Saturday, September 30, 2006

"The Black Dahlia," dir. Brian De Palma (Oklahoma Gazette)

L.A. Convoluted

Being a great moviemaker doesn’t always mean being a great storyteller. Take Brian De Palma, whose best work comes when he doesn’t have to worry about making too much sense. But give him a big, juicy story to tell, and he winds up lost. Adapted from James Ellroy’s novel and involving perhaps the most infamous unsolved murder in California history, “The Black Dahlia” ought to thrill and amaze. Sadly, it mainly just disappoints.

Set in post-World War II Los Angeles, the saga follows straight-arrow police officer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), an ex-prizefighter who is paired up with another boxer-turned-cop, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). The two become friends, but when Bucky meets Lee’s sultry girlfriend, Kay (Scarlett Johansson), the three grow virtually inseparable.

Their lives are shattered the morning of Jan. 15, 1947, with a grisly discovery in a vacant lot downtown. The body of a young woman, Elizabeth Short, has been cut in two, disemboweled and drained of blood. The grotesque piece de résistance: the killer has slashed the mouth into a clownish grin. Lee and Bucky are assigned to investigate the death of the woman who is nicknamed “Black Dahlia” by the tabloids.

What follows is an orgy of incoherence. Lee suddenly obsesses over the case, while Bucky meets up with Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), a vampy Dahlia lookalike who trolls lesbian clubs. The femme fatale has an even more interesting family, particularly her Loony Tunes mother (Fiona Shaw) and naughty nymphet of a younger sister (Rachel Miner).

The deeper Bucky digs into the Dahlia mystery, the deeper the movie sinks into incomprehension. De Palma and screenwriter Josh Friedman are too enraptured by stylistic excess to bother with simplifying the novel’s dense plot. Amid the period detail and De Palma’s fluid camerawork, it is nearly impossible to catalog the mounting backstories of characters with whom we have only a glancing familiarity. This is no “L.A. Confidential,” much less “Chinatown.”

Mucking things further is wildly uneven acting. Hartnett is too much a blank-faced lightweight to generate much interest. Eckhart fares marginally better, but he looks positively Shakespearean next to Johansson’s vacuous turn.

Still, De Palma is incapable of making a movie that isn’t visually arresting, and he has a terrific collaborator in cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. The camera sweeps and soars with elegance, and De Palma is at the top of his game in a set piece that involves murder on a staircase. The director also revisits some favorite themes of his -- voyeurism, pornography and the like -- but they feel stranded, like jigsaw pieces to a puzzle that was forgotten long ago.

It’s a shame. You sense what “The Black Dahlia” could have been in scenes where Bucky watches old audition reels featuring a sad and pathetic Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner). Macabre and mesmerizing, the images of this ghost woman are rife with spooky possibility. But then “The Black Dahlia” switches back to its absurdly complex story, and we’re back in a movie with more mysteries than clues.

"Flyboys," dir. Tony Bill (Oklahoma Gazette)

Flight Patterns

When someone describes a war movie as “old-fashioned,” it can refer to rip-snortin’ entertainment. It can also mean just plain old, as in stale and mawkish. “Flyboys” is old-fashioned enough to encompass both senses of the phrase.

The movie’s blandness is a bit mystifying in light of its rich source material. “Flyboys” details the exploits of the Lafayette Escadrille, a real-life squadron of mostly American fighter pilots who fought for the French before the United States entered the First World War. With the trappings of that romanticized period – roaring biplanes and aerial dogfights, square-jawed Yanks squaring off against dastardly German foes – what could possibly go wrong?

The script, for starters. Judging by the stock characters gathered here, France must have made it a point to recruit only cardboard cutouts. The Escadrille includes such one-note Johnnies as Nebraska-farm-boy-who-wants-to-be-a-hero (Philip Winchester), guy-who-can’t-do-anything-right (David Ellison) and religious guy (Michael Jibson). The filmmakers subtly convey *his* single character trait because he reads the Bible and sings “Onward Christian Soldier” in the heat of battle.

