Thursday, October 28, 2004

"Team America:" Freedom...With Strings Attached


Hey. You. C'mere. You wanna see some puppets hump? Yeah! For real. I also got puppets puking a keg's worth of green soup. C'mon. Check it out.

Well, you can check that out and much more in "South Park" authors and provocateurs Trey Parker and Matt Stone's new film, Team America: World Police. The movie literally stars visibly-stringed marionettes, voiced by their creators, as Team America, an elite task force whose main goal is to kill WMD-wielding terrorists, without prejudice, no matter where in the world they may be hiding. The biggest shock value delivered by the movie has nothing to do with the Meet The Feebles-inspired inanimate shenanigans illustrated above. That honor instead goes to the amazing irony that, despite it being conceived, created and watched in a post-9/11 world, the movie has less to do with that post-9/11 world and more to do with a satirical, biting look at Hollywood and the famous, overly outspoken, self-important actors who live there.

Consider this: there is no mention or direct reference to the following in Team America: President Bush, or any real or fake American President for that matter; Senator Kerry; the election; the words Republican, Democrat or any political party; there is no mention of any Armed Forces beyond Team America, meaning no stereotyped, stuffy, war-mongering Dr. Strangelove generals. Iraq is mentioned, and only barely, twice. In further eye-winking irony, 9/11 is mentioned many times (as part of what becomes an increasingly tired joke) as a numeral, not an event. While it could be argued that the focus on terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and a "World Police" type American foriegn policy put the film squarely in a post 9/11 context, I would argue that those issues were around and were a consideration well before September 11th. Indeed, what at first seems to be a mockery of America's "World Police" policy ends up vindicatation by the time the credits roll. What the current global and political environment does allow, is a perfect womb for this film to be born and to be popular.

What's more readily apparent in the movie are Parker and Stone's desire to skewer and satire Hollywood and the soapboxing actors who live in richly in them thar Hills. For anyone even moderately familiar with South Park, this is not new territory for them; I can recall recent episodes of that show where Rob Reiner, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were targets for their caustic wit. This time, Parker and Stone aim their sharp darts at the more liberal, peace-loving celebrity element, whom they count Alec Baldwin, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Michael Moore, Sean Penn and a half-retarded (and funny) Matt Damon among its ranks. Formulaic Bruckheimerian action films and more specifically war movies like Pearl Harbor receive similar satirical treatment in song as well as the purposefully brainless tone of the action sequences and some of the dialogue thorughout the movie. But it is those actors, however, that receive more of the pointed and poisoned focus for Parker and Stone. It is highly refreshing that this duo can move past back-patting and ass-kissing, remove any fear of killing their careers and put this piece out. Even more refreshing is knowing the movie was put out by the same Hollywood machine that is at the very core of these rogues' barbs. Oh, by the way, the movie is damn funny, too.

The main message I got from Team America, is that it is impossible to have an important political or world opinion if you are rich, self-important and dining on caviar served by your personal chef; especially when you are only well-known because you play make-believe on celluloid (Playing fake? Perhaps the motivation for puppet usage?). This message provides an even greater argument as to why Parker and Stone could not create an overtly political film; they would have been skewering themselves. Ultimately, the lone actor in the film who makes a difference is the one who shuts his mouth and jumps into the action...the REAL action. An even clearer message is conveyed when you consider that this character is the only actor portrayed in the film who is, in reality, fictional.

Your Morning Cup O' Pop Culture: World Series Edition

You may not be a fan of the Red Sox (die-hard and broken-hearted Met fan here) or their fans, but how can you can not appreciate their ability to overcome the pressure of a long history of failure, expected failure to achieve something that even dreams could not do justice to? It's inspiring, the kind of inspiring that transcends the team and the sport. Nothing, as these 2004 Red Sox, these Idiots, have proved, is impossible.

So how long until the Yankees take the field at Fenway to chants of "2000!" "2000!" (Doesn't quite have the "19-18!" ring, does it?)?

