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Column Sat Mar 03 2012
Dr. Seuss' The Lorax
As a very wise man who does a voice in Dr. Seuss' The Lorax said to me recently, "Who the fuck cares if the message of The Lorax is 'Take care of your environment.'?" Guess what? The book had the same message, and it wasn't even in 3-D. I think the worst thing I can say about this latest adaptation of the lovely book of Dr. Seuss is that it tries to hard to be all things to all people, especially if those people are children. So many filmmakers producing works for youngsters seem to think that they key to keeping kids' attention is dumbing down the work, and that simply isn't the case. But that's how The Lorax was constructed, and as a result we get bathroom humor, broadly drawn villains, and a grammy character voiced by Betty White.
The Lorax isn't even the star of the film. That honor goes to a young man named Ted (Zac Efron), who is trying so hard to impress Audrey (Taylor Swift), that he escapes his nature-free community (everything seems to be made of plastic, and you have to buy clean air the same way we pay for water today) to find a real-life tree, which he's heard you can get from a character called the Once-ler (Ed Helms). The man in control of the plasticized town is O'Hare, a little man with the big voice of Rob Riggle, and for reasons that are a mystery, he uses all of his money and power to keep Ted from leaving the town or ever discovering a real tree.
Once outside the city limits, Ted meets the gruff little creature called The Lorax (Danny DeVito) who says he "speaks for the trees," although the only sign there were ever trees are the dead stumps scattered across the coutryside. There are images in this movie that, not surprisingly, are torn right from the book, one of my favorites as a kid. I'll never forget those giant tree-chopping machines with 50 axes spinning in rotation to clear-cut entire forests in an instant. Those are here. And without spoiling what little plot there is to the 3-D animated feature, much of the film involves chases involving the Lorax and O'Hare and Ted and Grammy and Audrey trying to retrieve the very last seedling in existence.
The Lorax has its heart in the right place and certainly the film is a visual splendor, bringing to life the images from the book and making them pop. But I'm not sure the added elements (primarily to the story) really add anything at all. And a couple of hours after seeing the movie, I'd largely forgotten the details of it. It's strange and a bit sad to think that not a single recent adaptation of a Dr. Seuss work has gotten it right. Those books mean so much to so many people, except apparently the people making these movies. I realize adding elements is necessary because the books are so short, but do the jokes have to be so obvious and pedestrian? Do the bad guys have to be drawn in such broad strokes?
I'll admit, once we get outside the town, I was a little more invested in the way the film was animated and how characters like the Lorax and the Once-ler were realized. But overall, The Lorax suffocates under the weight of its own attempts to complicate a story that work best when it's simply told. I actually liked the choice of voice actors, especially DeVito as the title character and Helms' almost unrecognizable work as the Once-ler, but they aren't given enough freedom to really inhabit their characters. Still, can any more be that bad if it gets an army of kids to run around saying, "Thats' a woman!?" to each other. Maybe I'm being too harsh...
This will be short. I fucking loathed this movie, and it has nothing to do a "these kids today" morality suddenly taking root in my old soul. No, it has to do with the fact that Project X isn't nearly as wild and crazy as it thinks it is or any of the people in it think it is. It's 90 minutes of underage drinking, followed by bits of nudity, a flame thrower, and constant, unapologetic yelling about how awesome what we're watching is supposed to be.
Let me explain something very simple to Todd Philips (The Hangover director who produced Project X) and the folks he convened to make this shit movie: if you have to constantly remind us how cool your party is, it probably isn't that cool. It's like that person you meet that keeps telling you what a weird sense of humor they have, when in fact they have no sense of humor. If you feel the need to push a sign in someone's face that says "FUN!" maybe you're doing something wrong. The bigger problem with Project X is that it's really boring watching other people have fun. When I go to a movie and watch people ride a kick-ass roller coaster, I couldn't care less because it's not me. So watching a kid jump off the roof of a house into a pool, not so interesting.
It doesn't help that I hated the three main characters (Thomas Mann, Oliver Cooper and Jonathan Daniel Brown, who were discovered in a nationwide "talent" search). It's also a found-footage-style movie, which is one of the most believable parts of it, since at this party, there are hundreds of cell phone cameras, flips cams, etc., recording each act of debauchery. But boy does that style of filmmaking get old in this kind of movie, with a non-stop string of cutaway shots of people (you got it) screaming, drinking, injuring themselves doing a drunken stunt... oh the possibilities are endless.
Project X made me restless, bored, and really eager to leave the theater and enjoy life. Instead I had to sit a watch a story of a bunch of outcasts throw a blow-out so they could be popular and get laid. Well these three aren't popular with me, so there's no way I'm giving up the ass to them. Sorry, fellas. Better luck next time. If you have a modicum of self-respect, don't give these guys, Tood Phillips or anybody connected with this movie your ass or money either. I'm already sick of talking about this ass-wart of a movie.
