Saturday, August 23, 2008


Review: Death Race
1 star (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

How do you like your action? If the answer is fast, noisy, and brainless, then “Death Race,” habitual video game adapter Paul W.S. Anderson's retooling of Roger Corman's 1975 cult film, “Death Race 2000,” is for you. For the rest of us, who require a little more expertise behind our explosions, it's an absurd and abhorrent pile of cheap scrap metal. I'm giving it one star because it doesn't bore – its pace is as quick as the rugged, armed contraptions that roar around its minefield of a track -- but that's about the only way in which the movie is successful. In it, Anderson (“Resident Evil,” “AVP: Alien vs. Predator”) attempts to emulate many of his apparent heroes, Corman included, but fails to serve anyone well – least of all the audience.

“Death Race” stalls right out the starting gate, when an overabundance of overly explanatory text blasts across the screen and breaks the ultimate rule of “show, don't tell” by filling us in on the heavy-handed back story as if we were all still reading at a junior high level. We learn – or, better yet, are force-fed the knowledge – that the year is 2012 and the economy has crumbled, shooting unemployment to an all-time high. In turn, crime has skyrocketed as well and America's most wanted have been moved to Terminal Island, an Alcatraz-like prison built off the coast of a city I can't remember. Taking an obvious cue from last year's “Stone Cold” Steve Austin vehicle, “The Condemned,” the movie attempts to cash in on reality TV mania by focusing on a brutal, live-broadcast competition in which Terminal prisoners race one another to the death in souped-up sports cars. Audience bloodlust (an angle that's been used to far greater effect in everything from “Network” to “Natural Born Killers”) makes the show a hit and turns inmates into action heroes who continue to play the game because of a promise of freedom to the victor of five consecutive races.

That exhaustive preamble is followed by the first of many frenetically photographed chase sequences, in which the zooms and cuts are as violent as the driver dismemberments. (Even in interiors, Scott Kevan's camera work and Niven Howie's editing are so frenzied that it's often hard to decipher what's happening, let alone enjoy it.) Somewhere in the chaos, we're introduced to Machine Gun Joe (singer-turned-actor Tyrese Gibson, replacing Sylvester Stallone from the original), a loose cannon with a few wins under his belt, and Frankenstein (originally played by David Carradine), the reigning champion who wears a mask and is a favorite among pay-per-viewers (it costs $250 to watch one race). Meanwhile, struggling factory worker Jensen Ames (a totally toned and tattooed Jason Statham, back for yet more action) has been framed for the murder of his wife, landing him in a Terminal cell. A former NASCAR favorite, Ames is ordered by warden/show creator Hennessey (an insanely out of place Joan Allen, who must have a Corman fetish to have stooped this low) to step into Frankenstein's anonymous, recently vacated shoes in order to retain ratings. Enlisting the help of handyman Coach (Ian McShane) and hot navigator Case (fresh eye candy Natalie Martinez), Ames complies and tries to stay alive long enough to turn the tables on Hennessey and deliver a last minute sentiment that's even more misplaced than Allen.

Throughout “Death Race,” Anderson (who also wrote the script) gives repeated, blatant nods to far better filmmakers who've made far better films. After a mess hall brawl, Coach observes that Ames may not have responded well to Terminal's oatmeal in a line that's practically a verbatim repetition of one delivered by a soldier in James Cameron's “Aliens” (which should come as no surprise after the fanboy-toned “AVP”). And in wide, CGI shots of Terminal and its adjacent city (the only notions we're given of the world that's meant to exist within the movie), torches can be seen spewing streams of orange flames, the same way they did in Ridley Scott's classic sci-fi noir, “Blade Runner.” It's cute that Anderson, 43, wants to give a wink-wink to the directors and films he grew up idolizing but when all you're creating is one throwaway flick after another, any homage is gonna come off more like a bad joke. Sorry, Paul, you're no James Cameron and you're no Ridley Scott and it's disheartening to think that you're often mistaken for another Paul Anderson, who's created enduring American epics and been nominated for Oscars.