For greater depth, “Flyboys” offers Blaine Rawlings (James Franco) as its nominal hero. The young man hightails it out of his Texas hometown after roughing up a banker, but all traces of a potentially shaded -- and interesting -- personality have disappeared by the time he arrives in France to join the squadron. The only remaining mystery about Rawlings, in fact, is how his Texas accent comes and goes at will.

This is the sort of movie that telegraphs everything within the first few minutes. When a rich ne’er-do-well (Tyler Labine) balks at having to share quarters with a scrappy black soldier (Abdul Salis), you know it’s only a matter of time before the cad learns the error of his ways.

But lame characterization can be forgiven in a war flick if countered by solid action. Thankfully, “Flyboys” steeps itself in World War I’s iconic imagery of biplanes sputtering machinegun fire through skies of ash and smoke. The special effects are impressive, and director Tony Bill does a serviceable job with the aerial sequences, even if “Flyboys” falls short of the derring-do evident in classic WWI movies such as 1930’s “Hell’s Angels” or 1937’s “The Dawn Patrol.”

While there are some startling scenes -- German planes suddenly emerging from clouds like a swarm of wasps, the earth-rattling explosion of a zeppelin -- they add up to little more than momentary diversions. It also doesn’t help that the pilot garb of goggles and scarves makes it nearly impossible to know who is doing what.

Once on terra firma, there’s no such confusion. The screenwriters ladle on the clichés with subplots running the gamut from racism to shellshock, oppressive fathers to the war-hardened cynicism of a veteran pilot (Martin Henderson). Perhaps the biggest groan-inducer is a tacked-on love story in which Rawlings falls for a pretty French girl (Jennifer Decker) who is apparently smitten by the man’s inability to speak her language. Luckily, there is common ground between American cheese and French cheese.

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Maid (

I once told a friend that I found it easier to believe in the possibility of ghosts than I did in the possibility of good ghost movies, to which he replied that I was the only gullible cynic he knew.

This exchange took place during that wretched hiatus between the release of Jan de Bont’s “The Haunting” and the American DVD release of the revelation that was Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu” four years later.

Since then, the Pacific Rim film cultures have given us some of the scariest, most challenging ghost movies of all time. In the west, ghost stories are just another subgenre under the heading “Horror.” In Asia, ghost stories are taken far more seriously.

Billed as Singapore’s first “home grown” horror movie, “The Maid” is an intriguing blend of ghost movie staples with superior acting and a fascinating background which will be unknown to most western viewers.

A pretty Filipina (Alessandra de Rossi) arrives in Singpore on the first day of the seventh month of the Chinese calendar, the Month of the Hungry Ghosts. She is warned by the couple in whose home she will work as a maid not to offend these spirits.

She watches Mrs. Teo (Huifang Hong) place food on the sidewalk in front of the Teo house to appease the ghosts’ appetite. She and her husband (Schucheng Chen) burn paper offerings and scold Rosa when she innocently tries to sweep away the ashes. It’s something you don’t do, like look a ghost in the face, stay out after 5:00 in the evening, or respond when someone calls your name from behind you.

The Teos work with a Chinese opera company, and when Rosa attends one of the performances she sits on the front row. Soon a pale, wizened man forces her to move as she is sitting in his wife’s seat. He’s a ghost and so, Rosa discovers, is everyone sitting on the front row with her. The seats are reserved for spirits.

These episodes are unnerving for Rosa, but her encounters with the Hungry Ghosts soon turn much nastier. She has befriended Ah Soon (Benny Soh), her master’s and mistress’ retarded, adult son. In a quartet of outstanding performances, Soh’s is chilling in a way you almost hate to admit. So brilliantly does he recreate the facial expressions, movements and mannerisms of a retarded man, he makes you uncomfortable when you watch him. Rarely has that feeling of uneasy voyeurism you felt the first time you watched “Freaks” been generated so convincingly from the screen.

