Wednesday, June 30, 2004


This just in from Low Culture:

From President Bush's speech in Turkey on June 29th, in which he defended democratic ideals:

"In some parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, there is wariness toward democracy, often based on misunderstanding. Some people in Muslim cultures identify democracy with the worst of Western popular culture, and want no part of it. And I assure them, when I speak about the blessings of liberty, coarse videos and crass commercialism are not what I have in mind. There is nothing incompatible between democratic values and high standards of decency."

You hear that, Hollywood? Run for the Hills! Beverly, that is.

Welcome to the NYC, bitch! Posted by Hello


Good news O.C. fans! It appears that Seth not only survived his improbable boat trip, but is back together with Summer! At least, that’s the way it looked from where I was standing outside the Arclight Theater in Hollywood tonight at the corner of fiction and reality and if I had a picture phone, I could prove it to you. Alas, that blur will have to sate my sinking Orange County withdrawal until November.

Yet fear not, faithful reader(s), for I have more good news to report: Spider-Man 2 is a leaps and bounds improvement over the first web-slinging installment. More so than Attack of the Clones was to The Phantom Menace or even The Prisoner of Azkaban was to the Columbus duo.

I was quite disappointed by Spidey the Elder. The action and effects were pretty lame by summer blockbuster standards. The story was practically non-existent. The villain was an uninteresting mess. The script somehow failed to satisfactorily milk the inherent drama of the tangled relationships. And don’t even get me started on the infamous Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers meets Batman circa Adam West pointless exposition scene. Still, it wasn’t a total disaster (yeah, I’m looking at you Batman & Robin and The Hulk and probably Catwoman) and there was a lot to like, like the origin stuff, the actors who weren’t Willem Dafoe, the upside down wet-T-shirt contest kiss, the way cinematographer Don Burgess showed off New York City and the final scene in the graveyard.

But Spider-Man 2 works as a whole, topping all of those individual achievements (even if it doesn’t have a single image as iconic as that kiss) and correcting all those failures. In the spirit of one-word-review-week here at The Pop Culture Petri Dish, the pull-quote that came to mind for this movie is: “Aerodynamic!” As in, “Spider-Man 2 is aerodynamic where Spider-Man was plodding.”

And I’m not just talking about Spidey’s movement (though that too is much more aerodynamic here than in the first). I’m talking about the story, the characters, the relationships and the themes. I’m talking about the sense of excitement, the sense of wonder, the sense of humor and the sense of fun – all lacking in numero uno. By no means is it perfect or the greatest superhero movie that ever lived, but it is the best blockbuster to come along in what seems like a long time.

Now for the (very minor) nit-picks: The humor, as great and welcome as it is, borders on self-parody (and one need only look at Batman & Robin (easier said than done, I know) to see where that road leads). The world of comic book superheroes requires a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief, which is aided by the characters within the world treating it seriously. That’s one of the reasons the X-Men movies have worked so well. This doesn’t mean there can’t be funnies – there are plenty of funnies in the real world – but the number of self-referential funnies (and laughs at the expense of poor put-upon Peter Parker) should be limited. Although if you asked me to cut even one gag out, I’m not sure there’s any I wouldn’t miss – they really were clever (especially the one at Tobey Maguire’s expense).

The other nit-pick isn’t so much a nit-pick as an observation. I may only be sensitive to this sort of thing because of a course on Race, Class and Gender in American Film that I took back in film school (or because I’m decidedly un-color-blind), but did anybody else notice that the filmmakers tried to make up for their (and the comics’) ethnically homogenous cast by making every under-five citizen of New York a minority? That’s more than Friends did. I guess that’s admirable?

Oh, and as for my predictions/questions for the future of Spider-Man:

First, the box-office. It’s odd, but when it comes to franchises, quality rarely dictates which installment will gross more. Both Attack of the Clones and now The Prisoner of Azkaban marked significant drop-offs, despite being universally regarded as vast improvements over their predecessors. While you can argue that The Phantom Menace benefited from sixteen years of frustrated, pent-up anticipation, that doesn’t jive with its smaller opening than Clones and infinitely longer legs. And though Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had its own pent-up anticipation going for it, The Chamber of Secrets required only a year’s patience compared to Azkaban’s year and a half. So I’m betting that even with a much clearer path than the first Spider-Man had (there’s nothing comparable to the Attack of the Clones in sight), the sequel will do about as well as Clones. Or it could make like Shrek 2 and Return of the King. What do I know?

