Thursday, July 20, 2006

You, Me and Dupree

YOU, ME AND DUPREE (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2006)

Newlyweds Carl and Molly Peterson (Matt Dillon and Kate Hudson) begin married life with a third wheel in their lives in YOU, ME AND DUPREE. They return from their honeymoon and learn that Carl’s best man, Dupree (Owen Wilson), is jobless and homeless because he didn’t have approval to take off the time he spent in Hawaii for their wedding. Despite his wife’s protestations, Carl invites Dupree to crash at their home and assures Molly that his pal just needs a couple days to get back on his feet.

Dupree is a free spirit, though, and his job search is less exhaustive than his time spent training on his bike and getting a half-pipe constructed for neighborhood skateboarders. The tension between hosts and guest build, yet try as they might, they can’t get rid of Dupree.

Carl and Molly’s marriage also faces a challenge from his father-in-law (Michael Douglas), a major real estate developer and Carl’s boss. Mr. Thompson assigns Carl a plum job and then undercuts every decision he makes. He suggests that his son-in-law might wish to take his daughter’s last name, and perhaps he should explore the possibility of getting a vasectomy. Meanwhile Molly becomes frustrated with Carl’s inability to communicate and do something about his friend.

YOU, ME AND DUPREE coasts a lot on the laidback charm of Owen Wilson. He’s carrying out a lesser version of the lovable space cadet that’s been his stock in trade since BOTTLE ROCKET. Of course he’s the kind of guy who would have a mounted moose head among his essentials and turn down a job because it requires him to work on Columbus Day. If more of the film had the zing of Dupree’s inspirational speech to the slackers of tomorrow, keeping in mind it is Molly’s grade school class, this modest comedy might have amounted to something.

As it is, YOU, ME AND DUPREE is shiftless like the loafing thirtysomething. It moves in fits and starts, undecided whether the story is being told from the perspective of Dillon’s slow-burning Carl or the fun-loving Dupree. Carl’s workplace aggravations occasionally add some laughs, but those scenes are inessential to the primary struggle. Halfway through YOU, ME AND DUPREE changes from Carl’s view to Dupree’s. It’s no wonder. Dupree is the more entertaining character, not to mention the most consistently drawn. Carl gets mangled in the gears of the plot. Hudson attempts to bring her light touch to Molly, but her character is simply misconceived. She vanishes for long stretches only to pop up and behave in an inconsistent manner. (Strangely, the other women in the film--a friend's wife played by Amanda Detmer and Dupree's one night stand--are virtually invisible. Detmer is billed in the opening credits, but in my recollection, the only time she’s glimpsed is in rare views running around in the background. If she has any lines, they’re in one of the early wedding scenes.)

Unfortunately for YOU, ME AND DUPREE, it's easier to invest patience in people stumbling to find focus and purpose than films searching for the same things.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (David Frankel, 2006)

Fresh out of j-school at Northwestern, Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) snags a choice job as assistant to the assistant of Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), the editor of top New York-based fashion magazine Runway. Working a year for Miranda supposedly opens doors to any number of jobs in the publishing world. The catch is that few possess the stamina and steel spine to withstand the indignity and withering criticism the boss from hell dispenses without batting an eye.

For a go-getter like Andy in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, it’s merely another challenge that hard work and a positive attitude can overcome; however, in Miranda’s office plucky spirits get plucked. Andy’s college education isn’t of much use when her main priorities are hanging up the coats tossed on her desk and catering to Miranda’s every whim, such as getting an immediate flight out of a city beset by a hurricane and obtaining the unpublished manuscript of the next Harry Potter novel because her bratty twin daughters want it. The work is menial, and Andy is always on call. She has little time for her boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier) or a social life of any kind. Support at the magazine is scarce with co-workers ranging from Miranda’s openly hostile assistant Emily (Emily Blunt) to Runway fashion director Nigel (Stanley Tucci), who lends a sympathetic ear yet advises Andy to toughen up or quit.

In superhero movies the protagonist is often not as interesting as the villain. The same is true in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. Hathaway exudes Midwestern decency and friendliness as Andy, but the juicy role belongs to Streep. Miranda, clearly modeled on Vogue’s Anna Wintour, is delightfully monstrous. As if toting a ballpeen hammer in her couture handbag, she delivers blows to designers and employees with quick taps requiring the fewest words and slightest inflections. Streep plays Miranda subtly, not needing theatrics for the razorblade spitting she does to nick all of the unquestionably incompetent people around the character.

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA also gets an assist from the supporting players. Blunt, last seen in MY SUMMER OF LOVE, has fun as the highly stressed assistant who admires and fears her boss. Tucci adds some comedic sparkle by hamming it up a little, but like the film as a whole, the broadest qualities are never allowed to become too flashy.

