Monday, June 30, 2008


Wanted features a gun duel in which the two combatants stand across from each other in an open corridor and fire at each other while simultaneously shooting each other's bullets out of midair. The movie goes into super slow-motion and does extreme zoom-ins to show their bullets colliding and crushing together as they attempt firing at different angles, each bullet being deflected by another bullet, as these two gun warriors are of equal skill. That should pretty much be enough for you to know if this is the kind of movie for you or not.

It's a trippy, kinetic, no-brains-required bit of hyperviolence that reminded me a lot of other "shoot-'em-up" movies like The Transporter, Transporter 2, Crank, or the aptly named Shoot 'Em Up, with the primary difference being that rather than our hero starting out as an uber-fighting gun-wielding walking machine of pure badass, we see him as a disaffected office worker plucked from his mundane life and trained up into that type. People on the Internet have likened the film to the themes of Fight Club meet the action of The Matrix, but although James McAvoy has an Ed Norton-in-Fight Club-esque narration in the first act, his problems reminded me a lot less of Ed Norton's all-consuming nihilism and commentary on societal ills and more of the self-loathing of the protagonist in Office Space. So I'm gonna go with Office Space meets Transporter 2, just with a lot more blood.

That's one of the things that makes the film a minor joy - in these pussified days of the PG-13 summer blockbuster, this movie is a nice hard R and proud of it. There's no tits, but the profanity flies like mad and more importantly flying is the blood and guts. There's gory stabbings and bloody beatings and brain-spewing headshots and all the good stuff that you rarely see a studio put some money and some stars behind these days in a summer flick, all done with tongue mostly planted in cheek, and as a fan of a little bit of vile hyperviolence, I applaud it for that. Some of the action scenes, like the one I described in the first paragraph, are fairly inventive, and about as ridiculously over-the-top as anything you've seen since The Matrix only ten times moreso since it actually purports to take place in the real world - a real world where people can curve bullets and literally shoot the wings off flies.

Shying away from the Jason Statham / Clive Owen uber-testorone type, the casting of James McAvoy (who does a perfect job masking his European accent, unlike certain actors named Jim Sturgess in certain movies named 21) as the living avatar of hyperviolence is clever and fairly effective. He doesn't have a weighty movie star screen presence but he brings a bit of everyman charm that lets the viewer place himself in his shoes. Angelina Jolie plays his mentor-turned-sidekick and she's just the opposite - while she may not technically be the best actress she really is a born movie star, with a magnetic, electrifying screen presence that fills the frame. And there's Morgan Freeman, who plays roles ranging from a deep, wise, mentorly deity (Bruce Almighty) to a deep, wise, mentorly U.S. President (Deep Impact), to a deep, wise, mentorly ally of Batman or Robin Hood, to a deep, wise, mentorly cowboy (Unforgiven), to a deep, wise, mentorly detective / policeman (Se7en, Gone Baby Gone), here playing a dark twist on his persona as a deep, wise, mentorly assassin lord. The entertainment of Morgan Freeman saying "motherfucker!" is justification for the ticket price.

It is what it is, gleefully and wickedly, and the only real critique I have to offer that isn't nitpicking (to complain about brainlessness in this kind of movie would be missing the point) is that the climax isn't really that spectacular, and is rather overshadowed by a considerably more imaginative action sequence near the end of the second act. But nonetheless, I recommend the flick to anyone who enjoys the other hyperviolence movies I mentioned above. This is probably the bloodiest and goofiest fun on the big screen this summer.

3 Stars out of 5


Just to get it out of the way first thing (and because everybody loves a good list), my new, post-WALL·E Pixar rankings go as such:

1. Ratatouille


3. The Incredibles

4. Toy Story

5. Finding Nemo

6. Toy Story 2

7. Monsters Inc.

8. Cars

9. A Bug's Life

But that said, WALL·E is the foremost piece of art that Pixar Animation Studios has yet produced, a film sublime, beautiful, and elegant in its simplicity. Most of that has to do with WALL·E himself - this is a rare film where the characters power the story rather than vice versa, and the use of film as an audio-visual medium in cultivating the protagonist is inspirational. 

As many of you who haven't seen the film yet may have heard, the character of WALL·E doesn't really have any traditional dialogue in the entire movie. He makes a few robotic sounds shaped vaguely into words, with sound work charmingly rendered by Ben Burtt - the same man who came up with all the sounds for Star Wars 31 years ago and has admitted the obvious influence of R2-D2 on WALL·E (and who also does his voice) - but there's no back-and-forth dialogue between him and anyone else, and the filmmakers use WALL·E's actions, his beeps, clicks, and whirrs, the motion of his eyes and arms, the settings, and his childlike sense of curiosity to create a character that stands proud with Tony Stark, Daniel Plainview, and Anton Chigurh as one of the most fully-conceived characters I've seen on screen in the last 365 days of cinema.

And the narrative is unique in structure - this film doesn't rush it, taking roughly the first half of the running time to establish and develop WALL·E's character and his relationship with his leading lady / robot, EVE. In this day and age, it seems most high-concept films are content to establish characters with 20 seconds of dialogue a few minutes in, but WALL·E really takes a narrative risk by spending close to 50% of the movie on it before the main conflict even revs up.

In terms of genre, the character study is in service of a unique combination between a Charlie Chaplin-esque romantic slapstick comedy not all that dissimilar from the 76-year-old City Lights and a fairly interesting piece of hard sci-fi. Possibly the best new hard sci-fi movie I've seen since Minority Report six years ago, although admittedly it's a rare genre that doesn't have that much to compete with (last year's fairly good Sunshine comes to mind, and... Paycheck :-( ). The first half of the movie brings the romantic slapstick comedy to the forefront with the sci-fi as a backdrop, with that polarity reversed in the second half, but all elements are strong all the way through.

Something that's always been true of Pixar from Toy Story on is that they are great with simple slapstick comedy, and WALL·E's pratfalls and mishaps play to that element with robust wit, calling Chaplin and Keaton directly to mind, and had me and the rest of the audience roaring with frequent laughter. But even stronger is the romantic element. By stripping the dialogue out and playing the relationship between WALL·E and Eve with visuals and broad strokes, it's less a novel and more a poem, easy to project any number of experiences onto and all the more easy to relate to. While my penis is far too large to cry at the movies, there were definitely some scenes of deep emotion and ethereal beauty between WALL·E and Eve that got it a little sniffly in the theater.

