Tell No One(8/21/2008)

            Recent years haven’t been particularly kind to foreign language film, there was once a time when it seemed movies from all over the world had a shot of capturing the domestic zeitgeist.  This could be because audiences have suddenly become less adventurous, it could be because of a dip in quality product, it could be the result of the same oversaturation that has greatly hurt domestic independent movies, but I think it’s because of more sinister motives.  My un-provable conspiracy theory is that Hollywood has been deliberately holding back the foreign films that have any real chance at wide acceptance so that they can pave the way for their own remakes of the same films.  After all they can make a lot more money off a remake than off a subtitled flick, and the less people know about the unoriginality of their future tent poles the better.  For example, I see no reason why we still haven’t had any kind of domestic distribution for the Spanish horror film [Rec] except for Hollywood to pave the way for their remake of the movie: Quarantine.  We can only be thankful that a remake of the 2006 French thriller Tell No One, if that was the case it more than likely would still be sitting on the shelf almost two years after it debuted in France.

            The film opens with a murder; newlywed med-student Alex Beck (François Cluzet) and his wife Margot (Marie-Josée Croze), after a little night swimming in a secluded lake, get into an argument driving Margot to swim away from the pontoon they had been resting on.  Alex hears a noise and swims after her to investigate; he is then knocked unconscious by an unseen assailant, while his wife faces certain death.  Most mysteries would continue from there and investigate the murder that just occurred, but not this one.  Instead the film jumps ahead nine years, the case has already been closed and concluded to be the action of a serial killer who was at large at the time.  Alex is now a doctor working at a clinic in Versailles, he’s still in a state of grief over the loss of his wife, and is all the more depressed with the anniversary of the death fast approaching.  One day while he’s working he receives a strange e-mail from an anonymous sender telling him to open an attached video on the anniversary of his wife’s death.  He reluctantly follows the e-mail’s instructions and see’s in the attached video an image of his wife, alive and well having aged nine years.  From here the film becomes a very unconventional murder mystery; one that asks not “Who done it” but “who didn’t done it” and more importantly “why didn’t they done it.”

            First of all, I’m going to point out that the plot here is very complicated, but not in a bad way.  The case at hand is labyrinthine in its complexities; there are a lot of pieces in the puzzle and lots of clues to keep track of.  About mid-way through the film I found myself thinking: I like where this is going, but there better be a damn good explanation for everything going on.  The ending, did indeed explain almost everything that happened, all the pieces fit together and it was satisfying on that level.  However, as air-tight as the explanation was it did still seem pretty thoroughly far-fetched.  I was reminded in some ways of the problems I had with the movie Gone Baby Gone, which like this film didn’t really give a good reason for such an elaborate conspiracy to exist.  The catalyst for all this film’s insanity is not a matter of national security but a personal crisis which I frankly don’t believe to be a good enough reason for all this bloodshed. 

          Still, even if the final twist didn’t completely work for me, it did work well enough to not diminish how impressive the rest of the narrative plays out.  What’s more, for any of the film’s failings as a mystery it more than makes up for them as a thriller.  The central set piece is an excellent foot chase involving Cluzet escaping out a window, running down to a sidewalk and desperately running across a busy freeway.  At this point the film takes an interesting left turn and goes from living in the domain of the suburban bourgeois and finds itself exploring Paris on the level of the streets.  Other highlights include a murder scene that seems to come out of nowhere and a kidnapping that seems like it couldn’t be escapable.

          If a good mystery and thriller weren’t enough to sell you, the character level of the story works pretty well too.  The grief and remorse that Alex goes through here is present through the movie, which is aided in large part by François Cluzet’s excellent performance.  Cluzet here is able to match the emotional rollercoaster his character is put through, but does it without moping through the entire movie.  He’s also very good at selling portions of the movie where his character is suddenly seems a lot more able to deal with the craziness around him than one would expect the average doctor to, and he does it by making his crazy feats seem the result of extreme desperation and determination.  Outside of Cluzet, the rest of the cast is solid but not wildly noteworthy, Marie-Josée Croze stands out despite limited screen time because of her place at the center of the plot.  Kristin Scott Thomas also stands out with limited screen time as Alex’s sister-in-law, mainly because of one really memorable scene.

          There’s not really a wealth of things to say about Tell No One, except that it’s a very effective little pot-boiler.  It’s based on one of those “best seller” beach novels that people buy at airports and it doesn’t really have many pretentions beyond its source material except to be very well executed.  Even though it doesn’t end perfectly the ride is more than worth the price of admission.  More than worth the price, when I look back on the film it isn’t the serpentine plot that really stands out, but rather the intensity of that footchase across the freeway, the determination of Alex to get to the bottom of the situation, and the look of utter joy on François Cluzet’s face as he remembers a U2 concert he went to with his wife while being given hope of seeing her again.

