Sex and the City

Sex and the City

 

Yep, I saw it. I work for the movie company that produced it, so I got to go for free. The standard line with Michael Patrick King’s now decade-old Sex and the City franchise is that it has always appealed mostly to gay men and the women that love them. Even though this Dork Reporter is more or less a whitebread straight dude (while I like naked lady bottoms and affirm Sean Connery is the best James Bond, automobiles and professional sports don’t move me), I don’t mean that as a disclaimer. While I’d never seen more than portions of the original television show, and I’d not voluntarily pay see the movie in the theater or rent the DVD, I’m not ashamed to say I’ve seen it.

Sex and the CityAfter shopping, let’s go shopping

I had recently seen an advance screening of a yet-to-be released film (that will have to remain nameless here) that had more than a little in common with the plot and characters of Sex and the City. Let me just say that in comparison, Sex and the City is a masterpiece, and at least, watchable by straight men. The male characters in the film are endowed with more characterization and complexity than I would have expected. When Mr. Big (Chris Noth) does something “bad,” it’s because he’s confused and conflicted, not because he’s a douchebag (which is the explanation of any and all bad behavior by male characters in the aforementioned movie-that-cannot-be-named-for-professional-reasons).

Sex and the CityHey there, Mr. Big Stuff

To get into the nitty gritty of the plot, there was one aspect that I just couldn’t wrap my head around: Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) makes an understandably bitter comment about marriage in general to Mr. Big that becomes one of many influences upon his spontaneous decision to leave Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) at the altar. Miranda neglects to tell Carrie about her comment, and the event and its cover-up is weighted by the film as A) the worst thing one friend can do to another and B) the single reason why Mr. Big stood Carrie up. When Miranda eventually comes clean, Carrie reacts as if she sees Mr. Big and his actions in a wholly new light, and the reconciliation begins. I just don’t get it; it seems to me, based on the fictional characters’ actions and motivations in the world of the film, that Miranda’s minor indiscretion is exactly that, and the true problem is in fact Mr. Big’s ambivalence about Carrie’s desire for a disgustingly overblown princess wedding. But I suppose the answer to my confusion may simply be that I don’t get it because I’m a dude.

And finally, a Dork Report Public Service Announcement for any other bloggers searching the interwebs for movie stills with which to illustrate their reviews of Sex and the City: depending on your inclinations, exercise caution when Googling “Mr. Big.”


Official movie site: www.sexandthecitymovie.com

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Walk Hard The Dewey Cox Story

 

This Dork Reporter finds most so-called biopics wanting. The two to three hour feature film format is more akin to an essay or short story than a book, and as such is ill-equipped to sum up the entire life of a human being in more than just a string of highlights. Yet studios and filmmakers keep churning out parades of Classics Illustrated-like films that seem to exist mostly to grant actors Oscars and Golden Globes based on their abilities to imitate historical figures. The best of them ought more deservedly to be recognized for their abilities to create new characters from whole cloth.

But I reserve a special degree of hate for musical biopics; I’m looking at you, Bird, Ray, Walk the Line, La Vie en Rose, and El Cantante! They all seem to be forged from the same template: troubled genius beset by addiction, and the woman that loves him anyway. Comfortingly, the existence of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story proves I’m not alone in bemoaning this most pathetic genre. Walk Hard touches on each cliché in turn: physical infirmity (Cox is tragically “nose blind”), drugs, disapproving parent, dead sibling, etc.

John C. Reilly in Walk Hard The Dewey Cox Storypssst… your bouffant is cramping my style

At its best, director and co-writer (with Judd Apatow) Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard is a history of popular music and narcotics from the 1950s on. The chameleonic Cox evolves with the times, beginning as a diamond-in-the-rough Ray Charles type, breaking through like a young Johnny Cash, becoming a pop superstar Elvis Presley, passing through a Bob Dylan folkie stage, and ending up as a Brian Wilson, an obsessive pop genius unable to complete his unachievable masterpiece (like Wilson’s own notorious Smile). The best running gag in the movie involves Cox’s succession of drug addictions (pot, cocaine, heroin, pills, and, well, everything…), which no doubt gave the MPAA a heart attack.

