Carey, for instance, always completes the joke with a finger-snapping flourish, and is surprised to learn that he’s the only one out of the over 100 comedians interviewed in the documentary who does that. Whoopi Goldberg demurs at first, saying that her version would be too much like the others, and then comes up with an infectiously funny bit involving foreskins. Carrie Fisher brings her Hollywood parentage into it. Lisa Lampanelli, seen as one of the harshest voices on Comedy Central’s roast of Pamela Anderson, cheerfully throws racism into the mix, as do a few others, reasoning that if sexual fantasias shock few people any more, racist humor still does.

The movie’s ads proclaim “No nudity. No violence. Unspeakable obscenity.” But, in a way, The Aristocrats features the most nudity and violence in movie history — worse than the worst porn or horror movie — because the outrages unfold in your mind’s eye. The comedians are successful at the telling (some aren’t — Eddie Izzard, for instance) to the extent that they can paint a verbal picture through sheer physical specificity. Bob Saget excels on that level, almost sheepishly giving voice to the squirming atrocities in his head. He’s almost touching: he can’t help himself. Given carte blanche to let his comedic id run free, he visibly falters twice, cackling face down into the table. A couple of comedians, including Andy Richter, tell particularly nasty variations while holding their infant children (who goggle at their daddies uncomprehendingly, adding to the hilarious wrongness of it all).

Apparently filmed on the fly on an array of camcorders, the movie is no great shakes as cinema, and Provenza and Jillette might’ve aimed more for quality than quantity. At times, The Aristocrats seems like nothing so much as an archival project, gathering together generations of comedians with this one joke in common. Time constraints, I’m assuming, account for some of the omissions; many of the comedians, like Chris Rock, appear only to discuss the joke. Other omissions were unavoidable and greatly pained the filmmakers, who would’ve killed to have Buddy Hackett, Rodney Dangerfield, and Johnny Carson (it was his favorite joke) in the movie, but they were all too ill to participate at the time of filming. Provenza and Jillette do try for variety, employing a mime, two jugglers, and a ventriloquist to give their unique twists on the joke. The South Park boys appear, with Cartman delighting in perhaps the most self-consciously transgressive variation, poking fun at the ultimate sacred cow of our times — 9/11.

It was 9/11, in fact, that led to Gilbert Gottfried’s celebrated telling of the joke at Hugh Hefner’s Friars’ Roast. It was only a few weeks after the attacks, and the city’s comedians were frozen, unsure of how far or how hard to push. Gottfried, who never gives a fuck who he offends, warmed up his roast with a 9/11 joke, and was met with stony silence and a call of “Too soon!” from the audience. Undeterred, Gottfried reached elsewhere for his edgy comedy — into the familiar territory of The Aristocrats. Sensibly, Provenza and Jillette show most of it in the film. Everyone in the room knew the joke and couldn’t believe Gottfried was going there, and the joke killed; Rob Schneider, in perhaps the sole instance of his being funny onscreen, literally fell off his chair laughing. The ice was broken, and Gottfried, through a particularly scabrous path, had performed an odd act of catharsis. It was okay to laugh again; it was okay to be filthy and vicious again.

Does the joke — or the movie — have any larger significance than being a comedians’ in-joke (or a document of it)? Well, it’s not the sort of documentary that will win an Oscar, nor does it have to be. Its very about-itself unimportance is what makes it a liberating experience for its own sake. Some commentators have theorized that Jillette, the famous master of bullshit in order to reveal the mechanics of bullshit, actually fabricated the Vaudeville history of The Aristocrats — the joke, according to this line of thinking, never actually existed until this film, in which Jillette and Provenza invited dozens of comedians to expound and riff on this theoretical joke. If that’s true, the joke is on us, but that doesn’t invalidate the joke’s power to let people like Bob Saget swim deep into their own wild subconscious and marvel at what bubbles to the surface.