***1/2 out of Four

Tropic Thunder(8/15/2008)

            Movie stars have the interesting role of being loved and hated by the general public.  They turn themselves into larger than life figures for a living and are worshiped for it, but the same people who put them up on pedestals are just as quick to throw them under the truck for the inevitable ego they develop.  You won’t see Tom Cruise in the advertising for the new Ben Stiller comedy, Tropic Thunder, but he has a pretty prominent cameo in the film; ask him and he’ll tell you all about how the public can turn on someone they once loved for his perceived hubris.  Given the way he’s been treated in public, it’s strange to see him enthusiastically taking part in this film, one which may look like a parody of war movies, but that genre is only a secondary target.  The real targets of this film’s satirical wrath are movie stars and the industry that creates them.

            The film is about the making of a fictional Vietnam War film called “Tropic Thunder,” that’s become a horribly troubled production because of the rookie director’s inability to control his cast of eccentric actors.  This film within a film stars Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller, who also co-writes and directs), a Tom Cruise-esque movie star who’s action fare is no longer drawing in the crowds, forcing him to mold himself into a legitimate actor in prestige films.  Tuggman’s co-star is Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), a respected Australian method actor in the vein of Sean Penn who misguidedly underwent pigment altering surgery in order to play an African American in the film, completely oblivious to the fact that he’s essentially in blackface.  On the other side of the respectability spectrum is Jeff “Fats” Portnoy (Jack Black), an overweight actor famous for extremely low-brow comedies, clearly a dig at Eddie Murphy’s recent career path. Also in the fake film are Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), a young actor who hasn’t been driven insane with fame, and Alpa-Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a rapper starring in the film.

            With this war epic looking like a bigger financial disaster by the day, the film’s director (Steve Coogan) is put under pressure to finish the film or have it shut down.  Desperate, he decides to take the insane advice of the film’s author, a grizzled handless Vietnam veteran (Nick Nolte), and decides to drop the actors into an uninhabited jungle filed with hidden cameras and explosives in hopes of getting naturalistic performances from the actors.  What he doesn’t realize is that the jungle he dropped them into is the territory of a real drug cartel who the actors mistake for actors in this elaborate experiment in guerrilla filmmaking.

            Last week saw the release of Pineapple Express, the newest film produced by Judd Apatow, whose team is the dominant force in film comedy right now.  But the Apatow group wasn’t always on top, throughout the late 90s and early 2000s film comedy was owned by a group that has been dubbed “The Frat Pack.”  This core group consisted of Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Luke and Owen Wilson, and Vince Vaughn.  There seemed like no end to this groups fortune and their success peaked with 2005’s Wedding Crashers, that same year Apatow came out of nowhere and put out The Forty-Year Old Virgin, since then the frat pack has never really been the same.  I didn’t think there was another good film left in the frat pack, but this is a real shock, the first Ben Stiller movie I’ve seen in eight years and it’s really giving a great Apatow production a run for its money.

            One really can’t help but compare these two comedies being released over two consecutive weeks in August.  While Pineapple Express did the trick of giving a stupid concept to an overqualified director, Tropic Thunder takes the opposite approach and has a traditionally low brow director handling a fairly smart satirical concept.  Ben Stiller should be given a lot of credit for coming up with this concept and for making a movie as funny as he did, one can’t help but think this would have had even more punch to it in the hands of a braver, more sophisticated satirist like a Jason Reitman, a Trey Parker, or even a Spike Lee. 

The movie never leaves reality to the point of a Zucker Brothers or Mel Brooks film, but it doesn’t have the kind of relative reality featured in something like Knocked Up or Meet the Parents either, its tone is somewhere between the two extremes.  Despite the somewhat brainy concept and digs at flatulence comedy, the film still finds itself going for gross out moments and random absurdist pieces.  Mind you these are moments, not the norm, but they’re all the more jarring because of it.  Also, as brainy as the Hollywood satire is, it’s anything but subtle in nature.  The message is right there for everyone to see; people in blockbusters are in it for the money and people in independent movies are only in it to pamper their egos.  That is a pretty cynical message overall, and Stiller inelegantly rubs it in the audiences face to the point where it would be tiresome if he hadn’t made it so damn funny along the way. 

