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Column Fri Jun 05 2009
This may be one of most unusual reviews of any movie I've ever written for the plain and simple fact that I saw the film two times, and each time I had radically different reactions to it. Of course, every critic — hell, every human being — has good days and bad days; we bring prejudices into a film, both positive and negative; and we all think we're mature enough to not let those things influence the opinions we put forth in the most unbiased way possible. We go into each film with higher or lower expectations than we did the last one for various reason, whether it be a particular actor in the film or the movie's director, plot, writers, etc. The key to dealing with these prejudices is to acknowledge them and compensate for them when formulating a critique.
The other thing I do, when given the opportunity, is take note of how an audience of non-critics reacts to a certain film. I'm not looking for cues when to laugh or scream or cry; but if I go to a movie aimed at little kids, and I'm not enjoying it but the kids in the audience clearly are, I'll mention that in my review. It won't in any way change my opinion of the film, but parents contemplating taking their kids will at least know that their youngsters might enjoy a movie even if I didn't. With horror films, I'm not easily scared or shocked, but if the crowd seems freaked out by a certain amount of blood or scares, I'll mention that in my write-up, especially if I didn't like the movie. As a rule, I'm not a big fan of watching comedies or scare films in a roomful of critics; the reactions very often seem off and not like those of audiences made up on the general public. I love my Chicago critical peers, but they are a tough audience. If you can win them over, they will love you; but if you can't, it kind of poisons the experience for me. This isn't always the case, but when that Chicago screening room is quiet when it's meant to be filled with laughter, the silence is deafening. Sometimes, the silence is well deserved; other times, I'm less sure. Case in point: The Hangover.
The first time I saw the film was with an audience of critics, who laughed only a couple times during the entire movie. I'm including myself in that mix. I didn't laugh often, nor did I feel compelled to. I wasn't holding back because I didn't want to stick out in the void. I just didn't find the film that funny or entertaining, to the point where I started thinking about other things. That's right; I'll admit it here. I started daydreaming during The Hangover. But then something weird happened a couple days later. I was doing a Q&A with Bradley Cooper, and I wandered into the last 10 minutes or so of the movie, and started watching it again... and I started laughing at what I was seeing and hearing. Now, I've done enough Q&As over the years that I don't even have to like a film to do a decent post-screening interview, so my finding the film's ending funny had nothing to do with Cooper being nearby.
About a week later, something even stranger happened: I saw the film again at an Ain't It Cool screening that I agreed to do before I'd even seen the film once. Now normally, I wouldn't sit through a film again I didn't like the first time, but I suspected something might be up, and I actually watched the film again. My reaction the second time made me feel like I took that punch from Mike Tyson that you see in the trailer. Now I'm sure you will all offer up your opinions (constructive and useful, I'm sure) about why my opinion has changed. And while I certainly don't embrace The Hangover as much as some have (or the way I did with Warner Brothers other wildly inappropriate comedy this year, Observe and Report), but at least I get where they're coming from. I was perfectly content with my original observations on the film, so it's not like I was stressing out over other extremely positive reviews and wondering why I didn't feel the same way. No, I just genuinely liked the film the second time; it clicked with me; I found myself on the exact same wavelength and I just rode it.
The basics of my point of view are still the same. Zach Galifianakis is the stand-out, star-making performance in the film. From now on, casting directors may look to him when they can't get Seth Rogen. Bradley Cooper is largely the straight man in The Hangover, so he doesn't get as many of the funny lines, but the few that he does get are damn funny. The guy plays a great male pig. Justin Bartha plays the guy getting married who vanishes in the midst of his all-night bachelor party, so he's not really in the movie that often enough to judge or even care about. I think my biggest 180 on the film comes when watching Ed Helms as the friend who goes from hen-pecked dentist to wild man thanks to a whole lot of legal and illegal substances. He sings a song at the piano concerning Mike Tyson's tiger that is so funny, just thinking about it makes me laugh.
A lot of what changed my views on The Hangover has more to do with the smaller moments and supporting cast. They just seemed funnier in the second time around. The couple that run the wedding chapel; the doctor who treated Cooper's head injury; the aforementioned cameo from Mr. Tyson; the baby's masturbatory habits; Mr. Chow (a couple of dip-shit critics named Ben complained about the gay stereotyping going on with Mr. Chow, while completely ignoring the horribly offensive Asian stereotyping going on as well, and completely missing the point that Ken Jeong's performance is meant to make fun of both stereotypes; so suck these Chinese nuts, Bens), all seemed much more well conceived. There are still jokes that don't hit — a couple that are DOA — and the spaces between big laughs are still too far apart for my tastes. The biggest complaint I have with the film is that the female characters seemed wedged into the story as either shrieking harpies or kindly strippers, and either way seems equally insulting. That's nothing new for director Todd Phillips (Old School) or writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (Four Christmases, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past), but that didn't stop me from being disappointed.
