For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Like Crazy


Like Crazy is Twilight with jump cuts. That may sound a tad unfair, but let me break it down for you: two post-grad lovebirds—he’s an LA native and she’s a British exchange student—idiotically decide to disregard the girl’s expired student visa and spend an extra summer shacking up in Santa Monica. When Immigration rain on their parade—refusing to the let her return to the States, even for a visit—the two (Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones, if you were wondering) spend the rest of the film moping about being stuck on separate continents. When they’re together, like after he flies 15 hours across the Atlantic just to see her, they continue moping about the fact that his visits are so short (cue the violins). So I’m sorry to report, there are no vampires, but there’s still enough listless pining and longing for five Twilight movies.

As for the jump cuts, director Drake Doremus sprinkles so many New-Wave flourishes on the proceedings you may think you’re watching art—or possibly a Levi’s commercial made by somebody who’s really mastered that Final Cut Pro transition function. A rapid pictorial montage shows two months of bird’s eye bedroom spooning. Match cuts, time elapse sequences, Indie pop-rock piano notes, and relentless scenes of slightly overexposed youths striking poses make up the panoply for a film so low-key it’s somnambulating. Best Actress Academy Award nominee Jennifer Lawrence shows up as a blonde, Valley Girl temptress, but I hardly noticed. There’s less acting here than at an Abercrombie photo shoot. The ultimate message is one about puppy love being all facile romance and real relationships being difficult to maintain—something adults usually understand. But all I saw was a couple of irresponsible children soberly whining about the consequences of their poor decisions. This is kid’s stuff drenched in fashionably pale sunlight. At least if they were vampires they’d mercifully burn up in the UV rays.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Muppets


The Muppets represent something wonderful in the world: the belief that life can be silly, irreverent and carefree. In The Muppets, a reboot that doesn’t involve a genetically mutated crime fighter of any kind, Kermit and Co. have to save their studio from an evil oil baron named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). But it becomes clear in the inevitable celebrity fundraiser climax, when a gaggle of chickens break into a spirited rendition of Cee Lo Green’s “Cluck You”, that the plot is beside the point. The Muppets take the very idea of drama (or dramatic cliché) and blow its skirt up.

A lively and hilarious musical comedy, The Muppets centers on Walter, a misplaced and starry-eyed kid (who’s really a puppet) and world-class Muppets fan. His brother Gary (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote) and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams, who’s in giddy, wide-eyed Enchanted mode) accompany him from their small town (literally called Small Town) to Hollywood. While touring, the three make pilgrimage to the Muppets’ studio and see it has become a ramshackle and dilapidated pile of bricks. They overhear Richman’s dastardly plan to drill on the lot for oil (followed by fits of “maniacal laughter”). With Kermit’s help, they assemble the old gang in a last gasp attempt to make 10 million dollars and avoid foreclosure.

With economic crises and changing times, the group’s popularity has declined over the years. The members have scattered like sticks in the wind. Fozzy’s headlining a tribute band in Reno called The Moopets. Animal’s in anger management therapy with Jack Black. Gonzo owns a plumbing parts company. And Miss Piggy is now a Parisian fashion mogul a la Miranda Priestly with a snooty British secretary, played in a cameo by, of course, Emily Blunt.

The pig diva and her frog prince have grown apart, but everyone reunites for the adventure. Ripping relentlessly on their own nostalgia or Hollywood clichés (traveling by map is the fastest way to travel), the movie’s chock full of absurdly clever gags. It’s self-aware to the max. A big-production musical number ends with all the studio-hired dancers collapsing from exhaustion. There’s inanity to the point of being surreal. Why exactly is Adams’ schoolteacher fixing the battery on a Volkswagen Bug in the middle of her classroom full of fourth graders? On more than one occasion, the script calls attention to important plot points and broadly parodies story setups, like that Volkswagen. (You can bet her electrical skills will come in handy later on.)

That’s the Muppets’ style. Nothing is beyond reproach or satire. Yet there’s a Simpsons-esque playfulness to every jab—no harm is meant and no offense is taken. And you have to love all the cameos: from Black and Blunt to Whoopie Goldberg and Neil Patrick Harris—even Selena Gomez and Modern Family’s Rico Rodriguez make appearances (both claim to have never heard of The Muppets in a clever bit acknowledging the troupe’s antiquity).

