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Films I Neglected To Review: At Least One Road Leads to Somewhere
by Peter Sobczynski

This latest compendium of capsule reviews of current releases finds mankind being besieged by vile monsters both large and small, psychotic dictators-in-training and Ryan Reynolds in full-on smugness mode. However, it is the first feature in 22 years from a cult favorite that is the true keeper of the bunch

The latest low-budget genre effort to take the geek world by storm, the British import “Attack the Block” offers viewers a dish consisting of select cuts from such cult classics as “Assault on Precinct 13,” “The Warriors” “Critters” and the Spielberg production of one’s choice featuring a bunch of kids who band together to save the day and possibly the world, a healthy dollop of blood and guts and a pinch of nearly impenetrable accents. Set within the confines of a run-down and crime-ridden London housing project, the film tells the story of a group of young punks whose evening of criminal mischief kicks off with the mugging of a nurse (Jodie Whittaker) but quickly takes a strange detour when the area is besieged by mysterious and vicious creatures from another world and they are forced to team up with their former victim in order to avoid being killed by either the monsters or the equally vicious local crime figure who is so hell-bent on hunting them down that he barely notices the bizarre carnage erupting all around him. Debuting writer-director Joe Cornish (whose profile will no doubt rise later this year due to co-writing the screenplay for the eagerly anticipated Steven Spielberg epic “The Adventures of Tintin”) is clearly of fan of the classic works of such genre favorites as John Carpenter and Walter Hill and to that extent, his film is such an overt and stylishly made homage that it no doubt plays like gangbusters before audiences of like-minded viewers eagerly picking up on references and in-jokes both large and small (such as naming the housing complex after the author of the seminal British sci-fi classic “The Day of the Triffids”). The trouble is that, with the exception of an admittedly charismatic turn from John Boyega as the leader of the kids, Cornish doesn’t seem to have anything else on his mind other that homage and after a while, it just becomes a repetitive and mechanical exercise that makes you appreciate even more the ways in which Carpenter and Hill managed to combine their obvious command of the technical aspects of filmmaking with the kind of distinct personality that elevated them above the other exploitation junk. Based on the evidence here, Cornish has the technical aspects down cold (especially in the ways that he manages to make the most out of what was presumably a meager budget) but lacks any sort of distinctive individual touch of note and that is what eventually prevents it from ever really working. That said, he does have undeniable gifts and once he learns to stop slavishly imitating his predecessors and step out on his own, he could one day make something that actually deserves all of the accolades that he has already inexplicably received.

The summer of 2011 has seen a surprising uptick in the number of unapologetically R-rated comedies and “The Change-Up” is both the raunchiest and the least funny of the lot. Essentially a dirty-minded riff on “Freaky Friday” as apparently conceived both by and for readers of “Maxim” magazine, the film stars Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds as a pair of mismatched best friends--the former is a serious type with a wife (Leslie Mann), three kids, a big house and is on the fast track for partnership at his law firm while the latter is an aging frat boy and failed actor whose life revolves around bong hits and bizarre sexual encounters--whose idle wishes for each other’s life come true after urinating in a magical fountain (presumably one representing Our Lady of Not-So-Immaculate Plot Contrivances) and waking up the next morning in each others bodies with the expected wacky results involving sexy dames, workplace hi-jinks and babies who perform their bodily functions so often and in such great amounts that they would almost certainly be rushed to the emergency room in the real world. Even considering the fact that the film is the brainchild of two of the screenwriters responsible for “The Hangover” and the auteur of “Wedding Crashers” and “Fred Claus,” this movie is so desperately unfunny and bottomlessly repellent in virtually every area that even the audience members who would find the “Hangover”/”Wedding Crashers” link to be a positive may find themselves stunned by its hateful and cruddy manner. The gross-out gags are ridiculously repulsive without ever being funny (the film starts off with a bit tracking an exceptionally runny blob of baby poop as it flies from the source directly into someone’s mouth), the sex jokes (mostly involving Reynolds’ distinctly strange sexual tastes, none of which Bateman is apparently aware of despite their lifelong friendship) are smutty without being sexy and the occasional attempts at going the Judd Apatow route by shoehorning in more sentimental material towards the end as the guys learn Valuable Lessons are so ham-fisted and ineptly handled as to beggar belief. To his credit, Bateman at least attempts to give a performance that channels Reynolds’ innate snark through his own straight-and-narrow persona but his efforts are undermined by the lazy-ass contributions by the giant walking smirk that is his co-star. Smug, sexist, stupid and with only one genuinely witty line that I can recall (“Take my hands off you”), “The Change-Up” is a film so devoid of entertainment that it may well inspire a rash of incidents involving viewers relieving themselves inside the theater in a desperate attempt to launch their inner spirits into a better film also playing at the multiplex--in this case, that would be pretty much anything else.

