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Monday
Oct052009

Whip It, 2009

Skating Around the Issues

I’m not generally a fan of remakes, but I’m looking forward to someone dusting off Whip It ten years from now and turning it into the interesting and fun all-girl roller derby movie it tries so hard to be. I’m clearly not the target audience for this film, but director Drew Barrymore goes out of her way to not only exclude me from the story but to actively scold me for being a lame-ass “boy” for 111 minutes.

Let me back up.

The problem I have with so-called “chick flicks” is not that they're made for women, but that they’re manufactured to appeal to the kind of woman you’d never hope to meet—or aspire to be. They often confuse female empowerment with a hatred of men (either overtly, or by perpetuating the tired stereotypes that we all love sports, power tools, and excessive carousing), while putting forth the idea that true happiness comes from finding the right man and enjoying mani-pedis and chocolate ice cream with a coven of non-threatening girlfriends.

This might be forgivable if the heroines of these pictures were at all smart. While they might hold day jobs as lawyers or book editors, their social lives are stifled by clumsiness or an ice-veined bitchiness that can only be thawed by the attention of a dashing cad (see The Ugly Truth or The Proposal; on second thought, don’t). Chick flicks may have a problem with the male sex, but their unflattering, unrealistic portrayal of women can, at their worst, border on misogyny.

Whip It attempts to break some of those awful stereotypes, but it gets so caught up in the familiar that it suffers an identity crisis and eventual full-blown psychotic episode. I really wanted to like this movie (though I had to practically medal in mental gymnastics to separate Ellen Paige from her grating Juno role). Going in, I knew nothing about roller derby, small-town Texas living, or what it’s like to be a confused seventeen-year-old girl; having now seen a film that is ostensibly about those things, I’m still in the dark.

Paige plays Bliss Cavendar, a sullen teenager who lives in a small town outside Austin, Texas. She and her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat) work at the Oink Joint slinging grease to hicks; the girls desperately want to shake off their stifling small-town and…do something. To be honest, I didn’t realize they were supposed to be high schoolers until they popped up in a locker scene—which took place, I might add, in the most sparsely populated hallway I’ve seen since Slaughter High, another low-budget movie featuring kids that deserve to die (“just kidding”).

No, Paige and Shawkat are obviously in their twenties, which makes their juvenile behavior seem less rebellious and more pathetic. Pash convinces Bliss to dye her hair blue right before the local pageant that opens the picture; Bliss does so and pisses off her square mom, played by Marcia Gay Harden. I guess the audience (again, not me) is supposed to laugh or feel empowered by this figurative middle finger to conformity, but I just got depressed, realizing I had another ninety-plus minutes to spend with an actress playing a character five years her junior that acts half that age.

One day while Bliss is shopping for look-at-me boots in the local head shop (of which there are several in every nowhere town in America), she’s handed a flyer for a roller derby game in Austin. She and Pash sneak off to the big city in a stunt that I swear was stolen from an episode of Growing Pains. At the arena/warehouse, they are wowed by muscular tough girls who skate around in circles trying to knock each other down. After the match, Bliss meets one of the teams and is encouraged to try out. I’ll skip over the requisite tryout montage (in which Bliss uses a pair of magical Traveling Pants-style skates that she hasn’t worn in a decade) and get to the good stuff. She makes the team, falls in love with a guy in a band, and embarks on a journey of self discovery that lets her burst her shy, awkward bubble to become…Juno.

Yes, there’s a spectacularly abrupt mid-film switch where Biss begins snarking it up and defying authority. She alienates her friends and family in pursuit of derby greatness; that is until one of her new heroes, nicknamed Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), tells her to stop being a brat and treat people with respect. This was the only genuine scene in the whole picture, and I was frustrated to realize how great Whip It might have been had Drew Barrymore ditched Ellen Paige and made a real movie about Wiig’s mid-thirties single mom who loves roller derby.

