The Portland Press Herald’s Justin Ellis and I Run Down the Week’s New Releases (9/15/09)

This week’s new DVD releases allow Videoport Jones and me to hit right from our wheelhouse: Comic book movies, blaxploitation revival, blacklisted screenwriters and terrible (and terribly funny) comedy. Fortunately he is a trained doctor and expert in such matters. I’m just along for the ride.

X Men Origins: Wolverine

Videoport Jones: “Okay everybody, strap yourselves in: this one’s gonna get nerdy. Although a DC Comics fanboy by trade, I’ve always has a soft spot for the X Men; maybe it’s the whole ‘mutants being persecuted as racism metaphor’ that got to me in my impressionable years, or maybe it was just Wolverine, the scrappy, feral, rageaholic Canadian scrapper with the metal skeleton and the healing factor (meaning he could have the crap kicked out of him without reservation before his claws put an end to the nonsense).

That being said, and the first two X Men movies being respectably-essayed by much more powerful fanboy Brian Singer, the onscreen Wolverine has never really done much for me. It’s not really Hugh Jackman’s fault – I like the big lug, and think the more strapping Aussies with a sense of humor and some musical theater chops we have kicking around, the better the world is, generally. It’s just that Hugh is, well, a big, amiable lug, and no amount of hair gel or cigar-chomping he does is gonna satisfy the comics nerd within who longed to see filmmakers realize the books’ Wolvie – a sawed-off little runt (he’s about 5’3″) with a bad attitude and a mysterious past.

And this new spinoff, which plucks the Canuck out of his super team (after the truly wretched, Brett Ratner-despoiled third film) and, essentially, explains the character’s convoluted backstory en route to making him another happy, well-adjusted super-dude, doesn’t make my inner dork squeal with delight, I can tell you. Hugh’s fine, if miscast as ever, but we’ve done the superhero origin thing to death, and all of the fan-pandering guest mutants in the world can’t make up for the fact that this is pretty standard stuff. A few fun action scenes, Liev Schreiber makes an entertaining Sabretooth, Hugh furrows his brow and has been working out, but, a year after the superhero movie bar was set so high by the likes of ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Iron Man,’ this one is, well, slightly above average.”

Justin: “I’m going to have to differ with you, take an alternate path, and arrive at the same conclusion. I heart Hugh Jackman, and I think as Wolverine, he’s been something of a success. I like the fact that he was a relatively unknown actor and we didn’t have to get around the whole ‘that’s X actor pretending to be Wolverine.” He does all the things we want Wolvie to do, be snarky, angst and filled with endless berserker rage.

This movie, however, was a joke. I cannot believe how many characters and Easter eggs they tried to shoehorn into this movie. Every other minute  is like a Marvel sight gag. Oh look! Emma Frost! Oh look! Scott Summers! Oh look, a little black girl with white hair! Come ON, Marvel, really? You know what that tells me, it says they had a weak script, little time to tinker and said ‘screw it, we’re going Noah’s Ark on this thing’ and proceeded to jam it up with anyone remotely related to the X-Men universe.

That said, I have to say Taylor Kitsch (of ‘Friday Night Lights’) was pretty cool as Gambit, but again, wasted. (Though I did keep saying after the film, ‘Holy crap! Tim Riggins is a Mutie!’). The action makes this one serviceable, as well as the always reliable Schreiber. Also, funny performances from Ryan Reynolds as the Merc with a Mouth, or Deadpool. Which, of course is being spun off … annnnnd now my brain hurts again…”

Next Day Air

VPJ: “I find it hard to express how little I wanted to see this movie; it had a distinctly ‘Soul Plane’ / ‘Who’s Your Caddy?’ vibe emanating from it, and my only real emotion was anger at seeing that the talented Wood Harris (Avon Barksdale from ‘The Wire’) was going to be debased, perhaps by being forced to hang out with some Wayanses. Well, I’m a (semi-) pro, so I plunked myself down in front of this one and I gotta say- actually kind of a pleasant surprise.

J.D.!  Carla!  Help!!

J.D.! Carla! Help!!

