As of January 1, 2016, Gapers Block has ceased publication. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions over the past 12-plus years. 

TODAY

Monday, March 18

Gapers Block
Search

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr


Airbags

You Don't Mess with the Zohan

If you had asked me to name five movies I was dreading seeing this summer, the new Adam Sandler film, You Don't Mess with the Zohan, would have been in the top three. I don't have anything against Sandler as a comic actor. I've gotten a kick out of a few films he's done since his leaving "Saturday Night Live" and beginning a career of playing characters with silly voices doing dumb shit. I feel lately he's been trying a little too hard to be likable rather than offensive and/or annoying, and the results have been mixed at best. With last year's I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, he grazed the subject of gay marriage and managed to piss off both gay and straight people with him ham-handed attempt at a message film. Today the film's lasting impression on anyone is that Jessica Biel looks phenomenal in her underwear. On the surface Zohan is following a similar trend (it didn't encourage me that Chuck & Larry director Dennis Dugan was helming this film, as well). And it does seem appallingly bold of Sandler to even broach the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict using humor, but the weird thing is that something about this movie actually works. I found myself laughing more than I have in a very long time at a Sandler comedy. Hell, even the standard-issue Rob Schneider role didn't annoy me much.

I'd love to say I know the reason why Zohan turned out as well as it did. One could look at the writing credits for an easy answer: the screenplay is credited to Sandler, Robert Smigel (the SNL writer who created Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and "TV Funhouse") and the omnipresent Judd Apatow. I'm not saying better writing didn't have something to do with the film being one of the most entertaining self-made Sandler films of the decade, but there's something more going on here. Sandler still wants us to like his character, a Mossad counter-terrorist agent who fakes his own death and reappears in New York City to begin life anew as a hairdresser. But Sandler and Dugasn also want us (or at least the ladies) to find Zohan sexy, desirable and dangerously handsome. Zohan's nemesis is the Palestinian assassin known only as The Phantom (the glorious John Turturro, who hasn't been this wonderfully over-the-top since The Big Lebowski). These men are not just soldiers in a holy war; they are supermen who can defy gravity, physics and logic with their skills. Zohan can even barbecue and disco at the same time in the nude (there is more bare ass in the film than I could handle).

Knowing that he would suffer terrible humiliation if his hairdressing fantasy was ever brought to light in his own country, he lets the world believe The Phantom has killed him, and he smuggles himself into America where he hopes not to be recognized. Since he has no experience as a stylist, he's unable to get his dream job at the Paul Mitchell hair salon, and he ends up working for a Palestinian cutie named Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui from "Entourage"). Once he finally gets a pair of scissors, some shampoo, and his first client, Zohan works his magic on the old ladies that frequent the rundown salon. But he adds his own special brand of customer service by schtupping each one, which pretty much guarantees repeat business. The noises alone are enough to make you heave, but there's no denying the concept is funny. I also particularly liked the sequences with the family Zohan is staying with (the mom is played by Lainie Kazan, with Nick Swardson, who is particularly funny as her son who must endure the knowledge that mom is bedding his new friend).

Sandler continues his tradition of packing his movie with celebrity cameos, including everyone from Michael Buffer as the film's villain, a real estate developer who wants to build a mega-mall where the salon is; Schneider as a Palestinian New York City cab driver, who has a history with Zohan and wants him dead; Kevin Nealon as a cowardly neighborhood watch agent who works with Zohan to clean up the community; and a few others that deserve to stay surprises. And while the love story between Zohan and Dalia is fairly run of the mill, the rest of the film is a little more inventive. Never have I seen such a crotch-centered PG-13 movie. Jokes about Zohan's enormous and constant bulge fill every inch of this movie (turns out the bulge is from his massive man-bush and not his penis). When Zohan is teaching a fellow stylist his technique, he makes sure to show him how to rub his crotch against the arm of the client while he's washing their hair. "It's OK, they like it," he insists. It's pervy and wrong, but it's also hilarious watching two men hump the shoulders of an old lady. Don't ask me why.

Zohan takes a stab at offering a can't-we-all-just-get-along solution to the centuries-old Middle East crisis, and on that level it fails miserably. But that part of the film makes up such a small fraction of the proceedings that it didn't stop me from having a lot of fun watching this return-to-silly form from Sandler and his buddies.