But, no, we’re left with a half-baked third act involving bogus teary apologies, followed by a Big Game where Mom and Dad and Sis show up to Cheer On the Passionate Daughter Who’s Finally Found the Courage to Follow Her Dreams. Christ, the only thing missing in Whip It’s climax is a goddamned slow clap. On top of that, there are some truly jaw-dropping developments, such as Pash falling madly, randomly in love with her Oink Joint boss, and Bliss dumping her rocker boyfriend after the most weasel-y, tacked-on infidelity sub-plot I’ve seen in years. Oh, and we also get a food fight that takes place in some mystical kitchen/cafeteria where the owners don’t seem to mind such things.

Circling back to the men in this movie, I’d like to note that the four of them are nothing more than insulting penile placeholders. You have the clueless boss; the hapless but caring dad; the really smart, interested coach who is constantly shit on by his all-female team (but in a fun, spirited way that is in no way demeaning); and the long-haired, heroin-chic rocker that is shown to be unfaithful simply so that the movie can assure female viewers that they don’t need no man to get their propers. This same treatment is not given to women in so-called “guy” movies. Sure, women are often objectified in action flicks and sex comedies, but there are at least one or two in any given film who are painted as driven and strong, and who eventually earn the respect of the films’ loutish men. Cinematic female empowerment can, in fact, exist in a world where guys are caring, smart, and ambitious (beyond the ubiquitous gay best friend roles); movies like Whip It are afraid to admit that.

Note: I should probably mention something about Drew Barrymore as a director, seeing as this is her debut in that role. I'll say that she should have fired her cinematographer, whose track footage is so repetitive as to be the equivalent of a sci-fi director filming a chase in a “labyrinthine” alien spaceship by having the main actor run along the same stretch of twenty-foot backdrop for ten takes and using edits to create the illusion of expanse. Barrymore should also never have appeared in the movie; her “Smashley Simpson” character is like a live version of Animal the Muppet—cloying, loud, and inconsistent; it’s her worst performance since 1992’s Poison Ivy (you know, in her pre/post Drew Barrymore phase). Staying off-camera certainly would have allowed her to focus on some of the sloppier storytelling aspects, such as:

1. Why does only one character in the entire movie sound like they’re actually from Texas?

2. How early do roller derby players show up before a big game? Early enough for a determined Dad to plead with them to travel all the way back to his suburban town so that they can plead with his daughter to travel all the way back to Austin to suit up and compete in said big game?

3. If the cops shut down a warehouse in which the derby games are held because of overcrowding on one night, would it not stand to reason that they’d keep an eye on the place—and, by extension, shut down the venue on the night of the sport’s biggest game?

4. Is there really no penalty for knocking a high school student over a stairway railing, even if the script wants us to believe she really deserved it?

5. Is it just a “kids-do-the-darnedest-things” moment when your underage daughter tricks you into letting her down a whole can of beer?

 

6. At film's end, Bliss announces her intention to move to Austin. To do what? Roller skate professionally? Or is The Oink Joint opening an Austin franchise?

If you’d like to see questions seven through forty-five, please make a request in the “Comments” section, and I’ll consider devoting a special column to this shit.

Monday
Oct052009

Zombieland (2009)

A Zombie Movie that Never Aims for the Head

Sometimes you just know.

I first saw the Zombieland trailer in front of District 9. It was loud, frenetically edited and plagued by a cute voiceover and Hot Teen Actors. I knew instantly that someone had tried to Americanize Shaun of the Dead without any understanding as to what made it great. The audience reaction was very enthusiastic, and I wondered what everyone else saw that I could not.

Fast forward a couple months to this weekend. The pre-opening buzz on this film is breathtaking. It’s being hailed as a fun, comedic masterpiece, on par with or better than Shaun of the Dead. Every friend who’s seen Zombieland says it’s great, so I ignore my instincts and head into the movie prepared to be won over. Nearly two hours later, I left the theatre and drafted a long, heartfelt apology to my instincts:

Dear Instincts,

You were right. I was wrong. Zombieland sucks. You did all you could to lead me away from this painfully dull movie, even urging me to leave the theatre during the garish, logically flawed opening title sequence. You said, “Come on, man, you can see that these idiots don’t know what the fuck they’re doing.” But I stayed.

