Wednesday, November 22, 2006

So which is it?

You'll probably have to click on the photo to get the contradiction here.

This afternoon I received awards screeners for BABEL and AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. Included was the standard warning: "These screeners have been loaned for your personal review. Please do not copy, loan, rent, sell, give away or upload to the Internet the enclosed screeners or their contents." The inside cover for the global warming documentary says, "Watch it. Share it. Donate it."

I know what's happened here. This DVD is the commercial disc, but still, I thought it was kind of funny.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

STRANGER THAN FICTION (Marc Forster, 2006)

Each of us is the protagonist in our own story. For IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) in STRANGER THAN FICTION, the problem is that he's the main character of someone else's story.

One day while brushing his teeth Harold hears a British woman's voice narrating his actions. It wouldn't be out of the question for Harold to think that he's having some kind of psychotic break. In fact, that's what everyone else believes. Literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) offers his bemused, although not entirely sympathetic, assistance to Harold as he searches for the author of his life and imminent death.

Professor Hilbert assigns Harold the task of determining whether he's in a comedy or a tragedy. Considering his choice of employment and obsessive-compulsive fastidiousness, it could go either way. He tallies the events of his day auditing baker Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who he is innately drawn to, but Harold finds that his hapless interactions with her confuse matters more.

Eventually Harold identifies Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) as the voice he hears in his head. The professor informs him that his outcome is bleak. Kay kills off the main characters in all of her books. With an unknown amount of time left to live, Harold races to find the reclusive writer and plead with her not to off him.

STRANGER THAN FICTION'S premise and the presence of Ferrell indicate that the film is a comedy. It is but in a subtler way than the big concept and star's past work would suggest. Like life, the story isn't inherently funny or tragic but becomes one or the other depending on one's perspective. Such tenuousness requires a delicate balancing act that director Marc Forster, screenwriter Zach Helm, and the cast pull off beautifully.

Yes, ultimately it's about fully embracing life rather than staying locked in our habits and comfort zones, hardly a new moral to the story in the history of cinema, but STRANGER THAN FICTION brings vitality to the shopworn message. The plot unspools in novelistic fashion. Kay's narration presents the opportunity to convey interior thoughts that ordinarily play better on the page than the screen. Director Marc Forster utilizes a basic cool color scheme and geometric design to highlight the ordered but hermetic nature of Harold and Kay's worlds. It's no accident that more color and less rigid lines are found in scenes with the free-spirited Ana. In this way, the film recalls Jacques Tati's PLAYTIME.

STRANGER THAN FICTION is liberating for its characters and for moviegoers tired of films whose conclusions are apparent after the first ten minutes. The film has an inventive framing device that makes the tone hard to pin down at first, but in the end, it's nice to watch a well-told story whose finish can't be predicted at the outset.

Grade: B+

Happy Feet

HAPPY FEET (George Miller, 2006)

The emperor penguins in HAPPY FEET sing in MOULIN ROUGE medleys to find their spouses. What's a penguin to do if his singing voice is like nails on a blackboard?

That's exactly the dilemma that Mumble (voice of Elijah Wood) finds himself in. There's no way a female will be drawn to his screechy heart song, but boy can he tap dance. Unfortunately, his inability to sing and penchant for toe-tapping make him an outcast with the other birds. While in the egg, Mumble was accidentally exposed to the frigid air. His father Memphis (Hugh Jackman) takes the blame for Mumble's difference, but his disappointment makes it hard for him to accept his boy unconditionally.

Mumble's talents with his feet rather than his voice draw suspicion from the elders. The fish supply shrinks, something which the council believes is due to Mumble being an offense to their ways. Mumble sets out to learn why their food source is becoming smaller as well as discover himself.

HAPPY FEET'S animation is nothing short of spectacular. The frozen home of the emperor penguins is rendered in stunning photorealistic CGI. The flightless birds and other Antarctic residents are beautifully animated too. A sequence in which Mumble and his new friends plummet over an icy edge and slide down and around the terrain is as thrilling as any live action setpiece you're likely to come across.

Director George Miller works overtime to entertain, although such ends rarely seem effortless. A preponderance of mashed pop songs may trick some into thinking this is a frivolous children's movie, but the messages pile up fast and furious. The visual elegance is not reflected in the screenwriting.

