(On DVD, October 2011) A bizarre blend of awful ideas and hilarious execution, The Wicker Man is, remarkably enough, just as bad and funny as its reputation suggests. At times, it feels like the result of the fabled Hollywood idea-flattening process: Whatever creepy quality the premise might have held have been squashed by dumb artistic choices, glossy routine horror tropes and an increasingly unhinged script. Nicolas Cage truly stars as a policeman investigating a disappearance on an isolated island: his borderline-psychotic performance is uniquely his, and the only sustained pleasure that the film has to offer. The rest of the film is a mess of weak development, generic tropes, dumb character decisions and a drawn-out ending. (As with a bunch of by-the-number horror movies, it also fails to explain why the villains go to such extremes in their plans.) While I’m always happy to see Leelee Sobieski even in a small role, the rest of the film is dull except when it’s bad and intensely predictable throughout. Ten of the last fifteen minutes are demented enough to be enjoyable, as Cage goes around punching and kicking women (once in a bear suit –I’m not making this up), scaring kids and waving a gun like a crazy man. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the antagonists when the protagonist is so obviously unpleasant and unable to muster even the most basic sense of fitting-in. I’m not sure what writer/director Neil LaBute was thinking when he put together The Wicker Man, but the best thing about it may be the numerous YouTube videos lampooning the result. (I’m particularly fond of Best Scenes From “The Wicker Man” and The Comedy Trailer)
(In theaters, October 2011) It’s a good thing that I’m a certified fan of Hunter S. Thompson’s work, because otherwise I’m sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed The Rum Diary as much. It’s already a trying experience even for those who have absorbed Thompson’s life and work: Thompson’s bottom-of-the-drawer “first novel” was a triumph of atmosphere over plot, as it followed a young journalist as he made his way throughout 1960s Puerto Rico and lost much of his illusions. Blending fiction with autobiography, The Rum Diary offered a more melancholic view of Thompson’s early years than you’d expect. The movie version has a hard time trying to put a plot where the novel doesn’t have one, and the result is a bit of low-key comedy interspaced with more serious plotting about corruption and unbridled development. Many of the anecdotes are amusing (although it speaks volume about the film’s pacing that the trailer has a far clearer sense of comedy), but the dramatic narrative of The Rum Diary peters off in a “nothing worked out, but we all learned a lot so… to be continued…” fishtail of a conclusion. The film works best as an affectionate homage to Thompson himself, as it clearly feels like a romanced “birth of an author” narrative: If you don’t know what Thompson would go on to write after his own Puerto Rico transformative experience, then the ending of the film will be more frustrating than anything else. Fortunately, Johnny Depp is wonderful as a young Thompson (it’s a performance clearly meant to lead into his own work in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), while Amber Heard finally makes an impression in a paper-thin role. As a drama for people who haven’t read Thompson, it’s a hit-and-miss film with a strong Puerto Rican atmosphere… but frankly, this one is for the fans. And even they may feel that the two-hour film runs a bit long.
(In theaters, October 2011) Given how infrequently I have thought of the original Johnny English since its release in 2003, it’s safe to say that I wasn’t demanding a sequel nor expecting too much of it. Unsurprisingly, this kind of low-expectations brinksmanship actually works in Johnny English Reborn’s favour, as the film is occasionally wittier and funnier than expected. Part of what works is that this time around, English isn’t always a bumbling idiot: In-between the goofs and the pratfalls are flashes of competence and wit. The best in-story example comes during a foot chase, in which a parkour expert is defeated by an exasperated protagonist as he goes around obstacles, opens doors and takes an elevator to catch his opponent. At other times, English’s sidekick isn’t the kind of super-qualified overachiever that other bumbling comedy spies often get saddled with; we also get a car chase parody featuring a tricked-out wheelchair. That’s the kind of James Bond satire anyone could enjoy. Unfortunately, they come sandwiched between moments seemingly designed for kids and other undemanding audiences: Johnny English Reborn goes broad and wide in its mugging for laughs, going from Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadderesque suave goatee to the clean-shaven buffoonery of Mr. Bean far too quickly. The romance is barely sketched, and while former Bond-girl Rosamund Pike is cute enough, I would have enjoyed seeing Natalie Imbruglia again. Still, Atkinson makes limp slapstick fly better than anyone else, and the film isn’t without a few scattered grins. Being better than the original isn’t much, but it’s enough to raise the film into average mediocrity, albeit friendly to older kids. Stay for the credits, though: Johnny English Reborn concludes with an absolutely charming comedy sequence in which Atkinson cooks in-sync with The Halls of the Mountain Kings: It’s the film’s finest moment.
