Fiction: Kevin Costner and Child


"Kevin Costner and Child" - A Video Game Proposal

A down-on-his-luck Costner is charged with taking care of a relative’s young son (or daughter) for a weekend.  The game’s goal is to raise Costner back to the career heights of the late 1980s and early 1990s.  The player takes on the role of the child, whose sex can be changed as desired.  The child is about eight years old, comes from a broken home, and begins the game nervous and malnourished.  Costner, on the other hand, is overly-nourished, especially with beer and beef and various spirits.

Gameplay comprises a series of challenges in which a hungover Costner places an enormous amount of responsibility in the hands of the timid, hollow-eyed child, all while seeking to cure his hangover with the “hair of the dog.”  Naturally, just a hair won’t do, and despite any success in acquiring alcoholic beverages, Costner persistently seeks more.  The child’s job is to guide both Costner and himself to safety, while managing a series of obstacles and other challenges posed by Costner’s erratic behavior and occasionally frightening demands.

For example, an early stage in the game may involve Costner entering a bar to seek refreshment.  His young charge, aware of Costner’s precarious hold on sobriety and eager to keep Costner within the easily-punctured boundaries of responsibility, is refused entry due to his young age.  However, gameplay will allow for the child to seek surreptitious means to entry, after which he “rescues” Costner from drink by employing distraction and desperately screamed white lies.

A further stage will involve Costner suddenly finding the need to fly to Phoenix to participate in a photo shoot for High Times.  This extended adventure can be broken up into a number of segments, beginning with a drive to the airport.  Due to Costner’s advanced drunkenness at this juncture, he forces the child to commandeer a parked car.  Unable to see over the dash, and with the most rudimentary understanding of the controls, the child receives sporadic and semi-coherent coaching from Costner, who shouts directions while lying listlessly across the backseat.  The child pilots the car, against all odds, through a variety of road-oriented obstacles, finally arriving on a busy runway where he must dodge taxiing airliners.  Finally, a series of runway ground controllers wave the car toward the correct private jet and Costner incoherently stumbles aboard his flight.

Later, in the Los Angeles section of the game, we find Costner employing the child rather extra-legally as a personal assistant as the actor struggles to regain control over his career.  The child is charged with a number of routine “gofer” activities, which he must maintain while managing an ever-mounting onslaught of dangerous and increasingly illegal challenges.  One such situation may involve Costner soliciting the company of a prostitute in a paparazzi-heavy section of Brentwood.  The child must execute a widespread campaign of misinformation and damage control in order to avoid besmirching Costner’s revived career. 

Another such level in the Los Angeles section may be a gaffe-laden speech given by Costner at a Hollywood awards ceremony.  While presenting an award, Costner lapses into a politically-charged but generally nonsensical ramble on the subject of the BP oil spill, Native American rights, and the ups and downs of getting blonder with age.  The child is then challenged to avoid further such incidents by rigging Costner with a voice-manipulation gadget for future awards shows; the player will thus be able to cover Costner blunders with his own voice, processed to mimic Costner’s.

Agents, publicists, and industry executives must be handled with growing frequency.  As Costner’s acting career resumes, he experiences spiritual growth, seeking the advice and wisdom of swamis, gurus, bhagwans, monks, voodoo priests, and peyote dealers.  At one point in the game, he is photographed wearing Apache warpaint and a disposable diaper.  There are rumors that Costner has submitted to a Scientology audit, rumors that the child will neither confirm nor deny, just as he will neither confirm nor deny reports of Costner having met with rabbis or Tom Cruise.

Scripts begin to pour in, each of which the child will have to read and summarize for prompt discussion with Costner, who will generally show up to such meetings in flip-flops, accompanied by a pitcher of pina coladas or a crispy blonde with skin like jerky.  Project selection will generally rest with the child, although Costner will occasionally blurt, “I like this one!  Let’s do it!” which will precipitate an immediate and often unwise commitment.  Selection of projects must therefore be accomplished without Costner in the room if possible, which will be difficult, as he will tend to unexpectedly show up shirtless and demand to be taken jet skiing or parasailing or to perform country music in Europe and points north.

Scoring will be complex but will generally be calculated based on the efficacy of the child in preventing Costner from further damaging his reputation and avoiding physical injury.  The player’s ultimate goal is to guide Costner to an Academy Award for Best Actor before reaching the age of sixty.


In Theaters: Cyrus

Filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass and their superior cast have together created a memorable portrait of a very particular kind of familial dysfunction: the uncomfortably close relationship between a single mother and her grown son. In Cyrus, we watch this relationship go through a painful and trying transition through the eyes of an outsider - the mother's new boyfriend. With the ever-morphing interpersonal dynamics of these three characters as its sole concern, Cyrus succeeds both as an observational drama, a charming romance, and a teeth-grittingly funny comedy.

John (John C. Reilly) has been divorced for seven years from Jamie (Catherine Keener), who encourages her shy and lonely ex to get out and meet women. At a party one night, a very drunk John meets Molly (Marisa Tomei) and, seemingly against the odds, sparks fly immediately. Not long after their first few evenings together, John discovers that Molly has a grown son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill), still living at home. The first interactions of the three are chock full of awkwardness - factors here include Cyrus' age, the newness of John and Molly's relationship, Cyrus' over-dependence on Molly, and Molly's tendency to coddle her 21-year-old son. It soon becomes apparent that Cyrus has no qualms about manipulating Molly and her relationship with John, all in order to avoid taking responsibility for himself and facing life as an independent adult.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Cyrus is that it doesn't paint Molly and Cyrus' relationship as something that is merely creepy, or comical, or one-sided in any way. Both mother and son are culpable in the dysfunction at play here, even though Cyrus, whose behavior borders on the sociopathic, is certainly the focus of the conflict with John. Molly is slow to perceive Cyrus' manipulative machinations, but when she does, she also understands that she has enabled years of antisocial tendencies and we see her grappling with her own sense of responsibility.