As for the next sequel and beyond, they’ve planted three future villains in Spider-Man 2 (though it’s pretty clear by the end who is set up to take front and center in Spider-Man 3). The dilemma they face is whether or not to double up on baddies in the next installment after barely including even one in each of the first two movies (though used much better than the Green Goblin, Doc Ock wasn’t used much more than him). While that technique worked perfectly in Batman Returns (the aforementioned greatest superhero movie that ever lived), it was a part of why the Schumacher twosome failed. The difference is that in the Batman movies, the villains always stole the Batlight from the Caped Crusader while the Spider-Man movies have gone to great lengths (too great?) to avoid that fate. But if Sam Raimi and Co. opt once again to go solo with the villain [TANGENT ALERT BLUE/GUARDED: An anomaly in the realm of comic book movies that both Goblin and Ock have gone it sans henchmen or even consigliari], then will we have to wait for Spider-Man 4 and Spider-Man 5 just to see all the characters in this installment fulfill their destinies (and will they pull a Billy Dee Williams and recast Dylan Baker and Daniel Gillies in favor of more marquee-friendly hams?)? And what of my favorite meanie: Venom? While this potential security of their franchise must make those Sony execs giddy, there’s no way this creative team will remain bound to this series beyond the contractual obligations of number three. So Jake Gyllenhaal better start doing some sit-ups and learning how to act. Or, if I may offer a better suggestion: Call Adam Brody’s agent (and not just to give this blog post a sense of coming full circle or my evening a prescient twinge of irony).

Sunday, June 27, 2004

The Wonderful Horrible Life of Michael Moore

My one word review of Fahrenheit 9/11: “Powerful.”

That one word carries with it both positive and negative connotations, and it is in both senses of the word that I use it to describe how I felt about the film.

Beyond that one word, I have a lot of miscellaneous thoughts, so if you’ll allow me to make like Michael Moore and lay them all out in no coherent order and towards no particular thesis:

For some background on how I felt about Mr. Moore going into this latest piece, skim my post on Super-Size Me and the state of documentary filmmaking.

Overall, I had a mixed reaction to Fahrenheit (I might be in the minority there since it seems most people love it or hate it). I think my opinion was muddled because the documentary itself was an uneven piece of work. There were sequences and moments that I thought were extremely well put together, but then there were too many stretches that I considered sub-par quality for Moore. His films are usually compelling and/or entertaining throughout, so probably the most shocking thing for me about Fahrenheit was that at times it’s rather tedious and redundant (Did we need five minutes at that trade convention to get the point that capitalists were profiting on the war? Did we need the stories about both the cookie-eating peaceniks and the elderly gym rat to know that Patriot Act was leading to investigations of harmless people?). I equate Moore, to some extent, with former humorists like Janeanne Garofallo, Al Franken and Dennis Miller – they’ve become so serious about their politics that they often forget to be funny (there are definitely moments of great satiric humor in Fahrenheit, but not nearly as much as in Moore’s other movies).
Another problem that kept me from getting involved as much as Moore or I would’ve liked is that I went in skeptical of all the filmmaker’s “facts,” especially after all the misrepresentations of truth in Bowling for Columbine. Roger Ebert expressed his feelings about that deception nicely:

The pitfall for Moore is not subjectivity, but accuracy. We expect him to hold an opinion and argue it, but we also require his facts to be correct. I was an admirer of his previous doc, the Oscar-winning "Bowling for Columbine," until I discovered that some of his "facts" were wrong, false or fudged….

Because I agree with Moore's politics, his inaccuracies pained me, and I wrote about them in my Answer Man column. Moore wrote me that he didn't expect such attacks "from you, of all people." But I cannot ignore flaws simply because I agree with the filmmaker. In hurting his cause, he wounds mine.

Even if everything that’s in the film is technically factual, Moore is most often guilty of the sin of omission, particularly omission of context. Many of the interviews are presented without identifying the subject (or even the interviewer when it’s obviously not Moore) or providing dates and locations. Likewise, most of the archival footage of Bush is edited in without giving us any sense of when or where or even how it was captured. I feel like this would help to ease concerns that Moore manipulates the truth and I doubt any of that contextual information would make the president look any less like a buffoon.