This review in no way represents me going to highest peak in the land and declaring my undying love for The Hangover, but it does represent me admitting I got it wrong the first time, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to get it right. In my lifetime, I've seen my film critic heroes, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, both admit they'd gotten an initial review wrong (or at least see a film's strong suits upon a second viewing). It's tough for anyone to admit they were wrong, and I'm glad I didn't write my review up after I saw this film only once. I'm not encouraging anyone to see the film more than once, if that's what you're thinking. You shouldn't have to; I think you'll find it funny and different enough from a lot of other recent R-rated comedies to see it's strong points the first time around.
Believe it or not, the single most anticipated documentary at SXSW this year was not about music or an important historical event or figure. No, the longest lines were for a film about a guy who made a training video about selling Winnebagos, and a movie about industrial design. Director Gary Hustwit's follow up to his wildly successful Helvetica (the most popular film in the history of the Gene Siskel Film Center) is a grander concept of how object that we use every day are design for both form and function, and the transition that products made from looking like what they do to looking like a designed object that must be figured out. One designer makes the astute point that if an alien came down and saw a chair or a fork, it could probably understand its function; but how would an alien make sense of an iPod without an instruction manuel?
Hustwit's true gift is making these complicated design concepts make some degree of sense to someone who has never given thought to why his portable vacuum cleaner has a cone shape and looks like it could go on his mantelpiece. Although certainly less focused than Helvetica, Objectified gives example after example of different designers theories on product shape and use. I was most intrigued by the designer for Apple, who shows how a single piece of metal is used almost entirely to house a laptop. I wish I could remember his name, because I'm always impressed by someone whose brain functions in such a different and constructive way than the norm. If names like Paola Antonelli, Rob Walker, Chris Bangle, Dieter Rams, Alice Rawsthorn, Naoto Fukasawa and Fiona Raby mean anything to you, then you're probably already eagerly anticipating this film (hell, you might already have your ticket). I'd never cared much about how much work and effort went into constructing a chair that might look just as at home in a museum as it does in a living room, but a pair of brothers from France convinced me that I should. Design critics and curators fill in some of the much-needed explanation about what we're looking at, and the entire experience of watching Objectified is both highly entertaining and a great jumping off point for future exploration and observation. I really love films like this where I come out the other side feeling slightly more knowledgeable about a subject, especially one I interact with every single day. The film opens for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and I wouldn't be surprised if it returned in the months to come.
My Life In Ruins
You know, I get why people like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and its star, Nia Vardalos. There's sort of an everywoman appeal to her that translated exceedingly well to the big screen. I'm guessing people who liked that film went on to love movies like Under the Tuscan Sun and Mamma Mia. I don't know why; it just strikes me that the films would appeal to the same slightly desperate and sad people. And if My Life In Ruins had had even half the charm of Greek Wedding, I'd probably be telling that sad and desperate demographic to start lining up now to catch it. But the truth is, this tale of an American woman named Georgia (Vardalos) working as a tour guide in her native Greece is so terrible and lacking in any humor or charm that it is quite literally unwatchable.
The immediate problem with the film is that Vardalos doesn't look like Vardalos. She's clearly gone through an extreme makeover, so that she actually might pass for pretty in certain corners of the earth. I'm not saying she's had work done (the size of her nose is proof enough that she hasn't), but she looks far too glamorous (relatively speaking) to be playing the "I can't get a boyfriend" roles any longer. It doesn't ring true. She leads a group of annoying tourists through Greece's most beautiful and historically important ruins when all her charges want to do is shop for refrigerator magnets and bobbleheads of Greek gods. The concept is funny; the execution is the opposite of funny. Some of the comedy geniuses along as tourists include the American couple grossly overplayed by Harland Williams and Rachel Dratch, two comic actors that I've liked before and who suck the life out of every scene they're in with this material. Richard Dreyfuss inexplicably is on hand as Irv, a widower who acts as Georgia's all-knowing relationship sage. The driver of the broken-down bus is Poupi (yes, it's pronounced poopie, played by heart-throbish Greek actor Alexis Georgoulis. Their coupling is as inevitable as it is improbable. But who am I to judge?