I remember seeing The Muppet Christmas Carol as a small child in 1992. It was the first Muppets film made after creator Jim Henson’s passing, and the shtick felt a bit dusty even then. These days—with CGI movies, XBOX video games, and Smart Phones giving people moment-to-moment stimulation—The Muppets’ hand stitched charisma is starting to feel more and more like a thing of the past. Admirably, Jason Segel and director James Bobin sought to give the loveable characters another—long overdue—big-screen hurrah.

Thank goodness they did, because The Muppets is a joyful celebration of what was, is, and, hopefully, will eternally remain: the idea that laughter, as the movie proclaims, is the third greatest thing on earth after babies and ice cream. Amen to that! Or should I say—Mahna Mahna.

Arthur Christmas


It seems there are innumerable different ways to spin a Santa Claus movie. The story of Jolly Old Saint Nick has been told straight up (Santa Clause Is Coming To Town), been grounded in courtroom realism (Miracle on 34th Street), been rehashed into holiday hybrid (The Nightmare Before Christmas), been R-rated (Bad Santa), and been turned into boardroom pun (The Santa Clause, get it?). What can Arthur Christmas, an animated “the night before…” globetrot with the big guy’s klutzy but loveable son Arthur, have that’s new and different? It turns out, just enough.

On Christmas Eve, Operation Christmas commences with an army of ninja-quick elves lowered from a stealth, Enterprise-looking airship onto sleepy gentile neighborhoods. Commanding the vessel is Santa’s oldest son Steve Claus, a militaristic head-honcho and next in line to wear the hat. Christmas has been given a twenty-first century boost with technological gizmos and gadgets (naughty and nice body scanners, for instance) and digitized information (elves sit at the North Pole watching the progress of gift delivery like NASA guiding a mission to Mars). Santa himself is now merely a figurehead, a brand name, a face fronting an empire run with robotic efficiency, but depersonalized detachment.

Sure, the gifts get delivered faster than ever before—but where’s the sleigh, the rain deer, the ho-ho-ho’s? Where’s the heart? Gleefully sitting in the basement of the North Pole’s underground command post is where; Arthur Claus is the letter handler, spending his days reading Christmas wishes and writing replies to kids worldwide. He’s got an innocent’s mirth and a black sheep’s clumsiness yet is so dedicated to his job that he remembers every child and every letter to the word. When an ambivalent little Brit named Gwen gets forgotten during the night’s speedy hullabaloo, Arthur along with his retired grandfather (called Grandsanta) and a gift wrapping virtuoso elf named Bryony bust out the old sleigh—now considered a relic—in order to get the tot her bicycle before sunrise.

Interestingly, most other films of this sort would choose to make Gwen somehow unique, pitiable even, worthy of the effort—maybe an orphan or a deployed troop’s lonely daughter. In Arthur Christmas, the point is that she’s perfectly average, a stand-in for all kid kind. Because Arthur’s a fervent believer in that pesky old cliché—you know, “the spirit of Christmas”—no child can be overlooked. His holiday optimism is assuredly wholesome and sweet, and will probably knock some sense into his feckless pap and glory-hogging brother as well.

Part of me understands that Christmas movies are expected to have that kind of humdrum conflict and some very sappy messages. And yet, the curmudgeon in me still wishes the stakes were a little higher. So what if the bike never makes it under the tree? Gwen’s parents will buy her one anyway and stamp Santa’s name on it. An orphan doesn’t get that kind of insurance claim (hence the sympathy gimmicks); the present would have importance beyond Arthur’s devotion. Yet, Arthur Christmas has charming enough characters and inventive enough ideas—especially the one about Christmas becoming so corporatized and technology reliant that even Santa has grown impersonal—to overcome its genre predictability and a lack of the compelling drama we’ve come to expect from animated films since the emergence of Pixar’s gold standard.