David Poland, in his review, noted in one instance how the clarification of fact might have made it slightly less salacious, but would’ve still conveyed the point that Moore intended:

The idea that the rich and powerful should be willing to send their children to war is not new, but it is compelling. But why does Moore have to goose the game? If you are going to ambush Congressmen (and he never finds a female member of Congress to harass) on the street to ask them to enlist their kids, wouldn't it be nice to know how many members of Congress have children on traditional enlistment age, say 18-25? If that number is only, say, 100, and they have a total of 150 eligible sons and daughters, I guess that is less interesting than 535 members having only one child fighting in Iraq. But it shouldn't be. Every great story starts with a willingness by the storyteller to be supremely honest.

Also, for those of us who haven’t followed every detail of every presidency, it would be informative if Moore had included comparisons to previous administrations when listing facts. For instance, while the statistic about how much time Bush spent on vacation during the first eight months sounds staggering, I have no idea how that stacks up to the amount of time Clinton or Bush Sr. or Reagan or Carter spent relaxing. No context.

Still, even if there is a story on the cutting room floor that puts all of the idiotic things Bush says into context, the video tape does prove that he did say those idiotic things. And I don’t doubt that there’s some veracity to most every accusation Moore levels. Even if only 25% is true, that’s a lot of very unsettling, revelatory information. I just wish I could trust that all of the unsettling and revelatory information I was seeing and hearing for the first time were irrefutably accurate.

Another segment that I believe suffers from lies of omission is the montage one of my friends aptly dubbed “Springtime for Baghdad.” At first I was surprised by the beatific images of Iraqi citizens shopping and dining in outdoor cafes and children playing on the playground under Saddam’s apparently light-hearted regime. Had I been duped by the right-wing media’s suggestion that Iraq was an oppressive place to live? Then I realized that you could’ve made a similar bit of film celebrating life in Germany circa 1939. In fact, somebody did. It was called Triumph of the Will. Hell, the Nazis even found a way to make Concentration Camps look like summer camp (at least according to the trailers for the documentary Prisoner of Paradise, which I have yet to see). So why didn’t Moore even hint at the torture dissidents faced under Saddam? Is he so insecure in his film’s message(s) that he can’t even acknowledge that Saddam is no saint, independent of whether or not it was right for our country to take military action? Would it have undercut the horrors that the cookie-eating peaceniks suffered at the hands of Herr Bush’s Patriot Act?

One more segment that made me feel a little icky (and from talking to friends, I’m not the only one who picked up on this even if I haven’t read any criticism of it yet) was the “Shiny Happy People Holding Hands” photo montage of Bushes shaking hands with, to use the slur it conjured in my head, a barrage of “towelheads.” Moore didn’t identify by name most of the Arab men pictured, and while it’s implied they are all Saudis, I don’t remember if that was explicitly stated. The point is, I found something disconcertingly racist and xenophobic about condemning a president and former president for having diplomatic relations with foreigners (especially desert-dwelling foreigners). If this were a right-wing doc that included a similar sequence, replacing the Bushes with Clinton (and I’m sure there must be plenty of footage of him being friendly with foreigners), that would be the first thing the liberals would attack.

Again, there was a lot that I liked about the movie. I was worried that his coverage of September 11 would be overly exploitative and I really didn’t want to watch the planes flying into the towers on the big screen. So I was quite impressed with and moved by Moore’s treatment of the horrors of that day. He managed to rekindle the emotions that we all carry with us into the theater without showing any fire or bodies. And the final shot of the debris twirling in the wind is one of the more haunting images I’ve seen.

There were several other moments that earned legitimate tears from my eyes, and not in a way that made me feel manipulated. He just found some people with some very sad stories.

