E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial


If we had to pick the filmmaker who had the biggest influence on world-wide audiences in the last 25 years, no doubt Steven Spielberg would be the one. Is there another director who made as much box-office smashes and critical successes, often both at the same time? “Jaws” (1975) might have been the first summer blockbuster, “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind” is one of the most revered sci-fi flicks ever made, the “Indiana Jones” trilogy thrilled countless kids of all ages, and “Jurassic Park” and its sequel grossed nearly a billion dollars. And then there’s the 93 Oscar nominations his films received, from “The Color Purple” and “Empire of the Sun” to “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”. Which leads us to “E.T.”, no less than the fourth highest-grossing film of all time, and arguably the most beloved family film since “The Wizard of Oz”.

I can’t imagine that there’s anyone who doesn’t know this film by heart already, but I’ll still summarise the plot for the possible weirdo who spent the last 20 years in a bomb shelter. Elliott is just a kid, but he still has to deal with bad stretches. School ain’t always easy, and life at home has became kinda depressing since his parents divorced and Daddy bailed to Mexico with his bimbo. So Mom’s down, little sister Gertie can be bugging and big brother Michael has a short fuse. Yet Elliott’s life is about to change forever with the arrival of E.T, a very odd little dude from outer-space who was left behind by mistake by his peers on a field-trip to Earth. Elliott is the one who will discover the alien and take him into his house, and they will become the best of friends. The film is about that very special bond, about how Elliott and his siblings teach E.T. about suburban America everyday life and about how E.T. shares his super-powers with them in return…

Where can I start in telling you what makes this film so wonderful? In short, this is one of these movies that just make you feel so good… Even though I spent half of it in tears! It’s filled with good humour, innocence and hope, and it’s highly original and inventive. Of course, this is Spielberg so this ain’t the most daring of films, but as far as mainstream Hollywood movies go, it doesn’t get much better than this. There are plenty of unforgettable moments, from little touches like E.T.’s taste for Reese’s pieces, to amazing sights like Elliot riding his bike across a full moon, a scene which gives me goose bumps to this day. Spielberg’s direction is technically flawless, John Williams’ iconic score is very effective and the special FX are astonishing. The E.T. creature is so expressive that you forget that it’s just a piece of rubber. I also love the way the film is told through the kids’ point of view. A lot is left unsaid, and adults like the scientists are often just menacing, anonymous beings. And the young actors are so good! Henry Thomas makes Elliott a full-blown, three-dimensional and very human character with his impressive yet natural performance, and Drew Barrymore is even better as his little sister. She’s so darn cute, and she’s funny and touching, too!

Now, about this new version… Personally, I think it’s stupid to tinker with your old movies, especially when they’re fine to begin with. Do we really need to see these few extra minutes of footage? And are we so jaded by modern digital wizardry that we can’t appreciate more old fashioned movie magic? As mentioned above, I like the old rubber E.T. just fine, no fixing up was necessary. Spielberg has also erased the guns from the cops’ hands, and he’s changed an off-hand reference to “terrorists” to a less touchy “hippie” put-down. Again, why 1984 the past? Can’t these directors just let go of their old movies and accept that there’s always gonna be little things they could have done differently? That said, it’s a joy to see “E.T.” on the big screen, with premium sound and image. It remains a timeless classic: it blew my mind when I saw it as a kid, and watching it again 20 years later, I still adored it.

Blade II


After seeing the first “Blade” movie, I called it the best comic book adaptation ever (since then, incidentally, Bryan Singer one-upped it with his “X-Men”). Of course, it’s ironic that the comic being adapted here is near forgotten. Safe for the recent MAX relaunch, I’ve never even seen a “Blade” book. Nonetheless, that first movie was real cool, and I was looking forward to the sequel, which has Mexican horror filmmaker Guillermo del Toro succeeding to Stephen Norrington in the director’s chair.

This second installment (in what is to be a trilogy) tries to crank things up even more than in the action packed original, which makes for an obnoxiously hyper-active movie. “Blade II” is all over the place, opting for flash and noise instead of invention and rhythm every time. I think the reason the first “Blade” worked and this one doesn’t is that Norrington made his movie in 1998, a full year before “The Matrix” came along and every action director figured they could ape its style. Hence such masturbatory messes of CGI, wire-fu and bullet time as “Tomb Raider”, “The One”, and now “Blade II”. What the makers of these movies fail to understand is that, while the Wachovsky’s visual gimmicks were nifty flourishes, what really made their sci-fi flick such a thrill was its compelling characters, intriguing storyline and graceful direction, all things its knock-offs forgo. So we end up with nearly unwatchable movies which are deadly boring even though they desperately throw everything at us at frantic speed.

