Archive for August 2008

The House Bunny

August 25, 2008

I have serious problems with The House Bunny as a movie that girls and young women are going to be watching and perhaps emulating, but Anna Faris, that great clown princess, helped me look past many of them. Faris has been around throughout this decade, mostly in the margins of other people’s movies, saying sweetly lunkheaded things or falling over; she has been the unifying element of the scattershot Scary Movie series, and when she finally got her own vehicle — the stoner comedy Smiley Face, (barely) released earlier this year — the script let her down. As a fan of Faris, I hope The House Bunny does for her what Legally Blonde did for Reese Witherspoon (the same two female scripters wrote both films), though I also hope Faris holds onto her particular comic edge (Witherspoon didn’t).

Faris is Shelley, a bunny at the Playboy Mansion who gets booted out before she can realize her dream of being Miss November. Hugh Hefner is in the movie, so the Playboy ethos and lifestyle don’t come in for much, if any, criticism; it’s as if Gloria Steinem never wrote “A Bunny’s Tale” forty-five years ago. Shelley finds herself at the doorstep of an endangered sorority house, Zeta Alpha Zeta (the initials may be a tribute to the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy trio, of Airplane and The Naked Gun and two of the Scary Movies, known in the trades as ZAZ). The Zetas are nerds and geeks, so nobody will pledge to their house; Shelley’s solution is a Fabulous Makeover for the girls, so as to attract boys.

The House Bunny, like Legally Blonde, says that it’s okay to be superficial as long as you’re also kind and keep the sisterhood in mind. Every boy in the movie is a dunce, with the exception of Colin Hanks as a student who goes on progressively unsuccessful dates with Shelley, who tries too hard both times to impress him. First she plays the blonde bombshell, and that goes nowhere; then, having been disabused of her notion that “boys don’t like girls who are too smart,” she hits the library and buries herself in books, accumulates a lot of data without context, and recites facts from index cards. Nowhere in this does she learn that maybe knowledge is beneficial for oneself, not just to snag a cute guy. (Nor does she have occasion to use any of the information that might’ve penetrated her skull — at least Reese Witherspoon used her knowledge of perms to get Ali Larter off a murder rap.)

You will also wait in vain for the movie to notice that there isn’t much difference between the Playboy Mansion and the sorority system. Post-makeover, the girls find themselves being as snotty as the rival sisters who want to take over their house, but this is glossed over with a speech, after which the girls decide to modify their style halfway between their own and Shelley’s (again with the focus on looks). Just give up the house and reject the whole rotten Greek system, I thought to myself, but no. The movie attracted some grumbling from the real-life sorority Zeta Tau Alpha, who felt that the fictional sorority’s name and logo were insultingly close to theirs, and on a Greek message board, someone posted that those who made the movie are just GDIs jealous of the superior Greeks who’ll get better jobs and make more money. Nice. “GDI,” incidentally, is the frat term for non-Greeks; it stands for God Damned Independent. Doubly nice. This is the system the movie wants its heroines to be a part of. As for the bit where Shelley finds out one of the girls (Emma Stone) is a virgin and throws an elaborate “Aztec party” (with what money?) to “sacrifice” her, just like the parties back at the Mansion, words fail me. Is this shindig not to be seen as gross because a woman threw it?

But, again, Anna Faris redeems a lot of it. Whether it’s Shelley’s unique pronunciation of “philanthropy” or the table-wrecking results of her second date (if even “I drink your milkshake” became a catchphrase, Shelley’s hapless “Sorry for the gravity” deserves to), Faris plays dumb so warmly and with such endearing quirks (the weird vocal thing she does when repeating someone’s name) that we just give in to her, even if, once again, the movie isn’t worthy of her. Now I’d like to see her play smart and just as funny, and in a movie that doesn’t require her to show her butt or wear bunny ears.

The World’s Greatest Sinner

August 24, 2008

All independent filmmakers and cult-flick fans must bow down to the low-rent majesty that is Timothy Agoglia Carey’s The World’s Greatest Sinner. Shot on the cheap over the course of three years in the downmarket sections of L.A., the movie tracks the journey of Clarence Hilliard (Carey), an insurance salesman who bugs out and starts his own political-spiritual movement. Clarence promises his followers that they can become God, or “superhuman beings,” and soon takes to calling himself God Hilliard. He riles up the youth by spreading his message via spasmodic rockabilly (which made Lux Interior of the Cramps a fan of the film for life), flailing on his guitar and then yowling “Please, please, please, please…TAKE…MY…HAND!” as the crowd goes nuts. Maynard James Keenan, eat your heart out.

