Animal House: Matt Damon Needs Your Love in We Bought a Zoo

When I told someone I was off to a screening of We Bought a Zoo the other day, the response was an eye roll. The reaction is understandable: Save for two music docs—an Elton John–Leon Russell album making-of and that Pearl Jam anniversary infomercial—Cameron Crowe has been MIA since 2005’s autobiographical Elizabethtown, about the prodigal big-city son returneth to his small town to fetch his dead daddy’s ashes for a long drive to nowhere. Crowe took a tanning over that weepy wreck. Both Elizabethtown and his earlier Vanilla Sky were as disappointing as they were ambitious, which is being kind on both fronts. Crowe tried going big, and he was sent home.

So now he returns with a film he did not write, but rewrote, based on the real-life story of Benjamin Mee, a Brit newspaper columnist who picked up from his idyllic new digs in the South of France and went off to rescue an English zoo with his family, including a son, a daughter, and a dying wife. The movie changes these circumstances around a bit: The wife is six months gone before Benjamin (the quite American Matt Damon), moody 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford), and bright-‘n’-shiny seven-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, made for the movies) consider the move. And in the movie, they don’t relocate from the French paradise to the English countryside, but from a Los Angeles suburb to the rolling hills of Southern California, where Dad hopes to escape the ghost who haunts them all. And look who’s here to help: Scarlett Johansson.

Crowe is back to what he’s good at: small stories populated by everyday people. (He has always veered toward being a small-screen guy who worked big screen; Say Anything . . ., Singles, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous could have been prime-time pilots.) Helping Crowe’s odds is Damon, who does a superior job of vacillating between wide-eyed (“Look! A grizzly bear!”) and misty-eyed (“I wish my dead wife weren’t dead.”) without turning Benjamin into a complete sap. We see him at the film’s beginning as an “adventure writer” for the Los Angeles Times who flies into the center of storms and asks terrorists a cutesy question to which the answer is “Toy Story 2.” But soon Dylan is expelled from school (his drawings are violent, and he’s stealing, and, oh, sorry about your dead mom) and Benjamin is about to get shuffled off to the blogs by his boss—so, time to go house-hunting. And now time to buy a dilapidated zoo on the verge of being shuttered and sold for the land alone. It’s populated with lions, tigers, and bears—and humans, too, among them Johansson as the longtime zookeeper (well, assistant, but shhh), Angus Macfadyen as a visionary enclosure designer, and Elle Fanning as an angel-faced love interest for Dylan. We didn’t just buy a zoo; we bought a new family! So Crowe.

On the surface, it all sounds so terribly mawkish, and I haven’t even mentioned the on-the-nose soundtrack that cues up Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” during a long storm. Or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Don’t Come Around Here No More” when Dylan gets the boot from school. Or Wilco and Billy Bragg’s “Airline to Heaven” when the Mees start looking for new digs. Or Benjamin’s reluctance to let the zookeepers put down, painlessly, the ailing 17-year-old tiger aching for an adios. We get it—he has been down this awful road before.

The cynics will scoff and dismiss it all as manipulative, the heartstring-tugging machine on hyperdrive. But this movie isn’t for them; did you not see the PG? It’s a sweet, sincere, utterly affable kids’ movie about how parents are all kinds of screwed up and unable to tell their kids what they want or show them how they feel. The scene in which Benjamin and Dylan have their hallway shout-off (“Help me, damn it! Help me!”) is as wrenching as it is inevitable. And Damon has never been more lovable—the guy looks like he could use a hug.


You Are Old: Pearl Jam Twenty

Success came swiftly and voluminously—millions of records sold, Grammys, VMAs, the cover of Time magazine—when Pearl Jam dropped Ten 20 years ago this August. Which was also when the backlash began. Out-credded at the outset by its Seattle sibling, the punkier, unrulier Nirvana, Pearl Jam was never cool. Fronted by the foghorn-throated Eddie Vedder, gorgeous and humorless, the band cut solid records yet always acted cornered. But as proved by U2, longevity doesn’t run on coolness—it runs on resilience, business savvy, and the loyalty of fans. To that end, Cameron Crowe’s victory lap doc rewards those who’ve remained steadfast even as Pearl Jam has listed toward irrelevancy and presents a collagist historical chronicle that mixes archival footage with recent interviews. This could be fine, I suppose, if openings for genuine inquiry weren’t cravenly declined. Crowe, the famed rock reporter-turned-filmmaker-turned-faded brand, refuses to complicate his hagiography with ideas. The mainstreaming of alternative, the splintering of the music industry, the can’t-win propositions of rock activism—all are either ignored or dispatched in montage. Perhaps Pearl Jam’s arc too closely resembles Crowe’s own, and he can’t see what’s so uniquely poignant about dimmed but enduring stars.


Year in Film: 10 to Watch Out for in 2011

Since we’re a heartbeat away from being sick-to-death of this month’s crop of Oscar-seeking masterpieces, we’ve decided to cast a quick glance forward to the ten 2011 films we’re excited to see. We’ve seen some of the below, and make no promises for the others, but, as ever, we’re hopeful. (And as always, dates are subject to change.)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Opens March 2

January and February are always the pits. The true movie year begins here, with Thailand’s official submission for the upcoming Foreign Language Oscar, which has already won this year’s Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or. The middle-aged Boonmee has liver disease and is being guided toward death by the ghost of his dead wife and the spirit of their late son, who appears in the form of a very hairy monkey. As with everything this master filmmaker creates, plot specifics are reductive, so worry not about the ghostly specters and the rumors you’ll hear about a catfish sex scene—just go.

