Saturday, November 28, 2009

FANTASTIC MR. FOX: The Film Babble Blog Review

FANTASTIC MR. FOX

Dir. Wes Anderson, 2009)


The highly detailed microcosms that Wes Anderson crafts (think the theatrical productions of Max Fischer in RUSHMORE, the family townhouse in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, the cross section of Steve Zissou’s research submarine The Belafonte in THE LIFE AQUATIC, et al) fit perfectly into the storybook world of Roald Dahl in this film that more than does its title justice. The stop motion technique may at first glance strike one as primitive in these days of CGI saturation but the results aren't disjointed they're jaunty and full of life.


A slick, quick talking George Clooney voices Mr. Fox, a chicken thief turned newspaper columnist, who secretly returns to a life of crime defying a promise he made to his wife (Meryl Streep). Mr. Fox targets farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean: “One short, one fat, one lean. These horrible crooks, so different in looks, were nonetheless equally mean” as Dahl described and the film quotes in its opening. Mr. Fox’s son, voiced by Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman, is struggling to be noticed at school when he finds himself in the shadow of his visiting cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) but they bond when getting wind of Fox’s 3 phase heist plan.


With the aid of a wacky opossum named Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky), Mr. Fox pulls off his thieving schemes evoking the murderous wrath of the furious farmers who destroy his tree home forcing Fox and family to plough deep into the earth’s surface to escape. Fox’s tail gets shot off in the initial attack but it does little to discourage his plucky determination and cunning charm. The marvelous mix of quirky characters includes Willem Dafoe as a slimy security guard rat, Jarvis Cocker as a human hippy protest singer named Petey, with a few more Anderson regulars - Owen Wilson and Bill Murray as Coach Skip and a badger lawyer respectively rounding out the cast.


Anderson’s knack for setting the beats and tone with an eclectic blend of music from American standards to British rock ‘n roll pays off grandly here with composer Alexandre Desplat’s fine score filling in the rest. The Beach Boys “Heroes and Villains” (from “Smiley Smile” not Brian Wilson’s recent re-recording of “Smile”) works wonderfully in the punchy title sequence as does The Rolling Stones’ immortal “Street Fighting Man” in a chase scene set piece.


FANTASTIC MR. FOX is a clever, funny, and fiercely intelligent film. With endearing style and grace it successfully welds the warmth of an old-school children's book sensibility with the hip humor of new-school speaking rhythms. It's the least pretentious and possibly the most accessible of Anderson's ouvre but it's so much more than that; Wes's witty and wise Fox concoction is an instant classic.


More later...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

AN EDUCATION: The Film Babble Blog Review

AN EDUCATION (Dir. Lone Scherfig, 2009)


It certainly isn’t a “meet cute” when 16 year old school girl Carey Mulligan is offered a ride home from Peter Sarsgaard in his snazzy sports car, but it isn’t exactly a “meet creep” either. Though Sarsgaard has a creepy reputation (his monologue on SNL a few years back was completely about how creepy he can be) here his character is a charming witty Englishman who has the ticket to an opulent new life for Mulligan, one filled with elegant culture and reams of romance. Or so it seems.


Set in a pre-Beatlemania Britain that Mulligan repeatedly calls “boring”, and based on a recently published memoir by Lynn Barber, the story is a simple coming of age one. Mulligan is impressed by Sarsgaard – a man able to charm her parents (a wonderfully befuddled Alfred Molina and a smirking Cara Seymour) into letting her go to a concert and dinner for their first date. He then reaches further with overnight trips to Oxford and Paris while Mulligan’s school mates blush with envy and her teacher (Olivia Williams) and headmistress (Emma Thompson) disapprove.



Our pithy protagonist is a bit taken aback when she discovers that her new beau is an art thief and a slick wheeler and dealer involved in blockbusting (the practice of moving minorities into apartments to make old racist women vacate so the apartments can be purchased cheaply), but she’s still soft for Sarsgaard.


