Sunday, January 31, 2010

American Pie Presents: The Book of Love - DVD Review

First things first: why in the bleeding fuck would you watch the fourth straight-to-DVD American Pie movie?

Well, there are three answers to that. One, I'm a moron with terrible taste in film. Two, I already watched the first three and you can't just jump out a train while the ride's still going, can you? And three, there's a certain blissful freedom to watching a terrible movie with full knowledge that you're embarking on a journey of shit. Sure, I should probably get around to finally seeing Gone With the Wind, but then I would be obligated to mentally engage and analyze and formulate well-researched and articulated thoughts about the film as a piece of American cultural history. On the other hand, I can Netflix American Pie Presents: The Book of Love and sit stupidly eating Cheez-Its in front of the glowing screen for ninety minutes and no one gives a shit whether or not I can form a single coherent thought about the experience afterwards. What could be more liberating?

Fair enough. Who are the dramatis personae?

We got a real Shakespearian lineup going on here. We open the film with our protagonist Rob masturbating, of course. He spies a peanut butter sandwich and decides to have sex with it, followed by his dog approaching and licking the peanut butter off his penis. His resistance melts away and he begins moaning the dog's name. His little brother videotapes this on his camera phone and emails it to their mom and the entire high school. I'd love to say that this scene doesn't flawlessly set the tone for the rest of the picture, but it does. It really, truly does.

So Rob is our awkward nice guy protagonist who ends up in embarrassing sexual situations (ala Jim from the original film), his friend Nathan is the one with the girlfriend who isn't ready to have sex yet (ala Kevin from the original film), and their other friend Lube is the desperate horny one who only thinks about sex all the time (think Stifler from the original film, except with the cockiness removed and thus what made him entertaining and not just a skin-crawling creep). The trio is desperate to lose their virginities before their looming high school graduation and hatch various boneheaded plots to do so while being dogged by another antagonistic Stifler cousin who does an absolutely grotesque impersonation of Seann William Scott from the original trilogy.

As you can probably tell, The Book of Love is all but officially a straight remake of the original film, covering many of the exact same subplots and the exact same thematic territory and same sexual embarrassment jokes just with a straight-to-DVD shit-colored polish to it. I'm not claiming that the original American Pie is a masterpiece by any means, but if nothing else all four of the central guys plus Stifler did have distinct personalities. Given a scenario and five responses to said scenario, you could easily match each response up to each character after just one viewing of the film. The same cannot be said for Rob, Nathan, and Lube — other than Lube being a little bit more perverted, they all have the same identical bland nebbishy nice guy persona. I literally got Rob and Nathan confused at points (see the two guys on the left in the picture above).

And Eugune Levy's back, right?

You'd better believe it mofucka. Not only does Eugene Levy return, run blandly through the motions, and pick up another cool paycheck for his seventh consecutive film appearance as Jim's dad Noah Levenstein, but he's actually not the only recognizable actor this time around. None other than Rosanna Arquette plays Rob's mom, and, well, I'm certainly not a member of any Rosanna Aquette fanclub or anything like that, but she was in Pulp Fiction for crying out loud, so it's a little disheartening to watch her tell her cinematic son not to get blowjobs from the family dog or confusedly hold up a cum-soaked sock and try to figure out what it is. Tim Matheson, who played the vice president in NBC's The West Wing, also shows up, so you can feel patriotic while retching.

Tell us about the-

-the plot? Glad to! Well, you remember the sex Bible from the original American Pie, right? Hidden in a secret compartment in the East Great Falls High library, which Kevin used to give his girlfriend the forbidden "Tongue Tornado" cunnilingus technique? Well, Rob, Nathan, and Lube find this sacred tome in the remnants after a library fire, but it has unfortunately been ruined save for a few scraps and the list of its previous wielders. They resolve to contact this list one by one to restore the text (Jim's dad is revealed to have created the Bible, which is where he fits into this mess) and use its contents to finally get laid.

