Roger Dodger (A-)

As a way into Roger Dodger, let me start by refuting this statement, offered by my friend Zach Ralston: "For a guy who spends so much energy trying to pick up women, Roger’s hopelessly awful at it." If I believed that Roger's goal was to pick up women, then I'd certainly be inclined to agree with that statement. Yet what makes the film such a mesmerizing portrait of male self-loathing is that Roger's goal isn't to bed women, but to hurt them. In this sense (and others), the film is reminiscent of In The Company Of Men, but our feelings about Campbell Scott are more ambiguous than, say, Aaron Eckhart in the LaBute: His motivations aren't entirely clear from the beginning—and I'm not entirely sure if Scott is conscious of what he's doing, either—and he does have a soul to salvage, though it's hidden under a lot of ugly gristle. Based on the evidence on hand, I have no doubt that Scott had great success in picking up women once upon a time—his verbal pyrotechnics could be seductive if properly harnessed, and, hey, he's Campbell Scott, handsome and charming—but we happen to catch him at a moment when things have curdled and he's lashing out. All of which makes Jesse Eisenberg's appearance so touching, because Eisenberg's unsullied romanticism throws Scott's thirtysomethingsingledude cynicism into sharp relief, in addition to offering the poor bastard a small chance at redemption.

One other note: Much has been written about Dylan Kidd's sharp, rat-a-tat screenwriting, but few critics (save for Mike D'Angelo) have noted that his derring-do extends to cinematics as well. I'm sure there are plenty of other examples, but I can think of few movies outside The Godfather that have taken such risks with dim lighting, which in this case suits both the nightclub/party/bar milieu and the dark-night-of-the-soul premise. I found myself squinting and pawing my way through the evening; I think the characters are doing the same thing.

The Denver Nuggets (11/3/02)

Kiki. Nene. 'Skiti. Bzdelik. So the NBA began another long season of anticlimax this week—what's the point of a regular season when 16 teams (including a couple sub-.500 clubs) make the playoffs?—and yet I can't turn away, because in a year marked by a startling influx of internationals, one team has emerged as the most delightful underdog in any sport. Picked by every self-respecting publication to finish with the worst record in the league, The Denver Nuggets have it all: Untested rookies, a first-year coach, a minor star (Juwan Howard) serving his season in purgatory, a patchwork of nationalities, a losing tradition, and some of the coolest names you'll ever have the pleasure of wrapping your tongue around. First, there's GM Kiki Vandeweghe, the former Nuggets star who had the courage to spend his first-round draft picks on foreign talent, much to the anguish of the faithful. His choices: (1) Nene Hilario, a Brazilian power forward who can block shots, pound the boards, score in the paint, and dance in a yellow suit in front of hostile Knicks fans on draft night. (2) Nikoloz Tskitishvili, a 19-year-old bench warmer for an Italian club league who also happens to be a 7-footer with a feather touch behind the three-point line. Led by coach Jeff Bzdelik, a greenhorn who took the job after a few veterans took a pass, these scappy young upstarts lost their first two games of the season with surprisingly respectable performances, then shocked the Portland Trail Blazers (in Portland!) the other night with 96-79 ass-stomping. You may not win another game this year, boys, but I'll be watching.

Spring/Early Summer Cleaning

As I stated in my introduction, I wanted to allow myself a format to write as much or as little as I like, lest I get overburdened in keeping up with readers’ expectations. But in recent weeks, it has become obvious that I’d slightly overestimated my enthusiasm for writing for a tiny readership for free after spending most of my time writing for a large readership for money. Now that I’m on a nice hiatus from work, however, I have a chance to weigh in a few films in even briefer form than usual. In no particular order:

For the first two hours, K-19: The Widowmaker (B-) turns out to be a more than passable submarine thriller, with all the expected trappings—cool "ping" noises, steadicam shots through claustrophobic spaces, worrisome leaking, dives to pressure levels that threaten to crush the vessel like an aluminum can—delivered with satisfying craft. It even has the added bonus of being a Cold War story that glorifies the heroism of a Soviet crew, even if it has a decidedly grim view of the Reds that put them into peril so needlessly. Too bad, then, that Harrison Ford spends the last 20 minutes calling people a hero (Faux-Russian accent: "You a hero" "Everyone. Hero.") like the Pope on a blessing binge.

