Countdown to Schmucks Galore (Weekly Links)

Serving champagne during coffee? Schmucks.

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Dinner for Schmucks. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Remake rumors have been attached to the 1998 comedy “Les diner des cons” (aka “The Dinner Game”) ever since the movie first came out. Natural enough: it was a huge hit in France, and writer-director Francis Veber’s films invariably get Hollywood remakes, albeit with varying results.

It took a while, but here’s “Dinner for Schmucks,” a movie that retains some of the central ideas from Veber’s original, but also invents a lot of new material (and substantially changes the overall feel).

The plot still revolves around a strange and cruel dinner ritual. An ambitious middle-management guy, Tim (Paul Rudd), has an opportunity to move up the greedy corporate ladder. The executives invite Tim to a cute little event they stage: each attendee must invite the biggest idiot they can find to an elegant meal. It will reflect very well on Tim’s chances at the firm if he can line up a complete dolt. Therefore, let us ponder the Olympian goofiness of Barry (Steve Carell), an overly enthusiastic taxidermist whose hobby is stuffing mice and arranging them in tiny little diorama displays.

Tim has found the perfect dinner date, but first the movie must get through an enormous amount of pre-dinner mayhem. While Tim loses his girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) and fends off a stalker (Lucy Punch), Barry drags in his IRS co-worker (“Hangover” star Zach Galifianakis, in an extended cameo).

There’s also a self-important artist who likes to photograph himself in antlers—a fine role for “Flight of the Conchords” comic Jemaine Clement, who is almost as funny here as he was in “Gentlemen Broncos.” His role in the film functions much like Russell Brand’s part in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”: he’s an egotistical foreigner who remains oddly likable.

Director Jay Roach, who did the “Austin Powers” pictures, sets the tone early, by using the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill” over the opening credits. The good-natured melancholy of the song cues the film’s mood, which is oddly bittersweet for a slapstick comedy.

“Dinner for Schmucks” has a careful approach, as though it didn’t want to offend anybody, least of all the misfits invited to the dinner party. It must walk a delicate line: early on, we’re meant to chuckle at Barry’s weirdness, but later we’ll be rooting for him against the creepy corporate executives. There’s just one problem with this approach. Being delicate and careful isn’t always conducive to comedy.

It’ll be interesting to see if audiences accustomed to Apatow-like naturalism will respond to the kind of stylized old-school farce seen here. The French original wasn’t a masterpiece, so “Dinner for Schmucks” has some leeway—also enough belly laughs, largely due to the spirited efforts of good people such as Carell and Clement, to justify a peek.

South of the Border. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Oliver Stone obviously had a goal with his documentary “South of the Border”: to provide a counter-narrative to the way South American politics has been portrayed by the media north of the border.

On that score, he’s certainly succeeded—when Stone wants to spark something (whether on Vietnam, Wall Street, or the JFK assassination), he’s usually the guy at the party who gets things rolling. “South of the Border” has generated its share of controversy and criticism.

Much in the manner of a first-person Michael Moore documentary, “South of the Border” presents Oliver Stone himself at the center of the action. The Oscar-winning filmmaker visits a series of leaders (or dictators, depending on your point of view) and allows them to make their case on camera. Along with writers Tariq Ali and Mark Weisbrot, Stone has a big picture in mind: that the political changes in South America over the last decade represent a positive step away from dependence on the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund, a rejection of disastrous policies of the past.

To add entertainment value to his argument, Stone includes clips from hysterical Fox News broadcasts and other sources. In South America, he argues, private news organizations have been partly responsible for propping up corrupt dictators of the past.

Stone has said that this is not a documentary, and he’s right. A documentary investigates, where “South of the Border” looks like an attempt to prove Stone’s pre-existing thesis. That may be why, when he sits down for chummy talks with Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez, Stone does not raise allegations of human-rights abuses during Chavez’s leadership; nor does he interview opposition leaders.

Instead, in traveling to Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia, and other stops, Stone makes the case for a continent-wide movement of South Americans taking matters into their own hands—a David vs. Goliath story.

That this is an intriguing historical movement is undeniable. But I found myself wishing for an objective, unsentimental journalist to step in and lay out both sides of the issue. There’s something sneaky about holding up Fox News for easy ridicule while not presenting the full picture yourself.