Del Toro seems to think that the most loud, frenetic and violent he makes everything, the coolest his movie is gonna be. Dead wrong. His action sequences are so choppily edited that we can barely see what’s going on. We can glimpse some potentially cool fight choreography between the non-stop jump-cutting, but it’s hard to actually enjoy it. Oh, how I miss the good old days of movies like “Enter the Dragon”, where you could sit back and admire the physical prowess of a brilliant athlete like Bruce Lee instead of being jerked around by show-off camera tricks and digital effects that will look dated in eighteen months anyway.

You might notice that I haven’t even given you a plot summary yet, but that’s because even the filmmakers didn’t seem to care about plot. Basically, it’s about how Blade (Wesley Snipes), the day-walking half-human half-vampire, unites with his undead enemies to take on a new breed of creatures of the night, the Reapers, a bunch of really tough blood suckers who prey on humans and vampires alike. So Blade, his old partner Whistler (Kris Kristofferson, back even though he died in the first movie) and their annoying stoner sidekick Scud (Norman Reedus) team up with the BloodPack, a bunch of highly trained and oh so colorful vampires, each with a distinctive quirk which make them perfectly fitted to be turned into a line of action figures. I’ll admit that the Reapers are pretty cool, with their shooting tongue-fangs-jaws thingie, “Aliens”-style, and their leader Nomak (Luke Goss) is the only interesting presence in the movie, even though he’s thrown in a subplot involving family melodrama which feels like “Gladiator” leftovers.

As for Snipes… I can’t say anything good or bad about him. He’s a blank. He still looks badass, at least from what I could tell when the camera was on him more than half a second. Then again, he hardly ever takes off his sunglasses, and he’s given absolutely no character development, he’s just a dude who takes out vampires in countless confused/confusing fights. “Blade II” is not as much a movie as a video game demo, and a lousy one at that. Watch the first movie again and pretend they never even made this sorry excuse of a sequel.

Showtime


LAPD Detective Mitch Preston (Robert De Niro) is a loose canon. He’ not one of those touchy-feely community cops. He’s there to do his job, which is to hunt down criminals and throw them in jail. He also has no interest in having nosy reporters getting in his way while on a crime scene, and one tense night he loses his cool and shoots the camera off one of these rats’ shoulder. Uh oh, bad p.r. move, the network could sue Mitch’s department for all they’ve got… That is unless he accepts to star in their new project for a reality show and have them follow him around with more cameras! What a wacky premise, ain’t it kids? But that’s not all, the show’s producer (Rene Russo) also gives Mitch a partner, “funny minority type” Trey Sellars (Eddie Murphy).

Right there, “Showtime” is not looking too good. Its contrived plot is right out of a sitcom, and even if you accept it as satire, reality TV is not the freshest target: COPS has been on the air for a decade! Furthermore, the film doesn’t even stick to the spoof thing, it just pokes fun at cop show clichés for a while, then it settles into said clichés without a second thought until it’s no different than you usual B-movie police thriller. We’ve got a cheesy Euro-trash bad guy (Pedro Damian), a few trigger happy black thugs (including rapper Mos Def), and some of the loudest, most badass machine guns you’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, Mitch and Trey barely do any police work, busy as they are having their oh-so-different personalities clashing, but somehow fall ass backwards in clues and end up in a series of over the top fights, car chases and shoot-outs.

Basically, this is not as much a satire of buddy cop comedies as a buddy cop comedy itself. That said… I loved the stupid thing! Director Tom Dey (“Shanghai Noon”) keeps things fast and fun, and his movie works on its modest terms. It’s like “Rush Hour” (minus the cool kung fu action), a tired formula livened up by good chemistry between the leads. Robert De Niro is good as the straight man, sometimes he’s been having fun with for a couple of years now, in movies like the wonderful “Analyse This” or the not so wonderful “Meet the Parents”. But the real star of the show (and the show-within-the-show) is obviously Eddie Murphy. I was grinning every time his “Ice Trey” was on screen, when I wasn’t downright laughing out loud. He’s perfect as this fast-talking cop more interested in showing off for the cameras than in closing the case. He’s the main reason why, in spite of all its shortcomings, “Showtime” is just too damn entertaining not to recommend.

Training Day


Here’s a movie about cops, about the streets, about justice… Actually, to me it felt like it was really about one thing: scary Black guys. Make that two things, there’s scary Latinos too. Oh, and rich old white drug dealers, crooked cops and Russian gangsters. Mix it all up and you’ve got the crazy world of “Training Day”. You know, maybe I’m out of touch, but are things that bad? I can accept that South Central L.A. is a mean old place, at least from watching movies like “Boyz N the Hood” or “Menace II Society”. But here, it’s not just any hooligan messing around, it’s the police!

