Wars, Penguins and Gays: Oh, My!
Swearing In: Year of the R-Rated Comedy
It's an unavoidable trend -- if two movies make a trend, that is -- so much so that if you Google the phrase "the return of the R-rated movie," the first hit takes you to the tsk-tsking Family Media Guide's article on the very topic, along with its list of some 3,000 titles touted as profanity-free, family-friendly alternatives. To which, of course, we offer a hearty Fuck that shit.
Those who would damn the R-rated comedy as more evidence of the coarsening of America miss the point of films such as Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which are essentially chick flicks only masquerading as dick flicks. Both movies -- the former about two horndogs reluctantly settling down, the latter about a virgin reluctantly getting down -- bury within their vulgar exteriors mushy, conventional love stories. They use the word fuck as often as the word the, but they can't help ditching the crudity for a four-letter word even the Family Media Guide would approve of: love (awwwwww).
R-rated comedies are a necessary evil, because they offer a more truthful version of their audience's everyday life; the 21-year-old is more likely to see himself (or herself, for that matter) reflected in the nasty, desperate shenanigans of Virgin than in the beautiful, timeworn poetry of Pride & Prejudice. Someone you know is far more likely to go off on a rant about "cocks and ass and tits and butthole pleasures...and the Cincinnati bowties and the pussy-juice cocktail and the shit-stained balls" than to proclaim his love on bended knee by insisting, "I would have to tell you, you have bewitched me body and soul and I love and love and love you and never wish to be parted from you from this day forward."
Fact is, the R loses money by cutting its target audience by half, but sometimes that's a risk worth taking. Richard Linklater's PG-13 Bad News Bears remake was gutless and irrelevant because it wanted so badly to say something, to tread the same debauched but illuminating territory as Terry Zwigoff's crude classic Bad Santa, but felt emasculated and self-censored by its rating. There's a reason National Lampoon's Animal House, Stripes, Caddyshack and even the first American Pie endure: We speak in R-rated language, think R-rated thoughts and express R-rated feelings. -- Robert Wilonsky
The War on Film: Iraq Hits the Big Screen
War is hell, but it can also be high drama. In boots-on-the-ground documentaries like Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland, we got a discomfiting look at the brutal realities and moral ambiguities of America's war in Iraq, where the death toll rises along with the administration's rhetoric. "I want some answers," an army private first class says in Dreamland (directed by Garrett Scott and Ian Olds), which chronicles a few months of infantry action in the doomed city of Fallujah. "I want some clarification of what we're doing." Stephen Marshall's Battleground provides a few bewildering hints as insurgents openly talk about their hatred of the United States and an Iraqi interpreter blithely explains that the invasion was a result of an American economic collapse. Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories is a lesser piece of work. Its maker, ABC-TV freelancer Mike Shiley, has cluelessly boasted that he joined an army tank unit as a gunner and earned a civilian combat award after firing in a village along the Syrian border.
The Iraqi-made doc The Dream of Sparrows may be the most disturbing of all, a glimpse of life under occupation in which Iraqis directly address Western viewers in tones ranging from despair to anger to guarded hope.
With truths like these, there's scant need for fiction. But Sam Mendes's star-studded Jarhead (Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx) provided a look at U.S. Marine Corps culture in the first Gulf war, and writer-director Stephen Gaghan's Syriana (with George Clooney and Chris Cooper), a political thriller set in an unnamed Persian Gulf nation, has plenty of harsh things to say about intrigue and corruption in the global oil industry.
Given 2005's output, can filmmakers now declare Mission: Accomplished where Iraq is concerned? Hardly. -- Bill Gallo
The Penguin Factor: Why Them, Why Now?
Until this year, nature documentaries generally found their homes on PBS and Animal Planet, enjoying modest audiences made up of children and scientists. Then came March of the Penguins, which earned close to $80 million at the box office and is still playing in some areas six months after its release. That's a long run for a bunch of tubby butlers Charlie Chaplining their way across the ice. So why the fuss? Here are four answers:
They bring the cute. If nothing else, March makes a strong case for the emperor penguin as the single most adorable animal ever, waddling its impressive bulk for 70 miles at a stretch and using its ample, glistening belly for sliding as well as warmth.
Penguins are like us. Admit it: Seen from afar, that long, black line of travelers looks strikingly human. Their massive group-search for a mate, in which every penguin sizes up every other penguin for some unknowable something, is nature's answer to the high school prom.
They're tough little buggers. We begin in the garden, then leave on a quest, descend into darkness, suffer through immense hardship, lose companions to death and emerge into the spring, with kids. This is The Odyssey with beaks.