Probably the best thing about the movie is the way in which it’s stimulating discussion and debate (and hopefully voter turnout – though the skeptic in me is dubious that even half of the people who are lapping this movie up will vote in November). That, and the way it shed light on some things most of us weren’t aware of. And for those things, I begrudgingly owe some gratitude to Michael Moore. I say begrudgingly because of one of my biggest problem with the film:

Since the 2003 Academy Awards, Michael Moore’s ego has been swelling faster than Veruca Salt. He’s always been a bit self-righteous and self-aggrandizing, but since his infamous acceptance speech, he’s ascribed himself the role of demagogue. It’s apparent any time you see him on TV, but I was hoping it wouldn’t find its way into Fahrenheit. While it wasn’t an overwhelming presence, there were at least two glaring instances where it reared his big fat head:

First, when he showed the footage of himself demanding that the White House release George W. Bush’s National Guard records. In the voiceover, he then says something to the effect of “Because of me and my demands, the White House released his records.” Now, I remember when this was going on (it wasn’t that long ago), and as I recall, there were several million other people calling for the release of that information. For Moore to assume credit for that action demonstrates a delusional arrogance on par with that of George W. Bush. Lord help us when Bush is defeated in November and Moore takes all the credit for ousting him with this movie.

The other instance comes at the very end. As the last images fade, he cuts to a credit for himself: “Written, Directed and Produced by Michael Moore” (I think that’s what it says). Only then does it cut to the dedication card, where he graciously dedicates this movie to all those poor people who’ve senselessly died. And then we get the credits for all the people, less important than Michael Moore, who put together the film. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t a dedication screen like that usually come before the credits start rolling? Or else they come at the end. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen one positioned like that. Maybe it’s a little thing I’m reading too much into, but to me, it says that Michael Moore getting some more credit is just a little higher on his list of priorities than honoring the thousands of people who died to make his film possible. Coming at the end, it left a bad taste in my mouth. Especially because it meant that the rabid crowd was left hooting and hollering over the solemn dedication.

In conclusion, I think it’s definitely an important film. I was about to say that it’s one everyone should see, no matter what their political affiliation. Unfortunately, it might be so off-putting to some that they’ll completely reject the parts that they really should be made aware of. I don’t think it should win the Academy Award for documentary (and not just because I don’t want Moore’s head to crush his body). Although it admirably tackles a topic so timely and grandiose, it’s not as well made or consistent as two docs I happened to see last week (that hopefully I’ll write more about soon): Born into Brothels and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.

By the way, I knew the movie would be a blockbuster on the coasts and in the big cities, and I knew it would play well to the choir, but here’s an interesting article from The Los Angeles Times about how it fared elsewhere and with others.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Here's a little ditty...

You Don't Know Jack

Back in the laserdisc days, I cherished the rare novelty of audio commentaries, listening to as many as I could. Now thanks to the glorious mass popularity of DVDs, the feature has become nearly as prevalent as letter boxing. Not that I’m complaining, but I rarely listen to the director’s or writer’s or actors’ comments on the discs I own (with the exception of those Futurama and Simpsons commentaries). The problem is that many of them are so bland and repetitive, that you’re taking a gamble any time you switch audio tracks.
On the airplane the other day, I listened to Nancy Meyers and Jack Nicholson’s discussion on the Something’s Gotta Give DVD. Jack’s insights are a must listen for actors, writers, directors and Nicholson fans. He’s gotten a bad rap as a grinning joker in recent years, but on this track he’s very serious (yet still delightfully charming) about his craft. He talks almost exclusively about his technique in terms of his work in the film at hand (a movie I enjoyed but didn’t love), so somebody needs to book him to record one of these for every movie he’s ever been in. And then James Lipton needs to give him a call. And then the people that made The Kid Stays in the Picture need to start working on a similar journey through Jack’s career.
No matter your feelings for Something’s Gotta Give, it’s worth a purchase (or at least a rental) purely for this feature (I haven’t yet given a listen to Dianne Keaton’s chat with Meyers). Even if you think you don’t like Jack, give him a chance. I guarantee you’ll have more respect for him and what he does afterwards.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Blind Bait Test

Will there be biting?

Recently, I had the privilege of attending a very early work print screening of an upcoming Oscar bait movie. As I’m weary of the effect online reviews of unfinished works have, this piece of Oscar bait shall remain nameless (though I will say it’s listed as a serious contender in major categories on several Oscar speculation sites, including Jeffrey Wells, Academy Award Speculation and Oscar Race).

