Archive for the ‘IE Weekly’ Category


Friday, November 12th, 2010

Here’s what a train can do: hurtle down a fixed course very, very fast. Here’s what it can’t do: think, scheme or gloat about being the 70-mile-an-hour villain in Tony Scott’s thriller about a runaway coaster packed with chemicals that’s, as rail yard staffer Rosario Dawson yelps, “a missile the size of the Chrysler Building!” There are no bad guys, just bad engineering and bad PR (and, of course, bad luck underscored by the train’s slot machine name 777.) Not that Tony Scott doesn’t sweat for extra drama—under his throttle, the train roars and hisses like a killer dinosaur, who, as it’s powered by fossil fuels, could have its DNA pumping through the engine.

Speaking of dinosaurs, here comes Denzel Washington as a three-decade vet of the tracks sniping at newbie Chris Pine for general asshattery. They, their 25-car train, the murder train and the movie are all on a fixed course and the best thing about Scott and screenwriter Mark Bomback’s popcorn flick is that it chugs away as though it never notices the whole premise (and solution) is goofy and predictable. You can practically hear the editor huff, “I think I can, I think I can,” as he cranks up the suspenseful cuts and layers on loud, manic music. And it works well enough, thanks to a love of number-crunching that makes the audience feel engaged in a deadly algebra problem. Four miles! 2000 feet! Population 780,000! At the same breath, Scott makes fun of the heavy-panting local news and uses them to amp up the danger, say with their flash animation of just what would happen if the train fell off a bridge and onto a field of oil drums. Unstoppable efficiently trucks down the tracks, and if you don’t have a better place to be for two hours, you could do worse than spend it with Washington and Pine’s all-American heroes who hop off the train as if they’re just waiting for Norman Rockwell to make them famous.

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Friday, November 12th, 2010

Imagine this: California is struck by a late September heat wave the same week that popsicle prices drop by a quarter. Coincidence, you ask? But an economist would wonder if it’s correlation or causality: are grocery owners simply tracking the official start of fall to make room on their shelves or are they seizing an advantage to push product to the shocked and sweaty consumers? There’s a reason for everything we do. In fact, there’s more reasons than realities, and the job of an economist is to use numbers to tease out the truth. Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s 2005 bestsellerFreakonomics asked why drug dealers still live with their mothers and whether Rudy Giuliani can really take credit for New York’s ’90s crime drop. Their answers became pearls of quirky common wisdom, and now they’ve become a fun, fleet film directed in chapters by six of today’s hot documentarians: Seth Gordon (The King of Kong), Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), Alex Gibney (Casino Jack and the United States of Money) and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp).

The facts haven’t changed, but there’s a satisfaction in live-action number-crunching that feels like you’re lifting up your skull and giving your frontal lobe a scratch. Since four million people have already read the book, what’s new in this retelling is seeing the presence of the directors in shaping the statistics. Spurlock’s A Roshanda By Any Other Name, best captures the breezy feel of the book, while Gibney’s high-drama investigation of corruption in sumo wrestling is NCIS: Tokyo. Jarecki’s segment is sprightly, but thin; Ewing and Grady may be the best interviews in the business; and Gordon’s gifted at tying the whole film together with his between-chapters illustrations. Sometimes, Freakonomics has all the answers. More often, it just asks the right questions. And in today’s 24-hour froth of insta-pundit analysis, we need curiosity more than certainty.