Now, this is probably the stupidest plot I've ever heard of for two reasons: One, a physical written book of sex techniques was already edging towards archaic back in 1999 (but was forgivable, being a relatively small part of the film), but in 2010 it's absolutely absurd. Search for "sex tips" or "sex techniques" on Google and very literally tens of millions of words worth of all the arcane Kama Sutra knowledge you can possibly imagine is presented to you free of charge or effort in two seconds. And two, the point of the Bible in the original film was that Kevin already had a girlfriend but didn't know how to please her; some teenaged nerd can have encyclopedia of every single sex technique and secret and position in existence in his mind but that has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on his ability to actually attract a girl.

But reconstruct the Bible they do, and it evidently teaches them everything they need to know. On the school ski trip Nathan's girlfriend finally agrees to do it, Rob confesses his love to his female friend and they do it, and Lube tells the uber-hot cheerleader he's been lusting over all movie about how he knows everything about her and remembers how great she was in all the school plays and a litany of other information and she's so smitten that they do it too. Lube's story is a particularly great life lesson — if you're a chubby, sweaty high school nerd who thinks about nothing but sex all day, all you have to do to make the head cheerleader fall in love with you is tell her how you've been stalking her her whole life.

The class then locks Scott Stifler outside the cabin in the nude and he gets chased down and raped in the ass by a giant CGI moose, while the entire senior class points and laughs uproariously at what in real life would be a brutal and incredibly painful death. No, I am not fucking with you.

No, tell us about the boobs, Tim! The boobs!

Oh, my bad. Well, you'll recall that in the original American Pie theatrical trilogy the guys' romantic interests never exposed their breasts; only alluring foreign exchange students, sexy naughty neighbors, and strippers. But any respectable connoisseur of straight-to-DVD trash well knows that as of 2006's American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile the producers said "fuck it!" and from that movie on the romantic interests peel off too with the solitary exception of the main protagonist's innocent female friend who he's secretly in love with. That tradition stands here, in addition to various other flashings, streakers, miscellaneous sex scenes, and hookers.

So while that aspect of the film doesn't disappoint, if that's your primary concern you'd be much, much better off renting 2007's American Pie Presents: Beta House, which basically abandons any semblance of narrative or structure and morphs the series into a college party Skinemax softcore flick with occasional hints at comedy. The Book of Love actually would still be a complete movie with a plot and jokes with the boobs removed, whereas Beta House would be about four minutes long.

So... is any of it actually funny?


1 Star out of 5

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Jennifer's Body - DVD Review

The theatrical run of Jennifer's Body fell in that nebulous grey area where I found myself curious but not quite curious enough to make that extra push to drive out to the theater and lay down green for the privilege of sitting through it. So I watched from the sidelines as it was critically shredded, bombed at the box office, and quietly forgotten, and I shrugged and figured that I had made the right call. But it recently floated to the top of my Netflix queue so I figured "what the hell?" and popped it in, and at risk of destroying any credibility my opinions ever had... I kinda liked it!

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the critics fucked up or didn't get it or anything like that. I'm not even saying that the A.V. Club was objectively wrong for ranking it as the nineteenth worst film of 2009 (man, am I selling this movie!). But the thing is that I can only truly dislike a film when it bores me, and whatever Jennifer's Body may be — a huge mess stuffed with obnoxiously overwritten Diablo Cody dialogue — it ain't boring. In fact it might just be the least boring movie of 2009. Every few minutes something bizarre and / or interesting happens, be it murder, arson, cannibalism, Satanic rituals, Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried making out for absolutely no reason, or hot chicks flying around in their prom dresses like it's Dragon Ball Z. This is a bizarre fucking movie. I saw a lot of dead teenager horror flicks in 2009 — Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine 3D, The Final Destination, Sorority Row, etc. — and the reason Jennifer's Body trumps them all is because I usually had no idea what was gonna happen next at any given moment. My attention was rapt.