As she and Ah Soon play, Rosa notices that the unfortunate man insists on calling her Esther, the name of the Teo’s last maid, the one they tell her met a man a ran away. When? Oh, about this time last year.

But if Esther ran away, why does she keep turning up around the house?

Writer/director Kelvin Tong uses many of the standard tricks of the spookshow trade, but he uses them so well most of them seem new. If he borrows a little obviously from popular western films of recent years, I suspect he’s only finding his way.

And, to be honest, the film’s producer has admitted that he was aiming at making an “international” film, i.e., one that would appeal to a western audience. But western audiences don’t respond so favorably to the new Asian horror movies because they ape the American product. We like them for their different approaches to the material to which we’ve grown so bored from the overuse of cliches. In other words, we like best what’s most Asian in these films.

I think Tong is capable of some pretty eerie stuff in future, if he chooses to stick with horror for a few more movies.

“The Maid” isn’t the most frightening picture that’s come out of the east, nor is it the most original, but it promises much and uses its background well, introducing us to customs and beliefs we haven’t been exposed to before. That’s more than what we expect from a good horror movie—it’s what we should be able to expect from a good movie, period.

X-Men: The Last Stand (Oklahoma Gazette)

Oklahoma Film Critics Circle

Since it has just re-emerged, this time on DVD, “X-Men: The Last Stand” gets revived here as well.

If you read movie reviews other than mine—and I see no reason why you’d want to—you undoubtedly became familiar with the lament that Bryan Singer, the director of the first two X-Men films, was sorely missed at the helm of this one. Singer flew the coop to rescue “Superman Returns,” which he did fitfully. Or didn’t, fitfully, depending on your tolerance for heavy-handed Christ symbolism.

Anyway, control of X-3 was assumed by Brett Ratner, of “Rush Hour” and “Red Dragon.”

Is he as good a director as Singer? No. In this case, does that matter? No. This is a comic book movie. Yes, it’s a bit more serious than many, and more solemn than most, but its appeal is still in its sound and fury, in its visuals and in that “gee whiz” factor, and those qualities are found here in plenty.

This time out, the tension between mutants and humans reaches the breaking point with the creation of a “cure” for the mutant X-gene, derived from a mutant boy (the everlastingly creepy Cameron Bright). Charismatic evil genius Magneto (Ian McKellen) leads a band of militants who want to destroy the boy so no more of the serum can be produced.

It’s a new American Civil War, and I have to admit that were I a mutant I would join with Magneto.

Be that as it may, the peacenik mutant side of the conflict is led by Prof. Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who is supported by the good guys from the previous two films—Wolverine and Storm primarily (Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry), joined by a blue-furred escapee from a Disney animated musical called Beast (Kelsey Grammer).

Personal problems arise for our heroes when Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who died in part two, returns from oblivion as The Phoenix--pissed off, a little crazy, and more powerful than a speeding locomotive. Hold it. Save that reference for “Superman Returns.”

Several of these characters, especially Storm and Jean, play more significant roles in the plot than they did last time, but it’s still John Bruno’s FX team that carries the film. Some of the visuals are stunning, especially an admittedly silly sequence in which Magneto, whose power is the ability to move metal with his mind, scoots the Golden Gate Bridge in order to make a walkway to Alcatraz. I particularly liked the way Famke Janssen was back lit, with her hair blowing wildly. It looks a little like the cover of a comic book, but why shouldn’t it?

Simon Kinberg’s and Zak Penn’s script pulls some real surprises out of its hat, but they’re not surprising because what happens is implausible, but just because it’s stuff you don’t expect to find in light weight summer blockbusters based on this kind of material. “Fantastic Four” this ain’t.

I’ve never been a big Marvel comics fan so I can’t tell you whether or not the X-Men film trilogy, of which this is a good conclusion, is true to its source material, but I can tell you that “X-Men: The Last Stand” is a full bore, plow-pulling visual treat with just enough honest characterization to interest adults and more than enough yowza to keep the geeks clued to their seats.