The movie has us following rookie cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) on, that’s right, a training day with Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington), an undercover narcotics detective. Right off the bat, we can see that Alonzo is quite a character, a real live wire, volatile, aggressive and cocky as hell. But he’s charismatic, too, and after all he’s a decorated police officer, so Jake goes along with Alonzo’s scary Black guy antics. Talking tough, beating people on the street, stealing drugs and money off thugs, drinking and driving… We’re the police, we can do anything, right? Er, I’m not too sure, but I think we’re supposed to accept Alonzo’s behaviour, for a while at least. It’s the classic cop-who-plays-by- his-own-rules riff. If you need to cross the line to make a case stick, what’s the harm?

Personally, I was never able to buy the premise. Shouldn’t Jake or any of the petty criminals who get man-handled by Alonzo object and report him? I don’t doubt that some cops are dirty, that there is corruption in the justice system, but this is too much! And even if you don’t question the plausibility, the movie just ain’t that interesting. Stuff happens, then more stuff, with not much of a narrative throughout. Not even halfway into the movie I started growing impatient, wondering if all this nonsense would ever pay off. Short answer: nope. Just more scary Black guys and Latinos standing around looking scary.

I guess one could suggest that what holds the film together is the character development. Could have been, except that Denzel Washington’s Alonzo is pretty much the same scary Black guy through the movie, except that in the third act he loses what little complexity, is-he-good-or-bad? ambiguity he had to settle into B-movie villainy. As for Ethan Hawke, his Jake doesn’t have much of a character arc either: “Dude, that dude’s crazy! Wait, maybe not… Oh yeah, he’s crazy!” pretty much sums it up. Likewise, the film never offers much insight: Alonzo’s evil, but he thinks he’s just getting the job done… But he’s evil still, eh? Cue up the shoot-outs, crashed cars and mano a mano action!

Basically, try as it might, “Training Day” never rises above being yet another by-the-numbers action thriller. Director Antoine Fuqua (“The Replacement Killers”) keeps things slick and sharp, and the cast is solid (though nominating Hawke for an Oscar might be pushing it), but unless you really wanna see Denzel doing his scary Black guy thing, I can’t quite recommend the film.

PORN STAR: The Legend of Ron Jeremy


Another porno biopic? Well, yeah, but “Porn Star” has two things which were missing in “Wadd”, “The Girl Next Door”, “Sex: The Annabel Chong Story” or “Bad Girl”, namely a lot of style and a wonderfully entertaining central subject. None of the sad sack whining of Chong or Stacy Valentine, none of the drugs & AIDS pathos of John Holmes’ life here. Ron “The Hedgehog” Jeremy is the last guy you’d expect to be the biggest male star in the sex industry. One has to wonder how a small, fat, hairy Jewish one-time teacher from Queens ended up shagging big boobed young blondes for a living, and this film intends to find out, while having a ball strolling through footage from Jeremy’s huge filmography.

We learn that it’s his then girlfriend who sent a nude picture of him to Playgirl magazine, which led to him being discovered by “exotic film” producers. Jeremy, who was pursuing his dream of becoming a famous actor, figure doing a few pornos might be fun and, who knows, it might lead to legit work. 21 years later, and Ron is still having a hard time trying to make it into the mainstream, but he’s certainly conquered the porn world! Why him? Well, having a 9 and 3/4 inch schlong doesn’t hurt (literally, it’s apparently soft and spongy; eeww indeed). Then, he’s reputed as a real professional, always able to maintain an erection and capable of ejaculating on cue, and he’s a rather decent actor and a funny performer. Yet more than anything, what makes Jeremy the phenomenon that he is, what prompts people everywhere to flock to him and want to be with him is that he seems to be an all around nice guy, an average Joe. Watching him doing beautiful women is a small thrill because you can say “Hey! That could be me!”, unlike with the usual arrogant bodybuilder assholes who are usually pistonning away in triple x flicks.

What I really liked about “Porn Star” is that director Scott Gill is obviously having a grand time with it. At its core, this is just a bunch of talking heads interviews, but Gill has overpacked his movie with demented montages of excerpts from Jeremy’s movies, from public appearances or from his regular life, which is anything but. We see him in all sorts of silly getups and situations, at parties, film premieres, doing (bad) stand-up in strip clubs, rapping in a music video (“Freak of the week”) or on stage with Kid Rock, we see some of his “legit” cameos in everything from Nash Bridges to “Orgazmo”, “Citizen Toxie”, “Killing Zoe” and “Detroit Rock City”… This all comes through demented editing and a great funky score, which makes watching this documentary a consistently enjoyable and often hilarious experience. Gill is not afraid to mock Jeremy and his lifestyle a little, but in the end it’s not mean spirited. While he’s alternately called greasy, ugly, dirty, cheap and worse, the final impression we’re left with is that of a jolly good fella who only wants to be loved.

