July 31, 2009

Underrated MOTM: The Great Outdoors (1988)

In the spirit of summer, let's head outdoors - The Great Outdoors. What surprises me about July's Underrated Movie of the Month isn't just that it has a Rotten Tomatoes critical rating of 38% (it's not listed on MC), but that the reviews themselves were so harshly negative - almost amusingly so.

In the Washington Post, Hal Hinson declared that The Great Outdoors was "just coarse enough, and unfunny enough, to achieve true awfulness. Imagine that it's raining cats and dogs and you're locked in a north woods cabin for weeks with the people you like least, and you'll pretty much have a feel for what it's like to sit through this movie...The gags that spring out of this situation...are all lame variations on the theme of nightmare vacations. It's hard to imagine how this theme could have been executed with less invention...Not even the usually buoyant Candy can keep afloat. For perhaps the first time in his career he looks genuinely unhappy."

The Variety review concluded that the "last third of the film is a real mess," while in the New York Times, Janet Maslin declared that "the collective energy that has gone into making The Great Outdoors probably wouldn't be enough to light a campfire...Though the film never becomes actively unfunny, neither does it do much more than tread water. The raccoons have a better time than the audience will."

Obviously, I disagree with this consensus, and would argue that The Great Outdoors, while at times ridiculous, deserves credit for both its terrific Dan Aykroyd-John Candy pairing and its campy camping spirit. The jokes are cheap and the story doesn't really go anywhere, but it successfully recalls the best and the worst of your camping memories; it's like the camping version of National Lampoon's Vacation. In fact, since John Hughes also wrote all of the Vacation movies, The Great Outdoors really is the missing installment in the Vacation series. Had it starred Chevy Chase, I'd even argue that the movie would be remembered more fondly.

But it didn't star Chevy Chase. It starred two great comic actors (as well as Annette Bening in her feature film debut) performing in perfect tandem with each other. They're basically playing the same versions of themselves from other movies (Candy from Summer Rental, Aykroyd from Tommy Boy), but that doesn't detract from the fun here. My favorite scenes between the Candy and Aykroyd come during the first day, beginning with the first discussion on the patio and ending with the grilling of the lobsters (why would they have lobster instead of fish? It's CA, not Maine!).

Another great food scene comes later on, and can be appreciated for anyone with a male relative who thinks his manhood can be best demonstrated best by gluttonously eating a small animal for no other reason than because they were challenged to do so. Behold the "Old '96er":

So why did the critics come down so hard on The Great Outdoors? What was it that didn't work for them with this Candy-Hughes pairing that did work in both Planes, Trains, & Automobiles (the year before The Great Outdoors) and Uncle Buck (the year after it)? I would guess that it was because The Great Outdoors simply lacks any emotional bent. It's silly and juvenile and in the third act, when we're supposed to learn a lesson about family togetherness and building character and taking the good with the bad, well, we get a really bizarre twist about borrowing money. It's a strange way to end a camping trip, but then, aren't the best memories about camping trips the wackiest ones?

July 29, 2009

Film Studies: Back to School, for the First Time

Hey, where's "Tommy Boy"?...

As is apparent from my lack of posting on the artistry of film, and as is obvious from the absence of film terminology (i.e., mise-en-scène...which is what, exactly?) in my writing, I've never studied film. Or, for that matter, art or literature. Never taken a course, seminar, class or webinar. To be sure, when it comes to film knowledge I am a complete ignoramus compared to many movie bloggers, if that is indeed what I claim to be.

My limited knowledge is usually a source of shame and embarrassment, but there are times when I take secret pride in my ability to "get" certain aspects of a film without them being spelled out for me, like when you accidentally solve a homework problem from your older sibling's math textbook, or when you stumble over words in another language only to have the person you're talking to nod in genuine understanding. That's when it's fun, but for the most part I'm posing here as somebody who "knows about" movies, when in reality I'm only someone who watches a lot of them. I'm the Sarah Palin of movie blogging, and when nobody knows the wiser it's a pretty good gig.

Though I've never tried to hide my ignorance of film here (at least not completely), I'm now coming out to fully reveal it. I subscribe to the Sunday New York Times, and included with it this week was the quarterly insert called Education Life. It's a thin magazine-ish thing focused on university culture, and at the end of each issue is a multiple-choice "pop quiz" on some topic, presumably there just to remind upper-middle class New York Times readers that they just need a little more education.

Usually I skim through Education Life and toss it, and most times I get to the quiz and give up as soon as questions of quantum physics or 19th-century French Literature show up. But this Sunday, the Pop Quiz was on "Film Studies", and I was compelled to give it a shot. Fortunately, it's available online, saving me from having to keep score myself, and also allowing me to share it with you.

Take two quick minutes right now and give the quiz your best effort
(you will need an Adobe Flash plug-in). Then come back and report your score (you can expect no judgment from me if you get zero correct).

In the meantime, I'll share my own results, categorized by section:
  • The Backstory: Questions related to film history
  • My score: 4/5 answers correct
That I got 80% of these questions correct is very misleading. I was not sure about any of these answers but felt most confident in my correct answer for Question #5. I completely guessed on Question #3 about a German titan in the film industry and got it right.
  • The Deal: Questions related to the business of film
  • My score: 4/11 answers correct
Ouch, I was really reaching for some of these answers, and even the few I got correct were because of poorly-worded questions, such as Question #13: "Gone With the Wind was independently finance. True or False?" This is what is called a "wouldn't be asked if it wasn't obviously true" question.
  • The Horror Film: Questions related to horror films
  • My score: 1/3 correct
Forget that I'm not an expert on horror - I'm not even a fan. Nonetheless, I did get Question #17 (about sequels) correct.
  • The Western: Questions related to Westerns
  • My score: 3/5 correct
Similar to the questions in The Backstory, my correct answers here were due to educated guessing (#21, about a classic duel) and dartboard-blind guessing (#23, about a John Wayne epic).
  • Film Noir: Questions related to the style (?) or genre (?) of film noir
  • My score: 0/2 correct
A failing, fitting end to this quiz for me. Even though I contributed three reviews (The Big Sleep, The Asphalt Jungle, & Strangers on a Train) for MovieZeal's film noir month last August, it's worth mentioning that I was seeing the last two of the three for the first time, and that I had seen only a few of the remaining 30 noirs highlighted during the month.

When you do the math (and fortunately, my educational background included a lot of math), you can see that I answered 12/26 questions correct for a percentage of 46% - certainly not a passing grade in any class.