Sky High

July 29, 2005

31_skyhighSome of the best superhero movies aren’t based on existing comic books. Movies like Sam Raimi’s Darkman and Brad Bird’s The Incredibles had no four-color mythology to be faithful to and no comics fans to appease, so they used their imaginations freely. At the other extreme, of course, you have uninspired misfires like Hero at Large and The Return of Captain Invincible. Disney’s Sky High falls somewhere in the middle. A fun enough mishmash of Spy Kids, X-Men, and your typical John Hughes flick, the movie stays aloft when it considers the pleasures and pains of being a superpowered teenager, but hits some turbulence when the script’s focus turns to whether our young hero will ask the perfect senior girl to the Homecoming Dance or his best-buddy gal pal, who adores him.

I suppose that might have been an interesting, though far less flamboyant, movie — a teen comedy that keeps the superpowers in the deep background. But Sky High tries for both thrills and teen-movie character beats, and it turns out there’s a reason that we only catch a glimpse of the nonheroic goings-on in the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters in the X-Men films. The scenario is better suited to an ongoing series, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which deftly balanced its teen angst and world-saving. Indeed, Sky High feels like a long pilot episode for a TV show or cartoon, though it would have plenty of competition in that field, from Teen Titans and the like.

The movie does have an amusing cast. Kurt Russell, who returned to his Disney roots with 2004′s Miracle and seems to enjoy being back home again, turns up in what amounts to a supporting role as The Commander, a famous superhero who, under his regular-guy alias Steve Stronghold, sells real estate with wife Josie (Kelly Preston), who can also fly. The union of two superheroes has produced fourteen-year-old Will (Michael Angarano), who is sent to Dad’s alma mater Sky High, a school exclusively for budding heroes. Will’s problem is that his powers haven’t manifested yet, and he’s not sure they ever will. The school divides the kids into Heroes and Sidekicks (they prefer to be called Hero Support) based on their powers, and Will gets stuck with the Sidekicks, who befriend him.

The wittiest casting is in the teachers’ lounge: Bruce Campbell is the contemptuous Coach Boomer, whose job it is to consign “losers” to the Sidekicks table; erstwhile Wonder Woman Lynda Carter is the school principal, and two Kids in the Hall — Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald — are also on the faculty. None of them gets to do much, though; they’ve been cast to please fans. Most of our time is spent with Will, who’s torn between the unassuming, mildly rebellious Layla (Danielle Panabaker), who can create plant life, and class president Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, looking like Lucy Lawless’ kid sister), who can control technology, which might explain why Spandau Ballet’s “True” kicks in on the soundtrack whenever Will ogles her. (Actually, it’s a cover version of the song — the soundtrack is full of new versions of ’80s pop tunes, a sacrilege to fans of ’80s music that seems to have no connection with the movie itself. At least when 50 First Dates did it, the covers were all reggae-flavored and appropriate to the movie’s setting.)

Sky High‘s big lesson is that you should be true to yourself and not look down on your less fabulous classmates, a speech that teen movies apparently never tire of delivering, though the teenagers most likely to benefit from the message wouldn’t be caught dead at a Disney flick about superheroes. The movie is colorful and amusing when it sticks to the superpowered kids and their ways of dealing with their powers, less so when we actually get the cobwebbed scene of poor Layla stood up at a Chinese restaurant while Will hangs out with perfect Gwen. The classroom scenes are fresh, particularly the “Save the Citizen” competition and Dave Foley’s bits as a former Sidekick who teaches the nuances of proper Hero Support. If this had been done as a mockumentary following the faculty as they attempt to get through to their oblivious, hormonal students — difficult enough without throwing superpowers into the mix — it would’ve been a useful, satiric antidote to the comic-book movies we’ve already gotten too many of. Instead, it’s just kind of a mildly entertaining footnote.

The Island (2005)

July 22, 2005

1scarlett-gal-the-islandTwenty-three summers ago, when the science-fiction and fantasy genres seemed to be taking over cinema, critics worried about the dumbing-down of those genres by such movies as Tron, Star Trek II, Blade Runner, E.T., and The Thing (of course, they were wrong on some of them). I feel like going back in time, advising those critics to enjoy those relatively visionary and brainy films, and telling them they ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot got the action-flick dumbing-down last summer, and this time around we have Michael Bay, who could probably make Dostoyevsky into something stupid. Ironically, his new one, The Island, is actually a fairly decent sci-fi thriller for its first half — immaculately designed, intriguingly written, and, for once, not edited with a Cuisinart. I began to wonder if Bay had even been on the set. Then the second half kicked in, and I didn’t wonder anymore.

