Archive for June 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

June 27, 2007

The original Die Hard was a beautiful machine of mayhem, full of colorful characters and great, funny dialogue that had little to do with the action (“Hello, this is Agent Johnson…No, the other one”). Since it made big money, it has spawned several unmemorable sequels, including the new one, Live Free or Die Hard. The first film had crazy action sequences and a winning hero in blue-collar NYC cop John McClane (Bruce Willis), but it also let itself breathe and flesh out all the other pieces on the board — it probably has the best overall supporting cast of any action flick in the last twenty years, starting with the incomparable Alan Rickman, whose Hans Gruber has spoiled us for all other movie masterminds in or out of the Die Hard franchise.

The new film brings back McClane and the insane action, but is as clueless about the original’s appeal — what makes it compulsively rewatchable — as the previous two follow-ups. It turns McClane into a wisecracking action figure, running here and there with computer whiz Justin Long to protect him from nefarious hacker Timothy Olyphant. It throws in some comic relief — recruiting Willis’ fellow Jersey native Kevin Smith as a cellar-dwelling hacker who calls himself The Warlock — but by and large it lacks personality.

For starters, Timothy Olyphant just isn’t a terribly compelling villain, or a particularly threatening one. Sure, his posse of minions manage to blow stuff up and perforate every standing piece of architecture with gunfire. And sure, he manages to kidnap McClane’s estranged, college-age daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). But there’s no menace to any of it, because if Olyphant’s hacker can do pretty much anything with computers, McClane can do pretty much anything with brute force. It’s nice of 20th-Century Fox to give us a Batman vs. Joker movie a year early, but it’s still not a Die Hard movie.

Director Len Wiseman (fifteen when the first Die Hard came out) foregoes the Hot Topic style of his previous Underworld series and delivers a fast-paced romp. The proceedings are brutal, though not bloody enough to get an R rating; there’s been much grousing on the Internet about Fox forcing a PG-13 on this installment, whereas the others were allowed all the gore — not to mention all the F-bombs — they needed. Truthfully, it doesn’t make all that much difference, since this wouldn’t feel like a John McClane adventure even with the splatter and the hero’s signature line, “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker.” Willis rocks a chrome dome here, ostensibly because McClane is older and balder now — a fine time to capitulate to realism in a movie that sees McClane outracing a disintegrating overpass in a truck — and he retains McClane’s puckish habit of taunting his foes with reminders of how he killed their buddies. Willis is lighter of spirit here than he has been in a while, but the appeal of his character — the working-class guy who outwits evil geniuses with a little bit of Jersey street smarts — gets nuked here because most of his triumphs are based on dumb luck (killing a helicopter with a car) or flatly superhuman feats of agility.

Which, to be fair, seem to be shared by the villains. Maggie Q (who has yet to be used well in a Hollywood film) appears as one of Olyphant’s thugs, and she mops the floor with Willis, who then drives a car into her at full speed, plowing her through several walls. Despite this, she’s unharmed enough to continue beating the snot out of Willis moments later when the car is dangling in an elevator shaft. A lot of people keep wanting a sequel to Willis’ 1991 goof Hudson Hawk, but Live Free or Die Hard comes close to being Hudson Hawk 2 without the singing and the hipster indolence. John McClane has been hauled out of mothballs to show all the young pups how action movies are done, a good idea in theory but not, apparently, in execution.

Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation

June 25, 2007

At certain points while he was watching Eric Zala’s six-years-in-the-making shot-for-shot remake of his classic 1981 adventure, I’m sure Steven Spielberg breathed a sigh of relief that no kids got killed trying to reproduce the hairier sequences of his film.

By now, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation has become legendary, a film far more talked and read about than actually seen (it can only be shown at rare free screenings). For those who don’t know the backstory: In 1982, a trio of Mississippi kids ranging in age from 11 to 13 — Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and Jayson Lamb — decided to remake Raiders from start to finish. Six years later, after much turmoil and behind-the-scenes drama, the film was completed, was screened for an appreciative local audience, and then disappeared, shown only occasionally when one of the since-grown kids felt like breaking out the video to show to friends. Somehow, Eli Roth got ahold of a copy, flipped over it, pressed it into the hands of Harry Knowles, and encouraged him to show it at one of the Alamo Drafthouse’s Butt-Numb-A-Thons. Knowles did, the audience went insane, and a legend was born — or reborn. There’s now talk of Dan Clowes working on a movie based on the kids’ experiences.

