Archive for April 2010

Five for Friday: What to Netflix Next Week

April 30, 2010

These DVDs all hit stores (and Netflix) next Tuesday, May 4.

Dirt: The Complete Second Season – The short-lived F/X series about a tabloid run by Courteney Cox wrapped up with this season. The show was kind of on and off, but one constant was Ian Hart’s excellent performance as the dogged, schizophrenic photographer Don Konkey. Season 1 probably had the juicier guest stars — Paul Reubens, Vincent Gallo, and (predictably) Jennifer Aniston — and season 2 only ran seven episodes, but it’s probably worth renting the whole series if you haven’t. I promise it won’t make you sympathize with tabloid editors; that was never really the show’s point.

Matinee – Long out of print (it first hit DVD in 1998), Joe Dante’s tribute to William Castle returns to disc, foiling all the skunks who want you to pay $50 for a used copy. I’ve run hot and cold on Dante (I have a physical aversion to Gremlins), but this is his most personal film and therefore the most affectionate and fun. And of course, as is required by law in any Dante flick, the great Dick Miller puts in an appearance.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School – The fun-loving Ramones vehicle — out of print for a few years — comes back in a new edition with some cool new extras. “For all its crudities and flaws,” I wrote, “this is a fun love letter to one of the true icons of ’70s rock, and it makes sense that the Ramones’ entry into film was in a cheapjack Roger Corman production rather than in pricier garbage greenlit by a Hollywood studio head trying to seem hip.”

Saturday Morning Cartoons: 1980s, Vol. 1 – Warner’s popular series of retro animation continues into the Reagan era with this set sampling Dragon’s Lair, Mr. T, Thundarr the Barbarian, The Kwicky Koala Show, The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley, The Flintstone Kids, Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos and more.

Tetro – After years of tending to his vineyards, Francis Ford Coppola re-emerged with an itch to make the smaller, artier movies he’d always wanted to make. First came Youth Without Youth, then this vaguely autobiographical drama starring Vincent Gallo. Glad to see the old maestro finally getting to work on better stuff than Jack.

Twilight Zone Thursday: Where Is Everybody?

April 30, 2010

Season: 1
Episode: 1
Original Air Date: October 9, 1959

The place is here, the time is now, and the journey into the shadows that we’re about to watch could be our journey.

The first televised Twilight Zone episode was this tale of a man (sweaty, unshaven Earl Holliman) who finds himself in a town completely devoid of people. (Actually, it’s the Universal Studios backlot, where Back to the Future was later filmed. Fans will recognize the town square.)

Stylishly directed by TV vet Robert Stevens, the Rod Serling teleplay is typically verbose even though Holliman has the only speaking part for most of the episode. Holliman wanders around the seemingly deserted town of Oakwood, almost getting trapped in a phone booth and a jail cell, poking around in an ice-cream parlor and a movie theater, and keeping up a running monologue. He can’t remember who he is or how he got here. He keeps finding evidence that people may have been here recently: a smoldering cigar in an ashtray, a whistling coffee pot. He thinks he’s dreaming. Fifty years later, after all the Twilight Zone episodes and shows/movies influenced by them, we think there might possibly be a twist in store.

Compelling stuff, with lots of Dutch angles and a solid Heston-lite performance by Holliman. The Sci-Fi Channel has offered this episode for free to schools due to its focus on the effects of isolation on human beings.

Fun facts: Look closely at the paperback spinner in the ice-cream parlor and you’ll spot William Goldman’s 1957 debut novel The Temple of Gold. The other book displayed prominently, of course, is The Last Man on Earth, which was the title of a later movie based on I Am Legend by future Twilight Zone contributor Richard Matheson.

Retro Wednesday: Schindler’s List

April 28, 2010

Oskar Schindler was born 102 years ago today. To commemorate, I’ve posted my old review of Schindler’s List. Do I now regret the gush? Not really. It remains a brilliantly made film. (Photo above: Schindler, seated, with Leopold Pfefferberg, one of the Schindlerjuden, who originally told author Thomas Keneally the story that became the novel Spielberg’s film was based on.)