HAPPY FEET is a didactic movie that takes on religious fundamentalism and addresses environmental concerns. There's nothing saying that entertainment for kids can't be substantive, but the film's hard sell against belief in the supernatural and for ecological care are simple-minded and preachy. Perhaps it's reading too much into HAPPY FEET, but is Mumble's difference from the pack simply a way of encouraging kids to be comfortable with who they are or suggestive of a lesson in accepting those with racial or sexual identities outside the majority? These thematic elements are bold choices for a movie about singing and dancing emperor penguins, but they don't mesh very well.

As a technical achievement, HAPPY FEET is a seriously impressive film. It's also seriously weird and will probably freak out younger viewers. (The subwoofer gets a particularly vigorous workout, which led to many crying children when I saw it.) Parents are better off taking the kids to FLUSHED AWAY for some holiday moviegoing. The animation may not be as groundbreaking, but it's wittier and has less insistent messages.

Grade: C

Monday, November 20, 2006

Fast Food Nation

FAST FOOD NATION (Richard Linklater, 2006)

It's said that you don't want to watch how sausage gets made. For most, the same probably goes for the process involved in making the hamburger patties sold at fast food restaurants. Eric Schlosser's book FAST FOOD NATION, something of a contemporary companion to Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel THE JUNGLE, gets the fictionalized treatment in director Richard Linklater's film. This tour follows the chain from the illegal immigrants who work at the meat processing plant to the teens slinging burgers and fries and the suits working hard to find ways to sell more of the food.

Fast food chain Mickey's receives bad news. A test shows that too much fecal matter is being found in their burgers. New company VP Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) is sent to Colorado to root out the cause and remedy the situation. He visits Uni-Globe, which processes all of the meat used in Mickey's top-selling The Big One. The place looks spotless, but as a rancher tell him, if he didn't remember seeing the killing floor, then he didn't get the whole tour.

Uni-Globe employs illegal Mexicans, all in the name of keeping costs low. The work is dirty and smelly, but for Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and his companions, the pay is better than what they could make at home and is worth the risk of injury, exploitation, or being caught by INS. His wife Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) has serious reservations about the plant and chooses a lower-paying but less hazardous job as a maid.

Amber (Ashley Johnson) is one of many teenagers whose first job is behind the counter of a burger joint. She works the register at Mickey's without giving much thought to what she's doing. As she searches for answers about her future, Amber begins to question whether she should be working for such a company.

Akin to a socially conscious ensemble film by John Sayles, FAST FOOD NATION takes aim at corporate America moreso than the McDonald's and Burger Kings of the world. Like Linklater's counterculture figures in SLACKER and WAKING LIFE, the characters fear being chewed up by the machine, a concern that is a literal danger for the meat processing workers who lose limbs and digits.

Clearly FAST FOOD NATION'S thesis is that the system is bad for everyone but those at the top raking in money. The food is junk, and the workers are exploited. Despite this viewpoint, Linklater makes efforts to be evenhanded.

In one of the film's best scenes, Bruce Willis turns up as the middle man who negotiates the beef prices for Mickey's with Uni-Globe. He's not shocked by what Don tells him but treats it as part and parcel of the industry. It's not news to him that there are excrement particles in the meat, but what does it matter if the patties are fried so that everything bad gets killed? Today people get freaked out about germs, but at least one study has shown that toilet seats are cleaner than kitchens.

FAST FOOD NATION has an aimless structure that picks up these three primary storylines and some minor ones. Characters disappear for long stretches and sometimes don't return. It doesn't always lead to a good flow. Kinnear's Don is dominant for the first half and then drops out of sight until the start of the end credits. A fast food restaurant robbery thread is introduced but vanishes.

Linklater's body of work shows a love for common people ruminating on the nature of existence. There's plenty of time for armchair philosophizing, not all of which is as enlightened as the characters or filmmakers might believe it to be. For all of FAST FOOD NATION'S sledgehammer evangelizing on the issues, a streak of humor runs through it. Amber's self-discovery is treated with respect, but the collegiate idealists she is attracted to are shown to be foolish, wannabe radicals. This kind of mood lightening is critical to keeping the film from sinking under the weight of its own ideas.

The purpose of FAST FOOD NATION is to inform. This opens it up to criticisms of fingerpointing without providing solutions, although I think it's unfair to expect Linklater and company to solve something as major as how business is conducted in the United States. While I enjoyed seeing how this film fits into the director's oeuvre, it's fair to say that FAST FOOD NATION'S informational function (and ponderousness) will trump entertainment value for most people.