In addition to its headache-inducing construction, “Death Race” is laced with so much hackneyed dialogue that you can hear it coming like a tricked-out tank. Fine actors like Allen and McShane do their best to say lines like “she's the judge, jury, and executioner” with gusto but even the best thespians often can't give life to dead banalities. Gibson is the only one who comfortably and believably utters Anderson's asinine, profanity-filled sentences, perhaps just because the actor's gruff demeanor is better suited to the simple speech of bottom-dwellers. And I haven't even touched on the fact that many plot elements here make no sense at all. (If everyone's out of work, how on Earth can 70 million viewers afford to watch carnage on cable at $250 a pop? And if those viewers are given the option to watch the races from dozens of camera angles, including inside the cars themselves, can't anyone see that Hennessey is unfairly determining the outcomes by rigging traps on the track?)

As mentioned, “Death Race” moves along with speed, but what's the point of cutting the crap when all you've got is crap to begin with? I hear that televised NASCAR races tend to be boredom-free as well. You'd be better off plopping down on the couch with a few beers and a few buddies and screaming curses at the screen than paying nearly ten bucks to have Statham and company scream them back at you.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Review: In Search of a Midnight Kiss
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

“In Search of a Midnight Kiss” is both a dirt-cheap, black and white indie about struggling slackers and a feature-length first date, like Kevin Smith's “Clerks” meets Richard Linklater's “Before Sunrise” (with which “Kiss” even shares a producer). It also presents the stark beauty of a big metropolis in gleaming highlights and deep lowlights, like Woody Allen's “Manhattan.” It also takes that hip, contrasted palette and pairs it with hip, ponderous dialogue, like Jim Jarmusch's “Coffee and Cigarettes.” It also draws an unexpected, ultimately unfulfilled love that occurs briefly but, presumably, changes those involved forever, like John Carney's “Once” (and a bazillion more titles). In other words, nearly everything here has been done before somewhere else, right down to the shot of a dripping faucet during the weighty afterglow of an inevitable sex scene. Writer/director Alex Holdridge doesn't take enough steps to make all the familiar, borrowed elements of his film feel like its own but he does manage to add enough romance, humor and beauty to keep you willingly eavesdropping on his story of a modern match made in movie rip-off heaven.

Something new about “Kiss” is that it might just be the first date movie made directly for and about participants of today's online social networking craze. Proving just how deep platforms and programs like e-mail, MySpace, Facebook, AOL Instant Messenger, Adobe Photoshop, and CraigsList have penetrated popular consciousness, characters in the film are seen either discussing or using all of them within the first few scenes. (Specifically, these parts feel like they're as current as what's on screen can get without being a live feed.) All that technology is, essentially, just a new avenue for an age-old story: It's December 31; do you know who your New Year's Eve date will be? An intertitle that's shown before the opening credits claims that between Christmas and New Year's, activity on these electronic sites spikes a whopping 300 percent. Wilson (Scoot McNairy), an aspiring screenwriter who's just had a terrible year after being dumped by his longtime girlfriend, becomes part of that statistic when he posts a desperate, last-minute personal ad on CraigsList under the guidance and recommendation of his wiseass best friend, Jacob (Brian McGuire). Wilson's first callback is Vivian (Sara Simmonds), a strong-willed, eccentric actress who agrees to meet him and decide whether he's worth hanging out with 'til the ball drops.

