Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
It’s been a while since I’ve checked in with a multi-topic column like today’s. They drive Knowles crazy. Right now, though, Harry Lime and I are locked away in the Moriarty Labs working on a secret project that takes pretty much every waking hour. As a result, I’m not going to be as present on the page as I have been in recent months. I am going to have to try and cram in reviews whenever I can, and so I’m bringing back the old-school RUMBLINGS FROM THE LABS for a few months. Just makes things easier.
And I’m all over the place today. DVD reviews. Book reviews. Some quick impressions of three of the best films you’ll see this year. Hope you find something to interest you here. Let’s get started and see, shall we?
MORIARTY GETS FINGERED!! TOM GREEN ON DVD!!
I am a man who has never been afraid to voice an unpopular opinion, as proven here on the pages of AICN time and time again. I’m the man who called FORREST GUMP a “mean-spirited cinematic hate crime.” I’m the one who thinks Jack Nicholson ruined the first BATMAN movie. And now, yes, I’m the one who laughed when watching FREDDIE GOT FINGERED.
When Tom Green’s feature film debut as a writer/director/star was released earlier this year, the reviews were beyond scathing. Critics unloaded on this with a venom rarely seen. If you take a look at the FREDDY GOT FINGERED page over at Rotten Tomatoes, you see an embarrassing amount of hyperbolic ranting that would make you think Tom Green had broken into the private homes of these critics and molested their children in front of them. There is hatred in these reviews. Once again, it feels like a monkey pile, like the critics decided to have a contest to see who could take the biggest shit on the movie. When the momentum builds against a film, you end up with patently absurd reviews like the following:
"A film that you don't want to inflict on yourself, no matter how adventuresome a moviegoer you think you are."
-- Steve Rhodes, STEVE RHODES' INTERNET REVIEWS
Never mind that this same reviewer was a champion of such fare as AIR BUD, THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY & BULLWINKLE, Disney’s abysmal DINOSAUR (“the kind of picture that has you sitting there going ‘wow’”), and the BEDAZZLED remake (“it’s a hoot!”). As far as this one’s concerned, you can trust him.
"Was this the first movie in motion picture history to bypass the ‘executive screenings’?"
-- Scott Weinberg, APOLLO GUIDE
Every review this guy writes is built around a “clever” quote like this. And he’s right... we all know that executives only make films better. Too bad they weren’t more involved here.
"We can surely attest to when the comedic film genre reached an all-time low: the day Freddy Got Fingered was unleashed."
-- E! ONLINE
The “all-time low,” eh? I can tell you that FREDDY GOT FINGERED isn’t even the worst comedy I’ve seen this year, much less of all time. This sort of review immediately cries out “Ignore me! Everything I say is exaggerated for effect!”
"A pathetic, unparalleled abomination. Ishtar, come back. All is forgiven."
-- Michael Rechtshaffen, HOLLYWOOD REPORTER
Oh, good. Get in a shot on ISHTAR, another movie that was a punching bag even before anyone saw a frame of it because of how much it cost. Anyone who cites ISHTAR as an example of the worst of films has (A) not seen many films or (B) not seen ISHTAR, a relatively benign comedy with a few funny moments. But make the comparison anyway! It’s only 14 years old. Don’t mind that expiration date! Make a Macarena joke next, or say, “where’s the beef?” for us. That’ll be funny, too.
"A vomitorium consisting of 93 minutes of Tom Green doing things that a geek in a carnival sideshow would turn down."
-- Roger Ebert, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
Didn’t Roger have to sit through TOMCATS this year? Shouldn’t there be a sliding scale? Considering that 99% of what Tom does in the movie is fake, what’s the big deal? It’s not like he licks an actual leg break or really flings a fetus around by its umbilical. That there’s pretend. In a world where PINK FLAMINGOS exists, how is this movie still considered shocking?
"I have gotten better entertainment value from a colonoscopy."