That’s the thing about Tropic Thunder, while it really is pretty flawed, the jokes keep coming and the film is ultimately so funny that it’s kind of hard to really complain.  One could commend Stiller for not trying to have his cake and eat it too, he clearly decided that making the audience laugh is the number one priority and was willing to sacrifice the overall movie to make sure that goal was accomplished.  David Gordon Green took the opposite approach with Pineapple Express and decided to put breathing room between the jokes to give the film a more relaxed feel and build up to larger laughs.  In other words, the comedy in Pineapple Express is quality over quantity and Tropic Thunder is quantity over quality, and it comes down to the viewer to decide which form they prefer.

If nothing else, Stiller has put together one hell of a cast here.  The man who steals the show, by far, is Robert Downey Jr. who’s clearly having a great year.  What Stiller is doing with this role is a major gamble as it could easily be misconstrued as something extremely offensive.  Downey’s character is such a character actor he believes he can play an African American; as a result Robert Downey Jr. spends the whole film in a realistic makeup to look like an African American.  It is important to note that Downey isn’t playing a black guy; he’s playing someone else playing a black guy, an important separation that helps diminish the offensive nature of the role.  Many have said that Robert Downey Jr. deserves an Oscar for his work here, but I wouldn’t go that far.  He works hard and that work is evident, but at the end of the day all he’s doing is putting on makeup and talking in a funny voice, granted that’s probably harder to do that than I make it out to be but still I don’t exactly see this as a performance for the ages. 

To cut down at the offensiveness of that role an actual African American performer is present to undercut Kirk Lazarus’ nonsense at every turn and make fun of his absurd role.  Brandon T. Jackson plays that straight man role well, but I can’t help but think the conflict between the two actors could have been played up more.  Also acting as a straight man is Jay Baruchel who helps the film immensely with his reactions to the craziness around him.  Jack Black is of course a pretty big star to be playing second fiddle in a movie like this, his character probably isn’t the funniest but I think he does the best he can with the role and I found the way he played his character in the fictional film to be rather amusing.  There are also a number of good performances by people behind the camera of the fictional movie.  Tom Cruise has a hilarious cameo as an Ari Gould- style profane movie financier, Steve Coogan works pretty well as the fictional film’s director, Matthew McConaughey has a nice role as an agent, and Nick Nolte has a good turn as a tough guy veteran who turns out to be as full of it as the actors in the movie.

Oddly, the weakest character turns out to be the one played by Ben Stiller himself.  Tugg Speedman doesn’t really have a comedic hook the way Robert Downey Jr.’s method actor does or Jack Black’s drug addict does, but he also isn’t a straight man like Jackson or Baruchel.  Stiller also doesn’t really look like much of an action star and it’s hard to imagine him staring in something like “Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown.”  Stiller clearly tries hard but really doesn’t have the same kind of material to work with as he gave many of his co-stars. Some of his character’s quirks, like a desire to adopt a child feel underdeveloped and rather strange as a result and his insecurities are never really explained, just assumed to exist.

With Robert Downey Jr.’s crazy blackface antics, one would think that any misplaced controversy would come from the NAACP or someone like al Sharpton, but they both seemed to get the joke.  Instead the group that’s decided to launch a boycott against the movie are the special Olympics and ARC, who both view a sub-plot in the movie as offensive to the mentally disabled.  The sub-plot involves clips from Tugg Speedman’s previous film “Simple Jack,” in which he played a mentally handicapped man in an insanely over the top manner in what is clearly a cynical attempt at getting an Oscar.  The message isn’t any more subtle here than anything else in the movie; that actors exploit stories about the handicapped in order to show off acting skills and advance their careers.  I can only think of three explanations for this silly boycott A. the organizations in question are truly oblivious to the movies message, which I doubt B. They judged the movie without seeing it and don’t want to lose face by backing down, or C. They’re just as full of it as the characters in the movie and are just trying to get attention.  Either way the jokes on them because Stiller’s script has more sympathy for the mentally disabled than many of the movies that they let pass without controversy.

 Tropic Thunder is clearly a good comedy, it has major problems, but it’s simply too funny and has too many smart ideas to really stay mad at it for long.  Still, I can’t help but think it could have been a whole lot more, and I don’t really have too many people to blame than Ben Stiller.  It almost feels like he was too afraid to make a straight up satire and felt he needed to pad it with a lot of unneeded but admittedly funny lowbrow material.  I think the movie could have done without a grossout gag related about a severed head, an absurd twelve year old drug lord, and a weird sub-plot about a tivo.  Still it probably isn’t anywhere near as flawed as the Love Gurus and Norbits of the world and if I told Ben Stiller I laughed through most of the movie he’d probably think his mission was accomplished. Fair enough.

