I was standing in a theater weeks ago and saw a large banner for Oliver Stone’s epic about Alexander the Great. I listed the names; Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Rosario Dawson, Jared Leto. This had to be perhaps the greatest assembly of pretty actors ever in a motion picture. There’s a whole lot of sex appeal there, and Anthony Hopkins, as the film’s reflective narrator, isn’t too shabby looking himself. After having seen Alexander, it’s safe to say the actors sure are pretty but the movie is far from it.
Alexander (Farrell) is one of the greatest historical figures. He rose to become a Macedonian king, dominated much of the known world before he was 30, and then died mysteriously at a young age. In flashes to his youth, we see Olympias (Jolie) coaching young Alexander on his future glory. Standing in her way is one-eyed King Phillip (Kilmer), Olympias’ husband though not the father to Alexander. She frets that he will sire a direct heir to the throne, and upon Phillip’s assassination, Alexander reaches new heights. He travels to Babylon with the purpose of avenging his father’s death, rumored to be paid for by Persian gold.
Alexander keeps traveling east conquering new lands but returning kings to their rule and assimilating “barbarians” into his armies. His generals begin to question Alexander’s actions, especially his surprise marriage to an Asian peasant woman (Dawson). He is unable to sire a male heir with her. Hephaistion (Leto), Alexander’s childhood friend and lifelong lover, worries that Alexander has become power hungry and distrustful of those around him. Many of his men only want to see home after seven years of battle. After defeat in India, Alexander decides to turn back but he never sees home again.
For such a lavish biopic, Alexander seems fairly remote. We don’t really get to know much about the psychology of Alexander. He’s a historical figure with equal parts good and bad ready for debate, but whenever Alexander does hit some of its star’s less than stellar moments, it seems to gloss right over them. Hopkins will narrate about some town that resisted, then we’ll see a quick image of it burning, and then we move on. Or we’ll see a slew of dead army officials and Hopkins will say, “He slaughtered all he felt were responsible for mutiny, but I’d expect any general to do the same.” There are several moments where we’ll hear Alexander massacred a town, or sold people into slavery, and then we get the next scene. It’s quite comical, almost as if Hopkins is a tour guide at a museum saying things like, “And then Alexander ate all of the first born babies. Moving on now . . .”
There are just so many awful laugh-out-loud, loopy moments in Alexander. It’s not enough that Jolie speaks in some bizarre accent; to make sure the audience understands that she’s duplicitous she has a snake wrapped around her in every scene. I’m not kidding; every scene that Jolie is in she has snakes coiled around her.
There’s a moment late in the film that is so hilariously dreadful, it’s hard to believe what you’re seeing. Hephaistion has caught ill and is on his death bed. Alexander is wrought with emotion, but then strolls over to a window and begins another huge speech that ends up being all about his glory. What makes the scene go from bad to I-cannot-believe-they’re-doing-this bad is that Hephaistion, in the background, is convulsing and dying. You see his body tense up, twitch, leap into the air, and practically do some kind of triple axel, all while Alexander speechifies blithely unaware. I challenge anyone not to laugh.
Stone needlessly complicates his film with flashbacks, giant leaps forward in chronology skipping Alexander’s rise to respected leader, and skittish hallucinations. Stone is accustomed to breaking up the chronology of his films, but Alexander is too long and too campy to play around with for effect.
The acting of Alexander is set to overkill. Farrell seems miscast and doesn’t have the weight to carry such a historically meaty role. He looks pretty, and he can snarl like a pro, but the only thing worse than his overblown acting is his terrible blonde hair. This just wasn’t the right role for this talented actor. Jolie is so naturally seductive that she could have played her role mute and been effective, probably more so. Kilmer seems to be working some kind of Irish accent, but he comes off the best of the three. The best thing I can say about Dawson is that she looked fabulous during her nude scene. Leto gets overshadowed by his bangs.
Alexander also seems to speed over its star’s bisexuality. It wasn’t uncommon for men to bed both sexes, but the movie seems terrified of portraying anything beyond longing glances. Alexander and Hephaistion are reduced to some whispers here and there, but the limit of their physical affection stops at hugs. It actually is kind of funny the amount of times they hug, which I think is over five. You can tell the filmmakers wanted more but then were like, “Eh, let them hug again.” In some weird turn, it seems the film shows more depth with Alexander’s relationship with his horse than with his lifelong lover.
For a three hour movie about a military man who conquered much of the known world, there’s a shocking lack of action. Alexander has two action set-pieces and then that’s it. The first set-piece is a battle between Alexander and the vastly numbered forces of the King of Persia. The battle lasts twenty minutes and is disjointed, bloody, and perfectly indicative of the confusion of war. Stone cuts back and forth between majestic aerial shots showing the progress of battle and hand-to-hand combat amid the sand and dust clouds. Stone also labels certain sections of the armies, which gives a greater understanding of the battle. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this battle is the highlight of Alexander (well, that and Dawson’s nude scene).
The only other action set-piece comes very late in the movie. Alexander’s forces have marched all the way into India. Warriors on the backs of monstrous elephants stampede onward to intercept Alexander’s armies. This battle is also chaotic, and Stone utilizes a lot of quick point-of-view shots like people getting squashed by pachyderms. The action is satisfying if a bit over the top (a warrior gets impaled on a slow-moving elephant’s tusks), that is until Stone goes off the deep end. Alexander gets wounded in battle and suddenly the film switches tints, bathing everything in reddish and bright neon hues. Everything has a tin outline. It’s rather ridiculous and unfortunately reminds me of Ralph Bakshi’s misguided animated Lord of the Rings.
That’s all you get for action, so I hope you like speeches rich with superfluous historical name-drops, because that’s what Alexander is all about. I’d bet money that nearly an hour of this three-hour opus involves people delivering speeches. Alexander rallies his men, Phillip talks about the Greek tragedies, Olympias strokes Alexander’s greatness and need for kingship, his generals talk about his decisions, and then we get endless moments of Alexander talking about a new world, bringing people together, and respecting other cultures. Alexander seems to go dead as soon as some character pulls out a soapbox. Worst of all, many speeches involve lots of historical references that an audience cannot be expected to keep up with. The overall effect is like listening to an unwanted party guest drone on. Alexander may be trying to talk to death his enemy.
What makes all of this worse is that the dialogue and the drama are so melodramatic. The center of Alexander’s creaky psychology is a domineering mother and a scornful father who scream at each other a lot. Whenever someone has a disagreement in Alexander they resort to over emotive screaming. You may start tuning the actors out after awhile. Much of the dialogue is terrible, but there is the occasional howler line like, “It is said that the only defeat Alexander suffered was Hephaistion’s thighs.” You may concur with Alexander’s men and want to return to your family as soon as possible after watching this.
I was trying to think how something like this, so misguided and off the rails, could chug along without a peep from someone saying, “Hey, maybe this isn’t working.” Then I got it. You see, Alexander is Oliver Stone. Both men are revered for previous victories, both men are generals that take full control of their armies, and both men are fiercely stubborn. If someone questioned Alexander’s decisions, chances are they could be killed. Now I’m fairly certain Stone wouldn’t go that far (there may be many graves dug over the grumblings over U-Turn), but I can see how difficult voicing dissension might have been.
Stone’s long in the waiting Alexander epic is bloody, ponderous, exaggerated, talky, sumptuous and off-the-charts loony. This is a giant mess only a visionary director could amass. Only historical junkies might be entertained by Alexander, and the rest of us will just be glazed over. We never get to really know Alexander, nor do we even get our money’s worth for action, so unless you click your heels to the thought of hours of speeches, skip Alexander. Trust me, it’s far from great.