Tuesday Trailer: 1941

April 27, 2010

One could argue that this teaser is as overlong and self-indulgent as the movie itself. As a big fan of 1941, I wouldn’t argue that. But, as “Hi, we don’t have any real footage to show you yet” teasers go, this one’s of obvious interest to fans of the flick and of John Belushi.

Even though Belushi’s Wild Bill Kelso (referred to as Wild Wayne Kelso in this teaser — the name was changed before filming started) is just one among several million characters in 1941, and gets about as much screen time as anyone else, the teaser obviously put Belushi front and center because he was fresh off of Animal House, and Saturday Night Live was peaking in popularity. Kelso’s in-character rant is appropriately jingoistic and racist, parodying wartime rhetoric. Belushi’s buddy Dan Aykroyd narrates in his rat-a-tat Bass-o-Matic mode. Did Steven Spielberg direct this teaser himself? The bracketing footage of Kelso’s airplane looks pretty second-unit, but the Kelso footage has Spielberg’s style. There’s a lot of headroom, probably so that bits of the teaser could be repurposed for TV.

The longer trailer spreads the attention to the other cast members — and comes amusingly close to being just a montage of people screaming — but neither was enough to lure moviegoers. It’s something of a myth that 1941 was Spielberg’s “huge flop.” It made $31,755,742, which in today’s dollars would be about $90 million. Unfortunately, it cost $35 million. You don’t spend $35 to make $31. (Worldwide, it made about $90 million, which would be about, yeah, $270m today.) It certainly wasn’t a Heaven’s Gate-level disaster — it wasn’t even Spielberg’s first box-office disappointment (his debut, The Sugarland Express, only grossed $7 million; then again, it only cost $3m). It was only a “flop” in relation to Jaws and Close Encounters.

Anyway, was the marketing effective? Neither ad really tells you what the movie’s about — it looks like a zany WWII comedy with a killer cast. Well, nine years earlier, there had been another zany (or perceived as zany) WWII comedy with a killer cast, and Catch-22 flopped. Also, the target audience — teenage/college fans of Belushi and Aykroyd (who never actually share a scene in the movie) — were probably too young to understand the teaser’s satirical elements. The longer trailer is simply a greatest-hits exercise in chaos — a fair representation of the movie, granted, but if you didn’t like what you saw, you weren’t likely to spend your hard-earned $2.50 to go see two hours of it.

Aykroyd looking zonked.

Monday Musical Hero: Howard Devoto

April 26, 2010

I would dig Howard Devoto even if I didn’t like a note of his music. (Fortunately I do.) This is a man who, at age 23, formed the Buzzcocks with college friend Pete Shelley; who, after one EP, left the band, feeling restricted by the developing clichés of punk, and formed Magazine; who, four years later, left that band and labored over a solo album for two years; who then formed Luxuria and, after two decreasingly noticed albums, left music altogether.

Yes. Instead of being a 38-year-old wanker and parody of himself, instead of selling out to the day’s pop demands, Howard Devoto got the fuck out. He became a photo archivist. Yes, he got a real job. And he stayed in it for over a decade, until circumstance lured him to drift casually back into music. The pressure was off now, he felt free to do it for its own sake, and so he teamed up with Pete Shelley for the first time since 1977 as Buzzkunst. Some years after that, he did a couple of reunion gigs with Magazine.

Pushing sixty now, Howard Devoto still isn’t a household name. But he’s getting respect from the bands who formed in the wake of Magazine, and respect from the fans of those bands.

And I will never forget his PopMatters interview, conducted around the time Buzzkunst emerged, in which he said the following:

I got out of the music business because I had to for my own sanity and life. It wasn’t treating me very well by the end of the 1980s. Kind of the cap on it was Beast Box opening to what seemed like almost universal disinterest. I really liked that album. It had taken me awhile to recover myself, but I really thought it was a great album and the fact that it was so overlooked just made me feel, “Okay, there’s much more of you than there is of me, so you must be right and I must be wrong.” So I went and got myself a proper job, basically. Complete life change. I couldn’t make a living anymore. I had to get real.

I don’t want to be financially dependent on my creativity again.

And that, to me, is what makes Howard Devoto a hero. He got real. He didn’t stay ensconced in some pipe dream of being a pop star. Music wasn’t paying the bills anymore. So he left. But eventually came back, once he didn’t have to worry about making a living at it.