Okay, my summer-movie-loving friends—“X-Men: The Last Stand” was the official kick-off to the season. M:I:3 lacked that certain something that satisfies all the way to a second viewing, as did “Poseidon.” “The Da Vinci Code” is a Ron Howard movie—say no more.

X-3 rocks. It’s not Aerosmith or AC/DC, but it isn’t Taylor Hicks either.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

It is as silly as it sounds like it is. (Oklahoma Gazette)

It is a solid “B” picture that would have found its home on the Sci Fi Channel if Samuel L. Jackson hadn’t fallen in love with the title. Oh, the title should be spoken with a pause after the first word, and then the last three added as an afterthought.

And yes, “Snakes . . . on a Plane” is, if you love this kind of silliness as much as you should, more fun than any of summer 2006’s over-produced and over-long blockbusters. Just don’t ask it to make sense.Director David R. Ellis (“Final Destination 2” “Cellular”) seems to be fashioning a career out of turning highly implausible material into amusing entertainments. If SoaP doesn’t earn him a place in the “B” Movie Hall of Fame, I’m turning in my membership card.

A surfer named Sean (Nathan Phillips) inadvertently witnesses a mob killing in Hawaii and is saved from getting killed himself by FBI agent Nelville Flynn (Jackson). Flynn has to take his witness to L.A. and the mob boss whose butt is about to go in the wringer decides to kill agent and witness while they’re in the air.

And yes, he attempts this by sneaking 300 venomous snakes onto the plane, in a container with a time lock on its door. When the reptiles are released, ending up even in an air-sick bag to spring out and latch onto some poor woman’s tongue, passengers and crew, led by feisty flight attendant Julianna Margulies, must band together and protect themselves from Many Pythons’ Flying Circus.

Is the motivation for this inanity set up for us? No. Would anyone do this when he could so much more easily plant a bomb on the plane? No. If he saw “Red Eye” last year, wouldn’t the killer know that he could put an assassin on the plane? Sure he would.

Look, I know that one of the mottoes of “B” filmmaking is “Don’t explain, just keep walking,” but I would have liked for this snake schtick to have been set up better. Maybe we could have been told that the killer loves gadgets and complicated death traps.But does any of it matter? No, not if you can suspend disbelief for 106 minutes. If you can’t, go watch another movie.

Jackson doesn’t bring anything to his role but an obvious desire to play it. The story is, if you want to believe it—I think it’s part of the hype—that a web fan suggested a particular line of dialogue for Jackson, one with a double use of a word which Jackson uses a lot. When the line was delivered on screen, my audience broke into cheers and applause. Not bad for, “That’s it. I want these muthafuckin’ snakes off this muthfuckin’ plane.”

The rest of the cast is suitably energetic and the CGI snakes would look real if they were displayed from angles that didn’t scream out that the shot was faked. That also takes something away from the film’s shock value, but I suspect that if the attacks looked uncomfortably real, no one would be able to stand it. As it is, some of the places people get bit will make you, well, squirm. SoaP is good old-fashioned ghastly, dirty, horror comics fun—low down high concept.

Fangs for everything, guys.But my guess now is that every rip off picture that tries to imitate it will bite.

Come on, you know you awaited the opening of this picture either smacking you lips in anticipation or lamenting the fall of western civilization. Sure, like “Oedipus Rex” is the model of dramatic good taste and restraint.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

"The Descent," dir. Neil Marshall (Oklahoma Gazette, 8/9/06)

The most effective horror movies shred your nerves not with buckets of blood, but with that hidden threat, the monster just on the edge of your peripheral vision.

Writer/director Neil Marshall (“Dog Soldiers”) fully understands this notion and throughout his white-knuckled thriller “The Descent,” manipulates the darkness with the precision of a surgeon – his ghouls dance just outside of the light, terrifying in their abstraction.

A kinetic, visceral work that can’t sustain the unbearable tension of its premise – six fetching adrenaline junkies exploring an uncharted cavern system get way more than they bargained for – “The Descent” is undone by a limp ending, arbitrary character quirks and fitfully goofy CGI effects.

