Monthly Archives: August 2005
Director Terry Gilliam is one of the true artists working today in movies. His manic, off kilter, visually grand imagination has crafted wonderfully vivid fantasias, but it also has given Gilliam a reputation for being the captain of a sinking ship. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is regarded as one of Hollywood’s bigger failures, unfairly I might add. A fascinating 2003 documentary called Lost in La Mancha detailed the bizarre circumstances and implosions that forced Gilliam to shut down production of his pride and joy, a film about Don Quixote. We’re talking things as out of control and unlucky as acts of God conspiring to doom this project. But then, Gilliam has always been fighting someone or something his whole film career. The studio refused Gilliam’s cut of Brazil so he sneaked out a print, showed it to the Los Angeles film community, and they dubbed it the best film of that year. Gilliam is a man governed by his idiosyncrasies. He’s blessed with a unique voice but cursed with the prospects of not having anywhere to say something (would he not make simply the most divine Harry Potter film yet?). And so Gilliam strikes his hands at something a bit more commercially minded with the action/comic fable, The Brothers Grimm.
Will (Matt Damon) and Jakob (Heath Ledger) Grimm are nineteenth century ghostbusters, so to speak. They travel from town to town ridding the villagers of evil spirits, witches, and all sorts of demonic creatures. Trouble is it’s all a lie. The Grimm brothers and their pals set up the spooks and rob the town blind. Will enjoys the fame, and especially the women, but Jakob feels apprehensive. It?s the Napoleonic wars, and the French have occupied the Germanic lands. A snooty general (Jonathan Pryce) plans to behead the two Grimm brothers unless they solve a strange case in a rural town. A slapsticky, torture-loving commander (Peter Storemare) is sent to watch over the “Grimmies.” At the village, Will and Jakob discover the town has had 10 of its daughters kidnapped with little explanation. With the help of a free-spirited woman (Lena Headey), the brothers encounter giant wolves, moving trees, lickable frogs, and the giant tower of the Mirror Queen (Monica Bellucci). The Queen was given eternal life but not eternal youth. In order to gain eternal youth, the Queen needs to take the lives of 12 hearty girls, and only the bumbling Grimm brothers stand in her way.
The acting is an example of the film’s messy feel. Ledger talks with marbles in his mouth. He’s putting more detail into the character than it deserves. Damon seems like he’s sleepwalking through the film, and his accent fluctuates wildly. He’s sort of a grinning straight man to Ledger’s tic-heavy daydream believer. Belluci is a ravishing beauty and proof positive for Hollywood that women over 40 don’t need to be put out to pasture. Too bad all she’s expected to do is look pretty and seductive in The Brothers Grimm. Pryce plays his role like a cartoon caricature. Stormare has already given one crazy performance this year (Constantine), and his frenzied, nearly indecipherable performance seems to be the closest to Gilliam’s whacked-out wavelength. Stormare is entertaining in every scene he’s in but can be found guilty of chewing scenery like it was a delicious candy house.
The Brothers Grimm is a gorgeous looking film. The sets are massive and greatly detailed. The location shoots in Prague seem like the perfect environment for Gilliam’s beyond-this-world landscapes. Gilliam experiments with advanced computer graphics for the first time and adds his oddball touches. A child has her eyes taken by a glob of mud, and then the mud reshapes itself into a lumbering gingerbread man. A horse spits out a spiderweb and ensnares a child. And it looks really freaking creepy. The Mirror Queen’s defeat is another standout effect as she breaks apart like shattered glass. The look of The Brothers Grimm is outstanding, but it’s what takes place inside those pretty pictures that dooms the film to mediocrity.
The Brothers Grimm is an unfocused mess. It has disjointed subplots and several story elements that just don’t fit. The wacky French occupation feels like a leftover from a different movie. It just doesn’t work and grinds the movie to a screeching halt with every resurfacing. The Brothers Grimm will routinely work its way into a narrative corner and then use a “magic” cheat to escape (magic axe, magic mirror, magic kiss). Gilliam has always been a master maestro of chaos and visual oddities, but this time he’s tackled a film with a very weak script by Ehren Kruger (Ring Two). Kruger doesn’t bother laying the groundwork of his magical world or establish the rules. Therefore anything can happen and rarely feels satisfying. The characters are one-note, each given a single character trait to play with (skeptic, believer, idiot, etc.). The pacing is pretty sluggish. The first act takes an eternity to set up the film’s characters, plot, and yet it still feels sloppy. The twists and turns are easily telegraphed and unexpectedly boring. The plot is frustrating, shortsighted in scope, and far too conventional for Gilliam’s tastes. When The Brothers Grimm reaches its happy ending you’ll swear you can hear Gilliam gagging somewhere.