The other thing that makes him a hero is that he never stagnated. Never stayed in one place for too long. And maybe, financially, this hurt him with fans who wanted Buzzcocks, or Magazine, or Jerky Versions of the Dream over and over again. But that was who he was, and is. When Buzzcocks wasn’t doing it for him anymore, he left. Same with Magazine. Same with music itself.

There’s something to be said for commitment, sticking with something for a while. There’s also something to be said for a restless artist who faced up to reality and got away from art when the worries of commerce started to smother the art.

Survival of the Dead

April 25, 2010

When George A. Romero makes a zombie movie, it’s never just about zombies. Night of the Living Dead (1968) was about racial and generational tension. Dawn of the Dead (1978) was about consumerism. Day of the Dead (1985) was about the clash between science and the military. Land of the Dead (2005) was about haves vs. have-nots. Diary of the Dead (2007) was about post-Katrina cynicism and the age of YouTube. Survival of the Dead, Romero’s latest zombie effort, seems to be about the Troubles in Ireland — or, at least, it uses them as a symptom of how certain people will always irrationally hate certain other people. It might as plausibly be about divided America in the era of Obama, Palin, and tea parties.

Don’t you worry, though: flesh is still eaten, and zombies still get plugged in the head (the only way to kill them). I note with some surprise that Survival is rated R, but is about as gruesome as Dawn of the Dead, whose head-splattering and gut-munching so offended the MPAA in 1978 that it had to go out unrated. Times have changed, I guess. The addition of computer-generated effects also gives us such images as a row of still-gnashing zombie heads on pikes, as well as death by fire extinguisher. Romero certainly hasn’t lost his appetite for destruction.

In Diary of the Dead, a few rogue National Guard soldiers flagged down the protagonists and stole their supplies; they got just a few minutes of screen time, but here they graduate to protagonists themselves. Led by the bitter Sarge “Nicotine” Crocket (Alan van Sprang), they decide to head for an island off of Delaware that promises safety from the zombie hordes. Turns out they’ve been lured there by Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh), who’s been exiled from the island. O’Flynn believes there’s no cure for a zombie except a bullet in the brain. His adversary, Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), believes God will send a cure someday, and in the meantime it’s best to keep one’s undead family close to home, albeit in chains.

Actually, this could also be a pro-choice vs. pro-life allegory. Or one about the death-penalty debate, or, really, any intractable issue that boils down to faith vs. reason. The O’Flynn and Muldoon clans have feuded for decades, and here their antagonism is based in ideology, not blood. Romero also turns the film into a western, with men in cowboy hats facing off, while the military (including a lesbian and a teenager along for the ride) do their best to stay in one piece. A horse represents possible civilization: Muldoon thinks that if zombies can develop a taste for something other than human flesh — such as a stallion trapped in a pen with a shambling zombie who used to ride it — the nightmare may end.

Except it never does. Diary of the Dead ended with a final shot that seemed to bring the entire movie into relevant focus, and so does Survival; it’s as if Romero came up with these images and then wrote the scripts just to preface them. Romero isn’t limited to a couple of shaky-cams this time the way he was in Diary, so the movie benefits from his usual whiplash editing (by Michael Doherty), and for the second time (after Land of the Dead) he shoots in crisp, super-wide ‘scope. I’ve enjoyed each of Romero’s Dead films — even the problematic Day of the Dead has its charms — and Survival proves again that Romero hasn’t lost his touch and hasn’t run out of things to say.

Survival of the Dead will become available on video-on-demand April 30, prior to a projected May 28 theatrical release.

Pauline Kael: A Reader’s Guide

April 19, 2010

My eFilmCritic associate William (“Not Will.I.Am”) Goss put out a Twitter request for “any preferred Kael volumes.” I own Pauline Kael’s complete output, and at the time of her death in 2001 I posted a brief guide to her books on my website. So I figured, why not revive it?

I Lost It at the Movies (1965) – David Rabe used this seminal book as a prop in his play Streamers; in return, Kael criticized some of the more speechy passages of Rabe’s script for Casualties of War. In this first collection, which includes a truly funny bit when she answers irate reader mail (back when she was writing reviews for the radio), Kael gets to tackle Truffaut, Kurosawa, Godard, and most hilariously, her scorched-earth diatribe on West Side Story. She was just getting warmed up.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968) – Kael nicked the title of this one from a poster for an Italian movie. This collection includes pieces on Brando, Kurosawa, Chimes at Midnight, the review of The Sound of Music that got her booted from McCall’s, a lengthy report from the set of The Group, and almost 200 pages of “movie notes” that are sort of a dry run for her later 5001 Nights at the Movies.