The back end of a double bill with the surprisingly purposeful ABC Africa (B+), Scooby Doo (F) is a lesson in how a snowball becomes an avalanche. First, you begin with the misbegotten idea of a live-action version of a dreadful Hanna-Barbara cartoon series. Then, you add Raja Gosnell, the dude behind the Big Momma’s House and the Home Alone movie without Macauley Culkin. Then you fill out most of the roles by reuniting the cast of I Know What You Did Last Summer. Add a creepy-looking CGI dog, Juwanna Mann star Miguel A. Nunez, Jr. (a poor man’s Orlando Jones), sets that suggest Tim Burton’s Hook, a snarky post-modern script with a baffling story and already-dated juvenile lingo (Velma: "Let’s get jinky ‘wit it"), an extended cameo and musical performance by Sugar Ray, at least three Scooby theme song variations on the synergistic WB soundtrack (though Outkast slum with style), and an entire setpiece dedicated to Matthew Lillard and a digitally distended Scooby in an impromptu farting-and-belching competition. As the resident screening-room cut-up suggested, perhaps Scooby-Doo should have been directed by Abbas Kiarostami: At bottom, it’s really about a bunch of people driving around in a van.

Looking for the most potent taste of Crispin Glover’s inimitable weirdness? Which would you choose, the arty Herman Melville adaptation with Glover starring as one of the great ciphers in literatures ("I would prefer not to") or the shameless 90-minute Nike commercial with Glover yielding screen time to ‘Lil Bow Wow? We go to the movies to be surprised, and count me among the certain few to tentatively embrace the genuinely bizarre sports fantasy Like Mike (B-) over the determinedly bizarre Bartleby (D). In Like Mike, Glover plays the sadistic head of an orphanage straight out of Annie, with unwanted children sleeping in rows of single beds that stretch across a bare wooden floor. (The hilarious adoption process involves allowing prospective parents to just wander around the house until they find a kid they like. It also leads to one of many great Glover moments: "Look around, folks. There are children everywhere." Or something to that effect.) Every time the film looks to sink into the cynical exercise it promises, along comes a moment of transcendent silliness, most notably a scene in which Glover tortures Jonathan Lipnicki by taking a lighter to a picture of his long-lost mother.

Like his European counterparts Ken Loach and Robert Guédiguian, John Sayles tries to strike a balance between leftist sentiment and humanist melodrama, running his gifts for writing mature, intelligent characters and dialogue against an unfortunate tendency towards didacticism. So it’s a bad omen when Sunshine State (B-) opens with a bunch of white guys on a golf course giving a complete oral history of Florida. Fortunately, nothing that follows is quite so baldly obvious, but the film still feels like second-rate Lone Star, save for a typically bracing performance by Carmela Soprano.

More to come…

Unfaithful (C+)

(If you haven’t seen Unfaithful or the commercials that usher you well into the third act, stop reading now.) I was actively disliking this tawdry item for most of the way, as Adrian Lyne reworks an unseen-by-me Claude Chabrol thriller (La Femme Infidèle) into two bad Lyne movies rolled into one: 9 1/2 Weeks meets Fatal Attraction. The order works out poorly for the woman, whose hot-and-heavy affair with a full-time French lothario (he's a hunk ex machina) not only wrecks her perfect marriage but also leads to a murder for which she’s implicitly held responsible. (Her husband, the actual killer, is not as culpable because he doesn’t appear to have any flaws as a husband or a father.) But then, the film arranges an interesting tacit agreement as the cover-up commences: The husband won’t raise his voice about the affair if the wife says nothing about the murder. I regret the two said a single word to each other about either transgression, but the denouement strikes me as unusually unsettled for an American studio film, even though I suspect that the Chabrol has a chillier touch overall.

Andrew W.K., I Get Wet (Island)

I guess you had to be there. It was 1987, my freshman year at a sprawling, overstuffed public school in suburban Georgia. After four years of silence since the mega-selling Pyromania, Def Leppard’s Hysteria had just been released and I was scared: Scared of those kids with the long greasy hair, the wild weekend party stories, the graphic heavy metal t-shirts, the souped-up gas-guzzlers with eight cylinders and jerry-rigged woofers on the floor. What I didn’t realize at the time, as I quietly moped to the likes of Depeche Mode, The Cure, and The Smiths, was that the music itself wasn’t all that scary. A few party anthems, one or two wussie ballads, and a lot of make-up and special effects. In fact, had I climbed out of my little ineffectual shell, I might have had a pretty good time with it.