What does it all mean? Maybe nothing, aside from confirming what I knew about what I didn't know. Does it invalidate my opinion on film? Definitely in some circles, but I try to tell myself that that doesn't really matter, that for the most part I don't watch movies to appreciate or criticize their artistry and influence and craft. I watch them to learn things about people and places around the world, period. And I don't think you need a degree in film to be able to do that.

What has your experience been? Do you have a degree in the arts? Care to share your score? I'm curious as to where I would rank in the percentile among the general population, but particularly among other bloggers...

July 28, 2009

Coens "Raising Cain": Thank You, Walker Art Center

Less than a month after I passively challenged the PR strategy for Joel and Ethan Coen's upcoming A Serious Man, out comes a press release from the always ahead-of-the-curve Walker Art Center that they are planning to turn the volume on A Serious Man chatter up to "Deafening" when they bring the brothers to town as part of a career-spanning, 50th Anniversary Regis Dialogue & Retrospective this September. It will be a Coen-anza like no other for the hometown heroes, who were profiled in this space last year.

Joel and Ethan Coen: Raising Cain kicks off on September 18th with a Director's Cut, 25th-anniversary-commemorating, 35mm screening of Blood Simple, followed by a post-screening reception (at Wolfgang Puck's 20.21? I suspect so). The next Friday, September 25th, the brothers will sit down to discuss their career in the 50th Regis Dialogue. Tickets are $100 and include access to the post-show reception, where, if you're lucky, you can ask the brothers themselves about the mystery behind Anton Chigurh's whereabouts at the Desert Sands Motor Hotel.

Here are the details from the press release:

Minneapolis, July 28, 2009 — The Walker Art Center celebrates its 50th Regis Dialogue and Retrospective with Minnesota’s own Joel and Ethan Coen in conjunction with the 25th-anniversary year of their stunning debut, Blood Simple, and upon the release of their 14th feature, the shot-in-Minnesota A Serious Man. The Coen Brothers Regis Dialogue and Film Retrospective, entitled “Raising Cain” and presented September 18-October 17, will showcase all 13 of the feature films they have written, directed, and edited leading up to this newest release: Blood Simple; Raising Arizona; Miller’s Crossing; Barton Fink; The Hudsucker Proxy; Fargo; The Big Lebowski; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; The Man Who Wasn’t There; The Ladykillers; Intolerable Cruelty; No Country for Old Men; and Burn After Reading. The Regis Dialogue, featuring Joel and Ethan Coen in conversation, will take place Friday, September 25, in the Walker Cinema. The retrospective kicks off on September 18 with the directors’ cut of Blood Simple, shown on a special archival 35mm print. The event includes a post-screening reception. Dates for individual programs in the series will be released by August 18.

The Coen brothers’ singular and elaborate worlds reveal a distinct vision that combines pastiche and homage, referencing everything from musicals and old movies to Faulkner to pulp novels and comic books, along with dazzling cinematography and intricate design. Their unique sense of place is flawlessly conceived, right down to the distinctive jargon of the characters, reflecting a stylized form of American vernacular to fit the time and place and genre. As the New York Times described it, the Coens create “a postmodern cinematic world . . . where everything seems vaguely unhinged.” While they’ve mined many genres throughout their career, it is noir which they have done every which way, filtering its absurdity, sense of disorientation, alienation, and cynicism through their unique sensibility. Yet the Coens also toss a funny bone into their movies, employing brazen slapstick, deliciously clever banter, gallows humor, and even sight gags with relish. The films seem to embody the pure joy of their creators.

Once called “the Hardy Boys from Hell” (Rolling Stone), the Coen brothers have confounded and at times divided critics and audiences alike. While these genre-bending, period-twisting shape-shifters can be difficult to pin down, it’s abundantly clear that they are filmmakers whose love for the movies is matched by the vastness of their imagination."

To be honest I'm just as scared as I am excited for this series because lives may be lost in the battle for tickets. The Walker, in a brilliant membership development strategy, is giving August 17th priority ticket access to its Contributing Members ($250+/year), followed by a release to all Walker members on September 10th. Get the rub? If you're not a Walker member you can forget about getting tickets to the Regis Dialogue on the 25th, but you have a couple weeks to join before those tickets go on sale.

Maybe the most bizarre detail about this retrospective, of course, is that it does not include a local premiere of A Serious Man, which opens right in the middle of the month-long series. Why this could not be arranged I don't know, but needless to say the Walker might lose some audience that weekend of October 2nd as locals flock to the Landmark Uptown Theater, where I expect it will open in limited engagement.

For more information about the Regis series schedule as it becomes available, visit the "Raising Cain" page (everytime I hear that I'm going to think of that intolerable "Raisin' McCain" song...) on the Walker's website. When tickets go on sale, the stand-alone Coens section on the Walker website should be up and running.

July 27, 2009

Reel Life #6

One of the news stories I proposed for a film adaptation in my last edition of Reel Life has seen some additional developments in the last month worth noting. The second story from Reel Life #5, about a group of young Somali men mysteriously leaving Minnesota for their homeland, received several thousand more words of coverage in a front page, above-the-fold article in a recent Sunday New York Times. In "A Call to Jihad, Answered in America", reporters Ramla Bile and Margot Williams present what has to be considered the most in-depth coverage of this story to date.

Some filmmaker, documentarian or producer had to have read this story with some interest. How could they not?
Four young men (among a group of many that are naturalized American citizens) from Minneapolis have been killed in Somalia in the last 8 months, including one of the men profiled by the Times, Zakaria Muraf, who was reported killed just two days after the article ran. This material - about the cultural clashes in the U.S., the secret recruitment of these young boys, and their on-the-ground experience in Somalia - is ripe and ready to be taken to audiences on screen.

In the meantime, it's on to Reel Life #6. The set-up, as always:
"This feature gets to the heart of my blogging and general film philosophy: bringing that which I see on screen into real world applications for my daily life. With these examples, the flow just happens to be in the opposite direction. Please feel free to share your comments on these stories and suggest or email me others that you find. All rights reserved if any Reel Life stories ever make their way to the big screen...just kidding...but not really..."

"A Slow Burn Becomes a Raging Fire"

I suppose if you've seen one C.I.A. spy story you've seen them all, but this bombshell about septuagenarians Walter and Gwendolyn Myers is tailor-made for a star-studded dramatic thriller in the same vein as the underrated Breach. Walter Myers was a career-long State Dept. political expert and intelligence official who, along with his wife, now faces charges of conspiracy and "being agents for a foreign government" (specifically, Cuba).