The science fiction element, while difficult to explain in depth beyond the root idea that the last robot has been stuck on an evacuated, trash-choked earth for the last 700 years trying to clean up the mess without giving away anything, is less poetic in its execution and more straightforward storytelling, but nonetheless an interesting concept that I think should provoke a little thought and nods of appreciation in execution from the even the most cynical Asimov fan. While some people on message boards complained that the tonal shift halfway through from character to story is too abrupt, I thought it was fine - we spend 40 or 45 minutes or so learning about our character, then go on a whirlwind hour-long movie exploring some speculative fiction about what the consequences of rampant consumerism and the ignoring of environmentalism could be. It was neat and well-executed, and managed to comfortably embrace the framework of robots in love somewhere in the middle without either element detracting from the other.

And last but not least, to ignore the soul and spirit for a moment and focus on the sexy-ass body, the animation in this movie is the best CGI animation ever. This can pretty much be said for every new Pixar movie that comes out, but now I really the hell mean it - the sweeping shots of the quasi-post-apocalyptic earth are staggering and breathtaking in their sheer scope, and the nervous, eager, childlike kinetic motion of WALL·E has so much life and zest and personality it makes the vast majority of CGI characters in any other flick look truly leaden. The design of the robots and the sci-fi technology is really clever, and the basic art direction of everything from soaring shots past galaxies and suns to the dusty, quirky aesthetic of the inside of WALL·E's trailer is the best of the best of the best. This is a truly gorgeous movie.

If I were to offer a few small critiques, I would say that there are a few gags in the second half of the movie that are slightly more kiddie, including one particular recurring line of dialogue about pizza that felt like it was definitely aimed at the single-digit age bracket. But it is a kids movie, and these jokes are way too few and far between to really gripe about - the laugh ratio here is enormous. And some have complained that the few action scenes at the end weren't required (which was actually pretty much my only complaint about Ratatouille - an unnecessary action scene near the end), but I kind of feel like sci-fi and a bit of action go comfortably hand-in-hand, so I disagree.

It's a remarkably solid and well-conceived film on nearly every level, even by Pixar's standards. I would easily say it's one of my top five movies of 2008 thus far and I enthusiastically recommend everyone go see it.

5 Stars out of 5

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Get Smart

Thanks to The Office and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I'm a big Steve Carell fan. He can play broad comedy (such as in Anchorman) but he also has a style that's more quiet and focused, and can earn as big a laugh with a few deadpan words or a small look as Jim Carrey can with a huge amount of energy or Seth Rogen with a big profane punchline. He's not by himself a reason for me to go to the theater - nothing could convince me to go see Evan Almighty - but for a movie like Get Smart for which I was on the edge his presence was enough to sway me.  And I'm pleased to say it exceeded my expectations.

I've never seen the TV series from which the film is adapted so I have no basis for comparison, but from the trailer I was expecting a bit more of Austin Powers-esque pure comedy, something completely lighthearted and whimsical and with no real sense of threat. And while there is plenty of comedy here - slapstick and awkward moments and, yes, some satire of spy movies, I was happily surprised that it was really more of an action-comedy. The villain has a big evil James Bond-style plot that, while over the top in a similar way, isn't played particularly for laughs. And there's action scenes here, car chases and fights and shootouts, that are shot with care and played for excitement in the same way they would be in an action movie. Bad guys show up and start shooting at Steve Carell, and damn if he doesn't pull out his gun and non-ironically or non-humorously shoot them and kill them. And I appreciated the hell out of that, because the mix of genres made for double the entertainment.

But while good directors make for good action, comedy lives and dies by its performers, and Steve Carell is (rightfully so, being the protagonist) the highlight here. He a plays well-meaning, frequently awkward, and slightly inept goofy guy not at all dissimilar from Michael Scott or the infamous 40-year-old virgin, and really seems tailor-made for the role. Anne Hathaway isn't as funny as Carell but is likable, energetic, and pretty, and holds her own. I've always found Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson to have a very charismatic screen presence (although with the exception of The Rundown and this, he never seems to get good movies to use it in), and while his part here is relatively small it's a good spot of fun. Alan Arkin and Masi Oka (of Heroes fame) win many a laugh with their supporting roles, and Bill Murray has a hilarious cameo.

I won't claim that the movie is great or a must-see, it's just a nice fun action-comedy spy movie; certainly a lot better than any Austin Powers since the first and something I would definitely recommend to any on-the-fence Steve Carell fan.

3 Stars out of 5

The Incredible Hulk

The most interesting thing about The Incredible Hulk is that it's not a superhero movie. Well, let's back up a second - it is of course a movie ABOUT a superhero, but it's something slightly askew from the traditional superhero genre that's been crafted by the Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, X-Men, and other movies. When I discussed Iron Man a couple weeks ago I said that the only structural weakness in the overall brilliantly entertaining runtime was the fact that nothing in the actual plot eschews superhero formula whatsoever; the character, his personal faults and crises, the villain, the villain's plot, the uncovering of the superpowers, the training montage, the final showdown, and so on - it's all the same skeleton we've seen used in Spider-Man and others for years. Well the strongest (pun?) part of Incredible Hulk is that it rejects most all of those standards beats, being a new genre fusion: the first full-fledged superhero chase / thriller movie. The Incredible Bourne.

And I do mean that - pretty much the whole movie is an adrenaline rush, seeing Bruce Banner on the run. The narrative framework reminds me much, much more of The Fugitive or North by Northwest with hundred million dollar special effects than Iron Man. We see how and why the government is after Bruce Banner, an innocent man on the run. He attempts to hide from them in various desperate ways. The people chasing him are our villains. Occasionally when the chase gets close, big, explosive action scenes ensue. Yes, there's a villain and a romantic interest and superpowers, but the primary motivation of the villain isn't a big, elaborate world-domination plot ala Magneto or Lex Luthor or Doc Ock - he just wants to do his goddamn job and catch Bruce Banner, even if he has to twist ethics a bit on the way. The superpowers only really flare up during the aforementioned action set pieces that interspace the chasing. The question with the romantic interest isn't whether or not she and the hero will work out their problems ala Lois Lane or Mary Jane Watson, but how she'll help him on the run. It's all really unique.