Grade: B-

Let's Go to Prison

LET'S GO TO PRISON (Bob Odenkirk, 2006)

John Lyshitski (Dax Shepard) has spent more time in the clink than he has as a free man. As a kid he stole the Publishers Clearing House prize patrol van, which earned him a stay in juvenile detention. His behavior on the other side of eighteen hasn't been much better.

In the comedy LET'S GO TO PRISON John decides to take revenge on the judge who has sentenced him to time behind bars for each of his offenses. Unfortunately for him, Nelson Biederman III (David Darlow) died a few days before John was released. Hellbent on getting back at the judge, he turns his plan onto his son Nelson Biederman IV (Will Arnett), who runs his father's foundation.

John's vengeance amounts to spitting in Nelson's coffee and emptying his inhaler. These small actions have big consequences, though. Nelson has an attack and needs a puff from his inhaler. His reacts badly to it being empty, which results in some pharmacists mistaking him for a junkie trying to rob their store. Nelson's lawyer and the foundation board don't like their overbearing boss, so they conspire to put up a weak defense in court.

Nelson gets incarcerated, but John isn't satisfied. He commits a crime so he can go back to jail, become Nelson's cellmate, and really ruin his life.

LET'S GO TO PRISON is one of the strangest comedies to be released in theaters by a major studio this year. The humor derives from fear of prison rape, getting shivved, and other similarly hilarious aspects of life in the slammer. OK, so it's not very funny, and you could probably write down a high percentage of the jokes without seeing the movie. The film pins its success on being all kinds of weird.

That's to be expected with MR. SHOW'S Bob Odenkirk in the director's chair. (Odenkirk also appears as Nelson's lawyer and gets one of the few funny moments with his cockeyed logic for why Nelson's videotaped actions can't be believed.) As crazy and subversive as LET'S GO TO PRISON'S makers might believe it to be, it's too undisciplined and predictable to amount to anything.

Arnett sneaks in a couple Gob-like moments, but they only highlight how much wittier ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT was. At best LET'S GO TO PRISON is a sketch ballooned into a feature. At worst it's funny people grasping at straws.

Grade: D

Monday, November 13, 2006

Harsh Times

HARSH TIMES (David Ayer, 2005)

After serving six years as an Army Ranger, Jim Davis (Christian Bale) is wound tighter than a coil. He has nightmares about the efficient, brutal killing he did under order in the military, but his cocksure demeanor gives no indication of his inner demons.

HARSH TIMES finds the South Central Los Angeles resident back in civilian life. Jim and his best friend Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodríguez) are in need of work. Jim wants to get a job with the LAPD or feds so he can marry his longtime Mexican girlfriend Marta (Tammy Trull) and bring her to the States. Mike needs employment so his wife Sylvia (Eva Longoria) will get off his case. Regardless, their job searches usually lead them to the bottom of some 40s, scoring weed, and trying to fence a brand new Luger pistol.

One day their prospects improve. The Department of Homeland Security expresses interest in Jim despite concerns about his performance on psychological tests. Mike runs into an old buddy in a position to hire him. All this time, though, the likelihood of Jim snapping gets greater.

Built from a basic shot-reverse shot template, HARSH TIMES puts its emphasis on performance. In a role that would have gone to Robert De Niro a couple decades ago, Bale brings the same intensity he's given to brooding or troubled characters in BATMAN BEGINS, AMERICAN PSYCHO, and THE MACHINIST. Jim's detached attitude may signal an imminent mental breakdown, but it's also an asset for a profession that demands cold, calculated action. Bale plays this ticking bomb in such a way that he's never likable, yet you can't take your eyes off him.

Rodríguez complements Bale well. He pulls off the tricky task of making Mike seem like the upright guy despite doing much of the same things Jim does plus repeatedly lying with a straight face to his wife.

The problem with HARSH TIMES is that it plays more like an actor's workshop than a compelling narrative, the first half in particular. Developments are slowly doled out while Jim and Mike repeat their daily crawl through the city. There's little doubt that things can only end badly. At almost two hours, the film delays the explosion until long past when we care.

The inner city is familiar territory for writer-director David Ayer, whose writing credits include the cop dramas TRAINING DAY and DARK BLUE. His directorial debut showcases his ability to conjure a strong sense of place. The endless driving scenes take us deep into the area the characters call home. The seamy visuals underscore Jim's emotional terrain. If more action propelled this water-treading plot, Ayer might have produced the mean streets classic that HARSH TIMES aspires to be.