You can't do this at home. It's not easy to get to Antarctica, or to stay there, and director Luc Jacquet did both, passing day and night with the penguins for nearly a year. His footage is immensely moving, as when an inexperienced father drops his egg or a mother loses her newborn to the cold. It's also breathtaking, featuring grand vistas of sea, ice and sky.
In the end, March of the Penguins is almost more of a drama than a documentary, and a dark one at that. (The U.S. marketing strategy made the film out to be a love story -- a disingenuous move.) After nearly a year with these brave and hilarious creatures, we've been through something as harrowing as it is absurd, and we have forged a bond. The film doesn't merely surpass most nature documentaries; it surpasses most movies of any genre. -- Melissa Levine
Enough Already: When Good Actors Make Bad Movies
When Cedric the Entertainer makes a lousy movie, he's delivering no less than we expect of him. But how long must we keep praising promising actors who consistently run on autopilot in mediocre crap, though we've seen that they're capable of much more? Following are the top three sandbaggers of 2005:
Dakota Fanning: She wowed the world by holding the screen opposite a showboating Sean Penn in I Am Sam and showed natural intelligence opposite Denzel Washington in Man On Fire. Now producers seem to consider her for every little-girl role that comes along, and critics have been effusive in their praise. But then there's The Cat in the Hat, and this year, the Robert De Niro stinker Hide and Seek and the godawful Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story. (She was fine in War of the Worlds, a film that required her merely to scream and cry.) Let's assume since she's only 11, someone else is choosing her scripts.
Jamie Bell: The endearing star of Billy Elliot made interesting choices this year, but they were mostly interestingly bad. Exactly what the hell was he doing as a would-be 19th-century dandy with a gun fetish in Dear Wendy? And what was the point of The Chumscrubber, in which he plays a disaffected teen in a suburbia racked by pill-popping? Both films were made by foreign directors who seem not to understand America at all. Maybe Bell doesn't either, but he was on the right track with last year's Undertow, and he needs to get back on it.
Peter Sarsgaard: The intensely focused eyes that look like they might cry any second. The mildly effeminate, laid-back delivery with which he utters each line. It was all quite novel for a while. But something has gone way wrong in Sarsgaard's turn toward hammy villain roles in The Skeleton Key and Flightplan; when he tries to play over-the-top, he just seems dead inside. (Ditto the troubled marine he portrayed in Jarhead.) Playing gay wasn't a bad idea; unfortunately, the project he chose to do that in was The Dying Gaul, a misguided play-turned-movie that tried to get viewers excited with tense scenes of...people typing on computers. -- Luke Y. Thompson
Art Imitates Strife: The Year in Documentaries
What a difference a year makes. In 2004, Michael Moore's Bush-bashing Fahrenheit 9/11 was not only the most-watched and most-debated doc in release, but also among the highest-grossing movies of the year. This year's most-watched and highest-grossing documentary was, of course, March of the Penguins, which was about as contentious as a cotton ball; your kids are probably watching the DVD at this very moment, for the 13th time. And the best-reviewed doc was Murderball, about quadriplegic rugby players asserting their right to do anything able-bodied folks can do, including give or take a punch and throw down in the bedroom with their hot girlfriends. Was it inspirational? Absolutely, and without a tinge of mawkishness; oh, how you come to love these tough dudes in their Mad Max wheelchairs.
Murderball was funny too, but not as laugh-out-loud, vomit-in-your-mouth hysterical as The Aristocrats, in which almost 100 comics told the same infamous dirty joke almost 100 different ways. Best of all was Sarah Silverman's first-person telling of the show-biz fable, which concluded with her appearing to realize for the first time she was raped by talk-show legend Joe Franklin, who didn't get the joke and threatened to sue. Silverman also had her own in-concert film, Jesus Is Magic, in which she said things out loud most people wouldn't dare think to themselves -- as in, "Everyone knows the best time to get pregnant is when you're a black teenager" and her assertion that "it was the blacks" who killed Christ.
There were, of course, more serious-minded, topical docs too: Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland spent countless hours with soldiers stationed in Iraq, where they fought off boredom and anger as often as the so-called enemy. But the most profound and provocative doc that played on U.S. screens -- albeit barely -- will go unnoticed. Titled The Power of Nightmares, it originally aired in October 2004 on the BBC in three parts, but collectively it's a three-hour punch in the gut. Writer-director-narrator Adam Curtis, a well-respected documentarian in England, provides a sobering narrative that essentially says not only that there is no Al Qaeda (it's a name created by the U.S. government and adopted by Osama bin Laden after September 11, 2001, claim several of the doc's talking heads), but that the same men responsible for selling us the war in Iraq based on shaky evidence also sold us the cold war in the 1970s using similarly fabricated information intent on scaring the populace into obedience.