Spielberg’s Raiders is my favorite film of all time, and I would be the first to lead a torch-bearing mob to the gates of Paramount if the studio announced an actual remake. But this remake, started by prepubescents and finished by battle-hardened veterans of DIY filmmaking, is consistently charming and even exciting on about the same level as the original. When I was a kid and saw Raiders for the first time, I laughed with happy glee at the whole desert truck chase sequence. When I watched the same sequence being done by teenagers — with no stuntman, no trench dug beneath the truck for safety, no nothin’ — I laughed with even happier glee: The crazy young bastards did it. Unlike a studio-mandated remake, this was done for love, not money, and the love — not only for Raiders but for filmmaking itself — glows in every shot.

This isn’t a “cute” Bugsy Malone thing, with kids playing dress-up and expecting us to be impressed by the novelty of it all. For about five minutes it does play that way, but as you get into what they’re doing and how many details they rigorously duplicate, the movie gets you more and more involved on different levels. As has been said elsewhere, you keep looking forward to the next death-defying scene and wondering how the hell they’re going to pull it off. And every damn time, they either pull it off or come up with an equally ingenious workaround, like substituting a motorboat for a plane at the end of the opening Peru sequence. (Why not? It gets Indy out of there just as efficiently.)

The actors — Strompolos as Indiana Jones, Angela Rodriguez as Marion, Zala as Belloq — famously get visibly older (or younger) depending on the scene. But that just gives us a deeper appreciation for the commitment required in this act of devotion. Zala in particular nails Belloq, suavely re-enacting Paul Freeman’s slimy but conflicted archaeologist. It’s obvious Zala and editor/cinematographer Jayson Lamb spent countless hours getting the Spielberg technique right — the smash-cut from the Ark’s lid thudding to the ground to Marion falling off her chair; the backlit medallion in the Map Room; the shot of a mournful Indy looking out the door at the Imam’s place (a shot that always got to me in the original).

Commitment — there’s that word again. Most kids would just want to film “the good parts,” but Zala and company stuck to the script, including all the exposition. If, for instance, they’d left out the conference between Indy and Marcus and the government guys (“Any of you guys go to Sunday school?”), I still would’ve enjoyed the film, but not quite as much. But they run through the whole scene, obviously as committed to getting it right as they are to staging the fiery shoot-out in Marion’s Nepalese tavern. (This was the first sequence where I imagined Spielberg being grateful that he didn’t read about it in 1983 as an AP item: KIDS DIE IN FIRE TRYING TO REMAKE INDIANA JONES FILM.)

Very often, the homemade solutions to duplicating a multimillion-dollar studio film match the ingenuity Spielberg showed in the original. In the shot from Indy’s POV, looking up from the Well of Souls to Belloq and his Nazi posse sitting smugly up top and looking down on him, the sky must not have been the shade of bright blue that Zala wanted, so there’s a blue tarp behind Belloq and company. That blue tarp sums up everything I love about this film. A goddamn blue tarp. I just have to give it up for that.

Yes, Jock’s airplane becomes Jock’s motorboat, the Nazi monkey becomes a Nazi puppy (Snickers, to whose memory the film is dedicated), and the brawl atop and underneath the flying wing was, probably wisely, skipped over. (Zala couldn’t convince anyone to loan him a plane; I don’t blame whoever said no. Again, the AP item: MAN LENDS PLANE TO KIDS FOR HOME VIDEO; TWO DIE IN PROPELLER ACCIDENT.) And there’s a funny little detail only an Indy geek like me would notice. In the original, Indy lodges his whip into the wall after swinging across the pit, and after the Peruvian temple starts falling apart, Satipo gets to the whip first. In the remake, Indy takes the whip with him, then gives it to Satipo on the way back to the pit so Satipo can swing across first. It makes Indy seem more generous somehow (or a sap, depending on how you look at it).

Otherwise, though, the fidelity to detail is astonishing. The sadistic Toht (Ted Ross) is seen on the airplane reading the same issue of Life magazine that Ronald Lacey hid behind in the original. Chris Strompolos inflects such lines as “It’s a date. Ya eat ’em” and “Ha ha ha ha — son of a bitch” with such precise Harrison Ford mannerisms it goes past mimicry into channeling Ford. The swinging-mirror gag is there (right down to the cutaway to an exterior shot of the ship as Indy howls); the coathanger gag is there; when Belloq and the drunken Indy sit in a bar, a gun is seen changing hands in the foreground, just as in the original. These touches add up, and there are times when you forget you’re watching a skillful teenage re-enactment and start seeing it simply as Raiders of the Lost Ark, with different faces, and seen through fresh eyes.