Going Steady (1970) – Kael on Norman Mailer, Mel Brooks, Planet of the Apes, Yellow Submarine, Coppola before he was Coppola, and the great, huge essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” in which, among many other things, she definitively brings her admiration for Kubrick to an end (“…maybe some people love 2001 just because Kubrick did all that stupid stuff….In some ways it’s the biggest amateur movie of all…”).

The Citizen Kane Book (1971) – Kael’s hotly debated (mainly by Andrew Sarris and Peter Bogdanovich) epic essay “Raising Kane” was packaged with the original screenplay for this out-of-print collection. Kael’s essay was later reprinted in its entirety in For Keeps.

Deeper Into Movies (1973) – The fireworks begin. Kael skewers more than a few critic’s darlings (Butch Cassidy, A Clockwork Orange, El Topo, Husbands) and popular hits (Billy Jack, Dirty Harry), but also discovers Altman (M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller), Fosse (Cabaret), and Coppola (The Godfather). This is also where you’ll find Kael’s famous summing-up of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs as “the first fascist work of art.”

Reeling (1976) – And the hits keep on coming — it begins with her singing the praises of Sounder and The Emigrants, and towards the end she hauls out her infamous Nashville rhapsody (infamous because she published it long before the movie was even released). Somewhere in there she’s also got Mean Streets, The Godfather Part II, Last Tango in Paris, and The Sugarland Express, the debut of some guy named Steven Spielberg (“uses his gift in a very free-and-easy, American way — for humor, and for a physical response to action….If there is such a thing as movie sense…Spielberg really has it”).

When the Lights Go Down (1980) – Kicks off with “The Man from Dream City,” Kael’s mammoth tribute to Cary Grant. As Kael moves into the mid- and late-’70s, you can see the beginning of the end — Kael grows more and more exasperated as movies like Star Wars (“like a box of Cracker Jacks which is all prizes”) rule the roost. Still, she works up enthusiasm for Saturday Night Fever, Taxi Driver, Citizens Band, De Palma’s back-to-back telekinetic blockbusters Carrie and The Fury, and even B-movie stuff like King Kong (yes, the remake) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

5001 Nights at the Movies (1982; expanded in 1991) – Essential collection of capsule reviews — many are short versions of reviews in her other books, but tons of them are older movies you won’t find Kael covering anywhere else.

Taking It All In (1984) – This one picks up Kael after her return from her six-month tour of duty as a consultant at Paramount. She jumps right back into the thick of things with a slam at The Shining (“It’s like watching a skater do figure eights all night, or at least for two hours and twenty-six minutes”), then follows that with a beefy essay called “Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers.” She gets to praise two more De Palma movies here (Dressed to Kill, Blow Out), slap Spielberg down to size (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and then lift him back up (E.T.), and write a review of a Richard Pryor concert film that’s really an excuse for her to discuss his greatness in general. She also deals Scorsese a one-two punch with unimpressed takes on Raging Bull and The King of Comedy (the latter of which she hated, hated, hated).

State of the Art (1985) – No big central essay on the status of movies (in fact, her next two books don’t have one, either) — just reviews, reviews, and more reviews. Kael has to find good stuff in an awful lot of unremarkable movies here. Still immensely readable, from her baffled disappointment in De Palma’s Scarface to her “what the hell, it’s fun” review of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to the beginning of her hate affair with Tom Cruise (Risky Business is “like a George Bernard Shaw play rewritten for a cast of ducks and geese”).

Hooked (1989) – One last hurrah, mainly because she discovers a lot of new talent in the wasteland of the ’80s — Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), Spike Lee (She’s Gotta Have It), Tim Burton (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice), as well as new gems by old favorites (Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Almodovar’s Law of Desire and Matador, Huston’s The Dead, Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being). It was really her last real run of meaty, zesty films to cover. As Kael herself says in her intro, “The period covered in this book…begins rather lamely, and then suddenly there’s one marvellous movie after another” — just like old times. Not that Kael doesn’t open a can of whup-ass when called for, either — her hoots of disbelief at Tom Cruise and Top Gun are hilariously cruel (“The best part of the movie comes when he’s suffering: he speaks in a little-boy voice and looks such a Nautilized, dinky thing”).