The American couple is thought to have turned against their home country as far back as 1978, though they kept their anti-American ideals quiet: "as the couple were allegedly passing information to the Cubans, they never indicated any interest in the island, according to friends and colleagues -- even at long dinner parties in which guests discussed world affairs." Fearful of raising suspicion, the couple rarely traveled to Cuba (although in 1995 they went to meet Fidel Castro) and are not even known to be fluent in Spanish. Instead, they met their "handlers" in "third countries, including Brazil, Ecuador, Jamaica and Italy" and "passed along information over a shortwave radio given to them by the Cuban government, and by exchanging shopping carts with handlers in grocery stores". This movie is writing itself, and A-list actors will swarm to the opportunity to reveal their love for Cuba under the guise of "character".

Story Potential: High
Project Possibilities: Feature length film, feature length documentary

"Doctors Baffled, Intrigued By Girl Who Does Not Age"

It's as if The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was based on a true story. In the photo on the right, 13 year-old Carly Greenberg is cradling her sister, Brooke. Brooke is 16 years old
. Weighing 16 lbs., she still has her baby teeth and cannot speak; her hair and nails are the only things that grow. Alarmingly, "she has never been diagnosed with any known genetic syndrome or chromosomal abnormality that would help explain why." Surrounded by sisters and raised by loving parents, Brooke receives special education at a Baltimore Public School and generally lives as anyone her size would live.

It literally baffles the mind, so much so that her family finds it easier to tell people she is 16 months old instead of 16 years old. One of the many doctors and researchers studying Brooke compares her condition to having discovered the Fountain of Youth: "Without being sensational, I'd say this is an opportunity for us to answer the question, why we're mortal, or at least to test it...And if we're wrong, we can discard it. But if we're right, we've got the golden ring."

Brooke's story has actually just been made into a documentary, Frozen in Time, that will air on TLC on Sunday, August 9. In the meantime, someone could get to work on a feature film adaptation - not necessarily about Brooke, but using her mysterious condition as a jumping off point.

Story Potential: Very high
Project Possibilities: Feature length film, feature length documentary

"Drug Sub-Culture"

Picture a combination of A Clear and Present Danger and the drug saga Traffic, and then set the movie in the Pacific Ocean. This unnamed crime thriller, possibly directed by someone like Fernando Meirelles (City of God), could focus on all aspects of the drug trade, from the seeds to the streets (American Gangster did this fairly well).

The key to this story is the detail about "Bigfoot", a new experiment thought to be responsible for transporting up to 30% of Colombia's cocaine exports: "This kind of vessel — a self-propelled, semisubmersible made by hand in the jungles of Colombia — is no longer quite so mythic: four were intercepted in January alone. But because of their ability to elude radar systems, these subs are almost impossible to detect; only an estimated 14 percent of them are stopped."

Story Potential: High
Project Possibilities: Feature length film franchise, feature length documentary

"Amid Hard Times, an Influx in Real Superheroes"

In The Dark Knight we saw a group of "well-meaning" citizens donning capes and masks to fight crime in Gotham until Batman actually stepped in to do the job. I'm pretty sure the same thing happened in one of the Spider-Man movies, too, and of course Watchmen is based on just such a storyline. In any event, it turns out these wannabes are based on a lot of real people - nearly 300 worldwide and growing.
Using names like Mr. Ravenblade, Mr. Xtreme, Dark Guardian, and Geist (pictured on the right), these self-identifying superheroes volunteer their time "helping the homeless, handing out fliers in high-crime areas and patrolling areas known for drug-dealing".

Having your neighbor watch your back (especially if they're wielding a sword) sure sounds like a good idea, but there are some real-world implications to consider that aren't really addressed in the movies. A legal director for the ACLU warns that "people who do this are running a serious risk of getting arrested for kidnapping, and being liable for false imprisonment," while a police spokesperson clarifies that "vigilantism is never a good thing."

I never saw that Ben Stiller-starring dud, Mystery Men, but has this type of superhero movie already been made? If so, I'd still be entertained by a documentary about these people. How do they get started? How do you choose a costume and name? Are they on call, or do they work from a regular schedule?

Story Potential: High
Project Possibilities: Feature length film franchise; feature length documentary

"Michigan Man Claims He Was N.Y. Boy Who Vanished in 1955"

I've always been intrigued by the idea that your memories of your childhood, and even the reality of your childhood, are essentially based on the photos that exist of you as a child. For example, that's how you looked at 4 years old - but without stories and other photos accompanying a given picture and verifying details, how do you know it's actually you? Such is the dilemma, or one of many dilemmas, faced by the unidentified man in Michigan who claims to be Steven Damman, a toddler who went missing outside of a Long Island bakery in 1955. " Thousands of searchers looked for the toddler, but the boy was nowhere to be found. Hitting one dead end after the next, the Dammans packed up and moved from New York back to Iowa...until now, they thought there was little chance of ever seeing their son again."

Lots of possibilities with a mystery like this (the man has not yet proven he is Steven Damman), from a fish-out-of-water comedy about the man reuniting with his family to a suspense thriller about a person discovering that the "family" they've known since childhood is not actually their real family.

Story Potential: Moderate
Project Possibilities: Feature length film, feature length documentary

This story pretty much speaks for itself as a brighter, alternative ending to the Daniel Pearl tragedy, recently brought to the screen in A Mighty Heart (and in that overshadowed by an Oscar-baiting Angelina Jolie). New York Times reporter David Rohde, who was researching a book and accompanied by a local reporter and a driver, was kidnapped by the Taliban in November and held in captivity in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan until just a few weeks ago.

Stunningly, Rohde and the reporter escaped from their remote compound by simply climbing a wall and making their way to a friendly military base. That nobody knew of this kidnapping for the last seven months was the point; the Times and other media organizations kept the story under wraps so as not to give the kidnappers any free publicity, and thus any possibly negotiating leverage. The book that Rohde was researching will obviously be written in a different way considering his ordeal, but you can bet to see it on bestseller lists in the next year or so, followed by, perhaps with this seed, a film adaptation that shares nothing in common with Body of Lies.