Lest I sound like I’m praising the film for being clever, here’s the bad news. The self-proclaimed “The Unbearably Long, Self-Indulgent Director’s Cut” DVD edition repeats the same jokes over and over. Its idea of hilarity is to repeat the name “Cox” as much as possible, which should give some hint as to the overall level of sophistication. Each character explicitly verbalizes and explicates the genre clichés and their own character types: the unsupportive starter wife, the doomed sibling, the venal music studio boss, and the disapproving father (whose refrain “The wrong kid died!” follows Cox through his life as both curse and motivation). Historical celebrity cameos are repeatedly signposted with their full names, lest anyone in the audience not catch on that the batch of four candy-colored lads from Liverpool noodling on sitars in an Indian ashram are, in fact, The Beatles. It is great fun, however, to see Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Rudd, and Jack White do their best Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, and Elvis Presley, respectively.

John C. Reilly in Walk Hard The Dewey Cox StoryThe 70s were a decade of taste and restraint

One little quibble: as the characters age, the makeup jobs are actually too good, far better than, say the outrageously silly age makeup for Jennifer Connelly and Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. This unfortunately ruins the genuinely funny gag that John C. Reilly plays Cox as a teenager with no attempt to hide his age. Why not carry it through to the end, with Reilly looking exactly the same when Cox is supposed to be 70?

Does anybody remember when Reilly was a serious actor? I’m happy for him that he’s no doubt building a significant nest egg off his recent string of lowbrow comedies (Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, etc.), but I hope we will see more of the fine actor of Sydney (aka Hard Eight), Boogie Nights, and The Hours.


Official movie site: www.walkhard-movie.com

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The Omega Man

The Omega Man movie poster

 

Now that’s a good intro: Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) cruises through an empty city with the top down. It’s eerie, but he seems happy, grooving to jazz from his onboard 8-track cassette deck. But suddenly! Screech! Ka-pow! He brakes, produces a machine gun and fires at a fleeting humanoid silhouette. A striking montage follows of a desolated, deserted city.

Heston was once known as a liberal, and here his character entertains an interracial romance (with afro-licious Rosalind Cash) no more common in movies now than it was in 1971. Unfortunately, it’s now impossible to take Heston seriously, thanks to Phil Hartman’s classic mockery on Saturday Night Live and to Heston’s own Alzheimer’s-fueled descent into right-wing senility.

Charlton Heston in The Omega ManAl Gore can take my gun from my cold, dead hands

Interestingly, Heston’s oeuvre is dominated by dystopian sci-fi: Planet of the Apes, The Ωmega Man, and Soylent Green form a trilogy of apocalyptic despair. Remakes of Apes (by Tim Burton) and Ωmega (Wil Smith’s I Am Legend) made him nearly obsolete even before he died. Can Soylent Green (which is, incidentally, much better than its reputation suggests) be far behind?

Compared to the bestial vampires that populate I Am Legend, the creatures in The Ωmega Man are an intelligent, religous cult. They don’t attack Neville with technology (like, say, shoot him) simply because they choose not to.

Charlton Heston in The Omega ManIs the last man on earth man enough?

As for entertainment in a time before VHS, the last man alive on earth is stuck with whatever happened to be in the theaters at the time; he screens the concert film Woodstock over and over. As for The Ωmega Man’s own music, the orchestral jazz pop score is not just outdated, but bizarrely inappropriate.

The crucifixion pose at the end is a bit much. I didn’t expect much subtlety, but that’s laying it on a bit thick.


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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd

 

Anyone who’s ever had the misfortune of a conversation about movies with this Dork Reporter is no doubt aware that I like musicals about as much as I like biopics. That is to say, not very much. I do, however, love Tim Burton, and count Ed Wood among my personal favorite films. So if he could make a biopic I can love, I didn’t think it unrealistic to hope that he might melt my cranky moviewatcher’s heart with a musical. But it’s been a long time since Burton has directed a personal project, instead working on existing franchises and remakes like Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He did add a healthy dose of the trademark Burton flavor to each, not to mention key members of his troupe (Helena Bonham Carter in Apes and Johnny Depp in Charlie), but fans like myself are still waiting for the next burst of pure Burton madness in the spirit of Edward Scissorhands.

Sweeney ToddOi t’ink he’s up to summat

The Sweeny Todd tale originated in a prose serial form in 1846, and after several permutations, eventually became a stage musical by Stephen Sondheim in 1979. Burton’s 2007 film adaptation doesn’t quite manage to break free of its stagebound, er, staging. Despite the opportunity a film has to expand a play’s world, the action is limited to just a few locations. The rich art direction doesn’t defeat the impression that the whole thing was shot on a small soundstage. Speaking of art direction, Burton’s vision of late 19th century London is very colorful, provided that that color is blue. That said, it isn’t long before a few generous gallons of red are splashed about the place.