What transpires from there is what gives the film its heart, as Wilson and Vivian ease into the groove of each other's company. She's got a harsh approach to life, aware of her beauty (like a vamped-up Kirsten Dunst) and what she wants and quick to toss a biting witticism at anything that stands in her way. He's a sensitive, reluctant, underachiever who's held back by his own fears and the pain of a failed relationship. But when the two are together, they eventually begin bringing out the best in one another, he opening up and gaining confidence and she revealing a soul as sensitive as his underneath all her armor. Their rambling exchanges are often funny, human, and honest and are the only instances in which the film touches true originality. They talk of Frank Warren's PostSecret books, an ongoing social experiment in which strangers mail in postcards with their guiltiest confessions, and begin sharing confessions of their own. They talk of past lovers, his long gone but certainly not forgotten and hers a freshly crushed, walking cliché of a redneck stalker whose lovesick voicemails repeatedly play on the soundtrack. Their romance peaks at the one hour mark, just after he takes the last $100 out of his bank account to buy her dinner and just before they head off to their party destination. (It's the moment in which the two actually feel like a couple.) Unfortunately, it then begins to slip, invaded by the rest of the movie, and never really regains traction.

A film this simple needs a razor-sharp, inventive script to keep it afloat, a fact to which both “Clerks” and “Before Sunrise” can attest. Holdridge achieves this only a little more than half the time and lets what he knows, rather than what he feels, guide him the rest of the way. We've seen the nice-guy-with-the-crass-buddy routine over and over since Jon Favreau made it cool again in Doug Liman's “Swingers” in 1996. We've seen artists struggle to make a living since Jonathan Larson made “La Boheme” cool again with the Broadway debut of “Rent” that same year. We've seen Harry meet Sally enough times to put Kleenex out of business. It would be different if Holdridge transcended these familiarities and gave them a different life but, more often than not, he doesn't. I will give the director major points for choosing black and white cinematography, an aesthetic decision that some camps will probably label as a trendy ploy to draw in audiences. That may be true, but it works for me. Too seldom is this glorious look (in which blacks are black and whites are white and everything in between shimmers) used in contemporary film. It invariably adds to the romance of “Kiss,” not only between the two lovers, but between them and the city in which they live. (Watch for a great-looking scene inside the Orpheum Theatre on South Broadway, an idyllic montage of lost shoes, and, quite simply, the blinking glow of L.A.'s skyline at night.)

In the midst of the first act, a moody woman is overheard likening a recently deceased neighbor to the coming calendar change: “Out with the old, in with the new,” she says. Holdridge's film, while great to look at and intermittently rich, has too much old and not enough new to include so telling a line.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Review: Man on Wire
5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

On a misty August 7 in 1974, French tightrope walker Phillipe Petit committed “the artistic crime of the century” when he illegally rigged a cable between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and performed a high-wire act at 1,350 feet for 45 minutes before surrendering to police. The stunt made global headlines and for a short period, Petit kept onlookers entranced by his art. Almost exactly 34 years later, UK director James Marsh (2005's “The King”) does the same with “Man on Wire,” a poetic treasure of a documentary that's brimming with passion. Thoroughly devoted to his subject and highly adept at seamlessly merging together his varied source material, Marsh imbues his chronicle of the event with emotion and inspiration, inducing both tears and cheers.

“Man on Wire” begins like a heist movie. In shady black and white, reenactments show anonymous men in full conspiracy mode gearing up for what looks like a well-planned bank robbery. (In the background, Richard Nixon's post-Watergate “crook” speech even plays on a TV.) We learn it's the restaging of Petit and his cohorts' meticulous plot to gain access to the roofs of the newly constructed North and South Towers, then the world's tallest buildings, all for the sole objective of putting on the ultimate one-man show (we learn later, from an insider, that the infiltration process was perhaps Petit's favorite part of the mission.) Once there, the men had to conceal themselves from security guards and wait hours before getting down to business. Marsh uses this duration's quietness to recount the things in Petit's life that brought him to a hiding place over 100 stories up.

A climber since childhood, Petit had his eye on the towers from the moment he saw plans for their construction in a French magazine. Prone to using acrobatics as a way of rebelling against his strict upbringing, he viewed them as the perfect conquest, claiming they were being created just for him. Marsh plays off this notion with a sequence of dual chronologies displayed together in split screen, one side showing the building of the towers, beam by beam, the other depicting Petit's growth, year by year, photo by photo. Marsh also familiarizes us with Petit's fine-tuned skills, incorporating shots of him practicing two feet from the ground in grassy fields and conquering other man-made wonders like the bell towers of Notre Dame and Austrailia's Sydney Harbour Bridge. No matter the location, it's truly transfixing to watch the man in action, like a Balanchine dancer in the sky.