Nate’s Grade: C-
American Teen (2008)
Filmmaker Nanette Burstein (On the Ropes) wanted to document the lives of actual American teenagers. After a national search, she settled on the town of Warsaw, Indiana, which we’re told in the opening narration is “mostly white, mostly Christian, and red state all the way.” American Teen is the feature-length documentary that chronicles the lives of four Warsaw teens during their senior year. The class of 2006 includes Colin, a basketball star worried about securing a scholarship. His father, an Elvis impersonator, supports his son but reminds the kid that dad has no money for school, so it’s either a scholarship or the Army. This, naturally, places tremendous pressure on a 17-year-old and his play diminishes as he tries to up his stats. There’s Megan, the queen bee at the school who feels pressured by her family to get into Notre Dame. This makes her act like a cretin, apparently. Jake is a kid who feels uncomfortable in his own acne-scarred skin. He plays video games a lot and desperately wants to find a girlfriend. Then there’s Hannah, the artsy girl prone to spontaneous dancing who feels trapped by her town.
I found American Teen to be largely unbelievable for two major reasons. First, teenagers today are way too media savvy after having grown up on a bevy of reality TV programming, the ultimate genre of manipulation. Remember way back in 1991 when MTV first started The Real World, the pioneering reality TV show? The people selected to live together as a social experiment were interesting, unguarded, a nice cross-section of the country; you felt like you could run into these people on the street some time. Then about half way into its run, the likely turning point being the Las Vegas season, The Real World participants became self-aware. They knew to exaggerate behavior for manufactured drama, to play up romantic crushes, and to work from the realm of playing a well-defined cliché character; no longer did these people feel real, instead they felt like drunken auditions for a really lousy soap opera. And all of the people started looking inordinately beautiful, chiseled hunks and leggy, waif-thin models. When was the last time they ever had an overweight person on that show? Anyway, the point of this anecdote is that thanks to the machinations of reality TV, teenagers today have grown up with the concept of cameras and they know how to manipulate reality. One could argue that you will never capture the true essence of a person by pointing a camera at them, because the instant a camera is placed to document reality it changes reality; people talk differently, either more reserved or confessional. A camera changes reality, but this discussion point is a little beyond the realm of American Teen. So I doubt the legitimacy of watching the “real lives” of “real students,” especially when these kids come from a more affluent area and probably digest other MTV semi-reality dramas like the unquestionably fake The Hills.
So how would you behave if you knew a film crew was making a documentary in your school? I fully believe that many of the actions caught on camera are done so because the students wanted to ensure that they would be in a movie. I cannot blame them. I mean, if I was close to being involved in a film I would probably check every possibility to ensure my lovely presence eventually fills up the big screen. What do you want from kids who have grown up as a generation of self-reflective narcissists thanks to reality TV and uninvolved parents (sorry, soapbox moment)? This is why the nature of documenting reality in a high school setting is questionable. Burstein’s cameras follow Jake around and he’s able to walk up to girls and ask them out, point blank. Would he normally be so bold? I don’t know. What I know for certainty is that there would be fewer girls interested in the acne-scarred self-proclaimed geek if he didn’t have the adjoining camera crew. I’m sure girls looked at Jake and thought, “Here’s my ticket to being in a movie.” I’m not trying to be mean here because Jake is a rather nice, typically uncomfortable and socially awkward teenager who will find his niche once he leaves the confines of high school. I’ve known several Jakes in my life. But I don’t believe that a socially awkward kid like this naturally dates three different girls, all of them pretty, without the promised presence of cameras.
Also, there’s this popular guy Mitch completely thrown in at the middle of the film. All of a sudden he sees Hannah onstage rocking out at a school battle of the bands function, and the movie slows down, Hannah literally starts glowing, and Mitch says, “Wow, I have a crush on Hannah Bailey.” Allow me to doubt the sincerity of this sudden cross-clique crush. We never witness the beginning of this relationship, each side feeling the other out, the nervousness and delightful possibilities. We just get a voice over of Mitch saying he likes her and then the film cuts to like weeks into their supposed relationship when they’re goofing off at a gas station. When Hannah is invited to a party with Mitch’s friends, naturally she’s going to feel a bit out of place amongst the cool, popular crowd. He hangs out with his friends instead of his girlfriend. He makes sure to say hey to everyone else even while Hannah is sitting next to him. The next day Mitch breaks up with Hannah via the modern marvel of text messaging (ouch). You never see Mitch again until the end credits reveal that he feels he has matured. Essentially, Mitch is only seen and introduced to the movie because of his attachment to Hannah. Clearly, Mitch knew that if he buddied up next to the pixie girl he would ensure some place in the movie’s running time. It worked, because Mitch is featured in the trailer, the poster, and even tagged along on the national press tour. To paraphrase the title of Burstein’s superior documentary, the kid found a way to stay in the picture.
My second point of contention is that Burstein has taken scissors to 1200+ hours of footage to make her documentary about high school stereotypes, not people. Burstein has selected five figures to spotlight and she has whittled them down to one-word stereotypes: jock (Colin), geek (Jake), princess (Megan), rebel (Hannah), and heartthrob (Mitch). She isn’t destroying these lazy classifications but reinforcing them willfully. The marketing campaign around American Teen recreated the poster from The Breakfast Club. I swear, I think that art imitated life and now high schoolers are just imitating what they have seen propagated time and again as stone-cold reality in their schools: the rigid social caste system. There are so many missed opportunities by painting in such broad strokes. Colin is a jock because he plays on the basketball squad, but why can’t he also be a geek? Why can’t a rebel be a princess? I feel tacky talking in such degrading, baby-fied terms. Burstein doesn’t help her case by giving the main figures their own animated fantasy segments. Hannah is obviously the star of the film, and Burstein has seen to it that she narrates the tale as well. I suspect some canniness on Burstein’s part. Either the filmmaker felt that Hannah would most reflect the spirits of the crowds that attend indie documentaries, thus ensuring a bigger gross, or Burstein saw much of herself in Hannah and naturally wanted to make the “different girl” the star, possibly working through some of her own high school demons.
There’s also the issue of how staged some of this comes across. Am I to believe that Burstein’s camera crew managed to capture those perfect moments where the students stare out into space, thoughtfully? Am I to believe that the camera crew managed to capture everyone’s dirty little text messages then and there in the moment? Am I to believe that scenes of Hannah dramatically walking down the hallway weren’t planned? I’m forgiving when it comes to re-enactments but when a movie feels overburdened with re-enactments or posed figures, then it feels too manufactured. Just like The Hills.
Perhaps I’m coming down too hard on American Teen. After all, most documentaries distort some facet of reality and generally are edited to present a series of points. But the reason American Teen doesn’t work is because it offers zero insights into the American high school setting and little to no insights with its “characters.” Hannah is a cute girl with an independent streak but I fail to get a sense of her as a person. She gets dumped twice over the course of American Teen, suffers from crippling anxiety to the point that she misses almost a month of class, and she longs to leave the reach of her conservative town for the holy destination of California, so why then does the film not present her as a person instead of a classification? I also get the feeling that we don’t see any of would-be filmmaker Hannah’s own work because Burstein may be shielding her subject from the harsh realities or critical response.