In one of the film’s better moments Miranda explains how high fashion filters down to bargain store clothes. It’s illuminating for anyone who’s ever wondered how the most outrageous designs are relevant or impact the attire we buy. The catty competitiveness is omnipresent but sanitized. A biting look inside the fashion world this isn’t.

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA takes an amused view of how a good young woman could slowly abandon her values in pursuit of a career. Not surprisingly, Andy finds that what she was losing was greater than what she was gaining. To be sure, not everyone must throw away their principles or politeness to succeed, but some fields provide a stiffer test than others. Although it develops into a breezy cautionary tale, Andy’s trial by fire is really just an employment horror story laughed at once it’s fallen off the résumé.

Grade: B-

Friday, July 14, 2006

This and That

Just thought I'd make mention that I'm finally getting around to catching up on some posting that should have been done over the last month or so. Reviews of THE BREAK-UP and THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT have finally made their way online, and there are more to come over the weekend. (Also, check out yesterday's post about M. Night Shyamalan if you haven't already.)

I think I probably just needed to take a break after the whirwind of spring film festivals. Either that or my effort to get back in shape has been taking too much of my energy. (Running was a killer in today's heat.)

Those of you who watch NOW PLAYING, my TV show with Paul Markoff, may be wondering why our most recent show has been on for twice the time as usual. Some major equipment issues forced us to scrap our last scheduled taping, but we'll have a new show next week. Considering we've taped a show every two weeks since March 1997, I suppose we were due for a production hiccup like that.

It's not been a particularly good week movie-wise, so for the sake of something different, last night I went to the Wexner Center's B-Movie Hootenanny, a summer series whose title explains itself. It might be because I see enough bad new films that the allure of watching bad old films has diminished significantly for me. Let's just say the audiences at HOOTENANNY HOOT and outdoor screening of MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS got a bigger kick out of them than I did. Or maybe these were just the wrong films at the wrong time.

Around this time next week you should be able to listen online to my reviews on 96.3 WROV out of Roanoke, VA. The station plans to offer live streaming audio beginning Monday. I'll post full details of when I'll be on when I know more.

The Break-Up

THE BREAK-UP (Peyton Reed, 2006)

In THE BREAK-UP Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston sever their relationship but continue living under the same roof. Neither Vaughn’s Gary nor Aniston’s Brooke are willing to move out of the Chicago condo they own together, so they stake out their turf and do battle.

Director Peyton Reed’s last film, DOWN WITH LOVE, was a snappy battle of the sexes that laughed at the foibles of men and women resisting their attraction to one another. While consistently funny, THE BREAK-UP deals in bitterness and revenge, sometimes in ways that cut closer to the bone than most fluffy romantic comedies. Reed is working in Mike Nichols and WAR OF THE ROSES territory rather than boy and girl making nice scenarios. The raw emotion isn’t always in sync with the comedy, but it gives a more well-rounded perspective on this relationship than is presented in most films of this type.

THE BREAK-UP’S key is finding blame in both people yet blinding them to their own faults. Brooke expects Gary to read her mind and tries to manipulate him. Gary is self-centered and inconsiderate. Their inability to communicate openly and listen feeds the film’s comedy and pain. Vaughn’s in prime form as a professional smart aleck, but his snarky charm does unbalance audience sympathies somewhat. The THE BREAK-UP’S humor stings, but something fascinating emerges from the rubble of this broken relationship.

Among its many nicknames, Chicago is known as the Second City. As tour guide Gary explains near the film's end, the name refers to the stronger metropolis that emerged from the necessary rebuilding after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Likewise, the devastation of Gary and Brooke's romance lays the groundwork for them to construct better love affairs. Whether that will be with one another or other people is uncertain up to THE BREAK-UP'S final scene, which is a refreshing divergence from the genre's usual predictability.

Grade: B

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift


THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS franchise continues, but for TOKYO DRIFT it’ll have to do with a new cast and a move overseas. Lucas Black stars as Shawn Boswell, a road racer whose reckless driving has forced him and his mother to pick up and move where the local authorities don’t know him. Old habits die hard, though, and Shawn gets in a particularly destructive and dangerous race that results in his mother sending him to Japan to live with his long-absent Navy father. Although warned to stay away from cars, Shawn finds an underground group that specializes in a sliding technique known as drifting.

The car racing and stunts in THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT are well executed and exciting in part from the sheer force of the soundtrack. Revving engines, squealing tires, and pounding music attack the eardrums. With its glittering pachinko parlors and active night life, Tokyo is a terrific new location for THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS. A chase through the downtown streets and a massive pedestrian crossing is thrilling stuff.