Citizen Kane


When I was going to film school, I sometimes found it hard to sit through some of the movies the teachers made us watch, especially when I felt that even them must find their own selections rather boring, but were too conformist to do otherwise. ‘A film is old, and everyone says it’s a classic? Well, it must be, let’s make the students watch it!’ The teachers would then recite stuff they’d read about the film in an attempt to convince us that the film’s great, but I was never too keen on thematic analysis overkill. I believe that if a film is really that good, you don’t have to explain it during an hour to realise it. I have nothing against analysis, it’s just that the film itself shouldn’t be dead boring. Take “Citizen Kane”. Unlike most of the tedious and dry flicks I was forced to watch in class, here’s one classic that is as enjoyable as it is brilliant. It has a gripping story and dynamic direction, it doesn’t just stand there with nothing happening so it looks like there’s an hidden meaning.

As you know if you’ve browsed a while through this site, I’m not all that into golden age classics, I’m more into contemporary filmmakers like Scorsese, Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson. Well, even then, I am truly fascinated by Orson Welles’ timeless masterpiece, a film that actually feels more modern than most of what we see nowadays, sixty some years later. This is what I meant about how a film should be able to impress on its own. I didn’t need a teacher telling me “Kane” is a great film. Even first seeing it as a 15 year old punk, I was mesmerised. Not only was I not bored a minute, I was so enthralled that I had to watch it again the same day! I believe this might be the most visually rich movie ever made. You could literally watch it without the audio and just revel in the always inventive shot composition. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the story itself is fascinating!

It all begins with a riveting sequence showing us the death of Charles Foster Kane, a godzillionaire living as a recluse in Xanadu, his fortress of solitude on the desert coast of Florida. The camera travels smoothly from the main gate to Kane’s dying bed, as he drops a snow ball and his final word: Rosebud. We then see a purposely tacky “News on the March” segment on Kane’s accomplishments. The characters watching the newsreel (and us) are left feeling that the report is shallow and hardly satisfying. Who was really that rich newspaper tycoon who trapped himself in a humongous castle? And what the hell is Rosebud? Journalist Jerry Thompson (William Alland) is determined to find some answers, so he seeks out the important people in Kane’s life, and everyone has a story to tell. We learn that as a kid, Kane was sent to live with a banker, that he became extremely rich and took control a paper, the New York Inquirer. He was married to the President’s niece and ran for Governor, but things messed up. He divorced and ended up with Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingor), a simple girl who thinks she can sing. Kane wants to make her a star, but she just doesn’t have the voice. As time goes by, we see how all of Kane’s wives and friends leave him, and how he might have been responsible.

Of course, the story is much more complex than that. Welles and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz did an amazing job, creating fascinating characters and situations. The narrative is very interesting, as the pieces of Kane’s life come together as those of a jigsaw puzzle. Orson Welles truly is a visionary filmmaker, and his direction is flawless. His use of deep focus, lighting and camera angles, the great work done with the soundtrack (with an evocative score from Bernard Herrman) and the memorable performances he got from actors new to motion pictures give you just a glance of his talent. Welles is an awesome storyteller who knows how to exploit the possibilities of cinema, “the biggest magic kit a boy was ever given”. He also stars as Kane himself, and his screen presence is unique. “Citizen Kane” has become the official answer to the “What’s the greatest movie of all times?” question, and one can understand why. This is a film that you can watch over and over and keep discovering new things.

The “Citizen Kane” DVD has got to be one of the most complete packages ever put together. Besides offering a gorgeous transfer of the film, it’s jam packed with extras detailing everything about its making, its release and its influence. We can see archival footage such as a newsreel about the premiere of the film, the original theatrical trailer (a rather odd but original bit of Welles whimsy) and stills of scenes and shots which didn’t make the final cut. Then there are not one but two commentaries. One is by Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert, who goes through the film nearly shot after shot, pointing out things about the actors, the sets, the lighting, the use of deep focus, or how so much was achieved with the magic of cinema, as the film makes us think we’re seeing crowds or grandiose locations that are not there. He comes to the conclusion that there are as many special effects shots in “Kane” than in any “Star Wars” movie! The second commentary is by Peter Bogdanovich, who wrote an Orson Welles biography and has made a movie (the upcoming “The Cat’s Meow”) about media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who is widely believed to have been the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane.