You asked me, “Aren’t you tired of that hip, new device where expository text is inserted into scenes as part of the physical landscape? It was only done well in Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains and on the TV show Fringe (and let’s not forget Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Look how much they’re using it here! The characters are interacting with these rules of survival that they can’t see, and they pop up over and over and over (and over) again so that we never forget how important they are! Oooh, clever!”

Though I didn’t appreciate the bitter sarcasm, I couldn’t disagree with your logic.

You said, “Jesus fucking Christ! Jesse Eisenberg again? Remember how much you hated him in Adventureland, playing the sexless, warmed-over Michael Cera role? Look! He’s doing the same shit here! He’s even wearing one of those god awful emo-boy hoodies. The only thing worse than Michael Cera is someone posing as Michael Cera and failing!”

Again, you were so, so right. But I stayed.

“Hey,” I said, “Woody Harrelson’s in it. We love Woody!”

“Yeah,” you fired back, “We love Woody when he’s given something to do other than play a poorly written comic book character. ‘Look at me, ah’m a tuff guy with a shitload o’ guns! Hey, kid, let’s team up and fight the fast moving undead! Sure, we can get from Texas to California in a Hummer without having to stop a billion times for gas, why not? Much like 9/11, everything changes after a zombie apocalypse, even fuel efficiency!’”

It was a slap in the face, Instincts, but you had truth on your side.

“But, Instincts,” I stammered back, “This is a fun zombie movie, like Shaun of the Dead. We love Shaun of the Dead.” To which you replied:

“This is as close to Shaun of the Dead as Jaws: The Revenge is to Jaws. Aren’t you bothered by the monstrous plotholes?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, for instance: when Woody, Jesse, and the con-artist sisters they’ve picked up finally make it to California, don’t you find it odd that they hole up in the one neighborhood that isn’t overrun by zombies?”

“Come on, man, that’s nitpicking.”

“Okay, what about the amusement park?”

“What about it?”

“Two of the characters’ goals is to make it to a Disney-style amusement park, which they’ve heard is a zombie-free zone.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“The last twenty minutes of the movie takes place in said amusement park because these chicks are actually dumb enough to believe that a sprawling carnival would be a safe haven! No one is that goddamned clueless! No one! And if the audience is forgiving enough to suspend disbelief and lend that idea plausibility, they must draw the line at giving a shit about what happens to those characters.”

“Instincts, you make it sound like this movie was written by morons.”

“By them and for them.”

“Isn’t that a bit harsh?”

“Let me ask you this: how much do you hate Twitter?”

“Oh, lots, Instincts! You know this.”

“So why didn’t you get up and leave in the middle of Jesse Eisenberg’s five-hundredth bit of voiceover masturbation? Seriously, narration is supposed to give the audience insight into a film’s goings-on, not hit them over the head with a description of what they’re watching. Paraphrased example:

‘It was at that moment I realized I had to fight off the evil zombie clown to save the girl I love. Even though I have a fear of clowns, this was my defining moment as a person, so I manned-up and saved the day, thus violating—in a startling twist—rule number seventeen (which, remember, is ‘Don’t be a Hero; if you can’t remember, try reading the giant text blocks hovering next to my douche-y, pensive face).’”

“Come on, Instincts, that was way more than 140 characters.”

“I’m referring to that horrifying modern idea that every thought has to be expressed!” You sighed heavily then, Instincts, and took a long drag off a cigarette—weird ‘cause neither of us smokes. Then you grumbled, “I’m done with you,” and disappeared.

I really hope you’ll forgive me and come back some day. I miss your voice telling me to avoid seeing zombie movies that don’t know how to be scary. Without you, I’ll fall into more Zombielands, films that lack depth, artistry or even sitcom-level humor from this century.

I may even come to believe that it’s okay for an action comedy to use almost every genre cliché while also being completely boring and airless for the last 45 minutes. I fear that eventually I’ll lose respect for my own mind and stop demanding better entertainment.

I’ll be like everyone else.

Desperately Yours,

Ian

It’s been 33 hours since my instincts stopped talking to me. I miss the reasoned, experienced guidance, especially in light of the new voice that has popped into the back of my head.