Story Potential: High
Project Possibilities: Feature length film

"Stolen Wallet Found in Cherry Tree After More Than a Quarter Century"

I don't know exactly where to go with this one, but it's an odd enough story that somebody could get creative with it. In 1982, a woman watching the New York Marathon in Central Park had her wallet snatched out of her purse. After 27 years, a park supervisor chopping down a tree just a few weeks ago found the wallet inside the trunk, full of all of the woman's information and cards, but missing $20 cash. This could go in a number of different directions - comedy, horror, romance, sci-fi (time traveling), or some kind of fateful, coincidental, time-spanning intergenerational drama. Maybe a stretch, but all it takes is a seed...

Story Potential: Moderate
Project Possibilities: Feature length film

"Informant Leads FBI Sting Operation"

What do more than 40 New Jersey mayors, lawyers, and rabbis have in common? Ties to a vast money-laundering network that was just broken up, and a story with all the potential for an entertaining legal thriller - hopefully better than Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton, with the flair of Steven Soderbergh's upcoming The Informant! and the dry wit of the Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading. The F.B.I. used an allegedly fraudulent real estate developer to, over the course of a few years, act as an informant and collect piles of evidence about the group as it laundered millions of dollars and dealt black-market kidneys and fake Gucci handbags. As you can imagine, "negotiations often took place in parking lots, diners and boiler rooms, with thousands in cash being stuffed into cereal boxes before being passed on." Some version of this movie has to be made.

Story Potential: Very high
Project Possibilities: Feature length film

"Main Line Murder Case Echoes 30 Years Later"

When David Fincher showed that notorious cold cases could make for highly intriguing thrillers (Zodiac), I expected we'd see a lot more similar period thrillers. But it hasn't happened, and with the limited interest I have in such stories I can find few more fitting for a film adaptation than the Main Line Murders out of Ardmore, PA, the 30-year anniversary of which recently passed.

A school teacher and her two children went missing, a fellow teacher and the school principal were separately accused, and the teacher was ultimately convicted on questionable evidence. Three books have been written on the case and a two-part TV miniseries apparently came and went sometime ago; not surprisingly, "with its themes of manipulation, betrayal and stolen innocence, the Reinert mystery continues to hold Philadelphia in its thrall -- and haunts the few people connected to the case who are still living." I wouldn't want the families of the victims to go through anymore than they already have, so this would have to be handled delicately.

Story Potential: Moderate to High
Project Possibilities: Feature length film, feature length documentary (but not too Dateline-y)

I don't know if I've stated my great fear of the deep sea before, but if not let me provide these three articles as evidence why I prefer swimming pools: giant jellyfish (6 ft, 450 lbs.); a mysterious blob of ocean algae stretching for miles ("...but people are still uneasy. It's something the mostly Inupiat Eskimo residents along Alaska's northern coast say they cannot remember seeing before."); and 100-lb., carnivorous jumbo squid ("...divers report tentacles enveloping their masks and yanking at their cameras and gear.").

It's been more than 30 years since Jaws arrived (not that its effect of keeping people out of the water has in any way diminished), and few if any sci-fi/ocean thrillers have been worth watching
(Deep Blue Sea, anyone?). These three stories provide perfect material for a fresh take on the horrors of the deep. The CNN/jellyfish article even poses the idea: "Sounds like a great sci-fi flick. But it's not." Well, at least not yet it's not...

Story Potential: Very high
Project Possibilities: Multiple feature length film franchises, IMAX documentary

July 22, 2009

Short Cuts: "The Door Is Always Open...To My Office"

The Apartment (196o). Directed by Billy Wilder; written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond; starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred McMurray.

July 21, 2009

On-Screen Violence: Absorbed or Ignored?

Filmmaking irony - the movie about nonviolence features more disturbing violence...

A few months ago I was flipping channels when I came across Ridley Scott's suffocatingly macho Black Hawk Down. I came in right after one of the shootouts on the streets of Mogadishu, and the American soldiers were collecting their dead and wounded. One of the soldiers was severed in half, another was simply in pieces - a helmet here, a blown-off hand on the ground there. Scott took his sweet time focusing in on these bloody casualties of war, no doubt attempting to make us experience a soldier's horror as we gobbled our popcorn and slurped our soda.

It didn't work, at least for me. I hardly reacted while watching these scenes, and I certainly didn't cringe in the same way that I remembered cringing when I saw it in the theater. Why wasn't I bothered by this graphic, based-on-true-life violence in Black Hawk Down? I didn't know, and it was an odd realization.

Flash forward a couple of months, and I'm watching CNN just after the Iranian presidential election results are announced. I follow the story for a couple of days (as I'd recently seen Letters to the President) and, as the protests begin heating up, I see a brief news flash about a protester being shot and killed in the street. This fact doesn't faze me (it happens frequently in many countries), but yet I'm drawn to the significance of it happening in Iran at this time and under the heavy load of state censorship.

Fatefully curious, I go online to read more about what happened (it was still breaking news at the time), and in literally no time at all I find myself almost accidentally watching a video that will over the course of the next few weeks be played repeatedly around the world. Many of you may have now seen it - the death of Neda Agha-Soltan. (The photo used here is from the comprehensive Wikipedia page about the incident, the simple existence of which proves how bizarre of a future is in store for us with cell phone videos and YouTube.)

Because the story was not yet well known and the video not yet widely seen, I really didn't know what I was watching in the first few seconds. Eventually, and ultimately, I have to consider Neda's death the most disturbing footage I've seen since watching the live destruction of the WTC towers on 9/11. Considering the saturation of "torture porn" movies, beheading videos, "Faces of Death" and otherwise increasingly violent video games and movies in the last seven years, some of you might find my statement outrageous. But in fact I've gone to great lengths to avoid all of that stuff, so seeing this video and knowing it was real (as opposed to United 93, which was nearly as unbearable but still ultimately fake), well it shook me to the core.

I felt ill for a couple of days. I couldn't sleep for fear that I was going to have graphic nightmares. The scene replayed in my head over and over and over and over: Felled by a high-caliber shot to her heart, Neda lands on her back in a state of shock. The people around her immediately try to stop the bleeding from her upper chest, but they're clearly no match for a cardiovascular system in chaos. As her brain function diminishes, Neda's eyes go cock-eyed in every direction before rolling back into her head, just as hot, dark crimson blood uncontrollably pours from her nose, mouth, and eventually eyes. In a matter of seconds, she is gone, the screams around her lost to silence.

Just thinking about this again has me disturbed, and I had to make that photo of her deliberately small because I still can't stand to look at it.