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Your Afternoon Cup O' Pop Culture

Ashlee Simpson: Is her "acid reflux" induced bout of lip-synching a big deal? Here's a big deal for you: George Martin coming out and saying that he wrote, performed and sang while John, Paul, George and Ringo flopped their mop-tops and mouthed their lyrics. Not Ashlee friggin' Simpson. I mean, would you really be surprised if you found out Ashlee Simpson and her bubble-gum pop-tart brethren had a made a deal with the devil who then hooked them all up to some devil machine that created, controlled and performed their crack-addicting, teenaged-marketed drivel? Would you? Maybe a little, what with the devil machine and all, but you smell my drift.

Pedro Martinez: Was it me or did Pedro Martinez, in the centerfield shots while he was pitching last night and with his hair, look like the Thriller-era Michael Jackson?

Monday, October 25, 2004

Song Dude: Can't Get You Outta My Head

ALERT: Click here for a link to a free MP3 download of one of the most achingly beautiful yet unknown songs released this year : "Tomorrow On the Runway" by the Innocence Mission. The song combines Karen Peris's haunting vocals over a catchy acoustic guitar strum and atmospheric, melodic electric lead. If there is justice in our world a filmmaker will snap this up and use it in the right movie. Enjoy.

The Video Dude: Forever "Eternal Sunshine"

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind: (2004; Dir: Michel Gondry; Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkenson, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood)

Spare. Poetic. Beautiful. One of my favorite films of the year. Like the lead protagonists in many of Charlie Kaufman's produced screenplays (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), Joel Barrish (Carrey) is a social misfit; an outsider; an on-the-fringe, soulful, artistic loner who some might call pathetic and others, well, human. I prefer the latter. If you have not seen the movie, Barrish commits himself to the Lacuna Corporation, a company that, through a medial/technical procedure, can remove all memories associated with a broken relationship. Barrish wants to remove the memory of his ex-girlfriend, Clementine (Winslet), only to realize halfway through that he has made a mistake. If you saw the film in theaters and liked it, then rent it or buy it and see it again. Eternal Sunshine is an excellent example of a film that provides a more rewarding experience upon a second viewing; its gifts are more evident. In this case, it gives you a greater appreciation for the performances of its leads. In Carrey, for example, the rubbery, physical comedic gifts that he's known for are amped WAY down and used only sparingly and necessarily like in scenes where he must portray himself as a child. What's left is a sensitive, nuanced portrayal that I haven't seen evidence of even in his more "serious" roles. In a performance that could have been one-sided or annoying in lesser hands, Kate Winslet takes her character's idiosyncrasies, her impulsiveness, insecurity and penchant for drinking, to shape an incredibly real and multi-dimensional person. Both characters, upon a second viewing, truly transcend the boundaries of the celluloid that hold their images. Like the recent I Heart Huckabees, Eternal Sunshine depicts a character employing a quick fix to explain or destroy peronal pain and unhappiness. Unlike Huckabees (which I liked), Eternal Sunshine develops its story without a hint of irony; leaving a more permanant mark on your mind and your heart.

Monday, October 18, 2004

A Survivor's Guide to "Surviving Christmas"

In Mike Mitchell's Surviving Christmas (Opens nationwide Oct. 22th) Ben Affleck plays Drew Latham, a successful, shallow Chicago advertising executive who finds himself sad and lonely as the Holidays approach. When he visits his childhood home to exorcise demons of Christmas past, he offers the family currently living there $250,000 to faithfully recreate for him a Merry Christmas that he has never enjoyed. Because the plot sounds like the basis for Fox's next foray into reality show programming, I am going to offer up a survival guide based on what I learned from watching the film - just in case you end up a contestant on this spin-off.

1. Ditch Scary Mask and Candy for White Beard and Gingerbread Men: Surviving Christmas is being released a week before Halloween, which is like breaking out fireworks and those red, white and blue ice pops at Thanksgiving Dinner. The point is, they're both bad ideas and may lead to nausea and heart attacks.