I liked this film a lot, and it’s not necessarily my kind of movie. The dialogue was sharp and fresh and insightful; at times poignant and surprisingly funny. However, the performances here are the real draw, and they are all superb.

It’s quite rare when an entire ensemble (I don’t remember if anyone outside the main cast had more than one line) is this equally matched – there are no weak links here. Actors you’ve seen many times before going places they haven’t, as well as less-well-known actors in revelatory turns. Their performances, like the script, are raw and stripped down, and as James Lipton might say when one of these actors next appears on his show, “This film is a master class in fine acting.”

As I said, it’s being released into the waters as Oscar bait. I’m not sure how well it will fare. It may be too intimate and self-contained to be seen as a serious Best Picture contender, and too sexually frank for conservative voters. The only categories I see it being considered for are acting and writing (the direction, by a venerated veteran, is excellent when it comes to guiding the actors, but probably not showy enough to get much support).

I’m not sure which actors the studio will campaign for which categories since it seemed to me they all had roughly equal screen time. It will most likely come down to billing, salary and fame, in which case the actors in the supporting categories should generate the most buzz (their performances are more showy and daring than the leads’) and highest likelihood of nomination, though that will depend on which categories are most crowded come January.

When I said the movie was sexually frank, I wasn’t kidding. It’s one of the things I admired about the film, but it’s not for everyone (I heard somebody sitting behind me in the screening say he was offended). I’m curious to see it again, if only to see what’s been cut to appease the MPAA and avoid an NC-17 for dialogue (some of it not even spoken). I hope the biggest name in the movie (who is a very big name, and at the moment, getting bigger) gets enough credit for risking fan backlash in the name of their art.

Final thoughts: While I thought this film was excellent, I did benefit from seeing it without the burden of expectations or hype. I’m afraid that the media will focus too much on the sensational aspects and that all the awards talk might be too much for this – in spite of the stars in its cast – little movie.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Anything for a laugh

Here's a very interesting article about postproduction fixes on comedies, spurred by the negative buzz on The Stepford Wives. I think the screening I attended last week was a step in the right direction, though maybe Harry Knowles was right - black comedy appeals more to connoisseurs than mass audiences.

You'll have to register (for free) with The New York Times to read it. Just click on the link at the top of this post.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Fragrance? Check. Marc Antony? Close enough. Marriages? 3 down, 5 to go.

I'm guessing they weren't waiting for tonight

To protect the sanctity of marriage, I propose a constitutional ammendment limiting the number of times mediocre singer/actress/scent-designers can be married. In addition, there should be a minimum 10-day dating period before tying the knot. It would've prevented something like this from happening.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Neuroses ya later

Whereas the buildup to the series finale of Friends was characterized by a misty water-colored nostalgia about the end of an era, the slog to the finish line for Frasier was characterized mostly by Kelsey Grammer’s grumbling about all the attention being lavished upon Friends. It wasn’t just that Friends was hipper or more popular… it was more loved. Frasier was admired, but even by its most ardent fans, at its peak, I’m not sure it was ever loved. Certainly that’s how I felt.

Maybe its because the two characters at its “heart” were distant, superior and a little off-putting while the other three characters were too often looked down upon by their scribes. Maybe it’s that the relationships had ceased to develop since Niles and Daphne hooked up (the quickly aborted flirtation with a Frasier-Roz romance doesn’t count). Or most likely, it’s that the show was always more cerebral than from the heart.

Then again, all these criticisms could be leveled at Seinfeld, and I think that people legitimately love that series, if not the characters, so who knows.

Anyway, I doubt many people not on the Paramount or NBC payroll were particularly sad to see Frasier bid adieu. In fact, dare I say that the "evil spotlight-hogging" Friends finale actually made people care more than they might have otherwise? Losing Frasier would’ve been one thing, but losing it on top of Friends and Sex and the City made its demise seem more urgent and noteworthy – a part of the epidemic death of the quality sitcom. Anyone who’s been to summer camp can attest that saying goodbye to one friend you haven’t been that close to for the last few years isn’t nearly as emotionally devastating as saying goodbye to a cabin full of friends all at once.