And of course it's all held together nicely by some solid performers. Internet favorite Edward Norton is Bruce Banner and he has, as always, a unique and inherently watchable energy to him. Everything from the timber of his voice to the way he moves is eyes is perfectly under control. You can kind of see Edward Norton "acting" in his movies, he's not the performer that mind-melds with his character so completely that the thespian disappears, but his acting is damn entertaining and expressive. And Tim Roth is just the mayor of awesome as the villain. It's probably the most fun superhero villain I've seen since Willem Dafoe in Spider-Man six years ago - he even steals his scenes from Edward Norton, scoring laughs and menace and badassery along the way. And while Liv Tyler isn't someone I'd call one of our great actresses, she had nice chemistry with Norton and works well in the context of the film.

So we got some great acting - maybe not anything as pure awesome as Robert Downey Jr. for a whole movie, but all solid - some fun action and chase sequences, and some good clever laughs - again, not as many as Iron Man or Spider-Man 2, but certainly more than Superman Returns. Any weaknesses? Well, one big one - while the special effects here are very, very good to be certain, special effects wizards have still yet to fully and truly capture organic flesh. Living things. The motion of the eyes and the mouth that makes something look sentient in a real-world setting. Special effects has mastered things like fire and metal and vast settings and sweeping armies, but probably the best CGI sentient life form I've seen is still Gollum six years ago, and the green Hulk always looks just a HAIR synthetic. It's something that is hard to help. You just have to ignore it.

But by no stretch did it ruin this fun chase / thriller / superhero fusion flick. It's a Hulked out adrenaline rush that doesn't feel juvenile like so many other superhero movies nor is it too slow and artsy like Ang Lee's Hulk (which I've deliberately not compared it to here, since it's a reboot that never references that film). Not the best film of the year, but it's smashing good fun.

3 Stars out of 5

The Happening

About a decade ago, the very term "horror movie" seemed to be synonymous with dead teenager yawnfests, substituting tits and blood for anything resembling creativity. Now don't get me wrong, I loved tits and blood as much if not more when I was fourteen than I do today, but it was all rather redundant until a wunderkind filmmaker named M. Night Shyamalan came along and made a fresh, exciting, rightfully Oscar-nominated ghost story called The Sixth Sense. He had a firm grasp of suspense, established the "rules" of his supernatural world with panache, and most notably milked some eerie, Oscar-caliber performances from the whole cast.

Which makes it all the more disappointing that The Happening isn't just bad, it's incompetent. Okay, sure, it's a step up from the surreally awful, brain-exploding clusterfuck that was Lady in the Water - making it the first Shyamalan movie that was better than the one before it - but then again Lady in the Water is arguably one of the 25 worst movies I've ever seen in my life, so if "Congratulations! You've made a movie that is NOT one of the 25 worst movies I've seen in my life!" was the praise M. Night wanted with The Happening, here it is. But it's unbelievable that this is the same dude who made The Sixth Sense - there's nothing resembling suspense or a "scare" to be found here outside of obnoxious soundtrack stingers that make you jump just because they're loud and discordant irrelevant of the supposedly "scary" image on the screen. There's no structure, resolution, or point to the narrative, and the acting, good lord the acting, I'll get back to that in just a second because it calls for its own paragraph.

And it's a shame because unlike Lady in the fucking Water, the story here is actually a good one, one of two good things in the movie. There's a wacky gas that might strike anywhere and anytime and in wide attack patterns that makes everyone it touches go crazy and kill themselves. Survivalists try to escape it. It seems like a solid premise that could result in some suspense, some intense scares, some gore, some character development on the run, all that business. And it delivers on basically none of that. The movie can't even seem to commit to whether or not it wants to be a slow-boil suspense piece or a gore-fest; perhaps it tries to straddle the line but it fails on both counts. However, most of the marketing seemed to focus on the R-rating, hyping that to high heaven. Including Shyamalan himself. So how was the "R-rated" gore? Weak as hell. There was about four kills in the movie I'd call novelty kills and every time it cut away too quick to really see anything interesting. And as a suspense movie it fails because you don't care about the characters enough to be in suspense for their lives. And that is largely because of...

The acting. I don't know what exactly happened here, but Mark Wahlberg, the man who arguably outperformed Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, and Martin Sheen two years ago in The Departed delivers here perhaps the worst performance I've seen from a leading actor in a theatrical release from a major studio in the last ten years. I won't say in any movie I've seen, because I've watched straight-to-DVD National Lampoon college "comedies," but in this movie, M. Night Shyamalan successfully directed Marky Mark to the point where he actually fails at the basic mechanics of acting. All his lines are delivered like he's delivering them for the first time to no one else, reading directly from a script that's hard to read. It's surreal to even watch - I think M. Night was maybe trying to make his performance seem eerie and detached, but all I see is an actor reading lines.

And his chemistry with the nearly-as-bad Zooey Deschanel, who is supposed to be playing his wife, is utterly, truly nonexistent. I wouldn't even buy them as people who just met during the plot of the movie, let alone as husband and wife. None of their dialogue together seems like they were delivering it to other actors. It seems like they were delivering it to tennis balls on sticks, imagining the others' dialogue, and the two halves of the footage were then spliced together in post. And every single other actor, from those with semi-major parts to those with one or two lines, is just as awful. With ONE exception (and the other of the two good things in the movie) - John Leguizamo actually seems like he's alive on screen and does a good job lending energy to his scenes. I don't know what it is about Leguizamo, but I've always liked the man who was Luigi Mario in EVERYTHING I've seen him in; from Empire to Mario Bros. to Romeo + Juliet to Land of the Dead to this disaster, he never fails to entertain me as a screen presence.

But by no stretch does it save this movie from the trash heap of cinematic oblivion. It's not scary, it's not suspenseful, it's not fun to watch, if there's a "message" it's a lame one. It's maybe worth Netflixing to gawk at the horror of the acting, but that's about all. M. Night's next movie is supposedly going to be a children's fantasy-adventure instead of horror. Let's hope that's the change needed to spark his filmmaking back to life, because the carte blanche of an R-rating sure as fuck wasn't it.