As a presence, Stone comes across as too deferential to his subjects, even if his avowed purpose is to let them speak. A little skepticism could’ve worked wonders here.

Even though I think the film falls short, it does have interest. How many South American leaders can the average North American name? If Stone gets a conversation going, then he will have lived up to his usual role as provocateur without portfolio.

Countdown to Zero. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Hope you’re having a good summer. Sunshine, vacation, the pleasant feel of warm July evenings.

Oh, by the way, we’re all at greater risk of nuclear catastrophe now than we were during the Cold War. Have a great summer!

Here comes “Countdown to Zero,” a new documentary by Lucy Walker, to remind us of how precarious our existence is. You’d think that since the Soviet Union and the U.S. ended their policy of mutual assured destruction (and the Soviet Union ended its policy of being the Soviet Union), things might have calmed down a bit.

But Walker’s film makes an anxious case for diligence. Somewhat loosely (but cleverly) arranging her movie around a 1961 speech by President Kennedy, Walker takes Kennedy’s theory that a nuclear incident would likely come from “accident, miscalculation, or madness.”

The film looks at scenarios, real or possible, that could conform to one of those three instances. Some of the examples might be familiar, some might not. Taken in one sitting, they are alarming.

Some of the near-misses play like scenes from “WarGames” or “Dr. Strangelove.” Gulp, a plane carrying a bomb crashed over North Carolina? Gee, that doesn’t sound good.

Then there’s the moment in 1995—yes, 1995, not 1962—when the U.S. launched a rocket to study the aurora borealis in Norway. Funny thing is (oh, this’ll slay you), the message telling Russia about the project got mislaid. So once he was informed of the mysterious rocket, Russian president Boris Yeltsin had 60 seconds or so to decide to unleash a full-scale counterattack on the United States.

Yeltsin didn’t do it—although, according to protocol, he should have. His rational decision-making would never have passed muster with Dr. Strangelove.

The “madness” part of Kennedy’s proposal is easily filled out by 21st-century terrorist groups, who are, we are assured by the film’s many talking heads, trying hard to get their hands on nuclear material.

As a movie, “Countdown to Zero” is overbearing—its relationship to music is that of a salad that’s been drenched in Thousand Island dressing, and it has a tendency to hype every one of its already-potent points.

Still, those points get made. Looking back at Kennedy’s rules, the fact that we haven’t mistakenly blown ourselves up yet seems as much of an “accident” as otherwise. At the end, the movie offers its ideas for keeping things safer, but still—hang on to that rabbit’s foot.

Stonewall Uprising. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

The gay-rights movement in America points to the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in 1969 as its galvanizing moment, a point of no return that made a civil-rights issue out of homosexuality.

But as the title of the documentary “Stonewall Uprising” deliberately suggests, maybe “riots” isn’t the right word. A riot is a crime; an uprising is a political movement.

“Stonewall Uprising” gives a chronology of the days of the Stonewall uprising, when the habitués of a gay bar finally decided to resist yet another raid from police (homosexuality was illegal in New York in 1969—as it was in 49 of the 50 states).

The film apologizes in advance for the fact that scant archival footage exists of the actual days of Stonewall protests and altercations. But in a way, this is an unneeded apology. The interviews with people at the scene—rioters, bystanders, and the leader of the police squad executing the raid—are quite vivid on their own terms. In fact, it would probably be riveting to give the account of the incident using only voices, without bothering to re-create footage.

The talkers are a fittingly varied bunch, of all sorts of temperaments. Aging, gray-haired baby boomers now, their recollections of those nights still have some force behind them. One man recalls that police back were driven back inside the Stonewall bar for their own safety, along with some arrested patrons and a couple of Village Voice reporters (the newspaper office was down the block). “I wanted to kill those cops,” he remembers, and the heat of the moment comes to life.

Directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner have gathered the information, although their movie has a peculiar shape to it. The first half consists mostly of painting a portrait of just how much gays were ostracized, and worse, even in the supposedly freewheeling Sixties (clips from a notorious 1967 CBS special, hosted by Mike Wallace, give a dose of particularly noxious reality).