As the first solo screenplay written by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity”, “About A Boy”, “Fever Pitch” and their respective film adaptations) one of the best modern novelists working today, AN EDUCATION is tightly written with sharp realistic dialogue and a touching tone. It is, perhaps is a bit too tightly written as the last act has some pat payoffs and all too tidy summations of character’s realizations. That doesn't stop it from being a sweet little gem of a movie with great chemistry between the actors and a very satisfying ending. I doubt it will win any awards but I bet it’ll make a bunch of “best of 2009” year end lists. Although, not sure yet if it’ll make mine.


More later...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Visiting The New Varsity Theater On The Verge Of Its Reopening

This Friday, the 27th, the Varsity Theater in downtown Chapel Hill is officially reopening (there was a sneak preview showing of THE WIZARD OF OZ on Sunday night, the 22nd). The theater, which closed last June, has been undergoing heavy renovations so I thought I'd visit and check out just what the new owners - Paul and Susan Shareshian - are doing to restore the theater to its former movie-house glory. Last Friday Susan Shareshian showed me around as the carpet was being installed and we talked a bit about the changes they've made and their plans for the theater's future.

Dan: Well, I’m really impressed with the place. It’s got the old fashioned theater look going in the nicest way.


Susan Shareshian: Thanks - we had UNC art students paint those murals on the panels.


D: Those look incredible and the whole place looks so clean.


SS: Yeah, it took a long time to get it like this... to get it free of dust.


D: So what are the Holiday movies you’re going to be showing in December and are they going to be 35 millimeter prints?


SS: They are all going to be original prints. We have “A Christmas Story”, “Polar Express”, “Miracle On 34th Street”, and “Christmas Vacation”.


D: So I see the birthday room is that going to be where the office was before – have you had bookings for that yet?


SS: We do have bookings for not only birthdays but we have bookings for holiday parties – not just for kids but for adults. We also have some private screenings for people who have made films and want a place to show it. At this point, it’s been about a month, it couldn’t be better. People are very very excited about it. We’re thrilled. This is all very grass roots, it’s really just Paul and I and our friends and family that are helping us. The goal is on the site to have the calendar so you see what’s coming, also to do advance purchase for tickets.


D: In the theaters how much work has been done?


SS: They are all being re-carpeted too. The chairs are the same, the carpet’s changing, the curtains are new, the moldings are new, and that’s about it. So far. And then in the red theater, the big theater…Paul wants to name them but he can’t come up with good names…


D: So you’ll show the older films in the small theater?


SS: Probably. It depends, “The Wizard Of Oz” we’re going to show in the big theater.


D: When did you decide to take on the theater and make a go of it? Was it right when you heard the theater was going to close?


SS: Yep, and then we had to be really thorough about understanding about how to run a successful theater and what that means. What the distribution companies want and how they work and all that stuff. One thing we’re going to do is we’re going to ask “what do you want to see?” I can tell you right now that everybody wants to see “Star Wars”, everybody wants to see “Back To The Future”, so when we show those it’s gonna be busy. Then if we pick some that are my favorites we probably won’t be as busy but that’s okay! We’re also going to do some other cool stuff like Wednesday afternoons we’re going to have foreign films for seniors. We’re going to work out deals with senior communities to have them bused here so they can be dropped off. Things like that.


D: Well I’ll definitely be here on opening day.


SS: Good! We’re going to do pre-sales starting on Monday. We’ll be here at the ticket window – I’m going to take the paper off the windows on Monday but leave the paper on the doors until Friday.


D: So you’ll be set up for credit cards?


SS: Yep. Mastercard, Visa, and debit but no American Express.


D: Will there be any differences with concessions?


SS: We're working something out with Sugarland across the street to have desserts and we've been also talking about bringing in a gelato machine. But other than that it will be pretty traditional movie theater candies.


D: The classics?


SS: Yep. The classics.


I was sorry to miss the sneak preview last night which I heard was a rousing success but, like I said, I'll be there this Friday for the Grand re-opening. It's great to see the theater in such great shape and here's hoping that Paul and Susan Shareshian's enthusiasm and drive will help the Varsity thrive for a long time.