Uday Hussein, the son of former Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein, may have been a depraved and murderous degenerate to the nth degree but even he probably deserved a better movie to be the subject of than the ridiculous and borderline repellent docudrama “The Devil’s Double.” Inspired by real events, the film tells the story of Latif Yahia (Dominic Cooper), a loyal Iraqi whose uncanny physical resemblance to Uday (also played by Cooper) is brought to the forefront when he is summoned to the royal palace and informed that he is to serve as Uday’s body double in order to make public appearances as him when the situation is too dangerous or Uday is too wasted from excessive amounts of sex, drugs and booze to pull himself together. From this unique vantage point, Latif gets to experience many of the perks of being Uday--incredible wealth, lavish parties and the favors of an exceptionally comely (though possibly duplicitous) party girl (French actress Ludivine Sagnier, whose fairly unconvincing attempt to pose as an Iraqi becomes less noticeable as long as her clothes keep dropping off, which is frequently)--but also gets a front-row seat to his increasingly unhinged behavior (including raping a bride on her wedding day, molesting a schoolgirl before having her body dumped after an OD and disemboweling a rival with a knife while in line at a buffet) until it becomes too much and he struggles to escape his predicament despite the danger it poses to himself and his family. The film is so chock-full of blood, guts, guns, drugs and undeleted expletives that you get the sense that the pitch meeting must have been similar to Thomas Jane’s climactic freakout in the drug-dealer’s house in “Boogie Nights” and unfortunately, the film itself ends in much the same way--in a gory and confusing haze that ultimately signifies nothing. The trouble with the film is not so much that it is crammed with amounts of drugs, gore and swearing so great as to rival anything ever put before a camera as it is that it fails to do anything with them except show them off in the crassest way possibly in the hopes of luring in the bully-boy throngs that worship the likes of “Scarface” with recognizing its implicit critique of such behavior. An even bigger problem is the fact that while I accept the fact that the film has no doubt taken certain dramatic liberties with Latif’s story in order to make it more cinematically palatable, I do not accept the fact that it never feels even vaguely authentic for a single moment. (Even if you were as crazy as Uday Hussein presumably was, would you go through the trouble of grooming someone to be your secret double and then repeatedly bring him along to big public functions with hundreds of people so that they can see him and no doubt notice how the similarities?) In a dual performance aided by elaborate special effects allowing him to act opposite himself, Cooper (who is also on screens in a decidedly different role as the founder of Stark Industries in “Captain America”) gets to show off his blustery chops throughout but fails to infuse either character with enough personality to make them worth following for two hours--not only is he not Jeremy Irons in “Dead Ringers,” he is barely Jeremy Irons in “Dungeons & Dragons.” There is, to be sure, an interesting and provocative film to be made about this particular subject but with the exception of one brief scene (in which Latif poses as Uday to meet with his father only to discover that he is actually talking to the old man’s own double), “The Devil’s Double” is most certainly not it.

