Justin Ellis (Portland Press Herald…for now) & I on the New Releases for 3/23/10

Clooney, Clooney and more…wait, Sandra Bullock? Really? And hunky teenage werewolves? What is the world coming to? In contending with this week’s new crop of DVDs Videoport Jones and I can barely our glee over the Cloon, or our disdain for one freshly minted Oscar winner’s award fetching performance. Buckle up.


The Men Who Stare at Goats


Videoport Jones:
Everything about this oddball military comedy, from the advertising to the posters to the cast, goes to great lengths to draw comparisons to the Coen Brothers, and it’s a smart strategy; the Coens have patented a certain brand of disorientingly weird dark comedy which allows for unexpected depths of meaning and sentiment. It is also very lucrative. Hence the attempt to tie this film to their oeuvre. Problem is, “The Men Who stare at Goats” is like the Coen Brothers on a decidedly mediocre day. Perhaps something from their fallow “Intolerable Cruelty”/”The Ladykillers” period. Ewan McGregor stars and narrates (in a too-effortful American accent) as a small town newspaper reporter who, in an effort to win back the affections of his estranged wife, decides to run off to the brand new Iraq war and prove himself. Once there, the earnest but over-his-head journalist finds a hot lead in the form of a tanned, buzzcut, mustachioed Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) who quickly convinces the desperate-for-a-story Ewan of his past as part of a top-secret Army program to create psychic super soldiers. And, by ‘top-secret’, one might substitute ‘completely-bananas,’ led as it was by the mysterious Bill Django (Jeff Bridges is hilarious as the career soldier-turned-New-Age-guru, basically The Dude as Army Man), and consisting of various psy-ops experiments culled from the MK-ULTRA program and other far-out reaches of espionage history, along with a certain amount of dancing and psychedelics. Soon, Ewan and the Cloon find themselves stumbling through the desert, getting kidnapped, occasionally blown up, and generally having encounters where the Cloon’s stories, and purported powers, walk the thin line of believability without, you know, ever manifesting themselves in any proof. It’s a ramshackle road movie, with flashbacks breaking up the action, and its charms aren’t negligible; Clooney is compelling (and funny) as the ‘how crazy is he’ Cassady, and Colonel Dude is money as ever, but McGregor doesn’t work, either as a character or a narrator. I like the old unreliable narrator gag, but the fact that he’s so uninteresting and sort of dim, along with the basic unevenness of the script itself throws the whole thing out of whack (his meanderings with Clooney in the desert have an unpleasant Ishtar limpness); the best Coen Brothers movies, as convoluted as the plots are, have a masterfully-controlled tone. “The Men Who Stare at Goats” is third-rate Coen.

Justin: One has to wonder then, what exactly is second-rate Coen? Would it be a “Raising Arizona” knock-off? Interestingly enough, your Coen-lite argument may have more weight than you think. Having not been familiar with the directorial work of Mr. Grant Heslov, I paid a visit to the ol’ IMDB, which not only told me that he has largely been an actor, but he co-produced a Coen brothers movie. One guess? Anyone? “Intolerable Cruelty” is correct! So, really, that’s all you need to know. Look, I’ll give this movie the time of day because it combines funny Clooney (a totally underrated side of The Cloon as far as I am concerned) and the Academy Award-winning Dude. (Feels nice to say doesn’t it?) But back to your bigger point, should we be concerned with either filmmakers or studios trying to trade on someone else’s style, or has the time to be worried come and gone? As we’ve talked about before studios get caught up in trends, which results in a wave of movies with similar themes (natural disasters, robots overthrowing humanity, Eli Roth…shudder), but what about aping someone’s style? Is that a criminal offense? Or is it just criminal if they do it poorly? Who knows, but I think “unpleasant Ishtar limpness” should have made the DVD jacket.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