I guess it’s silly of me to criticize a Christmas movie for being too, I don’t know, Christmassy. But I wasn’t held throughout by the film’s festive weightlessness. During certain stretches, my eyes began to droop. Of course, I’d be a real Grinch if I didn’t have fun watching sleighs fly faster than the speed of sound, elves wrap presents while suspended in air, and a coot Grandsanta rave about the good old days, when he didn’t need GPS navigation—just magic. Arthur Christmas delivers just enough of it, gift-wrapped and on time.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Descendants


George Clooney is one of the most prolific Hollywood stars. As either director or actor, his films come quick and fast, and are never uninteresting. The Descendants, however, Indie auteur Alexander Payne’s slice-of-life picture that stars Clooney as a stressed out Hawaii lawyer, is more than merely interesting. With a few acting revelations, a perfect tonal blend of comedy and drama, and some sprightly island flavor, Clooney and Payne’s collaboration is always entertaining, often wise, and sincerely heartfelt.

The first shot is a close up of a pretty blonde woman. Accompanied by ocean spray and motor noises, she sits pleasurably on a speedboat. The shot fades too soon to see how the ride turns out. Alas, in the next scene she’s lying in a hospital bed, pale as a ghost, mouth ajar, lips cracked—in a coma (I guess it didn’t go so well). Her husband Matt King (Clooney) sits by her side. In voice over he explains that his wife, Elizabeth, had an accident, and although he lives in Hawaii, his life is not a permanent vacation. On top of Elizabeth’s condition, Matt is the trustee to a large, unspoiled plot of beachfront property that’s been in his family all the way back to King Kamehameha. The land’s worth millions, and it is his responsibility to choose a worthy buyer.

Matt and Elizabeth have two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). The former’s a surly adolescent who was shipped off to boarding school. The latter’s a toilet mouthed pre-pubescent who can’t seem to stay out of trouble at school. Someone I saw The Descendants with pointed out that George Clooney was playing Steve Carell. There are apparent Dan In Real Life similarities—mostly in the outnumbered-dad scenario as well as Matt’s deer in headlights expressions and middle-aged-schlub dorkiness. But the major difference, though, is that Carell is about as commanding on screen as a lamb. Clooney, when need be, has a lion’s fangs. Upon hearing that his wife was two-timing him with some unknown chump, those fangs come out gleaming. But Clooney is too seasoned a pro to play any emotion too forcefully; he uses the anger against his wife and her lover as a way of covering up his devastation over her betrayal. Matt and the kids, along with Alexandra’s surfer-dude “friend” Sid, go on an expedition, searching for this mysterious other man.

One of the film’s most fascinating dramatic propellants is the question of what Matt will do if he ever finds this guy. Will he give him a bloody nose? Will he ruin his life by exposing the affair? Or will he just give him the lowdown on Elizabeth and move on? Clooney plays Matt with such a complexity of personality that it’s hard to pin him down. He’s too nice of a guy to do anything sinister yet too hurt to just whip up some daiquiris and make amends.

Because the film is highly character driven, Payne understands that the camera’s most essential utility is to frame the actors and let them act. Clooney usually plays well-dressed studs; here he’s kind of a square (even Emmett in O Brother, Where Art Thou? couldn’t get enough Palmade). It’s the closest he’ll come to playing an everyman, I presume. But the performance goes beyond dressing down. It’s about finding the vulnerable in the everyday—about dealing with life’s tough situations as best you can. The most surprisingly great performance is that of Shailene Woodley (TV’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager). She may be playing the typical angst-ridden teenage daughter, but she gives the character tremendous emotional depth. Alexandra’s the one who caught her mom red handed in the first place. She’s the one who confronted her about it. She’s the one who’s had to keep such a terrible secret. In many ways, her mother betrayed her as well. Woodley, precociously, delivers these intricacies from the inside out. Under Payne’s guidance, she understands that those skeletons are the forces driving her character’s intolerable behavior. It’s a mature and nuanced turn from a novice screen actress.

And to battle the stagnancy that hampers many character studies, Payne keeps the plot moving, adding new layers and exposing new information. The story is set up like a mystery. The plot keeps getting thicker and the stakes keep getting higher. Does this hidden adulterer have something to do with Matt’s land deal? What if Elizabeth never wakes up? Should Matt and Alexandra let Scottie know the truth about her mother? One of the film’s most brilliant gestures is giving personality, and indeed treachery, to someone sleeping in a hospital bed hooked up to life support. How can someone so harmless be causing so much harm?