Last but not least, the film comes with a second disc displaying a feature length documentary entitled “The Battle over Citizen Kane”. It tells the story of Hearst and Welles, two ambitious wonder boys whose massive egos clashed when the 25 year old filmmaker set his sights on the seventy-something millionaire. We see that they had somehow similar lives, and that the “fictional” story of Kane mirrors Welles’ nearly as much as Hearst. Little Orson never really had a normal life, being deemed a child prodigy early on, and going about directing plays and performing on radio serials as a teenager. Then, still in his early twenties, he was given the greatest contract in Hollywood history. No studio had ever offered such control to one person, and Welles intended to make the most of it. Today, all will agree he sure did, but back then his debut feature had one hell of a hard time being released.

When Hearst learned that the movie was a thinly veiled take on his accomplishments, his eccentricities and, most damning, his affair with the much younger Marion Davies, whom he strained to turn into a star, he was infuriated. Threats of lawsuits abounded, smear campaigns filled the front page of Hearst’s papers nationwide, and the bitter old publisher even attempted to tear down Hollywood as a whole and expose it as a nest of drunks, homosexuals and Jews! This worked to an extent, as studio moguls tried to buy the negative to “Citizen Kane” in the intent to burn the damn thing. It eventually made it through, but barely got a release, as nobody wanted to touch that hot potato. Learning all about “The Battle over Citizen Kane” in this fascinating documentary (originally made as part of PBS’ The American Experience series) makes it even more of a marvel that the film not only survived, but that it’s still cherished today as one of the major artistic achievements of the 20th century.

Le Ring Intérieur


Dan Bigras is an interesting figure in the French Canadian showbiz universe. He’s the kind of guy who’s almost too intense, too sincere for his own good. Maybe that’s why, while he got a few of his records playing on the radio and his few videos played on Musique Plus, he never quite “made it”, meaning that, while he’s probably living reasonably well off his music, he’s no big glamorous star. Good for him. He’s stayed true to his roots, getting involved with the homeless youth and various social causes. And now, quite surprisingly, he’s come out with an ONF-produced documentary about Ultimate Combat!

Maybe because he’s never been one to spread out his life in the tabloids, I wasn’t aware that he’d been delving in martial arts these past few years, getting himself back in shape after he quit drinking. He befriended professional fighter Charles Ali Nestor, a Haitian young man who hasn’t had it easy, getting from a bad childhood with an abusive father to messing around with street gangs and ending up in a detention centre. Painstakingly, he’s learned to express himself instead of holding it all in, and to focus his rage in the ring, and trying to be a good model to his young son and his boxing students. The film is mostly about Nestor, for whom Bigras serves as cornerman, but we also get to know their other chums, be it the always grinning, cocky 21 year old David Loiseau or thirty-something proletarian Steve Vigneault.

“Le Ring Intérieur” (The Ring Within) is kind of like a non-fiction “Fight Club”, not for the satirical social commentary and stylistic flourishes, just for the physical catharsis part. We meet men haunted by inner demons, men filled with unhealthy anger, men used to failure who’ve finally found a way to let some steam out, to fight off their personal issues, feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. In form, Bigras’ film is rather clumsy, with its rugged video images, and the ideas, while interesting, are not expressed with much subtlety or depth, but that’s alright. The film’s roughness is part of what makes it effective. What’s certain is that Bigras really cares for these guys, and that translates to us in the audience. I didn’t expect to feel so much for the people in the film, but I did. You really get to see where they’re coming from, so when they step into the ring you know that it’s not just about kicking the other dude’s ass.

Bigras’ goal seems to be to give a more positive, more accurate look of a much maligned sport and the athletes who practice it, and he’s achieved it. His movie changed my impression of Ultimate Combat as either barbarian or homo-erotic. It’s really a good documentary, warts and all. I don’t know if it’ll get a release out of Canada, but seek it out if you can.

Freddy got fingered (OFCS)

DISASTER/MASTERPIECE:
“Freddy Got Fingered”
by Kevin Laforest

It’s been advanced that insanity and genius are two sides of a same reality, two somehow intertwined extremes. Tom Green’s oeuvre is a good example of that. From his original Canadian show to its reinvented MTV version, Green made a name for himself by pulling the most demented stunts, be it humping a dead moose, putting a horse’s head in his parents’ bed à la Godfather or making a one hour special about his real-life removal of a cancer-ridden testicle. Some will dismiss it all as the work of a wacko, but others find it brilliant in an admittedly very quirky way. I fall in the latter category, finding Green to be a fearless performer with an intriguing vision. He made his big screen debut in a bit part in “Superstar”, then stole and ran away with “Road Trip”, and finally with “Freddy Got Fingered” (which he co-wrote and directed in addition to playing the lead role), he’s come up with, in his own words, “the stupidest, most disgusting movie you’ve ever seen.”