Gilliam adds a worthy macabre tone to the film. There will be touches that you know are pure Gilliam, like a woman skinning a rabbit as she talks, or a cat flying into the blades or a torture device. In fact, The Brothers Grimm has a lot of humor involving the comic demise of animals. This isn’t exactly a film appropriate for young children despite the appeal of a fairy tale background. The film wants to tweak fairy tale legends like the two Shreks, but Gilliam wants to make them disturbing nightmares, not something of irreverence. This puts the film’s tone at odds. One minute you’ll have a scene that?s morbid, darkly funny, and unconventional, and then the next minute you’ll have a scene that’s cliché, dull, and whimsically misplaced.
The Brothers Grimm feels like a Terry Gilliam film under glass. The script is weak and plodding, the characters barely leave a dent, and the tone is uneven. The plot is pulled in too many directions and lacks momentum. There are a handful of fun comic diversions but the movie feels like a loose collection of disjointed story elements. There are flashes of grim humor and visual elegance but more often than not the film is just stupendously boring. The Brothers Grimm feels the same way the Coen brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty felt: a unique vision compromised and downsized by studio conformity. You can see the indie spirit but the heart just isn’t beating. The Brothers Grimm is mediocre at best. How very grim indeed.
Nate’s Grade: C
Yes it’s an uproarious sex farce, that’s a given from the ads, but this movie is also surprisingly sweet and genuinely moving. A lot of credit goes to star/co-writer Steve Carell and co-writer/director Judd Apatow, creator of some of the best, most honestly funny TV series unjustly cancelled. Apatow is a master at mining human comedy for pathos, where you get a great sense of character and really feel for those onscreen, and yet nothing feels cheap or unwarranted, all the while deriving comedy from the situations. We need more men like Apatow in the film industry. Carell can do it all whether it’s deflecting his insecurity, which we feel so bad when he comes up with outrageous things he’s overheard to make himself seem like one of the guys. The supporting cast is top-notch. They’re basically the stock roles in a sex comedy and yet they bring so much more to the table, with a true-to-life boys-will-be-boys camaraderie that you can identify with. The character relationships in The 40-Year-Old Virgin really elevate the story and the jokes and make the film something really special. It’s not merely a barrage of gross-out humor; it’s a nice story with some very tender moments. This is a movie that goes well beyond its gimmick premise, never feeling like a skit blown up into a feature film. It mixes in psychology, heartbreak, awkwardness, but also insights into loneliness and human connection. The best character-based comedy in years.
Nate’s Grade: A
Red Eye is something of a comeback for Wes Craven, the horror master that’s been somewhat grasping at straws for several years (for further proof see Cursed). The concept is ripe for tension and the film has little fat on it, clocking in at a meager 80 minutes. It’s divided like so: 20 minutes set-up, 40 minutes on the plane, and 20 minutes off the plane for the conclusion. Red Eye is so enjoyable when we’re trapped on that flight, catching the icy stares of Cillian Murphy, that I personally would love an additional 20-30 minutes more in the air. There’s a nice chain of cause and effect, as the audience is with Rachel McAdams (fast becoming the Hollywood It girl) as she tries to think her way out of her jam, each time thwarted by the chilling Murphy once more. It’s a great duel of wits. The last act of the film is too conventional and predictable to close out such a great claustrophobic pressure cooker. It’s also a bit insulting that she’s ultimately rescued by a man after we watch 80-minutes of her plucky ingenuity and courage. Red Eye is a solid thriller carried by two great performers on the rise.
Nate’s Grade: B
A man walks into a talent agency. He tells the agent he’s got a family act the likes of which no one has ever seen before. The agent tells the man to continue. The man’s wife, children, and pet come into the room and proceed to do the most vile, puerile, horrendously vulgar acts to themselves and each other. The agent is shocked. After a long moment of silence, the agent says, “What do you call this act?” The man replies, “The Aristocrats!” Ba-dum-dum.