2. Use A Map, Any Map: I don't know where Ben Affleck's career is going and it doesn't seem like he does either, so a map may help you find the answer. In this film, his character is so juvenile, annoying and irksome that nowhere does he buy the emotional payoff that comes at the end; nor does he show any capacity for emotion period besides the kind of cutesy, self-serving smugness usually associated with used car salesmen. He does have a few laughs though, and some even seem ad-libbed (more of a comment on the script, then his performance). Hopefully your map leads him to a smaller, juicier, edgier role in an indie film by a credible director a la Tom Cruise in Magnolia.

3. Rely on the fairer sex: The female leads in the movie, Catherine O'Hara and Christina Applegate, are two of the few bright spots. O'Hara, a veteran comedian, plays Christine Valco, downtrodden suburban wife and mother of the "rented" family. She brings some wit and eccentricity to the role, best exemplified by her performance in a scene in which the family is forced to have a scripted, more pleasant than normal, dinner discussion. Applegate plays Alicia Valco, the elder daughter and obviously-eventual love interest for Latham (Affleck). She is at her witty, breath-of-fresh-air-best early on when she is at odds with Latham (and the rest of her family) for his idiocy and the general stupidity of the entire charade.

4. Be Original. Think Outside Of the Box: Unfortunately, the 164 credited screenwriters (there were actually only 4 - never a good thing) do not heed this advice. The film is littered with stale jokes. For example, a bit where involving the introduction of the "understudy" of the actor hired by Latham to play the family's grandfather can be seen a mile away - by a blind guy in the dark. It seems the filmmakers were going for the kind of tasteless humor that made Bad Santa a good Holiday yarn; instead they've concocted a low-carb, low-fat diet substitute - barely. And for the love of the guy born on Christmas, is it possible to make a Holiday film that does not include the song "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year," especially if its being used as part of an ironic hardy-har-har montage sequence? Is it? Please? Pretty please? While in reality that song may not be as overused as claimed, it is a commentary on the quality of the film when it feels over-cliched.

Christmas films can be dicey; Christmas reality shows based on Christmas films can be even dicier, so I hope this helps. By the way, since you have read this far, you are hereby legally bound to split any winnings you get for being Fox's "Surviving Christmas" reality spin-off. Don't hate me, hate capitalism. Now if only I could get an MP3 of the jungle-yell that opens "Survivor."

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

To "Huckabee" or Not To "Huckabee"?

Damn my titles are getting weaker (2nd place: Wherefore I Heart Thou?); I feel like the crazy grandfather elbowing you for a laugh.

Have you ever had that odd, seemingly unique NYC experience of running into an acquaintance or seeing the same stranger on the street at two different times in the same day? Have you ever taken a break from your busy city-brain to ponder the coincidental or possibly cosmic ramifications of that event on your life? If not, then I ask you to stop reading this review, do not go see I Heart Huckabees and click on the following for entertainment: For the rest of you (and me), we all have something in common with Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) in David O. Russel's (Three Kings, Flirting With Disaster) sugarhigh-paced, ironic, what-does-it-all-mean funfest I Heart Huckabees.

Albert, a loner environmentalist social misfit, seeks the help of an Existential Detective (!) husband and wife team, Vivian and Bernard (Lily Tomlin, Dustin Hoffman), to help him explain his coincidence of running into the same Sudanese man three times over a short period. Vivian and Bernard feel these coincidences have a lot to do with the main stress in Albert's life; the proposed linking of his environmentalist non-profit company, Open Spaces, with the franchised Huckabees department store, faced by souless corporate mongering, always-on-my-A-game Brad Stand (Jude Law). Tommy (Mark Wahlberg), another Vivian and Albert "case" is soon assigned as Albert's "other" (think of it like an AA "buddy") and the two become friends, cohorts and co-miserables. Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts) is Brad's girlfriend and the pixie-modeled commercial face of Huckabees. Oh! And noted French actress Isabelle Huppert plays Catherine Vauban, the yin to Vivian and Bernard's yang, a more decidedly bleak Existential Detective, who tries to bring Albert over to her "darker" side.