This probably all sounds very heavy-duty, but what's so remarkable about the weight of the mother-son relationship is that it comes off as so authentic in the midst of truly funny scenes and skillfully balanced performances by Reilly and Hill. Reilly is the straight man here to Hill's Uncle Fester-inspired Cyrus. Their comic chemistry is fantastic, in moments both large and small - and particularly when John and Cyrus declare war on each other. Hill carefully modulates both insidious duplicity and youthful confusion, while Reilly's strength here is generating genuine "nice guy" vibes without overplaying a single line or gesture. As Molly, Tomei displays a loving obliviousness while Cyrus fucks with John early on in the story - but this turns into a credibly mature honesty when forced to confront her son about his actions.

The Duplass brothers have used a highly improvisational filmmaking style, not in order to allow these comic actors to find laughs, but to enable them to search for the real human drama beneath what is an otherwise comic situation. It's a highly collaborative technique, and all of the actors rise to the challenge beautifully. It's a brave, forthright approach to a character-based story that eschews visual flourishes of any kind. Working loose, with only a few actors and even fewer locations, the Duplasses bring off a film of impressive emotional depth that addresses a strange but wholly realistic situation. Summer comedies aren't typically known for providing audiences with true cinematic experiences, but Cyrus is an exception.

Read the full review here

In Theaters: Wild Grass (Les Herbes Folles)

In Alain Resnais' Wild Grass (Les herbes folles), many things happen that are impossible to describe. Resnais' famously idiosyncratic style and clinical approach to psychodrama render plot and behavior so charged with the potential for literally anything to happen, that I find myself at a loss for words - especially since this intuitive unpredictability is the chief feature of the film's tone. Resnais' characters speak, make choices, and interact with one another in ways that at first seems "normal." But the tension that creeps under the surface, and the filmmaker's visual choices - among other factors - subtly alter the plot and dialogue in wholly unexpected ways, placing attempts at gathering meaning and significance tantalizingly beyond arm's reach. I do not suggest that Resnais' films are in any way devoid of tangible content, but at least in the instance of Wild Grass, that content is only partially accessible to this writer. Wild Grass is rich in incident, visual information, oblique thematic gestures, obfuscatory dialogue, and hard left turns against the grain of expectation. There is a lot to process here, and the film demands multiple viewings and a lot of meditation.

Resnais' style in Wild Grass is not enormously different from many of his other films: the camera is fluid, there is some tricky editing that achieves unusual effects, and characters' motivations are often veiled. These elements are a large part of what make Wild Grass ceaselessly fascinating; they also prevent a really incisive discussion of the film based on a single viewing. What is intended for the big screen often cannot be translated into words, and a master of cinematic form such as Resnais will confound a writer every step of the way. Writers more confident in their craft than I will go to great lengths to create strings of sentences jam-packed with the language of critical theory, fooling readers with a web of "insights" that only stand as an obstacle to the film itself. What they won't admit is that there is something going on here that is simply impossible to translate into their chosen medium.

Nonetheless, I will describe a few of the most important things that happen in Wild Grass. First, a woman named Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azéma) has her purse snatched outside a Marc Jacobs in Paris. Next, Georges Palet (André Dussollier) finds Marguerite's discarded wallet in a parking garage. Palet, a married man who lives with a dark and undisclosed secret, seeks to return the wallet personally to Marguerite. When she proves elusive, Palet leaves it with the police. Marguerite retrieves the wallet from the police and then feels compelled to thank Palet, which leads to a series of awkward phone calls and attempts at communication. Palet finds himself revealing some of his deepest desires, including his passion for airplanes; as an amateur pilot, Marguerite eventually agrees to take him up in her small plane. By this point, Palet's wife (Anne Consigny) and Marguerite's friend Josepha (Emmanuelle Devos) have been drawn into this odd relationship, which has gone through a number of iterations before finally achieving a strained mutual understanding.

Wild Grass moves in the slow but irresistible manner of a lava flow, and the film's depiction of elemental human desires suggests the bubbling action of submerged primordial impulses. Color is of immense importance, varying from neutral earth tones to crazily gaudy neons; the production design is meticulous and forceful in this regard. The loving, fluid widescreen camerawork of the great Éric Gautier and a remarkably graceful editorial style (thanks to regular Renais and Polanski collaborator Hervé de Luze) merge in some striking imagery, particularly during the film's final sequence, which concludes with a pulse-pounding series of pans and cuts across an alien, barren landscape before delivering a final blow with one of the most jaw-dropping lines of dialogue of all time.

At age 88, Alain Resnais is in no way off his game. Wild Grass challenges viewers to engage with cinema in an unusually intense way. Nothing is to be taken for granted, nothing is done for the sake of storytelling convenience, and every assumption we have about the conventions of filmmaking is challenged whenever possible. The inventive and eclectic score by Mark Snow matches the rapid shifts in tone, from the comic to the foreboding, and there is an unnamed narrator whose relationship to the film's characters and events is wholly nebulous. There are suggestions of infidelity that may or may not have happened, a group of singing pilots, occasional dental work, and expensive shoes. Wild Grass is an investigation of deep-set human brain activity - the ways and means by which we perceive and process information and experience. As a counterpoint to the easy solipsistic "answers" provided by most films, Renais has composed a searching, fascinating question.