Without irony or pretense, Andrew W.K.’s I Get Wet takes me back to the age of cockrocking hooks, sloganeering lyrics, and cheesy keyboards, only with more energy, inspiration, and demented spirit than any radio hits of its kind. By all rights, this record should be the Nevermind of its generation (I’m fucking serious; it’s really that pure), but because we live in such a cynical, joyless age in popular music, I fear it’ll only be embraced by button-down nostalgists like myself (and Europeans, who apparently know how to have fun). In a breathless 35 minutes, W.K. takes you through a trilogy of drunken revelry ("It’s Time To Party," "Party Hard," "Party ‘Til You Puke"), two pubescent songs about the mysteries of the opposite sex ("Girls Own Love," "She Is Beautiful"), and a stirring tribute to New York City ("I Love NYC") with the infectious chorus, "I love New York City/ Oh, yeah/ New York City!" Opportunities abound for fist-pumping, shouting, air guitar, et al.

Hollywood Ending (C+)

Welcome to Woody Allen, Mach 3: Hooky premise, half-hearted delivery, with great jokes floating around in the ether, waiting for refinement by someone who actually cares. In a way, the new Woody is a lot like the old, Bananas-era Woody, only his see-what-sticks comedy is less a product of manic invention than the wonders of inertia. The idea of a blind movie director packs a wealth of opportunities for physical and satirical comedy, but it takes a full hour of futzing around before Allen finally cuts to the chase and he just isn’t the bumbler he used to be. When he isn’t repeating himself with hypochondriac jokes or New York/L.A. barbs, he’s charting into conspicuously unknown territory, such as the blue-haired, body-pierced punk son who calls himself Scumbag X. (Good payoff, though: "I love you, Scumbag.") Still, some of the comedy sticks, with Barney Cheng deserving special mention for his wry turn as a Chinese translator who guides Allen’s character through much of the shoot.

Frailty (B-)

If you haven’t seen Frailty, go away. For those who have, I think we have a classic case of overrated/underrated here, all due to that understandably polarizing final twist: Those who completely embrace the film tend to underplay (or deny) the implications of its Gotcha! ending, which could be read to vindicate those chosen to kill in God’s name (I’ll get to the "could be" part in a second); those who hate the film place too much emphasis on the ending, retroactively dismissing or ignoring the considerable virtues of what preceded it. Had this film been set entirely in the ‘70s, I’d bump my rating up a couple notches. As you’d hope from an actor-turned-director, Paxton gets terrific performances from everyone involved, most notably himself; his trademark earthiness, when coupled with a sense of divine conviction, makes him a chilling presence, capable of seeming mad to one son and a "superhero" to another. The idea that children, particularly those born into religious fundamentalism, could be held captive (and subsequently poisoned) by their parent’s ideology is an extraordinarily resonant one, especially in light of current events, when "God's hand" is used to justify all manner of atrocities. Paxton makes sense of this very unsettling family dynamic and handles the Southern Gothic trappings with appropriately creepy atmospherics and a lot of tension.

But then, there’s the framing story, which teases its way to a nasty conclusion. I’ve read some talk that since we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator, we should take Matthew McConaghey’s "vision" of Powers Boothe killing his mother as somehow false, the delusions of a converted madman. But we’re clearly outside of his narration at that point: How to explain Boothe’s infamous "How did you know" line or the fact that McConaghey’s face doesn’t register on the surveillance cameras? The most charitable way to read the ending is to see the film as sort of a backdoor to The Dead Zone, with Paxton and son receiving the same psychic information, only the audience doesn’t acknowledge its veracity until later in the film. But the key difference is that Christopher Walken’s character acts to prevent a dastardly act from occurring and Paxton acts to avenge those acts that have already occurred. In any case, I join those who are none-too-pleased to with the endorsement of divine vengeance, even while I’m still reeling from the audacity of what my colleague Keith Phipps calls "the first film to assume a ‘pro’ stance on the serial-killer issue."

And yet, what to make of the very last scene of the movie? All else aside, how does it make you feel? Do you come away thinking, "Hallelujah, the Lord’s work will continue to be done"? Or do you think, "The bad guy just got away with it and another demon-killer appears to be in the proverbial oven?" Be honest with yourself. The answer is B.