This beautifully overwrought and seamy DIY masterpiece (John Cassavetes famously said it packed “the brilliance of Eisenstein”) is, first and foremost, a glowing calling card for one of cinema’s true sui generis animals. Carey may be familiar to Stanley Kubrick fans for his indelible turns in The Killing and Paths of Glory; he was a notorious scene-stealer and general wild man who inspired awe and revulsion in his directors and co-stars in roughly equal measure. In The World’s Greatest Sinner he is front and center, the man, the force, dominating every frame and soaking the very celluloid with his passion and hipster strangeness. Laughing, weeping, bellowing, preaching, murmuring seductively to retired women and 14-year-old girls — no matter what Carey does, he does it to the max. I’ve long suspected that Nicolas Cage took a long look at Carey’s work before embarking on his own oddball career.

Cosmetically, TWGS is a rise-and-fall piece about a man’s hubris; at one point God Hilliard even sticks a pin in a host he nabbed from a church, leading to a great Carey rant: “BREAD! IT’S JUST BREAD! MOTHER! YOUR PRAYERS WERE FOR NOTHING!” What saves this from being a Jack T. Chick tract on film, though, is Carey’s sardonic and defiantly off-kilter cascade of ideas and genuine command of mood and tone, despite the movie’s lurching from goofball comedy to despairing tragedy. The scenes of God Hilliard conferring with his trusted assistants (one of whom is Satan) in shadowy rooms scoop The Godfather by a neat decade. Though the movie has been both reviled and lionized for its oddness, it’s pretty mainstream compared to some of Carey’s unrealized projects, like Tweet’s Ladies of Pasadena, his intended follow-up to TWGS. The movie uses standard shots and narrative beats, but sneaks its anarchy in through a side door.

Scored by a young Frank Zappa (who later churlishly called Carey’s labor of love “the world’s worst movie”) and partially shot by future cult director Ray Dennis Steckler, TWGS may well be the epitome of psychotronic filmmaking. Since Carey died in 1994, his son Romeo has curated his memory and work, and the movie is available directly from Romeo’s website ( on videocassette. Believe me, it’s worth dusting off your VCR to catch an incomparable actor in full effect (he wrote, directed, produced, and distributed the thing himself). I used to think that Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter was the greatest example of an actor-turned-director who only directed one film. But Timothy Carey sure gives Laughton a run for his money.

Tropic Thunder

August 16, 2008

The closest Ben Stiller has come to creating a real character — actually inhabiting a role and playing its reality — was probably his performance as the hapless but decent Ted in 1998’s There’s Something About Mary. That was ten summers ago (he did interesting work in the same year’s Zero Effect, Permanent Midnight, and Your Friends & Neighbors too), and since then Stiller seems to have been content to condescend to the jerks and nitwits he plays. A smug, superior tone has crept into his acting and calcified there. Stiller’s new vehicle, Tropic Thunder, which he also cowrote and directed, has been talked about as his comeback — his bid for edgy comedic cred after too many Night at the Museums and Heartbreak Kids. It isn’t, though. This time, Stiller doesn’t just smirk with hip disdain at the doofus he’s playing — he does it at the entire acting profession.

Tropic Thunder has one of those wheels-within-wheels insider plots much beloved of young talent disgusted by the Hollywood machine. A Vietnam war epic called Tropic Thunder is being filmed on location. Its stars — lunkheaded action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller), self-destructive fart-humor hack Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and obsessive Method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) — can’t quite find the reality in the overwritten script (based on a book by a ‘Nam vet played by a growling Nick Nolte). The stars’ hesitations are costing the production millions, so Nolte’s character suggests turning the actors — rounded out by rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and levelheaded newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) — loose in the jungle so they can experience its pains and perils for themselves. Unfortunately, some heroin runners are camped nearby, and they have live ammo.

It should be said that Robert Downey Jr.’s annus mirabilis continues here. As a blonde Aussie actor straining for verisimilitude in anything he does, including getting skin-pigmentation surgery to play the black soldier Lincoln Osiris and never breaking character, Downey imbues the movie with whatever soul (though I use that word cautiously in this context) and commitment it has. Kirk Lazarus’ devotion to his craft is supposed to be one of the movie’s little jokes, but Downey transcends the joke. The script tries to make fun of Lazarus for appropriating black skin and attitude, but the joy Lazarus/Downey takes in the performance — which never comes close to mockery or “blackface” — wipes out the movie’s inside-baseball jeers at self-serious actors. He’s certainly more fun than anything else in the film.