Movie Love (1991) – Kael in decline. You can’t really blame her for losing steam, forced to make do with stuff like Punchline, Always, Beaches, and Madame Sousatzka. Still, she finds glowing things to say about Batman, Scrooged, Vampire’s Kiss, Vincent & Theo, Glory, My Left Foot, and of course De Palma’s Casualties of War. But Kael giveth and Kael taketh away: the collection also includes Kael’s what-was-he-thinking pan of De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. Sacred cows like Rain Man, Dances with Wolves, Dead Poets Society, Roger & Me, Field of Dreams, GoodFellas, Edward Scissorhands, and The Little Mermaid also fall under Kael’s broadsword. She finishes off the Godfather trilogy with a rather depressed-sounding “oh how the mighty have fallen” review; Kael’s overjoyed reviews of the first two Godfather films are included in For Keeps, but her dispirited review of the third one isn’t, maybe because she couldn’t bear to kick Coppola one more time. Her very last published review is of a Steve Martin comedy, L.A. Story, which is sort of fitting — she always loved his style. But she retired a week before The Silence of the Lambs came out, and damn, I would’ve loved to have read a Kael review of that. (In a later interview, she said she wasn’t very impressed with it.)

For Keeps (1994) – Or, The Portable Pauline Kael, except it isn’t portable (thought I’d swipe a line from her review of Bertolucci’s 1900, included here) — it weighs in at 1,291 pages. It’s a decent sampler of her work, which is a good indication of how much writing she produced, when a 1,300-page book is only a sampler. If you buy this without owning her other books, be warned that the omnibus may well drive you to in search of her entire output (much of which is out of print). I don’t actually open For Keeps very often — I prefer to swim around in a movie period along with Kael (“Okay, Pauline, tonight we’re going to revisit 1975-1978”), reading her reviews as she wrote them, week in and week out.

Also recommended:

Conversations with Pauline Kael (1997, edited by Will Brantley), a collection of interviews with Kael spanning four decades (1966-1994), including a lengthy chat with Hal Espen in the pages of The New Yorker three years after she left it. This is where you’ll find her talking off-the-cuff about some movies that came out after she put her pencil down.

Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (2002), wherein her friend, jazz critic Francis Davis, talks movies and other things with Kael. Essentially a (barely) book-length companion to the above collection.

Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me (2004), Craig Seligman’s tribute to Kael and Susan Sontag, perhaps the two most-admired and most-feared female essayists of their day. Kael was safely dead when it came out; Sontag died seven months after its publication, though of leukemia, not of a severe case of umbrage.

Also worth looking up: Wes Anderson’s account of taking Kael to a private screening of Rushmore.


April 17, 2010

Some are saying that Kick-Ass becomes what it satirizes. I prefer to think it satirizes what it must become. The movie, about a dorky teen (Aaron Johnson) who suits up in a costume and calls himself Kick-Ass, has its origins in — where else? — a comic book, written by Mark Millar and drawn by John Romita Jr. (whose father drew Spider-Man back in the ‘60s). Millar, who also wrote the comic that became 2008’s Wanted, is a former comics fanboy who seems to loathe that younger self. Wanted and Kick-Ass stick it to the reader, making us feel foolish for investing our emotions in yet more power fantasies. The film version, written by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman and directed by Vaughn, is more even-tempered. It’s kinder to its characters (and therefore to its audience), though still pretty harsh by comic-book-movie standards.

Kick-Ass has no special powers, other than metal plates in his head and iffy nerve endings following the severe beating that greets his maiden voyage as a crimefighter. So he can take more of a beating than most people without blacking out — that’s about all. Kick-Ass is in one movie that respects the laws of physics, the reality of hard objects thudding into flesh and bone. The other movie features Big Daddy and Hit-Girl (Nicolas Cage and Chloë Grace Moretz), a father-daughter team similarly attired and inclined. They have the moves and the skills; they truly kick ass. Big Daddy is avenging past misdeeds by a local crime boss (Mark Strong), and he has recruited Hit-Girl into a life of ultraviolence, much as Batman did with Robin.