1 Star out of 5

Kung Fu Panda

Like the rest of the western world, I love Pixar - from Toy Story to The Incredibles to Ratatouille, they've delivered some of the finest, most timeless and age-proof entertainment of the last thirteen years. Even their lesser efforts like A Bug's Life and Cars make the other kids' movies that surround them at the multiplex look leaden and trite. But this casts the harsh, judgmental light of comparison on Dreamworks, and although Shrek was a fun novelty seven years ago (one that has rapidly aged I might add), I haven't been even remotely impressed by the work they've put out since then, pop culture-infused cookie-cutter kiddie flicks awkwardly constructed around their voice stars (the fish with Will Smith's face will forever haunt my dreams).

So I was groaning with the worst of the haters at the Kung Fu Panda teasers which promised Jack Black hardly playing a character so much as doing his shtick, and - how's this for creative zest - talking animals! Which left me befuddled when far more favorable reviews than negative began pouring in, not just from the boring-ass national media, but from far more independent Internet sources I trust! So I had to go see for myself, and while Kung Fu Panda isn't a pockmark on a timeless piece of art like last year's Ratatouille, it's a lovingly constructed, humorous, and more-than-competently made tribute to old kung fu movies and a solid piece of entertainment. I genuinely liked it.

First off, unlike the Shrek ilk, this movie contains absolutely NO pop culture references whatsoever other than the innate stylistic similarities to the kung fu flicks it lightly satirizes and pays tribute to. None. It stands on its own feet. Secondly, while the titular panda is very much an avatar for Jack Black's standard goofy personality, the movie doesn't make the easy mistake of just taking that and letting it sit there like a limp fish (voiced by Will Smith) - while it mines that particular style for humor all the way through, the character is forced to take responsibility and evolve, and the evolution is pretty much the same standard you would ask for if this movie were the same story starring Jack Black done in live action. Citizen Kane it's not, but there is a character arc. Third, the animation leaves shit like Madagascar choking to death in its dust. No, it's not Ratatouille or Wall·E, but the characters are fluid and vibrant and the art and settings have a vaguely dusty, ancient, ethereal, Chinese feel to them that doesn't feel phoned in at all.

Also, the infinite potential of animation is actually taken advantage of to produce some pretty nifty kung fu / fight scenes. It's obviously all synthetic, being animated and whatnot, but the choreography and ideas actually build on that to do neat things that couldn't be done in live action (at least not easily and without millions of wires). There are old-fashioned kung fu fights with kicks and blocks and punches and jumps, that have a sense of momentum and energy. None of the action blew my mind to pieces but it was all entertaining to watch. As was the comedy, which was pretty much all either slapsticky type mishaps or building on the "Jack Black" personality, but relatively little of it felt juvenile, and I had some laughs.

Of course, it's not perfect by any stretch. The story - fittingly for a kung fu movie - is very simple, straightforward, and doesn't innovate in any way. None of the characters besides Po the panda, his primary mentor Shifu (skillfully voice acted by Dustin Hoffman), and the villain receive any development whatsoever; they are pretty much all paper-flat, and it seems a shame that they have Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Angelina Jolie, and Jackie Chan voice acting but barely use them for more than a half-dozen lines each. But I don't think the kids this movie was basically made for will care, and not having ten million fucking pop culture references, this movie actually won't painfully age year by year like certain movies starring green ogres played by Mike Myers. So I'd give Kung Fu Panda a thumbs up, not an ecstatic one, but a comfortable one.

3 Stars out of 5

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Freddy Got Fingered - Analysis

[I wrote this about two years ago during the summer of '06.  I recently rediscovered it floating around on the Internet, and found it amusingly arbitrary enough to repost here. Enjoy, hopefully!]

Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo
. Scary Movie. The Dukes of Hazzard. The Hot Chick. Little Man.

All these films, when stripped of their respective skins and their bones revealed, seem to be powered by the same fuel -- the assumption that stupidity, randomness, and arbitrary helpings of pain and gross-out humor make for great comedy. Needless to say, these things don't make for great comedy. In fact (while I now deftly avoid his films), Rob Schneider's starring turn in Deuce Bigalow is about as funny as your standard partial-birth abortion, and to this day stands as one of the worst movies I've ever seen.

But it's not an aberration of any kind. No, here in America, horrific comedies are an accepted way of life, and for every 40-Year-Old Virgin that presents us with charming characters we get ten comedies with nary a human who isn't loathsome onscreen. For every Sideways that gives us hilarious observations about the human condition we get ten comedies without any brains in their heads. And for every Wedding Crashers that gives us genuinely funny slapstick and ribald humor, we get ten supposedly funny movies with no understanding at all of how to use these elements. It's a sad state of affairs where the norm is basically shit.

But there's one film that to critics and to large swaths of the cinematically aware population seems to stand as the king of all that is wrong with modern cinema, frequently regarded as an all-time low point and one of the worst films ever made. I speak of 2001's Freddy Got Fingered, written by, directed by, and starring Tom Green.

"Daddy would you like some sausage?!"

It was Roger Ebert who famously said of Freddy Got Fingered, "This movie doesn't scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels." Universally panned and derided as a moronic, deeply disgusting and pointless new low for cinema as a modern art form, I naturally avoided the film for many years, and put it out of my mind just as surely as I mentally shut down every time a preview for a film starring Rob Schneider pops up.

But then a few years ago I happened upon it on TV and watched it out of a sense of pure masochism, and was horrified to find myself laughing. Like, not a couple of chuckles, like laughing a lot. Like the kind of laughter that causes my eyes to tear up, my lungs to hurt, and for me to miss dialouge because of the laughter, the kind of laughter that cures disease and builds civilizations, the kind of laughter that makes you feel alive again. I wondered, what's wrong with me? I don't like Rob Schneider films. I don't like David Spade films. I rarely like Adam Sandler films. Was I losing my taste, was I becoming stupid and placid with the status quo? Or was there something else going on?