Obviously Megan is the villain of the piece and Burstein takes advantage of the girl’s self-absorbed sense of entitlement. Megan could be an interesting subject as far as casual cruelty. Megan vandalizes a student council member’s home because the guy had the gall to devise a different prom theme. We watch Megan literally spray paint a penis on a window followed by the word “FAG,” and then she whines that everyone is being mean to her even when the punishment she gets for a borderline hate crime is a slap on the wrists. Megan’s friend Erica makes the unfortunate decision to send a topless picture of herself in an e-mail to the guy she likes, who happens to be Megan’s friend and object of territory. So Megan briskly sends the picture to scads and scads of students with e-mail subject lines like “silver dollars” and “pepperonis.” Megan then leaves mean-spirited voice mail messages saying that Erica is destined “to live the rest of her life as a slut.” This is her friend! Burstein has the good sense of mind to interview a teary-eyed Erica after the topless photo fallout, and it probably is the emotional highpoint of the film because it’s so honest and wounded. Why not follow Erica after this? Surely her story, recovering from humiliation, is more intriguing then watching Megan scoot along her privileged life or whether or not Colin can be a better teammate. Speaking of the tall kid with the Jay Leno-sized chin, why does his dad insist that Colin needs a basketball scholarship or else “it’s the Army”? Has he not heard of student loans? Does Colin’s father believe sending his son into a war zone is preferable to amassing debt?
American Teen is a pseudo-documentary that has little intention to dig deeper under the surface of the realities of high school life. If your high school experience exactly mirrors this film, then perhaps you watched too many movies. Or the filmmakers did and tried to feed into the film idea of what goes on in a high school. Or both.
Nate’s Grade: C
I Know Who Killed Me (2007)
We interrupt the nonstop barrage of Lindsay Lohan media coverage and speculation to bring you her movie, or, more accurately, further proof that Lohan is in desperate need of a career makeover. The tabloid target has a pretty shoddy track record of late when it comes to picking acting projects, so it’s no wonder that her splashy private life has overshadowed her cinematic duds. Thanks to a second summer DUI Lohan was unable to promote her new movie, I Know Who Killed Me. This may be a blessing in disguise because if I were her I would want to draw the least amount of attention possible to what is destined to contend for the worst film of 2007.
We open to Aubrey (Lohan) reading her story in her high school class. The story revolves around a stripper named Dakota and the amorous attention she earns from creepy older gentlemen. One night Aubrey goes missing and the police believe she may be the next victim of the local blue-gloved serial killer that hacks off the limbs of his victims. The last girl, currently residing in the morgue, is missing her right forearm and her right leg. Her parents (Neal McDonough, Julia Ormond) fear the worst. Then a motorist finds Aubrey’s mutilated body on the side of the road. She wakes up in the hospital and will survive, except the problem is that she has no idea who any Aubrey is; her name is Dakota and she worked as a stripper. She vows to find the “real” Aubrey.
This films stinks like it was found in the cinematic gutter. It’s sleazy and tries to energize a lame straight-to-video thriller with some tawdry turns. The movie exists to pacify the cult of Lohan; there’s flesh to tantalize those attracted to the freckled wild child, and there’s distasteful torture for the detractors. Without Lohan’s name, I Know Who Killed Me would never have gotten a theatrical release. The torture sequences are drawn out to the soundtrack of Lohan’s muffled screams. The violence fails to excite or horrify, but instead it just seems like a sorry attempt to ape the success of recent torture-heavy horror flicks. The sex is even less believable. Aubrey/Dakota, fresh from the hospital, beds the quarterback in one of the least convincing, most unintentionally hilarious sex scenes of recent memory. She throws the jock onto her bed and pins him down for a good pumping. In the ensuing two minutes, the pair engage in exaggerated and noisy PG-13 sex where the woman stays on top and keeps her bra on the whole time (does any woman do that?). The whole time the movie cuts back and forth to Aubrey/Dakota’s mother listening and furiously cleaning the kitchen sink. I think the juxtaposition is intended to be funny, and it is, just not in the manner the filmmakers were probably hoping for.
The movie would be more revolting if it weren’t so incomprehensible. I Know Who Killed Me begins to disassemble at a fantastic rate of idiocy once it attempts to explain its central Aubrey/Dakota conflict. But the movie only presents two options: 1) Aubrey and Dakota are the same person and she just created a fictional persona as a means of post-traumatic stress (yawn), or 2) somehow there are TWO Lohans on this planet (what?). The first scenario is pretty dull and obvious and way too feeble for such a dank exploitation thriller. The second scenario requires a scheme so convoluted and ridiculous that it cannot be taken seriously. In the end, the movie becomes Saw meets The Parent Trap, and it’s every bit as terrible as you would concur from such a description.
For the sake of the morbidly curious, I will be discussing some heavy-duty spoilers to fully shine the spotlight on how ludicrous the movie gets. Don’t say you were not warned. Aubrey/Dakota keeps swearing she is indeed her own woman, but no one seems to believe her. She researches the unexplainable via the Internet and it is here that she gathers the theory of stigmatic twins. The idea is that whatever happens to one twin will magically happen to the other, no matter the distance and no matter the situation. In the online example, a man with gambling debts is shot in the throat, and thousands of miles away his twin brother bleeds to death thanks to a perfectly placed and ill-timed hole in his own throat. I Know Who Killed Me tries to wrap up its questions with answers that would seem preposterous even in a soap opera. Not only does the film give us the old long-lost twin chestnut but it also goes the extra inane inning to say that one twin endures whatever happens to the other. So when Aubrey is losing limbs during her capture, Dakota is mysteriously waking up to some considerable weight loss. If my limbs were randomly disappearing I might consult a doctor. Essentially, if there’s any merit to this theory, the best way to get revenge on your twin (long-lost or not) is through extreme masochism.
I Know Who Killed Me is littered with stupid behavior and stupid plot points that stick in your brain. A doctor fixes Aubrey/Dakota with a pair of prosthetics – a fake leg and a robot arm. He slides the robot hand onto her stump and it reacts to her nerve impulses. As soon as I saw this scene I blurted out, “Oh my God, Lindsay Lohan becomes the Terminator!” Where the scene earns its stupid wings is that the doctor says she’ll have to charge her prosthetic when not in use or else the battery will go dead. Naturally, I’m thinking he’s referring to the robot arm of doom, but no, he’s talking about her freaking leg. Aubrey/Dakota’s leg amputation is below her knee; therefore this fake leg is little more than a pole. There’s nothing mechanical to it. Why does it need to be plugged in? Will it hop away? It doesn’t matter because the leg and arm never pose any trouble or danger for Aubrey/Dakota. It’s a strange setup without any payoff.
The bloody ending to I Know Who Killed Me is such a mess that it takes special attention just to pick apart its awfulness for further clarity. Aubrey/Dakota figures out the whole complicated rigmarole and declares in titular fashion, “I know who killed me.” Given the silly stigmatic twin theory, even this statement is incorrect from a tense standpoint (if it was true she wouldn’t be able to utter the words). Aubrey/Dakota and her dad head off to the dismembering serial killer’s home without bothering to contact the authorities. She says they don’t have time because, apparently, cell phones do not exist in this universe. I don’t know how it’s possible for Aubrey/Dakota to dig up a grave with one arm. When she goes running into the woods she’s looking for an owl from a vision. That’s good. It’s not like the woods are big or have more than one owl. For that matter, how did Aubrey even get kidnapped in the first place when she was among a large crowd on a busy sidewalk? Would no on have noticed and done something? Even the identity of the serial killer cannot give the movie a sense of finality that it wants. This is your standard serial killer movie where the killer has no working motivation and their identity is relatively meaningless. The limb-slicing maniac might as well have been the janitor seen in the background of one scene for a fleeting moment.
