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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, May 18

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Napoleon Dynamite
2 of 5 stars
Directed by Jared Hess.
Starring John Heder, Jon Gries, Aaron Ruell, Efren Ramirez, Diedrich Bader and Tina Majorino.

Philadelphia Weekly's Sean Burns beat me to the punch when he described Napoleon Dynamite as an "obnoxiously quirky tale of teenage angst in some weird nowhere Idaho suburb [which] reveals a cockeyed visual confidence and a bit of pleasant off-center timing, even while feeling sort of like the cinematic equivalent of a lousy Wes Anderson cover band.

Starting with its title sequence -- some library book action set to the chipper, head-bopping White Stripes tune "We're Going to Be Friends" -- Napoleon Dynamite looks and feels like the geek comedy equivalent of Under Siege to Anderson's Die Hard: an almost wholly unoriginal, yet still somewhat enjoyable knock-off of the real thing. Jared Hess cribs so many stylistic tricks from Anderson's playbook and uses them in exactly the same contexts that Anderson should get a percentage of the gross: the use of na´ve, child-like drawings by non-children, the mid-line cut to another location, the frequent use of symmetry when framing of his shots. Even the score occasionally sounds like a Mark Mothersbaugh rip.

Napoleon Dynamite (John Heder) is a high school junior from Preston, Idaho, who befriends Pedro, a Kumar-esque Mexican who has recently transferred to Preston High, in-between acting like a complete weirdo. Napoleon isn't just a nerd, he's the biggest fucking nerd ever. He wears moon boots and wildlife T-shirts, he has a Trapper Keeper to draw unicorns in, and he dangles He-Man figures from the school bus with fishing wire. OK, I did think that last bit was funny, though I don't really know why. John Heder's strong, if unvarying, comic performance holds the film together despite mostly unimpressive co-stars until the film starts to lose steam mid-way through. When Pedro decides to run for senior class president against some bitchy blonde cheerleader chick who's spurned his affections and Napoleon's brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) and uncle Rico (Jon Gries) start selling Tupperware door-to-door, the film loses a bit of its focus and suffers for it.

Also like Wes Anderson's films, Napoleon Dynamite seems to be set in some bizarre alternate universe. The problem with this film's execution of the same gimmick is that Napoleon Dynamite looks more like it's actually supposed to be set in the '80s rather than, like in Wes Anderson's films, set in the present but with great anachronistic production design. With Napoleon's brother Kip meeting his soul sistah soulmate (Shondrella Avery) on the Internet arguably a few years too soon and both a Backstreet Boys song and a Jamiroquai song figuring into the finale, Hess could have... maybe gotten a little more explicit about the setting of the film, which proved slightly confusing to more viewers than just myself, or, I don't know, maybe he could have stopped ripping off Wes Anderson instead?

To keep the film from altogether being a Wes Anderson "homage," Hess does add a few groin injuries into the equation (sure crowd-pleasers, those), but that doesn't really count for very much with me. Granted, paying tribute to other filmmakers is obviously commonplace, and I hardly think that Anderson invented either film directing or production design, but to "pay tribute" so thoroughly to a single director without at least attempting to introduce some new on a substantial or even superficial level is not far off from plagiarism. It may not be torture sitting through it in the theater, but you're better off rewatching either Rushmore or The RoyalTenenbaums than seeing Napoleon Dynamite.

Napoleon Dynamite is playing at the Landmark Century and the Evanston Century 12 & CinÚArts 6. Even if you do see this, don't bother sticking around 'til after the credits; the "two months later" bit isn't worth watching.

The Devil's Backbone: The Special Edition DVD
4 of 5 stars
Directed by Guillermo del Toro.
Starring Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Fernando Tielve and ═˝igo GarcÚs.

Timed to coincide with the newly available Hellboy: The Special Edition DVD, the special edition of Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro's 2001 Spanish feature, The Devil's Backbone, features a new, high-definition transfer; a new director's commentary; four deleted scenes; a making-of documentary; storyboard-to-film comparisons for the opening credits and five scenes; and, best of all, conceptual art galleries, including several drawings by del Toro himself. But for American audiences, who may only be familiar with del Toro's American films, its best feature is unchanged from the regular edition: the film itself.

Inappropriately marketed as a horror film in its very limited U.S. release in 2001, The Devil's Backbone is more of a supernatural thriller along the line of The Sixth Sense, The Eye or The Others. Described in the director's commentary as both a "quiet horror movie" and as an attempt to "transpose the rules of the romantic Gothic novel into a very different setting, which is the Spanish Civil War," The Devil's Backbone is set late in the Spanish Civil War and centers around 12-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a new arrival at the Santa Lucia School, a home for orphans of the Republican militia and politicians. (The Spanish Civil War was in the late '30s, for those of us with an American education, by the way.) Soon Carlos begins to see the ghost whom the other boys call "the one who sighs," but while trying to uncover the secret of the ghost's past, he begins to learn more than he should about fellow student Jaime (═˝igo GarcÚs), the headmistress (Marisa Parades) and the walking temper problem of a groundskeeper, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), among other people.

Although a big budget movie by Spanish standards, The Devil's Backbone was made on a fraction of the budget of either Hellboy or Blade 2, both of which cost between $55 and 60 million, yet the spare special effects in Backbone are as seamlessly integrated as any of del Toro's other films and exceedingly well utilized throughout the movie. Del Toro has proven himself a master of creepy visuals, but of all of his films that I've seen (all of them except his debut, Chronos), The Devil's Backbone is the only one where the story lives up to his tremendously imaginative imagery.