Summed up, the movie is about an intense friendship between two high school girls, the groan-inducingly named Needy, played by Amanda Seyfried, and Jennifer, played by Megan Fox. Jennifer is the popular sexpot hottie while Needy is her (of course) needy sidekick and our protagonist. When they go to a local concert the indie band mistakes Jennifer for a virgin and attempts to sacrifice her to Satan for musical success, but since she's not a virgin the ritual backfires and she merges with a demon from hell. Seriously. She proceeds to kill and eat all the boys in school that are sexually attracted to her one by one while Needy uncovers the truth and has to figure out what to do with the knowledge that the killer is her lifelong best friend. The movie is broadly aiming for the same "high school as hell" allegory that Buffy the Vampire Slayer already executed a lot more skillfully.

What makes the movie almost work isn't so much the plot or the horror or the comedy as the friendship between Needy and Jennifer, alternately strange, intense, codependent, antagonistic, and more than a little romantic. I always love when the hero and villain have or develop a bona fide thematically and plot-essential relationship through the course of a film — see Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, or Indy and Belloq, or Bond and Alec Trevelyan in GoldenEye, or Max and Vincent in Collateral. A disconnected villain like Sauron just doesn't interest me as much. So while the other characters such as Needy's male romantic interest, a few teachers, Needy and Jennifer's parents, and the boys Jennifer kills are quickly forgotten, it's okay, because these two are the story's backbone.

The most memorable and eye-popping scene occurs approximately two-thirds of the way through the picture when we're well into the thick of gruesome killings and feasting on entrails and you'd think the movie would be focused on plot, but it instead makes a very strange pit stop when Needy and Jennifer meet and rather than discussing the murders french kiss hello for approximately a full minute (over 1% of the entire movie!) of screen time. And I'm not using hyperbole when I say french kiss; you can actually see Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried's tongues going to work on each other in tight close-up. Then they move on and start talking about the plot again like nothing happened and you're like "what the what?!"

Many critics and Megan Fox herself have posited that it's basically just meant to be a little soft erotica to lighten the mood, but I don't buy that for a couple of reasons: One, the movie is written and directed exclusively by women, who don't usually stick lesbian erotica in the middle of films for no reason, and two, seeing as the film is entirely about the friendship of these two girls, this scene (along with dropped hints that this is neither the first time they've done this nor necessarily the furthest they've gone together) fundamentally changes the nature of their relationship and thereby the undertones of the entire story, making it almost a jilted romance tale about them resenting each other's boyfriends and certainly making it impossible to do any meaningful contextual analysis while brushing it aside. Plus, you know, hot chicks making out is awesome, and in this case incredibly random.

It's that spirit of sheer randomness that made me enjoy the overall picture quite a bit. Accuse Jennifer's Body of being dumb, of being base, of being shallow, of being a mess, of lacking any merit as cinema, but please. Don't accuse it of being dull or slow or saying that nothing happens. Because this movie is a happening, for better or for worse.

3 Stars out of 5

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Precious, which I refuse to refer to by its absurd full title of Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire (I guess we should be thankful that Return of the King wasn't called The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: Based on the Novel "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" by J. R. R. Tolkein), is the extremely rare if not the only prestige movie of this awards season that damn near lives up to the hype surrounding it. I liked it a lot, depressing as it may be, probably in no small part due to my inherent fondness for high school movies and movies with teen protagonists. Some have accused the film of being poverty porn for white liberals to sit through so they can feel good about having spent a couple hours in an air-conditioned theater with those po' black folk onscreen (and indeed, if there were any non-whites in my screening I sure didn't see 'em), but while there may be a nugget of truth in that I don't think it changes the fact that it's a good if tragic story with good if tragic characters.

Let's run down the litany of abuse heaped on our misfortunate heroine: Claireece "Precious" Jones is a dirt poor, morbidly obese, functionally illiterate 16-year-old still in junior high school. She's pregnant with her second child, from the same father as her first child, her own father, both children the product of repeated rapes. Oh, and her first baby has Down syndrome. She lives with her abusive mother, a chain smoking welfare queen who beats her and screams at her and treats her as a slave. And that's all backstory not even getting into what happens during the film, which includes disease and beatings and abuse of her and her baby. Shit! In high school I thought I was having a bad day if I forgot to record my TV shows!