The movie would have been far more effective if the ads didn’t give away the premise — that young heroes Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) are actually clones of rich people in the outside world, and that they, along with thousands of other jump-suited drones in their sterile community, are being kept around until their “sponsors” on the outside need a fresh heart or kidney. The clones are kept docile by the promise that they will someday win a “lottery” and go to “the Island.” Diets are strictly monitored and enforced; sexes are not allowed to mingle beyond casual friendship.

The Island actually does an ominous and detailed job of setting all this up. The movie feels as if it were once much smarter — something on the order of Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca — and, sure enough, it probably was. Caspian Tredwell-Owen (Beyond Borders) wrote a script that caught the eye of Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks; Michael Bay was offered the project, and, predictably, the first thing he did was to hire two writers from the TV show Alias to pump it up. The script was being revised right up to the wire, literally weeks away from its premiere. The lesson here may be that the worst thing that can happen to a good script is to have Hollywood express interest in it, rather like having a rapist take an interest in your daughter.

Lincoln finds out his true destiny, courtesy of Steve Buscemi, who always plays sarcastic guys who exist to wise the hero up. Lincoln and Jordan go on the run, and here, dear friends, is where the movie finds its own destiny as a Michael Bay opus. There are idiotic chases with cars flipping end over end; there are many explosions and that bit you’ve seen in the ads with Lincoln and Jordan falling to earth inside a giant red R. None of this has anything to do with the core of this material, which raises thorny questions the movie blithely ignores. Lincoln meets his own “sponsor,” an arrogant Scottish racer with a bad liver, and Jordan sees hers on TV but never meets her. The climax of a thoughtful film might have had Jordan’s sponsor make a case for Jordan’s sacrifice: “Look, you’re my clone, I wasn’t told that you were a sentient being and this must really suck for you. But without you I’m going to die and my child will be an orphan.” How would Jordan respond to such an appeal? Good question. No answer.

Rather too easily, the “sponsors” are all rich people trying to buy immortality, and the man who runs the whole show is played by Sean Bean, that specialist in Machiavellian duplicity (he might as well have been wearing a dark pin-striped suit even in The Fellowship of the Ring). The hilarious thing is, none of the dumbing-down and pumping-up helped The Island worth a damn at the box office: it came in at #4 its opening weekend, beaten by three films that had been playing a week or more. What kept audiences away? The Michael Bay brand name? The feeling that they’d seen the relevant parts of the film in the trailer? The been-there-done-that factor (The Island is more or less an unofficial remake of 1979′s Parts: The Clonus Horror)? Maybe, with all the sequels and remakes this summer, audiences have seen quite enough clones already; they didn’t want to see a clone about clones.

The Devil’s Rejects

July 22, 2005

rejects_butRob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects is rated R, according to the MPAA, “for sadistic violence, strong sexual content, language and drug use.” If not for that pesky drug use, do you think we might’ve had a G-rated film here? Not a Rob Zombie film (though his next movie should be an all-ages musical, just to mess with our heads). The Devil’s Rejects is one of the most unremittingly unpleasant films ever made, a grubby fantasia of psychosis that barges into our faces with rotten teeth, fetid breath, armpit stench, and sharp instruments caked with clotted blood and scalp hair. You are excused from the movie, and from the rest of this review, if that sounds a bit much for you.

For the rest of us — we few, we happy few, we band of cult-movie fanatics — The Devil’s Rejects is a labor of love sheathed in the shabby clothes of hate. Rob Zombie adores the anti-PC, take-no-prisoners horror and exploitation films of his misspent youth, and in this film and his previous effort (House of 1000 Corpses) he does what he can to bring the puke-and-piss stink of grindhouse theaters into your friendly local multiplex. (The movie should really be seen at a late Saturday-night showing, surrounded by loud and potentially violent strangers.) Zombie goes so far as to provide acting work for his drive-in heroes, from the instantly recognizable Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead) and Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) to the almost unrecognizable P.J. Soles (Halloween) and Mary Woronov (Eating Raoul). As Dave Chappelle in the persona of Rick James said: “It’s a celebration, bitches!”