Spielberg himself has given the film his blessing, as well he should — it’s more entertaining than most of what he’s directed in the last decade or so. His upcoming fourth Indy film not only has to live up to its three predecessors — it has to live up to the efforts of Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos and Jayson Lamb. If Indiana Jones and the Whatever of Whichever isn’t at least as enthralling and engaging, and as deeply passionate about the challenges and magic of moviemaking, as this triumphant homegrown adventure is, it will have failed.


June 22, 2007

Michael Moore comes across best when he’s asking questions, or making movies in the form of questions, and in Sicko he asks the big one: Who are we? Not in the cosmic sense, but as Americans. How have we gotten to the point where we live with a cruel, unjust health-care system and not only do we accept it — we can’t imagine it any other way? Who thinks it’s okay that medical decisions that can mean life or death should be influenced by money? Who thinks that dumping patients on the street when they can’t pay their hospital bills is what America should be all about? Who could be proud of a nation that treats its people this way?

In other countries, all of this is unthinkable. Moore takes his cameras to Canada, where an American woman drives across the border and pretends to be a Canadian man’s common-law wife in order to get the cancer medications she’s been denied back home. He visits a crowded hospital waiting room and mock-naïvely asks the patients how long they waited and how much they paid. The answers: About 45 minutes at most, and nothing. Moore goes to England, where doctors are paid (very well) under the National Health Service according to how healthy their patients are. A cashier in a British hospital is there not to collect money from patients, but to hand out money to patients as reimbursement for transportation. In France, Moore is bewildered to find that the government pays for practically everything, including nannies for new mothers. Is Moore presenting an idealized view of the way other nations do it? Probably. Does that dilute the message that the way America does it is completely screwed? Nope.

In Sicko, Moore casts himself as the fair-minded, common-sense American wanting to know why the country he loves isn’t better. This isn’t a partisan broadside like Fahrenheit 9/11: while Moore makes the case that our health-care dilemma started with Nixon, he takes a few shots at politicians on either side of the aisle, including Hillary Clinton (for backing down on the health-care issue) and even the sainted JFK. This is the Michael Moore who once described Bill Clinton as the best Republican president we’ve ever had. He doesn’t even frame this as a rich-vs.-poor debate; he doesn’t spend much time on people without any health insurance. His focus is on hardworking Americans who thought they were covered until the insurance companies found ways to weasel out of paying, often with lethal results.

Reviewing Fahrenheit 9/11, I said that maybe it should’ve been The Lila Lipscomb Story, after the woman who was radicalized against the Iraq War after losing a son there. Well, Sicko has a whole cast of Lila Lipscombs — ordinary people who don’t just fall through the cracks but are pushed through them. Only the icy of soul and heart will fail to be outraged by the stories Moore finds here — the woman whose husband was denied bone-marrow treatment because it’s “experimental”; the woman whose little girl, in the throes of high fever, was shunted off to another, company-approved hospital only to go into cardiac arrest there; the man who lost the tips of two fingers in a sawing accident and was given a choice — do you want to fix the ring finger for $12,000 or the middle finger for $60,000? Which would you choose? It sounds like a choice the sadist mastermind in the Saw movies would force on his victims. Sicko, indeed.

At the finale, when Moore brings three ailing 9/11 rescue workers to Guantanamo to get the same medical treatment our government assures us Al-Qaeda suspects are getting, Sicko risks grandstanding. The rescue workers get free, excellent treatment in a Cuban hospital, and drugs for five cents. It’s a stunt along the lines of the usual Moore antics, but the point is made: if it’s possible elsewhere, it’s possible here, or should be. Inspired by the Cuban firefighters’ ethos that we are all as brothers and sisters, Moore even donates $12,000 to an anti-Moore blogger whose wife needs urgent medical care he can’t pay for. What could come off as self-aggrandizing — “Look, I gave money to a guy whose blog attacks me!” — is instead a summing-up of the film’s message, which is not so much that American health care sucks (it does) or that insurance companies are corrupt and venal (they are) but that our society of “me” needs to turn into a society of “we.”