Green stars as Gord Brody, a 28 year-old slacker who finally leaves home to go to Hollywood and pursue is dream of working as a cartoon animator. Of course, making it as an artist is not that easy, and Gord finds himself rejected by a studio executive (Anthony Michael Hall) and stuck in a cheese sandwich factory, a dead-end job if there ever was one. So he returns to Portland and moves back in his parents’ basement, much to the disenchantment of his father (Rip Torn). Dad wants him to get a job, but Brody prefers to take it easy drawing his “doodles”, skateboarding with his best buddy (Harland Williams) and hanging with his wheelchair-bound rocket scientist girlfriend (Marisa Coughland). Henceforth begins a war between father and son where no blow is too low, be it destroying Gord’s skateboard ramp or denouncing Daddy as a child molester who fingered younger brother Freddy (Eddie Kaye Thomas) – hence the title.

“We got the idea of writing our own comedy that would be a mockery of conventional comedies.” – Tom Green

The film starts off with a familiar tone, that of many an ’80s teen comedy, with an early scene showing Gord skateboarding through a shopping mall while a security guard chases him. Then his parents wave him goodbye as he leaves home, and then… He stops his car by a farm, runs up to a horse, grabs its erect penis and starts jerking it vigorously! How many ’80s comedies provide such a sight? Right there, you know if this movie is for you. Unsurprisingly, many people aren’t interested in a picture featuring interspecies hand-jobs.

For instance, if you look it up on Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll see that “Freddy Got Fingered” has received nearly nothing but brutally negative reviews. To many a film reviewer, it seems this is the bottom of the barrel and then some. James Berardinelli wrote that he has “gotten better entertainment value from a colonoscopy”. Owen Gleiberman not only panned the movie but went on to write that Green had “a hyperactive computer addict’s stringbean body, a wimp’s receding profile (his goatee seems to be shouting, “I know I’m here to fill out this guy’s loser face!”), and the rabid, staring eyes of a deranged lizard.” It culminated with the film “winning” five Razzie awards, including Worst Picture of 2001.

Well, I beg to differ. Yes, Tom Green’s directorial debut is juvenile, vulgar, generally sloppily crafted, offensive and thoroughly idiotic. Then again, it’s one the most hilarious movies I’ve seen in recent years, and Green is rivetingly grotesque. Critic Roger Ebert loathed the film but accurately described it as a “milestone of neo-surrealism”. Indeed, for every gross-out scene involving a bloody deer carcass or whatnot, we get delightfully absurd moments like Green playing keyboards with strung up sausages or the “backwards man”.

I truly believe writer-director-star Tom Green has done something special here. Even if you don’t find his humor funny, his film is still spectacularly offbeat. There’s all this weird and weirder stuff that keeps happening. But then again, it actually holds itself, there IS a story. A nice story, about a man-child who wants to be an artist but whose ambitions are squashed by his father, who wants him to quit dreaming and get a job. There’s even a love story, and it’s actually sweet how Betty inspires Gordy to not give up. Of course, all this generally degenerates into insanity, but this is a Tom Green movie after all!

“It was vaguely autobiographical and vaguely nonsensical at the same time. The main character is a small-town boy from Oregon, not Canada, who tries to prove himself to his dad by coming to L.A. to make it as an animator, not a comedian.” – Tom Green

Another thing that’s notable is how personal a film this is. On the DVD commentary, Green talks about how he really does love skateboarding and flipping creamers (!) and how he had to move back into his parents’ basement when he was struggling to find a way to get paid to be stupid.

Green is an artist. At least, you can’t deny he has a wild imagination. The things he does with his voice, his body, his face… Or, going back to his screenplay, it’s hard to fathom how he can come up with bits of dialogue like this particularly zesty one, from a scene where Gordy tells his mom she deserves better than his dad: “If I were you, I would show him that I deserve respect. If I were you I would go out, I’d have sex with strange men, I’d have sex with basketball players. I’d have sex with Greeks, men from Greece.”

Here’s a rather classic scene, the son telling his mother she doesn’t have to put up with her abusive husband, yet look how Green goes out on a tangent way into too-much-information territory!

That back and forth between sentimental and bizarre, which goes on through the whole picture, is what does it for me. Like, when Gord delivers a baby, cuts the umbilical cord with his teeth then swings the poor little bastard around in circles, that’s just the set-up. Where it gets hilarious is when it cuts to the heartfelt aftermath, with touchy-feely music on the soundtrack, the mother crying and Gord saying, “I saved the day… I saved the day.”

“I wanted to make something where people walked out of the theatre saying, “What the fuck was that?” – Tom Green

Mission accomplished, sir! The many people who hate the movie and the few, like me, who love it all agree on one thing: this is one hell of a weird flick.