Although never as famous as such fellow graduates of Roger Corman’s unofficial filmmaking school as Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich, filmmaker Monte Hellman eked out an intriguing career as the director of such offbeat art/exploitation hybrids as “The Shooting,” “Cockfighter” and the 1971 cult classic “Two-Lane Blacktop” before largely dropping off the scene when his highly existential works began to fall out of favor in an increasingly homogenized industry. His latest film, “Road to Nowhere,” is his first feature since 1989’s “Silent Night, Deadly Night III: You Better Watch Out!” (which, no joking, is actually a pretty good exercise in gonzo horror that has precious little to do with psycho Santas) but with its dreamy pacing, elliptical plotting and subtle subversions of the expected genre clichés, it fits in perfectly with his previous efforts. Sort of a fusion of “Contempt” and “Mulholland Drive,” the film stars Shannyn Sossamon as a young woman who, despite her claims that she is not an actress, is hired by a up-and-coming filmmaker (Tygh Runyan) to star in his latest project, a true crime story involving a beautiful young woman, a politician, murder, suicide, a plane crash and $100 million in missing money. As the filming goes on, complications naturally begin to occur. Some are to be expected--the director and the actress, who is a dead ringer for the woman she is playing, fall in love and a local blogger (Dominique Swain) who chronicled the original case is hovering around the margins with some questions about how the truth as she saw it is being depicted by the director. Some are a little more unusual, such as an insurance investigator (Waylon Payne) who comes into the project as a technical advisor who begins to suspect that the actress’ resemblance to her real-life counterpart is more than mere coincidence. As the film progresses, real life and reel life begin to blend into each other to such a degree that it eventually becomes nearly impossible to determine what is meant to be true and what isn’t. Because Hellman and screenwriter Steven Gaydos prefer a more enigmatic approach to one in which everything is explained in excruciating detail, it is likely that many viewers will come away from it feeling somewhat frustrated but for those who don’t require everything to be spelled out for them and are willing to do a little bit of heavy lifting themselves, “Road to Nowhere” should prove to be a fascinating experience fueled by Hellman’s confident and complex direction and anchored by the first performance by Shannyn Sossamon to suggest that there is a real actress within the gorgeous blank from the junky likes of “A Knight’s Tale” and “One Missed Call.” Alas, some things never change and “Road to Nowhere” is only getting a limited theatrical release before hitting DVD and Blu-ray at the end of this month. Regardless of whether you see it on DVD or if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to catch it on the big screen, you owe it to yourself to see it because this is the kind of oddball mind-bender that will haunt you for days after seeing it.

Another film that will haunt you for days after seeing it, albeit for entirely different reasons, is “The Smurfs,” the hideous big-screen version of the eternally chirpy cartoon characters that were born in Europe in the 1950’s and which came over to America in the 80’s to become a Saturday morning favorite among dopey kids (and occasionally their dopey parents) who would vacantly watch their nonsensical adventures while shoveling in enough sugary cereal to make them instant diabetics. Utilizing the same combination that made “Garfield” and “Yogi Bear” among the most beloved cinematic creations of our time, the film finds a handful of Smurfs--Papa (Jonathan Winters), Clumsy (Anton Yelchin), Gutsy (Alan Cumming), Deeply Unfunny Stereotype. . .I mean, Grouchy (George Lopez), Brainy (Fred Armisen) and, of course, presumed town tramp Smurfette (Katy Perry. . .yes, Katy Perry)--who are magically zapped from their bucolic village into the urban jungle of New York City (a la too many uninspired kiddie movies to mention) while being pursued by the evil Gargamel (Hank Azaria, shedding whatever might have once remained of his dignity), who craves their Smurfy essence for reasons best not explored. While trying to assemble the magical materials required to get them back home, the Smurfs naturally spend a good deal of their time trying to settle the personal and professional problems of a nervous expectant father (Neil Patrick Harris, who somehow managed to find a movie dumber than “Beastly” to appear in this year) who has to whip up a fabulous new cosmetics ad campaign for his harridan boss (Sofia Vergara, who is probably the luckiest cast member in that the film all but forgets about her in the second half and allows her to maintain trace elements of her dignity stores) in a couple of days or be fired. Granted, there is probably no way that there could have ever been such a thing as a “good” Smurf movie but if it had been made along the lines of simple and borderline naïve lines of the original cartoons, there is a chance that it might have made for a passable entertainment for viewers as long as their age or IQ’s were still in the single digits. Instead, they have thrown in all this nonsense about imminent parenthood and cosmetics that is certain to bore the kids and to make matters even more perplexing, they have laced the proceedings with the kind of self-conscious meta-humor (including comments on the smurfs excessive cheerfulness and their all-purpose use of the word “smurf”) that works in something a bit edgier like “Looney Tunes” or “Bullwinkle” but which proves to be an awkward fit here. (That doesn’t even include the weird strain of gay-themed humor running throughout the film, including appearances from the likes of Joan Rivers, Michael Musto and Tim Gunn, references to such films as “Midnight Cowboy” and “Brokeback Mountain” and Smurfette commenting that “I kissed a Smurf and I liked it.”) Yes, it made a bunch of money during its opening weekend and yes, there will probably be additional films down the line but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it is brain-dead garbage from start to finish and if you take your little ones to see it and didn’t bother to bring them to the lovely “Winnie the Pooh,” then you are quite simply a monster and should be ashamed of yourselves. Oh yeah, while “The Smurfs” is inevitably being presented in 3-D, it is recommended that you catch it in 2-D instead, if for no other reason than the fact that the lack of additional eyewear will make it easier for you to gouge your eyes out if need be.

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originally posted: 08/05/11 13:56:02
last updated: 08/05/11 22:07:09
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