Wednesday, November 29, 2006

"For Your Consideration," dir. Christopher Guest (Oklahoma Gazette)

Christopher Guest’s brilliance in conceiving of, writing, acting in and — with the exception of the first — directing four previous mock documentaries — “This is Spinal Tap” (1984), “Waiting for Guffman,” (1996), “Best in Show” (2000) and “A Mighty Wind,” (2003) — dims a bit in 2006’s “For Your Consideration,” but it still sparkles sporadically even in this lesser effort about a subject many might not find as compelling as he does.

A genius at opening closed systems to intense scrutiny and hilarious parody, Guest moved through rock music, community theater, dog shows and folk music before taking on film awards, a subject already so absurd as to be, perhaps, beyond the reach of parody. No matter the stated subject, however, Guest’s real focus is always a humanistic take on the seminal text of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Director, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

While the Preacher who speaks the words in the Bible takes on the bigger existential futility of human endeavor, the Director tackles the experiential foolishness of it all. In the films leading to “For Your Consideration,” the hits come fast and furious with little time for reflection. In this film, the pace is different and — this may not be a good thing — there is pathos I don’t remember in the others.

The pacing problem affects about the first half of the movie. Once the steam builds, this train wreck in the making becomes very funny; as Guest is shoveling on the coal, however, the laughs are sparse.

When the humor does start to build, that pathos frequently applies the brakes. Marilyn Hack (Catherine O’Hara) and Victor Allan Miller (Harry Shearer) are stars of a D-grade film called “Home for Purim” and veterans who have put in 30 to 40 years as struggling actors. Absurdly, someone posts on a blog that Hack’s performance deserves Oscar consideration. Neither Hack nor Miller has any sense of what the Internet is or how it works; neither does their clueless publicist (John Michael Higgins). Old media thinking about new media information is a disaster.

Desperate for recognition, three of the four stars of “Home for Purim” ultimately get sucked into the horror of hoping for an Oscar nomination. The third is Callie Webb (Parker Posey), a younger actor. As their publicist tries to convert the virtual into actual, all three become ever more emotionally vulnerable. While Posey suggests the real need behind her character’s silliness, Shearer and, especially, O’Hara play their emotional nakedness a bit too realistically for parody. Posey elicits sympathy and Shearer a gentle sadness. O’Hara, however, makes us pity Hack. Pity and parody don’t play well together.

That said, Guest does a great job skewering insipid shows like “Entertainment Tonight” and pretentious ones like “Inside the Actors Studio,” taking down ill-prepared television people asking pointless questions during publicity spots and driving home the absurdity of a thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach to judging films.

To everything there is an awards season, sayeth the Director. I’m just not sure how many non-cinephiles will care.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

"Let's Go to Prison" dir. Bob Odenkirk (Oklahoma Gazette)

Doing 84-minutes of maximum security time watching Bob Odenkirk’s “Let’s Go to Prison” has turned me into a hardened critic: I’d kill someone before I let him or her put me back into any joint showing it.

Face it, prison comedy isn’t a strong genre.

Remember Sidney Poitier’s 1980 “Stir Crazy,” starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder and, even worse, Ted Demme’s 1999 “Life” starring Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy? This film, built around the inherently funny idea of prison rape, pretends it’s satirizing the prison justice system for its complicity in making career criminals out of young offenders. It isn’t. Narration lines like, “It costs $54 a day to keep a person in prison. When you think about it, wouldn’t it be cheaper just to let us keep your car stereos?” suggest the film has a social point to make. It doesn’t. It’s just playing homophobia, racism, sexual assault, murder, white supremacy, gang behavior, bureaucratic cruelty and human brutality for laughs. Amused yet?

The revenge plot centers on John Lyshitski (Dax Shepard, “Employee of the Month”), who ends up in the first of three incarcerations for stealing the Publisher’s Clearinghouse van. The 8-year-old gets caught trying to cash the big cardboard check. His next two crimes land him in front of the same judge. When Lyshitski emerges from the third prison stay, the now vaguely 20-something decides to kill the man who has sentenced him so unfeelingly because, he believes, it’s the judge’s fault that he’s become the loser he is.

Here’s where the film gets really funny. The judge dies before Lyshitski can off him. Not to be stymied, he sets up the judge’s son, Nelson Biederman IV (Will Arnett, “Arrested Development”), so that he ends up in prison. Obnoxious rich boy Nelson’s license plate reads “Nelly 1,” a piece of visual/verbal wit almost as clever as the poster with the film’s title carved into a bar of soap on a shower floor. I’ll bet the writers tossed around at least once the idea of naming Arnett’s character Ben Dover before coming up with the sidesplitting Nelly idea. Not satisfied with just sending the innocent to the slammer, Lyshitski gets himself sent back so he can make hell hell for Nelson.

The hilarity really starts to kick in now. This burly, bass-talking black man named Barry (Chi McBride, “The Nine”) approaches Nelly in the shower and asks, “So what’s a beautiful white boy like you doing in a place like this?” A sensitive soul, he romantically woos Nelson rather than roughly raping him, and they become — I thought I’d die laughing — partners not in crime, but — Spoiler Alert — in wine. In the end — as the wits who wrote this might say — everyone lives happily ever after.

Almost as hysterical as the film is its official Web site. On it, you can explore all sorts of interactive prison-related activities like, “What Kind of Prisoner Are You?” and “Scratch Tattoo Parlor.”