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Let Me In

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

What’s grim, gorgeous and white all over? This American remake of the Swedish horror drama Let the Right One In which airlifts the story 5,158 miles to Los Alamos, New Mexico where lonely, bullied only-child Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee of The Road) crushes on the new girl in town, a frozen-in-time preteen vampire who says she’s, “Twelve, more or less.” Abby (Chloë Moretz, Kick Ass’ Hit-Girl) needs human blood, but she outsources the killing to her companion (Richard Jenkins) who poses as her father but moons over her like an ex-boyfriend. In the original, Abby’s caretaker was a jealous bungler—Oscar-nominated Jenkins sees his pathetic protectiveness, and the tragedy in his character focuses the film’s themes of desperation and the myopia of puppy love when you’re young enough (or undead enough) to feel immortal. Cloverfield’s Matt Reeves directs, and this quiet, controlled chiller is 180 degrees away from that mess. Reeves keeps the camera’s focus so close that the world past your fingertips is a blur. Adults barely register, like Dracula designed by Charles Schultz. What matters is immediate—the film exists in that margin between kid and teen when every day is a drama and every tumble is a catastrophe, when the thug in your class is the boogieman and a girl you play Mrs. Pac Man with could be your girlfriend, even though you don’t yet know what that means. But Let Me In is wise beyond its years, even if only the grown-ups in the audience bear witness to pain that the preteen stars can’t see.

Click here for Let Me In in the IE Weekly

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

After nearly a decade in prison, guards have given Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) back his gold watch, his gold ring, his gold money clip and his freedom. Watch out world. Flash-forward seven years to 2008 and Gekko’s written a book, Is Greed Good?, and become the hero of the lecture circuit with his fanged tirades about a financial system gone bonkers. He’s still a wolf in wolf’s clothing. The question is: How big is his hunger? Gekko’s the predator circling Oliver Stone’s sequel. The stars—or prey—are his estranged daughter Carey Mulligan and her live-in boyfriend Shia LaBeouf, an idealistic trader trying to scare up money for alternative energy. Stone’s two major themes (three if you count the nods to his 1987 original) are bubbles and extinction, two ways Wall Street could have—and should have?—collapsed that fall of ’08 when Americans learned we’d double-mortgaged the foundation of our country. The first half of the film is as fine a movie as you’ll see all year. Stone humanizes ticker tape. Frank Langella is the face of old-style trading, Josh Brolin is the new-style villain, and their confrontations with other suits have the frisson of powerful deals and the pleasure of a pack of hunters fighting over a kill. They’re in it because money is glory and glory is fun—and the bloodier the better. But Stone needs Hollywood hyenas; our stock market schadenfreude demands a satisfying ending. Only how can he give us one when we know the bad guys won?

Waiting for Superman

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Is our children learning? No—and here’s why, argues Davis Guggenheim’s rousing documentary on public education. As smart and passionate as our schools should be, Waiting for Superman interviews families worried that their kids will be shuttled into “dropout factories,” low-expectation, no-hope institutions like the high school in Los Angeles where two-thirds of the students quit after their freshman year. Do bad neighborhoods create bad schools? Or do schools that fail their children fill the surrounding blocks with unskilled, un-ambitious teenagers who perpetuate the cycle? Apathy will bankrupt our nation: the cost of locking up one kid for four years for a drug offense is the same price as sending him to 13 years of private school with $24K left over for college. The kids Guggenheim introduces us to—mainly inner city elementary schoolers from D.C., Boyle Heights, Harlem and the Bronx—are young enough to expect a good education. But in their parents’ eyes, we see fear. Schools failed them; how can they save their kids? The temporary answers are magnet and charter public schools, sanctuaries where hardworking teachers give young, poor students an education that equals (or in some cases, surpasses) private schools. But they can’t fit everyone. Some can only take one kid for every ten who apply. And so, families must trust their futures to a lottery, and Guggenheim shows us the faces of hopeful five-year-olds who know enough to cross their fingers that the school calls their number. Around them, accepted families cry in happiness. Still, their happy endings cost another child a chance to learn. The powerful documentary demands we level the playing field. At stake is the future of our kids—and the future of our country.