 It laughs way too loudly at things I never would have found funny before; its grammar is terrible, and I swear I can actually hear it drooling whenever a cop car goes by. The new voice woke me up this morning and, apropos of nothing, said, “Hey, that new 2012 trailer looks fuckin’ awesome!”

Sunday
Sep272009

Surrogates, 2009

Flesh Forward

Occasionally, my wife and I will see random movies back-to-back. Last night, we were supposed to see the remake of Fame, followed by the Bruce Willis Barbies-gone-bad thriller, Surrogates. A couple hours before the first movie, my brother called; he’d just returned from Fame with a scathing assessment, so we scratched it from our agenda.

Later, at Surrogates’ three-quarter mark, I leaned over to my wife and whispered, “I think we’d’ve been better off with Fame.” She nodded, and we both went back to frowning.

I’ve written exhaustively about how frustrating it is to sit through so many movies that have decent-to-fantastic premises and lousy execution. Surrogates follows in that tired, lame tradition. In the movie, Bruce Willis plays an FBI agent in a future where most of the population has succumbed to “surrogacy”, a system in which people are plugged into a chair at home while android versions of themselves wander about the outside world. The story opens with Greer investigating the killing of two “surries”—normally a mundane occurrence, this time the human counterparts perished with their robot avatars. If you’ve seen I, Robot or Gamer, you probably figured out the entire plot trajectory by the time you hit the word “surrogacy”.

That’s not to say Surrogates is a bad movie, it’s simply a pedestrian one. The PG-13 rating reflects not only the picture’s tame violence but also its narrative sophistication. There’s nothing epic here, and the movie feels exactly like what it is: a disposable, past-the-end-of-summer romp.

Clearly, screenwriters Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato and director Jonathan Mostow were aiming for socially relevant sci-fi (“It’s like, what if everyone was plugged into The Matrix…voluntarily!”), but the warnings of rampant consumerism and virtual detachment seem dated right after the truly engaging pre-title sequence; mostly because the point of Surrogates is not revolution but recycling, as in trotting out conventional grizzled cop nonsense and hackneyed chase sequences that rely way too heavily on wire-work (it’s rare that I miss CG stuntmen, but, damn, do the leaping androids look cheesy).

On the topic of looks, I found Surrogates to be extremely uncomfortable to watch. Nearly all of the androids have bizarre glowing skin; not overtly so, but just enough so that each actor appears to have liberally applied plutonium-based orange blush. In one scene, two surrogates are on an elevator that opens onto an animated digital background, and the sloppy compositing of horrendous elements nearly made my head explode.

This film would have worked better as a television series. In fact, it feels like a two-hour pilot, minus commercials. Were the creators of Lost, or even the new series Flash Forward, given this material, I have no doubt they could have given the story the breathing room to develop the truly interesting concepts (the surrogate-free “reservations”; the hows-and-whys of robots ending racism and disease; surrogates getting high using lightning-bongs) and abandon the trite garbage (yes, Bruce Willis gets suspended from the FBI, and his boss demands his gun and his badge). As it stands, Surrogates wastes its ideas, its creators’ talents, and the audience’s time.

Wednesday
Sep232009

Jennifer's Body, 2009

Dragged Me Through Hell

The movie stars Megan Fox as Jennifer, the hot, popular cheerleader at Devil’s Kettle High. Her best friend, Needy (Amanda Seyfried), is—well, I don’t know what she is; she’s the bookish nerd girl in one scene, and a sexually demanding girlfriend in the next. All of the high schoolers in this picture are painted in the broad, messy strokes of an Archie comic; from the dumb jock to the emo-goth kid, no archetype is spared. But the key to any good high school movie is to show how these archetypes’ cliques evolve, interact, and change the people who exist in them; in this movie, characters simply bump up against each other when the story demands it; there’s no social context to help explain some of the truly bizarre motives we’re asked to accept.

Moving on…

Jennifer and Needy head to the town bar to see a hot, new band called Low Shoulder. They flirt with the lead singer (The O.C.’s Adam Brody in a performance unworthy of his role), drink, and rock along to more some Top 40 emo. A spontaneous fire breaks out, killing most of the bar’s patrons. Jennifer, Needy, and Low Shoulder escape, and Jennifer hops into the band’s van because—she’s drunk? I’ll leave that as a question because later on, we see what happened in the van and she looked all-too aware of her situation.