More later...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

PRECIOUS: The Film Babble Blog Review

PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE BOOK PUSH BY SAPPHIRE
(Dir. Lee Daniels, 2009)



The title may be as hard to swallow as some of the harrowing events on display in this movie, but apparently the film makers thought it was a necessity to avoid confusion with another film titled PUSH that came out last year. Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is the name of an overweight illiterate 16 year old living in the Harlem slums of 1987. She is pregnant for the second time by her abusive father and her even more abusive mother (Mo'Nique) also beats her regularly.

Precious's only escape from her living Hell of a life is through extreme flights of her imagination. She fantasizes about being a famous celebrity attending gala premieres and photo-shoots. At one point she looks in the mirror she sees a thin white blonde girl. Fortunately for the film these flashy moments of surrealism are used sparingly as the nitty gritty of reality is where she'll have to learn to survive.

After being expelled for her pregnancy, Precious is sent to an alternate school where she struggles through her everyday existence. She doesn't even know what an alternate school is, she tells us in her sometimes poetic narration, but she gives it a go though intimidated by her teacher, played by the almost too perfect looking for her part Paula Patton, and her new schoolmates.

In terms of performances PRECIOUS is a powerhouse. Sidibe has presense and poise in the most unpleasant of situations, and this movie is full of intensely unpleasant situations. Mo'Nique, who I've never really seen act before this, is incredible as the broken down beast of a Mother especially in a tear jerking concluding scene. An Oscar nomination is inevitable for that scene alone. I have to admit that I did not recognize Mariah Carey in a small but crucial part in this film. As de-glamorized as possible Carey was surprisingly solid as an actress in her role as concerned social worker.


In a film as dark and startling as many thrillers, we feel for Sidibe but that subsides a bit as the structure of the second half of the film is a bit off with some misplaced humor (though I did like somebody mentioning that they just saw BARFLY - "piece of shit") and ersatz elements like Lenny Kravitz as a male nurse lounging around for no reason. I predict that PRECIOUS will certainly find an audience as a heartfelt production with controversial content but the acting will be what it's most remembered for. The powerfully touching performances elevate the film far above the middlebrow milieu of most dramas and save it from being another glorified afternoon special. Just barely.

More later...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

They Can’t All Be M*A*S*H: 10 Failed Attempts To turn Hit Movies Into Hit TV Shows

Everybody knows M*A*S*H, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Alice (based on Martin Scorsese’s ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE) were successful long-running TV series based on popular movies but there have been dozens of other adaptations that didn’t make the grade and are largely forgotten these days. For one misguided reason or another most of them barely finished out a season with only a handful of episodes airing and a few never made it past the pilot stage. Here are 10 of the most notable, or most amusing, failures to translate booming box office into ratings sensation:

1. Delta House (Based on NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE) (1979) As a mid season replacement that only ran 13 episodes, this actually had decent ratings but was brought down by battles with the network (ABC). Retaining several of the original cast members (John Vernon, James Widdoes, Stephen Furst, and Bruce McGill), Delta House had the impossible task of making gross out frat boy humor work in prime time with canned laughter. With Josh Mostel standing in for Bluto John Belushi (understandably too big and busy with SNL and The Blues Brothers at that time to do a sitcom) as his brother Jim 'Blotto' Blutarsky, the show was either too tame or too lame to catch on. Still it had its moments and it's worth looking up on YouTube if only to see a young Michelle Pfeiffer (credited as "The Bombshell") slutting it up on the Delta's crusty couch. Also worth noting: John Hughes wrote 5 episodes.




2. Fargo (1997) This is odd indeed, a pilot directed by Kathy Bates based on the Coen Brothers classic with Edie Falco (best known as Carmella Soprano) in the Marge Gunderson role made famous by Frances McDormand. A few minutes are below and it's funny to see Falco in the get-up and accent - comes off pretty SNL-ish really:




Despite that it's not a bad clip. By the way it's dated 2003 because it was aired that year as part of the now defunct Trio channel's "Brilliant But Canceled" series. The episode looks like it would be a nice bonus feature on a future DVD and Blu ray edition of FARGO. Which brings us to:


3. Black Bart (Based on BLAZING SADDLES) (1975) As an extra on the 30th Anniversary edition DVD of BLAZING SADDLES this is a fairly unfunny pilot yet still a likable curio. Featuring Louis Gossett Jr. and Steve Landesberg in the Clevon Little and Gene Wilder parts respectively and an obnoxious laugh track (see also #1 on this list) this acts as further proof that a raunchy R-rated movie can not be successfully sanitized into sitcom fodder.