I put the matter aside for a few years, until just now, when I rewatched Freddy Got Fingered on DVD. Once again I laughed, and now, a little older and a little wiser, with hair in places I never could have imagined before, more comfortable with my own opinions, I can say with authority that I feel Freddy Got Fingered couldn't be any further from the works of Rob Schneider and his ilk. It wields a core not of stupidity, but one of honed, sharp satire, making the film a modern masterpiece of neo-surrealism and a beautiful piece of aggressively bizarre performance art.

"You can't hurt me! Not with my cheese helmet!"

Basically, Green's film is about a man named Gord Brody who dreams of being a professional animator; a hugely colorful, ambitious 28-year-old with boundless energy and creativity nonetheless bound by his monotonous job at the cheese sandwich factory and a father, Jim, who is nothing but ashamed of him. He meets a girl named Betty who also has a dream, and falls in love with her. When Betty reaches her goals, Gord is inspired and finally achieves success as an animator, leaving the only hurdle to jump over his relationship with his father. He confronts Jim and the two finally learn to respect and love one another.

The outline sounds like something plucked from any family film you can imagine, and therein lies the genius -- it is just that. Although it's easy to lose sight of it within the chaos of his creation, Green structures what turns out to be a rather heartfelt thesis about fear of losing one's identity and dreams to the tightening grip of adult responsibility, and the lengths people will go to to seek love from their family. But what appalled critics about the film is the thick lairs of surrealism encasing every scene, every character, and every line of dialogue.

Gord Brody is an absurdist figure who, during the course of the film, impersonates a doctor for no particular reason and delivers a pregnant woman's baby, then proceeds to swing it around by its umbilical cord to bring it back to life, jerks off both a horse and an elephant because he's stunned by the size of their penises, cuts open a dead moose on the road and climbs inside, licks the bone sticking out of a man's open wound, pretends his home phone is a cellular telephone to impress his date, wears scuba gear in the shower, makes a "cheese helmet" out of cheese slices and brags of his newfound invulnerability, and a dozen other things I couldn't even possibly get into. Even his sweet girlfriend is a paraplegic, sexually deviant nymphomaniac who orgasms from being beaten viciously on her paralyzed legs and loves nothing more in the world than sucking cock.

Gord shows off his cellular telephone

If it all sounds dark and disturbing, that's exactly because it's meant to. This is a deeply surrealistic work that, even while making you laugh with its portrait of the lowest depths of humanity and sheer disgusting humor, cuts itself off so much from the real world it purports to exist in that you, the viewer, lose your frame of reference and, for lack of a better term, anything to hold onto. This is a piece evolved not from the tradition of 1990s dumb gross-out comedy, but grown from the same soil as Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Federico Fellini's , surreal in a way that cuts deeply within. But it would be ridiculous of me to directly compare Tom Green to renowned cinematic masters, so I'll contrast him with another neophyte in the arena -- namely Miranda July, the mind behind last year's critically renowned Me and You and Everyone We Know.

In her film, Miranda July plays a character named Christine, a performance artist aspiring to do her work professionally (similarly to Gord in Freddy Got Fingered, who wants to animate professionally) who creates bizarre art and sees the beauty in everything. She writes "Me" and "You" on her shoes, because, you know, it's art, man. She asks a man to call her, say only "Macaroni," and hang up, and god damn if that exact call wasn't made. But whereas Gord's bizarre performance art is played for laughs, Christine's is dramatically quirky and supposedly rife with meaning. Both films contain romantic subplots -- one played for laughs and one for "whoa, man, isn't the universe, like, full of meaning," and pedophilia subplots -- again, one played for laughs and one meant to make a statement about life and universe. Both have countless random and nonsensical scenes wrapped around a narrative. What it goes to show is that surrealism is apparently only okay when it's "art" down to its bones, but when it's meant to be humorous, it become critically unacceptable.

Not to say that Freddy doesn't have its roots firmly embedded in art history. If you trace it back, surrealism is the most common of a group of artistic movements, along with Pop Art and Fluxus, descended from a common father, Dadaism. Dadaism, a movement that began in Zürich, Switzerland during World War I and peaked between 1916 and 1920, largely as part of an anti-war political movement, is most commonly defined as "anti-art." Every ideal that so-called true art is meant to stand for, Dadaism is meant to turn on its head. Stripped of aesthetics, meaning, meant to offend and subject itself entirely to viewer interpretation. Although out of the time frame of Dada art by many, many decades, Freddy Got Fingered fits nearly all of the qualifications of the movement.

Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q., an early example of Dadaism

Therein lies the central beauty and meaning of his film. Given a $14 million budget because of the relative popularity of his TV show, studios trusted in Tom Green to do the gross-out humor he did best and give them another cookie-cutter awful comedy. So Green took a beloved Hollywood formula, a man finding success, love, and family, and twisted it so far it was more than merely a parody, it was a horrifying parody of a parody. Designed with no intention of being enjoyed by any decent person, money wasn't an object for Green, nor was profit. He spent his $14 million on geysers of fake blood, fake babies to be abused, animal corpses, absurd costuming, and a helicopter acting as a brilliant piece of irony as Green's character Gord wastes his money from animating on it for almost no reason, just as Tom Green the filmmaker does.

This is Dadaism -- Tom Green was given the money and trusted to stick to formula, and he gave a $14 million "Fuck you!" to Hollywood, even while making his thematic statement of growing up and family, by sticking everything in a surrealistic work too unusual for the crowd they were after and too disgusting for anyone else.

This is where it was all lost on critics. Blinded by the viscerally disgusting nature of the picture, critics lost sight of what Tom Green was doing, and assumed that Freddy Got Fingered was a dumb parody of the family film or the bildungsroman, in the same way that the recent Date Movie was a dumb parody of romantic comedies or Not Another Teen Movie was a dumb parody of teen films (albeit one that showed off the Yellow Ranger's bare breasts in at least five or six scenes, it's important not to lose sight of that). But by making the film so darkly surreal, what Green has actually created is one of the only double-laired parodies I've ever heard of. It's actually a very sharp, intelligent parody of the dumb parody of a family film or a bildungsroman. The lairs and meaning dig deeper than they appear on the surface.