*** out of four

Pineapple Express(8/6/2008)

            If there’s ever been a genre that critics have (rightfully) had no interest in praising, it’s the stoner comedy.  Most of the films in that genre are incredibly lowbrow works, often madcap in nature, that have no interest in entertaining anyone outside of a selected niche.  I am about as far from that niche as anyone can get, I’ve never been one to “party” and have little in common with the Cheeches and Kumars of the world.  The genre’s low level of esteem made it all the more curious when I learned that David Gordon Green, a director known for dead serious films like Snow Angels, was making a stoner comedy with Seth Rogen.  Seth Rogen and producer Judd Apatow have yet to disappoint me (though the fact that I haven’t seen Drillbit Taylor helps their track record), and David Gordon Green is a true artist.  With all that talent behind the project it was enough to overcome my trepidation about the film’s genre and give the movie a shot, and I’m glad I did because this is yet another quality comedy from team Apatow.

            The film follows Dale Denton (Seth Rogen), a twenty-something process server who spends most of his free time getting stoned out of his mind.  On a break from serving people subpoenas Dale goes to his dealer Saul Silver (James Franco), who’s even more of a stoner type than Dale.  Saul introduces Dale to Pineapple Express, a new strain of weed that Saul describes as “the dopest dope I’ve ever smoked.”  Dale is impressed by this new pot and buys some before leaving to serve another subpoena, this time to someone named Ted Jones (Gary Cole), a name Saul recognizes as that of the local drug distribution lord.  Dale arrives at Ted’s house only to find himself the witness to the brutal murder through the window of his car.  In a rush to escape Dale drops one of the Pineapple Express blunts he just bought on the ground and drives off.  Realizing that Ted could track that dropped blunt back to Saul, Dale and Saul decided to go on the run to escape Ted’s wrath.

            Pineapple Express differs from the stoner comedy in a number of ways.  Most stoner comedies have a very clear focus in their jokes about the sheer quantity of marijuana the characters smoke, there’s none of that here.  In fact there’s not really that much onscreen smoking here after the first act, just a certain knowledge that the characters are acting under the influence through much of the film’s duration.  There are also no hallucinatory images illustrated here, while there are certainly unrealistic elements (and a strange prologue), these are all more a matter of comedic anarchy than drug induced hallucinations.  Here the drugs aren’t really the source of the humor, rather it is the stupid behavior caused by the drugs that are the film’s main joke.  In the long run the stoner categorization is a red herring, the film’s humor has more in common with Judd Apatow’s other slacker comedies like Knocked Up, except that reefer is a bit more emphasized as the source of said slackerdom.

            It’s not just the stoner comedy genre that this film differentiates itself from, it’s far more ambitious technically than 90% of studio comedies.  The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that there’s no need to put serious talent behind comedies because the jokes and the actors should be able to shoulder the film.  This is an understandable position given the horrible results that often face huge budget comedies like Evan Almighty, and with people like Kevin Smith able to bring the laughs on a shoestring there seems to be little need to put real money into this kind of movie, as a result studio comedies tend to be directed by solid but anonymous directors like Adam McKay and Nicholas Stoller. 

Pineapple Express is by no means a large budget production, but it’s not a thrown together affair either, mainly because David Gordon Green is no Adam McKay.  Green is a director who has established major indie credibility with subtle lyrical films like George Washington and All the Real Girls, his work is characterized by long lingering takes and a down to earth connection with working class characters.  This is his mainstream premiere, and he wisely avoids a lot of the slow lyricism which would have been completely out of place in a movie like this, but he has kept his astute visual eye and technical craft.  He and his longtime cinematographer Tim Orr seem to be taking this production just as seriously as they took Snow Angels.  The looser feel of this movie has more in common with Green’s less famous 2004 film Undertow than it does with All the Real Girls, but unlike that 2004 film which never seemed sure what it wanted to be, this is a very focused affair; it wants to make the audience laugh while also telling a coherent story.