Marsh is able to show so much of Petit's life in the 1970's because of the staggering amount of quality archival footage he had at his disposal. Evidently, Petit and his friends documented all of their activities, making “Man on Wire” appear to have been in production for decades. From Petit's days as a child street performer in Paris, right up to a view from the streets of Manhattan on the day of his proudest achievement, much of “Man on Wire” is made up of home movies that almost look like they were shot professionally. The simple, beautiful nature of what's being presented may have a timeless aesthetic but the inclusion of the old footage could suggest a post-postmodern revolution in cinema: after over a century of recording the moving image, uncovered, previously unpublished material can be just as good as what's being made today. The rest of Marsh's film has been artfully crafted to fill in the gaps and match what was already acquired. Cautiously avoiding the cheap, History Channel look to which so many non-fiction accounts fall victim, he recreates his subjects' stories with a painterly eye. Depending on the mood of the scene, the reenactments move from having a soft, moonlit glow to being noir-ish bits of chiaroscuro. And the pacing is in sync with what's on screen, as interviewees are consulted as if they were guest stars on an episode of “CSI.”

Petit, of course, divulges many of the facts himself in the interviews. A director's dream come true, he's endlessly entertaining as “Man on Wire”'s effervescent center. Now pushing 60 (he was a lean, sinewy 25 in 1974), Petit still possesses a contagious amount of enthusiasm about the famous stunt and about his life as a death-defying showman. Physically resembling Malcolm McDowell circa “A Clockwork Orange” in his youth (behaviorally, too - all stern focus with humor simmering underneath), he's now, at least in spirit, like a close cousin to Roberto Benigni. When describing what he did and still does, he emits unfettered excitement, hardly able to remain seated. And his accomplices, while not as animated, speak with similar fervency, especially former lover, Annie, who seems to be on the verge of a glorious breakdown with every breath. In case you had any doubts as to whether balancing oneself on a wire was an artistic expression, these people will leave you utterly convinced.

American audiences may be surprised to find that this movie, about a man who risked death to dance between the Twin Towers, created in a post-9/11 world, makes no mention of the of the fact that the structures are no longer standing. Not one. The Eurocentric point of view of the film may have contributed to this but, probably not. “Man on Wire” is not about mourning and it is not about regret. It is about celebration and it may be the most celebratory World Trade Center-themed film to be released since the fateful 2001 attacks. It celebrates life and accomplishment, two things that no act of terrorism could crumble, and presents a true artist: one who - as Petit, himself, confirms - is most alive when applying his talent and accomplishing his goals.

Friday, August 1, 2008


Review: Pineapple Express
4 stars
(out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

If I ran Hollywood, writer/director/producer Judd Apatow and his band of brazen brothers would be the only screwballs permitted to make screwball comedies. Following “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” “Superbad,” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Pineapple Express” is the fifth consecutive success for the reliably uproarious troupe which, in addition to Apatow (given producing and story credits here), includes frequent collaborators Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Jonah Hill and Jason Segel, each of whom have contributed in some way to most or all of these titles. Rogen and Goldberg, who also penned last year's “Superbad,” co-wrote “Express,” a stoner flick that, with as many punches thrown as there are joints passed, is as close as the gang has ever come to an action movie. They demonstrate a great respect for their audience while still eliciting tearful, nearly nonstop laughter -- a feat that no other current comedy creator can match. While Mike Myers is busy playing “Love Guru”s and Will Ferrell (who, admittedly, has been affiliated with Apatow Productions in the past but, by adding his own stupefying stamp, it's been for projects featuring a much lower laugh factor than the movies mentioned here) is going “Semi-Pro,” these guys are pulling the funny rug right out from under their feet.