Those who missed House of 1000 Corpses won’t have a hard time following The Devil’s Rejects, even though it’s a semi-sequel, bringing back the earlier film’s maniacal Firefly family. As the film opens, the vengeful Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), still nursing the loss of his cop brother at the bloody hands of the Fireflys, leads an army of officers to the remote Firefly farmhouse. The matriarch, Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook, subbing for Karen Black and overacting her heart out), is arrested; the others — sadistic Otis (Bill Moseley) and snarling wildcat Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie, the director’s wife) — escape and meet up with creepy TV clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), the family’s default father figure. Sheriff Wydell, gradually getting more and more freaky, is hot on their trail, though not hot enough to stop the Fireflys from kidnapping a country-music family headed by Geoffrey Lewis and Priscilla Barnes.

Things begin nasty and get nastier. There are no heroes in The Devil’s Rejects, just degrees of villainy. Zombie goes as far as he can within the confines of an R rating, which turns out to be pretty far. The tone of free-floating menace and unchecked sadism will be familiar to fans of such grindhouse classics as Fight for Your Life, I Spit on Your Grave, and particularly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (there’s a horrific sick joke involving the swapping of a victim’s face). There are enough looming gravel-voiced madmen and nutbrain monologues (Robert Trebor has an antic appearance as a movie critic called in for his Marx Brothers expertise) to keep Quentin Tarantino happily chortling for days. There’s an extended finale, set to the mournful twang of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” — one of many stained-beard rock standards on the soundtrack; the movie is set in 1978, after all — that touches brilliance and deeply divides our responses (We want these sick fucks to die!…Except we don’t….But we should!…And yet, we don’t).

I enjoyed The Devil’s Rejects on the same level that I enjoyed House of 1000 Corpses — as a tribute. Rob Zombie desperately wants to reproduce the snarling teeth of the cult films he reveres, which isn’t the same as making his own cult films. They’re cultish by default — they’re so arrogantly, gleefully ugly they don’t look like anything else out there (the same was true of Alexandre Aja’s High Tension). Zombie is genuflecting at the altar of Tobe Hooper and Sam Peckinpah and a hundred forgotten Z-movie directors. The result is fun but won’t truly disturb anyone who’s seen the same movies Zombie has (heck, you only have to go as far as Natural Born Killers and the first hour of From Dusk Till Dawn, the latter of which is echoed very strongly here). I’m not saying that Quentin Tarantino has or should have a monopoly on grindhouse homage; the more directors working in that disreputable form, the more fun for us cult-film geeks, I suppose. But I’d like to see what else Zombie has up his sleeve. If, indeed, he has anything else.

Bad News Bears (2005)

July 22, 2005

10916977_galIf Bad News Bears isn’t the second film in Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad trilogy (following 2003′s Bad Santa), it should be. Shambling into the frame and muttering dark, unprintable things to himself, Thornton is an inspired choice to play the new Coach Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau’s role in the 1976 original), a broken-down has-been who takes a Little League team full of misfits and steers them towards the championship game. The movie is affable and nothing great, but it works, mostly due to Thornton’s charismatic anti-charisma. He is the unlikeliest actor to play a lead role in a studio film, much less a studio film with a cast of kids, and he knows it, and so do we. He plays losers with a kind of shabby dignity, and his triumphs are ours; we feel more comfortable rooting for him than for, say, Tom Cruise or other streamlined models from the Hollywood factory.

I’m not sure Bad News Bears needed to be remade; for one thing, in the nearly thirty years since its first incarnation, we’ve been inundated with kiddie sports films featuring wise-ass kids (hell, Keanu Reeves went down this road four years ago in Hardball). The original film was notable in its day for the amount of profanity (albeit PG-rated) the kids were allowed to spew; the remake is similarly colorful in its rhetoric, though some of the antics have been toned down — no smoking, no racial epithets (with one exception delivered by a snotty opponent). Nothing here really risks scandalizing parents, apart from the detail that the team’s sponsor is a strip club, and Buttermaker takes the kids out for a victory chow-down at Hooters and leads them in a rousing rendition of Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine.”