Needy returns home and calls her boyfriend, Chip (Johnny Simmons), to tell him what happened. She hears something downstairs and, on investigating, finds Jennifer in the kitchen, twitching and bloodied and vomiting animated black goo. We later discover that Jennifer has been murdered and possessed by a demon that devours boys in order to stay powerful and youthful-looking. The rest of the movie sees Needy trying to stop her best friend and save her school, town, world, whatever. If you’ve seen any horror movies or the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show, you know exactly where this thing is headed.

So, I’ll resume talking about the film’s numerous problems. Seriously, there’s more bad than good here; and it’s stunning how swiftly the poor writing ruins every single aspect of the movie. Let’s start with the dialogue. Cody’s Juno was known both for its “honest” portrayal of teen pregnancy and for its snappy, pop-cult dialogue. If you’re like me and found the banter to be uninspired, grating, and ridiculous, you should stay away from Jennifer’s Body. I’ve heard Juno defenders claim that teenagers really talk the way Cody writes them; but if high school students really do greet each other with “Hey, Vagisil,” or call everything “salty” and “freak-tarded”—unless it’s one of the numerous subjects that can be expounded upon with a menstruation reference—then I think we should stop worrying about universal health care and just euthanize anyone under the age of twenty (at least in the movies). I have no problem with cutting, hip dialogue, but it must be effective and relatable—which is to say, used sparingly—or at the very least, smart.

But that’s the core of the film’s problem: it’s not smart. Sure, it presents a lot of great ideas, but it makes no effort to meld them or take them beyond the concept stage. For example, we learn that Jennifer’s soul is intertwined with that of the demon because Low Shoulder screwed up the ritual sacrifice. What does that mean? Is part of Jennifer still inside her own skin? Or is the demon just using her as a meat puppet? Where does the demon come from? Does it really just want to eat boys, or is there a motive beyond that of a generic comic book villain? Instead of answers, we get “comic relief” in the form of J.K. Simmons playing a teacher with a hook-hand and the same SNL Minnesota accent he used to phone in on New in Town.

I mentioned the flimsy character relationships earlier. The weakest one in the movie is the one between Jennifer and Needy—not a good sign. We know they’ve been friends since early childhood, but there’s no effort to show why they drifted apart over the years (or why there seems to be a weird love triangle with Chip, or what the deal is with their pseudo-lesbian tendancies). Even the average CW high school drama will throw in a line of dialogue to address this, but Jennifer’s Body ignores the issue completely. There are no real relationships in this movie; only interactions between blabbermouth plot devices with acne.

There are only two redeeming things about Jennifer’s Body. The first is that it will make you appreciate good writing; knock TV shows like One Tree Hill and 90210 all you like, but they manage to paint more realistic portrayals of teen angst than anything Diablo Cody has written or is likely to write. And those shows are free. More than anything, though, I was reminded of Heathers—it’s impossible not to think of that movie, as it’s obviously the template for this one—a brilliant satire that weaved plot, character, and, yes, funky dialogue into a smart tapestry of mean. I’m sure Diablo Cody has watched Heathers, like, a bazillion times; I’m also sure she has no idea what makes it work.

I’d like to give a brief shout-out to Veronica Mars, the short-lived television masterpiece (seasons one and two, anyway) that took the Heathers formula and one-upped it with on-going murder mysteries to breathtaking results. Two cast members from that show are featured in Jennifer’s Body (Seyfried and Kyle Gallner, playing the goth kid), and I replayed a few episodes in my head while waiting for something compelling to happen in the movie theatre.

The second solid aspect of Jennifer’s Body the ritual sacrifice scene. It is the one well-written, tense moment of the film in which Jennifer is tied to a rock by a natural whirlpool and taunted by the clueless members of Low Shoulder. I couldn’t believe that such an inspired three minutes had made its way into the movie, and I soaked up every second. Adam Brody brought cheeky menace to the moments leading up to the murder and Megan Fox proved that she might have an acting career someday.