Why did this video, which is so much less graphic than so many movies I see on a regular basis, completely wreck me? The obvious answer is that it's real footage, and not fake blood on a set with a director who's just ordered another take before breaking for lunch. No, there's one take, and that's an actual live human, and her life is literally pouring out of her body as I watch. And that deeply disturbs me.

But I don't feel like it's that simple, and in the month or so since seeing the video I've been much more curious about and aware of my reactions to violence on screen. For example, if it looks real, does it really make it harder to watch? If the director wants to make it look "really" real but it ends up looking fake (Black Hawk Down, recently Public Enemies), does it make it easier to watch? If the violence is inflicted on people I don't know or care about, does it make it easier to watch? What about women and children? Am I entertained by shootouts and explosions, or do I simply tolerate them? Surely if there was a gunfight in the hallway of my apartment, or a car bomb explosion on my street, I wouldn't consider it "awesome". Right?

I haven't really gained any clear insights from these questions over the last month, but one clue, or maybe just another confusing addition, came just the other day. Flipping through channels again, I landed on Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, and the scene in which more than 1,000 Indians are violently gunned down during, ironically, a non-violent protest against the Brits. It was horrifying to see men, women, and children massacred, but this being 1982, the death was not visually graphic, at least in the blood-spatteringly way that it would be if it were made in 2009 (indeed, Gandhi was rated PG). Yet despite the lack of gore, body parts, and blood-soaked corpses, I found myself actually more disturbed by the Gandhi shootout than by the Black Hawk Down bloodbath.

There are all kinds of possible explanations for this, and maybe I'll consider them here at another time. This post was really just a spontaneous reaction to the trifecta of the Neda video and those two movie scenes that I saw in the last couple of months. I guess it was my attempt at simply beginning to process how I may or may not have been sensitized or desensitized by violence on screen throughout the course of my life. I would hope that most people have the same thoughts from time to time; if you have any insights feel free to share them.

July 20, 2009

Summer Nights with Newman - as Brick, Hud, Luke, & Fast Eddie

Considering the record cold temperatures hovering through the summer months in Minnesota, you almost have to think twice about what to wear outside. A jacket in July? Ridiculous. Hopefully, this spell is almost over since the Walker Art Center's Summer Music & Movies series, "Newman Rocks", is kicking off tonight. For the next four Mondays, enjoy free live music by indie rock bands (it's the Walker & The Current, what's new) followed by a free film screening in Loring Park (North end of the Whitney Bridge spanning Hennepin/Lyndale Avenues, across from the Sculpture Garden).

This summer's lineup will celebrate the work of one of Hollywood's most legendary stars, the late Paul Newman, who passed away last September at the age of 83. Newman earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his performances in each of the following films:

Monday, July 20th

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1959); Nominated for 6 Oscars
Musical act: Halloween, Alaska

"Plagued by secrets and financial ambitions, a wealthy Mississippi family wrestles with truth and desire in this lush Tennessee Williams adaptation that oozes old money and Southern charm. Newman, in his first of 10 Academy Award–nominated performances, plays ex-football star Brick—a sardonic, alcoholic, and impotent husband to the ambitious and conniving Maggie, “the cat” (Elizabeth Taylor at her sultry best)".
Directed by Richard Brooks. 1959, 16mm, 108 minutes.

Having seen Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for the first time recently, I have to admit - I'd almost rather see it as a play. Like other film adaptations of stage productions (recently Doubt and Frost/Nixon), it just doesn't seem like much is added to this; almost the entire movie takes place in a few rooms of the house. Newman, Taylor, and especially Burl Ives ham it up pretty heavily, and I'm sure its themes were as controversial as advertised in 1959. But of the four shown in this series it's not Newman's most impressive performance, even if it was a significant marker in his career.

Monday, July 27th

Hud (1963); Nominated for 7 Oscars (won 3)
Musical act: Roma di Luna

"Newman demolishes the cowboy myth as Hud Bannon, an unprincipled, ruthless lothario in Texas’ windswept cattle country: “tremendous—a potent, voracious man, restless with all his crude ambitions, arrogant with his contempt, and churned up inside with all the meanness and misgivings of himself” (New York Times). And when disease threatens to wipe out the family’s herd, things definitely come to a head. Based on a book by Larry McMurtry, the film received seven Oscar nominations, including a nod to Newman and an award to Patricia Neal as Alma, their tough-talking housekeeper."
Directed by Martin Ritt. 1963, 16mm, 112 minutes.

I couldn't be much less of an expert on Westerns, but watching Newman in Hud I can't help think that he influenced the attitude and style of "modern" cowboys for years to come, both on screen and in real life. He's an absolutely magnetic presence here; the kind of bad boy that makes you start to understand why women like bad boys so much. Another interesting note about Hud is that it's based on a novel by Larry McMurtry, who would win an Oscar more than 40 years later for another story about atypical cowboys: Brokeback Mountain.

Monday, August 3rd

Cool Hand Luke (1967); Nominated for 4 Oscars (won 1)
Musical act: Gospel Gossip

"Newman’s spirited portrayal of an unruly Florida prison camp inmate created a quintessential anti-hero of the rebellious late ’60s. With memorable lines such as “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” and the classic scene that sparked egg-eating contests among young Americans everywhere, Cool Hand Luke remains Newman’s most unforgettable characterization of youthful defiance that even now packs a gut-wrenching punch."
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg. 1967, 16mm, 126 minutes.

Featuring what's undoubtedly one of Newman's most iconic performances, Cool Hand Luke also introduced him as the heartthrob of a generation. Here again, he plays the guy that every girl wants to be with and every guy wants to be like (except me since I think hard boiled eggs are disgusting). Although Cool Hand Luke only won a single Oscar for supporting actor George Kennedy, in 2005 it became yet another Newman film (The Hustler was another) to be added to the National Film History, verifying it as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Monday, August 10th

The Hustler (1961); Nominated for 9 Oscars (won 2)
Musical act: Times New Viking

"Newman’s 'Fast Eddie' Felson, an up-and-coming pool shark, meets his match in the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) in a battle of skill and character. Awash in drink, the humbled Felson takes up with pretty alcoholic Sarah (Piper Laurie) and falls under the thumb of a crooked gambler (George C. Scott). With riveting pool scenes and hazy black-and-white cinemascope photography, “the characters one meets in the succession of sunless and smoky billiard halls... in the course of this tough film are the sort to make your flesh creep and whatever blood you may have run cold” (New York Times)."
Directed by Robert Rossen. 1961, 16mm, 134 minutes.