And it all goes down in Hawaii no less—a supposed paradise, the land of surfing, Piňa Coladas, snazzy hotels, and no worries. Scored to a number of spirited island tunes, the film has a contrapuntal kick: paradise is a grand illusion. An elegiac, but still incredibly funny stroll through Hawaii’s breathtaking locales, The Descendants, in all its charm and heartbreak, emphasizes forgiveness, family bonds and the idea that new beginnings are never easy—even in Hawaii. Mahalo!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011



Melancholia is the first Lars Von Trier movie I’ve ever seen. The film is a doomsday melodrama that follows two sisters—one a depressed newlywed (Kirsten Dunst) and the other a loving wife and mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg)—as a rogue planet, with the titular appellation, hurls toward earth on a course to obliterate humanity. The film is a gorgeous work of Art Cinema that features expert and eclectic cinematography and a brilliant performance from Kirsten Dunst.

In the wordless opening sequence a prologue of silent slow motion images operatically fill the frame with a sense of elegant, melodic dread. On what looks like a country club golf course, Dunst stands, Jazz hands up, with electricity curiously oozing from her fingertips. Another woman (Gainsbourg) runs in fright with a small child in her arms, but her feet sink deep into the bucolic fairway grass. A beautiful black stallion slumps plaintively—but proudly—to the ground. Every shot is crosscut with celestial vistas of a small planet making its determined way toward earth. Lastly, a bride, Dunst again, holds a bouquet and floats serenely on her back through a stream filled with phosphorescent vegetation. The sequence feels like a dream, but it might be, gulp, a premonition.

Our first hint at its potential realism comes when the very same bride (Dunst) arrives with her new hubby (Alexander Skarsgard) at their wedding reception. The party is at the very same seaside golf course estate (another hint); the bride’s name is Justine, and she’s none too happy about the idea of marriage. She puts on a plastic smile for her beau, her father (John Hurt), her brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), her boss (Stellan Skarsgaard), and her sister Claire (Gainsbourg), who triples as hostess and wedding planner. Justine is far from the blushing bride, but her misery comes not from jitters or surliness—she’s swimming in a depression so deep she’s drowning. This wedding feels like the end of her world.

Dunst is marvelous in the role. She has the ability to perk up at times when Justine feels like she can weather the storm. The actress’s bright eyes, sweet smile, and golden hair remind us of her attainable, approachable beauty. Since her beginnings as a child star, she has carried that adorableness into an adult career (like in Spider-Man). In Melancholia, she uses it to façade a more perverse layer of unreachable despondency. When her shift into isolated headspace arrives, Dunst’s eyes droop, her head hangs loose—she appears as if drugged, unaffected, dead to the world. But the greatness of the performance comes not from the extremes, but from the middle ground where she’s clearly fighting the sorrow. In the second half of the film Justine reaches an impasse, and destruction appears to be her only possible solace.

Convenient since the strange red dot in the night sky, which she puzzles over continuously at her wedding, turns out to be a planet called Melancholia headed right for ours. Act II of Von Trier’s spaced-out opera switches the focus to Claire, but takes place at the same golf course mansion several months (or years?) after Justine’s nuptials. Claire’s husband, John (Sutherland), claims the renegade orb will pass peaceably by. At least, that’s what the scientists say. Claire frets anyhow, for the safety of herself, her sister, and, mostly, her young son Leo. The film comes to a heart-pounding conclusion as the dreaded sphere barrels toward their upper crust, pastoral home.

Like in The Shining or Alien, the setting itself becomes a character. The protagonists can never seem to escape it: Justine’s horse always stops on the first bridge off the property; Claire’s golf cart dies in the very same spot. Looking over the water, just off their back garden as the planet encroaches on the horizon, the viewer feels as if this place is the edge of the world, or perhaps existence entire. The setting caters to the film’s dream logic, with which everything seems slightly askew. Like the Garden of Eden as designed by a country club architect, the place is a bourgeois rapture carved from dreamscape imagery.