Now I don't blame anyone who blanches and says "no thanks" in response to that plot summary, but the surprising thing about Precious is that it's not at all without relief, hope, or even flat-out levity, particularly in scenes set in the remedial school Precious begins attending taught by a somewhat generic but still very likable Hollywood inspiring teacher played by Paula Patton, one of the precious few (PUN MASTERSTROKE) legitimately good people in the otherwise bleak narrative. We get to know and like Precious's teacher and classmates as she does in a very natural, unforced way that gradually sheds some of the hopeless gloom we begin the film in the muck of. The story lacks a conventional three act structure culminating a spectacularly dramatic climax; instead, we begin at the lowest point possible and gradually move uphill from there.

Unlike most movies about soul-crushing poverty, Precious is anything but stodgy or languid in its pacing. There's a genuine director's eye behind the film, managing to make our trips inside Precious's mind interesting and vibrant, her classroom inherently and undeniably ghetto but still bustling with a certain hope and teenage energy, and the apartment she lives in with her mother so palpably foul your skin will crawl. Whenever her mother forces her to cook some pigs feet or fried chicken the way director Lee Daniels focuses on the sizzling grease running down the food ruined my appetite in a brilliantly visceral way. I usually groan and roll my eyes when relatively small-scale character studies get Best Director nominations (see last year's Frost/Nixon, a good movie, but still one about two guys sitting in a room talking that had no fucking business getting a directing nomination), but Precious is a huge, deserving exception.

Which brings us to actors, of which two stand out. Gabourey Sidibe as Precious embodies a quiet yet consuming depression that gradually morphs into equally quiet yet uplifting hope as we follow her through the film. It's not a flashy performance but it's a very good one. But not surprisingly, most of the critical and awards attention is being directed towards Mo'Nique as her abusive mother, which is a flashy performance. Don't let anyone fool you into thinking that this is a deep or complicated character — she's no less a monolith of absolute, unfettered evil than Ledger's Joker or Anton Chigurh, basically no different than a Disney evil stepmother except for facilitating pedophilia and rape — but it's a fiery and powerful performance that's near-impossible to look away from, and I won't complain if Mo'Nique sweeps up all the supporting actress awards. Anyone who reads my stuff with any regularity knows that I always applaud a good villain, which Precious has in spades.

I'm not gonna tell anyone who thinks the subject matter sounds like the last thing on earth they want to watch that they must go see the film regardless, but I will say to anyone who has some vague curiosity but isn't sure if the hype is just critical smoke and mirrors masking a mediocre film like An Education or Babel or The Reader that it's definitely not. Precious is actually pretty great in my opinion, not one I'll go back to over and over again, but one I was pretty riveted with throughout its duration. Check it out.

3 Stars out of 5

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Up in the Air

First things first: Does Jason Reitman's Up in the Air deserve the Best Picture Oscar it seems to be barreling towards? Nope. But is it a really good movie anyway? Yep. It's a dramedy (hate that word if you must, but it's so useful) where George Clooney plays a suave, cool bachelor who I think has a character name but who might as well just be called George Clooney and who gets paid to fly around the country firing people whose bosses lack the balls to do it themselves. Despite the recession — indeed, probably because of it — his business is booming, and he happily stays more detached from human contact than ever as he jetsets from city to city. But when he falls in love with a businesswoman named Alex he meets in an airport and is assigned a young professional named Natalie to mentor, he gradually learns the joy of human connection and becomes a better person.

Or does he?

It's tough to explain free from spoilers why I came out of Up in the Air liking it so much (and while I'll avoid specifics you might as well stop reading here if you haven't seen the movie and don't want to know anything at all), so I'll just say that as someone who has nothing but disdain for humanity this movie had me thinking "this is well-made and all, but way too uplifting and feel-goody," until right near the end when it pulls the rug out from under all that in a sort of brilliant way and very suddenly makes the black and white "George Clooney discovers FRIENDSHIP! :-)" storyline into something considerably more gray and interesting. Oh yes, I dug it.