I think the poster I chose for The Hustler is completely misleading (bringing to mind Gone With the Wind or some other sappy romance), but director Robert Rossen reportedly wanted to frame the film around the Eddie-Sarah relationship as much as the Eddie-Fats rivalry. He was rewarded with critical acclaim and saw The Hustler, also a commercial smash hit, earn nine Oscar nominations. Newman (who shows off some amazing pool skills) earned his second nod for Best Actor but did not win...until he reprised his role as Eddie Felson in The Color of Money (1986). The Hustler is also known for making pool cool in the U.S., and for inspiring real-life pool shark Rudolf Wanderone to begin using the name "Minnesota Fats".

As a reminder, each of these four movies is free. The concerts will begin at 7 PM and the film screenings at dusk, or about 8:45 PM. Series sponsor Lunds will be selling "picnic fare" and, in the case of rain, the movies will be shown in the Walker Cinema instead.

These outdoor screenings actually take a lot of work to put on - the "Screen on the Green" series I highlighted in DC last year was even canceled this year before being saved at the last minute by new sponsors.
We shouldn't take it for granted here (thanks to the Walker and the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board), so bring a blanket, some friends, some bug spray, and take in four classics starring the legendary Paul Newman.

July 16, 2009

The Dark Knight: Fun With History and Math

"James Cameron, you're Public Enemy #1 when I'm through with the Joker..."

One year ago tomorrow night, I, along with several million other people around the world, saw for the first time a movie that a majority of humanity considers to be one of, if not the, greatest motion pictures in the history of mankind. If you're already detecting sarcasm behind my hyperbole, consider yourself a sharp cookie.

The Dark Knight is arguably the greatest cultural phenomenon of this young millennium after Barack Obama's electoral victory. Generations from now people will tell their grandkids about how "nothing can top what we saw back in the summer of '08"; It will be remembered like a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that nobody on the planet could escape. So, I figured it would be interesting one year later to revisit the insanity that began with Heath Ledger's tragic death in January of 2008, and culminated with the outrage following the 2009 Oscar nominations and ceremony.

The following numbers speak for themselves, but since I'm a fountain of opinion here I'll chime in with my own thoughts anyway - feel free to follow suit...

The number of times I have seen The Dark Knight: once in its entirety on opening night (non-IMAX); and once, only partially, during a free weekend preview of HBO.

33 and 4,366

The number of weeks The Dark Knight played in American movie theaters, and the number of American theaters in which it opened; the latter being the most of any movie in history. From July through March (yes, just a short four months ago, well after its December 9th DVD release) you could have enjoyed this movie at your local multiplex. According to Box Office Mojo, it closed its run on 54 screens after 9 months (231 days) in theaters, earning $102,067 in its final official weekend. Ostensibly afraid of cannibalizing the audience for its next big hit, Warner Bros. pulled The Dark Knight from theaters days before Watchmen opened (or more descriptively, "tanked") in more than 3,600 theaters. Bet somebody lost sleep on that decision.


The number of official websites for The Dark Knight:


The approximate number of people who, by my singular estimation, dressed up as Heath Ledger's Joker for Halloween 2008.


The current ranking of The Dark Knight on the IMDb's Top 250 Movies of All Time list. As you may remember, The Dark Knight debuted at and held the #1 spot for several weeks after its release as fanboys and overzealous voters essentially hijacked the site. It has received more votes than any other movie on the list other than The Shawshank Redemption, itself at the #1 spot due to a rabid cult following that led a campaign to permanently settle the Shawshank/Godfather rivalry a few years ago. That The Dark Knight was unsuccessful in its dethroning effort leads me to believe that Shawshank may be able withstand any threat from any movie for the foreseeable future.


The number of Heath Ledger fans who signed an online petition at The Ultimate Joker to "ask for the character to be withdrawn for good, to never again be used in any future Batman sequel".


The number of external reviews currently linked from The Dark Knight's IMDb page. You can easily add three zeroes to the end of that number to include reviews (two by me alone) from countless bloggers who did not submit their thoughts for linkage. But the number 481 is otherwise relatively meaningless...unless you consider it's a total greater than the reviews linked for The Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather, and Pulp Fiction (three of the six movies now ranked above it) combined.

This is my roundabout way of arguing that, proportionate to its first year of release, The Dark Knight has been reviewed and discussed more than any other movie in history. According to my math there is a 114% chance that your mother, cousin, co-worker, mailman, or granddaughter has an opinion on this movie, and just a shade under a 92% chance that they have reviewed it in their blog, community newspaper, or personal diary. For online consumption comparison purposes, here are the number of search results Google returns for the following queries: godfather review = 578,000 ; "citizen kane" review = 565,000 ; "pulp fiction" review = 1,770,000; shawshank review = 412,000.

If you Google "dark knight" review, you will be presented with 10,300,000 links to peruse; when this post is indexed you can make that 10,300,001.

94 and 82

The current Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores for The Dark Knight, respectively. Among the 41 RT critics considered the "Cream of the Crop", the score drops to 90%. The few Top Critics who dared offer a dissenting opinion on this film - Joe Morgenstern (Wall Street Journal), Stephanie Zacharek (Salon.com), David Edelstein (New York Magazine), and David Denby (The New Yorker) - have received a combined 1,073 comments on their four Rotten Tomatoes review blurbs (click on their names to read the outrageous, eventually frightening comments), and have presumably had to change their home phone numbers and addresses. Seriously.

The remaining Top Critics received a combined 622 comments for their 37 positive reviews. Here are a choice few of the 17 comments for Manohla Dargis' review blurb:
  • "Ms. Dargis, this is, perhaps, the best review I've read on The Dark Knight. How many of them have I read? One-hundred and three."
  • "What the hell is going on with Rotten Tomatoes? If you click on the Top Critics it says there are 3 rotten reviews for Dark Knight but I only count 3!!...Sorry I mean I only count 2!!! Salon.com and David Denby."
  • "ya i'd have sex with this woman"

$533,345,358 and $1,001,921,825

The domestic and worldwide box-office totals (unadjusted for inflation) for The Dark Knight, ranking it #2 (Titanic) and #4 (Titanic, LOTR: The Return of the King, Pirates of the Caribbean 3), respectively. Scroll down here to view the full stunning list of box office records it currently holds. In context, the amount of money shelled out by people to see The Dark Knight in theaters was greater than the 2008 GDP of Liberia.