Sweeney ToddAnd now, the chewing of scenery, for your delight & edification

Timothy Spall, once of Mike Leigh’s British kitchen sink dramas, continues to indulge in the new scenery-chewing persona he developed as Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films. Helena Bonham Carter looks like she just stepped out of The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Sascha Baron Cohen sports no less than two outrageous accents.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street joined Waitress in the most unlikely mini genre of 2007: movies about pie shops. But while Waitress was a largely cutesy concoction, Sweeney Todd adds to the recipe a preoccupation with vengeful cannibalism a la The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover.

And finally, a technical note: the DVD edition suffers from an unusually uneven audio mix. The music is far, far louder than dialogue sequences, so be prepared to drive your remote control volume switch throughout.


Official movie site: www.sweeneytoddmovie.com

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Things We Lost in the Fire

Things We Lost in the Fire

 

Things We Lost in the Fire is a melodrama modeled after 21 Grams in almost every way: the story of a nuclear family shattered by a random death, told as a nonlinear narrative, with conspicuously arty cinematography, and costarring Benicio Del Toro.

Even a single-sentence description of the basic plot conveys how overwrought things get: Audrey (Halle Berry) impulsively takes in her dead husband Brian’s (David Duchovny) heroin-addicted friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro). Audrey’s motivations are semi-consciously selfish; she perhaps thinks that she can retain some connection with her dead husband by indefinitely extending his fruitless effort to help his childhood friend to kick his drug habit.

Things We Lost in the FireThis movie’s kind of a drag, don’t you think?

But unaware of the adage that one must beware what one asks for, she becomes resentful when her plan unexpectedly succeeds. Jerry does in fact begin to kick drugs, a neighbor takes an implausibly quick shine to him and offers him a job, he teaches one of her kids to swim (a task at which her husband had previously failed), and he responds to her flirtatious advances.

Inexplicably, the movie ends with the wrong Velvet Underground song; someone chose “Sweet Jane” over “Heroin.” If the filmmakers thought it too obvious, then how do you explain everything else in the movie?


Official movie site: www.thingswelostinthefire.com

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Year of the Dog

Year of the Dog movie poster

 

The Netflix queue is, by its nature, the opposite of the instant gratification of a rental store. You add movies you think you might want to see some day, then sit back and wait for them to arrive in an order decided by computer, according to factors and algorithms outside of your control. Enough time had passed since I added Year of the Dog that I could no longer recall why. Possibly I read a good review somewhere, or maybe I was curious about the sudden reappearance of Molly Shannon (part of “my” Saturday Night Live of the mid-90s — am I right that people feel the most affection for the SNL cast of their college years?). But I feel baited and switched; this is not a drama or romantic comedy but rather a movie with an agenda.

Writer/director Mike White’s Year of the Dog is a feature-length dramatization of Janeane Garofalo’s gag “You can love your pets, but you can’t love your pets.” Not unlike Lily in the recent Dork Report screening of Eagle Vs. Shark, Peggy (Shannon) is a gentle sweetheart, but alienated and lonely. Her relationship with brother Pier (Thomas McCarthy from The Wire Season 5) and sister-in-law Bret (Laura Dern) is distant at best, and her closest friends are oblivious workmates.

Molly Shannon in Year of the DogThis commute’s a bitch

When she loses the unconditional love of her dog Pencil, she becomes hungry for, as she puts it, a single word to define her. On a date with Al (John C. Reilly), Peggy demonstrates a dislike of hunting, the seed from which her new fervor for an animal activist lifestyle grows. Her one word, she decides, is to be “vegan.”

Her new life teases her at first with the possibility of love with Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), but he is too much like her, or what she is soon to become: unable to love humans nearly as much as animals. From here, the tone shifts to the disturbing, as Peggy causes her life to fall apart. Her clumsy activism costs her her job and family, and she soon descends to theft and attempted murder.

Molly Shannon in Year of the DogYou can love your pets, but you can’t love your pets

And yet, the movie appears to present her ultimate state as a happy ending of sorts. She chooses to be friendless and unloved, but has found meaning and purpose. The most important part of the movie is missing: what happens between Peggy hitting rock bottom (where she becomes unable to function in society) and her total ascendance as a self-assured being? I don’t buy the sudden switcheroo that it’s all OK because she has discovered herself.

Would real-life animal activists find Peggy and Newt amusingly exaggerated versions of themselves, or insulting stereotypes? Speaking as the owner of two rescued casts, it strikes me that choosing the love of animals over that of people is a kind of mental illness that begs for correction, not celebration.