Lohan gives a performance that suits the material – dreadful. Her idea of a bad girl seems more like a perturbed and insolent child. Lohan gets to hurl her share of F-bombs but never seems adult in whatever she’s doing onscreen. Her husky voice sounds like she has a continuous head cold. She never decides to alter her walk or physical movement. Even worse for her contingent of heterosexual male fans, Lohan has zero sex appeal during her stripper escapades. She’s got the vivacious body to fill out the skimpy outfits, but this woman has little charisma when she’s swinging around the pole. There’s such an awkward, discombobulated coordination to her limited movements. Lohan struts and makes goo-goo faces that she thinks are sultry. After a while you start to realize that Lohan is just preening for imaginary red carpet photographers and has no clue how to titillate. I Know Who Killed Me is a depressing low point for such a once-promising young actress who had the world on a string.
Director Chris Sivertson seems to know he’s the captain of a doomed vessel. He overwhelms the movie with irritating lighting excesses. Sivertson takes a cue from Shyamalan and ramps up the color symbolism; there’s blue roses, blue gloves, blue killer tools, blue stained glass of blue roses. You may start to wonder if the Blue Man Group suddenly became a symphonic serial killing side project.
I Know Who Killed Me is a disaster in every sense of the word. The ineptness on display is staggering. The movie is trash from start to finish but it’s not even redeemable trash. The movie tries to cover its numerous plot holes with images of Lohan canoodling with a stripper pole, but the trouble is that Lohan is abysmal as a figure of lust. She’s supposed to be provocative in her first real adult role but really seems more like an inebriated pre-teen playing sexy dress-up. I Know Who Killed Me is a ludicrous, incomprehensible, and rather sundry thriller that won’t help Lohan’s troubled life. I have a lot of good will for Lohan after her performances in Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, and yes, at one time, I found her curvaceously attractive. I want her to succeed, but truthfully, if she needs to know who’s killing her career, the answer is in a mirror.
Nate’s Grade: D-
The New World (2005)
I’m not a Terrence Malick fan. There, I’ve said it. I think he’s got a great eye for visuals, however, I’ve never been impressed by any of his films. I hated 1998’s The Thin Red Line and its exhausting supply of narrators so much that I wanted to walk out of the theater. The only other movie I felt the same impulse, at the time, was Lost in Space. As you can see, not good company. It’s been a long time since that nightmare so I figured it would only be kind to give Malick another chance. His new film, The New World, looks to deconstruct the mythic relationship between settler John Smith and Native American princess, Pocahontas (perhaps best known for painting with the colors of the wind, or so Disney would have me believe). To my non-surprise, The New World is everything I thought it would be, namely ponderous, pretentious, and quite bad.
It’s 1606, and the world is about to change forever. A cadre of ships bound from England ground ashore on the Virginia coast in search of a settlement and, hopefully, a vibrant colony. The Captain (Christopher Plummer) warns that his men must treat the “naturals” with care; after all, this is their homeland. The Native American inhabitants treat the new settlers with curiosity, poking them, smelling them, and then tolerating their existence … for now. John Smith (Colin Farrell) comes to America in chains, the result of an ill-fated mutiny, but the Captain gives him new life. He commissions Smith to send an envoy deep into the Native American village to seek trading partners. Along the way he is captured and about to be executed when he’s saved by a young girl (Q’Orianka Kilcher), a.k.a. Pocahontas though the name is never spoken once. Smith is allowed to stay with the tribe and he deeply grows fond of Pocahontas. The two are blocked by culture and language, but their feelings persist. Smith is ordered to go back to his people. If they do not leave the land there will be war. The two civilizations are set to butt heads, and the love between Smith and Pocahontas is precariously trapped between.
Let’s get this bit of semantics out of the way. Terrence Malick doesn’t make movies, he makes nature documentaries. He doesn’t so much involve a plot as he does a large open space for his characters to pontificate about the world around them, mostly through whispery voice over. Malick fans will take in his artistic capture of sight and sound, but the rest of us out there will be scratching our heads, that is, when we’re not falling asleep. Seriously, how do you edit something like this? How does Malick know that THIS shot of a tree blowing in the wind needs to be slotted here, while this OTHER shot of a tree blowing in the wind needs to definitely come later? Malick is a stubborn mystery. He’s less interested in crafting a good movie than he is breaking the rules of what film can be. That’s all well and dandy when you put out an entertaining product. The only way I think The New World could be entertaining is if: 1) you adore long, poetic scenes of nature, or 2) you hate yourself.
It seems needless to talk about the acting. Farrell (Daredevil, Minority Report) seems like a good choice for a hardluck man overwhelmed by his new envrionment. Kilcher could be a fine actress, she certainly is rather beautiful, but the jury’s still out on her emoting. Plummer is so good that you’ll miss him dearly when he’s gone. Most of the acting revolves around silence and reactions, which is not the most captivating material.
The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (Sleepy Hollow, Lemony Snicket) is obviously beautiful, taking great pains to showcase Virginia in a near mythic quality. But a film built around pretty pictures and idling characters can only go so far. Your attention span is so strained you may start doing your checkbook in your head. Oh ye God is The New World’s score terrible. It’s like James Horner collapsed on his keyboard, they recorded it, looped it, and just made it get louder and louder.
It seems like Malick wrote his story on the back of his hand. So very little happens. I’m not as distraught about the immense lack of dialogue, because venturing into a foreign land with foreign people likely doesn’t produce a lot of conversation when no one can understand you. However, the only things we have to push the story forward are some repetitive, junior high-esque poetry disguised as introspective voice over. Pocahontas keeps waving her arms about like she’s directing airplanes, and then she ponders, “Mother, are you there? Are you in the wind?” She even hugs a tree at one point, perhaps thinking it’s her mother. What do you want; she’s the baby of like 100 kids. Malick is so frustrating and pretentious that he will bludgeon to death an audience rather than invite them into his artistic world. He definitely doesn’t make it easy or rewarding.
As far as romance is concerned, the relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas is curiously platonic. Both fall hard for the other but nothing ever dares to rock the PG-13 rating. The furthest these crazy kids get in expressing their love is hugging. I realize that Kilcher was only 14 years old when this was shot, but that doesn’t stop Malick from turning her into pseudo-artistic jailbait. When he’s not filming nature he spends an awful long time on Kilcher prancing around; the camera is practically fawning over her. I get it; we’re supposed to feel the spirit of this girl and her connection with the world around her. That’s why John Smith falls for her. But then nothing seems to happen in their puppy love courtship. It’s all too chaste to be epic or even slightly memorable. Then at the start of the third act Farrell leaves and in pops Bale, and the audience is going, “Oh, c’mon, we have to go through all that again?!” Sure enough, The New World starts all over and another man goes through the same courtship steps with Pocahontas. They touch the grass. They share looks. They talk to the wind. They murder my patience. The New World is a love story suffocated by hesitation and Malick’s own disinterest.
The New World is emblematic of why I’ll never be a Terrence Malick fan: it’s long, drifting, unfocused, ponderous over entertaining, and just plain friggin’ boring! If you’re a scenery buff you’ll garner some enjoyment from Malick’s images, but people looking for story, character, and any sort of movement will be lost with this 135-minute rumination on man, nature, and man touching nature …. very…. slowly. If this is all you are going to do then stop making movies and just make nature specials, Malick. The New World is pretentious, dull, and stubborn down to its very last second. It once took Malick 20 years in between movies. I wouldn’t mind if he took another 20-year hiatus.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
The Passion of the Christ is a retelling of the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ’s life (perhaps you’ve heard of him?). In these final hours we witness his betrayal at the hands of Judas, his trial by Jewish leaders, his sentencing by Pontius Pilate, his subsequent whippings and torture and finally his crucifixion. Throughout the film Jesus is tempted by Satan, who is pictured as a pasty figure in a black hood (kind of resembling Jeremy Irons from The Time Machine if anyone can remember). The Passion spares no expense to stage the most authentic portrayal of what Jesus of Nazareth endured in his final 12 hours of life.
