Volume 3, Number 39
This Week's Reviews: Zoolander, Serendipity, An American Rhapsody.
This Week's Omissions: Big Eden, Don't Say a Word, Extreme Days.
Video Reviews: Bubble Boy.
(Dir: Ben Stiller, Starring Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Christina Taylor, Will Ferrell, Jerry Stiller, Milla Jovovich, David Duchovny, David Pressman, Matt Levin, Jon Voight, and Vince Vaughn)
BY: DAVID PERRY
As one of the few people that truly loves Ben Stiller's first two features as a director, Zoolander serves as a nice little treat. Sure it lacks the generational attributes of Reality Bites and the scathing satire of the maddeningly underrated The Cable Guy, but Zoolander is a fun romp and that's all it really tries to be. Where some films this season are workable but fail to meet their intentions, Zoolander lives up to them and actually goes beyond them a few times.
Ben Stiller is Derek Zoolander, the biggest name in male modeling. The only person who can compare to him is Fabio, but he is now an actor/model (or, as the film awards him, "a slashy"). Derek struts into the VH1-Fashion Awards with three consecutive Model of the Year Awards behind him, fully expecting that he'll take a fourth this time around. But he's getting old in modeling standards (this idea of the young retirees is further pushed by a Tyson Beckford cameo, a Ralph Lauren model who disappeared only four or five years into his career) and a young new wave upstart named Hansel (Wilson) is ready to take the prize away from him.
Hansel wins, but a haughty Derek still walks to the stage thinking he has won. The next day a freak accident kills his best friends and a Time magazine article is published called him "A Model Idiot." All this is tough for an over-the-hill model, and Derek begins to have aspirations outside of the walkway, including making amends with his coalminer father (Voight) and perhaps opening a school for "kids who can't read good."
But the modeling world is not ready to lose Derek -- it seems that garish clothing designer Mugatu (Ferrell) has been ordered by the coalition of designers to kill off the prime minister of Malaysia, who recently began an end to child labor in his country, something that the designers are dependent on. Since Derek is dim-witted and down-trodden enough to be malleable by Mugatu's hypnotic grasp, the easiest way to assassinate the prime minister is to have a Manchurian Candidate-inspired Derek kill him at the next Mugatu fashion show.
This is just the skin of Zoolander's story, which has so many characters and arcs that they become hard to remember within moments of viewing the film. Just looking over the song list for the film leaves audience members wondering where the film played The Hollies classic "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" (which Rufus Wainwright covers during the closing credits, making a third soundtrack cover this year for the multi-talented Wainwright). The film is almost exasperated by a fight for laughs that by the final third of this short film, the audience has been through so many little quirks that the effect has been lost.
One of the film's funniest jokes is not even pointed out in the film: that the audience is meant to believe that Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are big-name models. Stiller, with his Eddie Munster looks, and Wilson, with his nose and mouth that look like products from a botched cosmetic surgery, are not quite what I think of when I imagine a male model. Sure, it's not impossible -- for heaven's sake, Vincent Gallo was once a Calvin Klein model -- but it's still funny to imagine.
The two actors are perfect to play off of each other. They did not get many chances to show any rapport in Meet the Parents and Permanent Midnight (their other teaming, The Cable Guy, never had them sharing a scene), but here they show it ten-fold. Especially in one scene -- a gang-like "walk-off" to the tune of "Beat It" -- Wilson and Stiller show that they are two of the finest comedic actors out there. Models or not, they are indispensable as actors.
Zoolander is like a family effort for Stiller --
his sister Amy is a Hansel groupie, his mother Anne Meara is a child labor protestor, and
his father Jerry is Derek's corrupt manager. Throw into the mix that the lead female is
played by his new wife Christine Taylor, who plays Matilda the Time reporter
behind the scathing story. Stiller seems to be having fun with all the nepotism and
riffing off friend Wilson -- and thankfully for the audience, most of this fun comes to
life on the screen.
(Dir: Peter Chelsom, Starring John Cusack, Kate Beckinsale, Jeremy Piven, Molly Shannon, Eugene Levy, Bridget Moynahan, John Corbett, and Leo Fitzpatrick)
BY: DAVID PERRY
At this moment in time Peter Chelsom is probably best known for his problems making Town & Country over the last four years, but that is really unfair. I defended him in my review for that film because I to this day think that Town & Country was a different film when he began and the reshoots and rewrites begun by star (and later interim director) Warren Beatty were probably the reason that the movie ultimately came out as one of the worst comedies so far this year.