Official movie site: www.yearofthedogmovie.com

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As You Like It (2007)

As You Like It movie poster

 

I’ve been a Kenneth Branagh fan ever since seeing the joyous trifle Much Ado About Nothing on a date with my first girlfriend in high school. Probably to my date’s dismay, it was also the moment I fell passionately in love with Emma Thompson. Later, I enjoyed his down and dirty Henry V, the Hitchcockian noir Dead Again, the over-the-top-and-beyond bombast of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and even met another future girlfriend at Hamlet. But As You Like It is decidedly lacking in Branagh’s proven flair for translating theatre to the medium of cinema. In the US at least, it was originally intended for theatrical release through Picturehouse, but went straight to HBO.

Having never read the play nor seen it performed, I’ll cop to having done a little cramming on Wikipedia, the 21st Century answer to Cliff’s Notes. Branagh has relocated the action from a duchy in France to an enclave of expatriate Europeans in 19th century Japan, but to what advantage? There is little sense of a European community abroad in an alien land; in fact very few Asian actors appear at all, even in the background. A silently-staged ninja attack is a promising opening, but ultimately disappointing to arthouse audiences with highbrow wire-fu expectations raised after Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Bryce Dallas Howard in As You Like ItRosalind & Celia’s pretty frocks

Obviously a low-budget film, As You Like It suffers in ways that similarly-priced movies made virtue. Stanley Tucci’s The Impostors, for example, made the cheap sets part of the fun, and beat Branagh by a few years to the device of an epilogue featuring an ensemble cast breaking the fourth wall by literally walking off-set and behind the camera.

As You Like ItClash of the diapers

Other miscellaneous disappointments:

• There’s an over-reliance on long, clumsy steadycam takes, especially one fumbled shot in which Kevin Kline’s face is obscured throughout most of his delivery of the play’s most famous monologue: “All the world’s a stage…”

• With a private English garden standing in for the forests of Japan, the overcast weather mutes the color palette. The most vibrant colors are the occasional blossoming tree and the pretty frocks worn by Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Celia (Romola Garai).

• Brian Blessed (a regular in Branagh’s company) doesn’t do nearly enough of his trademark shouting. Perhaps he was afraid to rupture the delicate Howard’s eardrums.

• The omnipresent score is really, really bad.

• And finally, As You Like It sports what must be the cheapest fake lion in cinema history; it was probably possible to stage something more convincing on the stage in Shakespeare’s day.


Official movie site: www.hbo.com/films/asyoulikeit

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9/11-ploitation: J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield

Cloverfield movie poster

 

First of all, let me just say I get it.

I get that Cloverfield is meant to be a modern day analogue of Godzilla. I get that postwar Japanese moviegoers witnessed an enraged giant lizard borne of nuclear technology stomp Tokyo flat in an unstoppable pique, and I get that Godzilla became a classic for that very reason. I get that we Westerners were long due to be attacked on film by own very own allegorical creature as pop therapy for our terrorism anxieties.

Perhaps we need that movie some time. But significantly more advanced than Godzilla in terms of visual style and special effects, I don’t think Cloverfield is that movie.

As a longtime fan of J.J. Abrams from Alias and Lost, and made a helpless sucker by the film’s clever marketing, I very much wanted to love Cloverfield. However, I found it extremely difficult to watch and to like, for two basic reasons both related to my being a New Yorker for a decade & change: I. unlikeable and unrealistic characters, and II. what can only be described as 9/11-ploitation.

I. THE CHARACTERS

We know the backgrounds of only two characters, Rob and Beth. Rob has recently been promoted to Vice President of an unspecified type of company at an improbably young age, and is about to leave for a long business trip to Japan. In my understanding of lifestyles of the rich & beautiful in New York City, such young execs were more commonly found in the dot-com 90s economy, but even now still exist in scrappy new media companies like CollegeHumor.com. But let’s assume Rob helped invent the next Facebook and move on.

random hot girl in CloverfieldYowza howza! Yes, it’s true, all New Yorkers go to parties like this all the time.

We don’t know what Beth, his one true love, does for a living, if anything. She lives with her family high up in the northern tower of the Time Warner Center (more on that later). Her stunning looks and wardrobe might peg her as model, but she appears to be a socialite born of privilege. But far from the slow trainwrecks that are Paris and Nicky, Beth appears to be a sweet, sober girl. In fact, she leaves a party not unconscious in the back of a limo, but out of propriety, to go home to bed, alone.