Mimic, for instance, starts off well enough but turns into utter shit midway through; Blade 2 isn't much more than a big, dumb series of really awesome fight scenes; and Hellboy is a fun, dark super-hero action movie whose only serious flaw is that it doesn't build up to a big enough pay-off at the end. Perhaps the disconnect from the human level in these films originates from the big-budget Hollywood machine, or perhaps the depth of The Devil's Backbone's story can be partly attributed to the involvement of Agustin and Pedro Almodovar (Talk to Her, All About My Mother). Whatever the cause, I still love Blade 2 and Hellboy for what they are, but if it were my money I'd rather see Guillermo del Toro make three films on the scale of The Devil's Backbone than another Hellboy. So... who wants to give me $60 million?

The Devil's Backbone: The Special Edition DVD is available for purchase from Borders for about $15 ($10 less than the regular edition), or from Amazon for a little bit more. The special edition isn't available for rent from Netflix, GreenCine or my local Blockbuster, however all three have the regular edition. If you haven't seen the movie, do yourself a favor and rent whatever version you can. If you're still not convinced, you can still see the trailer here at the Apple Quicktime Trailers website.

Hellboy: The Special Edition DVD is available for rent from Netflix, GreenCine and every video store on the planet. There is already a Director's Cut edition planned, so don't go buying anything just yet.

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Lynn / July 30, 2004 9:31 AM

You know, when I would tell people how much I disliked Napolean Dynamite, I'd get a "Oh, it wasn't that bad. It's just supposed to be fun." Yeah, I understand fun -- and that wasn't it. Watching a story with no concept of narrative structure or character development, that consisted entirely on routine 80s-teen flick jokes and a few funny-because-they're-bizarre gags, made me actually resent the fact that I was expected to not only accept the lack of story or interest, but also enjoy it! And I even saw it for free! I can't imagine how irritated I would have been had I shelled out 10 whole dollars for that schlock.

Gordon / July 30, 2004 6:40 PM

Another thing that bugged me about the movie is just how mean-spirited it is when you think about it. Napoleon Dynamite is populated with completely hopeless losers with not the slightest glimpse of any redeeming qualities. Sure, Napoleon can kind of dance Ś but he's still a complete waste of flesh. The whole movie is just one long invitation for us to laugh AT them for being such losers; you never give a shit about any of the characters in Napoleon Dynamite the way you do in Rushmore and Tenenbaums. I love Wes Anderson. Could you tell?

Someone pointed out to me since writing this review that Pedro is probably more closely parallel to Bottle Rocket's Inez than Kumar, if only because of the size of the role. It's funny that in ripping off Wes Anderson in yet another way, he actually ripped off the main weakness of Bottle Rocket, too: Inez's inability to communicate on any real level with Luke Wilson's character basically makes her an uninteresting character in a film full of them. Of course, in Napoleon Dynamite, none of the characters are interesting, so it works out a little better here.

Steve / August 2, 2004 2:06 PM

I am quite often seen as a buzzkill for taking movies -- even comedies -- far too seriously.

Yet I found Napoleon Dynamite seriously funny. I laughed more during this flick than I did during any one of Wes Anderson's movies the first time around. (I'm weird -- I have to see Anderson's films several times to really get into them. And while I like his flicks, I don't really love them.) And not just because it has guys getting hit in the 'nads.

For all the comparisons people want to make between ND and Anderson's work, there are some key differences: the main character isn't a lying, shifty-eyed schemer (ala Anthony Adams, Max Fischer and Royal Tenenbaum -- if this were an Anderson film, Uncle Rico would be the lead), and the lines between protagonists and antagonists are far more clearly demarcated.

Napoleon wasn't born with shit and seems well aware that he ain't ever gonna be shit, but he's too caught up in the anxiety of day-to-day existence to even think about transcendence. He -- and his two friends, Pedro and Deb -- is true to himself in a way that far too few teens actually are.

And for that, he's smacked around at every turn by his awful classmates, community, and family alike, with the latter group the only one he ever dares to confront.

Whether these factors make Napoleon Dynamite more true-to-life or a cliche depends on your perspective. All I know is that I'd rather see a film like this than yet another full-length adaptation of an old TV show with four obvious laughs -- or a Will Farrell movie.

Naz / August 2, 2004 2:26 PM

Steve - I agree.

I enjoed the film, didn't get too much into the why's or how's, it seemed quite plausible and while it has elements of a Wes Anderson creative direction, it never felt like it was trying to be too clever. It was just humourous.

Lezlee / August 2, 2004 5:51 PM

I'm from Idaho. Yeah it's a confession of sorts. This film is pure Idaho. We talk like that. Some people dress like that and wear their hair like that. Preston isn't a suburb so much as it is a town like most any other town in Idaho, a small, nearly rural area, with a main street and a few stores, sitting about an hour away from anything larger. I liked it but mainly because I "got" the joke. We say "frick". We say "fetch". I don't live their anymore but it did make me nostaligic for everything that is awful and great about it. I feel these guys never thought this movie would go so mainstream, they thought only people from Idaho and Utah would see it or they probably would have set up the joke a little more.


robin.. / August 4, 2004 1:05 PM

Thank you for the reminder of how great "Devil's Backbone" is. I had almost forgotten how much I loved that movie. And to all: thank you for the really thoughtful discussion about ND.


About the Author(s)

Gordon McAlpin writes his movie reviews with a red light-up Spy Kids pen, which he thinks is the coolest thing ever, even though he didn't like the movie that much.

If you feel the need to get in touch with him directly, instead of using the comments below, do so at gmgapersblockcom.

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