Moore Power

June 19, 2007

What is it about Michael Moore? Why does he polarize people so strongly? Why is he either a savior or a satanist? Why can’t he just be a guy making movies on topics he cares about? No other documentarian has drawn such fire — not even Davis Guggenheim, who enshrined the right-wingers’ dartboard Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth and won an Oscar for it. I mean, do you see T-shirts saying “Errol Morris Is Fat”? Do you see backlash movies called Barbara Kopple Hates America? Do you see any blogs devoted to debunking the films of Frederick Wiseman? (All of these filmmakers could be said to pursue liberal agendas — Morris’ The Thin Blue Line is the strongest argument against the death penalty ever made.) Why does Moore attract such venom? As well, why does the left look to him as a shining white knight — something he himself would discourage, arguing that he’s done his bit by making the movie and the rest is up to you?

I’ve always seen Michael Moore as an op-ed columnist whose column happens to be in celluloid form. He swings for the fence, and sometimes he whiffs. I’ve caught various episodes of his TV shows TV Nation and The Awful Truth, and some of them were sharper than others. He can fall into a clownish, self-satisfied mode with disappointing ease — the dryer and less emotional the topic, the more he strains to make it funny. He can also preach to the converted, as I thought he did in Fahrenheit 9/11.

He’s essentially a populist, jocular Errol Morris. His work has some of Morris’ jangled mood of dark absurdity. Sometimes Moore invites us to laugh along with it. Sometimes what he presents us with leaves us no response other than a kind of strangled snort of disbelief, whether it’s the infamous Pets or Meat lady in Roger & Me or the man in the upcoming Sicko given a choice between reattaching the tip of his ring finger for $12,000 or his middle finger for $60,000.

But whenever a goddamn Michael Moore film comes out, everyone jumps out of the woodwork, eager to refute his claims or to point out where he’s omitted something or played fast and loose with chronology. This started eighteen years ago with Roger & Me, when Harlan Jacobson did a hatchet job on him for Film Comment (and Pauline Kael approvingly cited it), and it hasn’t abated since. Again, why do no other documentarians — many just as lefty as Moore — provoke such nitpicking and pre-emptive harrumphing?

I would guess that Moore’s secret weapon is humor: Moore makes films that are fun to watch, except for the parts that aren’t (Sicko kicks off with a scene of an uninsured man stitching up his own leg). His films are popular. He’s a big target. He’s also all over his films, though in Sicko he keeps a lower profile than he has before. He comes off as a regular guy who shambles along trying to get to the bottom of stuff. His shtick works best when he’s a Don Quixote tilting at very real windmills and you get the feeling that he’s making the movie to find out what he thinks. (He went into Fahrenheit 9/11 knowing exactly what he thought, which made it combustible agitprop but probably not persuasive to the uninitiated.)

For a while there he seemed to disappear. He had his TV shows, which always existed at the fickle pleasure of networks; he made that flat-out unfunny satire Canadian Bacon; he made a lesser-known but entertaining documentary called The Big One (1997), a pretty solid refutation of the charge that Moore only goes after Republicans. It was basically a feature-length Crackers the Corporate Crime Chicken segment, but it was funny enough. That said, Moore wasn’t particularly on the mass radar. Then the Internet took hold. Moore started to reach out via his website. His tours sold out. His books were bestsellers. He made a little flick called Bowling for Columbine, his first film in five years. It blew up, breaking documentary box-office records and winning an Oscar. Accepting the Oscar, he took the opportunity to denounce the then-freshly-started Iraq War. Thus began the second-wave juggernaut that is Michael Moore as we know him today.

At this point, Moore could make a sedate documentary about chess-playing grandmothers and he’d still get the cover of Time and get the right-wing blogosphere all in a tizzy. The question is why there aren’t many other filmmakers like him; Morgan Spurlock seems poised to take up the mantle, though few would contest that eating nothing but junk food for a month is bad for you and living in a particular unpleasant or unfamiliar environment for 30 days is eye-opening. There are no right-wing Michael Moores; they’re all on talk radio or bloviating on Fox News, and the witless cinematic attempts to smack Moore (like Fahrenhype 9/11) just sound like “Oh yeah?? Well, you’re…you’re fat!”