(In theaters, October 2011) Did we really need a remake/prequel/rehash of The Thing? Certainly not: while special effect today may be cheaper and easier than what John Carpenter had to work with, their impact is muted after thirty years of ever-gorier film horror. There’s little of the first film’s sense of isolation, desperation and paralysing terror –something made worse by the film’s intention to ape the original only to end at the very beginning of its prequel. The link is elegant, but it only drives home the recycled nature of this creatively bankrupt sequel that show what was best imagined. It’s not a terrible film, mind you: It’s done with more care than you’d expect from a cheap B-grade horror movie these days. Some sequences are almost interesting, and the integration of the horror with the science fiction isn’t badly done. (What’s not so successful is the sense that the enemy, borrowing more from contagion than identifiable monster, is undefeatable no matter what the protagonist does.) Still, most of The Thing’s virtues aren’t original (what it doesn’t steal from the original it borrows from the Alien series), and it becomes weaker the moment it tries something new: the test to determine who’s human and who isn’t doesn’t do much more than bring back the memory of the first film and distinguish between an inspired film and one that merely imitates one. As an Antarctic thriller, it’s better than Whiteout or Alien versus Predator… but that’s really scraping the barrel of comparisons. This year’s The Thing just feels like a useless film, one where the gore seems even more pointless than usual. I wonder if a back-to-back viewing will enhance the experience of both, or simply highlight the derivative nature of this remake…
Vintage Canada, 2010 expanded reprint of 2009 original, 339 pages, C$19.95 pb, ISBN 978-0-307-39713-3
One of the most depressing consequences of environmental awareness is the gradual understanding that it’s a never-ending battle. You can remove the belching smokestacks, recycle the garbage dumps, stop dumping waste in the environment and stop clear-cutting forests, and the job still won’t be done. In Slow Death by Rubber Duck, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie eloquently demonstrate that even in our everyday life, there are still dangers from everyday products even though those products may be manufactured, shipped, sold and recycled more responsively than ever before.
The analytical centerpiece of the book is the kind of analysis that can now be cheaply done to verify the levels of various toxic materials in our own blood. Everyone today is tainted to some degree by heightened levels of products that don’t belong in our bodies. We have all breathed dangerous metals, cuddled next to treated fabrics, used products made out of toxic products… and the cumulative effect of our daily lives shows in blood tests. In eight chapters, the authors willingly subject themselves to common products to show how easy it is to poison ourselves.
For instance, in the chapter “Rubber Duck Wars”, the authors seek out phthalate-containing products (phthalates being a handy industrial lubricant used in plastics and personal products, now thought to increase infertility risks) and willingly expose themselves to them. Within days, before-and-after tests show how their levels of phthalates skyrocketed. (The good news being that phthalates break down relatively quickly, meaning that returning to normal non-exposure quickly led to more normal toxin levels within a few weeks. This is not the case with all contaminants.)
Phthalates are an interesting case study given how, over the past decade, they were banned after consumer pressure. Slow Death by Rubber Duck is a clever book in not only showing us the toxicity of ordinary products and the extent to which even normal exposure can quickly lead to elevated levels of blood toxins, but also in showing how concerted activism can have an impact. One of the book’s best moments is found in Chapter Eight, “Mothers Know Best”, which shows how environmental groups were able to work with the Canadian Conservative government in order to announce a ban on the use of Bisphenol A (BPA) in products, and paving the way for other countries to do the same. It’s this kind of result-based activism that steadily makes the world incrementally safer for everyone.
Reading the book, there’s no doubt that regulation is the way to go for most of those environmental issues. Smith and Lourie (plus Sarah Dopp, who gets third billing everywhere but on the cover) make a compelling (and recurring) case that many of these toxic products find their way in our environment thanks to industry marketing and pressures to solve minor problems with worse solutions. We increasingly create our problems in response to relatively trivial concerns, and it takes us years to realize the error of our ways. In the meantime, it is concerted action that leads governments (even by governments not known for environmental activism, as shown by positive Bush-administration actions) to take action and codify our understanding of biological science into industry guidelines. Left to itself, the industry can’t really be counted upon to self-regulate –especially considering past examples such as the history of mercury use in dental filling and other hair-raising practices.