Seth Rogen is on autopilot here, but that’s not really a bad thing, I like his shtick and it works for his character here.  He’s really playing a straight man of sorts to James Franco’s character who’s the biggest slacker yet to grace a Judd Apatow movie.  Franco’s character sports very long unkempt hair and a t-shirt with a cat in a shark’s mouth.  I might be so bold as to call this the best stoner on film since Jeff Bridges immortal performance as The Dude in the Coen brothers opus The Big Lebowski.  The duo has a definite chemistry with Saul representing a more traditional stoner and Dale being closer to the kind of relatively functioning stoner of other Apatow productions.   I can’t say the supporting cast is as good as the core duo, Gary Cole and Rosie Perez both work well enough as villains, but neither are particularly memorable.  Also present are a pair of henchmen played by Craig Robinson and Kevin Corrigan who were decent, but again not particularly memorable.  There is however a great pair of small roles for Ed Begley Jr. and Nora Dunn that provide some of the film’s best laughs.

Another major aspect of the film is the way it mixes the stoner comedy genre with some chaotic action scenes.  The action scenes share a certain affinity with last year’s Hot Fuzz, except they are not being done to parody Hollywood action films; they’re there more out of a certain comedic anarchy, to put these hugely unambitious stoners into extreme situations.  There’s also a real danger to the violence here, people do die in the movie and the main characters shoot to kill when they’re placed in danger toward the end.  Unfortunately there are mixed results in the violence department here.  There’s a spectacular comedic car chase midway through with James Franco getting his foot caught in the windshield of a cop car.  The films finale on the other hand, while good, simply goes on way too long.

It’s obvious that David Gordon Green’s goal going in was to work on a mainstream field without sacrificing his independent standards of quality and to make the ultimate stoner comedy in the process.  On the first count he succeeded, his style has been altered appropriately to work for the film he’s making, but Hollywood hasn’t forced him to compromise.  He also just might have succeeded at making the ultimate stoner comedy as well were it not for the existence of The Big Lebowski.  In final analysis, this is an Apatow film with a much heavier hitter behind the camera, if Superbad and Knocked Up rocked your world the way it rocked mine you’ll have a whole lot of fun with this.

***1/2 out of four

DVD Catch Up: Shine a Light(8/3/2008)

            “The road has taken a lot of the great ones; Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Janis, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis… It’s a goddamn impossible way of life.”  This was the sentiment Robbie Robertson had left us with in Martin Scorsese’s legendary concert film, The Last Waltz. That film was all about a band that had been worn down by years of touring to the point where they needed to leave the road for good.  Almost thirty years later Martin Scorsese has made a concert film about the band that has notoriously become the absolute antithesis of that sentiment: The Rolling Stones.  I won’t contribute to the long list of jokes about the aging stones still playing music into their sixties, because I think those jokes are mostly unfounded.  No one has any problems with much older people playing jazz, classical music, or blues; so why not rock and roll, especially when they still “bring it” as well as they do here.

            The film is culled from footage taken at a pair of concerts at New York’s Beacon Theater in 2006.   The show is introduced by former President Bill Clinton, whose foundation was receiving the proceeds for the show.  Martin Scorsese was hired to film the event, the first such job he’s had since the aforementioned 1979 film The Last Waltz.  Scorsese seemed a natural choice to direct, one can tell just from the soundtracks to his movies that he’s a huge Stones fan; after all he’s used “Gimmie Shelter” in three movies (four if you include both of the times it’s used in The Departed).  Considering how well The Last Waltz turned out, and considering how good his other music documentary No Direction Home worked out, expectations were high for another gem from this cinematic master and preeminent rock fan.

            The film also contains some archival footage from The Rolling Stone’s past, but make no mistake, this is a concert film and no a documentary.  The archival footage is very brief and mainly exists for the purposes of transitioning between numbers.  Of course this is far from the first movie to chronicle a Stones concert, of particular notoriety is the 1970 Albert and David Maysles documentary Gimmie Shelter, which depicted the botched Altamont concert which ended with the stabbing death of an audience member named Meredith Hunter.  There’s nothing that dramatic to be found at this Stones show, and it also lacks any of the end of an era sentiment that added so much weight (no pun intended) to The Last Waltz.  This instead documents a concert that appears to have mostly gone smoothly, so Scorsese has the challenge of making an entertaining film while simply filming a badass Stones show.

            Mick and Keith are clearly older now than they were at the height of their popularity, but they still seem extremely energetic onstage.  Mick Jagger in particular doesn’t seem to have slowed down a bit; he’s still an electrifying performer and dances across the stage with utter glee.  The whole band sounds pretty good here, of course I wouldn’t be shocked if they used a lot of overdubbing and ADR, but they sound good in the film and that’s all that really matters.  The set list covers most of the classic period of the band’s career and never wastes time with the newer tracks that the fans aren’t as excited about.  The band doesn’t shy away from their “greatest hits” and happily play songs like “Satisfaction,” “Start Me Up,” and “Brown Sugar.”  The less famous but much beloved Some Girls album also gets a workout here with “The Girl with the Far Away Eyes,” “Shattered,” and a wonderful rendition of the album’s title track. 