-- James Berardinelli, JAMES BERARDINELLI'S REELVIEWS
And what does that say about you, Mr. Beradinelli? You and I are obviously entertained by different things. I’ll take a movie over an invasive medical procedure anyday. Hell, I’ll sit through COCKTAIL twice if it’ll keep someone’s fingers or some sort of clinical device out of my ass.
"If you go to see this movie, Green will earn the money to make another one. That's between you and your conscience."
-- Liz Braun, JAM! MOVIES
And if you let someone from JAM! MOVIES browbeat you out of seeing something, that’s between you and your conscience, too.
I could do this all day, write smart-assed responses to the smarmy sort of quotes this film inspired, but in the end, it’s a circle jerk. These people weren’t reviewing a movie. They were molesting it. They were unloading on it because they could, because everyone else was. Reading these reviews, half of them talk about tuning out, ignoring what they were watching, giving up and checking their watches. How am I supposed to give your opinion credence when you admit that you weren’t even paying attention to the film?
There were a few guys out there who stood up for the movie, who recognized what I believe the joke is. A.O. Scott of the NEW YORK TIMES and Jay Carr of THE BOSTON GLOBE, as well as Jeffrey Wells, one of my favorite sparring partners online, all found themselves fascinated by the film, and I concur. I have seen pretty much all of Tom Green’s American television work, and a sampling of the Canadian stuff, and anyone who’s watched that material had to have a pretty good idea what to expect from the film. I have heard complaints that the sense of humor is mean spirited or even disturbing. My response to that is, of course it’s disturbing. There’s something very, very wrong with Tom Green. It’s not an act, folks; it’s a cry for help.
There was a moment early on during the run of the MTV show that blew my mind. It was so naked, so uncomfortable, so angry, and it wasn’t like any comedy I’ve seen anyone do before or since. It was one of Tom’s infamous visits to his parents, frequently the center of his cruellest pranks. On this particular occasion, he had offended his parents, and they had forbidden him to come to the house anymore. He showed up looking to reconcile, and he brought with him a statue that he claimed would show them how much he loved them. When unveiled, it was a crude paper-mache sculpture of Tom’s father strangling Tom’s mother, one fist raised to punch her. Tom called it the “Where’s My Dinner, Bitch?” statue. He said it was in honor of those nights when Tom’s father would come home and freak out because dinner wasn’t ready. Tom’s parents lost their minds at the sight of the statue, and his father literally attacked it, destroying it on the lawn. He also called MTV and threatened to sue them if they aired the segment. They played that tape as part of the segment, of course. And Tom made it worse by going back with another statue, this one of the two of them having doggie-style sex. During the entire episode, the rage between Tom and his father wasn’t imaginary or pretend. Neither of them is a good enough actor to pull off what we were seeing. It was genuine fury, an eruption of old family resentments. This fury seems to lie at the heart of what it is that Tom Green does, and all of his silly noises and juvenile antics are little more than an acting out by this 30 year old bundle of raw, infantile rage.
FREDDY GOT FINGERED has several things going for it that seem to have been overlooked in the rush to kill Tom’s film career. First, there’s Rip Torn. This man is a national treasure. His work on THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW should be shown to acting students around the world as mandatory material for study. His work in DEFENDING YOUR LIFE is a lesson in comic timing. And here, he is the ultimate version of Tom Green’s father for Tom to bounce off of. FREDDY GOT FINGERED is an exaggerated version of all the biographical detail we’ve already picked up from Tom’s television shows, and as such, it’s a fairly revealing film. The generation that Tom is from is noted in large part for the staggering number of them that moved back in with their parents after college instead of moving on to an adult life on their own. Tom Green is one of those people, a face put to that statistic, and the animosity between him and his parents is like some operatic manifestation of the friction inevitably caused by that situation. Kevin Smith wrote about this character in MALLRATS with Brodie, the Jason Lee character. Speaking of Kevin Smith, I’d say Green has a more confident visual style in his first time at bat than Kevin has developed even after JAY & SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK. Even in that film, there are moments where it feels like Kevin has no sense of how to convey geography or motion or energy with a scene. Watch the opening title sequence of FREDDY GOT FINGERED, cut to the Sex Pistols’ “Problems”. It’s Tom Green skateboarding through a mall, being chased by security guards, and it’s got energy to spare.