Moore does have a face for radio, and he knows it; he’s looking slimmer these days, thanks to taking Roger Ebert’s advice to go on the Pritikin Diet, but he’s pretty much always going to be the lumpen guy in the baseball hat (he’s weed-whacked his facial crabgrass for Sicko, thank God). He’s not a pretty boy, and that helps him. The more his enemies slag him off for being fat, the more juvenile they look. He likes sports and food, and his ideas really aren’t all that radical; they just sound that way now (H.L. Mencken would’ve shrugged at Moore’s films and said “So? What else ya got, kid?”). And his movies are rarely about what his detractors think they’re about. Bowling for Columbine isn’t about gun control; it’s about how America is scared of its own shadow (in the Jungian sense). Sicko isn’t about the health-care crisis; it’s about the American apathy and fear that have allowed corporations to pull our strings. With Moore, it always comes back to the rich exploiting the poor or the working-class. That Moore has become part of the class he tweaks is an irony that his foes willingly misinterpret as hypocrisy.

So: Moore is popular, funny, and angry at corporate vultures. The worst-case scenario, in the eyes of his right-wing detractors, must be that Moore will use his rock-star status to agitate for bloody revolution by the have-nots against the haves. He won’t, any more than Spike Lee ever would have, but remember that some excitable critics thought Do the Right Thing would spark actual riots in theaters (number of Mookie-inspired riots: zero). When you have a lot, you have a lot to lose, and you worry about losing it. You know damn well there are thousands of people who resent you and what you have and its bloated disproportion to what they have. And along comes the fat man to question the machinery by which you have your summer home in the Hamptons or your private jet. And if enough people listen to him, you might lose all of it.

I like the questions Michael Moore asks and the way he asks them. I like the discomfiture of the type of people who avoid or try to discredit his questions. When the shit goes down, I’d rather stand with the rich fat man on the left than the rich fat man on the right (hi, Rush). Moore is a comedian and a columnist, not a bloodless compiler of data. You like him or you don’t. (Some people on the left don’t like him — they feel he puts himself too much at the center of his arguments and gives the cause a bad name by making the debate about himself rather than the issues. I sympathize with the charge but don’t agree — he’s a jovial point of entry into raw, painful topics.) As a good populist, he couldn’t even work up much ire over Sicko being bootlegged and put up on the Internet. “Share the wealth” is the point of Sicko and most everything else he’s made. If the right-wing blogosphere expected him to feel differently about his own work, they deserved to be disappointed by his reaction.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

June 15, 2007

We have here a silver-colored humanoid who zips around the cosmos on a surfboard. He is called the Silver Surfer. We have also a man who can stretch his flesh and bones, a man who can burst into flame and fly, a woman who can turn invisible and put up force fields, and a man made of orange rock. Last but not least, we have a villain called Victor von Doom, or, for short, Dr. Doom. The film in question has been termed “juvenile and simplistic” by the consensus. This is like sneering at water for being wet and not solid enough.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (perhaps the most agreeably absurd movie title since Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters) is based on comic books initially written by Stan Lee (who has a cameo, finally resorting to announcing “I’m Stan Lee!”) and drawn by Jack Kirby. The hundred and two issues these men collaborated on are an awful lot of fun, equal parts goofball and pop-transcendent, though spoken of in reverent tones by comics geeks. They were pure comics for kids, and the movies based on them — the previous 2005 entry, and even the terrible unreleased attempt from 1994 — proceed from the Lee/Kirby tone of joshing, self-mocking escapism.

Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), aka the stretchy Mr. Fantastic, and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), aka the Invisible Woman, are set to tie the knot when the Surfer — whose actual name is Norrin Radd (totally radd, dude) — ungraciously whooshes into New York City. Sue’s brother Johnny (Chris Evans), aka the Human Torch, gives fiery chase and is slapped down; thereafter, a lot of humor hinges on Johnny inadvertently trading powers with Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), aka the Thing, who relishes the opportunity to cast off his stony orange burden and laugh at Johnny. The Surfer has come on behalf of his boss, Galactus, who goes around devouring planets, and Earth is next on his menu. That’s more or less the plot, though the nefarious Doom (Julian McMahon) enters the picture, offering Reed scientific assistance while cloaking his true agenda.