Until regulations catch up to science, it’s really up to the individual citizen to start taking action. Slow Death by Rubber Duck has a few recommendations to make in order to act as more responsible individuals. The book ends on a series of recommendation that finally got me to stop cooking stuff in Tupperware, get rid of my old water bottles and trash the plastic shower curtain in favor of a fabric one. Small things that amount to real changes, even while industries and government race to catch up to the latest science and tighten up manufacturing and importation standards. Even-tempered, compelling to read and even funny at times, Slow Death by Rubber Duck has earned its national best-selling status. Read the paperback edition for a new afterword describing the reaction to the book, and why the people complaining loudest about the book (the usual environmental deniers) may be the most compelling reason to read it.
(In theaters, October 2011) Something isn’t quite right with this Moneyball, but it took me a reading through the original book to finally understand why. As a sports drama in which underdogs defeat their opponents through cleverness and unorthodox thinking, it does manage to boil down a complex and dry subject into a narrative that most people (including those without much baseball knowledge) will be able to follow and enjoy. Brad Pitt is surprisingly good as the Oakland Athletics’s general manager Billy Beane trying to make the most out of the small budget he’s given –hiring oddball players and constantly running the numbers game is one way that the story plays out in the good old underdog sports drama narrative. But sometimes, it does too neat a job: While Michael Lewis’ book makes it clear that the sabermetrisation of pro baseball was (and continues to be) a lengthy process in which the 2002 season was just another step, the film condenses decades of thinking into a single year, and heavily dramatizes the events in such a way that they lose their intended meaning. Sabermetrics is about squeezing a few percentage points here and there, enough so that statistically, you end up with better results at the end of the year. So what’s Moneyball’s most triumphant sequence? The complete statistical anomaly of winning twenty games in a row (and that last one on a heroic shot), something that actually undermines the argument made by the picture. Once that twentieth game is won, the film has nowhere to go: while the team makes it to the finals, they lose their season. Other teams would take ideas similar to Beane’s and run with them. The elements that make Lewis’ Moneyball an interesting book aren’t necessarily those that make for a sports drama and the film occasionally suffers from the contradiction. Still, it’s churlish to criticise the film for fairly esoteric reasons: On most aspects, Moneyball is a solid sports drama with enough comic relief to make it work, and it’s hard to overestimate the work that has gone in transforming the non-fiction original book into something that feels like a classic baseball movie. The container, however, may be part of the problem.
(On DVD, October 2011) I suppose that when a film begins with a monologue in which a character directly addresses the audience in explaining why it celebrates having “no reason”, it shouldn’t be surprising if the rest of Rubber is a mixture of meta-fictional experimentation and half-hearted genre thrills. It could have been otherwise, though: As ludicrous a premise as “killer tire” can be, it would have been possible to turn it into a reasonably inventive horror/comedy hybrid. Instead, though, director Quentin Dupieux dispenses with the thrills, adds a framing device that leeches energy away from the film, endlessly circles the same few ideas and seems inordinately proud of himself for screwing with viewers’ expectations. Not all of Rubber is terrible: There’s some interesting work in making “Robert” more than a rolling tire telekinetically making heads explode, and there are a few meta-fictional elements here that, if correctly employed, would have been rich in possibilities: The observers/audience could have been an effective Greek chorus, or commentary on the craven nature of horror audiences –instead, they’re almost entirely thrown away too soon. The conceit of actors making a movie that relies on viewer’s attention is similar, as is the basic horror structure of a tire killing people for “no reason”. But those intriguing elements never gel, and they’re undermined by other more basic flaws: The film’s pacing is deathly, and what would have been impressive in a short ten-minute film here feel overdrawn and beaten to death in 85 minutes. The excessive gore seems more immature than deserved in a film that can’t be bothered to deliver even the most basic movie-watching satisfaction. Ultimately, though, the DVD supplements (more particularly a fake interview with backwards-running segments and blatantly wrong translation from French) confirm what the film suggests: A self-satisfied director with no discipline, no appreciation for the genre he has chosen to work in and quite a bit of contempt for his audience. As much as I’m not opposed to films that go off the beaten track, this really isn’t the way to do it –I felt my enthusiasm for Rubber deflate steadily throughout.