Us regular joes are supposed to identify with and care about these people? For all its faults, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (another monster-attack film touching uncomfortably upon domestic disaster in a post 9/11 world) featured an everyman type character in auto repairman Tom Cruise. To be fair, Godzilla was full of white-coated scientists and teeth-gritted soldier-types, so the genre doesn’t exactly call for comparatively boring lower wage-earners that don’t live in luxury condos and party in downtown lofts.

II. 9/11-SPLOITATION

Godzilla was utterly frank in linking the monster with the horrors of the nuclear age. So if Cloverfield’s beast is a personification of terrorism, how does the metaphor fit? Did US military adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq unearth the monster? Is the beast a heretofore undiscovered subterranean oil-feeder, angered by our draining the earth’s supply of fossil fuel? Without a clear metaphor, Cloverfield just seems to enjoy alluding to the superficial events and imagery of 9/11 without any depth: skyscrapers “pancaking” themselves flat, streets filling with clouds of debris, ash-coated survivors struck numb. I’m not against popular fiction using metaphor to touch upon raw nerves that maybe need to be tweaked now and then… but is Cloverfield it?

New York City burns in CloverfieldDon’t worry, New Yorkers, it’s only a movie.

One of the film’s key set pieces is set atop the twin towers of the Time Warner Center. The allusion is clear, but it’s a stretch factually. Are there residential apartments in the TW Center? As both a New Yorker and Time Warner employee, this is news to me. I should also add that the geography of Manhattan as seen in the film is just this side of realistic. In a space of about 6 hours, it’s plausible the characters could make it from lower Manhattan to the roof of the Time Warner Center at the southern foot of Central Park (assuming, that is, that their young thighs are capable of the trek).

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers is one example of a sci-fi thriller that has worked well enough to illuminate concerns of the times to warrant multiple remakes. Just to name three: the original took on McCarthyism, the Abel Ferrara 90’s version looked at obedience and conformity in the military, and Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty found the story useful as a satirical critique of high school peer pressure. But none of the various Bodysnatchers films presented us with recreations of cities pressed flat; were contemporary Japanese made sick by the sight of their horrors anthropomorphized in a giant lizard? Seeing my home city’s skyline smoking and collapsing was not something I would call cathartic.

I saw the film early evening on opening day, with an audience full of kids just out of school. The movie went over like a lead balloon; the conclusion was loudly heckled and booed. I suspect the kids mostly objected to the unconventional structure and ending. Which is, for what it’s worth, what I found best about the film: it provides a very movingly unexpected happy ending.


Official movie site: www.cloverfieldmovie.com

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Banlieue 13 (District B13)

Banlieue 13 movie poster

 

To the editors of Time that picked District B13 as one of the 10 best films of the year, I can only ask, dude, Que la baise vous pensaient-elles? Yes, granted, it touches on some extremely sensitive and timely issues in a racially and culturally divided Paris, but those moments are bolted-on and heavy-handed, serving as mere filler between admittedly awesome parkour sequences. I had more fun at The Transporter.

Happy Feet

Happy Feet movie poster

 

Happy Feet is a tough one to try to reduce to a single stars-out-of-five rating. It possesses two extreme split personalities, its lack of integration calling into question its integrity. Was there a struggle behind the scenes between a studio wanting another cookie-cutter cartoon animal kid flick vs. a filmmaker envisioning something of substance?

The first film totally embodies the worst cliches of the contemporary CG animated film: dancing, singing animals talking the kind of stereotypical enthnic jive that would be condemned as racism in a live-action film. People laugh at Robin Williams’ “let me ‘splain something to joo” Mexican schtick in Happy Feet, but feel queasy about Ahmed Best’s gay rastafarian routine as Jar-Jar Binks in Star Wars Episode I. The cuteness of seeing anthropomorphized penguins shimmying to contemporary pop hits wears off fast, yet takes up at least half the film, sorely testing the patience of any adults forced to be in the audience (in my case, it was a free work junket).

The second film is more in keeping with director George Miller‘s track record with Babe: Pig in the City. A surprisingly dark and edgy film, the sequel to Babe was a stealth “real movie” that appealed to adults as much as kids, having more in common with City of Lost Children and Brazil than Charlotte’s Web. After seemingly endless, I say endless, musical routines, Happy Feet slowly begins to reveal its true nature as an ecological parable. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for turning kids into ecowarriors, but many childrens’ films have managed to blend life lessons more fully into the narrative; Toy Story II is about engaging with life, love and friends now as opposed to worrying about the future or pining for the past; Iron Giant is about breaking the cycle of violence; Happy Feet is about… either bootyshaking or overfishing. I’m not sure, and neither is the film itself.