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Killing Time: Jeff Talks Movies Instead of Reviewing Books.

Jeff Lester

A review for Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together should be forthcoming sometime soon but I keep coming up with new ways to put it off (if you download Sid Meier’s Pirates from Gametap, expect at least five hours of your life to disappear in flash).

Like today, for example. There’s no reason I couldn’t sit down and organize my thoughts on the book, but instead I’m gonna review a few movies I saw rather than, y’know, being true to the purpose of this blog. I apologize. (On the other hand, it’s probably foolhardy to try another comics-related post on the same 24 hour period as Jog’s awe-inspiring Jademan essay, so maybe this will work out best for all involved.)

COMEDIAN: Accomplishes the more-or-less impossible task of making me like Jerry Seinfeld again. During the height of publicity for the “may be the Gone With The Wind of talking animal CG movies and I’ll never know because I’d rather die than watch it” Bee Movie, I found myself wishing the guy would just…go away. Go far, far away. And that’s part of what makes this documentary kinda interesting–despite Seinfeld’s name and mug plastered all over nearly every inch of the DVD and case, the man’s barely in it.

Oh sure, he’s in it–the majority of the film focuses on Seinfeld building a new routine after retiring his old set and talking comedy with fellow comedians (with the remaining third or so of the film covering the counterpoint of young up-n-comer Orny Adams on the cusp of his career moving to the next level)–but it’s not the smirking, bemused, low-key Jerry Seinfeld we’re used to seeing (and, in my case, pretty damn sick of). No, the Jerry Seinfeld of Comedian is a glassy-eyed, queasy looking junkie, chasing the comedy dragon from nightclub to nightclub, working his material up from six minutes to fifteen to thirty, comparing notes after hours with other comedians who similarly look gassy and uncomfortable. At one point, after a less-than-stellar set, someone tries to reassure Seinfeld by saying, “Well, you looked like you were having fun up there,” to which he tersely replies, “Yeah, that’s the job.” And although Seinfeld flies from gig to gig in private chartered jets, and spends time at his house on the Hamptons, it’s clear his material possessions don’t mean half as much as the strange, ephemeral high of making people laugh.

Although it doesn’t go as far as one would want in showing how spectacularly fucked up and insanely neurotic stand-up comedians can be, Comedian nevertheless shows a world few of us are exposed to, and a flip-side to celebrity, without condescension or bias. It’s highly OK, and certainly worth a rental.

DYNAMITE WARRIOR: The action setpieces and Tony Jaa’s athleticism in Ong-Bak and Tom Yum Goong (released here as The Protector) impressed the hell out of me, but it was the out-of-control insanity of 2004’s Born To Fight that made me vow to check out anything done by Thai production company Baa-Ram-Ewe. That movie–an astonishing mix of propaganda flick and Die Hard featuring athletes and poor villagers kicking the shit out of mercenaries and soldiers–stars Dan Chupong, a guy who makes the charisma-light performances of Tony Jaa seem positively Brandoesque in comparison. (On the other hand, Chupong spends so much time in mid-air you’re convinced he lives there.)

Chupong is also the lead of Dynamite Warrior, but whereas Born To Fight is like a Thai John Woo flick (and Ong-Bak and Tom Yum Goong are like Thai Jackie Chan flicks), Dynamite Warrior is a Thai version of that other Hong Kong film staple, the batshit-crazy historical wire-fu flick.

Set at the turn of the 20th Century, Chupong plays a mysterious rocket-riding hero who appears out of nowhere and kicks the shit out of corrupt water buffalo rustlers and herders, looking for the man who killed his parents. He finds him, but of course the man is gifted with immense magical powers, as well as the ability to turn two of his henchmen into monkey and tiger-possessed strongmen. In order to defeat him, Chupong needs the menstrual blood of an evil wizard’s virginal daughter (well, sure, who doesn’t?) as well as the assistance of an untrustworthy hare-lipped tractor salesman.

I was willing to forgive Dynamite Warrior an endless number of sins (Chupong is an utterly binary actor, capable of only expressing determination or befuddlement, making his love scenes pretty hilarious; the plot makes even less sense than my summary conveys; and there’s tons of not-particularly-funny broad, vulgar comedy) but for this: the action scenes aren’t a tenth of what you’ll find in Ong-Bak, Tom Yum Goong, or Born To Fight. There’s a lot of the cheats you get from a wire-fu flick, with people flying halfway across a meadow at each other while dynamically pumping their arms, but additionally shots of blows being thrown are cut away at the moment of impact to show someone reeling backward.