The gorehounds eager for anything of substance amid the teen-friendly multiplex schlock are pegging this as an heir to Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” which cheapens one film and oversells another – I’ll let you figure out which is which. Marshall’s lean, taut set-up seems all the more wasted once the climax unfolds; I’ll tread lightly with regards to spoilers, but let’s just say the finale feels like Marshall chuckling in your face. (It’s probably worth noting that the U.S. release has a slightly different ending than the already-on-DVD U.K. version.)

Spiking the already nerve-jangling narrative with a hefty sprinkling of “gotcha” moments, “The Descent” focuses on a thrill-seeking sextet of women – Sarah (Shauna McDonald), Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Beth (Alex Reid), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) – who’ve recovered from a brutal accident one year prior and are ready to tackle spelunking in the Appalachian mountain range.

That’s about as much as I’m willing to divulge – the less you know going in, the tighter you’ll grip the armrest – but suffice to say, Marshall wastes little time in raising the stakes; the situation escalates from bad to worse to unbelievably hellish, with barely a moment to catch your breath.

Marshall, working with cinematographer Sam McCurdy, makes the dust of the narrow cave passages catch in your throat, just as the giddily sanguine denouement is several minutes of blood-soaked release, alternately terrifying and nauseatingly gooey. There are a few sequences in “The Descent” where I’m genuinely curious as to how the actor, let alone a camera, fit into impossibly narrow spaces.

While the story gives out on Marshall, his cast is up for the challenge, but unfortunately, the six women, especially once the lights go out, are more or less interchangeable. None of the actresses here have an extensive list of prior screen credits, rendering each of them as a blank slate, making it difficult to sympathize when the earth begins to bite back.

“The Descent” isn’t the horror film home run some would have you believe, but it is an effective, eerily compact piece of terror that will fray your nerves and assault your senses. If you’re not afraid of the dark when you enter, you just might be when you leave.

"Jackass Number Two," dir. Jeff Tremaine (Oklahoma Gazette, 10/4/06)

Indestructible comedian Johnny Knoxville, having wandered in the cinematic wilderness in the years since laying “Jackass” to rest, is trampled by a runaway bull not long into “Jackass Number Two.”

I’d like to think it’s a not-so-thinly-veiled assessment of his post-MTV solo career but in reality, it’s just the opening salvo in another 95 minutes of human tricks that go beyond stupid and into the realm of masochistic.

I don’t need to tell you that this film treats its stars like living, breathing punching bags – it’s a testament to the resiliency of the human body that these men aren’t in permanent traction somewhere. Whether it’s hopping into a rocket-powered shopping cart, withstanding a blistering barrage of crowd-controlling plastic pellets or dodging homemade wrecking balls on a BMX bike, the “Jackass” crew makes Jackie Chan’s bone-breaking stunt work look like child’s play.

Aside from the stupendous feats of numskullery, there’s also the “Fear Factor” element – few other enterprises rely upon a contingent of fearless risk-takers to do things that would make some puke just by suggestion. Quick slurp of freshly produced horse semen? Check. Chugging an entire bottle of beer through one’s posterior? Gotcha. Donning a contraption dubbed “The Fart Mask”? You betcha.

Most of the players, including Chris Pontius, Steve-O and Bam Margera, have gone on to second-tier fame of their own, mostly through MTV spin-off series (“Wildboyz” and “Viva La Bam”); while the shock of the new has worn off, “Jackass Number Two” still exerts a weird capacity to thrill – I won’t spoil the penultimate skit (“Terror Taxi”) but the core idea and its execution are both brazen and unsettling; it’s a fascinating application of a comedic ethos to subject matter that is difficult to handle in a straight-ahead narrative.

Cameos abound – Mike Judge, Willie Garson, Luke Wilson, Tony Hawk, Rip Taylor and our own Mat Hoffman (who also popped up in the first “Jackass”) all make appearances, mostly relegated to watching in awe as these emboldened fools wrestle anacondas and taunt bulls.

