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The Gift that Keeps Us Guessing

June 4, 2010
Exit Through the Gift Shop

A classic example of Banksy's subversive, gimmicky street art that sorta kinda serves as the subject of Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a knowing exploration of the aesthetic, financial and ethical issues surrounding street art, hidden under the guise of a hilarious story about a talentless fool who hangs on the fringes of the scene. The fact that the fool may not exist hardly matters. If we take Exit at face value, it’s a twisting, amusing adventure that demonstrates how easily hype can manipulate art world taste. If we see it as a hoax, it becomes a twisting, amusing joke… that demonstrates how easily hype can manipulate art world taste.

Street art exists at the intersection between pop art, graffiti, performance art, vandalism, protest art and straight-up pranking. It’s usually not particularly complex—one of the most ubiquitous examples is a stencil of Andre the Giant’s face with the word “OBEY” in block letters—but it tries to make up for its simplicity through inventiveness, cleverness and how-the-hell-did-they-get-that-there logistical audacity. Its most famous practitioners are the mysterious, never-photographed Banksy, and Shepard Fairey, now best known for his red-and-blue Obama “HOPE” poster. Both figure prominently in Exit Through the Gift Shop, and Banksy directed it—a tip-off that in this documentary, not everything (perhaps even nothing) is what it seems.
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May 28, 2010

George Romero’s latest installment in the Living Dead series, Survival of the Dead, opens today. It won’t be in theaters long. Read my review from March.

Also, check out my story on Romero and the making of the film.

Solitary Man Should Be Left Alone

May 27, 2010
Solitary Man

In Solitary Man, Michael Douglas uses sex to stave off mortality. Not a bad idea, in theory.

In a moment of post-coital clarity after a one-night stand, a lovely young blonde woman (Anastasia Griffithe) asks Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), “How did I even end up with the grandfather of one of my son’s friends?” With typically cruel bluntness, Kalmen responds, “You’re in your late 30s. And if you were in your late 20s, you would be with the dissatisfied father of one of your son’s friends.” Pulling the bed sheets to her chin, she asks, “Who even talks like that?” Good question. The same could be asked about any character in Solitary Man, one of those contrived exercises in middle-brow profundity where every character articulately says what he’s thinking or feeling all the time, without the slightest bit of shame or misdirection. Its apparent cynicism is as fraudulent and predictable as its final reel turn to humanism.

Directed by Brian Koppelman and Daniel Levein (co-writers of Rounders) from an inexplicably celebrated script by Koppelman, Solitary Man focuses on Douglas’ Kalmen, one of those raging, aging lions familiar from overrated Saul Bellow novels. He’s 60, he has a bad heart, and he’s taken a dump on everything good in his life. Sometime in the past seven years, he divorced his faithful wife (Susan Sarandon) and sabotaged his successful car-dealership empire so as to dedicate his life to the pursuit of the youngest possible tail he can snare. Despite being a world-beating douchebag, he retains the unconditional love of his angelic daughter (Jenna Fischer, who has yet to prove she can do anything interesting beyond her role as Pam on The Office) and his eternally patient ex. He still lives in luxury in an impossibly expensive Manhattan apartment (which is to say, it has a view and there’s room to walk around his bed), and still catches the eye of winsome, exotic 20-somethings. In other words, he lives the kind of heterosexual fantasy of late middle age reserved in reality only for celebrated authors and, well, Michael Douglas.
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Brief Thoughts on Silly New Movies

May 25, 2010

One of the best parts of going to the theater in the late spring is seeing trailers for the new summer movies. While a certain level of polite respect is expected during the movies themselves, no such sense of decorum prevails during previews. Snickering, groaning, running commentary, flatulence–it’s all fair game during the trailers. Here’s a sampling of some of the best:

I knew a new Karate Kid movie starring Will Smith’s son and Jackie Chan was coming out, but it just sounded like another redundant remake. That is, until I saw the trailer. Following the same general plotline as the 1984 original–undersized street kid with a heart of gold moves to a wealthier neighborhood full of nasty little blackbelts–the update replaces the origin city of Newark, New Jersey, with Detroit, and the destination of the San Fernando Valley with Beijing. How’s that for up-to-the-minute cultural allegory? Just in case you miss the symbolism, the trailer tracks across what looks like a clone army of orange-clad kung fu-fighting tykes, stomping in unison like the percussionist brigades at the 2008 Olympic opening ceremonies. I heard Jaden Smith even accuses Jackie Chan of currency manipulation.

I saw the next trailer before A Prophet, which is such an odd pairing that one of the people I was with openly questioned whether we were in the right theater. If Jonah Hex is wrong, I don’t want to be right. Hex stars Josh Brolin as a Western dude whose face is disfigured by John Malkovich, and then acquires supernatural powers, like the ability to talk like Kurt Russell in Tombstone. Hex of course wants revenge, but first he has to get a bunch of guns that won’t be invented for several decades from Lance Reddick. If that doesn’t sound crappy enough, Megan Fox is in it. But please watch the trailer. It looks like the closest thing to a non-intentional Hollywood blockbuster parody since Kevin Smith’s Cop Out (which I still suspect was hatched by the writers of 30 Rock as a fake vehicle for Tracy Jordan).