Caught up? Breathing still? Take a sec. Good. Let's go on.

What I love about the film is that it squeezes and throws a lot at you politically, religiously and philosophically for its 106 minutes, often in a pastiche of Altman-esque overlapping dialogue, without ever leaving you overloaded or feeling patronized. It is a film of opposites and transformations. As it unspools, many uniquely-American conflicts play out: "Surburban Sprawl" vs. environmentalism; Catchphrase-teenaged & celebrity obsessed-logo driven short attention span-ism (whew!) vs. poetry, Kafka and philosophy; motor-mouthed corporate personality vs. quiet, sensitive soul. These conflicts and opposites are personified in Albert and Brad, extremely different people...or are they? Many of the main characters exposed to these Detectives go through a life transformation of sorts, most interestingly is Dawn Campbell's (Watt's character) transformation from an overexposed, brainless, one-dimensional model to what is, in the film, referred to as an "Amish Bag-Lady," the exact literal and figurative opposite of her original and Huckabee's total image.

While the film's ironic tone may not lend an automatic gooey emotional center, there is much, especially in Schwartzman's Albert, that can be identified with on a personal level by a tuned-in audience. After all, at the end of the day, wouldn't we all want the ability to seek out a "Detective" who can help us with the greater questions of the purpose and meaning of our own lives? Are we not, in the big picture both consumers at strip malls and advocates of the environment? Or victims of short-attention span filled television and advertising and lovers poetry and art? Are we not participants in both the sad human drama and moments of silly, spontaneous "pure being?" Aren't we sometimes talktative, funny, aggressive and "on our games" and other times lonely, sad and pained?

I Heart Huckabees is the kind of film that, I predict, will grow in acclaim as the years pass and as today's twenty-somethings (whom I think this film would have a greater appeal to) grow older and into a greater position in our country's intellecutual cultural elite. Without a doubt, it is already the kind of film that will greatly reward you upon successive viewings, the way only a truly excellent film can. Therefore, I highly recommend you experience that unique coincidence of running into the movie at your local 'plex now and at your DVD player down the road.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Quickie Dude: Find "Lost"Again

I am coming to you live , in a brief moment of sobriety, from Rochester for my 5th year college reunion. For those of you who have not jumped on the "Lost" bandwagon (see my brief review post below) and want to, I have enclosed a link (click on the title of this post) to the show's site to catch yourself up. Do it, it's good for you. Then watch on Wed, 8pm, discuss and repeat.


Movie Dude

Thursday, October 07, 2004

The Forgot-eleven Minus The Forgot-one Equals "The Forgotten?"

It's 11pm. Do you know where your children are?

I sure as hell don't and neither does Julianne Moore in Joseph Ruben's haunt-a-thon thriller The Forgotten. Moore plays Telly Paretta, a grieving mother whose young son died in a plane crash the year before. Or did he (cue Twilight Zone Music)? Paretta has greater cause for concern when her husband Jim (Anthony Edwards), psychiatrist Dr. Munce (Gary Sinise) and neighbors tell her she's never even had a kid and the crash never happened. Even Ash Correll (The Wire's Dominic West) an ex-professional hockey player who supposedly lost his own daughter in the same crash denies their existence. It seems that Telly has been suffering from a year long case of Barren Von Womb's disease (my own diagnosis), creating these fantastical notions to fulfill the ghosts of pregnancy troubles past.