The second thing the film has going for it is Marisa Coughlin, who also starred in SUPERTROOPERS, a comedy I saw and fell in love with at Sundance this year. Mark my words... Coughlin is the real deal. She’s deadly cute, absolutely fearless in a comedy scene, and she’s got timing to spare. Her character in this film is patently offensive in concept, but not in execution. Originally, though, Betty was conceived by Tom Green and co-writer Derek Harvie as a double amputee. The whole plan was to cast a real amputee so they could stage various gags like Tom licking stumps. Seriously. They eventually decided to just find an actress to put in a wheelchair. What resulted is a fairly outrageous and silly performance that manages to be deepy appealing because of the energy Coughlin brings to the film. The first scene between her and Tom at her apartment will pretty much determine if you should be watching the film or not. If that scene offends you, then turn the movie off. Just stop watching. If, on the other hand, you find yourself laughing in astonishment at Marisa, then maybe you’re game for what lies ahead.
I’m not making the case for this being a great movie. It’s far too uneven for that. There are highs and lows here, and the good stuff is so good that it make the bad stuff more frustrating. In some ways, Green’s anger is more potent than that of critics’ darling Todd Solondz. Not everyone, after all, was an outcast freak or a social deviant, so not everyone can relate to Solondz’s leads. We’ve all got parents, though, and we’ve all got our sore spots in our relationships with them, and that’s the heart of what Green does here. The horrifying game that develops between Tom and his father, the war of wills, yields some promising moments, building to the absolute darkest riff on the old THREE’S COMPANY “someone misunderstanding something they overheard” scenario that I’ve ever seen. If Green had worked with a producer who had really pushed him to take the good stuff here and refine it, FREDDY GOT FINGERED could have been great. When Tom talks about the theme of the film on the commentary, right around the one-hour mark, I dare any critic to listen to his explanation and tell him that he’s wrong. He may have made a film that is all over the place, but it’s not pointless, and it’s certainly not shock for the sheer sake of it. In many ways, this film is the intentional death of the gross-out comedy, a total violation of the form, right down to the obligatory romantic reconciliation moment to the tune of some classic love tune, Otis Redding in this case. There is a point, and there is wit. As it is, I think it’s a bold debut, and certainly worth an open minded look by adventurous viewers.
And if you happen to pick it up on DVD, you’ll be startled by how nice a job they did with it. This is a very nicely-done special edition with a commentary by Tom Green that is an adventure unto itself. You have no idea what surreal is until you watch this film with Tom Green himself chattering away the whole time. It’s stream of consciousness, to say the least, and he comes across as more intelligent than he ever has in previous work. He’s keenly aware of how the film was received, and he doesn’t care, it seems. He talks about all the various ideas that he and Harvie discussed while writing and abandoned, and how various ideas relate to his life, and he singles out some critics who took particularly mean shots at him for some ridicule, and details some pranks he played on his parents as a child. He also manages to be flat out silly at times, and even exhibits a dry wit. It’s a peek behind the curtain that a prankster like Andy Kaufman never offered his audience, and it makes Tom seem much more appealing as a result. There’s also a commentary featuring the actors Harland Williams, Rip Torn, and Marisa Coughlin that I haven’t even had a chance to wade into yet. There’s a family-friendly PG cut of the film that’s three minutes long, deleted scenes (including an entire storyline with Stephen Tobolowsky), the MTV “Making of” special that aired when the film was released, and something that really does have to be heard to be believed, the ambient sound recorded during the film’s premiere. Listening to the crowd as they watch the film is a special kind of torture, and it speaks well of Green that he had the balls to put this on the disc.
THE BEST DAMN DAY OF THE YEAR?!
November 2nd. This is one of those days that any good film geek should circle on the calendar. Doesn’t matter what it is you want in your film diet; you’ll find it that day if you look for it. Even though I’ve seen at least three of the movies that open that day already, I still plan to spend the whole weekend in the theater. Three of the year’s very best films are opening that day... maybe more.
