Archive for July 27, 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.