Waiting for Superman

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.

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September 18th, 2010

Rodrigo Cortes’ sparse thriller plays as if the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock dared him to one up Lifeboat. Set in a coffin hidden several feet deep in the Iraqi sand, Cortés‘ flick sticks to the constraints of Chris Sparling’s script; lighting every scene with whatever sole star Ryan Reynolds’ kidnapped truck driver digs up in his living tomb. Lionsgate snatched up the picture at Sundance and there’s no doubt everyone behind this minimalist stunt will make their money back from those curious to see how well they pulled off the feat. (Answer: reasonably.) 
Buried pins us in Reynolds’ perspective from the start: the screen is black, the sound is hushed. We hear Reynolds wake up in the dark, his shallow sleep breathing turning into panic and hyperventilation as he beats the ceiling and walls of his box. Together, we discover his horror. And when he finds a Zippo in his pocket—the film’s MVP—we get weak yellow light that splays across the cheap wooden boards. Reynolds has been gagged and bound. But freeing himself is still just a marginal improvement.

When your only character is helpless and set-less, there isn’t much your movie can do. Reynolds can’t even stand, and to the film’s credit Cortés doesn’t sneak in any flashbacks or dream sequences. Reynolds can only do one thing: make calls on the Arabic cellular planted by his captors. A whole genre of horror flicks has found ways to block their victims from calling 911. Reynolds can make all the 911 calls he wants—the operators can’t and won’t help this crazy crackpot who claims he’s trapped in a coffin.

The best parts of Sparling’s script play like an absurdist snuff film. Reynolds’ truck driver isn’t smart—watching him make one dumb move after another is agony. But when one stateside dispatcher after another puts him on hold or treats him like a crank, we wonder if the terrorists’ torture plot is to make him dependent on the kindness of American strangers. Even when he calls his employer, he’s shunted to an answering machine. (That’s one way to make your point about dispassionate bureaucrats.)

Yes, this is a film where every plot point is a phone call. When Reynolds’ cell loses a bar of power its like a bomb detonated. But by that point, an hour in, our energy’s flagging like his reception and the flick fumbles its attempts to give us any juice. The melodramatic score is overkill and in one scene Cortés invents a new meme: “jumping the snake.” We’re intimate with Reynolds’ stubble and the nervous sweat beading on his chest. But there’s just enough bleak humor to keep us on the hook. There are bitter giggles at his captor’s demands for “Five million money,” and the quick beat when Reynolds wonders if its okay to bill him 25 cents for the operator to automatically connect his call. We slowly realize that Cortés is willing to take us as morally (and politically) dark as we dare. The FBI asks Reynolds not to call the media and create an international incident. Should he trust them? Do we? Like him, we can’t see out of his box—we can’t see the big picture of the struggle in Iraq. We only see one man’s fear, and ultimately, that’s what wars are made of.

Click here for Buried in Boxoffice Magazine

Alpha and Omega

September 17th, 2010

The caste system thrives in our national parks, where Alpha (or leader) wolves simply can’t slum it by hooking up with their lame Omega kinfolk. For wild animals, they’re bound by an awful lot of rules. This 3D cartoon tracks the furtive romance between Alpha Kate (Hayden Panettiere) and Omega Humphrey (Justin Long) after match-maker scientists capture the couple in Canada and relocate them to Idaho to “repopulate.” With the sharp fangs of its stars tearing chunks out of the dreamy Barry White score, it’s a precisely adequate film best for young girls who will respond to Kate’s strong female huntress who naturally takes on being the breadwinner–or, really, beast-winner–of her pack.

Most animal cartoon romances stop at kissing. Alpha and Omega has the distinction of covertly being about full-on mating, here coded as “howling,” as in, “You know, they can’t howl together.” Howling is the goal for the leaders of the Western Pack (Danny Glover) and Eastern Pack (Dennis Hopper, in his last role), who want their Alpha children, Kate and Garth, to marry and unite the packs, thus ending the bitter Caribou War.

Trouble is, Kate doesn’t like the way Garth howls. (When done right, howling sounds like a duet between Luther Vandross and Celine Dion.) And Kate’s fierce mother–a wolf who somehow manages to have a soccer mom bob–has only advised her on what to do if Garth gets too fresh: “Go for the throat and don’t let go until the body stops shaking.”