Polling the critical ether, its unanimously agreed upon that this final season was the series’ best in years, and who am I to question ether? Indeed, the wordplay was funnier and the stories better conceived and more tightly crafted, if not quite up to the standards set by the first few Emmy-winning seasons. The characters, who had drifted into caricatures, became more real again, even if Roz and Daphne still struggled to be more than obligatory stand-ins most episodes. Overall though, it was a surprisingly satisfying victory lap for the old stalwart.

There was a lot that was right about the final episode, starting with the title, “Goodnight, Seattle” (I’m a sucker for a good episode title). The writing was clever and funny and classy. The tone was well-set – a good balance of bitter and sweet, closure and new beginnings (despite what NBC’s near parodies of series finale promos might’ve led you to believe – A Wedding! A Birth! A Soul Mate! – all that was missing from the pantheon of climactic clichés was a death and a flight to Paris). Yet while the wedding and the birth were developed throughout the season and handled with remarkable restraint for a sitcom, it was the “soul mate” part of the promotional equation that left me with a mixed reaction to the finale.

Actually, both of Frasier’s stories were problematic. First, Frasier’s new job offer wound up being a pointless fake-out… and to what purpose? I liked the idea of him closing the Seattle chapter of his life and the wistful notion that he was no longer needed there (this could’ve been emphasized further by a cold open at the radio station (which is how most of the early seasons’ episodes began) where the people of the city are all of such sound mental health that nobody calls in). But the idea that he could be lured away purely by a higher salary was neither satisfying, nor true to his character. The fact that he didn’t take it in the end doesn’t matter – he did, at one point, accept the offer.

Second, the love of his life was introduced too late in the season for us to feel satisfied by her. It didn’t help that she wasn’t written in any special way that immediately signaled she was any different from the hundreds of other women Frasier had dated. Nor were they helped by casting Laura Linney, not a particularly warm or endearing actor (think about her movie roles – is she ever loveable? Likeable, even? More times than not, the answer is “no.”).

One last note to future series finale writers – the end of the show is the event, there’s no need for guest stars? Who’d have thought that Friends, a series frequently criticized for its use of stunt casting, would be outdone in this respect by Frasier? Every interesting bit character that had ever appeared on Seinfeld? That works (sort of). Jason Biggs as a bumbling doctor and Jennifer Beals on the plane? Gratuitous. Oh, but casting the same guy who brought Martin's chair into the apartment in the pilot to take it out in the finale? Well-played.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Ronald & Me

The Moore the Merrier?

Get out your No. 2 pencils.

Michael Moore is to 21st century documentary filmmaking as __________ is to 1990s independent cinema.

Put your pencils down.

If you said Quentin Tarantino, you get a gold star and a pack of Red Apple cigarettes.

Putting aside political beliefs or desire to see truthful facts in a documentary, Michael Moore is inarguably an entertaining filmmaker with a unique voice who does what he does better than anybody. His Bowling for Columbine helped usher in the recent golden age of documentaries and showed mainstream audiences that “documentary” wasn’t a synonym for “dull nature video.” Columbine set a new bar for documentary marketability and box office potential in much the same way that Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction did for indie films. Yet, like Tarantino, Moore may have done as much of a disservice to the genre as a service.

Pulp was followed by a string of derivative copy-cats (an ironic accusation, I know, given that’s exactly what Tarantino was doing in the first place) ranging in quality from painful (so forgettable I can’t think of any) to sublime (The Usual Suspects, Get Shorty and Trainspotting were all, fairly or unfairly, deemed Tarantinoesque). For a while, it seemed that almost every indie felt obliged to ape the familiar elements of Pulp and Reservoir Dogs.

Now, with movies like Super Size Me and that one about the guy trying to date Drew Barrymore, is it only a matter of time before the documentary field becomes inundated with directors cribbing Moore’s style and technique? I saw Super Size yesterday, and while I enjoyed it and found it eye-opening (and surprisingly mouth-watering; in the same moment I both craved McDonald’s and never wanted to eat it again), I couldn’t help worry that its financial and critical success might lead to further over-saturation of Mooresque docs (not unlike the way McDonald’s and its ilk have proliferated over America’s culinary landscape).

Already Super Size “diractor” Morgan Spurlock seems to be following in Moore’s footsteps, inflating his ego almost as fast as he inflated his waistline. Granted, he still seems to be a nice, semi-down-to-earth guy, but remember, that was Moore’s thing for a long time, too. He still likes to delusionally [is that not a word? So says my Microsoft spell-checker] think of himself as a man of the people. However, one need only look at some of the self-congratulatory statements on Spurlock’s blog to see where he might be headed if his doc makes it to $20 million or an Oscar nomination.