Storytelling


Todd Solondz made his debut with the affecting teen angst drama “Welcome to the Dollhouse”, but he really made an impression with 1998’s “Happiness”, a wonderfully cynical look at some not so happy individuals. I personally loved it (it was #3 on my year-end Top Ten), but many people criticised Solondz for making fun of these poor souls in a mean-spirited way, for trying too much to “shock” us with ugly people doing ugly things. Mmm. Maybe there’s some truth in that, but I loved the guy’s movie nonetheless. Some didn’t get it, too bad for them. Solondz, though, doesn’t seem to have swallowed it so easily. Maybe it didn’t help that the following year, Dreamworks released a comedy/drama about not so happy suburbanites of its own, “American Beauty” which, like a lighter, more mainstream “Happiness” knockoff, went on to gather near unanimous praise and win a bunch of Oscars. I guess I can understand Solondz feeling a little cheated.

Now he’s back with “Storytelling”, which is sort of his “fuck you too” to his detractors. In a very self-aware way, he deconstructs storytelling in general in general and his own in particular. The film is divided in two parts, “Fiction” and “Non-fiction”, and in which authors aim for truth but still end up with half-lies. As the teacher says in the first act, even if something did happen, “as soon as you start writing about it, it’s fiction.” This is Mr. Scott talking (Robert Wisdom), an African American Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who also teaches in a university.

Superficially, this is kind of like “Wonder Boys”, but unlike that movie’s Grady Tripp, a sympathetic if offbeat professor, Mr. Scott is absolutely ruthless with his students. “Your story’s a piece of shit,” he’ll tell students choking back tears. Young Vi (Selma Blair) finds him overly confrontational, but at the same time she respects his honesty, his refusal to sugar coat what he thinks. And when her handicapped boyfriend (Leo Fitzpatrick) dumps her and she finds herself in a self-destructive mood, she ends up at her teacher’s place for some utterly romantic sex…

This leads to the scene most people cite when discussing the film, in which the older black man screws the young white woman and asks her to yell “Nigger fuck me hard!”, which she does. It’s a raw, powerful scene… And you’re probably not gonna be able to see it. In the U.S., at least, the MPAA wouldn’t approve it, and instead of changing it, Solondz just stuck a big red rectangle over the naughty bits. Fortunately, up here in Montréal, we’re deemed mature enough to handle extended thrusting action, so I was able to see the scene as the filmmaker intended it. As I said, it’s not an easy scene, it’s really balls-to-the-wall, but in context it serves its purpose, and it’s not THAT graphic. It’s not much more disturbing than, say, the anal sex scene in “Pulp Fiction”. Even if it does disturb you, that’s the point. And the rest of that story is about how Vi copes with it by, you might have guessed, writing about it. The interesting question then, is of who was really exploiting whom.

I have mixed feelings about “Non-Fiction”, though. In a way, I really liked the second part of the film: it certainly made me laugh my ass off on numerous times. Then again, I generally wished I shouldn’t be laughing! This is closer to “Happiness”, I suppose, with its pedophile, its murderer… Here, there’s nothing that bad, just people who are very pathetic, followed by a pseudo documentary filmmaker, Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti in Solondz-style thick-rimmed glasses, hint hint), who’s probably worse. “Non-Fiction” opens with a long, embarrassing scene in which he’s trying to catch up with an old high school girlfriend who obviously has no time for a desperate loser like him, and we have to watch as he just talks himself further down into ridicule.

Toby is trying to make a documentary on college, well, teenagers, well, suburban families… He’s not quite sure! Yet he does find subjects in the Livingstons, a dysfunctional suburban family if there ever was one! Here, it’s as if Solondz, who played on some of the same ground in his first movies and then watched as “American Beauty” one-upped him, wants to get back on top. And gosh darn it, he almost pulls it off. Watching the old man (a hilarious John Goodman) going gung ho on his crazy family, with his wife (Julie Hagerty) even more shallow and phoney than Annette Benning in “Beauty” and their three sons, football jock Brady (Noah Fleiss), unbearable goody two shoes Mikey (Jonathan Osser) and the ever dopey Scooby (Mark Webber). The latter is the focus of the documentary, if focus there is, as he ponders what to do after high school. He’s not a bad kid, but he’s clearly naïve and not too smart and inarticulate, yet he wants to get Conan O’Brien‘s job (which leads to a funny cameo)!

The ambiguous thing here, for Toby and for us in the audience, is whether to allow ourselves to laugh at Scooby and his family. Scooby is endearing, actually, as we’ve all felt aimless when it came time to choose a college and a future, at an age where you’re almost still a kid. Maybe Toby just wants to show things as they are, but as “Non-Fiction” illustrates, a documentary is always exploitative in some way. Through this, Solondz also keeps addressing the response his own (fictional) films have been getting, as he’s been accused of sneering at his characters himself. But even though he’s conscious of it, the question is still valid: what’s he going for, really? Does he want us to feel for these people, or to mock them?