Even Lazarus, though, is ultimately betrayed by the movie’s big banal point — that actors are insecure princes ruled by coarse kings with money. The coarse king here is Tom Cruise as a fat, bald studio boss; the problem is that Cruise is too identifiably Tom Cruise larking in a bald cap and padding — he doesn’t bother to create a character, either. (It’s his usual win-win-win persona in Homer Simpson drag. Cruise could use some Kirk Lazarus juice.) Actors are insecure! Stop the presses! The movie is also about how they man up and prevail under pressure, so the satire doesn’t cut very deep. The jaded, cynical screenwriters (including Etan Cohen and Justin Theroux) take soft shots at the hand that feeds them.

Aside from Downey, a chameleonic actor without the need for De Niro-esque physical transformation, Tropic Thunder probably needed to be cast with actual stars ribbing their standard personae; imagine Vin Diesel in the Tugg Speedman role (and how much funnier he’d have been going “full retard” in the Simple Jack clips). Stiller and Black are playing actors hackier than they are (Downey isn’t, and doesn’t condescend to Lazarus or Osiris), which is a way of being a hack while pretending you’re above it. For all its movie-within-the-movie cleverness, Tropic Thunder says nothing new or particularly funny about the movies we watch or the tropes we fall for (I did, however, laugh heartily at a bit between Downey and a fellow superhero-blockbuster actor who will go unnamed here). At the end of the day, what we’re watching is a lot of sketch-level buffoonery against a backdrop of big-budget explosions and gunfights — which are supposed to be taken ironically, of course. But ironic explosions are still as loud and stupid as the same old ones.

Pineapple Express

August 11, 2008

Last summer’s Superbad was written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg when they were thirteen. Their new one, Pineapple Express, could’ve been written when they were twelve. In fits and starts, that’s a good thing. Pineapple Express is an intentionally unstable mix of two vastly different elements — the slacker-stoner comedy and the violent drug-runner action movie. Even the title — referring to a particularly potent blend of marijuana — is bifurcated: the first word suggesting relaxation and tropical drinks, the second evoking the paranoid busted-for-possession drama Midnight Express. The result is an odd but intermittently pleasing experiment that might lose stoners with its gore and action fans with its glazed, circular weed chat.

Dale Denton (Rogen) is a scruffy process server who tokes on and off the job; his dealer is Saul (James Franco), who sits in his apartment all day watching two TVs and hoping for some worthy company. Dale witnesses a drug killing, and the two go on the run; they can’t go to the police because one of the killers (Rosie Perez) is a cop. The movie, directed by indie-film critics’ darling David Gordon Green in a radical change of pace from quiet dramas like George Washington and All the Real Girls, follows these two shambling nitwits as they flail through a paranoid nightmare, a stoners’ worst-case scenario.

Bill Murray once told Roger Ebert that he knew movies were changing when he saw a comedy that featured someone getting shot and smearing blood across a mirror. “I thought, wait a second, this isn’t comedy. This is something different,” Murray said. Pineapple Express, and next week’s even more brutal Tropic Thunder, are the latest examples of that something different: black comedies in which people die graphically and you aren’t expected to care. The blood is spilled as casually as Saul’s Slurpee across a cop’s windshield; people are crushed by flaming cars, have chunks of their ears shot off, are shot multiple times yet still inexplicably walk around. If I’m in the mood to see someone faffing about with a severed flap of ear, I’ll go to a horror movie. Or an emergency room.

Rogen and Franco make a classic comedy duo: the (relatively) straitlaced, uptight guy — well, he has a job anyway — and the hapless cretin. Dale, however, is so immature he’s dating a high-school girl (Amber Heard), while Saul is only into selling pot to save enough money to provide for his beloved grandma. Pretty much everyone onscreen is pathetic in some way, and Rogen and Goldberg try to breathe quirky life into some of the characters, like the bickering hit men pursuing our heroes, one of whom wants to be done with this whole dirty business so he can go home and have dinner with his wife for once. Judd Apatow produced Pineapple Express (yep, here’s yet another Apatow thing), but unlike most Apatow comedies, this one doesn’t deliver its childish heroes into respectable lives with good women; indeed, it rejects that altogether in favor of bromance.