Click here for Waiting for Superman in the IE Weekly

The Switch

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Sorry tabloid readers. At no time in Josh Gordon and Will Speck’s insemination comedy does Jennifer “Womb Watch” Aniston growl, “Take that, Brad.” Though the sperm donor the single mom-to-be picks out makes Tyler Durden look like yesterday’s news—Patrick Wilson is golden and buff as an Oscar, and he’s both a rock climber and a gender studies professor—Wilson’s COD DNA is a slap to the groin for Aniston’s best friend Jason Bateman, a whiny, selfish hypochondriac who’s stunned—stunned!—that she doesn’t want his genes. And, oddly, Allan Loeb’s script (based on the short story by The Virgin Suicides author Jeffrey Eugenides) is Bateman’s tale, the inner struggle of a coward who knows he’s not good enough for the woman he loves. He’s not. Which makes The Switch an inverted romantic comedy where the lead probably shouldn’t wind up with his amour—and besides, after a drunken encounter with Wilson’s sperm cup, he’s already implanted her with his seed. The resulting child, played by six-year-old Thomas Robinson, has all of his pop’s worst traits and the physical comedy between the pair is enough to charm the ovaries. Bateman is unmoved—if he’s looking into a mirror, he doesn’t like what he sees. But he nails his character’s slow transformation from egotist to uncle to would-be daddy, and once his heart starts beating, we’d forgive him anything for a happy ending.

Click here for The Switch in the IE Weekly

Lottery Ticket

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

What’s worse than winning a $370 million jackpot? Everything. But for Bow Wow, what’s truly terrible is having to protect your uncashed prize for three days in the projects where everyone knows your business and half of everyone has a gun. (Grandma Loretta Devine immediately douses him in holy water.) This broad comedy by Erik White and co-written by Abdul Williams is populated with a crammed city block of goons, hotties, gossips and opportunists. Even before Bow Wow wins the golden ticket, just cutting through the hood to get to his job at Foot Locker is a gauntlet where everybody’s gotta holler at him to steal some Air Jordans. “The lottery is designed to keep poor people poor,” Bow Wow speechifies before he gives in and buys a ticket. And under the surface of this very superficial flick is an indictment of a culture where everyone’s taking shortcuts that lead to dead ends, and the neighborhood beauty (Teairra Mari) has boned Jay-Z, LeBron and Bill Cosby in the hopes of a rich baby daddy. (Here, the way you can tell a good girl from a hustler is she insists on a condom.)  Even the preacher (Mike Epps) thinks he’s entitled to a cathedral, a mansion and a trophy wife. But while there’re enough stereotypes in here to get Dr. Laura frothing at the mouth, there’s also enough menace to merit co-writing credit for the Hughes brothers. With Ice Cube as the Boo Radley of the block.

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The Expendables

Friday, August 13th, 2010

Back when Tipper Gore held sway, concerned citizens tsk-tsked about the high body counts in the movies of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Twenty years later, Schwarzenegger has pink-slipped forty times that number in California (a worse termination than stage-gutting an extra) and Stallone’s rebutted with The Expendables, an action flick where a helpful henchman tallies that Sly’s team mowed down 41 goons in one afternoon’s skirmish. And that’s just in the first act. I’d peg the body count at 200, but that’s a guesstimation akin to wagering on the number of jellybeans in a jar.

Stallone boasted that he’s made the drunk uncle of all dumb action movies and in several ways he has: there’s easily 30 minutes of killing montages and an ensemble to die for, namely Jason Statham, Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren as part of the Expendables, a mercenary squad hired to take down an island dictator (David Zayas) and the wealthy white man behind him (Eric Roberts). The resulting film is macho enough to reach out and slap any dude in the audience sipping a Diet Coke. Here, bullets blow off the top half of a man and after you set an enemy on fire, you can top it by punching him in the face. Characters enter backlit like classic cowboy gunslingers and each frame seems to reek of gasoline.

But the fights are so confusingly edited, it’s like getting a can of Axe sprayed in your face. It doesn’t help that Stallone’s ego (and age) make him shoot all his action sequences in close-up. (The vanity in that nipped and plumped face undermines the aggro points he gets from drinking beer while flying a plane.) Between fights—which is to say, passingly—the crew squats in ex-Expendable (an Essential?) Mickey Rourke’s tattoo shop to listen to Creedence, and bemoan their love lives—possibly the film’s most wholly fantastical indulgence.