The filmmakers have more or less caught the bickering dynamic of the team, and the special effects are doled out sparingly but winningly, particularly when one of the Four gains the powers of all four members and puts them to satisfying use. I was charmed by small details like Ben rubbing his fingers together to produce granite pebbles for young fans; some longtime followers of the comic book may feel that’s what the movie is doing, too — distributing crumbs with minimal effort. The Fantastic Four films are essentially fantasies for kids, and those looking for gravitas in their funnybook flicks should probably hold out for The Dark Knight. I have read many of the legitimate criticisms of this sequel, and I agree with them, and I do not care. I do not bring much to the Fantastic Four franchise other than the expectation of light-hearted, light-headed fun. I am not among those who carp that Galactus is not shown in his full, purple-suited, tuning-fork-helmeted splendor, though that would have rendered the film, if anything, doubly silly and absurd.

The theme of the movie, in keeping with a great many other entertainments this summer, is that saving the world must take a back seat to relationships. The eternally libidinous Johnny is heard to regret not having anyone steady, unlike his teammates (even Ben has a sweetie, conveniently made blind in the comics and the movies, though some sighted women might find him cute). Not to be left out, the Silver Surfer has a loved one back home; he develops a bond with Sue, who reminds him of his sweetheart, and he shows her more ardent attention than does the perpetually gadget-distracted Reed. As for Doom, he has his mirror for companionship.

To be honest, Pixar’s 2004 The Incredibles probably did the Fantastic Four material better than the actual Fantastic Four movies ever will, but I’m glad to see Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben every few summers anyway, as a corrective to tormented X-men, spider-men, bat-men, and even emo supermen (picture Kal-El sniffling into his Cheerios over Lois Lane’s son last summer). This is about the only franchise left that still admits that being a superhero can be a blast.

Hostel: Part II

June 8, 2007

In Eli Roth’s unfairly vilified Hostel (2006), young men who wanted to get their kicks by treating women as commodities got a ghastly comeuppance by … being treated as commodities. In the vicious monetary universe of Hostel, someone else always has more cash and is willing to pay for the privilege of dismantling a living human body. So when the frat boys were chained to a rusty chair and made to wait for a masked stranger to do to them whatever struck his sadistic fancy, it was Roth’s sneaky way of putting the film’s young male audience in the position of being violated, savaged, raped.

Hostel: Part II, sadly, has no such point. Roth has switched genders here, making the three unlucky college kids female — rich kid Beth (Lauren German), dorky Lorna (Heather Matarazzo), and sullen party chick Whitney (Bijou Phillips). We knew what Jay Hernandez (who reprises his role here in a brief prologue) and his two buddies had done to deserve their fates, but why are these girls being punished? For being in the wrong place at the wrong time? What, exactly, separates Hostel: Part II from fifty other female-fish-out-of-water splatter films? It’s disappointing because Roth, who certainly talks a good game, is a huge horror fan and had actually contributed something of worth to the genre. But the sequel feels like Jaws 2 to Roth’s Jaws — just when you thought it was safe to go back abroad…

Roth does try something interesting with two American businessmen, Todd (Richard Burgi) and Stuart (Roger Bart), who have “won” Beth and Whitney in an auction run by the same shadowy folks who manage the torture factory. These two are like Chad and Howard from In the Company of Men given power tools and a heaping, homicidal dose of misogynist resentment. Their storyline plays out predictably, and one of them provides the visual that Roth is hoping will be the gorehound equivalent of the frank-and-beans moment in There’s Something About Mary. (Those who’ve seen the same grindhouse flicks that Roth has — specifically, Bloodsucking Freaks — will emit a been-there-seen-that yawn.)

Without much sociopolitical subtext, we’re left looking for meaning in the carnage, like Etruscans divining by entrails. An Elizabeth Bathory wannabe bathes in the blood of a young probably-a-virgin; there’s some slapstick involving a severed head; like Takashi Miike in the first film, gore maestro Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust) puts in a cameo as a refined flesh-eater. As before, most of the splatter is confined to the final third; before that, we spend a lot of time with the three girls, who are written sympathetically but with no particular insight. Roth had been around guys like the trio in the first Hostel; with these girls he’s winging it, and he fails to give them much personality aside from the usual stereotyped victims in gore flicks. It’s a switch, I guess, to have the socially awkward one — traditionally the “final girl” who perseveres and survives in films like this — be the first one to die, and in an outrageously sexually tinged manner, too. But we learn nothing about her killer, who presumably goes on to live life without the consequences of revenge.