Jim gives Gord a piece of his mind

But despite all my big talk about the film's true artistic meaning, the main reason I really like Freddy Got Fingered is that I find its dark surrealism insanely damn funny. Like I said, I laughed ridiculously hard when I first watched this film, and I laughed ridiculously hard when I watched it a second time just now. Looking at it through the lens of Tom Green intentionally wasting studio money on utter, depraved, surreal lunacy, knowing how appalled the financial backers were when they saw what he had created, heightens the humor all the more. Unlike the gross-out comedy it masquerades as, this film is best viewed for maximum comedic enjoyment not with your brain powered down, but with heightened realization of the sharp satire it is, absorbing the insanity with full brunt.

And that's what it all boils down to. Despite Richard Roeper's claim that Tom Green "should be flipping burgers somewhere," and not making movies, every time he opens his trap in the film, I end up laughing. I couldn't even read IMDb's quotes page for the film without laughing out loud at almost half the quotes, remembering them in context from the film. When Gord takes an animation executive's suggestion that he "get inside the animals" that he's animating (from a character standpoint) literally and cuts open and crawls inside a dead moose, or when Betty tells him that she doesn't care about money and just wants to suck his cock with tears of love in her eyes, or when the scene that the film's title comes from rolls around, I'm laughing harder than I've laughed in weeks. They say that insanity and genius are merely the reverse sides of the same extreme, one the shadow of the other, and Tom Green's writing is often both at once. An idiot he may play, both in this movie and in his real-life persona, but he's a sharp guy, and its difficult to even fathom how he conceived some of the absurd non sequiturs and manic lunacy in the film's screenplay.

"Well... we can't have that, cause, you know, a cheese sandwich with no cheese, it's just... two pieces of bread, and you know what? I could lose my job! I could lose all this! So you can... have... all... the cheese... you want!"

Gord gets inside the animal

In the same review where he derided it as a ghastly new low, Ebert said that Freddy Got Fingered could well be a "milestone of neo-surrealism." I couldn't agree more with Roger; this film exists in a class all on its own. For a first-time director, it's an incredibly bold, confident, and assured vision, and accomplishes exactly what it set out to do. I'm not claiming it's one of my favorite films, or anywhere close, but as far as I'm concerned it's a great comedy, a provocative statement, and a completely worthy DVD purchase.

3 Stars out of 5

Iron Man

Man, I just flat-out loved Iron Man. I may need to brood a bit on its ups and downs to say for certain, but after this first viewing, I feel comfortable concluding that it has rocketed ahead of the original Spider-Man, the first couple Superman movies, and the first couple X-Men movies to land as my third favorite superhero movie of all time, behind only Batman Begins and Spider-Man 2. Well, maybe fourth if you count The Incredibles, but the ranking is irrelevant; what is relevant is that the movie was really fucking good.

To start out with, Robert Downey Jr. is simply one of the single most talented actors working today and has been one of my favorites since Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang a few years back, and he absolutely rocks in this movie. He's alternately awesome and hilarious through the whole runtime, and no one else gives the quirky yet always entertaining line readings Downey Jr. delivers without fail. I doubt it will happen, but an Oscar nomination in the Johnny Depp Pirates of the Caribbean "You'll never win because we'll never award an action movie, but we respect you" category wouldn't be at all inappropriate. Also, after nearly a decade of dead-eyed, snooze-inducing performances, I have to say that Gwyneth Paltrow kind of shocked me here with a hitherto-unprecedented amount of sparkle and pep and energy. I don't know if the director promised her a cookie if she acted or something, but she really lit up the scenes she was in, and is maybe the best superhero love interest I've ever seen on screen.

But even more so than love interests, we go to superhero movies for action.  And I am pretty damn happy with the action in this flick. Jon Favreau had a bit of special effects practice in Elf and more in Zathura, but he's never directed a full-blooded action movie before, and I think that might be what makes the action so damn good. He's never "learned" any of the wrong, Michael Bay-esque action tricks of cameras haphazardly swinging in the fray or ultra-spastic cutting that makes the action hard to watch by awkwardly trying to make you feel like you're in it or something, and as a result the action scenes are gorgeous and entertaining. Iron Man fights dudes, and the camera actually stays on the action in smooth noncutting wide shots that let you see and enjoy everything. Almost every action scene in the flick is like that, shot in a wide, clean way that is so fucking refreshing. This gets a monumental thumbs up from me.

Beyond that (this is the "checklist of other cool things" paragraph), the special effects are some of the best I've ever seen. There's nothing precisely innovative about them, but it's Industrial Light & Magic at the peak of their powers, and nothing in the whole movie made me think "fake!" at all. The Iron Man character, while I had no knowledge of him before seeing this movie, is really fun and has pretty sweet powers. And the comedy in the film is incredibly strong; this has a lot to do with how damn funny Downey Jr. is, but the movie has a pretty massive amount of slapstick and one-liners and other hilarity (probably even more than Spider-Man 2) that won huge and consistent laughs from me and the rest of the audience. I like to laugh - it gets the endorphins flowing, don't ya know - so mega props for that.

If the movie has any weaknesses, it's the plot and the music. Not that there's anything wrong with the plot at all, it just won't surprise you. It's a pretty basic and utilitarian superhero origin story, with most of the major goings-on in regards to the the villain and the hero's character progression pretty traditional. A montage of the hero honing / practicing his powers, the hero's love interest being threatened by the villain, and all that. It's just done exceptionally and unusually well. And the music, while again having nothing exactly wrong with it (it's mostly electric and rock-ish stuff, high attitude, you know), doesn't have any truly memorable theme for the Iron Man character.  Although I suppose it would be hard to make a theme more iconic than the Black Sabbath "Iron Man" riff, so if and when there's a sequel they should just latch onto that and milk it for all the awesomeness it's worth.

But all in all, mega thumbs up. A completely satisfying summer movie package. See it hardcore. AND FOR THE LOVE OF GOD STAY TO THE END OF THE CREDITS I AM NOT JOKING ABOUT THIS. Thanks for reading.

4 Stars out of 5

Speed Racer

Speed Racer has swiftly (pun?) emerged as the box office disaster of 2008, a Treasure Planet-level whoopsie that has crashed and burned to the degree that even in the best case scenario, even after licensing, toys, TV rights, and DVD sales, it will probably be most optimistically judged in terms of how few millions of dollars it's lost for WB.