On DVD: Night Train to Munich (Criterion Collection)

In some ways this is the prototypical British thriller from the early war years - before the firebombing began in earnest, before the V-2, before the extent of the Holocaust was known; in other words, it was made in the days when the war could still be safely imagined as a rather sporting adventure, a challenge to British manliness and fortitude, and a spirited game that could be halted each afternoon around four o'clock. Yes, it was a matter of life and death, but a sharp wit could still get you through. This thriller's shades of gray are rather light compared to those of the far more acidic post-war classic made a decade later by the same director: The Third Man. Unlike that film, Night Train to Munich's "version" of World War II serves more as an alarming backdrop than a visceral challenge to the fundamental morality of humankind. This movie's more comedic approach generally succeeds thanks to a good cast, even while the plot is pure Swiss cheese.

Night Train to Munich already shares much with Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes - three cast members, screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, a plot revolving around international intrigue, and an extended sequence set aboard a train - so it's kind of surprising when Night Train's opening shot also mimicks that of The Lady Vanishes: a slow zoom on a miniature building. In this case, the building is The Berhof, Hitler's mountain retreat, and inside, the Fuhrer is yelling and screaming about Austria and the Sudetenland.

It's a great lead-in to a quick montage of Nazi movements throughout the late '30s, as they grab bits and pieces of Europe and expand the Reich. Meanwhile, in Prague, Dr. Bomasch (James Harcourt) must escape before the encroaching Nazis kidnap him and his new formula for armor plating. Bomasch makes it out, but his daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) winds up in a concentration camp. With the help of Czech dissident Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid), she escapes to England and finds her father. No sooner are they reunited than Marsen is revealed as a Gestapo spy, and he and his German cohorts spirit the Bomaschs back to Germany. From here on out, it is up to English agent Dickie Randall (Rex Harrison), who follows them to Berlin, posing as a high-ranking Nazi engineer. Randall devises an elaborate ruse to contact the Bomaschs and bring them back to England; when Marsen unveils Randall's true identity, the entire mission faces the greatest peril.

For a 95-minute film, that's a lot of plot. And I didn't even mention Charters and Caldicott, the cricket-obsessed travelers from The Lady Vanishes (and their own subsequent series of films), who show up here as sort of British deus ex machinae and play a major part in saving the day. It's all very swift, with clever dialogue by Launder and Gilliat, and economical direction by Reed. Ultimately, it just doesn't add up to much. The story is too predictable, and the characters are all stock figures, with the exception of Randall, to whom Rex Harrison lends a full measure of debonair wit. As comic relief, Charters and Caldicott are handicapped by not being allowed to be as dense and oblivious as they were in The Lady Vanishes. Their presence here feels like a narrative crutch that puts a drag on the momentum while serving as an easy "out" for the tight spot Randall finds himself in. Besides which, these two very English Englishmen never explain their presence behind enemy lines - and don't express much concern about the matter, either.

The film concludes with a well-staged action sequence involving gondola lifts that stretch between Germany and Switzerland; it looks like the precursor of a similarly-staged scene in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Here, as in the film as a whole, Carol Reed can be seen growing into a master of atmosphere, ably commanding the look of the film from a design and photographic standpoint, all while serving the script and curtailing directorial flourishes. 

Read the full review here

On DVD: The Last Station

Covering the last several months of Leo Tolstoy's life, The Last Station reveals the struggle over Tolstoy's literary estate and poses interesting questions about the most legitimate heirs of one person's art. However, director Michael Hoffman's script (adapted from Jay Parini's novel of the same name) doesn't fully flesh out these issues, which are truly the heart of the story. Good dialogue and strong performances make up for a frustrating lack of narrative cohesion, but the film suffers in hindsight for its odd handling of Tolstoy as a character.

It is 1910, and Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), still a spirited force to be reckoned with, is spending the twilight of his life at his country estate, Vasnaya Polyana. Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) is a recent arrival there, hired as Tolstoy's personal secretary by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) - the author's trusted protégée and chosen literary executor. Bulgakov finds Vasnaya Polyana a hotbed of familial/political intrigue, most of it generated by tension between Chertkov and the Countess Sophia Tolstaya (Helen Mirren). The countess is determined to retain the copyright to her husband's works for the ongoing benefit of her family. Chertkov, on the other hand, claims to be carrying out Tolstoy's wishes with regard to a renunciation of Tolstoy's copyright, placing the count's works forever in the hands of the Russian people. This concept goes hand-in-glove with Tolstoy's disapproval of private property and promotion of passive resistance against oppressive authority; as the chief of the "Tolstoian" movement, Chertkov's mission is to enact Tolstoy's espoused principles in a concrete way. The struggle between Chertkov and Countess Sophia challenge the very foundation of Tolstoy's relationship with his wife, just as young Bulgakov finds burgeoning love with a woman (Kerry Condon) who lives at a nearby Tolstoian commune.

The hub of this story is the question of who Tolstoy's works "belong" to. Are they the rightful inheritance of his long-suffering but loving wife and their eight children (and untold grandchildren)? Or is Tolstoy's literary corpus the spiritual inheritance of the Russian people, for whom he harbored a lifelong reciprocal devotion? This question boils down to one of Tolstoy's own intentions - what did he really believe and what did he really intend? Strangely, The Last Station avoids Tolstoy's own perspective. Instead the film focuses on the machinations of Chertkov and the countess Tolstaya, allowing their wishes to represent the opposing interests involved (i.e., familial legacy versus public cultural legacy).