While marketed as an ‘urban’ (read: ‘black’) stoner comedy (think ‘Half Baked,’ ‘How High,’ etc.), ‘Next Day Air’ reminded me of nothing so much as a ’70s blaxploitation movie, which I mean as a compliment. Like a blaxploitation flick, this movie’s criminal milieu is populated by some very talented ‘minority’ actors (someone had to point out to me that there is not one speaking role for a white person in the entire film) who take the opportunity afforded them to create some surprising shadings to their seemingly stereotypical characters. Those bringing more to the table than you might think include: the aforementioned Harris (somehow lending gravitas to a character as dangerous as, but about a third as smart as, Avon Barksdale), Mos Def (charismatic and funny as ever in a small role), Cisco Reyes (as a drug dealer with too-scared eyes), Donald Faison (a favorite of both my and Justin’s families [and pets] from ‘Scrubs’ who’s touchingly helpless as the hapless pothead delivery guy who starts the whole mess), and a guy I’d never heard of named Omari Hardwick, who, as a smooth, smart drug dealer looking to get out, has the screen presence to be a big star, if I’m any judge of such things.

Sure, they’re playing all variety of screw-ups and lowlifes but, as in those blaxploitation movies of yore, they take the roles the marketplace gives them and make something sort of impressive out of them. Add in some nicely assured direction (someone hipper than I will have to explain what a ‘Benny Boom’ is), and a surprisingly tight script which gets darker and more intense as things go on, and, well, I’m sort of impressed.”

JE: “Jonesy, I am impressed, my man! Oh, I’m sorry, I mean, my MAIN man! Ahem. You took your misgiving, the warning signals and your healthy skepticism and set them aside and had a little fun. Since we’re on the subject of blaxploitation, let me say that some of my favorite all-time movies include the legendary Bill Cosby/Sidney Portier team-ups of the 70s that include ‘Uptown Saturday Night,’ ‘Let’s Do it Again,’ and ‘A Piece of the Action.’ Those movies not only had these two heavyweights hamming it up and having a blast, but featured talent like Ruby Dee, Ozzie Davis, John Amos and James Earl Jones. What made these movies great was that aside from the cast and the plots, they were a laughing commentary on parts of life in the black community.

While I’m not going to say ‘How High’ or anything starring Bill Bellamy is on par with that, some of the current ‘urban’ cinema continues to carry that flag today. At the end of the day these are not scathing social commentaries, but light-hearted flicks. Plus, anytime you can throw Donald Faison, Mos Def and Avon Harris together is worth a viewing. Heck, anything with Donald Faison is worth a watch in my book.”

Stella: Live in Boston

VPJ: “Stella is/are Michael Showalter, David Wain, and Michael Ian Black, three erstwhile members of the brilliant sketch comedy troupe ‘The State’ (the entire run of which is finally available for rent at Videoport, natch,) and ‘Stella’ is the stage name for their loony, absurdist stage show. Dressed in identical suits, the three here, as in their short-lived Comedy Central series and legendary internet shorts, seem to the uninitiated to just be screwing around onstage. Once properly initiated, viewers still think they’re basically just screwing around on stage, but just sit back and enjoy it. David and the Michaels are a post-modern Marx Brothers, deconstructing standup comedy with absurdist wordplay, dadaist digression, and anti-comic hipness to create a completely winning, weird, and hilarious goofball entertainment. Sure, what I just said sounds like a big mouthful o’nothin’, but you try to explain what it is they do – it ain’t easy. But it is decidedly funny.”

JE: “Let me pose a question: Are the gang from ‘The State’ comedy snobs? I was listening to a podcast the other day and someone said they thought Showalter, Black and that crew were decidedly aloof and above other comedians. At first I thought the comment was ridiculous and showed a failure to ‘get’ what they do. But on second pass, I can see where the comment comes from. There is nothing typical about what they do. You’d be hard-pressed to find a punchline in a lot of what they do. In particular ‘Stella’ and ‘Wainy Days’ are not typical comedy, and, to take one point of view, can seem kind of mean. And now, as you roll off a thesaurus-worth of Scrabble words to describe Stella, I wonder if the criticism is right. And then I remember that these guys make me laugh, so the haters can take a flying leap. It is absurd, it is beyond absurd, what they do. Their humor has no predecessor, and without some sort of reference that can confuse people. I like it.”