Batman and Robin never kill anyone.¹ Big Daddy and Hit-Girl do, with machinelike efficiency. The Batman of later years used to brood about the dangerous life he’d brought a child into. Big Daddy doesn’t brood, and Hit-Girl loves the lifestyle. Chloë Grace Moretz makes Hit-Girl an average little girl who adores her daddy and thus adores making him happy by becoming a wind-up toy that spits bullets and knives. Nicolas Cage makes Big Daddy sort of sweetly geeky out of costume, intensely proud of his little girl. What’s missing is a revelation in the comic — a typical cynical Millar touch — that turns Big Daddy into a delusional sociopath. Here, he’s for real — a sociopath with a mission, one could say.

Vaughn and Goldman also make Kick-Ass (real name: Dave Lizewski) more heroic than he was in Millar’s hands. In the comic, Dave becomes Kick-Ass mainly out of boredom. In the movie, he’s incensed because people stand by and do nothing while others are victimized. The murder of Kitty Genovese haunts the film the way it haunted Rorschach in Watchmen. Vaughn keeps working up to hyperbolic action sequences, mostly involving Big Daddy and/or Hit-Girl; Kick-Ass and another teen wannabe superhero, Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), may read a lot of comics but don’t really know what they’re doing. Hit-Girl is there to show the fanboys how it’s done and also to reflect their own juvenile fantasies rudely back at them.

Kick-Ass may strike some as muddled, because it doesn’t come down on one side or another. Costumed vigilantism is painful, bloody stuff; it’s also cool as hell. The two movies — Kick-Ass’ movie and Big Daddy/Hit-Girl’s movie — never quite merge, but a good deal of comic tension comes out of that. Vaughn acknowledges the light-as-air rush of an action scene that laughs at gravity. Controversy has enveloped the film because Hit-Girl, an eleven-year-old, curses and makes many bad guys go splat. That’s the film’s reductio ad absurdum, but it’s nothing new — Japan’s anime and manga have given us ass-kicking pre-pubescent girls for years, and sometimes creepily sexualized, too. We’re just beginning to catch up. Kick-Ass speaks volumes about where our entertainment is heading. We can either take noisy offense or go along for the grisly and giddy ride.

¹Actually, yeah, Batman and Robin did kill bad guys, back in the more carefree and amoral comics of the ’40s, before Fredric Wertham spoiled the party and the Senate stepped in to make the comics industry clean their own house or else Uncle Sam would do it for them. So the Dynamic Duo as we’ve known them for the past few decades have not been killers. But they sure started out not so much different from Big Daddy and Hit-Girl.


April 15, 2010

Back in college, I doodled a weird little scenario in one of my notebooks. Two street thugs were beating up a hapless, confused, very non-superpowered man wearing a superhero costume. Writer-director Peter Stebbings has now made an entire film out of my idle sketch. I hope he has excellent lawyers.

Actually, Defendor is far from the first film to strand a superhero in the squalid real world (Blankman and Special were there first, to name but two), and it won’t be the last (Kick-Ass looms on the horizon). But I imagine it’s the most stinging and heartfelt. Whatever methods Stebbings used to peer into my college notebook eighteen years ago, he has found considerable pathos, and not a little heroism, in the image of a forlorn mouth-breather in a costume discovering that fighting is easier in the comics.

Woody Harrelson’s Arthur Poppington, who likes to call himself Defendor when on the prowl, is a cross between Woody Boyd and Mickey Knox: a simple, good-hearted man who nevertheless has reserves of razory madness. Flotsam from an awful childhood, Arthur tries to make sense of the world by dressing up and dedicating himself to defeating “Captain Industry,” an imaginary kingpin he thinks killed his slatternly mom with drugs. When Arthur meets Angel (Kat Dennings), a young crack whore, his manner around her is stiff and uncomfortable — he won’t let her arouse him — until he develops protective feelings towards her. It’s pretty obvious he sees Angel as his mother, and doesn’t want her to die all over again. Without going over the top, Harrelson commits himself to the reality of Arthur and the fantasy of Defendor, letting us see each in the other. It’s full and generous work from an often-underrated actor.