The Promotion

When an actor steps behind the camera, the media seems to make a big deal about that for some reason. But I tend to focus on films where a successful screenwriter attempts to bring his or her own work to the screen. Tony Gilroy did so for the first time last year with a little film called Michael Clayton; maybe you heard of it. Writer Paul Haggis stepped behind the camera for the first time a couple years ago with a film called Crash, and took home multiple Oscars for his efforts. With The Promotion, writer Steven Conrad (a Chicago native who wrote The Pursuit of Happyness) has slightly less lofty goals as he directs this tale of two mid-level managers (Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly) vying for the same leadership position at a grocery store chain. And while the story is clearly meant to be a comedic effort, there's a great deal of surging rage and bitterness seeping through the facades of both men. And it's this bubbling, festering undertone that made me love this little goldmine of a film.

Let me dispel comparisons to two other films that cover some of the same thematic ground as The Promotion. This movie is in no way like that hunk of shit Employee of the Month, nor is it anything like Office Space. That being said, The Promotion could do for vest-wearing, have-a-nice-day grocery workers what Office Space did for buttoned-up, tie-wearing cubicle dwellers. Conrad captures the absolutely demoralizing existence of these men so perfectly that I'll never be able to look one of these men or women in the eyes again without wanting to pat them on the back and say, "It's OK."

Now I love me some John C. Reilly, don't misunderstand. But the powerhouse performance here belongs to Scott, who plays one of the most understated roles of his career. He's a man with limited ambition — not no ambition, but his goals aren't exactly aimed at the moon. Still, when a manager's job presents itself, he finds himself in unfamiliar territory and a competitive heat fills his blood. His wife (played by Jeanna Fischer, who grows sexier by the nanosecond) wants to buy a house, one they can only afford if he gets the job. Out of nowhere comes a transfer assistant manager from Canada (Reilly), who seems equally qualified for the job and comes complete with his own supportive wife (Lili Taylor with a Scottish accent) and two kids. The film doesn't resort to simply one-upsmanship, as you might expect. The two guys actually try to be friends while looking for subtle ways to crush each other's careers. And each one takes turns looking bad in the eyes of upper management.

A great group of supporting players sweeten the pot, including Fred Armisen as the frequently absent manager of the store where the two men work (he goes to the movies a lot during work hours; good for him); Bobby Cannavale as a doctor friend of Fischer's at the hospital where she works; and Gil Bellows as the senior manager who will decide the fate of these two men vying for what will essentially be another dead-end job for slightly higher pay. One of the great things about The Promotion is that it doesn't shy away from some seriously R-rated banter, even though it easily could have. Scott and Reilly really tear into each other in some scenes, but a lot of the dirtiest material comes from minor players, including co-workers in the store and a gang of troublemaking kids that hangs out in the parking lot.

The film allows its characters to suffer the punishing weight of comment cards, gathering up shopping carts, filling end caps and office politics that kill ambition and morale so completely it's amazing anyone recovers. Since the film is set in Chicago, I was getting a real kick out of some of the location shooting as the movie uses the city's lesser-known neighborhoods as its background. But more than all other things, The Promotion had me rolling, sometimes heaving, with laughter. Reilly is the master comic actor (duh!), but I never realized what a talent Scott can be when he's allowed to let go of the Stifler persona. He's rock solid in this role (as he was in Southland Tales, but completely different), and I hope this effort doesn't go unnoticed and gives him acting opportunities that go beyond broad comedy. This one's a keeper, gang. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my interview with The Promotion star Seann William Scott, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Kung Fu Panda

The last time I doubted Jack Black's sanity in choosing worthy roles I did so because I thought he was pandering to children. How could my beloved tenacious JB make a kiddie movie? It felt like a betrayal. Well, that movie turned out to be The School of Rock, and I'm always willing to admit when I'm wrong. Rather than restrain himself to fit the mold of a kids' film, Black made the kids raise their energy to his level. Still, when the ads for the animated Kung Fu Panda started popping up last year, I got a chill. This time, I was sure Jack Black had gone too far. How could a movie about a cuddly panda attempting to learn kung fu be any damn good? And once again, I have short-changed Black and the creative team he is working with on this massively enjoyable, visually zippy tale about believing in yourself and overcoming a poor self-image that has held you back for so long. Might this be the first animated work to tackle body image issues? Probably not, but it is definitely the first to do so with such gusto.