That’s fair; the uprising needs context. But then the Stonewall events are suddenly upon us, and so is a great deal of overbearing music, and somehow the whole thing seems lopsided and over-sold.

That noted, give the movie credit for getting a piece of American history down, complete with multiple first-person perspectives. Seeing history from 40 years’ perspective puts the riot—or uprising–in its rightful place.

Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

What have the cats been doing since 2001’s “Cats & Dogs”? Plotting out new strategies for world domination? Creating a devious satellite device that could render dogs insane? Building cat robots?

All of the above, it turns out. All is revealed in “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore,” a rather belated sequel.

As in the first film, the action here is live, not animated, although various layers of computer animation are used to create the illusion of talking animals (and it looks as though most of the cats are computer-generated, the better to make fiendish facial expressions—although most real cats don’t have a problem with that anyway).

New to the scene is one Kitty Galore (voiced, robustly, by Bette Midler), whose plan to drive canines loco might just succeed. But dog agent Buck (Nick Nolte), teaming up with a new crime-fighting partner, Diggs (James Marsden), have got to try.

Since we live in a post-species society, the dogs are joined in their effort by an actual feline operative, Catherine (Christina Applegate), and a broken-winged pigeon named Seamus (the inappropriately named comedian Katt Williams). You’ve also got the villain from the first movie, Mr. Tinkles (Sean Hayes), in a cameo appearance—an extended riff on “Silence of the Lambs,” which will probably fly over the heads of younger viewers. At least I hope it will.

All of this plays out pretty much as you’d expect a movie about talking animals to play out: some funny gags, lots of kiddie slapstick, and almost enough good cheer to pad the thing out to 90 minutes. Not quite, but almost.

The film does score extra points for its faux-James Bond opening credits, complete with “Get the Party Started” as performed by Shirley Bassey, the original “Goldfinger” singer herself. And Roger Moore turns up as the voice of a particularly lofty spy-cat.

There’s also 3-D, although this appears to be an afterthought (and has virtually no effect on the moviegoing experience). The 3-D does come into play in a new Warner Bros. cartoon featuring the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, a neat little number in which the ever-hopeful coyote puts his faith in yet another product from the Acme Company: a bungee cord.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Before we get into the reasons the Japanese have a national love affair with bugs, let us first note: did you know the Japanese have a national love affair with bugs?

I did not, which is one reason the documentary “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo” serves a valuable function. This film by Jessica Oreck (who apparently works at the Natural History Museum in New York, which makes sense in this context) turns a light on a nation and its obsession.

The trapping, selling, and buying of insects is a big business in Japan. We witness beetle-hunters in forests, kicking trees so that bugs come tumbling down from branches. Kids in pet stores gaze at the hard-shelled creatures in rows of plastic boxes and count the change in their pockets, hoping to have enough to purchase a beetle king.

We hear from people in various levels of the insect economy, from an academic who muses on the tender relationship between his country and insects to a trapper whose business has bought him a Ferrari.

Oreck does not present any of this in PBS fashion. Instead, she aims for an impressionistic, non-narrative tone—thus she shows scenes of insect mania, interrupted by zen-like visual montages of nature scenes or cityscapes.

There’s also a weirdly cheerful narrator chirping along, sharing information about haiku and art and philosophy. As far as I could tell, this narration has almost a musical function, because it isn’t actually all that informative about what we’re seeing on screen.

I think Oreck is suggesting some of the contradictions of the culture: on the one hand, the Japanese obsession with insects might come from the delicate aesthetic sense that forms other kinds of Japanese art. Yet there is a strong consumerist undercurrent to the economic model on display, right down to the kids throwing their bugs together to fight each other.

And we are left to solve for ourselves the irony of exalting the beauty of insects while also killing them in order to artistically arrange them on a panel, as the people who mount butterflies so methodically do.

So if you want an explanation of why this phenomenon happens, you might have to look elsewhere. But for a poetic look at the subject, full of rapturous shots of fireflies bobbing at night and caterpillars emerging from their larval stage, this is it.

And on KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about the filmmakers (and TV-makers) whose work reflects our times in the way Frank Capra’s movies caught the 1930s: here. The movie bit begins about 11 minutes in.