Yes, this is Roth’s revenge flick, his Kill Bill Vol. 2, in which one lone woman turns the tables. Many questions are left unanswered, signalling not artistic ambiguity but that Roth has written himself into a corner. Hostel: Part II is neither as memorably creepy nor as painfully graphic as its predecessor, so it even disappoints as a routine horror sequel. Roth has already said pretty much everything he had to say about the Slovakian factory of death; he never meant there to be a follow-up, and it shows. Roth has talent and enthusiasm to burn, and I’ll be interested in what he does next, but maybe he should distance himself from people who not only don’t discourage him from rehashing himself, but actively encourage it.

Knocked Up

June 1, 2007

Seth Rogen sounds like someone attempting an Albert Brooks impression and not quite pulling it off. He has fleshy, indistinct features swathed in stubble and topped by a bush of brown curls; I have trouble recalling him visually even after watching him for two hours. After a few supporting roles and some work in short-lived TV shows, he’s been shoved into leading-man status, which is, I suppose, part of the joke. In Knocked Up, the new film by writer/director Judd Apatow, Rogen plays the same sort of guy he did in Apatow’s previous The 40-Year-Old Virgin — a crass, raunchy-minded slacker, never happier than when he’s dissecting the finer and baser points of pop culture with his buds. The problem is, the movie lets us laugh at Rogen and then says that — as with Steve Carell in Virgin — he has to Grow Up.

Rogen’s Ben Stone has a one-night stand with Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl), an assistant on the E! program who couldn’t be giddier to learn that she’s been chosen as a “reporter.” Heigl plays her warmly and with clear access to her emotions, but Alison is a rather boring young woman, and it’s hard to know what Ben sees in her — she’s the type he and his friends would sit around making lewd, accurate remarks about when she’s on TV asking Matthew Fox inane questions. Anyway, about eight weeks later Alison finds out she’s pregnant, and Ben’s the father. The two, shell-shocked by the news, haplessly go about creating a relationship in reverse — they’re having a baby, and they don’t even know if they like each other.

Some of Knocked Up, particularly the scenes with Ben and his hilariously crude roomies, delivers the comedic goods. Their scenes are so naggingly funny — Apatow has a real gift for writing snarky dialogue between young men — that it’s a real bummer when we realize that Apatow wants us to see Ben’s raffish buddies as what he must leave behind (like a sitcom version of Henry IV). There is another couple in the film — Alison’s sister Debbie (Leslie Mann), a type-A personality who worries too much, and her dispirited husband Pete (Paul Rudd), who’s sick of her nagging and just wants to be alone somewhere quiet. The problems between them are never resolved in the movie; we just assume that Pete learns to shut up and endure the rest of his grim life with this life-draining bitch. Maybe it’s unresolved because Apatow and especially Rudd touch on deep, painful emotions that a summer comedy can’t really deal with other than to cast Pete and Debbie’s situation as a cautionary tale for the lead couple to avoid.

But how? Alison and Ben have nothing in common. He does all the changing for her — she doesn’t change for him, and in fact treats him like crap some of the time (excused because of her hormones, of course). I was never sold on most of what goes on in Knocked Up, especially the bit where Ben decides to man up, get a professional job in web design (he and his buddies had been working on a Mr. Skin-type website, unbelievably not having heard of Mr. Skin), and rent a spacious apartment in East L.A. — never mind that he’s Canadian and in the country illegally. Well, at least he doesn’t have to sell his prized action-figure collection, like Carell in Virgin.

Apatow scored a hit with Virgin by marrying a raunchy premise — a bunch of guys trying to get an aging nerd laid — to a genuinely sweet and insightful set of characterizations, where the actors were obviously encouraged to ad-lib. Knocked Up is a more muddled affair (and, at two hours and nine minutes, too long), without as much room for improvisational flights or for the kind of outrageous gags people will spend the summer talking about. It’s been aggressively sold as the season’s big-dog comedy, and the critics have obligingly fallen right in line with the marketing, but the movie I saw is sketchy and kind of sour. (Whenever anyone in popular entertainment is touted as the new genius of anything, keep your hand over your wallet.) Knocked Up has its moments, but not enough of them, and it ends up not saying much of anything about the subject it tries to be serious about: giving up one’s autonomy for the sake of a baby. It will probably comfort and validate the young parents in the audience, while the happily child-free are, once again, left outside the discussion, as though maturity and fulfillment were only available by way of marriage and reproduction.