Still, Tolstoy, portrayed energetically by Christopher Plummer, is allotted significant screen time in the film; he is a major character with a lot of dialogue who interacts with and makes a great impact on the other characters in the film. It is odd, then, that we are not provided with a clear explication of the man's own intentions and wishes. If Hoffman intended for Tolstoy to serve merely as a catalyst for the debate over the copyright of his works, then it would have been wiser for Tolstoy to have remained in the shadows, a mysterious, intentionally-veiled character. Instead, he is shown here in full-blooded conversation with all major and supporting characters, all of which scrupulously avoid direct mention how he envisions the disposition of his legacy. This results in a nagging disconnect among the action on the screen, the dynamics between the other characters, and Tolstoy's ultimate decision to give up his copyright.

These criticisms of the screenplay aside, all of the performances are excellent. McAvoy brings a wide-eyed combination of devotion and confusion to his portrayal of Bulgakov; his maturation over the course of the film, both as a skeptical observer and as a romantic lead, is measured and entirely credible. Plummer, despite the vague position the screenplay put him in, evinces a robust charm as Tolstoy. Giamatti is appropriately uptight and snide as the sycophantic Chertkov. Standing out from these other fine actors is Helen Mirren as Sophia; she valiantly out-performs the script as the anxious, loving, frustrated countess, filled to the brim with a competing mixture of desperate concern for her family's future and an unshakeable love for her husband. It's a powerhouse of a performance that Hoffman nonetheless curtails now and then through choppy editorial choices. 

Read the full review here


On DVD: In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great

Michael Wood is his own worst enemy. His 1998 BBC documentary, In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great displays the best aspects of the English approach to historical investigation: tenacity, insight, a deep level of commitment to subject matter, and a sweeping perspective that allows information to fall into place while maintaining a broader context. Shot across the globe in adventuresome locales and brimming with regional color, In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great is a remarkable and entertaining documentary mini-series with one self-defeating drawback: its presenter. Aiming for an infectious enthusiasm that no doubt has its origins in genuine feeling, Wood nonetheless overshoots the mark, coming off as a hyperactive poseur whose desire to excite is consistently undercut by his dorky attempts at bravado and a predilection for overstated dramatic gestures. Not content to rely on the truly engaging material in his hands, Wood thrusts it in our faces with the thuggish insistence of an overeager showman. Had he relied more confidently on the material itself, and avoided the added "personality," the result would have been much more enjoyable.

Wood's project here - and it is an impressive one - is to physically retrace the route of Alexander the Great's ongoing campaign to conquer the known world, a journey that originally took place more than two millennia ago. Wood's camera crew ably captures the visual splendor of these locales, which range from Greece to Afghanistan, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the mountains of the Himalayas. It's certainly a picturesque journey, and Wood's narrative approach is to juxtapose what Alexander experienced and achieved with the modern ways of the peoples he conquered so long ago. In many cases, Alexander's legacy is alive and visible among the cultures he swept through, especially in parts of the Middle East, a reminder that some places on Earth remain largely untouched by the engines of progress - a true anthropological marvel that was once the dream of imperial Britain, a power that yearned to conquer and "enlighten" such people (see Victorian-era English literature, from Haggard to Kipling.) Wood's more empathic and curious attitude is in no way reminiscent of his own cultural ancestors', except in his desire to document what fascinates him.

And fascinating this documentary is, as it covers a vast conceptual landscape that embraces geography, anthropology, archaeology, and history. When Wood is on-camera, however, the proceedings falter. The writer-presenter's energy is forced, unnecessary, and distracting. Fortunately, he does not hog the camera, and the exotic locations are often allowed to visually speak for themselves; fortunately, Wood's off-camera narration does not suffer from the same overbearing quality as his on-camera persona, and his input in this context is extremely informative.

Read the full review here

On DVD: Mystery Train (Criterion Collection)

Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train was made over twenty years ago, but it feels as fresh and invigorating as anything. Like many Jarmusch ventures, this one feels both rambling and focused, with a parade of diverse characters taking us on assorted jaunts through the cradle of American popular music: Memphis, Tennessee. "Rambling" is in no way meant to be read negatively here, however, as Jarmusch knows and trusts his characters (and his actors) to a rare extent. He allows them to develop and register their personalities in an organic way that heightens both realism and unpredictability; this approach also benefits Jarmusch's oblique, situational comedy and his penchant for lovely, understated camerawork (here achieved with the invaluable aid of the great Robby Müller).

Mystery Train is divided into three episodes that all take place on the same day in Memphis. They track the varied fortunes of three groups of characters who all wind up spending the night in the same fleabitten hotel in a neglected part of town. First, a young Japanese couple (Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase) with a deep love of American music arrive in Memphis by train on a pilgrimage to Sun Records and Graceland. The second story concerns an Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) who is delayed in Memphis for an extra night when her flight is canceled. She struggles to make sense of her situation against an onslaught of tall tales and aggressive strangers. The third and final story follows a trio of loosely affiliated losers (Joe Strummer, Rick Aviles, and Steve Buscemi) who find themselves in need of a hideout after one of them shoots a liquor store clerk. In all three stories, the protagonists wind up at the Arcade Hotel, a rattrap operated by a sarcastic, mannered night man (Screamin' Jay Hawkins) and a desultory bellboy (Cinqué Lee).