The third time around for THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS finds the franchise spinning its tires. Characterization isn’t the strong suit of this series of films, but then again, the key players are the autos, not the actors. Still, something has to hold together the scenes between the vehicle showcases. Shawn’s parental issues and cultural assimilation struggles are barely addressed, leaving Black with little to do. Bow Wow is underutilized as Twinkie, his military brat buddy with an emasculating name. The crime angle is typically the least interesting aspect of these films, and the yakuza subplot feels tacked on.

Grade: C

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Night Time

M. Night Shyamalan has a lot at stake with next Friday's opening of LADY IN THE WATER. One of the few directors whose name carries marketing clout with mainstream audiences, Shyamalan's greatest commercial success, THE SIXTH SENSE, is also one of his greatest burdens. People loved the twist ending, and it's fair to say that they expected him to pull the rug out from under them in his follow-up films. Shyamalan's attempts to do so have been met with diminished enthusiasm, at least if the chatter on internet movie sites is any indication. Many felt burned by THE VILLAGE. Although it made more money at the box office than UNBREAKABLE, it was easily the worst reviewed spooker he's made. (I think it's his best film to date and placed it in my Top 10 of 2004.) It's not a good sign that when I saw the new, more intense LADY IN THE WATER trailer before SUPERMAN RETURNS some of the audience greeted it with audible groans.

Being tabbed "the next Spielberg" in an August 5, 2002 NEWSWEEK cover story put a target on him for critics and entertainment writers, in part because Shyamalan wasn't shy about voicing his ambition to achieve that level of success. Reportedly Shyamalan has a sizable ego, which would hardly seem to be a crime in Hollywood or of consequence as long as his work holds up to scrutiny. Nevertheless, with LADY IN THE WATER the entertainment journos can smell blood.

They're prepared to pounce in part because of Michael Bamberger's book THE MAN WHO HEARD VOICES: OR, HOW M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN RISKED HIS CAREER ON A FAIRY TALE. (I haven't read it, but Entertainment Weekly has an excerpt in their current issue.) Bilge Ebiri doesn't think Shyamalan deserves the scorn directed at him or that the book is his way of getting back at his former home studio. David Poland, not a big Shyamalan supporter if going by his previous columns, thinks that LADY IN THE WATER is a make-or-break film in the director's career.

Whether it turns out to be a film maudit, blockbuster, or something in between, LADY IN THE WATER appears poised to determine if Shyamalan will be perceived in the industry as a major commercial filmmaker. Has he lost the trust of moviegoers? Are his wide-reaching ambitions outdone by an overly insular perspective of his work? As a fan of his films and someone underwhelmed by most of this summer's big movies, I hope he can deliver the goods, but even if he does, I have a feeling that the tide has already turned on him in the minds of audiences and critics.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Super Sucker

SUPER SUCKER (Jeff Daniels, 2002)

Putting the words bad, bomb, or turkey in the title tempts fate and the critics, especially if the film stinks to high heaven. It’s like lobbing a big, fat pitch over the middle of the plate and expecting the hitter to keep the bat on his shoulder. So what is a critic to do when faced with a movie called SUPER SUCKER, whose tag line is “a new comedy that doesn’t blow…it sucks!”? As Joaquin Phoenix’s SIGNS character was instructed, swing away.

True to its name, SUPER SUCKER does indeed suck and suck hard. Contrary to the tag line, it blows too. Simply put, this movie about sweeper salesmen is a comedic vacuum.

Jeff Daniels is a SUPER SUCKER triple threat as writer, director, and star. (His production company Purple Rose Films is distributed the film.) Daniels plays Fred Barlow, a Super Sucker door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. Fred attributes everything good in his life to the Super Sucker and the joy he gets from selling them.

Fred is one of two Super Sucker distributors in Johnson City, Michigan. Rival Winslow Schnaebelt (Harve Presnell), the devil in a red three-piece suit, is the more successful distributor. Winslow and associates soundly beat Fred and his motley salespeople in a month-long contest, leading the parent company to consider consolidating the two companies. One more thirty-day sales challenge will determine who will continue to distribute Super Suckers for the area.

Circumstances look dire for Fred. He can’t make any inroads while Winslow is trumpeting his distributorship with marching bands and airplane advertisements. After a particularly disastrous sales day, Fred returns home dejected. He accidentally, but serendipitously, finds his wife writhing on the bed in rapture while putting the Super Sucker to unconventional use. It seems that an antique drapery attachment, for those hard-to-reach places, is extremely effective in ways for which it was not originally conceived or designed.