Some will be attracted to the movie by Billy Bob, others by the director, Richard Linklater, who has had one of the more varied careers among indie-filmmakers of his generation. Linklater seems to approach Bad News Bears as a bookend piece to his 2003 School of Rock, in which a disgruntled has-been showed kids the way to Led Zeppelin Valhalla. Those looking for the Linklater of Dazed and Confused or Before Sunset in the film will be baffled; he has made the movie because he always wanted to make a baseball film, and this project came across his desk, and he has done an honorable and unobtrusive job. Linklater stages the games well, sometimes keeping the camera at a good remove so that we can see an entire play unfold on the diamond, rather than cheating with editing. He handles the young cast deftly, except for ringers Sammi Kane Kraft (as the girl pitcher who doesn’t throw like a girl) and Jeff Davies (as a punk with a mean swing), who are real-life athletes but quite obviously not trained actors; in a couple of scenes, genuine acting is needed from them, and they’re just not up to it, but they play beautifully.

The movie may end on a shot of the red, white and blue fluttering over the field, but Bad News Bears is no callow belch of patriotism or the ethic of winning. In the home stretch, Buttermaker pushes the kids hard to win, but then seems to understand (Thornton conveys it mostly with his eyes) that this game should be more about letting each kid play and have a good time. We want them to win, if for no other reason than to wipe the smug grin off the opposing team’s coach (Greg Kinnear at his smarmiest), but ultimately it’s not important to the narrative. The movie is your standard underdog sports comedy, with the ramshackle wit of Billy Bob Thornton and the gentle touch of Richard Linklater. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

July 15, 2005

pics-icharlie-the-chocolate-factoryi-20050628043340577-000I’ll bet there are many adults today who have queasy memories of 1971′s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Psychedelic yet moralistic, the movie offered Gene Wilder in his full passive-aggressive efflorescence as the mysterious chocolatier Willy Wonka, whose gentle demeanor cloaked what appeared to be a deep contempt for children, his most loyal clientele. It also had ghastly songs (without this movie, Sammy Davis Jr. wouldn’t have inflicted “The Candy Man” on telethon viewers year after year), those obnoxious Oompa Loompas, and colorful but indifferent direction by Mel Stuart. If anyone feels any sort of residual fondness for it, it’s because that malicious fantasist Roald Dahl, in his original book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, devised such a ready-made fantasy concept: five children invited to spend a day in the world’s largest choccy emporium.

Remakes generally depress me as much as they do anyone else, but Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is poised to become a new cult classic to replace the old one. Burton understands this story in a way few other directors could (although Danny DeVito, who did a rascally job with Dahl’s Matilda, might also have had fun with the project). This director constantly veers from mopiness to flamboyant glee, though Charlie is closer in tone to his Beetlejuice than to his Edward Scissorhands. Once again, Burton has Johnny Depp along for the ride, and though many have said that Depp has based his Willy Wonka on Michael Jackson, I suspect he’s really playing the only person he ever plays in Tim Burton films — Tim Burton. This Wonka is a misfit who enjoys showing off his elaborately designed playpen but isn’t much fazed by those who don’t appreciate it.

As in all other versions, the hero is Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore), who lives in a broken-down house with his poverty-level family. Burton, however, takes the pathos out of Charlie’s situation by giving him a house right out of German expressionism — the entire doorway leans inward, for instance. Charlie is one of the five kids who discover a Golden Ticket inside a Wonka candy bar — a ticket to a day inside the elusive Wonka’s factory. The other kids are brats who each illustrate a childish trait that Dahl hated: gluttonous Augustus Gloop, gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde, cathode-mesmerized Mike Teavee (whose fixation has been updated to videogames), and, worst of all, spoiled rich girl Veruca Salt, whose attitude is so rotten that a rock band named themselves after her. Their punishments, as before, fit their crimes, though one wonders what exactly Roald Dahl had against gum-chewing.