Should Jim Jarmusch decide to stop making films today, his influence on contemporary filmmaking and a high place among unique American auteurs would nevertheless be assured. In Mystery Train, and in most of his other work, Jarmusch is simultaneously intuitive and methodical. His stories tend to be about lonesome figures - and even when his characters appear in groups, they often appear lonely or "lost" somehow - on some kind of quest. His characters spend a lot of time observing and reacting to situations, characters, and other assorted stimuli; perhaps the most interesting aspect of Jarmusch's style is his ability to portray characters that (often silently) process and interpret information, the effect of which is demonstrated in their subsequent behavior.

Mystery Train positions its characters in a place haunted by the ghosts of American music. The direct and indirect influence of these ghosts on the film's protagonists is one of its consistent and driving themes. The Memphis of Mystery Train, which was shot in 1988, has seen better days. Aside from its urban center - a group of glinting towers seen only in the background - Memphis is a weedy, decaying, desolate ghost town. The former headquarters of Stax Records is shown as a boarded-up, whitewashed relic, recognizable thanks only to the word "Stax" spray painted in red over its façade. The Japanese couple, on their pilgrimage to Sun Records, is treated only to a rushed oral history by a young guide. The studio is otherwise an empty shell. Most telling and eerie of all, each and every room of the Arcade Hotel is haunted by a different portrait of "the King" - Elvis Presley.

The music is still there, too, although it's only heard on the radio. Haunting songs by Elvis and Roy Orbison and Junior Parker waft across the airwaves, suggesting the past glory of Memphis and its lasting importance. The songs, however, sound all the more lonely and ghostly piped out of speakers, heard by only a few, rather than being performed live in crowded halls or recorded in busy studios.

The characters who move through this weird landscape each have to grapple with this legacy - a legacy that is foreign to some (like the Braschi character) and familiar to others (the trio of drunks in the third episode). Interestingly, that third and final episode is propelled by Joe Strummer's character being angered into a hectic, vengeful stupor after his co-workers insist on calling him by a hated nickname: "Elvis." The subject of an unavoidable cultural legacy has never been investigated with such subtle sensitivity - in Mystery Train, we observe the impact of this kind of legacy on specific, individual characters, illuminating the influence of towering icons on private lives.


On DVD: Hot Tub Time Machine

Hot Tub Time Machine has a great title that drums up visions of the cheaply-made exploitative teen sex comedies that helped define the 1980s. While the title is appropriate, it is in some ways more effective in evoking the era that it nominally pays tribute to than the film itself. Because despite its intention - to honor the unchecked teenage male liberty enshrined in such romps as Hot Dog!, Revenge of the Nerds, and Screwballs - the film relies too much on comedy conventions that are more recent, more boring, and far too overplayed.

John Cusack, Rob Corddry, and Craig Robinson are well-cast as Adam, Lou, and Nick, respectively, a trio of 40-ish suburbanites, none of whose lives are going the way they had ever imagined. Along with Adam's nephew Jacob (Clark Duke), they set out to relive their teenage glory days in the ski resort village of Kodiak Valley. Their plans seem to be quashed upon arrival, however, when they see the once-thriving vacation town has fallen into disrepair. Their suite's hot tub, however, holds a secret: when a spilled energy drink shorts it out, the quartet is cast back 24 years, to a weekend in 1986 that originally proved fateful to them all. While at first they attempt to adhere to the precepts of the butterfly effect, the group abandons the preservation of the past upon realizing that the original events of this 1986 weekend contributed to the dissatisfying lives they now lead.

While the above sounds like the premise for what could potentially be an entertaining, nostalgic, and emotionally fulfilling comedy, the writing and direction move the picture steadily away from character-based dynamics and further and deeper into gross-out territory, an effort that is aided by cameo appearances by vomit, shit, urine, and what we are led to believe is semen (Spoiler alert! It turns out to be hand soap...). These unwelcome trappings of 1990s-era Farrelly Brothers films sully a comedy that should be striving for a different mood and tone altogether.

What is achieved instead is a sense that Adam, Lou, and Nick do indeed lead rather depressing lives; trapped in suburbia, this generally unlikable trio fail to take sufficient advantage of their bizarre predicament. If the '80s was about possibility and adventure - and the Hollywood cinema of that era was about nothing if not that - then why not bring these douchebags to the realization that they are once again in a time and place that will allow them to make a grand, sweeping effort to reinvigorate their lackluster lives?

Instead, we get cheap jokes and utterly arbitrary plot twists. There are occasional laughs to be found here, wedged in between routine exposition and go-nowhere appearances by Crispin Glover and Chevy Chase. The humor that does manage to find its way to the light is mostly the result of the gifted lead actors working against the constraints of an over-written script by Josh Heald, Sean Anders, and John Morris (a script that actively works against itself at every turn), and the unimaginative direction of Steve Pink.

An inherently silly premise can go either of two ways, and unfortunately Hot Tub Time Machine mostly goes south. The good cast do their best with drab material, but the film's biggest failing is its total inability to get a handle on the tone of the 1980s, which is what the movie is supposed to be all about.

Read the full review here

In Theaters: Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky

Sometimes, good things come in threes; on other occasions, the third time is the charm. The latter is certainly true in the case of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, a strikingly good film by Jan Kounen. It follows the lifeless made-for-TV Coco Chanel, and the stuffy Coco Before Chanel with Audrey Tautou. Unlike those two films, this one takes an artistic plunge, unafraid to engage in intuitive, free-flowing artistic interpretation, in what is ultimately a cinematic fictionalization of a hazy period in the lives of these two towering cultural icons.