Pacing issues alone hold it back from being one of my top ten of 2009. Among those not gushing with love for the film there seem to be two nearly opposite schools of contention; some preferred the topical firing people storyline and found George Clooney's arc a little generic, while others wanted more time with the characters and thought the firing story (particularly when we get The Office-style asides with people lamenting their unemployment) bordered on preachy. I'm with the first crowd. I was pretty fascinated with Clooney's bizarre job but a third-act vignette where he attends his sister's wedding gums up the momentum pretty bad and tried my patience in a way not at all unlike Adam Sandler's visit to his ex-girlfriend's house in last summer's Funny People. Up in the Air already clocks in at a relatively brisk 109 minutes but I bet some judicious editing could make it 95 minutes and a better film.

Interestingly, George Clooney's performance stands in the shadow of the young and relatively unknown Anna Kendrick as his protégé Natalie (every other performance is quickly forgotten). It's not that I don't like Clooney — he's perfect in Ocean's Eleven — it's just that his personality is so large and distinct that his performances are ultimately very predictable. Sometimes he's a little sillier, sometimes a little more serious, sometimes a little cooler, but he never disappears into the character. You never see anything except Clooney, ever, which kind of harms a movie that's half character study. Kendrick on the other hand brings a strange dichotomy to Natalie, making her simultaneously ultra-professional and nearly robotic as she goes about her business while remaining by far the most emotionally unguarded character in the film, wearing her fears and foibles on her sleeve in a really winning way. She deserves to and will be nominated for Best Supporting Actress and it's kind of hilarious that thanks to the magic of contracts she'll have to go from that back to her shitty supporting role as Bella's ditzy friend in the Twilight movies.

Between Kendrick, creative direction married to snappy editing, a topical and interesting storyline, and plenty of chuckle-worthy lines and moments, I ultimately give the film a solid recommendation despite some blemishes. It won't lose anything in the transition to home video and if you lack the inclination to drive out you'll be just fine with the DVD, but definitely get around to it.

3 Stars out of 5

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

An Education

Hype bandwagon, thy name is An Education. One of the most overrated movies of this or any other year with a ludicrous 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and only eleven brave critics on earth willing to point out the fact that the emperor has no clothes, An Education is a made-for-TV melodrama dressed up with some outdoor location shooting in London and Paris, a few minor movie stars, and an admittedly good leading performance. I'm baffled beyond all measure where this film's awards season hype is coming from. It's nowhere near as bad as last year's The Reader, one of the worst films in my lifetime to be nominated for Best Picture, but at least with that one you could see the Academy going glassy-eyed and groaning "Holocaust... masterpiece..." in the same tone with which a zombie goes "braaaaiinnns...", while An Education is just glossy mediocrity, like being served fancily prepared tofu. You can acknowledge the effort, but you're still eating fucking tofu.

Let me see if I can find enough plot to even talk about: Carey Mulligan plays Jenny, a bright 16-year-old schoolgirl in 1961 England who dreams of attending Oxford. She's seduced by a 35-year-old playboy played by Peter Sarsgaard who introduces her to art, films, jazz, nightclubs, and Paris. Jenny, enchanted by all this culture, has to decide whether to stay true to her dreams of Oxford or get married and live life for love and art. And that's damn near fucking it. I've left out of the final fifteen minutes or so out of respect for the spoiler code, but that's a tragically complete synopsis up to that point. We spend untold stretches of time watching Jenny make lovey-dovey eyes at Sarsgaard or being awed by all the culture, and holy fucking yawn. There's a few other characters but they've fled my memory so quickly I'm half-convinced I was zapped by that Men in Black red-light device immediately after the screening.