Instead of sappy Anthony Newley songs, this movie has Danny Elfman scoring the original lyrics from Dahl’s book; there’s no brain-searing “Oompa Loompa doompadee doo” song here. The Oompa Loompas are all played (via digital replication) by the diminutive Indian actor Deep Roy, whose unsmiling and uncute persona here is both refreshing and consistently funny. The sets are, of course, obvious sets, but they always are in Tim Burton’s films; the nasty bits (claustrophobes will, as ever, have a hard time with Augustus Gloop’s fate) are softened by Burton’s jaunty sense of artifice. Gene Wilder can criticize this remake all he wants — Burton and Depp have simply done it better.

I have mixed feelings about a backstory added by scripter John August, in which the young Wonka’s fascination with sweets is neatly tied to his forbidding dentist dad. It adds little to the story except for a lame coda in which Wonka, having learned the power of family, reunites with his dad; however, since the father is played by Christopher Lee — still going strong at 83, Hammer bless him — I’ll forgive it. This Factory, genuinely beautiful and imaginative, is the movie that admirers of the original Factory (who haven’t seen it since they were kids) carry around in their heads. And it adds another lovable freak to the Burton/Depp gallery, perhaps the freakiest of all. Even without the Jacko undertones some viewers see in it, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the most truly subversive entertainment for kids since … well, since Roald Dahl stopped writing.

Fantastic Four (2005)

July 8, 2005

aph_9Superheroes were pretty bland and flawless until 1961. That’s when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced Fantastic Four, the comic book that changed everything. Here were four heroes with truly weird attributes even by comics standards: a scientist who could stretch (inspired by Jack Cole’s 1940s character Plastic Man), a woman who could turn invisible, a man made of orange rock, and a young (literal) hothead who could command flame. Only the last one — the Human Torch — had been around before, in early Marvel comics of the ’40s. Moreover, these heroes had problems; they bickered. The comic was as much about their personalities, their prickly family dynamic, as about their adventures protecting Earth against cosmic villains. For superhero fans in 1961, this was radical. A case could be made that Fantastic Four was the Elvis of comics — the one that changed and influenced everything thereafter.

After several false starts, including a notoriously bad and unreleased 1994 film, the Fantastic Four — stretchy Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd), transparent Sue Storm/Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba), fiery Johnny Storm/Human Torch (Chris Evans), and encrusted Ben Grimm/The Thing (Michael Chiklis) — finally emerge as the stars of their own big-budget blockbuster. By now, though, it’s impossible for a Fantastic Four movie to be as revolutionary as the comic was. The movie is fun enough — I enjoyed it — and it can’t help but be better than the 1994 version, which was rushed into production with a $2 million budget and looks like it cost half that. After a slew of comic-book films, including the cinematically daring Sin City, this one just breaks no new ground. Not helping matters is The Incredibles, which stole Fantastic Four‘s thunder.

Still, the movie more or less successfully grafts the comic’s 1960s spirit to the attitudes of the 2000s. Johnny Storm, for instance, is now an adrenaline junkie, jumping into any number of “extreme sports,” and it’s perfectly in character for him (and Chris Evans, very aware that eyes are on him in a summer blockbuster, rises to the occasion and gives a fine comic-book performance with emphasis on the comic). The quartet’s nemesis Doctor Doom (Julian McMahon) is now a suave billionaire who bankrolls the foursome’s fateful space flight, accompanying them for good measure. The space-shot exposes all five crew members to radioactivity that forever alters their DNA; in Doom’s case, it slowly turns his body into metal. Stan Lee tapped into a generation’s fear of and fascination with radioactivity; half his hero roster (including Spider-Man, the Hulk, and Daredevil) were similarly afflicted.

The film is affable enough, though nothing much seems to be at stake. Fully half the movie is given over to who the Fantastic Four are and how they got that way, and in a 105-minute film that doesn’t leave much time for actually showing those amazing superpowers in action. There’s one nice extended sequence in which all four heroes work together to save a firetruck teetering off a bridge; this act wins them unwanted celebrity and the adoration of blasé New Yorkers (the Fantastic Four have always been the most beloved heroes within the Marvel universe, unlike the prejudice-hounded mutants of the X-Men, the media-derided Spider-Man, or the military-hunted Hulk). But mostly this feels like the first half of an origin story, as most other comic-book movies do, trying to reach non-fans as well as fans. Perhaps one reason why Spider-Man 2 and X2 were so satisfying was that they had the luxury of assuming everyone knew the backstory, and they were free to launch into action.