The number of countries in which The Dark Knight officially opened last summer, including nations from every continent but Antarctica (where it no doubt arrived closer to Thanksgiving). As unlikely as it is, I would not be totally surprised if someone, somewhere is right now seeing The Dark Knight in a theater somewhere off the Box Office Mojo grid.


The number of Academy Awards received by The Dark Knight, for Best Sound Editing and Best Supporting Actor. The film did not earn even a nomination for Best Picture.


The number of movies that will "coincidentally" be nominated for Best Picture beginning this year.

As you can probably tell from this breakdown (and feel free to add to the numbers, by the way), I'm firmly in the "Was it really that great?" camp at this point. To be clear - the historical record will undoubtedly show The Dark Knight to be one of the biggest movies in history, and as an entertaining blockbuster I still think it was nothing short of breathtaking.

But is it still taboo to propose that it wasn't and isn't one of the "best" movies in history, but perhaps just the best comic book/superhero movie? Is the evidence that strong that Christopher Nolan revolutionized the craft of film and created an artistic masterpiece to be studied and taught from in film schools for generations to come? Has the fate of humanity been altered because of this movie?

Did we all just simply swallow the hype?

Come out, come out, wherever you are, opinion revisers...

July 14, 2009

Taking It Home: The Hurt Locker

[A reminder: "Taking It Home" is an alternative review style in which I haphazardly share my thoughts on a movie's themes and how they may relate to my life, while focusing less on the acting, writing, technical aspects, or even plot of the film. It's simply a collection of the ideas I took home, "because the movie experience shouldn't end in the theater".]

I think it was during a marathon desert standoff between U.S. soldiers and Iraqi militants in Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker that I had a realization both horrifying and humbling: these guys are just actors. This is a set, and soon after this scene was filmed, Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie probably relaxed in cooled trailers on location in Jordan before eventually heading home to posh Los Angeles-area homes. There's nothing wrong with that, of course; it's how movies are made.

But as I've written ad nauseam here over the last couple of years, the unspoken truth of The Hurt Locker and every similar movie made recently is that there are a couple million Jeremy Renners and Anthony Mackies who aren't returning to posh Los Angeles-area homes. They're returning to our blocks, our apartment buildings, our families, our schools, our workplaces and our circles of friends.

Of the few veterans I know who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan (or even Vietnam, for that matter), none have engaged in conversation with me about their tours abroad. I can't blame them; after all, like the exaggeratedly naive army psychiatrist in The Hurt Locker, I wouldn't know the first thing about the pain of their experiences. My military service has been limited to obediently registering for the Selective Service System when I turned 18 and then, in the absence of a draft, steering far and clear of recruiting offices.

I'm too old now to be drafted even if the Congress and the President ever authorized one, but that's little comfort when I know that so many people around me are going to be dealing with PTSD and other physical and psychological wounds for the rest of their lives. That my future children and I will be paying for their lifelong medical care with our taxes may not be much of a sacrifice compared with what they've given for their beliefs (or if you like, "our country" and "my freedom"), but I feel like my continued efforts to bring this conversation to light might be productive in some way.

For example, I lamented on the 5 year anniversary of the war in Iraq that the 100+ movies to date had done nothing but further stereotypes. Three weeks later when I reviewed Stop-Loss, my #8 best movie of 2008, I called it "the first important movie about the war in Iraq, and the only one I can recommend that isn't a documentary...the first mainstream movie (The War Tapes from '06 is a similar doc) that may wake up the public and start a dialogue about the future."

It it didn't really happen then and it may not happen after The Hurt Locker, either, primarily because it's framed as a gripping thriller instead of a character drama. Not since United 93 has a film featured such unbearable suspense through scenes in which the resolution is already known, or at least easily foreseen. It's not that The Hurt Locker is predictable, but aside from two key scenes (the aforementioned desert shootout being one of them), you can see every explosion - or non-explosion - coming well enough in advance to feel some sense of security.
The story can't continue without the characters, after all, so they have to stay alive at least most of the way through.

As it is, staying alive seems to be the primary goal of all soldiers as they count down the days until their rotation is complete (the actual count on screen in The Hurt Locker is a little too convenient to the ending, in my opinion). Within this daily struggle, then, is when we really see the toll exacted on their minds - the constant paranoia, the distrust of anyone not wearing a uniform, the stamina required to remain mentally alive in a place surrounded by death.

These are the invisible scars they will bring home, and to the extent that we actually see how PTSD and war dependency develop (as opposed to Stop-Loss, in which we only witness the after effects), The Hurt Locker absolutely provides more insight than any other Iraq War film to date (again, other than The War Tapes, which if I haven't already made it abundantly clear is the best documentary about the war hands-down).
Much has been made about the "realism" portrayed in The Hurt Locker, but I think it's worth mentioning that the Army refused to support this movie "due to inaccurate depictions of soldiers". According to an article featuring interviews with actual EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) soldiers in Iraq who viewed the film, most of them appreciated the effort but made it clear that "it's definitely Hollywood". One of them complained that "the movie was a little skewed toward PTSD...it's not as prevalent as it is in this movie."

I find that hard to believe based on the number of news reports these days about suicide rates among veterans. If "war is a drug" (as presented by the quote that leads off The Hurt Locker), and these soldiers are coming home with raging addictions to said drug, exactly what are they going to do when it's no longer available and they can't get their fix? What kind of symptoms can we expect to see from this withdrawal? These are the questions that horrify me much more than any of the bombs, bullets, or blood on the screen in these war movies.

Veterans' issues aside, another point made by a soldier actually does support a suspicion I had about The Hurt Locker: "The way [James] was poking around and fooling with the IEDs without knowing what they were is extremely dangerous...I don't think someone like Staff Sgt. James would do well [in the field]." Phew. Although I was wracked with tension during most of the bomb defusing scenes, I couldn't believe that a soldier would really act as such a rebellious renegade and later on be commended on his actions by a commanding officer. I know there are some real heroes in our military ranks, but my hope would be that they are taking such insane risks only under duress, not as regular practice.

Speaking of regular practice, I greatly enjoyed how screenwriter Mark Boal (who also wrote 2007's simply decent In the Valley of Elah) turned war movie production on its head once again by only featuring three main characters in The Hurt Locker. A handful of other recent war movies (Three Kings, Jarhead, Rescue Dawn, Flags of Our Fathers, Miracle at St. Anna) have also narrowed their focus, and I greatly prefer it to the regular competition of "how many big name stars can you cast in one movie". Examples of this include but are not limited to: Platoon, Casualties of War, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Pearl Harbor, Windtalkers, When We Were Soldiers, and, if you like, even Tropic Thunder. In my opinion, a focus on fewer characters lends itself to much more interesting storytelling.