Is this a shame? Perhaps. It's definitely not a great movie - it may not even be a good one - but I can honestly say that I was entertained while watching it (call this the Transporter 2 effect), if only because it's one of the only truly visually unique movies I've seen in the last several years. It did not look like ANYTHING else I've seen. Everything popped with a hyper-saturated, tripped-out, color-drowned brilliance, with the whole neon, glowing frame constantly sharp and in focus. It was like being force-fed Starburst through your eyeballs. It was insane, but it was goddamn original. And as long as we're on visuals, Christina Ricci was looking really hot.

The flaw lies in the story, plot, characters, and humor - all migrated directly from Saturday morning cartoon land; wafer-thin, silly, unoriginal, uninspired. When the characters talk it's more or less a waste of time, outside of John Goodman, because John Goodman is cool. But a few days after seeing it, I can't remember a single line of dialogue in the movie, which says a lot, and I can only remember the plot because there's so little to grasp: Prodigy racer must win race to defeat evil corporation - that's the whole two hours. Almost all the humor is squarely aimed at the demographic of 8-year-old boys.

But this isn't a drama, and it's in the corny action scenes - the ridiculousness of race cars firing missiles at each other, dodging enemy attacks, jumping over chasms, flipping and spinning and fuck all - that the meat of the film lies, and whether or not you can enjoy it leans on whether or not it bothers you that this is all basically a cartoon with no regard for physics or reality. My inner child loves that shit, so I was able to accept it for what it was an have a fun time. There's also a hilarious kung fu fight involving pretty much the whole cast halfway through that had me cackling with goofy delight.

So I'm stuck in the awkward spot of saying that Speed Racer isn't a movie anyone needs to see so much that it's worth spending money in theaters, but at the same time, I can say with confidence that it'll lose 98% of its impact with the downgrade to a TV screen. You can't just sit back and watch the visuals, you need to goddamn drown in the spectacle of color and madness.  So my final word is a recommendation for action fans to go see a cheap midday matinee showing.

2 Stars out of 5

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

I didn't think that the first Chronicles of Narnia movie was exactly bad, just a little on the bland side. It felt like it was trying really hard to be Lord of the Rings, a tendency which got worse as the film went on and was most prominent in the final battle scene, which captured less the excitement of the climax of The Two Towers and more the Gungans versus the droid army from The Phantom Menace. Tilda Swinton was the only real acting highlight and the effects and artwork and so on did little to impress.

And while The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian comes nowhere close to greatness, I can say I enjoyed it a good bit more than the first film - enough to recommend it to anyone who (like me) is a sucker for fantasy movies. I'd place it about on the same level as the first two Harry Potter films, not a masterpiece by any stretch, but at least worth its weight in celluloid.

First off, the technical aspects - the cinematography, the lighting, the special effects, the weapons, the costumes, the sets, the creature makeup, and so on - all get a pretty significant boost from the first, and feel a lot more in line with Weta Workshop's work on Lord of the Rings. It has a rawer, darker, slightly more lived-in feel to it, and weapons look a little heavier and little deadlier. This may not add to the soul of the movie, but it makes the body a lot more attractive. Pretty much the only thing that still occasionally looks awkward is the talking "real world" animals - a talking beaver, a talking mouse, and so on still look a hint off, more cartoon than flesh-and-blood-and-fur beast. The fantasy creatures like minotaurs look great, though.

The movie is also a hell of a lot darker than the first. That this movie got a PG rating is another fun example of MPAA bullshit, because this movie is really, really violent. Pretty much every speaking character (including the central children) happily murders many fellow human beings during the movie's many, many, many battles. In pure percentage of screentime, this movie has damn near as much battling as Return of the King, and for people who (again, like me) like fantasy battling, this is enough entertainment to justify the film. It's all pretty well done, and I admire how the director actually managed to make the "flow" of the battles make visual sense. You see the larger movement of the armies, the way individual flanks and units engage each other, and always understand where the major players are. In lieu of fantasy films that settle for making their big battles an orgy of visual nonsense (see Eragon for more details), this was satisfying.

As for the movie's weaknesses... well, Ben Barnes who plays Prince Caspian and all of the main Pevensie kids are all really, really bland actors (except Skandar Keynes a.k.a. Edmund, who I think has potential) who fail to really make you give a shit about the characters in the drama. Compared to the Harry Potter gang in screen presence, it's not even a contest. The villains are also really generic and instantly forgettable fantasy villains, who don't inspire a hint of love-to-hate-'em goodness. And without likable players to root for in the conflict it's hard to get emotionally involved with who lives and who dies, so there isn't really any "drama" here - just spectacle. If spectacle is enough to entertain you, as it is for me (some of the time), this may be ok, but this film is kind of the fantasy version of empty calories. Fun to watch, but without a lot of depth to necessitate ever rewatching. Also, the climax pretty much redefines the term deus ex machina.

On the other hand of acting though, Peter Dinklage is very entertaining and probably gives the best performance in the film as Trumpkin the dwarf-thingie, and it's always nice to see Warwick Davis (a.k.a. Willow), playing another dwarf-thing, on the big screen.

So when all is said and done, it's another pretty entertaining fantasy movie. It doesn't have the high, epic drama of Lord of the Rings or the likable creativity of the recent Harry Potter flicks, but it's a damn sight better than Eragon and (in my opinion) the first Narnia film. Fantasy fans probably won't regret checking it out, non-fantasy fans will certainly live if they don't.

2 Stars out of 5

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

After nineteen years of rumors, false starts, and mounting expectations, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has, in all honesty, more weight on its shoulders than is fair for what just aspires to be a lighthearted, easy-to-watch, fun, goofy adventure movie. It's not a movie that can be approached with the heavily cynical eye of a critical, jaded adult who is too judgmental for no-frills adventure. It's for your inner eight year old. You know, the one who isn't bothered by the fact that none of the theoretically highly-trained enemy soldiers can shoot the broad side of a barn, let alone Indiana Jones. If you're a child of the 80s, like me, it's for that young version of you who was enraptured by the wisecracking, John Williams-scored adventures of Indy on VHS, and I have to say that little Tim really, really enjoyed the new Indy flick. I'd solidly place it as the third best movie of the series.