            Of course they couldn’t fit all the hits here, you won’t be hearing “Paint it Black,” “Ruby Tuesday,” “Under My Thumb,” or “Street Fighting Man.”  Also missing is Scorsese’s beloved “Gimmie Shelter” which would have almost been a parody of itself were it to have popped up for the fifth time in a Scorsese film.  Also suspiciously missing is the title song “Shine a Light,” which only appears for a few minutes in the credits, much the way “Gimmie Shelter” only appeared in the credits of the documentary of that name.   

            The Stones are also joined by guests on three different songs.  Jack White joins for a rendition of “Loving Cup,”  I can’t say White contributes a whole lot to the song but watching him here is interesting as he seems incredibly flattered to be on stage playing with one of his idols.  Christina Aguilera joins the band for “Live With Me” with less than memorable results.  Finally Blues legend Buddy Guy for a cover Muddy Water’s “Champagne & Reefer,” and it’s far and away the best guest performance here.  Scorsese’s filmmaking eye shows itself here as he chooses to focus his camera on Guy’s eyes during Jagger’s part of the song before Guy finally lets loose with a classic Blues vocal performance.

            The Stones show a great ability to keep their show moving throughout, choosing the right songs in the right order.  The only time the show slows down is when Mick leaves the stage for two songs and Keith Richards takes over for a pair of songs he fronts as well as providing the guitar licks.  There’s a reason Keith hasn’t been fronting all these years, and without Mick on screen the movie suffers.  One Keith song would have been perfectly acceptable, but two was overdoing it.  It’s revealed shortly thereafter that Keith has been taking over so that Mick can change costumes and make an entrance on “Sympathy for the Devil,” still cutting that kind of filler out is one of the advantages concert films have over real live shows, and that tool should have been used here.

            In order to film the movie Scorsese employed a dream team of Academy Award winning cinematographers lead by Robert Richardson as the camera crew as he called shot via radio.  This is similar to his approach on The Last Waltz, except the set list wasn’t as rigid and it required a lot more improvisation.  The result is primarily a gorgeous looking movie, the lighting and image clarity are great and the cameras are able to really get close in and photograph at just the right angles throughout the film.  If there’s better looking live concert footage out there I’d love to see it.

            Of course as beautiful as this looks, there are obviously better concert films out there.  No matter how well Scorsese shot and edited this it’s is still going to be just another Rolling Stones show, not a cultural landmark like the Altamont show or The Band’s Last Waltz performance.  Still, as average as the show may be Scorsese has managed to capture it about as well as it could possibly be captured and that’s all he ever set out to do.

***1/2 out of four

The Wackness(8/2/2008)

            I’ve never attended the Sundance Film Festival, but I can say that the output of movies from it has never really tempted me to rush out there.  The place does tend to get one or two really prestigious gems a year, but the movies that play there never seem to be up to the caliber of the films that are programmed into international festivals like Cannes, Venice, and Toronto.  What’s worse the unadventurous taste of programmers there seem to have lead to the creation of the “Sundancey” genre; coming of age movies set New York, L.A. or a small town that deal with substance abuse and/or a dysfunctional family.  The movie to come out of this year’s Sundance film festival was The Wackness, a movie that was (surprise!) a coming of age movie set in New York that deals with substance abuse and a dysfunctional family.

            Let’s film in the blanks, the person coming of age here is Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), an eighteen year old living in New York circa 1994 who has just graduated from high school and is depressed about his future.  Luke has very little respect for his parents (dysfunctional family: check), who he sees as acting childishly, particularly his father (David Whol) who has recently put the family into financial trouble.  To make money, Luke uses an disheveled Icee cart as a front for a small time pot dealing operation (substance abuse: check).  His favorite customer is a psychiatrist named Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley) who’s having a mid-life crisis because of the troubles he’s having relating to his wife (Famke Janssen) and stepdaughter (Olivia Thirlby) who Luke knows from school (Dysfunctional family: that makes two dysfunctional families).  Squires lets Luke give Squires free pot in exchange for free consoling, but it becomes clear that the middle aged Squires is living vicariously through Luke’s youthful stories.