It’s really not a good joke, but what makes it special is that the middle is entirely open for the comic to say whatever they want. Comedians will build and build in their obscenity so that the weak punchline is practically an afterthought. It’s a joke that goes all the way back to the days of vaudeville. Comics tell it to each other after shows like a secret handshake. The Aristocrats, an unrated documentary, gathers 100 comedians and lets them put their own crass spin on a classic dirty joke.
The movie boasts plenty of well-known names getting down and dirty, like Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg, George Carlin, the South Park creators, Jason Alexander, Eric Idle, Richard Lewis, Andy Dick, Fred Willard, Howie Mandel, Eddie Izzard, and Drew Carey (he insists the punchline should be accompanied by finger-snaps). Few comedians give a full rendition of the joke but the clips are just as potent. Judy Gold involves her unborn baby in the act and Carrie Fisher says her mother likes to sing in a very different kind of shower, but the filthiest mind of all belongs to Bob Saget, who can’t make it through without breaking up and saying, “What am I doing?” The Aristocrats also includes comics from different eras, including Larry Storch, the Smothers Brothers (one of which has never heard the joke before), and even Phyllis Diller, who pretty much just cackles at others. Dana Gould manages to pull together a very funny clean rendition involving the Amish version of the joke. The film opens on Carlin, closes on Gilbert Gottfried, and oh what a journey the film takes.
The Aristocrats is very very funny but also a rather incisive look at the nature of comedy. In between dishing the dirt, various comedians rhapsodize about the mechanics of comedy, the freedom in conquering taboos, and the intricacies of delivery (Paul Reiser stresses that any poo-related parts should be saved for the big finish). Penn Jilette says, “It’s the singer, not the song.” The Aristocrats displays comedy like it was jazz, each individual playing the same note a different way.
Things get a tad repetitious after awhile and the vulgarity starts to lose its impact once you’ve listened to countless unspeakable acts, mostly involving family members, the animal kingdom, and the loosening of bowels. As an example, my friend from college, Jason Davis, attended Mardi Gras in New Orleans one year, and as any viewer of late night TV will attest, the girls have gone wild. The ladies, it seems, will freely show you their bosoms in exchange for cheap plastic beads, and some don’t even want anything in return. Jason said the experience was amazing, at first, but after hours of non-stop frontal nudity, it all got a little tiring after awhile. The rampant nudity lost its effect and Jason started paying more attention to the women who actually kept their clothes on. So too is it with The Aristocrats, in a manner of speaking.
The film’s unabashed vulgarity will spur guffaws and titters, especially in an “Oh-my-God-did-he/she-just-say-that?” way. But after so many tellings, things that were funny because they were taboo don’t seem as funny in repetition. It’s at this point that an audience can really appreciate comics that take unconventional routes toward telling the joke. Eric Meade does a card trick, Kevin Pollack does the joke as Christopher Walken, Mario Cantone performs the joke as Liza Minnelli, Sarah Silverman actually puts herself in the joke’s family (for my money, she gives the best performance), Penn and Teller do a magic trick with a soda bottle, there are jugglers, a ventriloquist, and even a mime. The Aristocrats still has its straightforward dirty pleasures, but it’s much more satisfying when certain comics work outside the box.
It should be obvious at this point but The Aristocrats is not going to be a movie for most people. The incredibly course language and graphic accounts of lewd acts will not sit well with most of the American public. This is a movie strictly for people that have a strong stomach and like hearing a dirty joke. For that group, The Aristocrats will knock you silly with laughter. My three friends whom I saw the film with said they were in pain from laughing so hard. Perhaps that speaks volumes about the company I keep.
The Aristocrats is a bawdy, filthy, hilarious documentary that becomes more than a bunch of funnymen retelling a dirty joke. This is a film for a very select audience, to say the least, and it does lag at parts when the continual vulgarity loses its impact. The Aristocrats also seems to be erratically edited; scenes will rapidly jump from different angles for little reason. Every comedian has their own style and every audience member will find something different to strike their funny bone. At the very end, The Aristocrats invites viewers to submit their own form of the joke for the eventual DVD. I don’t know about you but I’ve already got a goldmine of ideas.