(In theaters, October 2011) As with many backroom political thrillers, The Ides of March tells the story of how a young political wunderkind loses his illusions while working for a star candidate. If you’ve read Joe Klein/Anonymous’s Primary Colors or seen 1996’s City Hall, you have a rough idea of how this works. But familiarity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially as the similitudes taper off toward the end, and the result is a convincing look at the way American politics can work. Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of a genius-level political operative makes for a sympathetic hero, and he more than holds his own against such notables as George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti. (It’s one of the film’s interesting choices to use a star Clooney as a superstar candidate, character-actor darlings Hoffman and Giamatti as seasoned professionals and Gosling as an up-and-comer –a good example of Hollywood typecasting working as casting.) Perhaps the best thing about The Ides of March is its pitch-perfect portrayal of the political process at the primary stage –the ground-level organizing, the dirty tricks, the high-level negotiations in dismal settings. Director Clooney does a fine job as portraying the grey nature of mid-March winter in Cincinnati, and the film quickly becomes a must-see for American political junkies, who won’t cringe too much at the film’s faithfulness to reality as we know it. It almost goes without saying that, despite being loosely based on a play loosely based on the Howard Dean campaign, The Ides of March is best interpreted as a what-if rather than an allegory of anything that really happened recently: despite the political in-jokes, if best to appreciate the actors working as character rather than caricatures. It’s unclear whether the film will have much of a wide appeal beyond left-leaning politicos: like many political thrillers, it ends at a funeral, but unlike many it doesn’t feature a single raised gun, conspiracy or assassination attempt. It’s this nominal adherence to a plausible version of reality (with a side-order of capable performances) that makes The Ides of March works well despite familiar ideas and a low-key presentation. Sometimes, you don’t need car chases and explosions to have a thrilling time.
(On cable TV, October 2011) I’m not sure what kind of warped creative process ends up proposing a comedy take-off on “Romeo and Juliet” starring garden gnomes and featuring the music of Elton John, but when it leads to amusing trifles such as Gnomeo & Juliet, it’s hard to second-guess the filmmakers. A second-tier animated feature aimed at kids but amusing to adults, it’s a fast-paced romantic comedy with enough action sequences and musical interludes to satisfy just about every constituency out there. The pun-filled dialogue may occasionally earn a few groans, but there are a few good Shakespeare-related gags here and there (I’m particularly fond of “Out, out! Damn spot!”) to satisfy the classics-spotter. The animation is fine, and some of the creature design is lovely. Gnomeo & Juliet isn’t too demanding if you don’t focus on the in-jokes hidden in freeze-frames, and the entire family is likely to have a bit of fun along the way. Oh, and don’t worry: The original “Romeo and Juliet” ending has been altered for maximum comedy.
Norton, 2011 movie tie-in expanded reprint of 2003 original, 317 pages, C$18.50 pb, ISBN 978-0-393-33839-3
Sport meets science in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, a fascinating case study of the way fact-based analysis is slowly replacing traditional instinct as a guide to a baseball team’s performance. Written after Lewis was allowed behind-the-scene access to the Oakland Athletics’ 2002 season, Moneyball explains how the desire to improve performance on a limited budget, coupled with the willingness to adopt new analytical methods collectively known as “sabermetrics”, allowed a small team like Oakland to compete successfully with team with far bigger budgets.
The keyword here is “money”: Lewis, after making a splash with Liar’s Poker and The Big Short, is best-known as a financial writer and this focus is never too far away from his topic matter as he explains the difficult situation of a poor baseball team in a league where other teams can easily outspend them. Coupled with a renewed interest in number-based analytical methods, these constraints allowed Oakland general Manager Billy Beane to retool the usual scouting process. Never mind studying players in the minor-leagues fields and filing reports based on scouts’ gut instinct: Beane’s analytical team would rather pore over seasons’ worth of numbers in order to find not necessarily the best players, but the ones that are undervalued by the market. You can’t buy who you want when other teams have deep pockets, but you can get great bargains by targeting players who aren’t being paid what they’re worth. Sabermetrics isn’t about having a huge advantage; it’s about working the margins until you can extract a few reliable percentage points’ worth of advantage, which ends up making a difference over the long run.