The question arises every time the “Jackass” guys resurface as to whether anyone in their right mind should pay money to watch grown men defecate, bleed and collect concussions like baseball cards – I’d argue that yes, like some perverse piece of performance art, “Jackass” has merit; a shred of merit, mind you, but merit nonetheless.

Inescapable homoerotic subtexts aside, “Jackass” functions best as a scream of unrepressed id – this gang is juvenile, well funded and queasily inventive. As “Jackass Number Two” winds down, however, you can feel the momentum fading; there are only so many ways to make yourself bleed, puke or urinate.

“God, I hope there’s not a ‘Jackass 3,’” Margera moans towards the film’s conclusion. I second that thought, but not because I wouldn’t raucously laugh my way through a third installment – I just don’t think these guys can take much more.

"The Science of Sleep," dir. Michel Gondry (Oklahoma Gazette, 9/20/06)

A life lived primarily within the mind inevitably leads to heartbreak – being wrapped up in your thoughts closes you off somewhat from the outside world; you’re too busy inventing, dreaming and pondering to truly stop and enjoy what’s in front of you.

That very specific pain seems to be one that the unquestionably brilliant Michel Gondry knows all too well; “The Science of Sleep,” a heartbreaking, whimsical masterpiece that’s one of the year’s best films, feels uncomfortably autobiographical and searingly honest, a portrait of the artist as wistful lothario.

Following the mind-bending brilliance of last year’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” you might’ve wondered where Gondry would go next. After all, “Eternal Sunshine” was a perfect fusion of romantic comedy and wildly cerebral flights of fancy. He tops that work with this one, flying solo and penning his own screenplay for the first time, Gondry employs rough-hewn visual effects and a disarming naïveté to create the tactile world inhabited by his larger-than-life characters.

Starring Gael Garcia Bernal (“Amores Perros,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” the upcoming “Babel”) as the introverted illustrator Stephane, “The Science of Sleep” charts our hero’s futile attempts at striking up a relationship with the shy, creative Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The narrative isn’t any more complicated than that; it’s the layers and details added by Gondry that enriches this simple, closely observed tale.

Employing editing techniques worthy of Godard, smashing fantasy and reality against one another with glee, “The Science of Sleep” is a jagged, jump-cut affair that evokes the prime of the French nouvelle vague; echoing an earlier, more vital time, Gondry and his cast perform without a net, creating a film that will likely be met by an audience slightly unsure what to make of it.

Those who like their special effects seamless and slick will be greatly disappointed by the work here; Gondry’s affection for the process of imagination is evident in the handmade, rudimentary set pieces, strewn with rear projection and stop-motion animation. The crude effects not only heighten the surrealism, but they give the film a palpable sense of being.

“The Science of Sleep” would be a fascinating failure were it not for Gondry’s fearless cast: Bernal is superb, adroitly handling the sudden shifts in tone from farcical to raw and Gainsbourg, not likely by accident, evokes more than a little of Jean Seberg in her performance. While providing color and texture, much of the supporting cast is drowned out, as the film is essentially a two-character piece.

Those unwilling to give themselves over to Gondry’s vision likely won’t stick it out until the sweet, poignant finale but those who do will have witnessed a film obsessed with a life of the mind, but ruled by the maddening whims of the heart.

"The Last Kiss," dir. Tony Goldwyn (Oklahoma Gazette)

People Behaving Badly

You probably don’t need a movie to know that commitment can be a scary concept, but a motion picture as searing and insightful as “The Last Kiss” is well worth seeing. The film is populated with characters who are case studies in troubled relationships, but their problems and how they cope with them rarely feel clichéd.

Zach Braff stars as Michael, a 29-year-old architect who launches into a premature midlife crisis when his girlfriend Jenna (Jacinda Barrett) announces she is pregnant. Doubting that he is ready for marriage -- much less parenthood -- Michael is terrified that his youth is over.