The only solace I can take is that the movie opened somewhat poorly. I’m sure Fox Atomic expected better than a fifth-place debut behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Love Happens. It serves them right for thinking that audiences would accept a cheap brand (Cody) slapped on cheaper horror. Fans of horror and teen films have a high tolerance for glossy, cute shit, but there has to be something honest and alive under the skin.

Monday
Sep212009

The Informant!, 2009

Lysine and Lie Scenes

Back when Jennifer Connelly was really attractive—in the baby-fat years, before she looked like a cast reject from Schindler’s List—I was obsessed with watching anything in which she appeared; not for any good reasons, understand, but simply because I thought she was hotter than sin (it wasn’t until I grew out of my teen years that I discovered how solid an actress she really is). The movie that made me fall in love with her was called Career Opportunities. It wasn’t very good, and Connelly hadn’t matured past the Megan Fox stage of her acting career; but what stood out was Frank Whaley’s performance as Jim Dodge, a good-hearted, fast-talking liar.

Career Opportunities began as a character study of a small-town loser with big dreams and a bigger mouth, and ended as an ad for Target stores disguised as a wacky heist picture. I’ve forgotten a lot of that movie’s silliness, but I’ll always remember Jim Dodge and his fabled trip to Paris on an F-14.

Yes, this is a review of Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, starring Matt Damon.

Damon plays the real-life Mark Whitacre, a former biochemist from Central Illinois who became a division president at Archer Daniels Midland in the early ‘nineties. As the film opens, Whitacre learns of an industrial sabotage plot at ADM and tells his bosses that there may be a mole at the company. The FBI is brought in, and things spiral out of control. That is all I’m going to say about the plot of The Informant! because it absolutely should not be ruined.

This is one of the year’s best movies. It’s the rare comedy that engages the mind and simultaneously elicits gut-laughs from anyone paying attention. And it is very important that you pay attention. I was honestly lost for about the first twenty minutes of the film because the dialogue and subject matter are so dense as to be almost impenetrable; I felt at a disadvantage not having followed the Whitacre story in the real world. Fortunately, the confusion was not due to a deficiency on my part, but to a brilliant, complex web of obfuscation by screenwriter Scott Z. Burns. By film’s end, everything made perfect sense, and like half the characters in the movie, I felt like I’d been made a fool.

Steven Soderbergh took a risk with this movie—one that paid off, by the looks of the number-two opening weekend spot. Everything is off-kilter, from the slide-whistle zaniness of Marvin Hamlisch’s score to the weird 1980’s cinematography, to the brilliant decision to populate seventy percent of the supporting cast with comedians, all playing completely serious roles (Patton Oswalt and The Smothers Brothers have never enjoyed this much gravitas).

The topper, though, is Damon’s narration. The actor packed on some pounds to play a comfy-living Midwesterner, but the spark of his performance comes from the Jack Handey-style musings that play over mundane scenes. Whether he’s driving his car or sitting in a meeting with lawyers, these monologues convey deeper levels hidden by Whitacre’s overeager, good-natured demeanor. They’re funny, but tinged with pathos, and when the movie’s over, you’ll understand why.

The genius of The Informant! is the way in which the story evolves from the sweet man-vs.-corporation tale sold by the trailer into a savage portrait of greed and corrupted values; it keeps changing and twisting until, ultimately, we’re left with a dark farce whose moral we never saw coming. I haven’t been this surprised by a film’s resolution since The Usual Suspects; it’s that good.

Which brings me back to Career Opportunities. Mark Whitacre is like the flesh-and-blood version of Jim Dodge. Both are optimists hobbled by a terminal lack of coolness. Both have outsized imaginations and a penchant for storytelling that lands them in big trouble. But only Whitacre’s movie is consistently real and entertaining from beginning to end; since I was a teenager, I’ve wondered what would’ve happened had Career Opportunities not abandoned its truly interesting parts in favor of romance and shtick. In a strange way, The Informant! is the answer I’ve been waiting for, a movie that takes its premise to the nth degree and takes us down all the hilarious, horrifying avenues it implies.