Black voices Po, a panda who works in his father's noodle shop in China, but always thought that he was destined for more. His village is at the base of a temple that houses the greatest fighters in the land, the Furious Five, animals who make up five fighting styles of kung fu: Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Tigress (Angelina Jolie) and Monkey (Jackie Chan, whose vocal talents might leave something to be desired, but the filmmakers probably liked having around for the vibe). Their master is the small, rodent-like creature Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, doing his best work in years, I kid you not). When word gets out that the evil snow leopard Tai Lung ("Deadwood's" Ian McShane) has escaped from prison, Shifu's master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) decides it is time to select a new Dragon Warrior, the only fighter who can defeat Tai Lung. Everyone presumes the Dragon Warrior will be selected from among the members of the Furious Five, but at the selection ceremony, Oogway accidentally selects Po (although according to Oogway, there are no accidents), and Shifu is charged with training the rotund panda in the ways of kung fu, much to the chagrin of the Furious Five, the townspeople and Shifu himself.

I never would have guessed it in advance of seeing Kung Fu Panda, but Black and Hoffman make a great comic team. Both their banter and their more inspirational moments are equally strong and effective, and their training sessions are hilarious. And even with Cross and Rogen in the lineup, neither really tries to be too silly or outrageous. That may not sit well with some of you, but in the case of this film, less is often more. Jolie's Tigress is made to be the most serious of the characters, since she seemed the frontrunner of being tapped to be the new Dragon Warrior before Po stepped in. Her restraint is quite good, and I may never be able to look at a tiger again without getting a little turned on.

Aside from the surprisingly strong writing (relatively speaking), I truly dug the animation style. What it lacks in realism, it make up for with nonstop creative, kinetic energy. The fight scenes are magnificent, and Po's training sequences are my favorite scenes in the movie. Shifu realizes Po does his best kung fu when he believes food will be his reward, and he uses that to his advantage. Po has never met a dumpling he didn't like. I'm not sure how parents are going to feel about the idea of food as a reward for good behavior, but it works in the context of the film.

Of course, the entire story is working up to the ultimate showdown between the perhaps ill-prepared Dragon Warrior Po and the seemingly indestructible Tai Lung, and it is spectacularly realized, with a concluding secret move that had me howling. I don't think it's absolutely necessary that you are an old-school martial arts film fan to appreciate Kung Fu Panda, but it sure doesn't hurt. I loved the detail in the set and costume design, as well as tasty little touches like Shifu's enormous white mustache and eyebrows. If a smile of recognition is creeping across your mouth at the mention of this extreme facial hair, you'll eat this movie up. And don't be afraid to see this movie with a theater filled with children that aren't your own. People think kids are the worst audience to see any movie with thanks to their short attention span (that's actually false; the worst audience to see any movie with is old people, thank you). If the movie is engaging, kids will sit back and enjoy it with minimal disturbances to those around them. Kung Fu Panda is an experience I think kids, their parents and any other adults will enjoy equally. And there's just enough insane kung fu to keep even us geeks entertained.

The Foot Fist Way

I don't know exactly what to say about this film that seems have taken every writer on Ain't It Cool News by storm. It certainly made me laugh hard more than a couple times. Its lead, Danny McBride, is without a doubt a comedy star in the making. If for no other reason, the film exists as the ultimate showreel for his talents. But I don't really think I can get on board The Foot Fist Way love train just yet. The film has the makings of one of the great modern midnight movies. I can clearly see a group of drunk college kids heading to their local movie house to watch the latest show possible of this film about a pudgy martial arts instructor Fred Simmons (McBride), his habitually unfaithful wife (Mary Jane Bostic) and his school full of stone-faced students of all ages.

Simmons is the ultimate douche bag, content to rest on the laurels of a years-old Tae Kwon Do championship title, and thinking he is God's gift to martial arts, women and his students. But he's also a fairly likable because no matter how much confidence he exudes in front of others, he's still not above standing before the mirror and calling himself every name in the book in some kind of a verbal self-flagellation ritual that seems to result in a beefing up of self worth. Plus his wife shits on him, and he stupidly always takes her back. Fred also gets the chance to meet his Hollywood action hero Chuck "The Truck" Wallace (Ben Best, one of the film's writers along with McBride and director Jody Hill, who also costars in the film), and is sadly disappointed in meeting his idol. The Foot Fist Way's grainy look and excessive use of slow motion during some of the practice sessions at the school give the film a '70s amateur feel that is really fun, but the film itself is filled with large gaps of unfunny bits, aimless riffing and flat acting, which, I'll admit, is not always a bad thing and sometimes adds to the humor of the work.