The deserving winner of this year's Oscar for Best Documentary is one of the best sports docs I've seen in a very long time, Undefeated, which tells the story of a high school football team in North Memphis that has never won a playoff game since the school was founded in 1899. The film focus on three students in particular whose upbringing would seem likely to have them dropping out of school early and getting involved with criminal types before they hit 20. But thanks to Bill Courtney, a businessman and former coach who steps back into the fray to help out in 2004, the team turns itself around almost without realizing it and begin to win... a lot, as the title might indicate.
The true centerpiece of the film is the 2009 season, which was the senior year for many of the key players who Courtney nurtured and made champions in games that brought out scouts and those looking to give out scholarships. Now I've seen my fair share of sports documentaries over the years, but what makes Undefeated so unique is that is truly lays out the process of this team improving during practice and games. It's slow and painful for the players (and sometimes the audience), but by the time we get to the last few championship games, we are so fully invested after so much time and effort that you can't help but pour everything you have out to these young men.
The real-world pressures of family, school work, grades, and so much else came crashing in at unexpected and inconvenient times, but Courtney gives his players the emotional support they need to make tough decisions and wise choices. Undefeated is not only about football; it's about survival and perseverance and occasionally failure. Directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin have gotten so close to their subjects that even the most personal and terrible moments are open to their cameras, and the film is all the better for it. Some of the more difficult moments involve the coach's own children, who alternate between being beyond-proud of their dad and feeling like he cares more about his players than them. And it's tough to argue with them when we see the lengths Courtney goes to to make sure his players stay in school with good grades (he even finds one a place to live).
And while the film is set against the backdrop of football, there isn't nearly as much game footage as you might think (at least not until the end of the movie). At its core, Undefeated is about the people and not the game that binds them. Finding the human element in any story is what every film should aspire to do, yet so few accomplish that. For that reason and many more, this is a truly wonderful movie that you should all seek out and watch. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
In the days leading up to the Academy Awards, I did a little screener cramming and watched the last few nominated titles I hadn't seen, so that I could actually say for perhaps the first time ever that I had seen every single nominated film in contention on Sunday. One of the most emotionally charged and boldly unique was the Belgian-made Best Foreign Language Film nom Bullhead, which is just starting to get a wider release in the US thanks in large part to its nomination. And the boost could not have happened to a better, more powerful work, which opened in Chicago Friday at the Music Box Theatre.
The plot is fairly well loaded with gangsters, bottom feeders, and those who love and care about them despite their chosen profession, but really all things emanate from a single incident involving a young boy named Jacky Vanmarsenille and a vicious attack by a bully that essentially strips the the victim of his masculinity for the rest of his life. As a result of the incident, the boy is forced to take male hormones, animal growth hormones, and steroids (the adult Jacky, played by the great Flemish actor Matthias Schoenaerts, has a refrigerator full of them) to continue the outward appearance a man. And how. The guy is a giant, muscle-bound brute who launches into fits of rage with an alarming regularity, but since (we assume) he may not be able to function entirely like a man, his confidence is often completely absent, especially when he's around women.
Despite his temper, it's clear Jacky is a man (now a cattle farmer) who cares about his family and is protective of the few friends that he has. But when he gets involved with a dangerous meat trader with ties to organized crime, his life and the lives of those around him are put into great danger. Naturally, Jacky is called upon to use his brawn to protect. In many ways, Schoenaerts has the intensity that reminds me of Bronson-era Tom Hardy, with the disposition of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. (I'm fairly certain I'm not the first one to make the De Niro comparison, but it seems pretty obviously.) He's a young handsome guy with every reason in the world to be confident, save one. Director Michael R. Roskam never shies away from some truly brutal moments in Bullhead, but at the same time he allows his story and character to resonate with more of an emotionally raw presence than I would have expected. The balance borders on perfect.
During the course of Bullhead, a government investigator is killed and a woman associated with Jacky's misgiving surfaces to really screw with his head at a time when his entire world feels like it's collapsing in upon him. The film jumps back and forth in time between the present and Jacky's childhood, both before and after the incident, and for a while we're not even clear why he's popping pills and injecting himself with seemingly reckless abandon for his own health and safety. And whatever shortcomings the film may or may not have, Schoenaerts basically washes them away with a performance that is almost painful in its restraint and terrifying with its coiled-up potential for violence. We can tell that this single moment in his life and the life-altering injuries he sustained consume him, have made him obsessive, and so focused on that one thing in his life that it nearly devours him.
There are some sideplots (too many, to be honest) concerning slapsticky auto mechanics, the criminals involved in trafficking hormones in Belgium, an informer, gang wars, tires on a car, and the list goes on. It's hit and miss when Bullhead strays from Jacky's story, but for the most part the film is spectacularly realized and grounded in such solid acting that the moments that don't work seem fleeting. I hope that just because A Separation took the Foreign Film Oscar last week that you don't dismiss this rousing, haunting work. In fact, both film are playing at the Music Box Theatre. Double bill, anyone?