[TANGENT ALERT: YELLOW/ELEVATED – Another interesting parallel between Tarantino and Moore is that aside from (and possibly clouding) their filmmaking skills, they are both larger than life personalities – the auteur as writer-director-star-media attention whore – who shill themselves more than their masterpieces.]

So as long as the knock-offs are this good, what’s the problem? The problem is that anytime something as unique as Tarantino’s or Moore’s styles become mass-appropriated, it dilutes the original, fatigues the audience and may crowd future original voices out of the marketplace. Or maybe not. But isn’t preventing Moore’s head from getting any more super-sized reason enough to curb his disciples?

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Built Stepford Tough

Amy. You're wired.

The secret is, it’s actually very funny.
So why would Paramount want to keep this secret a secret?
I attended a preview screening of The Stepford Wives the other night, and right from the opening credits, I, along with the rest of the packed house, was laughing. I went to the movie alone and I rarely laugh out loud when by myself in a theater or watching TV, but I must’ve laughed (real honest-to-goodness belly laughs, not just amused snorts) about thirty times during the brief duration of this movie. And in that regard, I wasn’t alone. Not only was the crowd laughing throughout (I don’t think a single gag landed with a thud – a truly exceptional feat for a comedy), but they cheered and applauded at several points.
My only caveat is that this audience seemed to be comprised precisely of the film’s target audience – namely 25 – 35 year-old women and gay men. And me. As a Hollywood movie with a strong point of view, The Stepford Wives leans left to the point of nearly toppling over. The three “good guys” in the movie are a fiercely empowered woman, a Jew and a queen, and more than that, the script’s sensibilities cater directly to those demographics. So I’m curious to see how it plays with the portion of the American audience that’s turned off by Will & Grace. However, if like me you don’t fit into that portion, it’s the (intentionally) funniest live-action movie in a long time.
Having said that, there were some semi-major logic and story holes that I easily gave a pass to because I was having such a good time, though some critics may not. To delve into them now, I would have to get into spoilers, which I don’t want to do before the movie opens.
The one non-spoiler critique I have is with the casting of Matthew Broderick. I think it’s actually a combination of the way his role is written and the casting, but even so, the actor just struck me as wrong for the role. I think he’s very talented and like him a lot, but that is the problem. He’s too likable. Even when he’s playing “darker” characters (the under-rated Addicted to Love and one of my all-time favorites, Election), you’re still rooting for him. In The Stepford Wives, you’re not supposed to. The original choice, John Cusack, would’ve been a much better fit. Even though he also usually plays likable guys, he’s shown an edgier, more chauvinistic before (I know women who hated him in another of my faves, High Fidelity).
Yet, I actually can’t imagine John’s sister, the brilliant Joan, who was originally cast in Bette Midler’s role being any more perfect than Midler. She and Jon Lovitz (hell, Christopher Walken, too) often are too much, but they’re both used just enough in Stepford to maximum effect. Glenn Close, more than anyone else, takes even the so-so bits and makes them hysterical. Nicole Kidman is a more-than-solid straight woman who gets in her share of yuks. The real breakout scene-stealer here is Roger Bart, a stage actor who’ll be reprising his role (and reuniting with Broderick and Kidman) in the filmed version of the musical version of The Producers.
So why is Paramount, according to David Poland in today’s Movie City News 15 Weeks of Summer, hiding this gem? Maybe they’re afraid that critics will be gunning for it because of its well-reported on-set troubles, though keeping it from reviewers doesn’t help. And besides, everyone knows troubled productions often make for great movies. It also could be that the movie just hasn’t been finalized yet. It appeared to me that a lot had been left on the cutting room floor (hence the logic and story holes), and when I re-watched the trailer, I noticed a few bits that weren’t in the version I saw. Still, if I were at Paramount, I would’ve sneaked it this weekend (catching those adult members of the target audience not interested in wizards and blizzards and ogres) and let word-of-mouth spread before critics get their manicured claws out and start pulling Stepford's fiberoptic hair.