The film contains possibly the most boring virginity loss subplot in the history of onscreen teen characters losing their virginities, only saved from the precipice of completely forgettability one of the most awkward and bizarre movie scenes of 2009 in which Peter Sarsgaard gives Jenny a banana and tells her to loosen her vagina with it before they have sex for the film time. This is not played for laughs. It just happens. I am not making this up; here's an IMDb thread about it. It was so fucking inane I was half-convinced I was having a fever dream right there in the movie theater, but looking back on it, no, even my darkest subconscious couldn't come up with a scene like that. No one could come up with a scene like that, except, evidently, screenwriter Nick Hornby.

Whatever else the film does wrong (everything), Carey Mulligan is quite charming and charismatic in the lead role and managed to keep me awake through stretches that would have been cinematic warm milk with pretty much any other British actress I can think of young enough to play a teenager. I'm sure she'll do just fine in Wall Street 2 this April. But nonetheless, don't see An Education. If I could talk to any critic championing this film I would love to ask which scene exactly they think will linger in memory (either collective cultural memory or their own) by 2011, because every second of this film is leaking out of mind like water through wicker.

2 Stars out of 5

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Messenger

It's ironic — in an Oscar season clogged with overhyped and instantly tired films (albeit nothing nearly as bad as last year's The Reader), one of the few legitimately very good dramas, Oren Moverman's The Messenger, seems to have flown completely under the radar with an almost-hilarious box office total of $654,000, no awards hype, and only a selection by the AFI as one of 2009's ten notable films to show for it. But it's got the Tim Kraemer vote, and any serious student of the ciné knows that's the one that matters.

The film is an Iraq War drama — no, wait, hold your groans! — about a wounded vet played by Ben Foster back ashore assigned to fill his remaining months of service as a casualty notification officer. Under a strict code of conduct, i.e. no hugging the next of kin, he and his superior officer played by Woody Harrelson have to knock on several doors a day to inform perfect strangers that their child or spouse has been killed in action in the Middle East. Needless to say, the film isn't a comedy, although you'd be surprised how many moments of dark, understated humor there are in the interaction of Foster and Harrelson. Of course the entire film can't just be a series of casualty notifications (although there are plenty, with reactions ranging from hysterical shrieking to attacking the notification officers to straightforward denial to the vacant, shellshocked politeness of those who can't quite process what they're hearing), so Foster ends up falling for a war widow whose husband's death he informed her of, which is obscenely against military protocol, and oh dear, conflict.

If your reaction to that plot summary is a shrug, a grimace, or a generalized "I dunno..." I don't necessarily blame you, but remember, it's all in the execution, not the idea, and despite skirting dangerous closely to cliché (the film even ends at a wedding, but not in the way you may fear) The Messenger fastidiously avoids swelling melodrama and presents the experience of a veteran in a more interesting, thoughtful way than any Iraq film to date. It's helped along immensely by Ben Foster, who you may remember as the no-name actor who somehow stole 3:10 to Yuma out from under both Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. Coiled tension and hidden pain always lurks just beneath the surface of his performance, one that doesn't seem to be getting the awards hype it warrants.

Earlier in 2009 we got the first genuinely worthwhile Iraq War film, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, a film that took place almost entirely within Iraq, and now as a nice parallel we have the next worthwhile Iraq War film, The Messenger, every frame of which takes place on American soil. The films are completely different genres — The Hurt Locker an action thriller, The Messenger a quiet human drama — but both are alike in their utterly apolitical treatment of the war as a constant no longer requiring any sociological commentary. It's here, it blows, and get use to it liberals, it's probably gonna stay awhile. But if nothing else it produced a pair of worthy films last year. I'm assuming no one reading this is among the 65,400 people who saw The Messenger in theaters, but I'd easily recommend a rental.