And that's not intended as a backhanded insult. Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are both in my top 50 movies of all time. The classic adventure that is Raiders needs no defense, and although Crusade is fluffier and more polished, it's also hysterical and has the legendary interplay between Ford and Sean Connery. It would be absurd for me to place a standard like "Top 50 or bust!" on a new film before watching. No, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not one of my new top 50 movies, but what it is is a fuckin' adventure flick that kept me grinning like a retard at the circus for the entire runtime.

Eight-year-old Tim doesn't care about the logic of what Indy survives that he shouldn't, he cares about goofy action. He cares about Harrison Ford cracking wise, all the time. He cares about deadly natives and giant ants, Commies getting their comeuppance, Jeeps chasing each other through the jungle, swordfights, goofy sidekicks, and Indy whipping dudes, all scored to a John Williams soundtrack. And make no damn mistake - this movie has all those things.

Of course, the Indy movies ain't shit without Harrison Ford, and 65 or no, he's back and actually badass onscreen for the first time since Air Force One over a decade ago. This needs no elaboration - he's goddamn Harrison Ford, arguably the greatest leading man of all time, and he does what he does best. I like the way they addressed his age in the movie - it's not like Rocky Balboa where it's part of the plot; this is in no way a character study of an older Indiana Jones. That would be depressing and not an Indy flick. But his age is far from ignored either, it's brooded on briefly at the beginning, fully acknowledged, joked about a few times, and that's about it. It addresses the issue just as much as it needs to but doesn't let it get in the way, and you forget all about it soon enough as Harrison Ford becomes Indy again.

As for the rest, Shia LaBeouf is pretty entertaining as Indy's primary sidekick; he obviously can't measure up to Sean Connery, but he earns some laughs, carries his own with the energy of the piece, and is a damn sight better than Short Round. It's mad classy that they brought Karen Allen back after almost three decades, and although she's obviously older, it was exciting to see Marion onscreen again. And the harsh, cold-bitch style of Cate Blanchett's evil Commie commander is entertaining and bizarrely enough the most attractive she's ever been on screen. Thumbs up all round here.

The action is by and large pretty damn satisfying. Punches aren't pulled because Ford is in his 60s - the man gets in a hell of a lot of fights with hulking Commies, gets punched in the face, gets shot at, takes mighty falls, rough and tumble. Best of all, there's a huge damn stunt team in the credits and it shows. You can tell that almost all of the physically-intensive stuff is actually done by real humans, doing it, filmed. Trained stunt men and women, not risk-free CGI cartoon actors. For a few flaws where the movie uses CG where it shouldn't (I'll elaborate on this in a moment), this category isn't part of it. Even better than stunt people, a lot of a big motorcycle chase scene partway through is actually Harrison Ford and Shia LaBeouf themselves. Very cool.

There's also a big, elaborate set piece involving Jeeps in a jungle that incorporates rifles, turrets, cars ramming cars, cliffs, explosions, rocket launchers, sword fights, flying debris, tossing about valuable artifacts, leaping from car to car, and more about halfway through that really steals the damn show. It had me cackling with glee, and reminded me of the tank battle in Last Crusade - that's a high compliment.

And as for the music, it's John Williams. It's solid, it's fun, he makes great use of mixing and composing the root Indy theme in various ways. It's not as wall-to-wall catchy as Crusade (which I think has the best score of the original three), but it's the most reliable composer in the biz doing what he does best. In non-Williams music, they use an Elvis Presley song to establish the 1950s setting in a way that I thought was sublime, and a great weaving of pop culture you wouldn't normally associate with the Indyverse seamlessly into it.

But now, as I admitted before, it's far from perfect. My problem isn't that Indy survives things he obviously couldn't, as so many on the Internet love to complain about. I absolutely couldn't care less. In fact, some of the more complained about beats in that regard are a couple of my favorite in the movie. But I do have gripes, a couple visual and a couple plot related.

Visually, while I love the work they did with the stunts as opposed to CGI for everything, there are a couple elements that were CGI where they shouldn't have been. Specifically animals. There are several CGI gophers where there should have been real, trained gopher "actors," and it's a small thing, but it made me feel like I was watching Madagascar and ruined my focus on the movie for a moment. And there were CGI monkeys where there didn't need to be any monkeys, which was even worse. Thumbs down for that. Also, the fringe-heavy lighting with popping foreground players from bright backgrounds was really, really different from the unilaterally warm, blended-colors look of the first three films. Spielberg claimed before shooting that his DP was going to try to "learn" the look of the guy who did the first three movies, and if he put in an effort, it really doesn't show. It's not visually bad at all, but make no mistake, it IS visually unique from the other three.

And a few plot / thematic gripes. As I said, it was great to see Marion Ravenwood again. All non-idiots know she's the best Indy girl. However, it was a bit disappointing that her role in the film was completely incidental, she got introduced so late in, and she really didn't get to do much of anything. She was just a tag along. Also, the climax felt a little bit like it was suffering from Raiders-wannabe envy.

Also, although there is certainly some violence and deaths in the flick, and in Indy tradition some mummified corpses show up, there isn't really any "Holy shit!" moments of terrific pulp violence to rival Alfred Molina's legendary "Adios, Sapito." death, the Nazi propellor shredding, or the melting of the bad guys from Raiders, the heart-ripping from Temple, or the shooting of four Nazis with one bullet or Donavan's ill-advised aging adventure from Crusade. Not to say Kingdom is "tame," but it's just slightly sanitized in comparison, which is a shame, because I know that when I was a kid those "holy shit!" pulp violence moments were the best.

But I don't mean to sound down on the film, I just mean to talk honestly about it. The fact that I can address such specific little complaints shows how much I enjoyed the film as a whole, making these few little bits stand out. And if you can bottle up that cynical you that wants to shout that Indy surviving that doesn't make any sense, why can't these trained Commie soldiers hit anything, that's silly, and so on, I think you'll enjoy it too. It ain't perfect, but it's a damn Indiana Jones adventure, and it's definitely better than Temple of Doom. So lower your age as much as is necessary to eliminate the grown-up inside you who won't love the movie for what it is, check it out, and have a damn good time. I definitely did.

3 Stars out of 5