Ultimately, however, my reaction when the film ended as abruptly as it began was, "Is that it?" It was hard to believe that this was the film I'd been hearing about for months (in some cases years) from others. As I said, McBride absolutely passes the audition with flying colors, and I can't wait to see if he maintains this level of quality humor in Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder later this summer. And while the rest of the film isn't "bad" per se, it didn't shake my shingles the way it seems to have with others. The big laughs are powerful stuff, but the rest of it is decidedly average. Not only are there better movies in theaters right now, but there are better comedies worth your $10-plus.

Stuck

One of the best B-movies I've seen in recent months was during last year's Chicago International Film Festival, and it just happened to be directed and co-written by a Chicagoan. One-time Organic Theater director and horror movie master Stuart Gordon (The Re-Animator; From Beyond; Dagon) is telling a different kind of blood-and-guts tale with Stuck, which is opening today at the Music Box Theatre. Brandi is a sweet young woman (played by American Beauty's Mena Suvari) working at a retirement home, who is expecting what might be one of the few opportunities for advancement in her job. At the same time, a recently downsized worker named Tom (Stephen Rea) has officially become one of America's homeless and is wandering the streets in despair. Their lives collide violently when Brandi runs head on into Tom with her car after a night of drinking and drugs. Tom's body goes about halfway through her windshield, the glass penetrating his midsection so deep that when she attempts to remove his still-very-much-alive body, he screams in agony and blood pours profusely. I also seem to remember a leg injury that features the always-lovely sight of a bone popping out through the skin. Lest you think Gordon has softened in recent years, this movie proves otherwise.

Brandi realizes her life and career are over if this accident comes to light, so she drives the rest of the way home (with Tom wedged firmly in the windshield) and parks the car in her garage. After giving up hope that Tom will die quickly from his injuries, Brandi attempts to quicken his demise by beating on him a little, which doesn't work either. She calls her scumbag boyfriend in to help her carry out her plan to simply wait for Tom to die and then dispose of the body. When Tom realizes Brandi is not planning on calling for help, his survival instinct kicks in and what results is a battle of half-wits. Brandi isn't too smart and Tom is out of his mind in pain, so the pair fights for control of each other's future, in a sense.

Gordon is clearly going for something more than just a sick little thrill here. Like all great horror, his social commentary flag is flying. Said to be "based on true events" (a phrase and concept that hold almost no meaning for me anymore), the events portrayed in Stuck certainly don't feel real. That being said, I have no trouble believing that a person in a similar circumstance to Brandi's would rather try to hide a body than get into trouble. The film exists just outside the realm of 100 percent believability, but that doesn't stop it from hitting some pretty authentic notes when it comes to attitudes about the homeless, in particular, and life in general. But don't worry, you don't have to think much during Stuck if you choose not to. You'll probably be too busy squirming in vicarious pain watching Tom struggle in his jagged safety glass prison. I loved every minute of it, and much like Gordon's other recent effort, his film version of David Mamet's Edmond, just because the film is small in scale doesn't mean its ideas aren't massive. I truly love what Gordon's been doing lately, and Stuck is a genuine sicko treat.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster

I'm assuming that quite a few of you were fans of the big action movies of the '80s and early '90s. You know the ones I mean. They usually starred Arnold or Sly and featured oiled-up muscles of enormous size and proportion. Or perhaps you liked professional wrestling as a youngster. Or baseball. Or football. Maybe the feats of bodybuilders served as an inspiration to you. All of these scenarios factored into the life of young Christopher Bell, a smallish boy who grew up (along with his two brothers) to be muscle men of some sort. One brother was a champion weightlifter; the other, a would-be wrestler. Chris was also a major contender in the weightlifting game. They grew up in a good home, went to church three times a week, and all three took steroids at some point in their lives. Two of them still do.