3 Stars out of 5

Saturday, January 2, 2010


There's a specific subgenre of film that I like to call "oh, that's nice" cinema. Yes, the "oh" is mandatory. I don't make the rules*. An "oh, that's nice" film is a slick package, well-produced by every technical standard, probably quite well-acted, often mildly inspirational, almost always a biopic, incredibly safe and by-the-numbers, never earns any visceral emotional reaction of any kind, and is released at awards season and lauded by critics far beyond what the film itself actually warrants. The list of last decade's Best Picture nominees is absolutely fucking flooded with these movies — Ray, Capote, The Queen, Finding Neverland, Seabiscuit, Erin Brockovich — and they occasionally even win (see A Beautiful Mind, 2001). Despite their critical fellatio, these films fall out of cultural memory very quickly (I would kill to see the confusion on the face of any critic who called A Beautiful Mind a masterpiece eight years ago asked today to describe a single scene from the film), and indeed, beads of sweat are already peppering my forehead as I strain to recall the details of Clint Eastwood's Invictus, the new pinnacle of "oh, that's nice."

It's 1994 (after a brief prologue in 1990). Newly-inaugurated President Nelson Mandela seeks to mend the bitter rift between black and white South Africans through the uniting power of sports and encourages South African team captain Francois Pienaar to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup to help heal the country. Inspirational sports movie time? Hell yeah it's inspirational sports movie time. We got the team starting down and out on a losing streak, we got training, we got swelling speeches, we got last-minute comebacks, we got slow motion, we got the audience shooting to their seats at a key moment as the sound fades out. There's a racial component to the story, but all played incredibly safely and with nary a moment of genuine tension to be found lest the blue-haired septuagenarians in the audience experience a moment of discomfort. Needless to say, the film ends with all racism being eradicated from the world, so you can smile and go home and ignore the millions of subsentient gun-toting rednecks in 2010 demanding that the President of the United States of America be led off in chains (always in chains in their fantasies) for the crime of being black.

What the film does right can pretty much be summed up in two words: Morgan Freeman. I'd never make any claims of being a Mandela scholar, but as far as I can tell he was pretty much the real thing just slightly more photogenic and with twice the gravitas. Man can act his ass off, and for once he's no one's mentor this time around. Matt Damon gets the job done and is instantly forgotten as Francois Pienaar (personally, I preferred Leo DiCaprio's South African accent in Blood Diamond) and I don't remember anyone else except for Damon's comically racist dad who becomes a better man in one of the film's most "oh, that's nice"-inducing subplots. The sports sequences are all laughably by the numbers. Basically, Invictus is Disney's The Mighty Ducks with rugby instead of hockey and Nelson Mandela occasionally coming in and saying something inspiring. Nonetheless, it will be nominated for Best Picture, because, you know, the Academy.

Eastwood's next movie is apparently a supernatural thriller called Hereafter starring Matt Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard, and I'm glad. I fucking loved last year's Gran Torino, and comparing that with the dryness of Invictus I'd just as soon see Eastwood stick exclusively with trash for the rest of his career because that's clearly where his true talents lie.

2 Stars out of 5

* I make the rules.

Sherlock Holmes

Anyone with even a cursory familiarity with me and my taste in film well knows that I'm a fawning, obsequious fanboy for the James Bond franchise. Don't matter none which Bond actor it is or what decade it's from, put any one of those flicks in front of me and I'm all set for the next couple hours. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that I enjoyed the hell out of a movie about a British detective pursuing a flamboyant supervillain while stumbling into action scenes and dropping one-liners, even if it may not be legitimately great cinema by any stretch of the imagination. Oh yes, Sherlock Holmes rocks.

Sure, some cranky critics and bloggers have griped that the new Holmes has little in common with Arthur Conan Doyle's classic novels and shorts stories beyond its setting, era, and the names and professions of its leads, and it's true — the tone and humor is a hell of a lot closer to Pirates of the Caribbean than Hound of the Baskervilles. But really, there's no signs that Conan Doyle ever saw his most popular works as high literature, and I think it's perfectly fitting that pulp literature was adapted into a pulp film. And even if I have it all wrong, I can't even pretend to give a shit. Maybe you think that makes me an illiterate rube, which is fair enough, and I'm certainly not here to tell annoyed Conan Doyle fans they have any obligation to love the flick, but I'm such a sucker for the vaguely Bondian pacing and structure of the thing that I'm already game for sequels.