The man behind the camera is director Donald Petrie, whose other films (including Miss Congeniality, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Just My Luck) ought to spell out for you better than anything I could say just what you're in for with My Life In Ruins. The film is devoid of any originality or surprises. The scenery is pretty but certainly not in the same way that other travelog-style films have been that make foreign locations look warm and inviting. You know what? Greek ruins look cold and ancient. Historically, they are badass; as the setting for a romance, not really. I'm not even 100 percent sure why I went to this film. I guess in my mind, I kind of wondered what had happened to Vardalos after her failed sitcom "My Big Fat Greek Life" and the God-awful Connie and Carla opposite Toni Colette. Apparently, she's trying to make a Big Fat Greek Comeback with this film and the soon-to-be-released I Hate Valentine's Day, which she wrote, directed, and is re-teamed in with her Greek Wedding love interest, John Corbett. Can't wait. What I can tell you for certain is that part one of her comeback tour stinks like a wet fart in a shallow bath.
Some of the most interesting science fiction filmmaking of late has taken the form of stories that ground themselves in very familiar settings just a few years in the future. Children of Men was one of the first of this new wave, and some might argue that the upcoming works like Moon and District 9 also fit this bill. One film that kind of slipped into the landscape recently is Sleep Dealer from Mexico, which might be one of the few sci-fi movies that actually deals with how advanced technology would filter its way down to the underprivileged as a means for them to better their lives, or at least let them think it might. A young man named Memo (Luis Fernando Pea) lives with his family in a small farming village that depends on water it must purchase at alarming prices from a big (presumably American) corporation. A dam has been put up to capture the water so that it no longer flows for free to the villages below, changing the balance of power in the community and widening the economic gap. Memo has a fondness for gadgets and building things from scratch and has big dreams about moving to a border town to get a job working in hi-tech, but when he watches an attack on TV of supposed "aqua-terrorists," he quickly realizes that a drone jet from America is bombing his family's shack of a home.
Director Alex Rivera does a magnificent job of shifting the dynamic of the migrant worker. Rather than have their goal be to slip across the border into America, the goal is to make it to towns like Tijuana ("the city of the future," according to one sign) where enormous factories have been set up for a very special kind of labor. Rather than have low-cost Mexican labor work on U.S. construction sites or as nannies or gardeners illegally, a system has been put in place where laborers have nodes implanted in the back of their heads and arms. Once plugged in, they are able to operate robots in America doing these jobs. Amid this virtual labor market is a separate world in which people are able to record and store some of their most vivid memories, then sell them to anyone with the cash (it looks sort of like a YouTube video, but in focus). Memo sets off to be a part of this world and send money back to his remaining family.
On the bus to Tijuana, Memo meets Lug (Leaner Valero) a writer who compels Memo to tell his story. She takes her memories of their conversations and puts them up for sale — without his permission or knowledge — where they generate some interest. Memo is noded up and begins working at a factory where he does work on a construction site. He soon realizes that even in the virtual world, there are dangers. Some of the connections in the factory are not secure and occasionally a coworker will have their brains fried. I hate when that happens.
The film also focuses on the Mexican-born pilot (Jacob Verges) living in America, who discovers Memo's story and realizes that he killed Memo's family unjustly. He sets off for Mexico in search of this young man he has wronged. Meanwhile, Memo and Lug spend a lot of time together, and bond forms between these two very different people. I don't normally spend quite so much time on plot synopsis, but the story told here is so fascinating that I feel it's justified, plus there are lots of points I haven't even touched upon. The film's political undertones soon become overtones as these three characters' lives intersect in unexpected ways, while corporate practices surrounding water and cheap labor are soon targeted. The film's revolutionary message can get a bit heavy handed at times, but that by no means cheapens or degrades the quality of the work. This is the first feature from director Rivera, and I hope he continues to find such new and interesting way of telling his anti-establishment tales. Some of the film reminds me of Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days, but Sleep Dealer takes a much less glamorous approach to both its science and its fiction. Two weeks ago, I'd never even heard of this film, but then it just sneaked onto the Chicago release schedule this week (it opens at the Landmark Century Center Cinema), I got myself a copy, and I liked it a great deal. Sometimes these nice surprises come from the unlikeliest of places. Check Sleep Dealer out if you're into well-conceived science fiction that still remembers how to stick it to The Man.