I only came to this belief after thinking about what Chelsom had done before Town & Country. While the ideas and genre to that film were nothing like The Mighty or Funny Bones, I found it hard to believe that Chelsom was intentionally making anything like what actually was released. This belief is further justified by his latest film Serendipity, which opens around the nation when a light romantic comedy might be just what the doctor ordered.
The film opens with a mundane visit to Bloomingdale's by two people, Jonathan Trager (Cusack) and Sara Thomas (Beckinsale), searching for a pair of black gloves. It's just a few days before Christmas and the store is being raided by last minute shoppers. These two converge on the single remaining pair of black gloves, starting a single day of romanticism. They eat at a little ice cream shop called Serendipity 3 and go figure skating in the park -- and as Sara begins to give Jonathan her phone number, a gust of wind blows the strip of paper away. The destiny-believing Sara takes this as a bad omen and begins to rethink their relationship, much to the chagrin of Jonathan.
She finally comes to a decision -- she will leave Jonathan without any of her information and let fate decide if they should be together. Jonathan writes his name and number on a $5 bill and spends it, Sara writes her name and number on a used book and sells it to a bookshop -- if either of these items arrives in the hands of the other person, they can contact each other and know that they are meant to be together.
Many years pass and the two often wonder if they are missing out on the relationship they were meant to be in. Now, both are engaged to get married to other people who cannot understand why their impending spouses check the backs of $5 bills and the front pages of used copies of Love in the Time of Cholera. Jonathan still lives in New York and works as a producer for ESPN; Sara has moved to San Francisco and situated with an up-and-coming new age artist in the vein of Yanni. As their wedding days come closer, each begins to make that last ditch effort to find their lost love.
Serendipity is frustrating at how predictable and illogical it is half the time, but it is also enjoyable, and that is all that really matters for what the film tries to do. Screenwriter Marc Klein does a fine job in coming up with a good idea and sticks enough proper asides amidst his muddle to the point that the audience can forget how many problems arise from his script.
In what is essentially a five-person show, with occasional moments from the fiancés played by Bridget Moynahan and John Corbett. Cusack and Beckinsale take most of the screentime, but a fair amount is given to their sidekicks played by Jeremy Piven and Molly Shannon and Eugene Levy as a department store clerk that might be able to help Jonathan in his search for Sara.
This is the second Hollywood romantic comedy this year from John Cusack, an actor who rarely makes one. He seems bored by these roles, giving effortless portrayals of haggards yearning for romance. This does not necessarily mean that his performance is bad, but that it is lacking -- the quintessential Cusack charm is not present, like what was so splendidly put to use last year in High Fidelity.
Kate Beckinsale comes into the film with a dark cloud over her head. The young British actress had an unfortunate chance to come to American audiences with Pearl Harbor, which really let down most of those who have supported her in little films like Cold Comfort Farm and The Last Days of Disco. Her performance here is not quite of the same level as those other film, but it is still nice to watch. She is a beautifully young woman who will surely bring a nice face and a fine acting style to audiences often unwilling to accept imports in our modern romances (case in point: Cate Blanchett, arguably the finest young actress working regularly). When Harry Met Sally... notwithstanding, what Beckinsale does here is better than the romantics we've seen from homegrown Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts.
Chelsom and cinematographer John de Borman capture up-scale
New York in all its beauty. When I reviewed Pearl Harbor earlier this year, I
wrote that the only worthwhile directorial touch by Michael Bay was his portrayal of Kate
Beckinsale in an ethereal state. In Serendipity, the director chooses to veer
away from just portraying Beckinsale that way, but instead captures the city in that
manner. I was reminded of Woody Allen's ode to New York in Manhattan a couple
times. And I even caught myself humming a few George Gershwin tunes as the film played. Serendipity
is a quaint romantic comedy for those going to the theatre, but anyone wanting a video
would be better suited to rent that Woody Allen classic.
|An American Rhapsody
(Dir: Éva Gárdos, Starring Scarlett Johansson, Nastassja Kinski, Tony Goldwyn, Kelly Endresz-Banlaki, Zsuzsa Czinkóczi, Balázs Galkó, Ági Bánfalvy, Zoltán Seress, Mae Whitman, Larisa Oleynik, Klaudia Szabó, and Éva Szörényi)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Film editor Éva Gárdos (Barfly, Bastard Out of Carolina) was born in Budapest and raised by foster parents in the Hungarian countryside. Her parents were meanwhile striking a life in America and trying desperately to get her a visa to come and meet them in their new suburban California life. They did get that visa, Éva did come to America in 1956, and she went on to edit movies. Now, with An American Rhapsody, she gets to direct and bring her own story to the screen.
