Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Film Review - YOU DON'T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN: Hair Pollution!

You know, sometimes I just don’t understand what the heck is going through Adam Sandler’s head. He’s a funny guy with natural charisma and, I would guess, a reasonable level of intelligence. So why does he feel compelled to write and produce films of such appallingly low quality? It worked with his initial efforts, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. Those two films defied any sense of logical criticism. They were sloppy, yet contained a maniacal sense of anarchic glee. He seemed thrilled at what he was getting away with. Yet, since the release of those films over a decade ago, he has continued to crank out by-the-numbers mediocrity that lacks any feeling of comic discovery.

It is with great displeasure that I have to inform you that his latest, You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, is by far his most wretchedly awful film to date. Sandler’s character this time, a Mossad agent who dreams of being a hairdresser, would probably fill a lame Saturday Night Live skit, but stretched to over 100 minutes is akin to Chinese water torture.

Zohan isn’t any normal secret agent; he’s a walking caricature of crass Middle Eastern stereotypes and sniggering vulgarity. With a Wham!-inspired haircut and a penchant for shtupping elderly women, he finds employment at a small salon run by the sweet, yet blank, Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a Palestinian woman with no patience for Zohan’s sexism. As can be predicted, despite their antagonistic relationship, they soon are yearning to “make the bam-boom”. Their insipid love story intermingles with a laugh-free subplot featuring Zohan’s nemesis the Phantom (John Turturro) and a hapless Arab cab-driver (Rob Schneider, ladies and gentlemen...) ineptly planning murder attempts.

Now, racial stereotyping and crude humour can be used to great comic effect in the proper hands. The makers of Borat toed the line brilliantly, delivering great vulgar hilarity mixed with social commentary. You Don’t Mess With The Zohan is not even in the same time zone, much less ballpark. The film is amazingly hostile and mean-spirited, mocking its targets with unfiltered scorn for the majority of the running time, yet tacking on a “we’re all the same” message at the end. It’s like the school-yard bully who beats the snot out of you all semester but wishes you a good summer at when vacation time rolls around. Why did no one involved in this debacle pull Sandler aside and gently suggest that this material was unfilmable?

Also concerning is the amount of animal abuse presented for cheap laughs. There is a particularly soul-killing scene featuring Zohan and two friends playing hacky-sack with a cat. Now, a good writer would use this undeniably objectionable act as a springboard to a larger pay-off. That would redeem the bad taste and warrant the scene’s inclusion. Not here however, where the only apparent joke is that a trio of grown men are kicking the stuffing out of a helpless animal.

What is almost fascinating about Zohan is how little interest the screen-writers have in their own story. New storylines are launched at random to replace the ones running out of gas. I couldn’t believe that the introduction of an evil land-developer to the film occurred near the end of the second act. It would seem that writers’ Sandler, Judd Apatow, and Robert Smigel knew that their material was limited and hoped that by padding it liberally, no one would notice. Hence, the heavy helping of crotch close-ups, homophobia, hummus jokes, and dry humping present. As well, the endless cameos come off as desperate and pointless, although it is amusing that Mariah Carey has finally found a fitting companion piece for Glitter.

To call You Don’t Mess With The Zohan a misfire is a grand understatement. It’s a dreary trudge through poorly staged migraine-inducing “comedy” that is all the more unforgivable considering the level of talent involved. There’s an old adage that it takes true skill and artistry to create a truly horrific film, as hacks will only produce bland mediocrity. Well, Zohan is a colossal achievement, a film that will receive endless mentions on “Worst of 2008” lists, and the rants of legions of angry ticket-buyers. With that said though, Sandler may have inadvertently found a point of agreement for Israelis and Palestinians. I think that both sides would agree that You Don’t Mess With The Zohan flat-out SUCKS!

1 out of 5

Film Review - INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL: The Whip Don't Quite Crack Like It Used To...