Lewis blends this story (as exemplified by the 2002 Oakland season) with that of Bean, a talented baseball player who somehow never met the considerable expectations placed on him by major-league teams. Beane, after a few mildly successful years in the major league, did what practically no one else did and decided to take up the management of a baseball team, re-starting from the ground up. This sensibility led him to champion analytical methods developed from the mid-seventies by statistical nerds over the advice of seasoned scouts.
In Moneyball, these innovations work: By being the first to pioneer the principles of sabermetrics, the Athletics get first-mover advantage, seeing easy bargains where other teams aren’t even looking. It’s a temporary advantage as other teams, such a Toronto and Boston, eventually adopt similar techniques… but for a while, it works to the Athletics’ advantage. (Hilariously, the centerpiece of the 2002 Athletics season is an unprecedented 20-game winning streak, a freak succession of victories that has almost nothing to do with the percentage points earned by sabermetrics. Lewis explains this in the book, but the movie adaptation misses the point by using it as the film’s climax.)
Thanks to Lewis’ vulgarization talents, Moneyball will find an audience far beyond numbers-minded baseball fans. The book is a joy to read, and even casual baseball observers will find plenty of good material to chew upon. (There are exceptions: a chapter on trading is so deeply steeped in traditional baseball jargon that casual readers will find it nearly impenetrable.) It’s a story about how cleverness can defeat brawn, or how facts can check instinct and as such is likely to appeal to science-minded readers.
This “revenge of the nerds” plotline is more fully explained in the paperback version’s afterword, which describes the controversy with which the book was received by traditional old-school baseball managers and fans. To hear Lewis tell it, the sabermetrics principles were threatening because they upset an entrenched scouting system largely made up of ex-players seeking to uphold their own tradition: Having back-room math analysts tell them that they were making bad decisions wasn’t the kind of news warmly received. And it may serve to explain why, even almost ten years later, the Athletics are still doing well in implementing sabermetrics: not every team administration may yet be willing to understand how letting go of traditional methods can improve their results.
In short, it’s a story very similar to the kind of competitiveness that has taken over Wall Street, with trained scientists and engineers seeking minute percentage advantages over their rivals. Blending the two American passions of baseball and money in one easy-to-read package, there’s a good case to be made for Moneyball as a quintessential American non-fiction book.
(On DVD, October 2003) I didn’t want to see Tommy Wisseau’s The Room as much as I was morbidly curious about it. Having recently acquired some kind of cult notoriety as one of the worst movies ever made, The Room has spawned a few Internet memes and toured the continent in special audience-participation screenings à la Rocky Horror Picture Show. Alas, the first thing that comes to mind while watching The Room is that we don’t have the cult classics we used to have. Amateurish and incompetent in nearly every facet of moviemaking, The Room has the feel of a vanity project gone horribly wrong, possibly thanks to a producer/writer/director/actor (Wisseau) unable to tell between good and bad, and unwilling to listen to saner heads. Pick an aspect of movies, and The Room sucks at it. The premise presupposes entities without recognizable human emotions. Dialogues feel like the first draft of a first student project. The tone of the film changes from one line to another. The direction is flat. The acting is uncontrolled, starting from Wisseau’s constant ha-has. Even the scene blocking is worse than the average local theater company. The pacing grinds to a halt whenever it hits one of the four too-lengthy soft-core love scenes. Subplots are raised and then never mentioned again. Whatever nice things one may say about the stock San Francisco exteriors are destroyed by their tone-deaf usage as scene transitions. And so on. The issue here isn’t that the film is terrible: I’m sure that there are plenty of other terrible movies buried away somewhere. The real wonder here is The Room’s unexplainable notoriety as an Internet phenomenon. Granted, the so-bad-it’s-good crowd self-selects itself out of any kind of artistic rationale. Still, the fairest way to describe the movie is dull: I started watching it with the best of intentions, and eventually idly started surfing the web as the rest of the movie played without too much surprise or variance in quality. At least I can now place “You are tearing me apart, Lisa!” or “Oh, hi Mark” in their proper, incomprehensible context. Given that Wisseau is riding the film’s newfound popularity as an incompetent comedy by showing it in theaters, those of you still convinced that The Room can’t be missed will have trouble renting it or even buying it online; all I can say is that this is the universe’s way of telling you that you’re better off doing something else.