In many ways, the documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster, directed by Bell, defies every expectation I had of it. It chronicles the history and extent of steroid culture in America and the world (for many of us, the first time we saw steroids was when that dirty Russian Drago was injected with the stuff in Rocky IV). But it does much more than that. It shows us an environment of hypocrisy that exists around performance enhancing drugs, how politicians have used it as a political tool because of high-profile users getting caught "cheating" at sports by using the drugs, and how the subject of steroids in his own family is tolerated even though it goes against everything he and his brothers were raised to believe. Bell pulls no punches, especially when it comes to Arnold Schwartzenegger, an admitted steroid user during his Mr. Universe days and early film career, who has since come out against its use. Bell isn't afraid to name names like Stallone, Hulk Hogan, runner Ben Johnson, Barry Bonds and countless lesser-known athletes.

Bell wisely looks at the mixed messages that are sent to high school students, some of whom use some form of enhancement drugs for everything from being better at sports to better concentration to eliminating performance anxiety. The director traces a lot of what drives Americans to take any kind of legal or illegal enhancement drugs to our nation's desire to win by any means. And he examines his own personal feelings about discovering that his film and sports heroes were breaking rules that he held sacred. Bell is a terrific narrator, and he has a real knack for mixing humor and solid research in his movie. I particularly enjoyed him hiring immigrant workers to help his buddies manufacture fake mass-building pills out of rice powder and charging astronomical amounts of money for a jar of the stuff.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster is far from a condemnation of steroid use. In fact, if the film accomplished anything in my mind it's that steroid use has been demonized a great deal in recent years. And while there clearly can be terrible side effects, they aren't any more severe or likely that for people who drink too much, smoke too much, or take all manner of legal over-the-counter drugs. The movie works best when Bell brings the issue back home to his family. In this close-knit family where secrets simply don't exist, Bell's brothers keep their steroid use a secret from mom. She suspects something is up, and even that amount of knowledge seems to kill her a little. But the scene in which Bell comes face to face with Gov. Schwartzenegger to really grill him about the mixed messages he sends about steroids is worth the price of admission. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

All Jacked Up

In the publicity material for this documentary examining the potentially destructive relationship between teens and fast food, there's a quote from Mike Adams (who is interviewed in the film) at Natural News. The quote reads, "This is the movie food companies hope you never see.” Mike and I agree on this point, but allow me to add that I hope you never have to watch All Jacked Up either. I'm in no way dispelling the solid information given in this condemnation project whose main objective seems to be forcing all fast-food chains and any manufacturers of foods that are blatantly bad for teens (and adults, for that matter) to cease and desist.

While these goals are lofty at best, the real crime committed by All Jacked Up is that the entire piece is framed through the perfectly quaffed hair and makeup of actor Bobby Rice (billed as "host/curious narrator" — give me a fucking break), a young bit of emo trash who inserts himself into the lives of the four high school students profiled in the film by director Jennifer Mattox. Rice looks sincerely into the camera and practically yells his half-baked messages into the mic. Or he interviews experts in the field of medicine, nutrition or food and yells leading questions at them. The teens and the experts are interesting enough that Rice's presence provides an unwanted distraction from the substance of the film. The guy is a Class A tool who appears to be wearing pink lipgloss during some of his interviews.

While the film's first half deals almost exclusively with food issues, the second half goes into the more vague area of teen troubles that might lead to bad eating. Again, these four kids seem interesting and smart enough to figure out what's going on in their lives that might cause them to eat poorly, overeat or undereat without the help of some hippie psychologist whose advice is self-fulfilling nonsense. I was particularly moved by the story of Melissa, the overweight and overly busy theater student who is clearly a singing and acting talent, but problems with her mother at home have led her down a road of food abuse and self-loathing. The other female in the group, Raquel, is a bulimic with photos of models on her bedroom walls and nose buried in fashion magazines. The camera catches her vomiting on a couple of occasions, and it hurts to watch. If the film and the material had been handled a little more like the upcoming masterwork on the high school experience, American Teen, then I might have able been to see past some of the film's shortcoming on the subject of food. Perhaps it's a case of a movie not knowing what it wants to be, thus is lacking in everything it's trying to be. Ultimately, I'm telling you to stay away from this film because Rice as the narrator will drive you up a fucking wall with his self-righteous delivery and pensive stare.

If you do decide to brave this film, please be aware that director/writer Jennifer Mattox and producer/co-writer Doug Clemons will be present for audience discussion at both screenings: Tuesday, June 10 at 8pm, and Thursday, June 12 at 8pm.

GB store
 

About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

GB store

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15