4. Parenthood (1990-1991)

This was actually a decent Thirtysomething styled show with a solid cast including Ed Begley Jr, Jane Atkinson, David Arquette, Thora Birch, Leonardo DiCaprio (!), and the recently deceased Ken Ober. Zachary La Voy and Ivyann Schwan reprised their roles from the film and Ron Howard executive produced. The show was written by Joss Whedon who, of course, would have better luck with future endeavors. In the last year a second attempt to adapt the 1989 movie has materialized with Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Craig T. Nelson, and Bonnie Bedalia. It's only appearing on this list as a footnote to the 1990 version as it hasn't aired yet.


5. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1973) I was unable to find any clips of this adaptation of the racy 1969 movie but the concept of sitcom-izing these 2 married couples struggling through the sexual revolution is baffling at best. Robert Urich, Anne Archer, David Spielberg, and Anita Gillette take the places of their big screen counterparts (Robert Culp, Natalie Wood, Elliot Gould, and Diane Cannon) and Jodie Foster appeared in 2 episodes as Ted and Alice's daughter but reportedly the show was too much titillation for network censors and not enough titillation for viewers so it was canceled after 12 episodes.


6. The Bad News Bears (1979-1980) This was one I watched as a kid. It was cute-crude rather than crude-cute like the movie (or movies - there were 2 sequels not to mention a 2005 remake) and Jack Warden actually was a good television replacement for Walter Matthau in the role of Morris Buttermaker. It lasted longer than most on this with 22 episodes but was cancelled just a few episodes into its second season. A pre-puberty Corey Feldman played one of the bratty Bears so there's that too. Again it was hard to find any video proof of this show but I did locate this promo for its premiere coupled with The White Shadow:



7. Ferris Bueller (Based on FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF) (1990-1991) This one season NBC spin-off starring Charlie Schlatter is mainly remembered for being one of Jennifer Anniston's first roles (she played Ferris's sister Jeannie). That's fine because little else about it is very memorable except that FOX had a competing show with the almost the exact same premise: Parker Lewis Can't Lose. Parker Lewis brutally beat Bueller in the ratings and went on to last 3 seasons. Ouch.


8. The Player (1997) Very little information exists about this spin-off with Patrick Dempsey in the Griffin Mill role part that was played to perfection by Tim Robbins in the excellent 1992 film, but writer Michael Tolkin talks about it quite a bit in the commentary on the THE PLAYER DVD. Jennifer Grey and Jennifer Garner also starred. Definitely another one that would be neat to see surface someday.


9. Revenge of the Nerds (1991) As another lame pilot that wasn't picked up this only makes the list because of the appearance of the rowdy Robbie Rist as Booger (played by Curtis Armstrong in the film series). Rist, best known as Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch but should be recognized for tons of other notable work (Mary Tyler Moore, CHiPs, The Bionic Woman, What's Happening, etc.) plays up the weak material with gusto while everybody else fades into the background. Still, it's a pretty sucky show as you can well see:




10. Herbie, The Matchmaker (1981) I saw this one as well when I was a kid and really didn't like it - maybe I was getting too old for Herbie anyway but making the crafty Volkswagen racing car into cupid struck me as pretty stupid. Dean Jones, who was in 2 of the movies, reprised his role as Herbie's owner and, uh, I don't remember anything else. It only lasted 5 episodes so I doubt I'm alone. This clip featuring one of the worst theme songs in TV history doesn't bring anything flooding back either:




Okay! So, that just scratches the surface as there are many more failed attempts to cash in on a movie's success with an idiot box redux out there so let me know if you have any favorites. I purposely ignored animated adaptations (I just didn't want to write about Clerks) but, of course, will welcome all comments about them.


This post is dedicated to Ken Ober (1957-2009)

R.I.P.