Finally, I find it curious that the three films I have discussed here as the best of the Iraq War bunch (The Hurt Locker, Stop-Loss, and The War Tapes) have two other interesting traits in common: a.) they don't feature a lot of explosions and shoot-outs, and b.) they are all directed by American women. Coincidence? Hmm...

What did you take home?

July 12, 2009

CDtZ: School of Rock (2003)

[Note: This is a submission for Counting Down the Zeroes, a brilliant, year-long project headed up by Film for the Soul's ambitious chief, Ibetolis. By the end of this year it will exist as a comprehensive collection of the best movies of the decade (2000's). My first submission was Boiler Room (2000), and I look forward to taking on more in the upcoming months. Check it out!]

Jack Black just has one of those faces, doesn't he? The kind that you see once and never forget, that can exhibit every range of human emotion, and that can believably slip into any supporting role in any genre of movie - Demolition Man, Waterworld, The Neverending Story III, Dead Man Walking, The Cable Guy, Enemy of the State, High Fidelity, Saving Silverman, Orange County. This fact shouldn't be a surprise, but yet it is: Jack Black had a solid 50 acting roles under his belt before his career-making turn as Dewey Finn in School of Rock.

Prior to Richard Linklater's sleeper smash hit, Black's biggest starring turn had been opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in the underrated Farrelly Brothers rom-com Shallow Hal, where he demonstrated for the first time that he could play the straight guy for a whole movie, without even one air-guitar foray or memorably wacky scene. Ironically, it was probably during this time in Black's life (the early 2000's) that he lived in the same apartment building as Mike White, who wrote Orange County and was inspired to write School of Rock after frequently witnessing Black blast classic rock music and run through the halls naked.

High Fidelity director Stephen Frears was originally tapped to direct, but the job ultimately went to Linklater, who had the slacker movie cred (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) but had never made a film as "kid-friendly" as School of Rock (he would go on to make a poorly received Bad News Bears remake two years later). The film opened in the U.S. on October 3, 2003, less than a month after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

I remember seeing it with a friend on opening weekend at Universal City in L.A., then a few weeks later again with friends in San Diego, and then a few weeks later again with my brother and sister in Minnesota (ah, the Roseville 4). A crowd-pleaser that never tired, School of Rock was the first movie I saw three times in the theater since Jurassic Park a decade earlier. Maybe in part thanks to my efforts, School of Rock remained in theaters for almost 6 months, grossing more than $80 million on an estimated budget of only $35 million. In the Chicago Tribune, Mark Caro perfectly summed it up: "The movie is the cinematic equivalent of a near-perfect three-minute pop song. It makes you laugh, smile and tap your toes over a brisk 88 minutes, and when it's finished, you're ready to hit repeat."

What makes this movie so enjoyable through repeated viewings? It's hard to narrow it down to just one or two aspects, but each time I see it the answer becomes more clear: Jack Black's performance and Mike White's screenplay. Without either of these two elements, the movie would suffer considerably, despite the sure-handed direction of Linklater and some great performances from the kids, Joan Cusack, and even Mike White himself as Jack Black's roommate.

When we see Black (or more likely a stunt man) take a stage dive onto an empty floor during the opening credits, we get a pretty good idea of the kind of energetic comedy in store for us. As Dewey Finn, Black fully commits to the role of a sensitive slacker with a passion for music so pure that it overshadows otherwise sacred values (until he discovers the students' musical talent, he's happy enough to completely waste their educational time). In his 3 1/2-star review, Roger Ebert observed, "Jack Black remains true to his irascible character all the way through; he makes Dewey's personality not a plot gimmick, but a way of life."

Of course, it would be hard for anyone not to have fun playing Dewey Finn, a wannabe rock star who doesn't play by any of the conventional rules of life. But Black doesn't overdo it; we actually believe that, despite his own selfish interests in winning the "Battle of the Bands", Dewey really does care about the students' wellbeing. In fact, as he grows closer to them it becomes clear that Linklater is making something resembling a Disney movie, complete with positive lessons, family values, and a heroic, sappy ending. Ebert, again: "Here is a movie that proves you can make a family film that's alive and well-acted and smart and perceptive and funny -- and that rocks."

In other words, as vital as Black's balanced energy is to the success of School of Rock, the material he is working from cannot be overlooked. Mike White's stories were a bit hit-and-miss to that point (Dead Man on Campus, The Good Girl, Orange County), but as Ebert described it, "White's movies lovingly celebrate the comic peculiarities of everyday people", and School of Rock remains both the funniest and most endearing screenplay of his career (the upcoming School of Rock 2 has potential to replace it, but I'm skeptical). Praising the film for Newsweek, David Ansen wondered, "It's a bravura, all-stops-out, inexhaustibly inventive performance. I don't know how much was improvised, and how much comes from White's sharp screenplay, but Black may never again get a part that displays his mad-dog comic ferocity to such brilliant effect."

Unfortunately, Ansen has so far been right on the mark. Black has been given steady work in the past six years, but while much of it has been significant (opposite Kate Winslet in The Holiday, under the direction of Michel Gondry in Be Kind Rewind, and in the star-studded cast of Tropic Thunder), the role that's perhaps best fit his talents was as the voice of Po in last year's animated hit Kung Fu Panda. I'm not proposing an actual theory here, but it might be worth noting that both Kung Fu Panda and School of Rock are essentially kid's movies - maybe Black is best suited for roles that are more obviously juvenile? Food for thought to go along with a last bit of trivia: School of Rock (which was originally The School of Rock) was shockingly given a PG-13 rating due to "rude humor and some drug references", whatever that means. Lamenting the situation, Ebert offered a parting shot: "There's not a kid alive who would be anything but delighted by this film."

And finally, while I don't mean to diminish the work of Linklater at the helm here, for the most part it appears he took a hands-off approach and simply let Black run wild with his young co-stars. It worked beautifully and in the hands of another director this movie could have been bogged down with all kinds of unnecessary "stuff". There is one scene that displays Linklater's casually perfect directing chops, however, and it's the thrilling, emotionally moving finale (or, as Lou Lumenick admitted in the New York Post, "an inspirational climax that's as rousing as it is predictable."). Enjoy:

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