Fred commissions a modern version of the discontinued attachment, and then he and crew start peddling the Super Sucker and its accessory as a domestic pleasure device, albeit as one big, expensive vibrator. The so-called “homemaker’s little helper” is an immediate success, sending sales to stratospheric levels. Vacuum cleaner sales can be cutthroat, and Winslow schemes to defeat his industrious opponent.

SUPER SUCKER isn’t remotely funny. The premise calls for lots of outrageous physical comedy, but all things considered, the film is tame. Assuming that a funny movie can be made about competing door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman--a major assumption considering how flat the jokes fall here--Daniels’ biggest mistake was to center the film on sweepers as sexual aids. It’s a one-joke idea that might sustain a sketch or a running gag tied to a character. Daniels’ choice to keep this from becoming full-tilt raunch is admirable, but if the concept calls for it, then follow through rather than be meek. There’s a scene, shot in one long take, where Fred is in bed with his wife while she pleasures herself with the Super Sucker. Obviously it’s supposed to be funny, but neither character says or does anything remotely humorous. His wife’s moans and groans are too subdued for a scene that needs to be played broadly, and Fred seems indifferent to his wife. SUPER SUCKER lacks the conviction to go all the way with the jokes, preferring to stay polite.

SUPER SUCKER isn’t told in the mockumentary style, but one wonders what Christopher Guest and his repertory players might have done with the premise in that format. He has nearly mastered the art of putting ordinary characters into situations that massage the absurd for laughs. A film featuring Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and Parker Posey engaged in a vacuum cleaner sales battle akin to GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS could be hysterical.

SUPER SUCKER is literally laugh-free. Lame wordplay around the words sucks and blows doesn’t cut it. Supposedly “funny” names and a character who has different “wacky” hairstyles every time we see her doesn’t do it either. Surprisingly, we’re spared an obligatory scene with a salesman ruining someone’s carpet during a demonstration, although the second most obvious joke we could expect, a cat getting sucked into one of the sweepers, does appear.

Daniels, a Michigan native, has given back to the state in the form of his Purple Rose Theatre Company. He has also given Michiganders a taste of moviemaking, shooting ESCANABA IN DA MOONLIGHT and SUPER SUCKER there. SUPER SUCKER feels like a small, independent film which people enjoyed making and which the community heartily supported. Good times and good intentions, though, don’t necessarily equal a good movie, something SUPER SUCKER is far from being.

Grade: F

Sunday, July 09, 2006

A New Look

It's been not quite two years since I last gave the ol' site a facelift. This is the third look for it, and it is easily the sleekest of the bunch. Other than some minor changes, expect this one to stick for awhile, if only because trying to understand CSS and HTML and how they've been used in the prebuilt Blogger templates required hours of trial and error. Elizabeth Castro's PUBLISHING A BLOG WITH BLOGGER: VISUAL QUICKPROJECT GUIDE was mostly helpful, but there's a drop-off point where you just have to dig through the code and figure it out.

In addition to the cosmetic change, I've added links to other sites. If I've overlooked you, chances are I forgot. The brilliantly named "Reviews" sidebar contains links to all of my reviews on this site. Previously I made a distinction between full reviews and capsule reviews. Since I had no idea if visitors scrolled all the way down, I decided that it was more user-friendly to combine the listings.

If you notice any problems or mistakes, please let me know. (Actually, I just found one. Ugh.) I'll also accept your unconditional praise too.

And for those of you who watched the World Cup, zut alors, what was Zidane thinking when he headbutted Marco Materazzi? Materazzi must have dropped an amazing insult to provoke that reaction. It was a great game, and although I was pulling for France, the Italian team is a worthy champion.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Happy 4th of July

Another Independence Day means it's time for me to drag myself to the Westerville Rotary's 5K Road Race. This year I've actually been training, not for the race in particular but with it in mind. I've been walking more than running--it's easier on the knees--but on Sunday I ran approximately six-tenths of a mile before stopping. That should be adequate for doing 5K, right?

Actually, it was. For me the weather was ideal, especially for early July. It was on the cool side with light rain coming down. For fear of getting my iPod wet and frying it, I had to scratch the plan to tote it along, but maybe it was for the best. I could pay attention to my steps and breathing. I finished in 39:10, which kept me at my usual place toward the bottom of the results (#255), but considering that it was easily the longest continuous run I've ripped off in a long time, I was very pleased with the result.

(Photo courtesy Columbus Running)

And yes, above you will find actual visual evidence of yours truly in the race. I'm in the red shorts, white shirt, and green HARDBALL hat. No, I wasn't trying to wear the colors of the Italian flag in support of them in the World Cup. (I wanted Germany to win.) And yes, this photo was taken near the start because I pretty much had the road to myself for most of the race.