After justice—or, at least, righteous ass-kickery—prevails, we’re left content but not sated. The Expendables isn’t the end-all of action blockbusters. It’s a calling card that its cast can still crack skulls and court a crowd, particularly Roberts’ preening baddie, Lundgren’s unhinged killer (with his Chemical Engineering degree, has a better human specimen ever existed?), and Statham, who, as this film makes apparent, is still young and gifted enough to become the biggest heavy in Hollywood. Handsome, charming and lethal, he’s as nimble as Jet Li and as bald as Bruce Willis. But so he doesn’t get too cocky, Willis struts on in an early cameo with Schwarzenegger to prove he’s the only man alive who can stare down Ahnold and Stallone and smirk, “You guys aren’t going to suck each other’s dicks, are you?” It’s the battle of 1988 all over again and these titans still pack a punch.

Click here for The Expendables in the IE Weekly

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Friday, August 13th, 2010

Michael Cera has the face of a penguin and the legs of a ballerina. It’s easy to dismiss him as an impossible action hero, but look again—with a tuck of the chin and a glower settling across his brow, he’s a scrapper, an immovable mule used to getting what he wants. That mutability serves him well in Scott Pilgrim, a film itself so mutable that sometimes it’s scarcely a film at all. Edgar Wright has made a 112-minute entertainment contraption, celluloid that shapeshifts its frames into video games, comic books and sitcoms. Based on a graphic novel in turn inspired by 8-bit pixels, this spazmodic flick about a would-be boyfriend who must fight—nay, defeat—his crush Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s seven evil exes isn’t even patient enough for scenes. Instead, Wright merges all action into one whiplash-fast time continuum. It could give a seizure to anyone in the Twitterverse unused to dividing their brain among twelve browser windows. But for the already addled—myself, millions more and metastasizing—it’s a blast: fun, fresh and unbounded with an ensemble that delivers every joke and elbow jab. Under the chaos, Wright and co-writer Michael Bacall have laced empathy for the too-human mess we make of relationships. Everyone has loved, everyone has lost and everyone has been the villain to another hero (or heroine). That’s the game of life, and we’re all playing.

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Step Up 3D

Friday, August 6th, 2010

One hundred and ten years ago, movie audiences didn’t give a hoot about plot. They went to be wowed by things they’d never seen—say, an elephant getting electrocuted—and things they’d never seen that way, like a train hurtling head-on toward them. With Step Up 3D, we’ve come full circle. It’s beyond me why this script took two writers (Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer). The first five minutes literally set up the entire arc about an NYU freshman (Step Up 2 alum Adam G. Sevani) torn between his parents’ hopes for an engineer and a dance crew who needs his skillz to win $100K at a competition and pay the mortgage on their four-story Manhattan home/studio/nightclub. Led by wannabe filmmaker Luke (Rick Malambri), the Pirates and their warehouse mansion are unabashed fantasy. One room is full of rare Nikes, another is wallpapered in boomboxes, and the crew itself—a multicultural love fest with two breakdancing Argentinean twins (Martin and Facundo Lombard) as comic relief and nightly dinners where the place settings have forks and chopsticks. Their rivals, the Samurais, wear wristwatches with speakers so they can challenge them to a dance-off at the drop of a pop, lock and drop it. And when Pirates and Samurais meet up at the World Dance Championships, the crowd waves flags from Norway and Australia—despite the fact that none of the crews are headquartered beyond the Bronx. It’s Hollywood nonsense and director Jon Chu doesn’t care. He’s too busy dazzling us with supernatural moves and aggressive 3D. Helicopter spins already look great with an extra dimension, but Chu throws balloons and bubbles and dust and water on the dance floor, and the squads backflip and clap and do everything possible to fling it in our faces. A witchy dancer in gloves cut from Michael Jackson’s red jacket does Captain EO fingers at the camera, and later, on top of an industrial air conditioner, Luke and his lithe crush Natalie (Sharni Vinson) ballet with Slurpees. Everyone in the cast can dance, even if only half can act—the revelation is 18-year-old Sevani, a goofy charmer who wins the audience over in a long, tracking shot street shuffle. He’s got the ease of Gene Kelly and he can do the robot. Half a century ago, that was all you needed to become a star. Here’s hoping Hollywood gives him a shot.

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