Cubs vs. Reds 4/21/02

Sunday matinee, The Friendly Confines. 37 degrees, wind blowing in at 15 mph, light drizzle turning to steadier rainfall in the later innings. Beer sales tepid, hot chocolate sales through the roof, though some were questioning the liberal use of the word "hot" ("More like ‘lukewarm chocolate’" and so forth). Fans in the left-field bleachers went shirtless for the duration; below our seats in the upper-deck, a pair of pre-teen boys followed in kind, to the apparent approval of World’s Greatest Dad. Cold hands for the Cubs’ Juan Cruz in the early innings, though one run has been as devastating as ten for the hard-luck loser this year (0-3, 1.80 ERA in three games before today.) But veteran Reds hurler Jose Rijo, seven years and five surgeries from his last start, looks unfazed by the elements, picking up the win in five solid innings, and one unearned run. On "Ernie Banks Rookie Card Day," Mr. Cub himself sang a spirited rendition of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame." Hot dogs were also available.

The Fast Runner (B)

Hey kids, pull up an ice floe and gather around. I’m going to tell you a little story that’s been passed down from generation to generation for a few millennia. Are you comfortable? I hope so, because you’ll be freezing your ass off for the next three hours. What’s that you say? Cut to the chase already?

As many have complained—at least those who aren’t falling all over themselves to give props to the first Inuit feature film—tight, crisp storytelling are not the movie’s strong suits. This is really a puny story on an epic scale, though even the scale is undermined by the DV photography, which blunts the visual impact while it probably enhances performances that might seem unforgivably stilted on film. Yet the film has some of the ethnographic power of Nanook Of The North: I appreciated its indulgence in tribal rituals and its patience in drawing out the tensions within this close-knit community. For all its lapses, the story has a primacy that grows more apparent as it unfolds. It also has the single chanciest liaison pornographique I’ve ever seen in a movie. Talk about close quarters!

Changing Lanes (B+)

To put it in restaurant terms, the screenwriter—especially in Hollywood, where "The writer is King!"— begins a project as the head chef and generally works his way down to valet. But as soon as the high-concept premise of Changing Lanes kicks in, we’re clearly in Tolkinland, which is to say hung up in a moral quagmire deeper than the [insert metaphor here]. As a screenwriter, novelist, and two-time director, Michael Tolkin has always loved moral relativists: His script for Deep Cover, about an officer who infiltrates a drug cartel by selling drugs himself, is probably the purest example, but there are similar creatures in Tolkin’s The Player, The Rapture, and The New Age. Here, I’m reminded of Abraham Polonsky’s brilliant Force Of Evil, another film about a charismatic young lawyer who knows he’s doing wrong, yet scrambles desperately to justify his actions, even as they slowly carve an ulcerous pit in his stomach. I should have been put off by all of the speechifying, but Tolkin (and his co-writer, Chap Taylor, whom I suppose should be credited) writes some gripping monologues. Many have cited Amanda Peet’s hair-raising bit about knowing the type of man she married, but I keep returning to Sydney Pollack on "doing more good than bad at the end of the day," particularly the kicker about day-care centers in Malaysia. If I could, I’d like to break into the projection booths of America and make a cut on the great close-up where the movie should end, rather than the five minutes of pat resolution that follow. But otherwise, this is compelling and smart, with just about every actor doing his or her best work in awhile. (Save for a scene-stealing Dylan Baker and Pollock, who are always terrific.)

Enigma (C)

Two years ago, I was somewhat embarrassed by the revelation that the Enigma machine was lifted off German U-boats by the British, not the Americans depicted in the entertaining-as-far-as-it-goes submarine thriller U-571. But now, I’ll take a little Ugly Americanism over the code-cracking dullards in Enigma. The film is too confusing to remember clearly, but I can’t forget one head-slapping line, when the two chief code-breakers muse denouement-ly over sultry double-reverse-fakeout agent Saffron Burrows: "She was unreadable."