For all the hullabaloo about being the most controversial film in years (and forgive me for even using the term “hullabaloo”), I can’t help but feel a smidgen of disappointment about the final product. The Passion is aptly passionate and full of striking images, beautiful photography and production values, and stirring performances all set to a rousing score. But what makes The Passion disappointing to me is the characters. You see, Mel Gibson’s epic does not devote any time to fleshing out the central characters. They are merely ciphers and the audience is expected to plug their feelings and opinions into these walking, bleeding symbols to give them life. Now, you could argue this is what religion is all about, but as far as a movie’s story goes it is weak. The Passion turns into a well-meaning and slick spectacle where character is not an issue. And as a spectacle The Passion is first-rate; the production is amazing and the violence is graphic and gasp-inducing. Do I think the majority of people will leave the theater moved and satisfied? Yes I do. But I can’t stop this nagging concern that The Passion was devoid of character and tried covering it up with enough violence to possibly twist its message into a Sunday school snuff film.
For my money, the best Biblical film is Martin Scorsese’s 1987 The Last Temptation of Christ (also a film mired in controversy). Last Temptation, unlike Gibson’s spectacle, was all about Jesus as a character and not simply as a physical martyr. Scorsese’s film dealt with a Christ consumed by doubt and fear and the frailties of being human. But the best part is the final 20 minutes when Jesus is tempted, by Satan, to step down from the cross and live out a normal life. Jesus walks away from the cross, marries Mary Magdalene, fathers children (this is where the controversy stemmed from but they were married) and dies at an old age. Jesus is then confronted by his aging apostles who chastise him for not living up to what he was supposed to do to save mankind. Jesus wakes up from the illusion and fulfills his mission and dies on the cross. Now, with the story of Last Temptation an audience has a greater appreciation for the sacrifice of Jesus because they witness his fears and they witness the normal life he forgoes to die for man’s sins. There is a sense of gravity about what Jesus is sacrificing.
With The Passion Gibson figures if he can build a sense of grand sacrifice by gruesomely portraying the tortures Jesus endured. Even if it is Jesus, and this may sound blasphemous, torturing a character to create sympathy and likeability is the weakest writing trick you can do. Yes Jesus suffered a lot, yes we should all be horrified and grateful, and yes people will likely be moved at the unrelenting violence he endured, but in regards to telling a story, I cannot feel as much for characters whose only characterization is their suffering. Sure, The Passion flashes back to some happier moments of Jesus’ life, which I like to call the Jesus Greatest Hits collection, but the movie does not show us who Jesus was, what he felt (beyond agonizing pain) or the turmoil he went through in finally deciding to give up his own life for people that despised him. The Passion is not about character but about spectacle.
So let’s talk about the violence now, shall we? Gibson’s camera lovingly lingers on the gut-churning, harrowing, merciless level of violence. But this is his only message. It’s like Gibson is standing behind the camera and saying to the audience, “You see what Jesus suffered? Do you feel bad now? FLAY HIM MORE! How about now?” What was only three sentences of description in the Gospels takes up ten minutes of flogging screen time. Mad Mel has the urge to scourge. After an insane amount of time spent watching Jesus get flayed and beaten the violence starts to not just kill whatever spiritual message Gibson may have had in mind, but the violence becomes the message. The Passion does give an audience a fair understanding of the physical torture Jesus was subjected to, but the movie does not display Christ as fully human, enjoying life and love, or fully divine. The only thing The Passion shows us about Jesus is that the son of God sure knew how to take a whuppin’. For Gibson, the violence is the message and the point is to witness what Jesus endured. Some would call that sadistic.
The actors all do a fine job and it’s impressive that everyones’ lines is in two dead languages (Latin and Aramaic, though for the life of me I can’t tell them apart). But the acting is limited because of the nature of the film. Had there been more moments of character the acting would come across better. As it stands, the acting in The Passion is relegated to looks of aguish or looks of horror, interspersed with weeping. Monica Bellucci (The Matrix sequels) really has nothing to do as Mary Magdalene but run around in the background a lot. Jim Caviezel (Frequency, Angel Eyes) gives everything he has in the mighty big shoes he tries to fill. It’s too bad that his Jesus spends most of the screen time being beaten, which kind of hampers his acting range.
Now let’s address the anti-Semitic concerns. Let’s face facts; you are not going to have a film about the crucifixion of Jesus and have some Jews coming off in a good light. Just as you would not have a film about the Holocaust and have some Germans coming off in a good light. It is unavoidable. The Passion does portray a handful of Jewish religious leaders as instigators for Jesus’ eventual crucifixion, but there are also Jewish leaders who denounce their actions and just as many people bemoaning the torture of Jesus as there are calling for it. Who really comes off looking bad are the Romans. Excluding the efforts to make Pilate look apprehensive, the Roman soldiers are always seen kicking, punching, whipping, spitting on Jesus and laughing manically with their yellow teeth. How anyone could watch The Passion and come away anti-Semitic and not anti-Italian is beyond me.
And like I said before, most people will be extremely satisfied with the film because it’s hard to find a person who doesn’t have an opinion on Jesus. Gibson is counting on audiences to walk in and fill in the holes of the character so that The Passion is more affecting. Gibson’s film is worthy spectacle, and despite the vacuum of character I did get choked up four separate times, mostly involving Jesus and his mother. The Passion is a well-made and well-intentioned film that will hit the right notes for many. I just wish there were more to it than spectacle. I really do.
Nate’s Grade: C
Rent is one of Broadway’s biggest sensations in the last decade and has become a cultural cornerstone for many. Jonathan Larson updated Puchini’s famous opera La Boheme, transplanting the setting to East Village New York, swapping TB for AIDS, and turning his characters into struggling bohemians fighting for their voices to be heard and love to be kindled. The musical also has an added sense of tragedy. Larson suddenly died on an aneurism during the final dress rehearsal, sadly never getting to see his finished creation. Rent went on to win Tonys (including Best Musical), a Pulitzer Prize, and damn near the heart of every girl I went to college with. To say it’s been a smash is an understatement. And where ever there’s money and an insatiable audience, there will be Hollywood’s eyes. Now comes time for the Hollywood gloss with director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Stepmom) and when Rent ditches the intimate confines of theater and hits the big screen, it’s much harder to hide its flaws.
The story takes place within the span of one year (or 525,600 minutes as you’ll be told repeatedly in song), covering Christmases from 1989 to 1990. Mark (Anthony Rapp, Dazed and Confused) and Roger (Adam Pascal) are roommates trying to keep warm during the winter in their giant New York loft. They’re flat broke and their former friend and current landlord Benny (Taye Diggs) expects a full year’s rent to be paid pronto. Roger is racking his brain trying to write that one perfect song; he’s also HIV positive, the unfortunate side effect of a relationship with a junkie. Mark is an aspiring filmmaker and has also recently been dumped by the impetuous performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel) for … another woman, Joanne (Tracie Thoms), a black lawyer. It must be noted that all three of these characters do not have HIV/AIDS; they’re in the minority. Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin, Law and Order), a gay school teacher, is visiting Mark and Roger when he gets mugged in an alleyway. Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a drag queen with a heart of gold comes to his rescue. Both men have HIV but won’t let their shortened time stop them from falling in love with one another. Mimi (Rosario Dawson) lives below Roger and Mark and works as an exotic dancer down the street. She too has HIV from a nasty smack habit. She also has her heart set on Roger but he needs a little motivation. For a year these characters will interact and live, love, die, and sing a whole lot.