I may be in the minority in preferring a lightweight flick like this to the überserious Batman Begins, but Fantastic Four harks back to the more innocent days of comics — the adventures I read when I was five and I thought it would be cool to hang out with the Thing or Spider-Man. Who’d want to hang out with the grim, preoccupied Batman of Batman Begins? Frank Miller’s anguished, age-haunted Batman: The Dark Knight Returns struck many of us in 1986 as a revelation, but it was meant for teens and older readers, and every comic book thereafter tried to duplicate its success by turning gloomy and gritty. Do kids even find any pure escapist fun in comics these days? The movies based on comics have gotten awfully heavy with angst, too — hell, the first X-Men movie kicked off with a flashback to Auschwitz, for Christ’s sake. All of this may explain why Fantastic Four — though I much prefer The Incredibles on this level — made me happy even though it’s nothing great or inspired. For two hours, I was five again, sipping a coffee frappe under a tree on a summer afternoon, and reading about the Thing punching Dr. Doom through a plate-glass window.

Undead

July 7, 2005

There’s such a thin line between homage and rip-off, and sometimes it just comes down to whether you find it entertaining. Neil Marshall paid respects to John Carpenter and George Miller in Doomsday, and the film seemed like it filled a gap left by those two masters. Undead, the debut feature by Michael and Peter Spierig, is so baldly a tribute to the movies these brothers grew up on that it really should be stamped “Property of Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi and Steven Spielberg.” Yes, Spielberg. The film is set in the bustling Australian town of Berkeley, which might as well be called Amity; Cliff Bradley’s score bites large chunks out of John Williams’ Jaws music — not the da-dum da-dum theme but specifically “Promenade (Tourists on the Menu)” — and spits them out barely chewed. The brothers have obviously also closely watched the ending of Close Encounters, and there’s a rugged hero who wears a wide-brimmed hat.

The plot makes little sense. Some sort of meteorites rain down on Berkeley, colliding with various townspeople and turning them into zombies. There is also actual acid rain, a massive wall with metal spikes, and aliens who abduct people. It’s a real catch-all movie, made by two brothers who clearly wanted to stuff everything they think is cool into one film. The Spierigs also did the sometimes-impressive visual effects, using technology that a pre-WETA Peter Jackson could only have dreamed of when he was making Bad Taste on weekends. The gore in Undead is so over-the-top that the presumably inattentive 2003 guardians of the MPAA, which let the film pass with an R rating, might well have tolerated the splatter of Jackson’s Dead Alive and Raimi’s Evil Dead II (both of which had to go out unrated).

We spend most of our time with five survivors, three of whom — a cringing pilot and his whiny pregnant wife; an oafish cop — we don’t care about. Then there’s Rene (Felicity Mason), the town’s Miss Catch of the Day, and Marion (Mungo McKay), a well-fortified outdoorsman with more secret passages in his house than actual rooms, one suspects. These two are interesting, but the script just gives them the usual survival notes to play. What passes for character here is when the movie stops dead to demonstrate some bad-ass move by Marion or Rene. (Sorry, but are their last names Ravenwood and Belloq by any chance?)

Is any of this fun? In fits and starts it’s faintly cool, though the tone is all over the place; sometimes we’re meant to hoot and holler, sometimes we’re supposed to take it deadly seriously. But, again, it comes down to whether the antic pastiche works for you, and I found my attention wandering early on, when I realized the undigested scraps that fed the filmmakers’ imagination weren’t going to resolve themselves into a vision uniquely their own. No, the Spierigs are content to stage things that were cooler, frankly, when other directors did them. I suppose Undead works on the calling-card level of “Look what we can do on a shoestring.” Duly noted. But, since others have done far more original things with even less money, how great a recommendation is that?


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