And then there’s this. I’ve seen commercials or trailers for this movie about 50 times since January, and I still have no idea what it’s about.

Lost in Narration

May 24, 2010
Two in the Wave

Jean-Luc Godard (L) and Francois Truffaut are profiled in Emmanuel Laurent's somewhat torturous new documentary Two in the Wave.

For a film about two of history’s most important directors, Two in the Wave is astonishingly uncinematic. Emmanuel Laurent’s documentary tells the story of the relationship between Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. And I do mean “tells.” Written and narrated by French New Wave scholar Antoine de Baecque, Two in the Wave is little more than an introductory academic essay put to film, a slideshow of photos, newspaper headlines and (thankfully) film clips to support narration that never misses a chance to tell us what we’re supposed to feel or think. Sometimes the clips are even redundant of the narration, as if de Baecque were defending his dissertation. One gains nothing from watching the film that one wouldn’t get from reading the script.

The story is interesting enough: the friendship forged between Truffaut and Godard during the early years of the French New Wave, and the eventual dissolution of their relationship after the student revolt of 1968. But there is a surprising lack of footage of the two together, which makes the film seem like the parallel stories of two great directors whose paths occasionally crossed rather than the portrait of a friendship. The clips of the pairs’ later films provide the most interesting moments in Two in the Wave, illustrating an aesthetic and political chasm too wide for personal affection to bridge. Or that’s what de Baecque wants us to think. It seems more likely the friendship dissolved because Godard was a world-class prick, sending Truffaut a letter comparing his films to the concentration camps. The most effective bit of the entire film comes during the credits, when Laurent shows footage from Truffaut’s audition of Jean-Pierre Léaud, before The 400 Blows made him (and Truffaut) a star. It is simultaneously nostalgic, moving and funny, calling to mind a time of innocence before politics and ego drove Godard and Truffaut apart. Best of all, de Baecque keeps his trap shut.

The Best Movie About the Worst Movie

May 21, 2010
Best Worst Movie

Best Worst Movie recounts the making and revival of Troll 2, which some claim is the worst movie ever made. Those people haven't seen My Name Is Khan.

Best Worst Movie, a documentary about Troll 2, would not exist but for the 20-somethings who made the aggressively awful 1990 horror flick an icon of ironic enjoyment. But the fans are the least interesting part of Best Worst Movie. The Onion’s been making fun of these kind of people for over a decade. Far more intriguing are the folks who made the film. There is nothing ironic in the profound ways their lives have been affected by a movie that was once the worst-rated on the Internet Movie Database.

One person whose life has been transformed, apparently for the better, is Michael Stephenson, the child star of Troll 2. Once deeply ashamed of the movie, the now-32-year-old produced and directed Best Worst Movie after being inundated by MySpace messages from fans in the mid-aughts. His documentary is certainly a love letter to those fans—and all their mask-making, Trollympic-staging weirdness—but it is also a moving, and occasionally disturbing, exploration of the consequences of the unrequited pursuit of fame.

Stephenson wisely anchors his film around one of the few people involved in the movie who did not stay in show business, George Hardy. Hardy, who played Stephenson’s father, is a successful dentist in a small Alabama city, a relentless optimist and a natural ham. Even his ex-wife can’t think of anyone who dislikes him. He has put Troll 2 behind him, as an amusing diversion on the path to a contented, comfortable life. He is the heart of Best Worst Movie, an object lesson in the way a good life can be fashioned in the wake of a stifled dream.
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A Prophet and the Ethics of Prison Films

May 19, 2010
A Prophet

Newcomer Tahar Rahim plays the enigmatic hero of Jacques Audiard's brutal new prison film, A Prophet.

Has there ever been a prison film that didn’t make us long for the protagonist’s freedom? Put another way, has there ever been a prison film that actually endorsed the penal system it depicts? These thoughts occurred to me after seeing Un prophète (A Prophet), Jacques Audiard’s brutal and riveting film about a young Arab man imprisoned in France. For roughly an hour, the film pulls off the rare trick of critiquing the prison system and its conniving protagonist in equal measure. But Audiard and co-screenwriter Thomas Bidegan (working from an original screenplay by Abdul Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit) ultimately settle for a Shawshank Redemption-like bit of wish fulfillment. Which isn’t to say A Prophet is bad. Only that it, like many other prison films, is unethical.

To be fair, any filmmaker looking to portray prison’s benefits is faced with an inarguable anthropological fact. Prison is a sad, ugly, lonely, sometimes brutal place. To depict it otherwise would be absurd. Its tenants inevitably suffer—that’s kind of the point—and we inevitably sympathize with their suffering. In A Prophet, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) endures his share.

The film opens with a fish-eye view of Malik at a prison intake, stripping and handing over his few worldly possessions. The low angle and limited field of vision suggest the POV of a baby fresh from the womb. It’s appropriate, for Malik is a blank slate. He’s a lost child of the banlieues, illiterate, casually violent, emotionally numb. We see nothing of his previous life. In physical appearance and affect, Rahim calls to mind two American actors I don’t love—Shia LaBeouf and Matthew Fox—with more convincing innocence than the former and more tortured stoicism than the latter.
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