I mean, it’s not terrible if you like this kind of thing: even if they might be wire-rigged, Chupong does some truly spectacular flips and leaps, and the scenes where things go truly nuts (like when the tiger guy and the monkey guy start chasing a rocket-powered wagon) are enjoyable in a “Hey, you’ve got to come see this!” kind of way. But by the standard of previous Baa-Ram-Ewe flicks, Dynamite Warrior is pretty Eh–unlikely to be the sort of thing you and your friends will gleefully pass around.

DAN IN REAL LIFE: Oh, god. This is the sort of thing you go see with your wife on “Date Night,” and afterward spend almost as long bitching about it as you did watching it. Steve Carell is Dan, a widower advice columnist with three feisty daughters. They go to the annual family reunion where, on his own in the nearby town, Dan meets cute and falls in love with Marie (Juliette Binoche), who he later learns is the new girlfriend of Carell’s younger brother (Dane Cook).

The funniest thing about Dan In Real Life is the title, as the filmmakers–apparently test-tube specimens raised in a lab with only nutrient tubes and a copy of Final Draft to sustain them–have no actual experience with real life whatsoever. Dan’s interactions with his daughters, the scene where Dan and Marie meet, and particularly every scene with Dan’s family lacks any ear for dialogue or eye for verisimilitude one would expect from someone given money by investors to make an indie film romantic comedy. Dan’s family, in particular, seem less like recognizable human beings and more like labrador retrievers wearing human skin, jumping up and down whenever anyone suggests an activity and running about the kitchen yelping indiscreetly.

Also, the tone is really, really off in the film, with topics like grief and death and familial betrayal being treated like the perfect jumping-off points for cheap one-liners and awful acoustic songs warbled by some indy folk dude who’s clearly spent more of his professional career worrying about hair conditioner than chord progressions. It’s as if the filmmakers were told that the film was going to be marketed overseas as Little Miss Sunshine 2 and to film accordingly.

I don’t know what other romantic comedies are out there for people to go to on date night, but avoid the Crap that is Dan In Real Life and go see them instead. Honestly, even watching a calf get hit by a heavy mallet for forty-five minutes is a more enjoyable cinematic experience.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: As a fan of both the Coen Brothers and of Cormac McCarthy, I couldn’t be more pleased with this flick which adapts McCarthy’s recent novel to the screen (I haven’t read it). Not only is it a gorgeous, taut film packed with sharp dialogue, it feels to me like a culmination and canny distillation of many of the Coen Brothers’ thematic obsessions–particularly in its portrayal of dead-eyed assassin Anton Chigurh (brilliantly played by Javier Bardem). If you’ve followed enough of their films, you know they usually include a terse, violent sociopath who enjoys inflicting pain (and they usually have a connotation of being foreigners as well–I’m thinking of The Dane from Miller’s Crossing, Peter Stormare’s Swede in Fargo, even the German anarchists from The Big Liebowski, as well as Goodman in Barton Fink, Tex Cobb in Raising Arizona, and M. Emmett Walsh in Blood Simple) but Chigurh overwhelms all of them with his awful haircut, his creaky voice, and his air-compressor M.O. Although efficient in everything he does, he’s terrifyingly and hilariously incapable of understanding humanity, and humanity is similarly unable to understand him. (Also, he steals the coin-flipping gimmick from Two-Face, so you gotta love the guy.)

Like I said, I haven’t read McCarthy’s book but I assume Chigurh’s horrific larger-than-life attributes come directly from there, as one of McCarthy’s ongoing themes are the powerful forces capable of indiscriminately crushing all men, good and bad, strong and weak. Similarly, the very strange turn the movie takes in its final quarter strikes me as straight from McCarthy–not only does he refuse to treat people’s mortality with any sort of sentimental escapism, but he’s just as likely to end his stories with characters ruminating on visions and dreams that run the terminator between hope and despair.

And yet, again, what’s great about No Country For Old Men is that it’s very much a Coen Brothers movie, with the ending not unlike that of Fargo, where Frances McDormand’s character, like Tommy Lee Jones’, can do little more than ponder imcomprehensible evil while taking comfort in the ability to love and be loved by others.

Whether or not the end of the movie succeeds in opening the frame up on its genre conventions and pointing to their larger implications on life and civilization (it didn’t entirely work for me), the first three quarters of No Country For Old Men is a remarkable crime-thriller, a violent game of hide-and-seek taking place across small towns and great plains, and absolutely unmissable. I still haven’t seen Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which a lot of people have recommended to me, but No Country For Old Men is Excellent stuff, and currently my pick for movie of the year.

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