Monday, December 22, 2008


To admire Oliver's Stone's President Bush biopic W. is to admire a few interesting trees in lieu of the gnarled and desolate forest around them. The film's overall narrative is insanely chaotic, messy, and structureless, trying too hard to be a character study to be an effective political exposé and trying too hard be a political exposé to be an effective character study, but there are a few individually fascinating scenes and a handful of solid performances.

The film is divided into two separate and intercut halves, one about W.'s personal life, alcoholism, relationship with Laura, and daddy issues, taking place from his Yale undergrad days through his election to the Texas governorship in 1994, and the other taking place from 2002 - 2004 and about his administration and the beginnings of the Iraq War (his dubious "election" to the presidency and 9/11 are skipped over). The political half is the more interesting of the two; Bush's alcoholism doesn't really grab me that much, his daddy issues with George H.W. Bush come across as 90% fictional extrapolation, and although I like Elizabeth Banks she's absurdly young to be playing Laura Bush.

It's in the 2002 - 2004 segment that the meat and potatoes of the film lie. That George W. Bush is the worst president in the history of the United States of America is indisputable fact and beyond questioning, and Oliver Stone thankfully doesn't condescend to us by drilling that in beyond what is necessary. He does toy with the source of this ineptitude, however. Bush is portrayed as a bumbling good old boy in over his head and controlled solely by his cabinet, and while I don't doubt the in over his head part is accurate, it's an unjust absolving of Bush's sins to act like he wasn't aware of what he was doing when he invaded Iraq. He's dumb but I don't believe he's that dumb.

Looking for heroes and villains, Oliver Stone foregoes any hint of subtlety, opting to depict Colin Powell an angel descended from heaven to take his place amid the villains of Bush's cabinet, a living saint who tried to fight the Iraq War to the end, and Dick Cheney as an evil overlord giving ominous, booming speeches in front of global maps about the need for an American Empire. You practically expect John Williams' Imperial March to start playing. Now, I respect General Powell for endorsing Barack Obama and I detest Dick Cheney as much as anyone, but I don't buy either of these depictions. Colin Powell gave that stupid speech about WMDs - there is blood on his hands too - and as bad as Dick Cheney may be the Emperor Palpatine-style depiction is just absurd.

However, despite the ridiculousness of their depictions, Jeffrey Wright and Richard Dreyfuss may do the best work in the film as, respectively, Powell and Cheney, which made me wish that more of the film took place in the 2002 - 2004 timeframe and less in Bush's booze-soaked background story where they never appear. Josh Brolin's Bush isn't half-bad either. He comes across as a little too intelligent as points but he does a good job more or less with the facial expression and voice and general vibe. No other performance in the film lingers in my memory in the least except for Thandie Newton's hideously bizarre, borderline grotesque depiction of Condi Rice, an absurd caricature so over the top that it wouldn't pass muster on Saturday Night Live. I don't know if she thought the movie was a comedy or what, but she surely deserves to sweep the Razzie Worst Actress award off its feet.

Now, there are moments of policy discussion, particularly one tense immediate pre-war conversation between Powell and Cheney, that I found fascinating. But it's unfortunate that looking back on the movie I can barely remember any of the pre-White House material that takes up half the film. Bush the man is just a pampered rich kid and frankly not that interesting. I think that more historical distance and perspective is needed before a film like this. The movie was engaging enough during its runtime but I am unlikely to ever watch it again and it will have no enduring cultural value whatsoever.

2 Stars out of 5

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sex Drive

Listen closely, America, for I shall let you in a minor cinematic secret: Sex Drive, the teen sex / road trip comedy from several weeks back that you probably didn't see (judging from its $8.4m box office haul), is actually a really good movie and one of my favorite comedies of 2008, right up there with Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express. In fact it has an above-average shot at making the cut for my top ten favorite films of the year. Critical response was lukewarm, but film critics are in general spineless follow-the-leader lemmings, so who gives a shit.

I'll be first to admit that the skeletal plot is utterly generic: Ian, an awkward-yet-well-meaning high school nerd, is about to graduate a virgin, to his eternal shame. But a slutty girl on the Internet offers to have sex with him, so Ian and his two friends steal his brother's car to drive across the country so he can get laid, with his brother in hot pursuit to cockblock. Various road trip shenanigans ensue; car problems, angry rednecks, crazy hitchhikers, thieves, a pitstop in an Amish village, the characters getting arrested, etc., all in pursuit of the legendary pussy. Basically, a combination of the high school virgin plot and road trip plot you've seen a hundred times each.

But the immense charm of the movie lies not in originality, of which there is little, but in wonderful execution, specifically in surprisingly nuanced and really, really likable protagonists. The three friends who share the bulk of the film's screen time have solid comic rhythm and chemistry together and consistently great dialogue that's never too witty or cute or eye-rollingly vulgar just for the sake of vulgarity. And perhaps most importantly, outside of their grand theft auto they come across as genuinely good, warm, likable people with a believable friendship.

One of Ian's two friends and road trip companions is Felicia, a girl who he's secretly had a crush on for years, and it doesn't take a fucking genius to figure out where the direction of the story is going as the two longtime friends bond on their mission for Ian to sleep with an Internet skank he's never met, but again, the execution is charming and it's essentially impossible not to root for the pair.

The casting is superb. Ian is played by Josh Zuckerman, who I'd never heard of or seen in anything before Sex Drive, but he calls to mind the neurotic, awkward charm of John Cusack in his teen movies a couple decades back. His two friends are played by Clark Duke of Clark & Michael fame, who does ribald vulgarity (as all cinematic best friends must) with cheerful spunk, and Amanda Crew, who I also hadn't heard of but who has terrific chemistry with Zuckerman. James Marsden (of Cyclops in X-Men fame) plays Ian's lunatic homophobic older brother and is hilarious.