More later...

Friday, November 13, 2009

DVD Review: ABEL RAISES CAIN

ABEL RAISES CAIN (Dirs. Jenny Abel & Jeff Hocket, 2005, Released on DVD in 2009)


“When SINA was in its heyday, my dad could walk into any television studio with a drawing of a horse wearing shorts tucked under his arm and they would put him right on the air."

- Jenny Abel


Alan Abel may not be a household name but the stature of his many elaborate media pranks is sure to grow - thanks to this fine film. For well over 50 years Abel has employed many different personas, created wide ranging movements out of thin air, and duped countless news outlets as much in the name of fun as in making a provocative statement about what constitutes news.


This documentary, narrated by his daughter Jenny Abel (who wrote, edited and directed the project with her boyfriend Jeff Hockett), makes a compelling narrative out of the life of man who is not out to scam money from his hoaxes but instead wishes to overthrow the conventions of television and print journalism as wells as public perception. But that’s just a fancy way of putting it because simply what Abel has done and continues to is just damn funny.


Jenny Abel describes her father as someone who “decided long ago that he didn’t want to work rat-race hours in some large corporation” so he fell back on a career as a professional drummer. One day in the late 50’s on the way to a gig he got stuck in a traffic jam because a bull and a cow were having sex in the middle of the road. The disgusted looks on the faces of his fellow motorists inspired a wild satirical notion: a society to clothe all naked animals for the sake of decency (SINA: The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals).


This fictitious organization, devised as a parody of the moral extreme with such slogans as: “a nude horse is a rude horse”, caught fire and Abel hired an unemployed actor by the name of Buck Henry to be the spokesman. Henry, who went on to co-write THE GRADUATE and appear as a frequent host of Saturday Night Live in the 70’s, was a willing and hilarious accomplice (under the name G. Clifford Prout) as old archival footage attests.


Even though Time Magazine exposed SINA as a hoax in 1963, this was just the beginning for Abel and his wife Jeanne who spent decades putting their all into one crazy hare-brained yet strangely plausible scheme after another. For instance there was the 1964 presidential campaign to elect Jewish grandmother Yetta Bronstein (she didn’t exist), the faking of press conferences for Watergate informant Deep Throat and famous millionaire recluse Howard Hughes, and “Omar’s School for Beggars” - a panhandling program presided over by Abel (as Omar of course) wearing a black hood to keep people from recognizing him.


As a collection of fascinating footage and reminiscences, ABEL RAISES CAIN is as entertaining as it is informative and Jenny Abel’s personal approach in which she wants to make clear his motives and let us in on his private philosophies help make it one of the finest bio docs of the genre. “He was never trying to maliciously scam anyone” and “he was so convincing that it was hard to figure out exactly when he was ‘in’ character and when he wasn’t” she tells us and by the end of the film we can strongly feel her affection and awe of her father.


As times changed and the 80’s glut of tabloid talk shows clogged the airwaves, Abel’s manipulative methods were co opted by producers who hired actors to do the same shtick. These days Abel still keeps the shtick going with “Citizens Against Breast Feeding” even though the film depicts his wife and him losing their house and living in a neighbor’s basement apartment.


Political activist pranksters like The Yes Men have obviously learned a lot from Abel’s actions and as have other modern jokester journalists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert but there's much more going on here than punchy yet pointed jabs at the media machine. The best biographical documentaries are as much about their subject as they are the times that sparked them on with definitive examples including CRUMB, SAINT MISBEHAVIN’: THE WAVY GRAVY MOVIE, and WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE. ABEL RAISES CAIN stands proudly and provocatively with them.


Post note: The DVD has a bunch of great bonus material including deleted scenes, raw footage of the Howard Hughes hoax, a family commentary, and, best of all, a 15 minute featurette elaborating on Abel's 2006 "Powerball lottery" hoax.