Nate’s Grade: B
Seriously, is there anything more that can be written about modern romantic comedies? If ever there was a genre comparable to horror, it’s these easily digestible, 90-minute love fests. I feel like I’m becoming a romantic comedy connoisseur. And it’s all because of my girlfriend. You see, without her I never would have seen Miss Congeniality 2, let alone in a first-run theater. I wouldn’t have seen Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and that was a very pleasant film. Added to the list is Must Love Dogs, a romantic comedy released right before the dog days of summer.
Sarah (Diane Lane) is a newly divorced 40-something preschool teacher (who looks freaking adorable dressed as a cat). Her very tight-knit family consoles her but also can?t stop from putting all their efforts toward helping Sarah get back on her feet. Sarah’s younger sister scours through her wardrobe and asks, “Where are all your boob shirts?” Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) creates an online profile for Sarah without her knowledge and submits it to an Internet dating website. She ends the profile by saying, “Must love dogs.” This allows for many disastrous dates, including one awkward date with her father (Christopher Plummer), himself on the dating scene. Jack (John Cusack) has just gotten out of a long-term relationship and his heart is fragile. He carves old fashioned wooden boats but struggles to make any sales. His buddy sets up a date with Sarah at a dog park. Jack borrows a dog and things don’t go so smoothly, but he sees something there. They go on additional dates and really feel a connection, even if the dates don’t go according to plan. But Sarah also has Bob (Dermot Mulroney), a hunky single dad to one of her preschool tykes, to choose from. What’s a hot single woman to do?
Must Love Dogs is a grab bag of romantic comedy clichés. You’ll find most everything here, from the sassy sister, the gay best friend (for 21st century advancements, the movie presents a gay couple), people trying to learn to love again after having their hearts broken, precocious children that say unusually adult things, a sing-along to a classic song, and the inevitable moment where one person finally has a late revelation and runs to catch their soon-to-be leaving love.
What hurts Must Love Dogs from its other cookie cutter ilk is how contrived so much of it feels. For the longest time the movie presents both of Sarah’s male options in a positive light, but because we see Cusack’s name above the credits and his face on the poster we know he’s destined to win out. Despite this, the film manufactures an entirely contrived scenario to put a wedge between Sarah and Jack. Bob walks in and, in an attempt to convince Sarah he didn’t bang her younger co-worker, kisses her on the spot. Then they pull apart and we see Jack standing there with Sarah’s drunken brother over his shoulder (how did he get back in the house anyway?). Must Love Dogs is another romantic comedy where the conflicts would be resolved with one levelheaded conversation between all parties.
What does keep Must Love Dogs afloat is how enormously likable and appealing Lane and Cusack are as actors. They’ve both been acting since they were teens (Lane was even on the cover of TIME magazine before she had a training bra), so it’s pleasant to see them mature gracefully but still remain vibrant, charismatic, and very good looking. After her blistering turn as the errant wife in 2002’s Unfaithful (which she should have won the Best actress Oscar for), Lane has found stable footing in romantic comedies dealing with the overlooked stories of a 40-something woman in love. In Must Love Dogs she’s generally strong despite the weak material. She has her funnier moments dealing with reaction. Cusack’s character is like Lloyd Dobbler (from the masterpiece Say Anything) in 15 years, and he manages to put his offbeat/sexy Cusack magic all over the film. With different actors as the leads, Must Love Dogs would be mostly forgettable.
Must Love Dogs also gives ample material to Sarah’s father and his pursuit of a mate of his own. Plummer is excellent as the wry old codger and has some very tender moments with Lane. It’s rare for a mainstream movie, let alone a romantic comedy, to sensibly deal with an elderly man’s own search for love, after losing the love of his life. It’s refreshing to see a movie that deals realistically with a 40-something woman and a 60-something man in the dating world, well as realistic as romantic comedies can get (cue the spontaneous sing-along).
In the formulaic world of romantic comedies, Must Love Dogs lands right smack in the middle, feeling equal parts contrived and enlightened. Lane and Cusack still shine as wonderfully charming leads and elevate this standard cookie cutter material. Plummer adds a nice addition in a smart, tender storyline of an old man looking for Mrs. Right. Fans of the romantic comedy genre will have their every expectation granted and feel the standard warm and fuzzies leaving the theater. Must Love Dogs is a typical romantic comedy that?s slightly funny, slightly charming, and slightly frustrating. And maybe that?s the film’s biggest flaw: it’s slight.
Nate’s Grade: C+