Curtis also links the rise of neoconservatives in the States to the birth of Islamic fundamentalism in the 1950s; both movements, after all, tied Western decadence to Western liberalism. It's essentially Fahrenheit 9/11 without the screaming, the preaching, the panic -- a newsy film that Salon's Andrew O'Hehir called "the most important political documentary of this decade, and perhaps of my lifetime." And you will likely never see it, unless you scour the Web for the myriad sites hosting bootleg copies. Go figure: The best doc of 2005 is one you'll have to see on your computer. Viva la digital revolution, indeed. -- Robert Wilonsky
Keep It Gay: The Year Hollywood Went Homo
Social conservatives may have put the brakes on gay marriage, but there isn't much they can do about gay movies, which arrived like some biblical flood in the last months of 2005. Along with Capote, a vivid portrait of the most celebrated gay writer of the 1960s, Ang Lee's romantic tragedy Brokeback Mountain, the story of two lean cowboys who fall in love and stay there, on and off, for 20 years, may signal a startling shift of attitude in mainstream Hollywood. The film was adapted from a much-honored short story by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx, and it stars two of the industry's most respected young actors: Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Breakfast on Pluto, directed by The Crying Game's Neil Jordan, may not draw as well, but Cillian Murphy puts in an energetic performance as an Irish cross-dresser who gets entangled in an IRA bomb plot in London. Looking for a companion piece? In the offbeat comedy Transamerica, Felicity Huffman (of Desperate Housewives fame) portrays a pre-op transgender candidate who learns that she once fathered a son, now a teenage gay hustler in Manhattan, and they take a mutually revealing cross-country road trip together.
In The Dying Gaul, a gay writer runs afoul of a Hollywood producer over a screenplay about his lover's death from AIDS, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, an exercise in mock pulp fiction, features Val Kilmer as an L.A. private detective known as Gay Perry. The movie version of the Broadway rock hit Rent is amply stocked with a lesbian couple, a transvestite and a gay man. A couple of otherwise hetero movies also feature prominent gay characters: Trying to ensure that their Broadway musical bombs, The Producers, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, sign up a cross-dressing director and instruct him to "keep it gay." In Mrs. Henderson Presents, the wartime nudie revues financed by well-heeled widow Judi Dench are anchored by a gay leading man. -- Bill Gallo
Gross Yield: The Awards for Cinematic Depravity
Some of us go to the movies to escape into fantasy, others to cry at tragic drama. Then there are those who just enjoy a couple hours of shock treatment. Maybe it's cathartic, or maybe it's just sick, but it was unquestionably a good year for connoisseurs of the grotesque. Here are our favorite moments:
Finger-paining: For all the elaborate death-traps in Saw II, the most intense scene occurs when the cop played by Mark Wahlberg decides to break the Jigsaw Killer's fingers. Tobin Bell's acting sells the pain better than any contraption.
Method acting gone wrong: George Clooney's separation from his fingernails in Syriana was seriously wince-inducing. Falling to the ground later in the scene, he really injured his back.
Barrels of fun: We're used to seeing shotgun blasts in movies, but seldom with the visceral splatter that accompanied Ed Harris's demise in A History of Violence.
Everything Zen? Don't think so! Bush lead singer Gavin Rossdale played a demon in Constantine and ended up getting his face melted. Everyone who listened to music in the mid-'90s rejoiced.
Hammer time: Oldboy not only showed how to take on a corridor full of thugs armed only with a hammer, it also demonstrated how to extract teeth with same. Now that's versatility.
Family recipe: The opening credits haven't finished rolling on the Japanese horror anthology Three...Extremes before we see, in graphic detail, the "secret ingredient" of Bai Ling's dumplings. You guessed it: aborted fetuses.
"I take his weapons. Both of them": What to do when confronted with a mutated, yellow-skinned rapist? If you're Bruce Willis in Sin City, you take his knife, then rip his nuts off with your bare hands.
"I want to eat something alive": In Oldboy -- a movie that centers around a plot to trick a man into committing incest, and also involves tongue slicing and amateur dentistry -- the most memorably disturbing scene was also one of the simplest. Our hero Oh Dae-su, freed from years of captivity, enters a sushi bar and scarfs down a live, wriggling octopus. Four cephalopods gave their lives for this scene, and live octopus tentacles briefly became a dining fad in Hollywood. Very briefly. -- Luke Y. Thompson
Closing Credits: They Called Him Ismail
The Bombay-born film producer Ismail Merchant, who died in May at age 68 after abdominal surgery, collaborated with director James Ivory on a dozen elegantly furnished period pieces over the last quarter-century, including The Remains of the Day, starring Anthony Hopkins as a repressed English butler, three E.M. Forster adaptations (A Room With a View, Howards End and Maurice), and a trove of Henry James tales like The Europeans and The Bostonians. The last Merchant-Ivory production is scheduled for January release, but the faithful may not embrace The White Countess with their usual fervor: Set in Shanghai in the turbulent 1930s, it's a romantic melodrama with a crass sheen -- despite the presence of Ralph Fiennes.