If you’re into big commercial releases, chances are at least one of the following titles appeals to you: THE ONE, DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE, or MONSTERS INC. I’ve heard from people who have seen THE ONE who thought it was lame, but I like the TV spots. I think there’s some great cartoon imagery in there, like that shot of Jet Li swatting the cops with the motorcycle like it weighs a pound. Cool stuff. I’ll give the film a try. I’m seeing MONSTERS INC. this coming weekend and can’t wait. I love Pixar dearly, and am anticipating the film eagerly. DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE... ain’t my speed. I can tell just looking at the TV spots. I’m not sure who John Travolta’s fooling these days, but don’t count me among their ranks.
It’s the art house titles that have me really excited, though, and that should have you singing and dancing, too. There’s Richard Linklater’s other movie this year, TAPE, the one that’s not the mind-expanding animated meditation on dreams and reality, but is instead a three-character dialogue driven drama shot on video and set almost entirely in a hotel room. Haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard some nice things. I have seen the other three releases, though, and would like to rank them in order of uber-fucking-coolness.
In the number three spot, just because there has to be a number three spot, there is the new film by Joel and Ethan Coen, THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE. I saw this a few weeks back, and I’ve been chewing on it ever since, trying to decide exactly where I stood on it overall. It’s magnificent to look at thanks to the stunning black and white compositions of Roger Deakins, and it’s filled with the same sort of magnificent, full-bodied dialogue that marks every Coen script. It’s not as immediately approachable as recent Coen films like FARGO and THE BIG LEBOWSKI, though. This is a tough nut to crack, a strange movie. Joel and Ethan are obviously fans of the various hard-boiled writers who have defined the noir fiction genre over the years, and they’ve managed to turn out note perect tributes to various artists over the years. BLOOD SIMPLE is their James M. Cain film. MILLER’S CROSSING is obviously Dashiell Hammett. THE BIG LEBOWSKI is a very sly homage to the work of Raymond Chandler. And now, with THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, they seem to have made the perfect Jim Thompson film. In particular, they seem to have caught the vibe of THE KILLER INSIDE ME, a book that various people like Stanley Kubrick and Val Kilmer have sought to bring to the screen over the years. Thompson’s main characters were often times disconnected from the world around them, from people in general, and they aren’t evil so much as alien. They simply don’t feel anything. They drift through life and commit terrible acts simply because the moments present themselves. Ed Crane, the character played to such perfection by Billy Bob Thorton here, is one such character. His entire life is defined by the path of least resistance. His career, his relationship with his wife, his reaction when he learns she’s having an affair... it’s like none of it really touches him. Then something breaks through. Something stirs some sign of life in Ed. A business opportunity. And for the first time, he defines a want. Something he wants. And what he does to get it sets in motion a horrible circus of tragic circumstance.
At one point during this film, I was practically giggling as I turned to Harry Lime and said, “I have no idea where this is going.” That’s a delicious feeling these days, and leave it to the Coens to confound with such elegance. Their cast here is incredible. James Gandolfini proves again that he is not just Tony Soprano, something I’ve been saying for years. Tony Shaloub proves again that there are few actors more in command of a scene, something I’ve believed for ages now. Frances McDormand plays yet another completely different character, once again losing herself convincingly. Jon Polito does knockout work in a brief role, and Richard Jenkins and Scarlett Johansson are both very effectively used. Michael Badalucco is surprisingly touching in his role, and he’s a welcome returning addition to the Coens’ stable of recurring actors.
Unfortunately, I predict that the film will leave some people cold. As I said, this isn’t easily digested. In some ways, it’s a shaggy dog story, a narrative joke. There are dead-ends followed, storylines that seemingly go nowhere, and the resolution is dark and surreal. I was quite moved by the film, even as I found myself laughing out loud, and that combination never seems to sit well with the masses. Screw the masses, though, and sprint to see the film if you can, especially if you’ve been impressed by the Coens in the past. They’ve proven once again that there is no one working in film today with as consistent a track record for creating iconic, intelligent cinema.