It seems like if you want an adaptation to lack any additional artistic merit as a film, you call Chris Columbus. He directed the first two Harry Potter films, both rather rote and absent individual flair, and now he’s tackled Broadway with a lack of imagination. I’m actually starting to wonder if Columbus gets directing jobs because he’s basically an empty wind tunnel of creativity. In Rent everything looks mostly lackluster, like Columbus had taken their not-working credo to heart.
The villain of the piece seems to be Benny by default (unless you count AIDS, poverty, and ignorance). Our unemployed band of heroes is upset because dear Benny expects them to, gasp, pay their rent. The scoundrel! Here’s what I don’t get; clearly Benny has a dream for a business and the other artists denounce this artistic dream because it involves money exchanging hands. Benny’s passionate about his dream and actually does something productive like make friends and influences with the business establishment, people with capital to bankroll an entrepreneur’s dream. It’s like everyone’s mad at Benny because he put a suit and tie on and got a job. The scoundrel! Rent even manufactures a mea culpa from Benny that feels exactly that, manufactured and inorganic to the story. I suppose he’d be a better person if he were a vagrant like every one else.
Besides, there is something inherently pretentious about Rent’s anthems of sticking it to the man and brash commercialism. Guess what, after 9 years Rent is a franchise. You can get Rent T-shirts, coffee cups, soundtracks, and practically anything that can be merchandized and marketed to the disenfranchised youth with disposable incomes. A musical about the soullessness of commercialism is itself a cash cow, so it rings a little hollow when the deadbeats thumb their noses at the evils of capitalism. Seriously, Mark just about gets hives at the thought of being a cameraman for a TV news show (he calls it “selling out”). In the end he quits his job so he can make his masterpiece … cobbling together home movie footage. It took him a friggin’ year of artistic turmoil to edit a lame home movie? Selling out never looked so good.
Speaking of vagrancy, the film version of Rent is populated with 6/8 of the original Broadway cast (Dawson and Thoms are the only fresh faces). This is a well-intention move by Columbus but it backfires. It’s one thing to listen to 20-something bohemians fight for their artistic integrity and worry about food, shelter, rent. It’s quite another thing when the majority of your cast is in their mid 30s. You’ve gone from a bohemian to a bum. I’m not condemning the pursuit of your artistic ideals and making your name in the world, but not at the price of food and shelter. I’m reminded of a line from The Big Lewbowski: “Your revolution is over! The bums lost. The bums will always lose!”
It’s hard to feel for some of these characters, who come across as whiny, slutty, pretentious, or just plain misguided. Maureen has a wild side that includes flirting with everything on legs, and eventually this leads to a song called “Take Me for What I Am.” Maureen is irritated that her life partner is upset that she was flirting during their engagement party. I mean, really, what’s to get upset about? Take you for what you are? A self-involved, promiscuous, prima donna? It’s pretty bad when Rent kills off one of its main characters in a musical montage. A MONTAGE! Afterwards all the characters eulogize what made this person so great. Hey, all that character stuff would have been handier before the death, and then I would have felt something. Larson’s story really does a poor job of building these characters and making them likable.
Some of these same problems exist with the original stage version, but Rent the movie, and especially Columbus as director, make some bad additions. The original stage version of Rent took place in modern day when it opened. Here, Columbus has dialed back the timeframe and set his story from 1989-1990 (someone forgot that a song references Thelma and Louise, which came out in 1991, but oh well). What makes this time jump shaky is that the film also adds a scene of the happy families championing each other over their racially mixed lesbian daughters’ engagement. They moved time backwards but people’s tolerance was moved forward. What’s the point of changing the timeline if it causes all these anachronistic headaches? That’s not all. It’s bad enough that Roger has a Bon Jovi haircut for the entire film, but then Columbus adds scenes of his escape to New Mexico and we, the audience, are treated to Roger belting his heart out to nature on top of a desert gorge … just like in Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory” music video. Maybe this finally explains why they transported the film to the 1980s.
Where the musical does strain credibility is its fear of fulfilling the dark end of Puccini’s opera. Moulin Rouge is also based on Puccini’s tragedy and it had the guts and the ambition to end on a tragic note. I‘ve cried at the end of Moulin Rouge, but I didn’t feel like misting up once during Rent, probably because these faux-bohemians kept me at a distance. It’s rather terrible that Mimi can be brought back from the dead by the power of a cheesy rock ballad, and if this holds true, then Bon Jovi is wanted to the ER, stat! The cheap fake-out ending for Rent is just the nail in the coffin. Everyone has AIDS and thus on borrowed time and yet we can’t have an adult ending dealing with tragedy. That would break this romantcized fairy tale.
With all this in mind, some things in Rent really do work. The songs are catchy, somewhat fun, and the splashy lyrics follow suit. The cast collectively are entertaining and sing well, though Dawson can get a bit monotone at times. Some of the dance numbers are exciting and amusing, like the “Maureen: Tango” between Joanne and Mark chatting about the spotty behavior of their former and current lover. At one point we flash to them in full classic dress buffeted by a chorus line of fellow tango-ers. “La vie Boheme” is the sassiest and most electric song, finally piecing Larson’s sardonic, witty pop culture lyrics with a lively image. This is a musical that’s got clever lyrics, good singing, and catchy pop rock songs.
For many, especially the Rent heads, a movie version of their favorite musical will be bulletproof. They’ll be thrilled to enjoy an afternoon with their best friends on the silver screen singing their favorite harmonies. I’m sure fans of Rent and fans of broad musical theater will be pleased. For me, the movie falls apart when you pay attention to the story, the characters, the drama, and then the choices in adapting it to film. I just didn’t care for most of the characters and found the story dated, silly, naïve, pretentious, and overly romantic, even if the majority of the characters do have HIV and/or AIDS (a certain song from Team America comes to mind). Columbus’ weak direction and poor decision making turn Larson’s rock-opera into a movie that wants points for being different when everything about it has practically become marketable and cliché. I’d recommend buying the soundtrack instead of seeing the movie, because at least then you can turn it off when you reach your breaking point.
The Room (2003)
I consider myself to be a connoisseur of crappy cinema, thanks in large part to growing up on the fabulous TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000. To me, truly bad movies can be just as enjoyable to witness as great, competent works of filmic art. So imagine my surprise when it I had never heard of a little flick called The Room until a month ago. I was reading an Entertainment Weekly article about this tiny 2003 movie that has developed a rabid cult following. I felt betrayed. How did I go five years without ever hearing about this movie? The Room is writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau’s magnum opus. It must be seen to be fully believed.
To watch The Room is truly a life-altering experience. This movie goes beyond bad. It’s so bad that it almost seems like Wiseau is a mad genius. This movie is bad on multiple levels and hooks you from the beginning, instantly daring the audience to stick around to see if it gets worse. And it does in the most wonderful ways. If I was stranded on a deserted island and could only bring five movies, right now The Room would be one of them (I may even be tempted to just bring five copies of this movie). Wiseau’s film cannot displace Manos: The Hands of Fate as the worst film of all time, but The Room easily belongs in the upper echelon of craptacular cinema among the likes of The Land of Faraway and Lady Terminator and Bulletproof Monk. I am simultaneously appalled, bewildered, fascinated, delighted, and comforted by this movie, comforted by the fact that something this singularly inept could still sneak through the system. But this film is so perfectly inept on a multitude of levels that it feels like it could never be recreated again, like the human race benefited from this chance artistic encounter. The only way I can fully describe my unhealthy appreciation for this cinematic slice of the absurd is to simply list off my list of loves.