Working from a novel (and screenplay) by British writer Chris Greenhalgh, Kounen opens his film with an extraordinarily bold sequence: a recreation of the disastrous 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky's ballet, The Rite of Spring. Chronicling this event in incredible, dramatic detail, Kounen's roving camera captures Stravinsky's (Mads Mikkelsen) backstage agony, the stoicism of his doting wife Katarina (Elena Morozova), and the pleasantly perplexed response of a noteworthy spectator, Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis). Beyond a swift introduction of the three main characters with near-silent efficiency, this remarkable sequence treats us to a good chunk of Stravinsky's music, as well as Nijinsky's original choreography.

Unfortunately, the Parisian audience does not take kindly to Stravinsky's supremely radical work. The crowd erupts into a near-riot, and the performance is halted as police rush in to contain the melee. Chanel, however, could not be more impressed, and when she meets Stravinsky at a party several years later, she invites the composer, and his wife and four children, for an extended stay at her country home so that he is able to concentrate on his work.

The sickly Katarina spends enormous amounts of time in bed, diligently copying Stravinsky's scores. Her husband and Chanel have an almost immediate, unspoken attraction in which they are slow to indulge. But when they do, they don't hold back. Although the pair attempts to honor some semblance of discretion, Katarina is no fool. Yet despite the difficulties caused by their ill-timed affair, Chanel and Stravinsky serve as mutual muses over a period that is crucial and productive for them both.

The special force of this film lies in its unhurried pace and intense focus on the actors. Wisely keeping dialogue to a minimum (which reduces the soap opera factor), Kounen elicits three stellar performances. Mikkelsen's Stravinsky is a pressure cooker of erotic yearning capped only by a tenuous sense of self-respect. As Chanel, Mouglalis is beautiful, austere, self-confident, and wary of her own emotions. She embodies a rare poise rooted in masked vulnerability. Elena Morozova is a dignified Katarina, refusing to play a victim or to feign ignorance, or to give in to Chanel's "mannish" sense of superiority; Katarina is, ultimately, despite her husband's failings, his savior.

This is the third Chanel film in two years, and it wisely abandons the usual transparent bio-drama fussiness over historical "accuracy," and instead finds richer emotional truth in what is a factually speculative story. Kounen blends a grounded approach to his characters with a classy technical sensibility and marvelous editorial craftsmanship. Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky doesn't just do the other Chanel films one better; it stands alone as an exceptional achievement.

On DVD: Shinjuku Incident

Shinjuku Incident is a surprising find: a solid, gritty crime thriller from Hong Kong starring Jackie Chan. Eschewing his cuddlier American image, Chan plays a quiet, single-minded Chinese immigrant who comes to Japan in search of a woman and instead finds power and influence. The film is both old fashioned and refreshing, skillfully directed by Tung-Shing "Derek" Yee, and consistently engrossing.

Among a boatload of raggedy, poor Chinese refugees, "Nick" (Jackie Chan) comes ashore at a Japanese beach and finds his way into Tokyo's Shinjuku district, one of the city's busiest business centers. After joining with his brother "Joe" (Daniel Wu) and a larger group of illegal Chinese immigrants, Nick sets out to fulfill the reason he left China: to find his long lost fiancée Xiu Xiu (Xu Jinglei). It doesn't take long for him to discover that she has since married a local crime lord, Eguchi (Masaya Kato). Eguchi leads one of several Yakuza gangs that have joined to form a larger syndicate; however, internal strife continues to pit the gangs against each other. When Nick tracks down a rival gang leader who has wounded Joe, he winds up saving Eguchi's life in the process. Eguchi allots Nick significant power and control over criminal enterprise in a Shinjuku neighborhood. Thus begins Nick's rise to power.

Shinjuku Incident weaves several other plot threads into what is ultimately a convincing character study and gripping thriller. Chan's performance as "Nick" (his character is called "Steelhead" in Chinese, and was inexplicably changed in the subtitles) is marked by a quiet, controlled sense of purpose. Nick only wants legal status and something resembling a regular life; it is only when circumstances call for it that he turns to crime in his search for peace and stability. After losing his fiancée, Nick's vision of the future is drastically altered, and all bets are off.

The script guides us through Nick's story while maintaining a potent, challenging contemporary perspective. The plight of Chinese immigrants and the state of Japan's criminal gangs are approached with a forthright confidence that suggests a real engagement with these issues on the part of the filmmakers. The brutal violence in the film seems a lot more like an outgrowth of a commitment to realism than a sensationalistic attempt to court controversy. (Shinjuku Incident was banned in mainland China for this reason.)

Swift direction from Derek Yee keeps things moving very quickly, with character moments interspersed with bursts of action. The widescreen photography by Nobuyasu Kita is particularly noteworthy; it utilizes creative lighting effects and is stylishly economical. There's nary an instance of visual overkill; the crew keeps the film at ground level. Even the blood that is spilled, copious though it is, doesn't spray in the firehose arcs used by other filmmakers working in similar modes. Shinjuku Incident is an accomplished film that reflects a highly-engaged production grappling with issues both personal and political in a seamless, confident manner. 

On DVD: Green Zone

Director Paul Greengrass applies his consummate technical skill and capacity to crank tension to untold levels to a new story about the Iraq War in Green Zone. A competent thriller, the film moves quickly, never pausing for breath, but in the process it does some odd things with the film's nonfiction source material. "Inspired by" the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Green Zone jettisons the book's impressive research and engagingly sardonic tone, and adopts the narrative trappings of the three Bourne films. Indeed, the source material may as well have not even been mentioned - this is, through and through, a fictional story without any basis in real incidents whatsoever, and its supposed connection to a nonfiction book is just a sleazy misdirect that artificially inflates the film's relevance. In a way, this attempt to "legitimize" the film by tying it to the work of a reporter eerily echoes the prewar justification for the war itself.