More later...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS
(Dir. Grant Heslov, 2009)

"More of this is true than you would believe" so says a disclaimer of sorts at the beginning of this film. Also the film isn't "based on" it's "inspired by the book" which is another nifty indicator that this is as loosely based on real events as possible. So in their adaptation the film makers decided to follow John Ford's advice and "print the legend" with this absurd exploration of a secret paranormal army program based on hippy New Age concepts that most likely didn't exist. "Or did it?" they want us to ask as we leave the theater but it doesn't dig deep enough to actually bring that question to mind for the project just skates on the surface of craziness, never cracking the ice.

Not to say it isn't a worthwhile movie - it's well crafted with good performances by Ewan McGregor as a down on his luck journalist who stumbles upon these psychic spies, George Clooney as one of the top men of the unique unit who considers himself a Jedi warrior (we get to see him kill a goat with his mind - hence the title), and, best of all, Jeff Bridges as a very Dude like intelligence officer who may have taken his training too far. As an adversary Kevin Spacey has a one-note role but it's a necessary well played note that happily won't bring smug crap like K-PAX (also with Bridges) back to mind - 'cept that I just did because I'm sadistic like that.

McGregor forms an unlikely friendship with Clooney crossing the desert of Kuwait as frequent flashbacks fill in the convoluted back-story. There is a busy narrative but it's not very strong as the film seems to go in circles in its second half. Regardless Clooney crony Heslov (he co-wrote GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK) gets a good visual vibe going with amusing Wes Anderson style montages and swift set pieces. With stronger material Heslov is sure to hit a home run on a future project.

Funny but not hilarious, THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS is a likable lark that won't make my best of the year list but I can see stopping on it when clicking through cable channels sometime down the line. I bet I'll think the same then - that Clooney and Co. were shooting for DR. STRANGELOVE and they got SPIES LIKE US. They should still rejoice though for there are far worse fates.


More later...

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A SERIOUS MAN: The Film Babble Blog Review

A SERIOUS MAN
(Dirs. Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)

"No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture."
- Disclaimer in the end credits.

In the 25 years since they first burst on the indie movie scene with the stellar BLOOD SIMPLE, the Coen Brothers have hit many cinematic curveballs into the woodwork of their films. Those being character or tangents (or both) that appear not to fit initially into their understood premises and leave us scratching our heads to their purpose in the grand scheme of things. Examples include: Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) -the high-school classmate of Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) who oddly appears at an pivotal point in FARGO, the pedophile bowling rival Jesus Quintana (John Turturro) who steals a good 5 minutes of THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and Ed Crane's (Billy Bob Thornton) UFO dream in THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE. As perplexing as these seemingly ersatz elements are, they are often the most memorable moments of their movies. Imagine if they concocted an entire film out of such scenes.

A SERIOUS MAN isn't quite that concoction, but it comes pretty damn close with its unproven paradoxes, character threads that aren't followed through, and fake-out dream sequences. On the surface it's about the trials and tribulations of Minnesotan physics professor Larry Gobnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the late 60's. Beneath the surface it's about religion, betrayal, academia, Jewish suffering, and a futile search for meaning - I think. When the opening couplet of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody To Love" (a driving force throughout the movie) is recited by a Rabbi as if it's an ancient prayer, you can be sure that what this film is about exactly is going to be up for debate for a long time.

Gobnik is surrounded by headaches - his wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce, his schlebbish but possibly brilliant brother (Richard Kind) sleeps on his couch, his daughter (Jessica McManus) is stealing from his wallet for a nose job, his son (Aaron Wolff) is stealing from her for marijuana, and his tenure may be threatened by a series of slanderous anonymous letters that his school's committee keeps receiving. There's also a thick headed racist gun-toting neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) and a Korean student (David Kang) who attempts to bribe Gobnik for a passing grade. In a confrontation over that particular no-win situation the student's father tells Gobnik to "accept the mystery." Obviously that's what the Coen Brothers are telling us too.

Here's hoping movie goers got their A-list fill with their previous outing BURN AFTER READING because there are very few recognizable names here. Folks will likely know Richard Kind and Adam Arkin (as a somewhat sympathetic lawyer) from various television roles, but the cast is mostly fresh and unknown with Stuhlbarg's
pitch perfect exasperated everyman standing out in the starring role.