Directed by company newcomer David Gordon Green (2004's underrated “Undertow”), “Express” will surely be dubbed the “(Cheech and Chong's) Up in Smoke” for a new generation, featuring two buddies whose not-so-recreational use of marijuana gets them into a heap of trouble. Dale Denton (Rogen), a lazy process server, gets introduced by his lazy dealer/best friend, Saul Silver (a clownish, career-best James Franco), to Pineapple Express, a new, rare strain of potent weed named after a meteorological phenomenon involving atmospheric moisture in the Hawaiian Islands (or something like that – it is explained, after all, by a pothead.) Saul is the only pusher in town who's got the stuff aside from top drug kingpin, Ted Jones (Gary Cole). When Dale unwittingly witnesses Jones and a crooked cop (Rosie Perez) off a member of a rival, Asian gang, his discarded, Pineapple joint links him and Saul to the scene. Almost immediately, Dale and Saul are on the run from Jones and his cohorts, who range from a soulful, emotional bodyguard to Red (Danny R. McBride), Saul's former friend and colleague, who's as resilient as a cockroach and as funny as any screen character in recent memory.

Less Cheech and Chong and more Thelma and Louise with man parts and cottonmouth, the irresponsible duo of Saul and Dale is made up of a well-meaning free spirit (Saul) and a morally conflicted voice of reason (Dale) who's less absent-minded than his perpetually stoned sidekick but no less liable for the pair's constant tight spots. Dale shows little to no interest in his job, other than the hit-and-run thrill of delivering subpoenas, and is dating a high school girl. Saul sits at home all day watching “The Jeffersons” and his idea of a fun evening is “looking up crazy stuff on the internet.” During their cat-and-mouse adventure, their combined poor judgment lands them in one predicament after another, from a wild car chase that involves a foot through a windshield to numerous, relentlessly funny fights (and these are no typical, Jackie Chan-type brawls in which guys take hits and get right back up – every blow hurts like hell and is all the more riotous for it.) The chaotic situations border on slapstick and are laced with f-bombs but are never stupid and Dale and Saul win you over despite their idiocies because of the genuine and, dare I say, cute rapport they develop.

One of the best things about the Apatow crew is that they're fully aware that comedy is in the details. They've got this genre down to a fail-safe recipe -- a wickedly zany mix of fresh writing, well-timed improv, killer performances (previously from females but, here, it's all about the boys), and bits of familiar stuff that's too kooky to be trite. In one of the fights, Red attacks Saul with a Dust Buster. In another, Saul gets stabbed with a fork. After Dale and Saul strand themselves in the woods, they hitchhike home in the cabin of a speedboat being hauled on a trailer. Red shows up for the film's finale in a beat up Daewoo Lanos. These specifics may seem immaterial in print but on film they're comedy gold. Rogen and Goldberg have also chosen to weave their vast knowledge of popular movies into their script, the irony of which anyone who's been to a Blockbuster in the last twenty years will catch. References are made to Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, Jude Law, Ridley Scott's “Gladiator,” and John McTiernan's original “Die Hard.” Rogen even tapped Huey Lewis, who famously did the “Back to the Future” soundtrack, for “Express”'s theme song. He and his pals are part of a fresh generation of movie lovers now making movies for the next.

It's been reported that Sony Pictures allowed only a $25 million production budget, as opposed to the requested amount of $40 million, because “Express” is a “weed movie.” That it is, with nary a trace of a “don't do drugs” message. There's a scene during the film's climax in which Dale shares with Saul his epiphany that if they weren't always high, they'd be much more productive. A hint of an emerging moral center sparkles in Dale's eyes, but nothing to suggest a completely changed man. But would we want it any other way? These characters do undergo changes but not the type of drastic, unlikely changes that only occur in the movies. Apatow and co. have seen that too many times and love their audience too much to so blatantly insult their intelligence (a later scene features a brilliantly placed voice-over that even further nips this potential landslide in the bud). Are these guys better people by the end? Perhaps. Are they going to put down the bong and pick up a book? Don't hold your breath.