1) The film’s plot involves a love triangle with the three least personable people imaginable. Johnny (Wiseau) is a broad shouldered, marble-mouth Austrian who supposedly works at a bank, we’re told. Lisa (Juliette Danielle) stays in their apartment doing very little, though she says that she shouldn’t have gotten into the computer business because it’s “too competitive.” Lisa declares in damn near every scene that after five years together (though the characters say seven at the end of the film) she no longer loves Johnny. She now loves Mark (Greg Sestero), Johnny’s best friend. And if you forget that key point then Mark will assist you because one third of his dialogue is declarations of “Johnny’s my best friend.” Another third of his dialogue might as well be, “What are you doing?” Mark is one of the thickest dolts in history. Even after Lisa has sex with him twice, calls him repeatedly, and leads him to places where they can be alone and intimate, he looks at her dumbfounded and says, “What are you doing?” like a kid who will never comprehend that 2 + 2 = 4. This is the basis of the plot and yet so much of the movie is gloriously repetitive and involves characters sitting around, saying the same things over, without ever really advancing the plot.
2) The Room hooks you from the start, and it’s all thanks to the weird neighbor kid/surrogate son Denny (Philip Haldiman). This supposed student is an orphan that Johnny has taken a shine to; Denny has his rent and tuition generously paid for by Johnny. In the very opening scene Johnny gives Lisa a slinky red dress as a gift. She tries it on and both Denny and Johnny make favorable remarks. Johnny says he’s a bit tired and leads Lisa by the hand up the stairs. The camera stays on Denny, who, instead of taking the hint and leaving, remains standing, grabs an apple, takes a bite out of it, then slowly walks up the stairs after the amorous couple. He then hops on their bed and joins in on their pillow fight foreplay. The characters have to literally spell it out to the guy that they want some privacy for sex. “I know, I just like to watch you guys,” Denny responds. What? Denny confesses to Johnny about experiencing weird feelings for Lisa. This kid is supposed to be in college but he acts like he’s developmentally challenged. My wife has a theory that Denny has a confusing gay crush on Johnny, but I believe that would be way more deep and subtle than the movie seems capable of.
3) The movie is littered with subplots that come out of nowhere and never resurface again. All of a sudden Lisa’s materialistic mother (Carolyn Minnott) announces she has breast cancer. This is never commented upon again. All of a sudden Denny is confronted by an angry drug dealer who wants his money, which means he’s also the world’s worst drug dealer if he’s willing to give out drugs on credit. The characters all collect on the roof and yell. This is never commented upon again. Lisa makes up a story that Johnny hit her. He publicly denies it. This is never dealt with again in any capacity. Lisa lies to Johnny that she’s pregnant, just to “make things interesting.” Her rationale is that they’ll eventually start trying to have a baby anyway, which conflicts with her frequent statements that she doesn’t love Johnny and wants to leave. This fake baby is never commented upon again. About thirty minutes into the movie, another couple sneaks into Johnny’s apartment to have sex. Why I cannot fathom. When Lisa and her mother intrude upon this scene, the mother asks astutely, “Who are these characters?” Exactly madam. The movie keeps going over the same material because nothing new ever sticks.
4) The line readings are astoundingly inauthentic. Half of the film seems to be dubbed, especially Johnny’s lines. Much of the dubbed dialogue fails to match up with the actor’s mouth movements. There is one sequence in a flower shop that is nothing but dubbed dialogue and it happens so quick. The scene itself lasts like 10 seconds but it still manages to squeeze in this entire conversation: “Oh hey Johnny, I didn’t see you there.” “Yep, it’s me.” “Here are the flowers you wanted.” “How much?” “18 dollars.” “Here ya go. Keep the change. Hi doggy.” “You’re my favorite customer, Johnny.” “Byeee.” It happens so rapidly with so little breath in between. Wiseau’s quick changes in temperament with consecutive lines will amaze you. He goes directly from, “I did not hit her! I did not! I did naaaaaaaut,” to a very casual, “Oh hey, Mark,” in a nano-second flat. The speech patterns rarely approach realistic human cadences.
5) Lisa is routinely told by the several male characters that she is exceptionally beautiful and lovely, but this woman’s personality is like a dead plant. Danielle is a fine enough looking woman, though the hair and makeup people do her no help with those thick eyebrows, but as a beauty that could manipulate multiple men? I don’t think so. Danielle has a bit of a tummy to her, which is fine by my standards of beauty, but from a Hollywood perspective a woman that lacks a concave stomach is considered “fat.” Lisa’s friend Michelle (Robyn Paris) is in fact a more attractive female and might have served as a better Lisa. I think perhaps Danielle was willing to do nudity and Paris was not, but really, if you’re a struggling L.A. actor and you’re willing to agree to be apart of something like The Room, surely you’ve already ignored any internal misgivings. What possible hang-ups could there be left?
6) The film is structured like the soft-core porn that dot the late hours of premium cable channels. There are four lengthy sex scenes in the first hour, though one of them is composed almost entirely with recycled footage from the first bout of lovemaking between Lisa and Johnny. The sex scenes are deeply un-erotic and consist of several camera angles that make it impossible to see what is actually happening. There is nothing sexy about watching Wiseau’s pasty posterior humping the hips of Danielle (seriously, the body alignments are way off here). When Lisa and Mark have sex on top of a spiral staircase, Wisuea can barely frame the action coherently. Why would anyone want to have sex on a spiral staircase? That’s just asking for chronic back pain. Mark fails to even take his pants off. For such lengthy sex scenes, Wiseau does so little with the talent on display. What makes all the sex scenes even better is that they each get a wretched pop song as a soundtrack. It’s all mid 1990s R&B with some growling sex guitar, and it’s all awful. There’s one song that repeats the phrase “you are my rose” like nine times in a row. If you fail to cringe and howl from the sex scenes then the songs ought to do it.
7) Wiseau makes the most mysterious decisions as an artist. He sticks to a minimum of locations and one of them happens to be the roof of Johnny’s apartment complex. The sensible thing would be to film on an actual roof. Wiseau decided to film on a roof set and use an ineffective green screen backdrop that makes San Francisco look like it inherited Los Angeles’ smog. The film keeps cutting back to exterior stock footage of the city that signifies the passage of hours, a day, or no time whatsoever. When Denny is confronted on the same rooftop about his sudden drug disclosure, Lisa berates him. As she cries and shrieks and overacts, you cannot see it because Wiseau’s camera has cut her facial reactions out of frame. The scene cuts back and forth between Denny facing the camera and the left side of Lisa’s head. At another point Lisa is talking about her cheating ways with her pal Michelle, who seems way too giggly to be disapproving. During this scene Lisa has angled her body in such a manner that when she speaks it appears like a subcutaneous alien is about to burst forth from beneath her neck. Wiseau did not catch this unnerving and distracting sight. The film’s lone idea of male bonding involves tossing a football together. So Mark and Johnny will go out running in a park and toss a football back and forth, all the while having a faint conversation that gets drowned out by an overly anxious score. There will be swaths of the film where the score just competes with the onscreen dialogue.
8) There’s like a whole other level of offhand dialogue throughout, where characters will stand around and Johnny or someone else will mumble to no one in particular. The actual dialogue is full of other memorable head-scratchers, such as:
Random disapproving guy to Mark: “Keep your stupid comments in your pockets!”
Same disapproving man: “It feels like I’m sitting on an atom bomb that is going to explode!”
Michelle using chocolate candies as a means of foreplay: “Chocolate is a sign of love.”
Lisa’s mother: “Nobody ever listens to me.”
Lisa: “You’re probably right about that, mom.”
Johnny’s profound wisdom: “You know, if more people love each other the world would be a better place.”
Johnny refers to someone as a chicken and then proceeds to make this accompanying sound: “Cheep, cheep, cheep, cheeeaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiip.” This bizarre chicken impression will be repeated no less than three times.