“Fiction” works pretty well as a short story, but “Non-Fiction” is all over the place. I liked how it showed the unfair nature of the class system, as spoiled brat -and definite future Republican- Mikey harasses the Salvadorian house maid (Lupe Ontiveros). I also loved the direct pot-shots at “American Beauty”, notably Toby’s terrible attempts at video poetry (“A straw wrapper, floating in the wind…) And, obviously, the nearly all Belle & Sebastian soundtrack is a delight. But then you’ve got all those half developed ideas, especially the last few twists which don’t really work, not to mention that cheap shot of an ending. There’s enough clever flashes in “Storytelling” to make it worth checking out but, quite ironically, it doesn’t have the narrative drive to get beyond its shortcomings.

Monster’s Ball


Some movies take a while to grab you. Sometimes it even takes repeated viewings. Then you’ve got movies which, from the very first shot, make you think this might be something special. “Monster’s Ball” is such a film. It opens with a moody, ominous extended shot of Billy Bob Thorton, lying in bed sleeping uneasily, in hushed green and yellow tones, with shadows passing over his face. This is almost like the opening to “Apocalypse Now”: it’s aesthetically interesting, but mostly it subtly takes you into that world and it sets the tone. Then we can get to know the specifics about Thornton’s character, Hank Grotowski. He’s a middle-aged Corrections Officer working on Death Row in a Georgia State prison, where his now ill father (Peter Boyle) worked before, and where his son (Heath Ledger) has started recently.

Director Marc Forster, working from a screenplay by Milo Addica and Will Rokos, carefully establishes his Deep South setting. I’ve never been to that part of America (though I’ve passed through it in a bus to Miami), so I don’t know if it’s more like the sunny “y’all come back, now” Georgia of Britney Spears’ “Crossroads” or as we see it here, all sweat, undershirts, sleazy diners and bars, with racial tensions boiling. In any case, there’s no question which of those two visions is the most dramatically involving! There’s none of the obnoxious girlie sap of Brit’s awful flick in “Monster’s Ball”, a film which focuses on the worst aspects of humanity, but not without finding hope. Hence, for all of Hank’s close-minded bigotry, racism and brutality, directly passed to him by his intolerant father, we see that his son is able to let that bitter heritage go and treat black people just like any other. This doesn’t sit well with his old man at all, but after a particularly heated confrontation, Hank will be forced to rethink his behaviour…

In a bit of kinda unnecessary serendipity, the woman through whom Hank changes is Leticia (Halle Berry), the widow of a cop killer (Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs, who between “Made” and this proves to be much more of an actor than he ever was as a rapper) that Hank’s team executed. These early scenes are effective, depicting death penalty as hard as “The Green Mile”, but with less light flourishes. Even before they meet, Leticia becomes as central a character as Hank. We see her, barely hanging on as her world is falling apart, with her husband in jail, her fat son (Coronji Calhoun) finding comfort in candy bars, her job as a waitress unable to support them… It’s a horrible life, or so it seems, and the nameless dread which inhabits the action on screen transmits all too well to the audience, and it only gets more wrenching as the film unflinchingly watches as tragedy deepens.

I won’t go into spoilers, but the goings really get tough, and both the Corrections Officer and the waitress find themselves lonely, tired and empty, desperately in need of somebody to hold on to. It’s a bit of a leap for them to find comfort in each other, but I accepted it, and the next step seemed inevitable. After all the pain and the hurt, the film culminates with the most intensely cathartic fuck (no other word can do it justice) I’ve seen in movies. Part of me wishes the film had ended then, as it peaked. The hour that follows is good enough, the acting and direction still deliver, but the relentlessly growing tensions of the first half are now deflating. We’re left with rather conventional and predictable plot mechanics, and some simplistic turns, but the film ends on a surprisingly satisfying note.

Overall, “Monster’s Ball” remains a wonderfully crafted film, with a great score and always interesting shot composition, with the camera watching from behind windows, bars, furniture, in a matter of fact if not voyeuristic way. Most notably, Forster gets amazing acting from his cast. Billy Bob
Thornton has impressed me before, from “Sling Blade” through “A Simple Plan”, but in these past few months he’s been on an unbelievable roll, proving as great as an amusingly neurotic bank robber in “Bandits” and as an intriguingly detached barber in the Coen bros’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There”, and now in “Monster’s Ball” he might be at his best as a truly flawed man who learns to allow himself to change his views. Halle Berry is the real surprise here, though. Who knew this glamorous beauty could be so convincing as a vulnerable, unkempt , emotionally wounded woman? This is a brave, very affecting performance, and so is “Monster’s Ball”. While I feel it falls short from brilliance in its underwhelming last act, it remains a film which is sure to get to you.