While the going was good, though, it was very good. Beginning in the late 1970s, Merchant-Ivory became the gold standard for stately, well-spoken costume drama, quite often set in refined country houses surrounded by vast expanses of lawn and garden. Merchant and director Ivory were artistic partners (40 films) and life partners, but their relationship was immeasurably enhanced by writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who wrote many of the screenplays. "It's a strange marriage," Merchant once observed. "I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American...a three-headed monster."
Detractors saw their films as pretentious pseudo-lit. At an early screening of Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino ordered anyone who liked The Remains of the Day to "get the fuck out of here." But the huge audiences who embraced Merchant-Ivory's polished literacy, good manners and devotion to high craft continue to mourn the great producer's passing. -- Bill Gallo
Like a Rock: Wrestlers Leap to the Screen
In September, UPN insisted that World Wrestling Entertainment remove the controversial Arab-American character Muhammed Hassan from its Smackdown broadcasts. One might have expected Hassan (in real life an Italian-American named Mark Copani) to resurface on USA network's Raw. Instead, Copani quit the business altogether to pursue movie stardom.
Blame the Rock. For years, wrestlers avoided the big screen for fear of being mocked like Hulk Hogan in Mr. Nanny. But then the "People's Champ" gets himself some good reviews, and now every ring giant is following suit. Bill Goldberg, whose wrestling persona was based on not talking much, appeared prominently in three films this year -- as a convict with a big schlong in The Longest Yard, as an evil Father Christmas in Santa's Slay and as himself in Tom Arnold's The Kid and I. Also in The Longest Yard: Kevin Nash playing it effeminate, and Stone Cold Steve Austin, smartly tweaking his redneck-bully image.
The Rock made the best of bad projects in Be Cool and Doom, but his upcoming role in Richard Kelly's quirky Southland Tales should erase those memories. Ironically, he was outperformed in '05 by another self-proclaimed people's champion, Diamond Dallas Page, whose turn as a bounty hunter in The Devil's Rejects was equal to co-star Danny Trejo's.
In the pipeline: Eminem-wannabe-on-steroids John Cena recently wrapped the lead role in The Marine, horror-movie-inspired Kane actually gets his own horror movie called See No Evil, and Steve Austin stars in The Condemned. Copani, so far, remains unemployed. -- Luke Y. Thompson
Failure to Adapt: Why Books Were Invented First
Hollywood served up no shortage of literary adaptations in '05, but only one of them -- see Thumbsucker, as soon as possible -- was an unqualified success. Even Andrew Adamson's Chronicles of Narnia, with its obviously digitized armies and its emotional disconnect from the material, was largely a disappointment. Sure, it has its charms (namely, a pair of adorable beavers), but most of the film is a bust, advertising its grandeur and its pathos rather than digging into the drama of either. But there were other notable letdowns.
Liev Schreiber, an actor respected for his intelligence and erudition, managed to botch his adaptation of Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer's astounding debut novel. Schreiber stripped the book of its folkloric magical realism, then altered the plot's defining events so as to make no sense. What is supposed to be illumination becomes obfuscation, and what is supposed to be a brave look at the atrocities of the Holocaust becomes a sentimental apology for not having done so.
Equally plagued was Bee Season, an adaptation by Scott McGehee and David Siegel of the best-seller by Myla Goldberg. This film was over as soon as it was cast: Richard Gere is simply not believable as a towering Jewish patriarch, nor does Juliette Binoche make sense as his distant, obsessive wife. And instead of delving into the Kabbalistic teachings that are at the heart of the novel, the film merely dabs, attempting to paint the picture of a young girl's otherworldly talent for spelling with the use of clever graphics. That's lazy storytelling, and it doesn't work.
Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice won critical praise, and its first half-hour is a lot of fun. But then it dissolves into such silly faux romanticism that it entirely misses the point. Jane Austen was nothing if not arch: She saw the absurdity of her situation. To have no career and no hope of advancement other than marriage was not a happy state of affairs for a woman, and Elizabeth Bennet strains against it, even as she falls for the sullen, tight-assed Darcy. In Wright's version, both Elizabeth and Darcy melt into woozy teenagers, people who believe in True Love and trundle across hill and dale, tresses flying, to proclaim it. Feh.
Other dishonorable mentions include Steve Martin's syrupy Shopgirl, the overly chipper Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, and the generalized disaster of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. All are united by their primary achievement: reminding us of the power of books. -- Melissa Levine
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