This issue is obviously irritating to me, but when I set it aside, Green Zone is a competently-made thriller that is consistently entertaining and well-acted by a diverse and talented cast.

Matt Damon plays CWO Miller, the leader of a squad assigned to locate hidden caches of WMDs in post-invasion Baghdad. Stymied repeatedly by bad intelligence, Miller begins to question the military's source, a highly-placed Iraqi code-named Magellan. A CIA operative working in Baghdad (Brendan Gleeson) perks up at Miller's questions and begins working with him to covertly identify Magellan and, perhaps, learn the truth about whether or not WMDs exist in Iraq. Along the way, Miller runs up against an inquisitive reporter (Amy Ryan) who was the first to legitimize Magellan by printing his assertions in a major US paper - thereby giving credibility to the government's case for war. Meanwhile, Pentagon representative Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) is working furiously to locate Magellan for other, more sinister reasons.

Damon is earnest, direct, and serious as Miller; he lends real weight to the role. Miller came to Iraq with a straightforward mission: to locate WMDs. Unable to find them using the military's intel, he wants to know where they are and what the flaws are in the intel. So he sets out in an equally straightforward manner to find out.

The supporting cast is excellent. Although their roles are a bit under-written, Gleeson and Ryan are, as always, a lot of fun to watch, as is Kinnear. Jason Isaacs appears, briefly and effectively, as a thuggish Special Forces operative.

Greengrass channels his considerable skills and turns a solid procedural script by Brian Helgeland into a propulsive thriller. And yet Greengrass can't completely solve the major gaping story issue, which is the conspiratorial nature of the "secret" of the WMDs. As we all know, there were no WMDs. The lies that were told about them were always plain and obvious. Therefore, it seems strange that a film would opt to create a shadowy conspiracy story to explain something that was always right out in the open, in the light of day. There's a disconnect here between what we all know actually happened and the way the movie chooses to portray it. Why create a fictional explanation for something that has been so well documented?

To the credit of the filmmakers, this question was not obvious until after the film ended. It moves so quickly and is so effective in generating suspense that there was hardly time to register confusion or criticism. 


Essay: Eastwood, California

This weekend I spent a night in Carmel.  It was my fourth or fifth visit in three years - this time, the occasion was my third wedding anniversary.

Carmel is two things: 1) a cozy, pre-Kinkade seaside village that is infused with an odd but authentic charm, and 2) an embodiment of insistent delusion.  It has much in common with Disneyland, except that Walt Disney's concept involved paying a fee to experience a specifically-constructed mythworld.  Carmel, on the other hand, is a real town, where human beings live and play.  Like a lot of places in California, Carmel was designed to resemble something it is not - in this case, an English village, complete with stone cottages, sweet shops, and a population that tends toward the spirited elderly (Clint Eastwood and Joan Fontaine, to name two).  But unlike most other places in California, Carmel actually feels like the thing it wants to evoke - it is cozy; the buildings are charming; the local businesses are well-run; and the whole place has a certain unique character, despite its derivative origins.  Is this simply time at work, adding natural wear and tear ("personality") to the mock-everything buildings?  Or is it the diligent product of necessity, i.e., Carmel's dependence on tourism?

It really doesn't matter, although it's an interesting question for those who, like me, tend to be preoccupied with California's inability to generate, absorb, and process authenticity.  Because there's something simultaneously phony and genuine going on there, whatever it is.

We walked down Ocean Avenue toward the beach, and down the dunes and across the sand, remarking on the unusually large breakers.  Nobody surfs in Carmel, but it was ideal day for beginners.  We walked south, toward the Pebble Beach golf course, both of us in a pleasant haze over the good weather, the foreign tourists (many of them hilarious), the cute shops, and the amusing dogs playing on the beach.  Close to Pebble Beach, we spied groups of asinine golfers moving across the fairways, throwing away hundreds of dollars just to be a tool in a little cart for an afternoon.  

As we turned to backtrack to the hotel, I noticed that a blonde lump I'd mistaken for a boulder was actually a sea lion.  It was conspicuously alone, and I immediately assumed it was the latest victim of the unusually large die-off that continues to plague central coast beaches.  I phoned 311, but Monterey County has no such service.  Trudging back up the beach, we scanned for anything like a lifeguard or ranger station, but there were none.  Then it hit me: Carmel could not possibly accommodate any symbol of life's inherent danger.  I don't ever remember seeing a police car in town, or a meter maid, or an ambulance.  Who knows how long the sea lion had been lying there; when we left it, it was still heaving occasional breaths and struggling to move.  It felt impossible that, of the hundreds who had surely passed it by before us, no one had alerted the authorities.  

Only in Carmel, a seaside town nestled in a pine forest, could this stricken ambassador from the natural world appear so alien and alarming.

On DVD: The Official Inaugural Celebration

A year and a half into the Obama presidency, watching this two-disc set of inauguration day celebrations feels odd, distant, and inappropriate. Of course, these events originally took place at an appointed time and place for the express purpose of marking an historic moment of great significance. At the time, it seemed to some that no ceremony could be too large to recognize the passage of the Bush era and the beginning of a new and potentially radical one. It now seems as though the anticipation outpaced the reality. Viewed in retrospect, the inaugural celebrations seem far more dated than they should - a record of something that we now take for granted. The Obama presidency has not met with anyone's expectations - his most fervent supporters have been alternately cheered and stymied by his mixture of calculated risk-taking, legislative shyness, and centrist populism; his most venomous opponents have made fools of themselves painting him as a messianic radical, while traditional conservatives have found grist for their punditry in Obama's liberal spending policies.