National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (F)

I guess it’s an achievement of sorts that this future Comedy Central fodder contains perhaps the single most disgusting gross-out gag in the Farrelly Era, something involving a bulldog with gigantic testicles and a gift basket of powdered eclairs. A Z-grade throwback to the Animal House knockoffs of the mid-‘80s, with a healthy dose of late ‘90s scatology and reactionary anti-P.C.-ism thrown in for good measure, Van Wilder is an equal opportunity offender, insulting Asians, Indians, women, gays, the obese, and your intelligence. Lots of moments to cherish here: A protein shake spiked with colon blow, a randy old administrator who could be Mrs. Robinson’s mother, a stripper with an explosive derriere, and, best of all, an unbilled Tom Everett Scott as the newspaper editor who really needs that in-depth profile of seven-year party animal Van Wilder for the coveted front-page of the Graduation Issue. I don’t like to throw around the word "masterpiece" too often; I’ll be spared having to make that choice here.

Human Nature (B+)

With No Such Thing, Trouble Every Day, and this hilarious Buñuellian romp, you could put together a pretty sweet mini-festival of films that were widely reviled at Cannes last year. I suppose you could label Charlie Kaufman a one-trick pony, but only because his authorial voice is so distinctive; in premise, theme, and half-cracked dialogue, Human Nature is unmistakably from the man responsible for Being John Malkovich. Granted, this is a case of diminishing returns, with none of the emotional weight of the earlier film and a surprisingly inconsistent (even bland at times) visual style from music video wiz Michel Gondry. But Kaufman keeps coming up with one brilliant exchange after another, with language that brims with intelligence, restless invention and way-the-hell-off-center wit. To be shown on the back end of a double bill with The Mystery Of Kaspar Hauser.

Panic Room (B+)

In defense of Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way, my old friend and fellow critic Noel Murray once wrote (and I paraphrase): "Strictly by the numbers, but oh what numbers!" I can think of no better way to describe David Fincher’s sleek, gleaming contraption of a thriller, which is already getting dissed in the alt-weeklies for merely being a taut and expertly directed white-knuckler, and not something more profound. Granted, I was left slightly disappointed that Fincher didn’t seize the thematic opportunities he was given: The home invasion premise is not dissimilar from Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, in which a bourgeois couple has their modern security devices turned against them, and the class/racial dynamics in the story are curiously elided. But as an exercise in suspense craftsmanship, the film is beyond reproach.

Triumph Of Love (C)

A tall and imposing woman, Mira Sorvino has a gangly clumsiness in her movements and voice that served her well in Mighty Aphrodite, when her crass, towering prostitute looked capable of swallowing Woody Allen whole at any given moment. But she’s uniquely ill-equipped to carry Claire Peploe’s turgid adaptation of Marivaux’s lithe 18th century bedroom farce, which is several beats too slow to pull off the snappy rhythms of the material. It’s still possible to appreciate the play’s nifty mechanics, but difficult to eke much pleasure out of them here.

Time Out (A)

An addendum to my Onion review: As several critics, including Mike D’Angelo and Dennis Lim have rightly pointed out, the hero in this movie doesn’t concoct this scheme entirely out of shame over losing his job. To quote Mike: "the actor masterfully conveys both the pleasure Vincent derives from deception and -- more crucially -- the freedom he feels in moments of solitude, when the mask can safely be removed." This is an important dimension to his character, one I regret not mentioning in my review.

No Such Thing (B+)

For years, I’d cast off Hal Hartley as a clever—and, I’ll grudgingly admit, singular—voice in the indie world, but his films were always too slight and precious to bear all the heavy plaudits slung in their direction. His aesthetic struck me as a curiously airless and too worked-out, completely sealed off from the world outside it. So imagine my surprise in finding his latest—widely reviled at Cannes and released with no small measure of embarrassment by MGM—a moving, empathetic, and startlingly prescient look at a world gone mad, one not so far removed from our own. In fact, the best bits in No Such Thing come before the highly touted monster (played with sensitivity and blind, comical rage by Hartley favorite Robert Burke) makes his appearance. Sarah Polley, a wallflower who heads to Iceland to do a TV report on the monster (and, more urgently, find her missing husband), enters another sort of Sweet Hereafter when she survives a plane crash en route and winds up in a Reykjavik hospital with her body smashed to ribbons. Just these simple scenes of Polley and her caretakers, protected from the cynicism of her boss (Helen Mirren, in a ripe parody of the craven newspaperman archetype) and the harshness of the outside world, carry enormous emotional power. (The slo-mo shot in which she leaves the hospital behind is especially poignant.) The rest of the film, with its jarring tonal shifts and questionable leaps in motivation, is a little off-balance, but by then, I was sufficiently haunted.