Number two on the kick ass scale is Christophe Gans’ wild and wooly BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF. You’ve heard an assload about this film on this site by now, and that’s no accident. Harry and I are both nutty about this movie and its improbable blend of martial arts action, period drama detail, court intrigue, CG monster movies, and supernaturally tinged mystery. I can’t think of another film as ambitious or as deliriously loopy that’s come out this year. Samuel Le Bihan is good in the lead, but it’s the twin madness of Mark Dacascos and Vincent Cassel that makes the movie so great. The photography is staggeringly pretty, the score is great, the FX are top-notch (featuring one of the most original creature designs since Stan Winston’s Predator made its debut), and Monica Bellucci gets naked. What more could you possibly want? If I get a chance to see the American release print of this, I’ll write a full review. For now, I’ve seen it on tape about a dozen times, and all I can say is any self-respecting film geek owes it to themselves to get out to a theater and support this movie as soon as it opens. It is a joy, and we would be lucky to get more like it.
Finally, there’s the movie that may very well end up as many people’s film of the year, Jean Pierre Jeunet’s enchanting AMELIE. There is no more pure expression of cinematic ecstasy that I’ve seen so far this year, and I can’t imagine what could top it. This is a film that simply feels good to watch. It is like a drug, a guaranteed shot of happiness. The story of a girl named Amelie, played to radiant perfection by Audrey Tautou, this is a fairy tale in the best sense of the words. This is a story about fate and love and the way we affect those around us as we move through this life. Amelie’s childhood is painted in magical broadstrokes that are both endearing and entrancing. As an adult, she’s a shy girl, quiet, simply passing through life without making a ripple. She discovers the childhood possessions of a former tenant of her apartment and orchestrates a way of getting them back to him, seemingly by chance. The effect it has on him, and his specific reaction upon realizing what he’s holding in his hands, is one of those moments you remember forever, a perfect movie memory. It impacts Amelie, and she begins to poke into the lives of everyone around her, even as her own life refuses to come into focus. I was impressed by the performance of Matthew Kossovitz, whose work as a director I’ve had mixed reactions to over the years. He’s an actor here, and he’s very good. This film made me feel drunk after the first time I saw it, and when I watched it again earlier tonight, it worked all over again. I can’t wait to be able to take people to the theater to experience it, and I can’t urge you strongly enough to see it for yourself. The reason I go to movies is to find something like this. You always hope, but only once in a while does something truly special come along. This is one of those rare moments. Seize it. Treasure it. I sure have.
PATTON OSWALT HITS (WITH) PUBERTY!!
I want to take a moment to congratulate a friend of mine for making a kick-ass screenplay sale that's just been announced. Patton Oswalt is, simply put, the funniest person I know. And I know some severely funny people. He's a stand-up comic whose half-hour HBO special still remains one of the most achingly brutal half-hour sets I've ever seen, blisteringly funny and breathlessly dirty. I've seen him perform live probably 20 times now, and he's never been less than great. At his infamous secret Grammy night show, I laughed so hard I got a two-day headache. I've seen him destroy rooms before, just ruin audiences for anyone else. He somehow manages to be scathing and cynical without being even slightly off-putting. He appears on the CBS sitcom KING OF QUEENS in a supporting role (he plays "Spence" on the show), but that's really no barometer of what he's capable of when he's turned loose. Listening to him riff on his relationship with his TiVO, you realize that this is a comic mind capable of wicked, unexpected invention.
He also happens to be a massive film fan, and he's worked on scripts like RUN RONNIE RUN and SHALLOW HAL before. Now he's sold a script of his own to Ben Stiller and New Line, and PUBERTY is on its way to the bigscreen. It's the story of a guy who, for various medical reasons, never entered puberty. In his mid-30s, he's poised on the edge of the biggest business deal of his life, and he is suddenly hit with the delayed effects, all at once. It's one of those simple and pure comic premises, and I am dying to read the script to see what he's done with it.