Like that line, the best parts of Anthony Bell and Ben Gluck’s movie take advantage of their leads’ Tao of Wolfness. While you can’t call a movie with lupine log-sledding biologically accurate, it’s a wickedly funny touch when Kate and Humphrey shrug at a French Canadian goose that can’t give them good directions (because, at least they can eat him). Even if their boppy hunting style looks like Sonic the Hedgehog, their ethics are authentically carnivore.

The romance that builds between Kate and Humphrey as they trek back to Canada is also more natural than the typical, “I hate you! I hate you! I love you!” schlock; these are two well-meaning, bright teen wolves with mutual respect. Making them both likable is a low-bar achievement, but it’s rare enough in this breed where smart girls are shrews and low status guys are goons. And as Humphrey is the Omega leader among his posse of Omegas, there’s an argument that he should at least get promoted to Delta or Gamma status.

Alas, like Humphrey’s half-baked jokes (sample: “Two bears are eating a clown when one of the bears says, ‘Does this taste funny to you?’”), the animation is sub-par. The 3D allows for bold, deep shots that swoop over cliffs and waterfalls, but can’t distract from the wolves’ clotted fur, which looks a decade behind the textures Pixar created for Toy Story 3. However, this isn’t a film howling to be placed in the canon–it’s content to be seen at all, and parents with restless, animal-loving children may as well throw it a bone.

Click here for Alpha and Omega in Boxoffice Magazine

The Switch

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.

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Lottery Ticket

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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Piranha 3D

August 24th, 2010

Are you a breast man? An ass man? Or a fish man? Either way, there’s plenty of all three in this bloody spree by French director Alexandre Aja. The script is ridiculous, the bodies are great and the film skates so long on the line between knowingly bad and bad that by the time the body count hits 100 and the booby count hits 1000, we’ve lost track of the difference. The post-production 3D lacks depth, but at least unlike Clash of the Titans, the shots were always meant to be a converted; it’s a cheap way out, sure, but fan boys blown away by a shot of 3D DD jiggling underwater have other priorities. Piranha will take a bite out of the next two weekends’ box office and quickly go extinct, but will linger on in its target audience’s fantasies.

Sunny, scenic Lake Victoria is under attack from invaders. Not man-eating fish (yet), but 20,000 spandexed Spring Breakers, all in various degrees of intoxication and undress. Deputies Ving Rhames and Elisabeth Shue (playing a mom of three) are entrusted to keep order when into their harbor swims an oily predator: Jerry O’Connell, the producer of Wild Wild Girls trolling for fresh flesh. Model Kelly Brook lures Shue’s 17 year old son, Steven R. McQueen, and his crush, Jessica Szohr, into O’Connell’s net–or really, his luxury yacht–and they set sail for a day of soft core porn shoots just as scientist Adam Scott realizes a fissure underneath the lake has unleashed prehistoric piranhas. “There’s thousands of them–and they’re pissed!” he yelps.

Piranha 3D isn’t Jaws. Steven Spielberg himself couldn’t get this script an Oscar. But even a mocking comparison is good enough for Aja, who swipes the line, “Do you think a propeller could have done this,” and enlists Richard Dreyfuss to play the opening scene chum. (With 3D, we go inside Dreyfuss’ mauled spleen.) And for good measure, Aja’s also enlisted Christopher Lloyd to resurrect Doc Brown in his hilarious, over-excited cameo as a local ichthyologist. (”These fish have been dead for 200 million years!,” he warbles in Doc’s sing-song science.)

What’s terrible about a piranha kill is that they don’t have a Great White’s tell-tale fin. And worse, their victims are nibbled to death. When pulled out of the water, the flesh hangs off their bones like red, ropey algae. The piranhas themselves look like bullets with beer bellies and teeth. They’re as ugly on the outside as their prey is on the inside. The bros and bimbos served up as jerk tartare are so repellent we’re almost on the side of the fish. On Lake Victoria, wearing a Pixies shirt will get you called an “asswipe,” and there’s an ever-expanding lexicon for “boobs.” My faves were “coconuts,” “weapons of mass-turbation” and Eli Roth’s gift for drawling “titties” across eight syllables. Even Shue’s two young kids are sexist, the daughter asking grownups about their cup size and the youngest son telling her to “be a girl and just sunbathe or something.”