VPJ: I still haven’t seen “The Darjeeling Limited.” I’m too scared to. Director Wes Anderson’s first three films (“Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore,” and “The Royal Tenenbaums”) are not only three of my favorite films ever, but three of the best films I’ve ever seen; Anderson’s cinematic signature, a perfectly-balanced blend of deadpan humor and stealthily-soulful sentiment (and surgical-strike applications of the perfect music) operates on my heart and mind like the most beautiful drug ever created. Then his fourth film, “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” absolutely crushed me. Everything that had, in his previous films, been effortless and unerringly just right was suddenly forced and too contrived. It’s like the table shifted and everything was suddenly out of balance, and his movie was like a Wes Anderson parody. It’s not a bad movie, not at all, but it bummed me out like no other movie I’d ever seen. So when “The Darjeeling Limited” came out and everybody started out their reviews with, “Well, it’s good, but…”, I just chickened out and have chickened out ever since. I need my heroes. But, speaking of chickens, I did watch this sixth Anderson film, a stop-motion animated adaptation of the apparently-beloved Ronald Dahl book (again, I have never read it – I guess my parents just didn’t love me or something…). I think I just viewed this as something of a cinematic time out, a doodle in the margins before Anderson makes his next real movie. Not fair or accurate, I’m sure, but it allowed me to check it out and – it’s great. A great little doodle. The story of a legendary fox chicken-stealer who, at the behest of his wife, settles down and gives up his foxy ways, only to get tempted back into action by their proximity to the three biggest farms in the country, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” is charming, with just the right edge of oddball Anderson weirdness and humor to keep me happy. The voice cast is a big part of that, with the Cloon (again!) bringing a perfect mix of cockiness and fatuousness to the sneaky lead fox, Jason Schwartman making Fox, Jr. into an endearingly-resentful little dude, Bill Murray bringing his innate Bill Murray-ness to an irritated badger/lawyer, and two relative unknowns (Anderson’s brother Eric and ‘Simpsons’ writer Wallace Wolodarsky) absolutely killing it with their deadpan delivery as Fox’s nephew and an opossum, respectively. Meryl Streep is Mrs. Fox (to be honest, I didn’t recognize her, which is either a mark of her chameleon-like ability or a nice way of saying she didn’t make much of an impression). Add to that the deliberately low-tech (think “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year”) and inventive stop-motion, and some genuine danger and surprising violence (what, exactly, do you think the Fox was stealing the chickens for?), and you’ve got a real winner. I wait, in nervous anticipation, for Wes’ seventh (real) movie.

JE: Show us on the doll where Mr. Anderson hurt you Mr. Jones. It’s OK, take your time. Wow, is this what it’s like when your heroes fail you, when the world you thought you knew gets struck by a Bruckheimer-like asteroid? I feel sorry for you my friend. Do you need a little Wes Anderson therapy buddy? Ya gonna be OK there champ? have an animal cracker, I’ll take it from here. Let me tell you a story of a quirky filmmaker with an imagination and vision that marked all his films with a signature all too easy to recognize. This director, who seemed to draw the best out of his actors in simple, understated ways, then decided to venture into the world of kids films, or, pseudo kids films. You see, anything with a touch of Dahl is sneakily mature, and anyone who read “James and the Giant Peach,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” or “Danny, the Champion of the World,” can tell you it’s not all sunshine and lollipops. What am I getting at? This seems like the perfect fit of subject matter and auteur. If you ever wondered what a Wes Anderson movie would look like in stop-motion, this is it. Give it a shot. Also, I just like the story because Mr. Fox decides to get a job working for a newspaper! Someone’s gotta do it.

The Blind Side

VPJ: Here are some reasons why I am disposed not to watch this movie. 1. Sandra Bullock wins Best Actress. Ew. While I think Sandy is cute as a bug and all, she is emphatically not the best actress of anything. She’s a pretty lady, seems quite nice and charming (although perhaps marrying less of a country music Nazi next time would be wise), and is generally a well-scrubbed, competent romantic comedy female lead. The idea that Miss Congeniality (that’s her appropriate title, by the way) would win an Oscar for best actress follows the Academy’s dubious pattern of over-rewarding successful pretty people who rise, marginally, above what anyone expected of them (see: Halle Berry, Charlize Theron). 2. “Thank goodness there are conservative-valued, gun-totin’ Southern whites to turn otherwise animal-like inner city black kids into upstanding (lucrative) members of polite (white) society.” Sure, it’s not “The Blind Side’s” tagline, but it’s its subtext. And it creeps me right the hell out. 3. The film’s subject, Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher, isn’t particularly pleased with the film which (unlike the fine Michael Lewis book upon which it’s based) takes a lot of liberties with Oher’s real story. Sure, that’s par for the Hollywood course, but the changes serve to turn Oher (played by Quinton Aaron) into a hulking, ignorant, childlike figure (all the better to be raised up right by the whites), even claiming that he knew nothing about football when he came to their benevolent attentions (when, in fact, he was already a star player in high school and was being recruited, without conservative assistance, to many big-time colleges). It’s just unseemly to do that to a living guy who’s gonna get teased in the huddle. 4. Despite my love of the feetball, and of sports movies in general, I have never wanted to see this movie, even for a second. That’s not a good sign. Pass.