Where this film differs from Bond this decade (as well as Star Trek, Star Wars, Batman, Spider-Man, and pretty much every single onscreen superhero) is that Sherlock Holmes is in no way, shape, or form an origin story. In fact, it's kind of the opposite: the film assumes that everyone knows who Holmes and Watson are well enough that it's comfortable beginning with the dissolution of their partnership. After years of adventuring and sleuthing together, Dr. John Watson got himself a lady and is getting hitched, moving out of 221B Baker Street, and returning to the respectable fold of medicine. Between this and a lack of cases, Holmes is despairing and drinking and drugging himself into a stupor (all played for comedy, of course). It's a bleakly hilarious way to start the film and I think it's ultimately for the best that we didn't have a film about Holmes getting his sleuthing skills, meeting Watson, their first case together, and so on. It just wouldn't have been necessary.

But of course it doesn't take a genius to figure out that Watson will be back once the shit hits the fan, albeit with reluctance and him and Holmes squabbling nonstop like a pair of a pair of jilted lovers. A London-based supervillain named Lord Blackwood, who's a combination of Jack the Ripper and pretty much any comic book or Saturday morning cartoon or Roger Moore era Bond villain you care to name, seems to have risen from the grave following his public execution and is a-schemin' and a-killin' once again. Is the supernatural real or is there some explanation? The game is afoot! And that's pretty much all you need to know — this is a character piece, not a tour de force of mystery storytelling.

I hope that at this point no one is surprised to learn that Robert Downey Jr. is up to the task, enduing Holmes with all the eccentricity and genius and wisecracks and occasional pathetic slovenliness you could hope for (and with a pretty good British accent, to boot). Up until May 2008 Downey Jr. was arguably the most underrated actor in the goddamn world, starring in great films that were also enormous box office bombs like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, and Iron Man's greatest legacy may just be his upgrade to full-blown movie star. In a country that often chooses to elevate some of the blandest and shittiest people to star status, Downey Jr. is a resounding exception. And Jude Law, while not normally one of my favorite actors, has super-snappy chemistry with Downey Jr. (not to mention brazen homoeroticism; this is easily the most gay technically non-gay onscreen male friendship since Superbad, they wanna blow each other so bad) and thankfully doesn't give in to the appalling Nigel Bruce-founded tradition of playing Watson as an enormous dumbass. And that is much closer to Conan Doyle's books.

The real third lead in the film isn't Lord Blackwood or Inspector Lestrade and it sure as hell isn't Rachel McAdams' shoehorned-in-so-we-have-a-female-lead Irene Adler (who may have one of the smallest ratios of plot relevance to screentime I've seen in a movie this year), but the awesome 1890s London that director Guy Ritchie creates with a clever combination of location shooting and CGI, instantly recognizable as the rainy, moonlit London of cobblestone streets and eerie gaslight lamps that we all think of upon hearing the name Sherlock Holmes. I doubt that it's "realistic," per se, but it creates a mood and a vibe in broad strokes that serves the film's comic book tone perfectly. Beyond that, flick's got all the fights, cool action, exaggerated minutiae-centric sleuthing, and Robert Downey Jr. being a smug asshole you could want, so what more is there to say? Sure, I could gripe about some occasional wonky CGI, too many of the mysteries having random fictional chemicals as their solutions, and one scene where a dog farts for comedy, but to hell with it. This is pure popcorn pulp, and it gets the job done gleefully.

The film ends with an incredibly heavy-handed sequel hook (think Gordon showing Batman the Joker card in Batman Begins, but extended over five minutes and with tons of flashbacks and it having been revealed that the Joker was behind everything all along) making it super-obvious that another Holmes outing is planned in two or three years, and I say shit yeah. I've eaten crow for thinking this before (i.e. Pirates of the Caribbean), but it seems like it can only get better from here.

4 Stars out of 5