The majestic cinematography (by Manuel Alberto Claro) reiterates the film’s visionary grand design. While much of it employs Von Trier’s trademark shaky cam (made famous during the Dogme-95 movement), other moments show an astute propensity for Renaissance compositions. At what point, Justine bathes nude in the glow of Melancholia’s approaching atmosphere, appearing like a model in a Botticelli painting.

Though, it’s not allusion for its own sake—Justine is in harmony with the planet, basking in its literal gravity while she feels it relatively, internalized. Rumors have surfaced that Dunst battled depression herself. Von Trier is infamous for his phobias. Melancholia must be a deeply personal film for both star and auteur. Attempting to realize strong and complex human emotions on film can be tricky business. Von Trier does it here like a master. And, surprisingly, his film doesn’t leave viewers feeling depressed, but transcended. For one sister, marriage was catastrophic. For the other, the end of the world is the only way she could possibly understand. In either case, they face them together. The result is a kind of ineffable spiritual equilibrium, a sense that life and love are ephemeral, but peace is possible and eternal. Other than Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Melancholia is the most ambitious, singular and downright magnificent cinematic experience of 2011 so far.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Puss In Boots


With the two most recent disappointing sequels, the "Shrek" ship appears to be floundering -- the leap to Puss In Boots' more easygoing, Leone-meets-Zorro universe is rather welcome. Unlike its parent series, "Puss" doesn't have a lot on its mind. But what it lacks in subversion or intelligence it makes up for in wit, charm and consistent, fun-loving breeziness.

The feline Don Juan -- voiced again with effortless Latin-lover exuberance by Antonio Banderas -- is a wanted bandit and spends his nights incognito, kitty bed-hopping. He runs across an old acquaintance, Humpty "Alexander" Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), and the two, along with the fetching cat burglar Kitty Soft-Paws (Salma Hayak), attempt to steal magic beans from Jack and Jill (as in "went up the hill") in order to summit the beanstalk and snatch the giant's golden goose.

In the tradition of "Shrek", the plot takes liberties with its characters, lifting them from the Grimm/Fairy/Folk tale stratosphere and transplanting them to 19th century Mexico. That Jack and Jill -- who I always assumed were siblings -- are a couple of married redneck outlaws is at least fitting with the Western theme; I have to say. And the film's swashbuckling spirit and tone of playful aplomb make those stretches in genealogy feel less strained.

"Puss In Boots" is mostly a series of perfectly delivered punch lines (Puss orders "leche" at a bar like it's whiskey then laps it up adorably with his tongue) supported by an adequate storyline. The cat puns and innocuous innuendos come thick and fast, as do the Western homages. Beautifully animated in sandy umbers and vistas of vibrant horizon oranges, it's a great looking cartoon that never reaches for Pixar's substantive artfulness, and consequently never comes close to achieving it. Yet, when Puss walked into a literal cathouse with a neon sign reading The Glitter Box, I knew I got my money's worth.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

J. Edgar


Clint Eastwood's greatest films obliterate genre strictures and challenge audiences. "Unforgiven", a revisionist Western about a retired gunslinger resurrecting and reaffirming his own mythology, turned every trope on its head. "Mystic River", a police procedural, continued the assault with a climax so devastating it was damn near Shakespearean. And "Million Dollar Baby" took the typical underdog boxing drama and gave it spiritual transcendence in the face of bitter defeat.

His latest, "J. Edgar", a biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the notorious founder of the FBI, doesn't sit with the best of Eastwood's work; instead, it falls below even the director's recent succession of mediocre projects: "Changling", "Grande Torino", "Invictus" and "Hereafter" ranged from curiously dumb and implausible to lamely soft and spiritual. Still, the saddest part is not that Eastwood has lost his knack for bringing new life to old tales, but that he's lost even the ability to convey coherent drama.

Written by "Milk" scribe Dustin Lance Black, "J. Edgar" is sloppily structured from its first minutes. J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio), old, fat and balding (looking suspiciously like an aged Charles Foster Kane), recounts his life with a biographer in his lowly lit, brown oak, Washington office. He tells of his appointment to head of the Bureau of Investigation at 24, his purge of communist radicals, his pursuit and conviction of the Lindbergh kidnapping culprit, his hunt for infamous bandits, and his wire tapping of everyone from FDR to Martin Luther King Jr.