Ruthless and ridiculous, Aja’s horror comedy has a purity of vision. Even when a babe is sliced in half, first her bikini top falls off for a booby shot. And why not? It’s August, vacation time is almost over, and if you haven’t yet hit your bikini quota, buy a ticket and get a summer’s worth in 90 minutes. When the blood starts gushing, wet t-shirt contests get a whole new meaning. Go, fish, go!

Click here for Piranha 3D in Boxoffice Magazine

The Expendables

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.

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Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

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.

Click here for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World in the IE Weekly

Step Up 3D

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.

Click here for Step Up 3D in the IE Weekly

The Other Guys

August 6th, 2010

When a bomb explodes before Bruce Willis, his cheekbones are highlighted with ash. When one explodes before Will Ferrell, he collapses in a puddle sobbing, “I’ve got blood blisters on my hands! I call bullshit on that!” The joke isn’t just that he’s a wuss (he is), it’s that movie violence never measures up to the human pain of the real thing. Does The Other Guys measure up to a dumb summer comedy? Sure: it’s dumb and consistently funny, and the weekend high in Manhattan is 88° which means the sizable audiences who’ll escape to the movie theater for some air conditioning will find The Other Guys as good and fleeting as a street corner popsicle.

In dog years (or dog days of summer years), it’s been eons since big-ticket action films were pure, raw action. (Though Sylvester Stallone is out to change that with The Expendables.) Instead, in a nod to audiences who fake-gripe that, “There’s, like, no way he could have survived all those bullets, man!” Hollywood’s made action flicks where comedians joke through hailstorms of lead, where there’s no risk that Seth Rogen might actually die and, therefore, no real thrill or flutter of tension.

Into this mock-machismo climate struts–or really, tiptoes–Will Ferrell, who’s spent his career lampooning masculinity. He’s either under the bar (Step Brothers, Elf) or far, far over it (Anchorman, Talladega Nights). Here, he’s femme. According to sour new partner Mark Wahlberg, demoted to a desk job after accidentally capping Derek Jeter in the knee during Game 7, even the sound of Ferrell’s pee is feminine. Wahlberg is half a foot shorter than Ferrell, but he makes up for the height with a glower that could kill pigeons. His career’s being kneecapped by this namby pamby transfer from Forensic Accounting who drives (gasp!) a Prius, which in this world is like cruising in a Barbie bike. (Quick! Somebody warn Leonardo DiCaprio!) And now while real cops Damon Wayans Jr. and Rob Riggle, and superstar cops Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are out cracking skulls, these two are stuck at NYPD headquarters where Ferrell whistles the theme to I Dream of Jeannie while Wahlberg plays solitaire and grumbles.

With the entrance of shyster stockbroker Steve Coogan (whose motto is “Live for Excess!”) and the $32 billion lost investment he’s scheming to recoup, director Adam McKay gives this undynamic duo a chance to prove their mettle. Problem is, no one else cares, not Captain Michael Keaton (having a lark) and definitely not the audience. How can we when even McKay and co-writer Chris Henchy’s script would rather squander time on Ferrell’s sonorous Irish singing and supremely hot wife, Eva Mendes? (It’s meant to be funny that the goon treats her like garbage despite having a doctorate and a killer push up bra, but that joke wears thin fast.)

At least unlike those uppity, over-achieving women, the movie knows its place as multiplex fast food. Or does it? At the credits, McKay runs infographics on real life Ponzi schemes, as if to suggest all the earlier shenanigans were just a warm-up for some learning. And it turns out that fact still beats fiction. While Coogan’s scrambling for $32 billion, McKay reminds us that Bernie Madoff swiped double that ($64.9 billion). Of course, by this moment in the running time, choppers have now exploded next to Ferrell and left him without a scratch; they’re fittingly harmless in a movie that will sell you anything for a laugh.

Click here for The Other Guys in Boxoffice Magazine