Grade: C-

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Return

THE RETURN (Asif Kapadia, 2006)

Since she was eleven, Joanna Mills (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has seen visions. The most common is a stringy-haired man in coveralls and work boots who calls her "sunshine" and claims just to want to talk. Every time she thinks she sees him, Joanna squeezes underneath something--a table, a bed--in hopes of avoiding him, regardless of if he's really there.

In THE RETURN, Joanna appears to be a regular 25-year-old, although a bit of a solitary one. She's distanced from her father (Sam Shepard) and friends and prefers when business keeps her on the move, trading hotel room and city night after night. She rarely gets back to her old stomping grounds, but the chance of landing a lucrative account lures her to return.

Upon her arrival, the visions return more forcefully, as does Joanna's childhood habit of cutting herself. She travels on to La Salle, Texas, a place where she's never been but which is home to a red tavern and rundown farmhouse that she's envisioned. Could something have happened to her there that is feeding her waking nightmares?

Director Asif Kapadia and screenwriter Adam Sussman reach into the grab bag of horror movie clichés and pull out fistfuls for THE RETURN. Ghostly country and western song that skips? Unexplainable problems with in-dash radio/CD player? Creepy southerners everywhere you turn? Childhood drawings that help solve the mystery? Check, check, check, and check. Not only is this a film without an original bone in its body, it's also about as thrilling as sitting in the waiting room at the doctor's office.

For as little that happens in THE RETURN, I don't think it has internal consistency. When she expresses interest in the big account, Joanna's boss says that he thought Texas was off limits for her. A critical flashback shows Joanna's dad driving a car with Kansas license plates. At a visit to her father's place, he tells her that her bedroom is the same it was as a girl.

The title, as bland as bland can be, doesn't seem appropriate either. The place to which she returns is somewhere she's never been. The ending provides a kind of answer, but it's a tenuous reason at best to think that THE RETURN fits because of it.

It's easy to pick up on those things because there's a whole lot of nothing going on in this movie. THE RETURN tries to get by on atmosphere alone. The blue-tinted images and eerie silences, themselves played out stylistic choices, don't mean anything when the film lacks dramatic tension and interesting characters.

There's not enough plot in THE RETURN for an episode of GHOST WHISPERER, let alone a feature-length film. At least with a TV show, you don't have to leave the house to be bored.

Grade: D

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause


Preparing for the holidays can be stressful enough. Imagine if it was a year-round process. In THE SANTA CLAUSE 3: THE ESCAPE CLAUSE, the jolly bringer of Christmas cheer finds home and work demands a little overwhelming.

On top of monitoring toy production and naughty and nice lists, Santa Claus (Tim Allen), a.k.a. Scott Calvin, and his wife Carol (Elizabeth Mitchell) have a baby Claus on the way. Carol is understandably nervous, especially since her due date may fall on the same night as Scott/Santa’s big delivery.

Due to the nature of Santa’s work, the location of the Claus home must remain secret, meaning that they’re cut off from family in the U.S. (Scott’s in-laws think he’s a Canadian toymaker.) Nevertheless, Carol asks for her parents (Ann-Margret and Alan Arkin) to be brought to the North Pole to help her through the pregnancy. Scott agrees to retrieve them as long as the joyful village can be redecorated with a maple leaf and hockey theme to sustain the illusion that they’re in Canada.

Adding to Santa’s concerns is Jack Frost (Martin Short), an ambitious fellow who wants to represent a holiday rather than the start of a season. The Council of Legendary Figures is ready to discipline Jack for his unsuccessful attempt to create Frostmas, but Jack persuades them to give him community service helping Santa. Meanwhile, he schemes to take over the big guy’s role.

THE SANTA CLAUSE films may speak to the need for family connections, but this third movie represents another part of the season: the need to move product. It’s no secret that sequel after sequel is produced because they continue to sell tickets. Walt Disney Pictures is going to ride this franchise until they cease to pull in sufficient box office dollars or Tim Allen bails. (That’s when it will likely evolve into a direct-to-video series.) From a business standpoint it makes perfect sense. Creatively, though, it’s another matter entirely.

The two prior films have been profitable enough to justify the existence of a third one—I’ll concede that the second film is a successful family movie—but there’s nowhere for THE SANTA CLAUSE movies to go. The concept’s bankruptcy is apparent in THE SANTA CLAUSE 3 employing the movie world’s equivalent of jumping the shark. An imminent newborn enters into the equation, and the film swallows its own tail by returning twice (!) to the pivotal moment when Scott assumed the responsibility of being Santa.