Whatever one's views, the inaugural ceremony and concerts seem like weird relics from a time long past - much longer than the seventeen months since that January day. This two-disc set from HBO compiles the major events broadcast that day, although they are arranged oddly.

The first disc begins with an Invocation by Reverend V. Gene Robinson, a prayer for good things to come, which leads into We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration. This concert combines speechifying and musical performances, all carried out quite tastefully on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of the new First Family and an enormous crowd of thousands. The two-hour concert includes musical performances by Bruce Springsteen, U2, Mary J. Blige (looking downright awesome in all cream, plus snakeskin boots), Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, John Mellencamp, Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi, and Pete Seeger. There are also special presentations by everyone from Denzel Washington and Martin Luther King III, to Marisa Tomei and Jack Black. It's a stately, dignified show. The musical performances are all rather strong. The emotional highlight comes near the end, when 90-year-old Pete Seeger takes the stage to lead the company and the audience in a rendition of "This Land is Your Land."

The second disc begins with President Obama's Inaugural Address - which surprised me at the time by not being his finest piece of work, paling beside a number of his other, much more inspired orations. The other program on the second disc is The Neighborhood Ball, the evening concert that was more of a party than We Are One. The Neighborhood Ball features performances by Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, and an alarmingly bearded Sting. It's mostly good stuff, but not as consistent as We Are One. The atmosphere is loose and club-like, which make Vice President Biden's appearance unintentionally hilarious (although that might just be me).

Since the value of this two-disc set mainly lies in its' role as an historical document, I wish HBO had gone all the way. Had they included the entire inaugural ceremony (dull as that may have been) and arranged the content in chronological order, those most likely to purchase this set would have had a record of the whole day, rather than these disordered bits and pieces. Still, We Are One features a number of memorable performances, and the set as a whole will appeal to those who want to remember this historic occasion in years to come. 


On DVD: Not the Messiah

There's growing old with grace and dignity, and then there's Not the Messiah. Whereas four of the five surviving Pythons have found second careers separate from their membership in one of the most influential comedy troupes of all time, Eric Idle has persistently, and independently, recycled the group's old material into new and less-engaging forms. Some of Idle's ventures, such as the musical Spamalot, have been hugely successful. Others, such as his exploitative concert tours, in which he performs Python material solo, have been purely indulgent. Not the Messiah, an oratorio based on Monty Python's Life of Brian, arrives on the lower end of this spectrum, smelling as it does like a warmed-over slab of opportunism (in this case, Python's fortieth anniversary), even while it bears at least salutary traces of invention.

There are times when it is wise to rest on one's laurels. Since 1983, the Pythons have done so in a generally elegant way, briefly revisiting their glory days when anniversaries and such roll around. The tributes and special events are mostly modest, however, and limited in scope. I don't believe there have been any official Python performances, per se, since Monty Python's The Meaning of Life was released. The book The Pythons, a group autobiography published in 2004, may have been the only official troupe "product" since that feature. (Aficionados more thorough than I should feel free to correct me on this point.)

That hasn't stopped the flow of feature films and Flying Circus on DVD, reissues of the Python record catalog on CD, and other ancillary products such as Idle's cannibalized projects. Not the Messiah is the latest of all of these, and it's not the worst. Still, it's far from the best. What keeps Not the Messiah from being a noteworthy entry in the quasi-Python canon is its unavoidable staleness; its chief effect will be to drive its viewers to watch Life of Brian again - a veritable work of genius beside which this derivative "oratorio" pales.

Co-composed with frequent Python collaborator John Du Prez, Not the Messiah is staged with a full orchestra and chorus, and fronted by four soloists. Songs range from those based directly on material in Life of Brian (such as "Mandy's Song" and "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life"), as well as others like "O God You Are So Big," which comes from a scene in The Meaning of Life, and the bizarre one-off "Individuals," in which Idle, performing solo, does a decent if perplexing Bob Dylan impersonation. The feel of the oratorio therefore feels ad hoc - a big jumble of jokes that Idle has compiled more out of his own need to rehash, than out of any sense of artistic or comedic integrity. (It's worth pointing out that Spamalot, despite its success, relies on the same rather thoughtless approach. It includes material from Flying Circus, plus its own version of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.")

Musically, the oratorio is a moderate success. Du Prez' orchestral arrangements are appropriately bombastic and occasionally inspired. However, this is overshadowed by the silly one-note joke of the libretto, which is based on the assumption that it's hilarious to have classically-trained singers perform frivolous, comic, and off-color material. In fact, Not the Messiah almost uniformly fails to evoke laughter, with perhaps the solitary exception of a very brief, well-timed appearance by Terry Gilliam. The closing crowd-pleaser is a jaw-dropping non sequitur, with Michael Palin appearing with a chorus of Mounties for a performance of "The Lumberjack Song." Never has great comedy ever appeared so pathetic; Palin's more recent career as a wonderful travel writer and documentary presenter has been unwisely jettisoned for this stunningly inappropriate insertion of a greatest hit. It's as if Bruce Springsteen wrote a longform instrumental work and then ran out onstage to sing "Born in the U.S.A." 

Read the full review here