I laughed a few times, mainly at the desperately klutzy quality of some of the violence. A fight between Dale and Saul’s dealer Red (Danny McBride) practically takes out the entire apartment; the choreography must have been very precise (or Rogen and McBride would probably be dead) but looks realistically ramshackle. And some of the comic friction between the many pairs of characters in the film pays off nicely: Rosie Perez and Gary Cole (as the murderous drug dealer) are the unlikeliest sexy partners in crime since Kelly Lynch and Sam Rockwell in Charlie’s Angels. But I was still left feeling nonplussed and unsatisfied. The experiment doesn’t work, especially when, like Hot Fuzz, it devolves into gunfire and explosions. Special effects and stunt people take over, and the comedy suffocates in the din. It may be Rogen and Goldberg’s idea of a really cool way to end a stoner comedy, but then I think of the blockbusters of the last two decades and how they’ve fostered young filmmakers’ ideas of what’s really cool — things blow up! Lots of people die! — and it gets a little depressing.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

August 4, 2008

The first ten minutes or so of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor are like the biggest, most lavish Hong Kong fantasy ever filmed. Jet Li is there (as an evil emperor with plans to conquer death and the world, in that order); Michelle Yeoh is there (as a witch who promises the emperor eternal life but falls in love with his general); thousands of extras are there in finest Ancient China military garb — or, at least, computer-generated extras are there. Director Rob Cohen, who reportedly has a deep interest in Chinese history, may have taken this gig just so that he could film this prologue, which plays like an elegant short movie. Then we cut to Brendan Fraser trying to fly-fish and hooking himself in the neck, and, well, say goodbye to elegance.

I enjoyed the first two films in this series — The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001), both directed by Stephen Sommers — as giggly, brain-damaged adventure eye candy. At the time, you have to remember, there wasn’t much around in terms of old-school adventure; there were a lot of action movies, which isn’t the same. Now, of course, we’ve had Sahara and the National Treasure films and the fourth Indiana Jones film; with that in mind, it may have made financial sense for Universal to drag Rick O’Connell (Fraser) out of retirement after seven years, but the Mummy franchise is no longer unique, and it’s also lost touch with its roots in horror (which were tenuous to begin with).

Rick and his wife Evelyn (Maria Bello, in for Rachel Weisz) are asked to deliver the Eye of Shangri-La to Shanghai, where, coincidentally, their son Alex (Luke Ford) is hanging out in a nightclub owned by Evelyn’s inept brother Jonathan (John Hannah). Alex, who now looks way too old to be Brendan Fraser’s son, has excavated the evil emperor, who was turned to stone way back when. The emperor revives and heads for Shangri-La, where he will theoretically gain Ultimate Power and rule us all. The O’Connells, accompanied by the witch’s daughter Lin (Isabella Yeong), must stop the emperor before he raises his army of darkness.

Speaking of which, there’s a sequence involving the emperor’s army of stone soldiers (who crumble so ineffectually when hit that we wonder why the emperor bothered to raise them) versus the near-skeletal army led by the general who was put to death for falling in love with the witch. I found myself wishing that Sam Raimi, using all the clout he’s gained from directing three Spider-Man blockbusters, could use this technology to make an astonishing fourth Evil Dead film — imagine an army of Deadites versus an army of Bruce Campbell clones, or something. When you’re watching a movie and wishing you were watching a different, non-existent movie, the movie you’re watching is in trouble. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is frantic but dull, even dreary, with frat-boy divertissements like John Hannah covered in yak vomit and Brendan Fraser icing his nuts after a sequence wherein he rides a stone horse.

Rob Cohen has now directed three (unconnected) movies with “dragon” in the title: this, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993), and Dragonheart (1996). Cohen enjoys dragons, I guess, and we get one here when Jet Li transforms into a three-headed dragon. Jet Li also transforms into other things, and he spends most of his post-prologue screen time covered with CGI stone and muck. It’s late in the game by the time he’s actually recognizable as Jet Li, and he and Michelle Yeoh get to spar for all of two minutes. This obviously isn’t an actor’s movie, but Maria Bello manages to shine anyway, since she’s Maria Bello and that’s what she does. Bello has taken some lumps for her fake British accent — and she does lose a bit of her earthy, been-there-done-that American-ness when she tries to ape Rachel Weisz (and what about Aussie Luke Ford’s now-you-hear-it now-you-don’t American accent?) — but her pleasure (stated in interviews) at being in her very first big adventure flick is infectious. Let’s bag the Mummy franchise and give Maria Bello her own adventure series. She deserves it, and so do we.