Eventually, the film becomes so lost in its non-linearity that the viewer gets stranded in time, confused about when and where the action on screen is taking place. As consequence, the important details of Hoover's life get lost in the shuffle. His relationships remain hollow and skimmed over: Edgar's close bond with his mother (Judy Dench) remains mysteriously superficial. In a shockingly underwritten role, Naomi Watts plays his longtime secretary Helen Grandy. Present from the beginning to the end, her insights were probably plentiful, if only the screenwriter had put some words in her mouth.

The secret, repressed love affair between Edgar and his assistant Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is the only relationship of any interest to Black (he is a gay man, and Hoover was rumored to be gay). So, what could have been an examination of patriotism turned corruptive or a psychological study of a brilliant, but conflicted individual (like DiCaprio's other, far superior biopic "The Aviator") instead becomes a bloodless and boring love story about two old men who, because of their intolerant times, couldn't act on their deepest desires.

"J. Edgar" is ashamedly under-dramatized, thrill-less, style-less, indeterminably long, and features an alarming performance from DiCaprio. He deserves little to no blame for this disaster (who wouldn't want to play J. Edgar Hoover in a film directed by Clint Eastwood?), but it is a humorless, caricaturist's turn that extends a string of brooding, depressing performances from an actor who was once quite charming (let's not forget "Catch Me If You Can"). Has he become so concerned with Oscar gold and "serious-actor" recognition that he's forgotten how to be a movie star? With an indulgent screenplay and uncontrolled direction from a typically reliable traditionalist (Eastwood favors careful framing, tight editing and clear drama, usually), the actors wander around clueless -- no one seems sure what story they're trying to tell.

J. Edgar Hoover was one of the most mysterious men in American history, a Machiavellian protector who innovated so many things (like fingerprints and card catalogues), but whose reputation became marred by rumors of trampled civil liberties and gender confusion. "J. Edgar" defends neither the man nor the myth; rather, it seems afraid of its own subject, too unfocused and thematically disjointed to "print the legend" or the facts. The film's only real challenge to audiences is this: Endure all 137 minutes -- if you can.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Chasing Amy (1997)


Kevin Smith's third feature, "Chasing Amy", is successful despite being, well, a Kevin Smith movie. It's rife with his typically self-indulgent pseudo-sophisto babbling, "Star Wars" references, shamelessly graphic sex-talk, and underlying homoeroticism. But what makes it interesting, and worth watching, is that it explores the emotional underbelly of topics Smith often equivocates, but is usually too self-conscious to confront.

To Smith what "Liberty Valance" was to Ford, the film finds the auteur digging for something pregnant amongst his own perverted brand of comedy. It's no surprise Smith himself -- as his alter ego Silent Bob -- delivers the eponymous anecdote about the girl that got away, perhaps as a means of venting something personal and true. "Chasing Amy" shows a side of Smith we'd never seen before -- or since.

A romcom love triangle with a 90's-hipster twist, the movie finds Holden (Ben Affleck) and Banky (Jason Lee), creators of a popular comic book called Bluntman and Chronic, signing issues at a convention when Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), a nerd's goddess with a girlish rasp and a wit like a razor, drops between them. Holden falls in love with what he thinks is the perfect girl. The twist: she's a lesbian.

But the sexual boundaries in Smith's world are highly malleable. Even after Alyssa goes "straight" just for him, Holden finds himself chasing a dream, an ideal Alyssa can't possibly live up to. She's a sexual enchantress, but also unspoiled, virginal. When her high school promiscuity comes to light it challenges Holden's buried feelings of emasculation. To the side of their tumultuous relationship sits Banky, angrily jealous, not of Holden, but of Alyssa.

His obsession with his best friend -- not to mention his rampant homophobia -- rings the obvious alarm bells, but Smith's concept suggests that when we love the individual not the gender, the purest connections often take shape. But human beings are, ultimately, fragile and self-destructive creatures that can't see the forest for the trees. Furthermore, Smith uses the comic book trope of secret identities as a device for his characters to hide from their own sexual regrets and insecurities. To call his film tolerant, progressive, and even profound would not be an overstatement.