I was sentenced to review “Let’s Go to Prison.” You have a choice. Don’t make the bad decisions I made. Stay free.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"A Good Year," dir. Ridley Scott (Oklahoma Gazette)

“A Good Year” isn’t a very good film, but it seems a calculatedly good career choice for bad-boy Russell Crowe as an image-correcting vehicle. In it, he plays a bastard who finds his inner good guy through the love of a good woman, some good friends and a good glass of wine. That this transformation takes place in the Edenic glow of the softly golden sunlight bathing a vineyard in Provence, France, adds an almost sacred aura to this utterly earthbound story of redemption.

The Ridley Scott (“Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down”) film is based on Peter Mayle’s 2004 novel of the same name — one of at least 10 Mayle books celebrating the south of France where the British author, himself, found not only a new life but a new career as the best-selling chronicler of this magical place: Monsieur Mayle, c’est Provence.

The magic of place makes it to the screen in the cinematography, but the story is an old trick. Ruthless bond trader Max Skinner (Russell Crowe) is a man who shags all the beautiful women and screws all his fellow traders. When his lusty, earthy Uncle Henry (Albert Finney) dies, Skinner inherits his chateau and vineyard in Provence. Through a variety of lesson-teaching flashbacks to boyhood summers spent with Henry that are about as subtle as Annie Green Springs and, once he leaves gray, wet London for golden, dry Provence, a series of human interactions about as complex as Ripple, Skinner becomes a better man. We know this primarily because he shucks his perfectly fitted bespoke charcoal suit and slips into light, loose linen in soft hues. He still shags the beauties and screws the bondies, but with better humor and more sincerity.

“A Good Year” falls into a group of films easy to write about for a specific reason: A critic cannot even inadvertently introduce spoilers into her reviews because these films have no surprises to give away. It has, shall we say, a deep bouquet of cliché.
As Skinner, Crowe has little charm. His attempts to show that beneath the bespoke is a decent, somewhat goofy guy come across as signals of the plot set-up rather than signs of a truly complex man.

Finney suffices as the wise old uncle, but he doesn’t have a lot to work with. Even a great actor seems less so when decanting clichéd words of wisdom. The women who help Skinner find his inner vintner make up an international bevy of beauties but provide little depth: Australian Abbie Cornish as American Christie, who may be Max’s cousin; French Marion Cotillard as Fanny Chantal, a childhood playmate who planted the seeds of redemption she now nurtures; and Italian Valeria Bruni Tedeshi as the notaire handling the legalities of the inheritance.

The film’s only two performances with legs are those of Freddie Highmore (“Neverland”) as young Max and Archie Panjabi (“A Constant Gardner,” “Bend it Like Beckham”) as Gemma, Max’s whipsmart assistant.

You’ll not find much veritas in this film about vino: Regrettably, this bottle is corked.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

"The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause," dir. Michael Lembeck (Oklahoma Gazette)

Question: What to say about a holiday movie that gives the flatulence joke seemingly required in all commercial-grade children’s movies to one of Santa’s reindeer? Answer: Are you #$*!ing kidding me?

Sadly, an animatronic Comet passing gas may be the freshest moment in “The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause,” the repetitively titled and redundantly stale third installment in what is, clearly, an eternal seasonal franchise destined to produce ever less funny chapters in the story of the ordinary man who became Father Christmas in John Pasquin’s 1994 “The Santa Clause.”

While not hilarious, Pasquin’s film had its amusing moments in both concept and execution. Michael Lembeck, a television director who helmed “The Santa Clause 2” and is now responsible for “Santa Clause 3,” produces no such moments in the third film. On my Christmas list for 2002 was “Not to see ‘The Santa Clause 2’; St. Nick gave me what I asked for, so I can’t speak to the first sequel’s value. A check of, however, shows critics on that site gave the 1994 film a 75 percent positive rating and the 2002 outing 55 percent. FYI, at press time, they had given the third 11 percent.

The most recent film, from which many in the audience will want to escape, begins as Carol Calvin/Mrs. Clause (Elizabeth Miller), the second, much younger wife of Scott Calvin/Santa Clause (Tim Allen), is about to give birth to their child.

All is not nice at the North Pole, however. Carol misses the family she has had to all but give up to maintain the SOS — Secret of Santa. In addition, she’s feeling a bit deserted by her really red-faced and chubby hubby: Santa baby is busy making toys and handling a problem in The Council of Legendary Figures, a kind of goofy guild that includes Santa, Mother Nature, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman and a bunch of other major characters in a child’s universe. It seems Jack Frost (Martin Short) has grown tired of being just an opening act for the big Christian holiday. He’s campaigning (and scheming) to turn Christmas into Frostmas, although he says he’d be happy with Frostgiving or even the Frost of July.

To make things better for his beloved, Santa enlists the Sandman’s help in putting Carol’s parents (Alan Arkin and Ann-Margaret) to sleep long enough to transport them trickily to his workshop in the North Pole, which he and the elves have disguised as a toy factory in Canada. Along for the sleigh ride are Scott’s ex-wife (Wendy Crewson), her smarmy therapist husband (Judge Reinhold) and their daughter, Lucy. In that role, Liliana Mumy provides the only halfway appealing and/or believable performance. The starring adults are silly. Cameos by — among other lesser-knowns playing Legendary Figures — Kevin Pollak as Cupid, Jay Thomas as the Easter Bunny and Peter Boyle as Father Time are, by and large, pointless and/or embarrassing.

This film is ho, ho, horrible. Sending your children to it is the equivalent of giving them a lump of coal; taking them to this carbon copy is the equivalent of forcing yourself to eat a lump of fossil fuel.