As one of the Rabbis that Gobnik seeks solace from, George Wyner (also familiar from TV as well as turns in fan favorites SPACEBALLS and FLETCH) owns one of the best scenes
in the film (an instant classic in the Coens canon BTW) relaying a story about a dentist who is shocked to find Hebrew engravings on the back of a non-Jewish patient's teeth.

Gobnik's son Danny's (Wolff) bar mitzvah
is another notable highlight. While his father struggles with existential discord, Danny's biggest concerns are out-running a bully he owes money and getting the best possible TV signal so he can watch F Troop. As seen through Danny's stoned eyes, the paranoia pulsating through his coming of age ceremony is pleasingly palpable.

There is quite a bit of humor in A SERIOUS MAN but it's not laugh out loud funny, it's more like inward cringing giggle funny. It has been called the Coen Brother's most personal film as the suburban tract housing world it creates is reportedly identical to the one of their childhood as are the overriding rites of a traditional Jewish upbringing but it rarely comes off auto-biographical. Gobnik and his family's fates are literally about to be twisting in the wind as we leave them and while that's of little comfort - for some reason it made me smile. One day maybe I'll be able to say exactly why.

More later...

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Blu Ray Review: DRAG ME TO HELL

DRAG ME TO HELL
(Dir. Sam Raimi, 2009)


There's a not-so-inside joke not too far into this movie that fans of Raimi's past work will definitely appreciate. Bank loan officer Allison Lohman gets a curse put on her by a old one-eyed gypsy woman (Lorna Raver) when she denies a third loan extension on the mortgage on the hag's home. Lohman's life gets angrily assaulted from every angle by a demonic force that only she experiences resulting in one bloody trauma after another. Her perpetually nice boyfriend Justin Long tries to console her and suggests they take a trip away from it all. "The cabin?" She asks as her face lights up. "Yeah, if you're up for it, the cabin!" he good naturedly suggests. "There's trees and it will be private." Yeah, right!

It's no Spoiler to tell you that they never make it to that cabin in the woods. That was a shout out and not-so-subtle sign that Raimi is back to his old gruesome game; a head first trip into EVIL DEAD territory after years of SPIDERMAN spectacle (albeit retaining the CGI) but this time there's a meaty moralistic story behind all the gore.

With her wide eyes, golden locks, and school girl clothes, Lohman is not one you'd expect would fare well against the forces of darkness and that's precisely the point. We feel for her as she's being usurped at work by a new conniving co-worker (Reggie Lee) and is down about the damning disapproval of her boyfriend's parents. Then her boss (the always reliable deadpan David Paymer) tells her to get the assistant manager position she desires, she's going to have to show that she can make tough decisions.


Unfortunately the before mentioned one-eyed gypsy lady happens to be next in line and Lohman makes that potentially fatal error in judgment. Later after a violent parking garage confrontation, the crazy crone grabs a button off Lohman's coat and with it places that calamitous curse. Lohman desperately tries to shake the curse, turning to a storefront psychic (Dileep Rao) who identifies the invisible evil entity who is tormenting her as the Lamia - an ancient powerful demon beast who, unless she finds a way to reverse the curse, after 3 days will indeed drag her to Hell.

Among the tasty twists in this tale there's a séance sequence conducted by Adrianna Barraza in which various participants are possessed by the Lamia. The séance involves a goat, a lot of screaming (Lohman's a great screamer), and lines like: "You're okay? Unbelievable!" in case you are wondering.

DRAG ME TO HELL is funny, scary, and extremely well-made with as much wit as it has disgusting bodily fluids flowing. It has a sweet balance between nightmarish bombast and down-time scenes with Lohman and Long that resemble rom com fodder (most folks know though that such scenes are there to trick not comfort us). It's a welcome reminder that modern horror movies don't always have to be wretched remakes or SAW sequels, there can be actual thought to the terror and the narratives too.

It's great to see that despite swimming in the mainstream for so long Raimi still has enough blood and guts gusto to pull off a project like this - a PG-13 one at that. It also speaks to the times that all this torture comes from the actions of one's ambition at the cost of another's life. Even if it is too simplistic to truly make any serious ethical statement, the idea that a seemingly decent person has to painfully pay the ultimate price for a selfish in-the-moment mistake - the kind a lot of us make every day - now that's horror.