The film's protagonist, Suzanne (played as a child by Kelly Endresz-Banlaki, as a teenager by Scarlett Johansson), like Éva, is left in Hungary by her parents and sister when they attempt to flee the Stalin regime in 1950. Her father Peter (Goldwyn) and mother Margit (Kinski) had made plans for the smuggling of baby Suzanne, but a fearful meeting with the smuggler, causes Margit's mother Helen (Bánfalvy) to take the child back and stop her safe departure from Hungary. Peter, Margit, and 4-year-old Maria (Szabó) make it out of the country safely, Helen is placed in prison, and Suzanne is ushered off to the foster parents Teri (Czinkóczi) and Jeno (Galkó). The first four are left to cry over the situation; the latter three are joyous at their current lives.
Teri and Jeno begin to take Suzanne as their own. While Jeno is willing to admit to Suzanne six years later that there is another mom and dad out there, Teri, however, will not. When Helen is finally brought out of prison after Stalin's death, she convinces the two that she and Suzanne are going for a day's journey through Budapest. Helen instead places Suzanne on a plane to America.
The rest of the film deals with how Suzanne, as a 15-year-old deals with her American life. Peter is now a vacuum cleaner salesman out of town most of the week, and Margit is a housewife willing to take in the Americanization of a household though retaining a fear of her own life's lessons from Hungary.
Helping to capture the beauty of this film are the actors -- almost every person on the screen gives a good performance. Sure, Goldwyn has never been much to speak of in the past, but even he does some work as the more understanding parent. Kinksi, who has been a guessing game in dramatic roles since Tess, shows some prowess, though her efforts are not near the quality of her Oscar nominated turn in the Roman Polanski film.
The anchor of the cast is Scarlet Johansson, who perfectly chooses to play her role as a rebellious child without the normal wide-eyed terror found in wild-child films. She's grounded the role to the point that Suzanne is as believable a person in real life as any other young character this year. It was only a couple months ago when I saw her overshadowed by Thora Birch's magnificent work in Ghost World -- with An American Rhapsody, Johansson gets a chance to overshadow everyone else.
However, there are a few flaws here and there in the film. Gárdos is definitely trying to recreate her own life, yet the film's turn to Suzanne at 15 lacks the potency of her time as a 6-year-old. Not until Suzanne takes a trip back to Budapest does the film get back on the correct course. The ending, however, brings the effectiveness level down a tad as the movie starts to look a little more Hollywood cookie-cutter despite a welcomed addendum.
Éva Gárdos does a fine job directing the film, especially considering that this is the first time she has worked in the production of a film (Gárdos has served in post-production as an editor and pre-production once as an assistant casting director on Apocalypse Now). With cinematographer Elemér Ragályi, Éva creates some beautiful images that capture the mood and effect of the time period the location. Sure, it is not hard to make a believably frightening regime or a believably striking Budapest, but the remarkable images -- those of a 6-year-old walking off of a airplane or of a child swaying back and forth in her idyll rope swing -- show that there's something remarkable waiting to come out of Éva Gárdos now that she's got her personal story behind her.
The pathos that come with a story like this seems quite
fine for cinematic fodder, but rarely does a film take the time to remain as resolute to
the truth of life and history as Éva Gárdos brings to the screen. She knew what it was
like to be a child pulled from the grips of a loving family and given to people she's
never known. She went through the anxieties and frenzies that a worried mother from a
Stalinist country puts on her daughter. She has been in the same shoes as Suzanne and is
willing to feature all these problems onto the theatre screen. Perhaps, through this
therapeutic conveyance of her story, Ms. Gárdos has done something few filmmakers get to
do: she makes a strong narrative autobiography into compelling fiction. While the methods
are that of a fictionist, the story is uniquely personal. Though not quite of the same
calbre of Truffaut, Éva Gárdos has made her own The 400 Blows.