            Luke Shapiro is not the type of character that is usually the subject of movies; he’s too thoughtful and quirky for movies targeted at people his own age, but to cocky and immature to really be of interest to the average movie directed toward adults.  As such he’s probably a bit closer to the way an actual teenager would act than one is likely to see in most movies.  Despite his occupation as a drug dealer, the kid is not a real gangster at all, in fact there’s a really refreshing innocence to him.  He’s not a popular kid in school, but he’s also not some kind of stereotypical nerd, he’s described in the film as being “the most popular unpopular guy ins school.”  He’s fascinated by the mid-90s Hip-Hop music that populates the movie’s soundtrack, and even though he doesn’t really fit with that culture he doesn’t seem like a complete wannabe either.  He talks with heavy use of dated urban slang, partly in an attempt to be cool but also out of a genuine bond he at least imagines he has with the world of the music he loves.  This slang combined with his unconfident mumbling speech patterns are a bit jarring at first, but this is a deliberate choice on the part of Josh Peck and writer/director Johnathan Levine, this is an accurate depiction of how real teenagers talk even if it isn’t the most aurally pleasing speech pattern. 

           The fact that the filmmakers prevented Luke and other characters from simply filling stereotypes is one of the movies biggest strengths, most movies are pleased to lump teenage characters into retarded John Hughes stereotypes and play them out like that the whole way.  The depiction of Dr. Squires is a little closer to the realm of cliché, as we have seen this kind of ex-hippie midlife crisis character a lot recently, but Ben Kingsley plays him in a way that makes him more interesting than he probably was on the page.  The other interesting performance comes from Olivia Thirlby as Dr. Squire’s daughter and object of Luke’s desire.  Between her performances in this film, Juno, and Snow Angels we’ve seen a lot of good work in diverse roles from Thirlby and she may just be the next indie-queen or even an outright movie star someday. 

            I said before that this film was set in 1994, well this isn’t as trivial a detail here as one would think.  Levine is clearly in love with the mid-90s and has populated the film to the brim with nostalgic details and historical set-dressing from the year.  Aside from the slang and the soundtrack with get references to Mayor Giuliani, Forrest Gump, Beverly Hills 90210, and an incredibly unsubtle shot of the not yet fallen World Trade Center.  What do these references bring to the table aside from some nostalgic fun?  Not much really, in fact they frequently detract from it.  The Clinton era may seem like a while ago but fashions and settings haven’t really changed that dramatically since then, so the viewer never really settles into it as a period piece until one of these references pop out of nowhere and take you out of the movie to remind you how much Johnathan Levine loves and remembers the year that was 1994.  Boiled down, the story is pretty much universal, so I can’t see too much of a reason why Levine decided to make this a period piece other than to add some flavor to an otherwise pretty routine coming of age tale.

           As for the soundtrack, there is definitely some good music here but it’s not great to the point where they should be bill boarded in the trailer.  This is mostly mainstream east coast hip-hop, and 1994 was a good year for it.  The two big albums of the year, Nas’ “Illmatic” and Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die” both have tracks represented here, there are alos tracks from A Tribe Called Quest, R. Kelly, Biz Mackie, Will Smith, The Wu Tang Clan, and Raekwon.  Some of the tracks are chosen because they’re truly good, others because they fit in better with the world.  For example the Biggie track featured is “The What,” which is one of the most forgettable tracks off the classic “Ready to Die” album, but its inclusion here makes sense as it focuses on subjects like sex and drugs rather than the hardships and struggles of the more hardcore tracks, and one can tell why Luke Shapiro would relate more to it.  I do however have some problems with the cheesy way that some of the tracks lyrically relate to the action on screen rather than simply set a mood, like a sex scene set to R. Kelly’s “Bump and Grind” or a the use of Biz Mackie’s “Just a Friend” shortly after Squire’s daughter says Luke’s “just a friend.”

            The film is something of a dramedy, it is never straight up going for laughs, but it is by no means searing drama either.  There aren’t that many belly laughs, but I did chuckle quite a bit mainly at some clever lines that pop up just enough to not overpopulate the movie. This is also a movie that’s largely unafraid to break the fourth wall, like in the opening scene where a CGI thought bubble comes up on screen leading to a brief fantasy scene on a subway, later the sidewalk Luke steps on begins to light up like in the Michael Jackson “Billie Jean” music video to express his ecstasy after a fairly successful date.  These are not things that occur in every other scene and only pop up sporadically.  Like with the 1994 references and soundtrack they can be an unneeded distraction and again seem to only be window dressing to hide that this is the kind of story we’ve seen before. 