Defendor, which went straight to DVD in America (it’s a shoestring Canadian production), will alienate some because it seems to start out funny and then takes a turn into tragedy. But a closer look reveals that it’s never really all that funny. An addled, emotionally damaged man who needs to climb into a get-up and fight crime is not, in the real world, fodder for comedy or even escapism. I believe it was Alan Moore, or perhaps Frank Miller, who once said that someone like Batman in the real world would simply be sad and scary, a lunatic in a cape.

Moore and Miller, of course, were responsible for deconstructing the superhero in Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. They were influenced by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood’s Mad parody “Superduperman,” and that goes back to 1953. Four-color heroes have been mocked for almost as long as they’ve existed. But Defendor doesn’t really mock Arthur (though almost everyone in the film does). Other than the outright scumbags, like Elias Koteas as a dirty cop, people look askance at Defendor at first but then get to know Arthur; they respond to the cracked folly of his mission, his essential kindness. Stebbings shows genuine compassion and affection for the man, and the film, for me, works for that reason — it’s not just “Hey, get a load of the idiot in the costume.” The movie is unexpectedly gentle; by subjecting the superhero trope to harsh, cruel reality, it ends up restoring its sense of wonder. Arthur works like hell just to stay alive in those fights; he might not understand that he can get killed, but we do.

The film has its flaws; it’s a little poky, and the prohibitive budget puts a cap on how persuasive the urban milieu can be (as others have noted, there seem to be about ten people in the city). But this is a small, decent triumph with real shades of feeling. It’d be a shame if it got lost in the backwash of hype for movies like Kick-Ass and the similar movies sure to follow.

Date Night

April 12, 2010

Steve Carell and Tina Fey are the king and queen of the Thursday-night sitcom prom. Both are smart and helplessly funny, and both came up through Second City improv. About fifteen minutes into Date Night, I began to wish Carell and Fey had been allowed to improvise the whole thing. As it is, this tangled-web contraption — with the stars as a married couple mistaken for another couple possessing an incriminating flash drive — makes for a painless, fast (88 minutes!) sit. It never scales, or even attempts, the heights of smart-stupid lunacy Carell and Fey have hit on The Office and 30 Rock. Liz Lemon would never be in Date Night, but Jenna Maroney might.

Every move Carell and Fey make digs them deeper into trouble, until finally they’re doing their idea of an erotic dance for the benefit of an erstwhile Dark Knight actor. The dance is mildly amusing, their audience’s incongruously impressed response somewhat more so; in truth, though, the scene peaks when Tina Fey emerges from the strippers’ dressing room looking like a cross between Sigourney Weaver in Galaxy Quest and Megan Fox in the forthcoming Jonah Hex. Fey is a brunette right down to her soul, so when she goes blonde — as she also did on the recent Saturday Night Live episode meant to cash in on Date Night — the wrongness is epically comic.

This is a PG-13 movie, so there’s only so much wildness the situation can unleash in this milquetoast suburban-Jersey couple. The night-world darkness of After Hours, Into the Night and Something Wild is beyond the goals of the script; it’s closer to The Out-of-Towners. We get gunplay, a car chase and soft hints of decadence (the car chase is barely redeemed by the hysterics of J.B. Smoove as a cabbie). Date Night offers a cameo every other reel, none of which I want to spoil, though fans of Attack of the Show’s often-hilarious Olivia Munn should dial down their expectations — she’s wasted here as a snooty restaurant hostess. Mark Wahlberg turns up as a security specialist who helps the couple (goes well above and beyond, I would say), and he provided me with my only real laugh: “Was that supposed to be me or Fat Albert?”

Unpretentious and unambitious, Date Night will play fine on Comedy Central in a couple of years. Carell and Fey aren’t really asked to venture outside their comfort zones; even when pole-dancing, they’re the same uptight nerds they started out as. The movie passes the time, but what a misuse of resources! Carell and Fey have an easy rapport, and I’d like to see them in a run of funnier films, and perhaps even write the scripts together; now that their first collaboration has yielded a solid number-one hit, maybe the studios will grant them more freedom next time. Then again, this is the same Hollywood that hasn’t noticed how funny Olivia Munn is.