Given the suspenseful ghostly-kid centered plot, the marketing wizards behind the film unsuccessfully want you to think Sixth Sense; but the film is not without its charms. Moore, for example, an excellent actress who can usually be found in juicy roles during Oscar-bait season, believably portrays a pained mother who will stop at nothing to find out what did or didn't happen to her son. To Ruben's (The Good Son, Money Train, Sleeping With The Enemy) credit, he creates a well-paced suspenseful mood in the first hour of the film, quietly grasping us and bringing us along for the ride with Telly and Ash (whom she soon convinces of his daughter's existence) as they out-run government baddies and get to the bottom of why the world denies their children's existence. There are also two feverish instances where the tiny hairs on my neck (I call them "Hairettes") stood at attention: the disquieting character-turning sequence where Ash realizes that he indeed had a daughter and the truly jolting manor by which mettlesome types who try to help our heroes are expunged from this planet.

But the film troubled me as well. First, is the continuing of a recent, noticeable trend of cinematographer's draining color for the look of the film (save for the color-infused flashbacks), leaving us with a mix of cold steel blues, grays, blacks and whites. There are also moments that are obnoxiously dark. I understand you are trying to set a mood, but the DP's of the Golden Age of Hollywood must be spinning in their graves. Secondly, those marketing wizards' "twist" ending is really just an ending, sans twis. The big secret is hinted at throughout the film and if you are still guessing by the end, well, lock up your sharp objects. But most offending, in my opinion, is the film's ultimate message about the lack of strength in the parent-child bond. Without spoiling the fruit for you, take the true glorious heart of a film like A.I. where a child searches the entire film for his mother and turn it on its literal and figurative head.

Despite an excellent first hour of suspense-building, the succeeding screen time unfulfills that initial promise and the film's ending leaves you downright disappointed. Throw in a good performance by Julianne Moore and you have a two out of four star film; good enough for rental on weeknight and a few appearances by your own "hairettes." Just make sure you know where your kids are before you watch it, ok?

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Observational Dude: How Many Dudes is That?

Five I think, not counting my "evil, bent on world-domination" dudes.

Anyways, I watch the "Daily Show" like its a potato chip laced with crack with hot dark chocolate poured on top (Movie Dude translation: addicting). Last night, Jon Stewart had Nobel Prize winning, civil and world rights activist Bishop Desmond Tutu as his guest last night. In this current murky, sludgey cable news channel, simple-folk soundbite era led by Darth Cheney, Cowboy Dubya, Well-Chinned Kerry and Handsome J. Edwards, it was supremely cold-water-in-the-face-on-a-hot-day refreshing to hear the unironic, sublime human optimism that this man, who has seen the extreme best and worst humanity has to offer, conveys with an ebullient personality that would stick to you like glue that was stapled to you for reinforcement if you were lucky enough to get close to it.

Monday, October 04, 2004

The Video Dude Strikes Again!

Sunday Night's Entertainment:

-Man on Fire (Dir: Tony Scott; Cast: Denzel Washington; The Walken (that's all you really need); Dakota (insert name joke here) Fanning; Marc "I Will Be Your Hero, Baby" Anthony; 2004)

Happy family comedy (drip sarcasm, drip) about a boozing, down-on-his-luck, shady-past-going-nowhere-fast ex-Marine named Creasy (Washington) who finds himself in Mexico accepting a low-paying job as a body guard for the daughter (Fanning) of a rich family who fears she may the next victim in a rash of kidnappings taking place in Mexico City. The Walken plays the old friend who hooks Creasy up with the gig. Guess what? She gets kidnapped. Guess who's gonna get to the bottom of it in a murderous revenge-rampage? No, not me, silly. The film is two and half hours long, which is perfect if you're watching Lawrence of Arabia, not Man on Fire; it's just way too long. You'd also think in 147 minutes we'd learn a thing about Creasy's shady past, like what caused him to be a drunk, jobless, smile-less, etc. But no. The direction, look and feel of the movie is totally overstylized: way too-many unnecessary tracks, pans, zooms, jump cuts, etc. you get the feeling that if Creasy went to McDonald's to order a Big Mac, Scott would shoot it from under a glass floor looking up with the camera whizzing around or something. Certain times I felt like I was watching a too-hip for its own good jeans commercial. I rented this because I was in the mood for it and got I wanted. If you have two hours and half hours to kill, I'd recommend community service instead.