THE SANTA CLAUSE 3 had the potential for some mildly raucous fun with Jack Frost. Nothing subversive like the vulgar hilarity of the decidedly family-unfriendly BAD SANTA, mind you, but something along the lines of Jack Skellington’s unfortunate reimagining of the holiday in THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS or HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (the cartoon, not the rancid live-action version) would have been nice.

In the first half of the film Jack takes a back seat to the domestic crises of the Clauses, just what the little ones in the audience want to see. When he finally gets to cut loose, Jack’s evil machinations are manifested by turning the North Pole into a tourist trap and making himself the star of a Broadway-style revue. That’s diabolical but not all that funny.

Allen won’t be winning any awards for his work in films like this—nor should he—but he’s an agreeable actor who has found his niche and is often the best thing about his lesser movies. The Santa Claus role reins him in, but he adds a welcome dash of mischief to the large-hearted guy.

THE SANTA CLAUSE 3 helmer Michael Lembeck is a veteran television director. To his credit, he feeds this stale story in bite-sized servings that make it watchable even if it doesn’t satisfy. This plays a lot like a TV holiday special intended to reach a broad viewership. It’s diverting enough seasonal fare appropriate for a wide age range. Family viewing like THE SANTA CLAUSE 3 won’t muster any strong objections, but who wants a Christmas gift for which that’s the best you can say about it?

Grade: C-

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Death of a President

DEATH OF A PRESIDENT (Gabriel Range, 2006)

A film about the future assassination and death of a sitting President is a lightning rod for controversy if ever there was one. It comes as no surprise that some national theater chains have refused to book DEATH OF A PRESIDENT, a documentary that hypothesizes how President George W. Bush might be killed. Blending staged scenes with actors and manipulated file footage, director Gabriel Range constructs a believable account of the President's final hours and the political repercussions of his murder.

Structured like a longform television news piece, DEATH OF A PRESIDENT recounts the events of October 19, 2007 and the subsequent investigation through interviews with eyewitnesses and agents on the case.

The President is visiting Chicago to give a speech on the economy. The Iraq War and tense relations with North Korea have caused thousands of protesters to flock to the site and try to have their voices heard. The Secret Service is wary of the situation, especially when one person breaks through the barricades and smacks the President's car, but he makes it into the Sheraton and to the appointment unharmed. It's not until a meeting with supporters that a sniper mortally injures the American leader.

The bulk of the film is concerned with the politically motivated investigation and the legislation that is passed to increase governmental surveillance powers. DEATH OF A PRESIDENT does not imply that the assassination is part of a conspiracy, but there are suggestions that the President's death is used as a tool to advance President Cheney's interests.

As inflammatory as the subject matter might seem, Range's film is a staid, even somber, piece that takes no satisfaction in the assassination of a head of state. Presumably the director is not fond of Bush's policies, but DEATH OF A PRESIDENT doesn't cater to those who fantasize about the worst befalling Bush. The assassination itself is obstructed through a jumble of people colliding once shots have been fired. A protective circle forms immediately around the wounded President and keeps viewers from seeing much of anything. The Zapruder film this isn't.

DEATH OF A PRESIDENT'S premise will outrage some, although Range tries not to offend. He's made a sober film that explores how such an incident might impact the American Muslim community regardless of who the killer might be. He also looks at how investigators and government officials might justify chipping away at privacy in the name of finding the killer and keeping the population safe.

Range has expertly interwoven real and simulated footage to make a film that looks convincing, but it amounts to little more than a clever editing exercise. DEATH OF A PRESIDENT theorizes what might happen. The problem is it doesn't play effectively as a warning of a near future. The conclusions are hardly revelatory. The dry, matter of fact presentation will keep dissenters at bay, but for such a potentially controversial film, it's relatively boring. The idea of this speculative documentary will rattle some cages, but the execution of it will inspire indifference.

DEATH OF A PRESIDENT'S structure doesn't work within the universe the film imagines. The film would have been released after the assassination and trial, yet it holds the twists until the end. Anyone who lived through the events would already know the secrets that the film squirrels away for its last reels. A more interesting and productive approach would have been to put this information at the beginning, not to mention that it would have better fulfilled the film's conceit.

Grade: C-