One thing's for sure... Patton's got a great comic voice, and if New Line finds a way to preserve that voice from script to screen, there's a chance PUBERTY could be something really special. Congratulations, buddy. If anyone deserves it, you do.
ON THE BOOKSHELF: THE PLUTONIUM BLONDE, CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL, and THE GREATEST SCI-FI MOVIES NEVER MADE!!
All sorts of books and manuscripts come rolling in here at the Labs, and three have been of particular note recently. One’s a paperback, one’s an English import, and one’s a blisteringly great debut that deserves to find the same sort of audience that last year’s THE ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY did.
First, there’s the paperback, a novel called THE PLUTONIUM BLONDE. It’s by John Zakour and Lawrence Ganem, and it’s a light, witty SF detective novel. It never really hits the galloping insane highs that something like THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY does, but that’s okay. It’s not aiming to hit the ball out of the park. This is just an amiable, entertaining ride, and the relationship between Zachary Nixon Johnson, the detective, and HARV, his holographic linkup to the world’s smartest computer, is consistently funny throughout. The case itself isn’t all that labrynthine. A woman hires Johnson to track down a deadly robot that looks exactly like her but which is actually a weapon with a plutionium core. The real pleasures in the book aren’t necessarily plot-related, but are derived more from the details of the world. This book actually started life online as a series of installments on the SciFi Channel’s official website before being sold as an e-book by peanutpress.com. I never read any of those earlier incarnations, so I can’t really compare it, but I would say this is a fun weekend read for fans of the genre, obviously written by fans, and worth finding.
You’ll have to special order David Hughes’ new book THE GREATEST SCI-FI MOVIES NEVER MADE from the UK, where Titan Books has just published it, but it’s worth it if you’re interested in the way the development process can crush a great idea. It’s strange to read this book, since many of the stories detailed played out while I was a contributor to AICN. I saw these events play out, watched these films fall apart, and seeing Hughes reconstruct the events brings back some genuine frustration and sorrow on my part. Ridley Scott’s I AM LEGEND or Richard Stanley’s DR. MOREAU. Gilliam’s WATCHMEN or Lynch’s RONNIE ROCKET. These are films I wish I could have seen, and Hughes makes a case for why these near-misses should be mourned. His research is solid, and I would say anyone who wants to work in the modern studio system should read this book and decide if they could put up with the indignities heaped on the filmmakers here. If you think you could survive these kinds of brutal creative beatings, then maybe you’re cut out for this business. It’s sobering stuff, to be sure.
The book that really blew me away recently, though, was Glen David Gold’s debut novel, CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL. It’s a book about magic. Specifically, it’s about American stage magic in the early ‘20s. It’s meticulously researched, drenched in rich, convincing detail, and it’s absorbing from the first page to the last. There’s something I’ve always loved about handing myself over to a writer who really knows his subject. In this particular case, Gold has managed to paint a completely immersive portrait of what it was like for a performer in this particular field, working in the shadow of Harry Houdini. Charles Carter, also known as Carter the Great, was a real person, and he is brought to splendid life here as the protagonist of this ususual tale. In one way, this is the story of magic’s shining moment, the one time when it was at its biggest in America, and what happened when that moment started to pass. In another way, it’s a tale of revenge and mystery. In another way, it’s a story about losing love and finding the courage to love again. The fact that Gold balances all of these elements so well is what makes CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL irresistable. I knew next to nothing about this story going in, and I’d hate to ruin it for anyone else. The revelations here are so wonderful, so unexpected at each turn, that it feels like a moral imperative for me to protect them so that you can enjoy the experience as pure as I did. It’s rare that I get this effusive about a debut work of fiction by someone, but this is a find, and in a season filled with giant releases by big names like Stephen King, a book like this can get lost, marginalized. That would be a damn shame.
And on that note, I must be going. I’ve got a screening later this morning that I might be writing about tonight, and I’ll definitely report in on MONSTERS INC. after this weekend. Until then...