Mark: How was work today?
Johnny: Oh pretty good. We got a new client… at the bank. We make a lot of money.
Mark: What client?
Johnny: I cannot tell you. It’s confidential.
Mark: Oh come on. Why not?
Johnny: No I can’t. Anyway, how is your sex life?
And finally, the signature line, where Johnny has had enough of Lisa’s mental games and he roars, “You are tearing me apart, Lisa!”
I could keep citing further evidence of The Room‘s cinematic shortcomings, but listing the faults of one of the worst films ever made can be pointless after a while. The staggering amount of faults in Wiseau’s film is also its combined strength. Most bad movies have a finite level of badness, like a poor plot or some troublesome acting. The Room is a movie composed of nothing but 99 complete minutes of badness at every facet of filmmaking. I am a more complete person having seen this remarkable film. I highly recommend gathering a group of friends around and holding a viewing party; the movie plays to even higher levels of enjoyment with a group atmosphere. The Room is Tommy Wiseau’s accidental masterpiece and, to me, proof that a loving God exists.
Artistic Merit: F
Entertainment Value: A+
The Ugly Truth (2009)
Originally written July 29, 2009
Can’t a woman ever catch a break in romantic comedies? The genre occasionally just comes across as contemptible against women. On screen, female figures will fight against misogyny, but then how often do they usually just give in? How often do the female characters change to suit the male characters? Usually, the male romantic lead has some kind of boneheaded secret, but it’s really the women that do all the changing and the man is left off the hook. It’s somewhat appalling and amazing that the unappealing romantic comedy The Ugly Truth was written by three women and produced by Katherine Heigl. I guess they wanted to prove that women could be just as capable of self-sabotage.
Abby (Heigl) is a career-driven TV news producer who’s a bit unlucky when it comes to love. She has a steep checklist of qualifications for a prospective mate. She is aghast when her boss hires Mike (Gerard Butler), a rude public access host of the dating advice show “The Ugly Truth,” to shore up ratings. Mike is an uncivilized shock-jock who dispels pearls of wisdom like, “No man wants to date a fattie.” Abby and Mike bicker from an ideological divide. But when an attractive doctor (Eric Winter) movies in next door to Abby, she agrees to follow Mike’s dating advice. He coaches her on how to win over the doctor, and it generally seems to be working. Of course now Mike thinks he may have fallen in love with Abby as well. Oh what complications await.
The humor of The Ugly Truth doesn’t even aspire to be sophomoric; it’s questionable whether the comedy even reaches juvenile levels. It’s tasteless and piggish, but the weird part is that it comes across as knowledgeable on the subject of sex as a ten-year-old kid who just discovered his dad’s secret stash of Playboys. It talks about the right stuff but does so in a clueless manner. It’s like an exaggerated randy cartoon that chiefly plays to a male fantasy. The movie feels that the height of comedy is when Abby wears a pair of vibrating panties to a business dinner, and oh no, some little kid is playing with the remote. So Abby is writhing and convulsing while trying to deliver a business speech. It’s the female orgasm turned into a cartoon. I won’t even get into the icky implications that Abby does not even get to control her orgasm, that she is held hostage by the whim of a child (a boy, no less). It just comes across as morally queasy if you think more about it, which may be why Heigl is practically rolling around on the table and chirping like a dolphin. Meg Ryan has nothing to worry about in the world of public displays of an O-face. At least in that movie, the joke was on the audience, and the man, and the woman was in a position of control. I even saw this routine already with a vibrating egg in the 2006 hard-core sex drama, Shortbus.
It doesn’t get much better. There’s a moment at the ballpark where Abby spills her drink onto her date’s lap, so she furiously tries to rub it out, which in crazy movie world means the man instantly attains pleasure. If that wasn’t enough, the movie then takes another step and displays this ordeal on the ballpark’s Jumbotron. And if even that isn’t enough, the movie takes yet another step to obscure what Abby is really doing, so all you see is her bobbing head by the crotch of her date. It’s not really funny because it’s so forceful to the point of being unpleasant. Abby is the butt of most jokes and after awhile it just seems cruel. The jokes recycle the same lousy observations about the differences between men and women. Men want sex. Women want relationships. Men are cretins. Women are crazy. Men like boobies. Blah, blah, blah. This time there’s just more bad language. There’s nothing truly adult here, either in wisdom or comedy. Just because you imply oral sex and throw out a few F-bombs doesn’t mean that your romantic comedy is any more sophisticated and relevant. The Ugly Truth just reeks of desperation.
The central characters don’t even come across as believable for a romantic comedy. Abby is an intelligent professional woman who will stand up to rampant misogyny in the workplace. She resents Mike’s attitude that the only value women serve is to please men. So then it would only be natural that she follows Mike’s coaching to win the heart of the hunky doctor living next door. She clearly believes that she must become a sexed-up twit to win over a doctor. What? Excuse me, come again? The characters are at the mercy of whatever contrivances the plot requires. Predictably, this is yet another movie where two characters hate each other for two acts only to finally realize in the last act that, surprise, they’re really in love. Because we know the inevitable coupling, an audience likes to pick up on moments that might help explain how we got to our final romantic destination. Will the crude dude really have a mushy heart deep down? Will our icy businesswoman be able to let her hair down and enjoy the messiness of life? Have you ever seen a romantic comedy before and therefore know the answers to these questions? In The Ugly Truth, I could not explain why either of these people would fall in love with the other. I’m sure there are plenty of great backstories where people realized their true love in the basket of a hot air balloon. Seriously, the climax takes place in a hot air balloon and Abby asks, “Why do you love me?” to Mike. “Beats the shit out of me,” he replies. This is intended as a moment of romantic clarity. I view it as the screenwriters giving up, having failed to establish even a remotely credible relationship in a genre replete with easy choices.
I’m actually a fan of Heigl (27 Dresses) and think that she seems like a natural fit within the romantic comedy universe. She’s expressively comedic, has good timing, and she knows how to hit her jokes hard. She can wait until she’s older to do a family drama because right now there’s gold in them thar genre pictures (practice the finer points of singing into a hairbrush and dancing around a coffee table). But The Ugly Truth is a waste of her ability. Abby is a tightly wound control freak and Heigl plays her without an ounce of warmth. Butler (300) can still come across as likeable even if his character is cheerily boorish. He doesn’t hide his natural Scottish brogue too well, though. He’s got more comic firepower and he openly mocks himself, which makes him more appealing as a character. However, there isn’t much in the way of chemistry between Heigl and Butler, only combativeness. Their fighting is the only emotion that seems real.
So what is the ugly truth of The Ugly Truth? I suppose if you’re a woman, you better not be successful, talented, smart, or slightly overweight. And your dating failures are completely your own fault. And you better be willing to put out or at least dress a little provocatively. And don’t expect your man to change any of his ways, simply lower your standards. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the concluding wisdom from our trio of female screenwriters. Heigl and Butler squander their talents in such a charmless battle of the sexes cartoon. There’s little in the way of wit or insight or even properly executed comedic payoffs. The Ugly Truth needs to be atoned for. It’s rarely funny and it’s insulting and unflattering to both sexes. It exists squarely in the world of exaggerated male fantasy, peculiar for a genre defined by female wish fulfillment. At my screening, there was a family who brought their adolescent kids with them. I could hear pre-teen giggling at the more slapstick-heavy jokes and heard lots of questions whenever something sexual was discussed. At one point, Heigl covers the eyes of a child and says, “This is not for kids,” and I guess that family finally got the message because they left shortly after. Except this movie isn’t intended for anybody. Everyone in the theater should have followed suit.
Nate’s Grade: D+