"Chasing Amy" finds the chinks in our sexual armor, the ubiquitous kryptonite that can destroy even the most perfect of relationships. Smith doesn't just probe into sexual conducts and gender roles, turn a tired genre on its head, or expose the 90's-dating scene equivalent of Fitzgerald's unattainable dream, he peers with confidence into the churning mechanism that drives his own interests. It proves that behind the snarky, "Star Wars"-geek facade, there is a born romantic fighting to save the lovelorn from relationship peril.

The Toxic Avenger (1984)


If a comic book uber-geek and a B-movie fanboy had a lovechild, and then that lovechild fell into a vat of radioactive chemicals, "The Toxic Avenger" would emerge dripping in slimy, campy ooze. A midnight-screening cult classic, "The Toxic Avenger" is such a broad and hyperbolic horror/comedy that only the most adolescent of gore-hounds could find its mix of locker room raunch and latex entrails tantalizing.

Swimming somewhere amongst the puerility is a nerd's revenge fantasy. Tromaville is the "Toxic Waste Capital of the World", according to its welcome sign. Melvin's the shrimpy janitor at a proto-Globo Gym full of juicers and leotarded floozies. In a prank he's accidentally dumped into barrel of toxic waste, and then mutates into a tutu adorning elephant man with a knack for crime fighting.

The town's a cesspool -- and I don't just mean the leftover plutonium and battery acid: a surplus of crazed criminals rule the streets, a quartet of meatheads -- who look like 70's-porno actors -- run over pedestrians for fun. The town mayor sells drugs, and even a nice old lady runs a sweatshop. You'd think it was Dodge City. Melvin starts to mop up the scum and wins the heart of a blind damsel in distress.

"The Toxic Avenger" is sporadically nauseating, often sadistic, and not nearly as sickly-funny as it thinks it is. Tongue-in-cheek irreverence never works when it's this labored over; it's funnier when the self-knowingness is smoothly woven in (like in "The Evil Dead 2"). Any political or environmental subtext drowns in a pool of organ puree and dick jokes. If diverting carnage is your cup o' tea, you might find this playfully disgusting. I found it airheaded, gross and, frankly, boring.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Dolls (1987)


Of all the decade's derivative and disposable slashers, somehow even possessed toys found their way into the spotlight. Glory hog Chucky, the ginger-haired hellion with a demonic preschooler's grin and a voice like a New York City construction worker, is the most well known of the bunch. Consequently, people overlooked this minor-gem; Stuart Gordon's scary-sweet horror film was manufactured like a pipsqueak's nightmare-scape.

Out of Roald Dahl (or "The Night of the Hunter"), we find Judy -- a pigtailed tot -- traveling the backroads on a stormy night with her short-tempered father and wicked stepmother. After stalling in the mud, they take shelter in a life-sized dollhouse buried in the woods. The owners are an elderly toymaker and his wife; their home is a haunted palace of ominous lightning strikes, smothering shadows, and shifty-eyed figurines. Judy remarks, "I'm not afraid of the dark. I'm afraid of what's in it."

Naturally, the dolls aren't just for decoration. They come to life at night and attack by biting, stabbing, sawing, swarming, firing off little rifles and even using human battering rams... it's all devilish fun. But "Dolls" is surprisingly gentle for a slasher film. In from the storm stumbles Ralph, Judy's kindred spirit, a hefty boob with a fondness for childish things -- the two thieving, punk-princess hitchhikers he brings along are merely fresh meat. Because one is a child and the other is a child at heart, neither Judy nor Ralph is a target for the enchanted playthings.

"Dolls" is a creepy, campy and hilarious little 80's monster movie. It's also a cautionary tale to parents who ought to be nicer to their kids, and a celebration of childhood itself, in all its innocent optimisms and trepidations. Judy frightfully warns, "What if this is the longest night in the world?" Anyone who hasn't lied awake in the dark with that same thought has never been young. Like the gimmicky army of homicidal marionettes at the core, this film gives those fears splendid life.