More later...

Monday, November 2, 2009

DVD Review: THE ACHIEVERS: THE STORY OF THE LEBOWSKI FANS

THE ACHIEVERS: THE STORY OF LEBOWSKI FANS (Dir. Eddie Chung, 2009)

"Friday we watch the movie, on Saturday we become the movie." - Will Russell (Founding Dude, Lebowski Fest)


First released to bad box office and mostly critical indifference, over the last 11 years THE BIG LEBOWSKI has grown a following of fans so large that they regularly meet for conventions all over the country called "Lebowski Fests". This documentary, made from modest means, tells the story of how these events celebrating "the first cult film of the internet era" came together - from such ramshackle beginnings as an impromptu party at a bowling alley with 150 people to large lavish venues attended by thousands with appearances by actors from the film, rock bands, and all sorts of special guests usually in costume.

Full disclosure: though I've never attended one of the fests, THE BIG LEBOWSKI is one of my favorite films of all time. I loved it from the beginning, seeing it in the theater in its original theatrical release more than once. I dragged a few less than excited friends to see it - trying to recruit converts before I even considered a cult was possible I suppose. In the years afterwards I saw it many times recognizing over and over that it was one of the funniest and one of the most quotable movies ever made. It's undoubtedly up there with DR. STRANGELOVE, MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, and THIS IS SPINAL TAP.

Obviously I wasn't alone in this thinking as people from all kinds of diverse backgrounds started convening for these Dude loving festivals running around in bathrobes or dressed as giant Creedence tapes, severed toes, red suited nihilists with over sized scissors, girls in viking gear, and scores of gun toting Walter Sobcheks who all come to bowl, drink White Russians, and to see yet another screening of the film.

This documentary, named after the moniker message board forum member Lebowski fans gave themselves which comes from dialogue in the movie ("The Little Lebowski Urban Achievers - and proud we are of all of them."), introduces us to founders Scott Shuffitt and Will Russell who are ecstatically surprised at the ever growing turnouts. Russell: "All my nerdiest dreams are coming true." They've been organizing these fests since 2002 (the first one was in Louisville, Kentucky) and through past footage and photographs we get all the, you know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous.

Definitely a highlight is when The Dude himself, Jeff Bridges, shows up to thunderous applause at a Fest in Los Angeles and with his band performs Dylan's "The Man In Me" (which I guess is The Dude's theme song). Bridges in a later interview in Rolling Stone refers to his reception walking on stage as his "Beatles moment". They cut away from his performance but that's okay since they later have a much better version of the song (sorry Dude) done by My Morning Jacket at a Fest in 2004. Also resonating are the book ending bits (which also thread through) focusing on a young woman (Stormy Lang) who's passionately determined to win 1st place at a Lebowski trivia competition.


With a looser structure than the similarly themed TREKKIES and perhaps too dependent on interspersed and often punctuating clips from the original movie, this plays more like a glorified bonus featurette than a film in its own right. Indeed one of the most recent DVD editions of the THE BIG LEBOWSKI had a 14 minute excerpt from this documentary so be sure to look for it on 15th and 20th anniversary editions in the future. Not that that's such a bad fate but at 70 minutes with 25% film clips it's not gonna have the same rewatchability factor as the film it's paying homage to. Also it should be noted that the DVD has no special features itself - not even a proper menu and it's one track with no chapter breaks so we're really talking bare bones here.


Still for Lebowski fans it's worth a rental with one good concentrated viewing. To see the creative costumes, to hear the anecdotes (especially one I won't spoil involving a
friend of Joel and Ethan Coen's: USC Professor Peter Exline), and to feel the vibe from everybody involved is a touching testement to what the Coen Brothers created but then left behind (The Coens do not appear in THE ACHIEVERS nor have they commented on the film's appeal or cult in any recent interview). I may yet go to one of the Lebowski Fests so it's nice to get an idea of what to expect and it's also good to know that there's all these dudes out there takin' 'er easy for all us sinners.

More later...