It doesn’t help that his best friends are in relationship meltdowns. Chris (Casey Affleck) is in a marriage strained by the advent of a baby, while Izzy (Michael Weston) is reeling from being dumped by his girlfriend. The only seemingly happy one, Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen), is firmly entrenched in a succession of one-night stands. The most cautionary tale for Michael might be Jenna’s parents, Stephen and Anna (Tom Wilkinson and Blythe Danner), whose 30-year marriage has dissolved into bitterness and indifference.

The surfeit of misery pushes Michael into selfishness and stupidity. When he meets pretty college student Kim (Rachel Bilson) at a wedding, he knows no good can come from their flirtation -- but he doesn’t stop himself.

An English-language remake of a 2001 Italian film, “L’ultimo bacio,” “The Last Kiss” has a startlingly clear-eyed view of relationships. The men and women in the movie’s orbit are imperfect people given to bad choices. Michael appears to have it all – a good job, loving girlfriend, promising future -- but he can’t shake off a paralyzing fear of commitment. Jenna’s parents are lugging an airport’s worth of emotional baggage. Stephen, a therapist by profession, has little patience or empathy left over for his unhappy (and unfaithful) wife.

The picture is written by Paul Haggis, who directed and co-wrote the Oscar-winning “Crash,” and he employs a similar approach here, presenting a cross-section of characters plagued by selfishness, pettiness and casual cruelty -- but all of whom are too three-dimensional not to elicit sympathy.

The screenplay’s honesty is augmented by a superb cast. Danner and Wilkinson are excellent, but Barrett’s performance is riveting. Also first-rate is Bilson, who projects a vulnerability that keeps Kim from being a one-note vixen. If there’s a weak spot, it is Braff, but he still earns points for bucking the nice-guy persona he has built with TV’s “Scrubs.”

“The Last Kiss” is hardly without flaws. The filmmakers go to considerable lengths to follow the story threads of Michael’s buddies, but appear to lose interest about two-thirds into the flick. Moreover, director Tony Goldwyn, despite an obvious skill with actors, can be uneven with the mechanics of tone and pace.

But why quibble? It is rare to come across a movie that rings with such authenticity that it challenges our expectations of what its characters will do next. If that isn’t a sign of genius, I don’t know what is.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

"Little Man," dir. Keenan Ivory Wayans (Oklahoma Gazette)

Diaper Rash

I’m a decent enough guy. I love my wife and child. I pay my taxes. I vote in school bond elections. In short, I’m at a loss as to why the entertainment editor of this weekly you hold in your hands forced me to watch and review “Little Man.”

With “Scary Movie” and “White Chicks,” the Wayans brothers -- Keenan Ivory, Shawn and Marlon -- had come close to surpassing Rob Schneider in the crappy comedy genre. But the Wayans’ “Little Man” might push the brothers ahead in that dubious competition. Hell, Schneider even makes a cameo in the movie -- perhaps a sign of surrender.

The nominal plot involves Calvin (Marlon Wayans), a tough but pint-sized thief who teams up with his moronic partner (Tracy Morgan) to steal a huge diamond for a mob boss (Chazz Palminteri). In a close call following the heist, Calvin is forced to ditch the jewel in the purse of an unsuspecting bystander. The purse belongs to a career-minded woman named Vanessa (Kerry Washington), whose husband, Darryl (Shawn Wayans), is desperate for the couple to have a baby.

Needing to get into the couple’s home and retrieve the diamond, Calvin poses as a baby left on their doorstep. Vanessa and Darryl are not puzzled that the toddler has the mug of a fortysomething man, much less that he sports a tattoo on his forearm. A doctor who examines the mystery child is equally oblivious. This is the sort of movie in which stupid characters must continually do stupid things, thereby setting the stage for more stupid happenings.

In the universe of “Little Man,” not a single character appears to realize that little adults actually exist. Nothing seems to shake the young couple’s assurance that Calvin is anything but a baby, even after he steals Darryl’s car and is chased by police.