JE: Ugh. Do we have to do this? I really don’t want to. I really was just going to keep my mouth shut and move on. But we gotta have it out. Alright then: I call shenanigans on the whole freakin’ thing. I am no Jason Whitlock, no Michael Eric Dyson, I am not one who looks for the racial undercurrent and need to tap into for a fix. But you really can’t argue about those overtones in this movie, the whole theme of “white salvation,” which is, frankly, insulting. I remember when Oher was drafted and first hearing about his story and thought it was great. Read the reviews of Lewis’ book and was convinced it was a solid read. Somehow this flick, which is frankly a movie of the week at worse and a Disney afterthought at best, manages to be a disservice to Oher, the Tuohy’s and Lewis’ book. I’m really not sure how the director did that…actually, yes, yes I am. He wanted a story that sells better, even when the truth is pretty gripping enough. Look, I’m not going to go down the rabbit hole and chase after conservative America quite like you my friend, because no one is better at that then you, but I’ll just say I think this movie is offensive because of the way it handled an otherwise good and affecting story. As for Sandy, well, just yikes. The woman was in “All About Steve” for pete’s sake. There’s nothing wrong with her, but if you’re telling me she beats out Meryl Streep – let alone Gabourey Sidibe – I’d probably throw up on your shoes. Coincidentally, that’s the same reaction I have at the suggestion of renting “The Blind Side.”

Brothers

VPJ: Here’s another one I haven’t seen. At least I’m a little torn on this one. I framed my debate, as I often do, in the form of Homer Simpson deciding whether or not to accept the Monkey’s Paw – it was directed by Jim Sheridan, whose done very good movies like “In the Name of the Father,” “The Boxer,” “In America,” and “My Left Foot.” That’s good. It stars Natalie Portman, whom I personally can not stand. (Her whole, “I’m Hollywood royalty even though I haven’t ever really earned it” vibe bugs me; plus, one word – “younglings”). That’s bad. It was written by David Benioff, who wrote the screenplay for Spike Lee’s excellent “The 25th Hour.” That’s good. Benioff’s since written the films “Troy,” “Stay,” and “X Men Origins: Wolverine.” That’s bad. It stars both Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhall. That’s…fine. The story, two soldier brothers, one is presumed dead, the other sleeps with his brother’s wife, the other brother turns up alive – well, it’s sort of delightfully-old-fashioned in its contrivance, I suppose. Staring blankly. Justin…tell me if that’s good or bad, will you?

JE: That’s a PUSH. Unlike you, I gots no problem with The Ports. Wait..does that only work with The Cloon? I think The Ports sounds bad, don’t you? ANYWAY, yes, she was abysmal in the Star Wars movies THAT SHALL NOT BE REFERENCED, but really, everyone was. It’s like someone asked hostages to make a movie, three movies, in front of a green screen, with the promise they’d be free one shooting wraps. Uh, wow, tangent. Again, ANYWAY, this one was supposed to be this timely drama dealing with murky issues and the effects of America’s wars overseas. Instead, you just get the feeling “hasn’t this been done before?” Also you get the feeling “Which one of these guys played Spidey?” Which is to say, this movie doesn’t have a lot going for it. So pass.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon

VPJ: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. No. Nope. Nuh-uh. No.

JE: “Love at First Bite,” “Vampire in Brookyln,” “Dracula: Dead and Loving It,” “Bordello of Blood,” “From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money,” “Forever Knight,” “Blade Trinity,” “Van Helsing” I could go on, but you get the point. All of these, ALL OF THEM, are vampire fare I would watch before seeing anything with the word Twilight in it.

LIGHTENING ROUND: And the rest: Damage (An ex-con gets into illegal cage fighting in order to save the daughter of the dude he killed that one time; why should you care? He’s played by ‘rassler ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin…RRRAAAARRRRR!!), and Videoport brings you eight, count ‘em eight! new horror flicks from this year’s After Dark Horror Fest: Lake Mungo (Love that name, by the way – 16 year old girl’s drowning begins all manner of ghostiness), Dread (Three college students’ project is to discover what people, well, dread the most in this adaptation of a Clive Barker story), ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction (ZOMBIES! What else do you need to know?), Kill Theory (College students at a remote house are told they must kill each other before dawn or…dum-dum-dummmm…they all die), The Graves (Two sisters vs. maniacs, cultists, and horror semi-legends Tony Todd and Bill Moseley) and The Final (Sort of like if the kids from The Breakfast Club decided, “enough with the bonding, lets just kill all the jerks making us miserable”).

PARTING SHOTS:

– Which do you prefer, funny Clooney or dramatic Clooney?
– Overreact much? Is “The Blind Side” as bad as we think?
– Vampire movie(s) you’d watch before the Twilight series?

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Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 1:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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