VPJ: “Nifty little documentary about the legendarily shafted novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (‘Johnny Got His Gun,’ ‘Spartacus,’ ‘A Guy Named Joe,’ about 50 others) who, along with the rest of the so-called ‘Hollywood Ten’ (and hundreds of others) was blacklisted by right-wing jerks trying to use fear to force Americans to abandon their civil rights in the name of ‘security’ (sound familiar?). Trumbo was a garrulous, cranky wit, and ‘Trumbo’ benefits from that, especially since it employs current stars/admirers (all in fine voice) to recite selections from the man’s scripts and letters including Brian Dennehy, Nathan Lane, Paul Giamatti, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, and others. If you are not frozen in rapt attention after Donald Sutherland finishes his climactic reading from ‘Johnny Got His Gun,’ well, then, I just don’t wanna know you.”

JE: “Little known fact: Trumbo’s daughter dated Steve Martin. I only know this because I recently re-listened to Martin’s autobiography. True fact. ANYHOO, if you are not particularly interested in Trumbo’s work, (and really, you should be – ‘Papillion,’ ‘Spartacus,’ ‘Roman Holiday,’ ‘The Brave One’ –  It’s likely you enjoy something he wrote, or some later adaptation of it), you should be interested in his story. I don’t know how anyone can’t be interested in the history of the so-called ‘Red Scare’ and the communist hunt by the House Un-American Activities Committee. We’re talking about the U.S. government essentially plucking people out, accusing them of something they cannot prove or disprove, and destroying lives. The phrase ‘Are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party?’ should be chilling even today. The thing about Trumbo is he didn’t disappear, and in fact, continued to rage on. Like a little history? Like classic movies? You should rent this. Now.”

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – Season 4

VPJ: “Boy, did it take me a while to warm up to this show; recommended ad nauseum to me by various people whose taste, upon viewing the first few episodes, I seriously began to doubt, I found this sitcom, about four friends (and, later, one father) who run a seedy bar in the City of Brotherly Love and Pelting Santa With Snowballs, pretty repellent. And it remains that. But, once I clued into the fact that these were intended to be the five worst human beings in a televisual world of unremitting cruelty and awfulness, well, that’s when then fun began. There’s a surprising amount of wit and comic invention underlying the misanthropic goings-on, and the performers, especially Charlie Day as the group’s resident punching bag, and, hilariously, Danny DeVito as the world’s worst dad, are energetic and funny. You’ll hate yourself, but you’ll laugh. A lot.”

JE: “That pretty much sums it up perfectly. They need that as a tagline. ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: You’ll hate yourself, but you’ll laugh. A lot.’ You are right about the fact that these are despicable, loathsome people. You are supposed to hate them in the way you are supposed to hate people like Tony Soprano. Of course they don’t make a habit of killing people. Well, not intentionally. No, instead they pretend to be handicapped, scam welfare, provide alcohol to minors and trade in misogyny. And it’s terrible. And terribly funny. The way I always see it is these people are the final extension, the peak, of what Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer were on ‘Seinfeld.’ Instead of the soup nazi or the close talker, we get things that are far, far worse. And inexplicable things like Green Man. I know it’s wrong, and I shudder to think what it says about me, but I love this show. Should I be seeking counseling?”


VPJ: “Speaking of hating yourself, and misanthropy, Videoport brings in this controversial horror film about a couple of stoner layabouts who skip school and break into an abandoned asylum (like ya do), only to discover a naked, seemingly unkillable possible zombie (the unfortunate titular lass) chained to an exam table. Perhaps the most controversial horror flick of the year (amongst the few who’ve actually heard of it) – don’t say we don’t bring the weird.”

JE: “Stoners? Abandoned asylums? Naked zombie girls? “Uh…only at Videoport ladies and gentlemen!”

Finally, Jonesy shares his picks for this week, including “Easy Virtue.” Jonesy says “Adaptation of the Noel Coward play, starring Colin Firth. Your mom will love it.” Also on the shelves this week, plenty o’ TV to get you ready for the start of the new fall season: “The Big Bang Theory,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice” and “The IT Crowd.”

Parting Shots:
– Your thoughts on “Wolverine?” Was Jackman the problem? The script?
– Blaxploitation revival: Name another flick you think could fit in this ‘genre’
– Tell the truth, does watching ‘It’s Always Sunny’ make you hate yourself a bit?

Published in: on September 15, 2009 at 11:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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