Why should the characters be suspicious? The filmmakers must not be familiar with dwarves, either. They evidently believed Calvin had to be a CGI creation, as Marlon Wayans’ head is digitally grafted on to a little person’s body (Linden Porco and Gabriel Pimental providing the aforementioned physique).

The special effect is presumably because no actual actor of small stature was suitable for the complexities of a role that calls for rubbing a chocolate chip cookie all over his crotch, swallowing dog urine and enduring the humiliation of an anal thermometer. From soiled diapers to buxom hotties offering to breastfeed, there is no joke too obvious or odious for “Little Man.”

Some talented people turn up here -- Palminteri, Alex Borstein, “In Living Color” alums David Alan Grier and Kelly Coffield -- and all, without exception, are wasted. Molly Shannon appears for a particularly torturously unfunny cameo. What gives? Do all these folks have huge gambling debts or something?

If you are determined to see a grown man dressed like a baby, you would probably be better served surfing the Internet. It’s certainly cheaper, and probably funnier, too.

"Idlewild," dir. Bryan Barber (Oklahoma Gazette)

Empty (Zoot) Suit

Who doesn’t appreciate a good tussle between style and substance? The age-old enemies known as Form and Content, always itching to slug it out on the big screen, are at it again in “Idlewild,” a dizzyingly anachronistic musical featuring the hip-hop duo, OutKast.

This time around, it’s not much of a fight. With Form prancing around the ring and flexing muscles built from MTV-addled steroids, Content is cowered in the corner and peeing all over itself. “Idlewild” has energy and panache to spare, but not even the most eye-popping visuals can mask the hollowness at its core.

The nominal setting is the fictitious Idlewild, Georgia, circa 1935, but it’s a version of the 1930s as imagined by a C- history student. Writer-director Bryan Barber has fashioned a fantasy world where a sepia-toned past and hip-hop present do the bump and grind, where rappers sport zoot suits and fedoras, and where whiskey flasks jabber on like something out of “H.R. Pufnstuf.”

OutKast’s Big Boi and André 3000 (otherwise known as, Antwan A. Patton and André Benjamin) star as lifelong friends Rooster and Percival. Rooster is the rogue, a womanizing family man who raps nightly at a crazy cool speakeasy ironically called Church. By contrast, the painfully shy Percival works with his crotchety father (Ben Vereen) as a mortician. Their lives intersect at Church, where Percival plays the piano and dreams of performing his own compositions.

The feature debut of music video director Barber, “Idlewild” is packed with an orgiastic visual flair that ranges from adventurous camera movement to animated stick figures leaping across sheets of music. The excess of style recalls another first movie by a music video director, Julien Temple’s “Absolute Beginners” back in 1986. Like that long-forgotten flick, “Idlewild” is sumptuous eye candy, and Barber benefits from the magnificent work of cinematographer Pascal Rabaud, production designer Charles Breen and costume designer Shawn Barton.

No matter how dressed to the nines, however, “Idlewild” is a threadbare suit of movie clichés. Rooster inherits Church when his bosses (Ving Rhames and Faizon Love) are pumped full of holes by the vicious gangster Trumpy (Terrence Howard in another powerhouse performance), who quickly turns his sights to terrorizing the new owner. Meanwhile, Percival falls in love with a luminous torch singer (Paula Patton, no relation to Antwan). But this is simply a pretense of plot. More likely, Barber stitched together sundry pages from the screenplays of other, better movies. “Idlewild” is the sort of flick in which a character is handed a Bible, and you just know that book will end up stopping a bullet.

The soggy stretches of story get a much-needed break when the production numbers crank up at Church. Hinton Battle’s choreography is amazing, and it is further enhanced by Barber’s supercharged presentation, a mix of quick edits and momentarily freezing the wildly acrobatic dance moves. Patton and Benjamin might be merely serviceable actors, but their musical genius is not in dispute. In fact, when the music of OutKast takes center stage, “Idlewild” finally sounds as good as it looks.