            That’s the main draw back here, deep down this isn’t an original story, and without all the neat tricks it would be a 95-minute cliché.  Like I said before, this is a prototypical Sundance storyline and there tend to be two or three movies that follow that formula which storm out of that festival every year.  If you’ve seen Rushmore, Garden State, Good Will Hunting, and The Squid and the Whale you might know what I’m getting at.  There’s even a sort of twist on The Graduate in that Luke befriends Squires before moving in on his daughter against her father’s wishes.  At this point most coming of age movies are going to have to collide with each other, as coming of age stories is just inherently not that different in the grand scheme of things.  The trick is to try to make your story stand out even if deep down it doesn’t, and Jonathan Levine tries like mad to do just that and never quite succeeds.  

            This one is a close call, there’s definitely fun to be had with The Wackness, especially if nostalgia is your bag.  I really do love the Luke character and the way Levine prevents him from being a stock stereotype.  Levine’s other choices are hit or miss and ultimately unable to hide the fact that this un-clichéd character is in a clichéd story.  Ultimately I’m going to have to say that this isn’t for everyone and most can probably wait for it to come out as a DVD rental. 

**1/2 out of four

DVD Catch Up: The Ruins(7/30/2008)

            Conventional wisdom says that the horror genre tends to work in cycles; in other words, whenever there’s a successful and original horror movie it gets followed by a whole lot of earnest ripoffs.  After Halloween we got a whole lot of masked killer movies, after The Ring we got a million remakes of Japanese horror movies involving ghost kids, and after Saw the wave of so called “torture porn” movies emerged.  The existence of the recent horror film The Ruins suggests that we are now beginning a wave of movies that are ripping off the 2006 cave-dwelling creature feature The Descent

As The Descent was only a moderate commercial success, I doubt this is going to be as widespread a wave as the above examples, but the resemblance between the two movies is no coincidence.  Both are about groups of young people who find themselves stuck in a dark place populated by mysterious creepy-crawlies that have apparently been there for centuries.  While the all woman group of spelunkers in their thirties was a relatively creative set up for The Descent, The Ruins goes the more predictable route for its group: American college students on vacation in Mexico. 

While vacationing the students hear about an ancient Mayan ruin that isn’t even on the map and decide to go visit it, what could possibly go wrong with that plan?  Once they get there they are greeted by a bunch of angry villagers carrying bows and pistols.  The locals start shouting at them in a native dialect that the students can’t understand; suddenly the angry villager shoots one of the students dead and the rest run into the ruins for cover.  But they soon find that what’s waiting for them in the ruins is much more frightening than what is waiting outside.

There are as many as six people here, why such a larger group?  So there will be more people to kill off of course.  Killing people off is the main goal here.  Like The Descent, this isn’t quite as gore dependant as something like Saw, but it also isn’t afraid at all to let the plasma flow once things start going wrong.  It does however venture into Hostel territory during one gratuitously sadistic scene involving an amputation, though it may have been a bit more restrained theatrically than it was in the unrated version I saw.

The Ruins is definitely a well photographed movie, cinematographer Darious Khondiji is able to give the whole film a nice orange-ish glow, though I do wish that director Carter Smith had been a little more careful with the angles as the film tends to over use close-ups.  I also rather liked the locations that were used; apparently the entire film was shot in Australia, which surprised me as the scenery did convincingly look like Mexico. 

As a whole this is a set up for a pretty good thriller were it not for two fatal flaws, the first being that the characters are completely stock.  While I’m no fan of Eli Roth’s Hostel, it did at least manage to give its characters some degree of personality and individuality; they weren’t three dimensional by any means, but at least I got to know them somewhat and care if they lived or died. Here however the young and the damned are completely indistinguishable kids that only exist to provide cannon fodder for the director.  

The second fatal flaw comes when the film’s big twist emerges, I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say that it becomes very clear very early that each and every one of these kids is doomed, there’s no chance for any of them to survive.  As soon as this becomes clear any suspense the film could have built is flushed right down the toilet, with no chance of survival the film becomes an exercise in delaying the inevitable, the question goes from being “will they survive?” to “how painfully will they die?” and that’s sort of a sadistic goal if you ask me.  Some may argue that this isn’t supposed to be a suspense movie, that the twist turns this into a drama about human nature.  I don’t know if that was the filmmaker’s intent, but if it was then its attempt at drama is undermined by problem A: the boring and indistinguishable characters.

I’m probably underselling the movie to a certain degree, the movie may be derivative and somewhat pointless, but it at least isn’t particularly boring.  If you’re looking for a contemporary horror movie you could probably do a lot worse than The Ruins, but low standards can only take a movie so far. 

** out of four