For the past decade the return of Indiana Jones to film-screens has been speculated and discussed with more religious fervour than the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant combined. As time marched on though, it seemed less and less likely to ever develop past the point of fan-fiction. However, occasionally miracles happen in that little town of Hollywood, and Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas all threw their battered fedoras into the ring once more to bring us the latest Dr. Jones adventure, Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.

A lot has changed since we last saw Indy and crew ride into the sunset at the end of The Last Crusade, most importantly the demise of the Nazi threat. This time around it’s those blasted Commies, led by a dominatrix-like Cate Blanchett, up to no good, and seeking to capture unlimited power in the form of the cheesy-looking skulls of the title. Indy, initially forced into aiding the Russians, is soon racing to beat them to the prize, aided by a mysterious young greaser of dubious lineage named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf). Along the way they are joined by friends old and new, such as Karen Allen, resurrecting her Raiders Of The Lost Ark character Marion Ravenwood, Ray Winstone as Indy’s shifty accomplice, and a loopy old professor played by John Hurt.

Now, before digging into the details I’ll answer the million dollar question. No, Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull doesn’t come within spitting distance of the level of quality accomplished by the first three series entries. It’s a reasonably competent adventure film with a few really entertaining set-pieces and enough tongue-in-cheek humour to (sort of) warrant its existence. If it were a National Treasure sequel it’d be a revelation, however as an Indy film it’s a bit disappointing.

When Indy IV clicks though, especially in the action sequences, there is a palpable sense of the classic magic that emanated from the original films. The first major scene, a Soviet-led Area 51 break-in, crackles with an excited sense of joy, as Ford swings from the rafters and engages in some nicely staged fisticuffs. As well, a jungle-set vehicle chase, while a little too heavy on CG (a major stumbling block for the film), contains more inventiveness than most of the films that the series inspired.

It’s unfortunate that the script, by David Koepp, lacks a firm grasp on how to pull all the narrative threads together. The film relies far too heavily on exposition, having Indy deliver long, tortured explanations regarding the crystal skulls, and their usage, history, etc. In previous films the artifacts were simply used as character motivation, with little information necessary. I dare anyone to try and recall anything of consequence about Temple Of Doom’s Sankara stones. The long-winded middle section of this film stifles the energy that is so vital to the enterprise.

Spielberg and Lucas seem desperate to make every event in the film bigger and more cartoonish than their predecessors, which hurt the film in a number of ways. The computer-aided immensity of the environments takes away from the intimacy of the series. Whereas previous adventures were filmed in real locations, which lent an aura of believability, the backdrops here just look... Fake. Also, whose idea was it to make the creepy-crawly scene here in CG? Lucas, no doubt. Animated insects have never been less threatening. The CG gophers I can (barely) forgive, but the finale flat-out doesn't work. It's big, but lacks wonder. And why is Winstone's character suddenly struck a paraplegic???

With those complaints notes, I must admit that the actors all seem to be having fun, with Ford typically engaging, however it’s LaBeouf who gives the standout performance. He completely understands the tone of the film and matches it accordingly. Winstone, Allen and Hurt inject good humour into their underwritten parts, while Blanchett is something of a frustration. The actress is game, but she never gets an iconic villainous moment, and her come-uppance is extremely underwhelming.

As an immediate experience, Indy IV is engaging and breezy, with a light-hearted appeal that most mega-blockbusters lack. It’s only in retrospect that the numerous flaws (a few of which I mentioned) become apparent. While I don’t think the film was necessary, or enriches the series in any way, I must say that I enjoyed my time at the Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull and suspect you might as well.

3 out of 5

P.S.: I can't believe I'm saying this, but Spielberg would have been wise to look to Sylvester Stallone for inspiration. With Rocky Balboa and Rambo Stallone demonstrated how to properly deliver follow-ups to long dormant franchises. He understood that you need to strip the iconic character down to his basic essence and place him in a story that emphasizes his mythic qualities. Indy IV needed to be more intimate and scaled back and not a tired attempt at meeting the typical bloated aesthetic standards of the modern blockbuster. Judging from fan reactions to the film, this theory has serious validity...