I also enjoyed the movie's depiction of the Internet; even in 2008 the treatment of modern technology by 95% of Hollywood movies is nothing short of embarrassing, and it was good to see a mainstream comedy comfortably, confidently, and more or less accurately incorporate instant messenger, blogs, and YouTube into the plot.

But ultimately what I enjoyed is that there's hardly a shred of cynicism in the movie. It's filthy as hell, yes, as a teen sex comedy must be; there's boners and blowjobs and piss porn and a scat fetishist and naked breasts aplenty, but it's nearly Capraesque in its unyielding faith in the essential goodness of humanity. Except for a couple thieves basically everyone our heroes meet on their journey ends up being good at heart and helping them on their way, from the psychopathic older brother to a seemingly homicidal redneck to prison inmates.

In that way it's basically the opposite of the shitty teen comedy College from this summer that was so inherently vile it made me feel positively grimy to watch. Beneath Sex Drive's cum-drenched exterior beats an idealistic heart. Not to mention it's funny as hell, not as hysterical as last year's Superbad, but a very fine teen comedy that I hope finds more success on DVD.

4 Stars out of 5

Friday, December 12, 2008

Body of Lies

The thing that surprised me about Body of Lies is that despite the pedigree of Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio it's actually a really, really conventional terrorism thriller. The trailer, for the first time in the history of movie trailers, actually deceives to make the movie look more complicated and nuanced than it really is, like it's about CIA corruption and Russell Crowe is the bad guy or something. It's really not; Crowe and Leo have a tense working relationship but the bad guys are Islamic terrorists in the Middle East and the main plot of the movie is Leo infiltrating and compromising their cell to get them all dead, and that's it. There's no anti-war message or anything and it could be easily be taken for right-wing jerk off fodder without much argument.

And I say good. I saw another terrorism thriller this year, Traitor with Don Cheadle, that tried to be supremely deep and have a powerful message about "not all Muslims are terrorists," "terrorists have motivation worth examining," "terrorists are people too," and so on and so forth, but not being a drool-soaked idiot I already knew all these things and the constant appeals to liberal guilt just felt heavy-handed and had me rolling my eyes. Sometimes you just want to see some terrorists get deaded and that's what Body of Lies is, albeit with pretty good acting and production values and a light political gloss.

A lot of the other reviews remarked on the density of the plot and said they struggled to follow the movie. I don't know if all movie critics are retarded or what but there's absolutely nothing difficult to follow about the story - there's a lot of technobabble and subtitled Arabic dialogue, I guess, but this isn't fucking Syriana; there's an evil terrorist leader who's obviously a stand-in for bin Laden and Leo spies and pulls some strings to infiltrate them, that's it. Like Traitor, the action scenes are relatively few and far between, quick, violent, and vaguely Bourne flavored.

I definitely respect the path Leo DiCaprio has taken with his career. After Titanic he could have sat on his balls or done any stupid crap he wanted but (thanks largely to Martin Scorsese) he's stuck with quality material like Gangs of New York, Catch Me If You Can, The Departed, Blood Diamond. He's grown as a performer and made a solid secret agent here. No other performance in the movie is memorable, including Russell Crowe's strictly workmanlike coldhearted CIA director.

However, I did mildly enjoy it. There's some spying, there's some gunfights, there's some explosions. It has a dusty, dirty, gritty feel in the cinematography and production design that makes you feel the Middle East location. If you really wanna watch a movie about terrorism, you could do much worse.

3 Stars out of 5

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


I have to disagree with the critical establishment when it comes to Ed Harris' new Western Appaloosa - I didn't hate it, but I found it rather plodding and jumbled with a lot of painfully dull stretches and an extended romantic subplot gone hideously awry. I suspect its fairly warm critical reception is due more to the Western genre being a sacred cow of American cinema than anything else.

It starts out promising enough with Profion Jeremy Irons running an evil gang that holds a small frontier town in a reign of terror. Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen are two freelance gunmen who roll into town and agree to uphold the law. I like all those actors (especially Viggo Mortensen, who brings immense gravitas and is the best thing in the movie), so so far so good. There's a couple gunfights, some dudes get killed, and they capture Jeremy Irons. They have to hold him in the jail cell until a judge can arrive in town and hold his trial, but before then all of Jeremy Irons' men are coming to break him out of jail with violence if need be. The stage seems set for badass Western action.

Then Renée Zellweger shows up and everything goes to shit, all the simmering tension drained instantly out of the movie and replaced with lovey dovey romance scenes between Zellweger and Harris, an awkward romantic triangle subplot, and the narrative going scattershot in every direction. Renée Zellweger is also just really, really annoying in the movie, whiny and prissy and unlikable; I think we're supposed to root for her and Ed Harris as a couple but I found her to be one of the most repulsive movie characters of the year.

From that point to the end of the film I never quite figured out what the plot was supposed to be; it goes all over the place, too introspective to be an action movie, too much movement be a character study, too much romance to be masculine, too much testosterone to be a chick flick, with little mood or tension to speak of. As I said, Viggo Mortensen is pretty badass all the way. And the movie ends in a gunfight between him and Jeremy Irons, which is cool and all, but by that point the engine had powered to a shuddering halt and I just didn't care anymore. If you want a badass Western, please just Netflix last year's 3:10 to Yuma instead.

2 Stars out of 5