Video Review: Various connections have made it a little easier for me to get my hands on various films that I skipped earlier in the year. For that reason, beginning this week, I'll review some of the movies that I did not see in the weeks that have passed. This week: Bubble Boy.
(Dir: Blair Hayes, Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Marley Shelton, Swoosie Kurtz, Danny Trejo, Jon Carroll Lynch, Verne Troyer, Ever Carradine, Brian George, Joseph Patrick Crenshaw, and Geoffrey Arend)
BY: DAVID PERRY
David Vetter was known as "the boy in the plastic bubble" and "bubble boy" -- his story has spawned two films that portray life without an active immune system. Carol Ann Demaret, the mother of David, who died at age 12 after a bone marrow transplant, has made it quite clear that she feels hurt by Disney's decision to produce Bubble Boy and portray a bubble boy for the new generation that disgraces the memory of her son, the only known person to live in a plastic bubble. The previous film, John Travolta's early acting vehicle The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, was very solemn towards its protagonist -- this new film seems only created to offend.
And I'm not just writing about Carol Ann Demaret being offended, nearly every race, creed, organization, social club, religion, political party, and sickness is aimed at. When I finished the film, I could only count one place in which it tried to offend me -- I feel stifled, some people could count hundreds of insulting moments. This is nothing new -- political correctness is not as token as it was a couple years ago: I like the fact that the new film Not Another Teen Movie advertises one character as "The Token Black Guy" (you could see this if it were not for the fact that the MPAA is requesting censorship of the trailer on the internet).
Needless to say, my complaints about Bubble Boy do not stem from any offense that I took from the proceedings; instead, I was taken aback by just how unfunny it was. There are hundreds of gags in the film and only two are worthy of a laugh. The joke success rate is worse here than in most films -- there are just as many attempts as in Rat Race justwith a fraction of guffaws. Plus, the two funny moments might not go well with others -- one is a joke poking fun at both Jews and the Religious Right and the other is a visual riff on The Graduate that some might not catch.
The bubble boy here is Jimmy Livingston (Gyllenhaal), who, like David Vetter, cannot step foot outside of his plastic bubble because he hasn't an active immune system. His mother (Kurtz), an extreme religious zealot, and mostly silent father (Lynch) raise him in their home, with mom taking care of everything from guidance to education. She is so protective of her child that he only gets one channel on his TV: a channel that only plays reruns of Land of the Lost.
He, as all boys do at some age, sparks an interest in girls (and the way the film deals with his first erection could possibly be the most bizarre scene in Disney history). Well, just one girl actually, the neighborhood sweetheart Chloe (Shelton). Since the idea of any other woman in her son's life is frightening, Jimmy's mother tries her best to keep them apart, but they somehow take in time together through their mutual admiration of Land of the Lost. Their relationship is close, but they cannot get together since Jimmy cannot leave his home or even touch her -- Chloe instead turns up with Mark (Sheridan), a guy who definitely does not deserve her (think Glen from The Wedding Singer turned down a notch).
One day Chloe calls Jimmy at his California home to let him know that she and Mark are getting married in Niagara Falls in a couple days. Almost immediately, Jimmy knows that he must get there and stop the wedding -- he packs up his stuff, gets in his portable bubble suit with arms and legs, and finally sets foot outside the house. Jimmy is ready to make the long journey coast to coast without any knowledge of what the world outside is like (all he knows is the view from his window and Land of the Lost).
Jake Gyllenhaal has personality to spare and his casting in what is essentially a horrendous role shows some shine in his future. His previous work in the overrated October Sky showed little acting prowess and he still does not give an award-calibre performance here, but its hard not to notice that he could have a great performance waiting to show in the right character. The upcoming limited release Donnie Darko has some great word of mouth -- it could possibly be the character that Gyllenhaal has been waiting for.
Swoosie Kurtz also seems to be having fun -- her antics may not be too funny most of the time, but she can keep the audience from completely detesting the film. I liked the frankness of her characterization and that she pulls no punches when most of the film takes on a rather schlock turn.
But with her character raises one of the more hurtful
choices of the film. Not only does it tread all over the memory of David Vetter, but it
also creates a matriarch that is so vocal, so hateful, and so ridiculous. Carol Ann
Demaret has already said that she will not see this film and hopes that others will follow
her lead. Considering that she seems to be the person most open to offense, I'm happy to
hear that she'll never see what a distasteful fictionalization of her son's story has been
made. Now, if only I too could have been free from seeing it.