The Lincoln Lawyer

Directed by Brad Furman

Opens March 18

You probably weren’t expecting to find a Matthew McConaughey flick on this list, but this one’s based on a truly fabulous 2005 novel by mystery writer Michael Connelly. McConaughey plays an L.A. lawyer who works out of his Lincoln Town Car while wasting his considerable talents on drunks and drug dealers. Ryan Phillippe co-stars as his new super-rich murder defendant client. Marisa Tomei and William H. Macy also appear, as does John Leguizamo, who gave one of his finest performances in director Furman’s little-seen but emotionally harrowing 2007 drama, The Take.


Directed by Quentin Dupieux

Opens April 1

Yes, this is a movie about a stray car tire that’s rolling along desert back roads killing wayward humans with its psychic powers. Like Carrie at the prom, this loveless batch of angry tread (“probably brandless”) has some serious issues to work out, a process that’s gruesomely funny, thanks to the decidedly off-kilter world-view of French musician-turned-filmmaker Quentin Dupieux. Both loved and hated on the festival circuit, Rubber, if nothing else, may discourage grown men from heedlessly kicking their steel-belted radials.

Source Code

Directed by Duncan Jones

Opens April 1

Director Jones’s virtuoso debut film, Moon, about an astronaut (Sam Rockwell) adrift in time and space, marked him as a major new talent (which is why we’re going to stop mentioning that he’s David Bowie’s son … soon). In Jones’s newest, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a U.S. soldier who wakes up to find himself inhabiting another man’s body aboard a passenger train that’s going to blow up in eight minutes unless he can locate and stop the bomber (thereby saving the beautiful woman in the opposite seat—Michelle Monaghan—with whom he’s about to fall in love). Hopefully, he’s wearing a watch.

Directed by Joe Wright
Opens April 8

Saoirse Ronan, the Oscar-nominated young actress from Atonement, reunites with director Wright for a film that sounds much less delicate. Ronan plays Hanna, a 14-year-old raised in a remote region of Sweden by her father (Eric Bana), a former CIA agent who’s been training his only child to become a great assassin. (Don’t judge. Maybe he just wants her to make a good living.) When Hanna heads across Europe on her first mission, she finds that, newbie or not, she already has ruthless enemies. Cate Blanchett co-stars. Music by the Chemical Brothers.

Meek’s Cutoff

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Opens April 8

The Oregon Trail. 1845. Three families riding ox-drawn wagons to the new lands of the West are taking a “short-cut” through the Cascade Mountains suggested to them by their guide (Bruce Greenwood). Low on food, thirsty, and quietly desperate, the group encounters a Native American whose inscrutability tests the pilgrims’ patience and belief systems. Reuniting with her Wendy and Lucy director, Michelle Williams stars alongside Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan, and Will Patton. Will definitely be a highlight of the indie film year.

The Tree of Life

Directed by Terrence Malick

Opens May 27

For cinephiles, the release of a new film by Terrence Malick, the metaphysically minded director of Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and 2005’s The New World, is a an event of Kubrickian importance. As ever in Malick-land, plot specifics are hard to come by, but we do know (or think we know) that the film tracks the life of a man named Jack (Sean Penn) from his childhood in the 1950s Midwest. Brad Pitt reportedly plays Jack’s father in the early years. The rest is rumor, which is fine because the wonder of Malick lies in the mystery.

Hugo Cabret

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Opens December 9

It’s the late 1800s. Hugo (Asa Butterfield), a 12-year-old orphan, lives alone inside the Paris train station. When his secret life is discovered, Hugo is launched on an adventure featuring puzzles, lost keys, and a robot man with a secret. Beautifully drawn as well as thematically complex, Brian Selznick’s 2007 young adult novel, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” set a new standard for what is possible in children’s literature. Presumably aiming just as high, director Martin Scorsese is shooting his live action version in 3-D, a technique new to the filmmaker, as is the challenge of making a movie his little girl can actually see.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Opens December 23

Aided by his faithful dog Snowy, Tintin is a young Belgian newspaper reporter who leads a life of mystery and adventure in a series of comic books created in 1929 by the writer and illustrator known as Hergé. Successful in America but truly beloved in Europe, the Tintin stories have long appealed to Steven Spielberg, whose dream of bringing them to the screen comes true with this stop-motion 3-D film. This is the first of a projected trilogy, the second of which will be directed by co-producer Peter Jackson. If all goes well, the two men will co-direct the third installment.

We Bought A Zoo
Directed by Cameron Crowe

Opens December 23

It’s a plot worthy of a John Irving novel: In 2006, English newspaper columnist Benjamin Mee decided, in partnership with his aged mother and four siblings, to buy a dilapidated 30-acre zoo and its 200 animals. Mayhem followed, and then tragedy, as Ben’s wife suffered a recurrence of brain cancer. Matt Damon stars in this adaptation of Mee’s memoir from Jerry Maguire director Crowe. Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning, and Patrick Fugit (the young reporter in Crowe’s Almost Famous) co-star. There’s no word yet on whether Crowe will keep the book’s English setting—the Accent Police are on alert.


Sigur Rós: Hopelandic Springs Eternal

Sigur Rós have inspired more terrible music writing than any other band in the past decade; to get the ball rolling, I’ll submit some of my own. Faced with the prospect of reviewing the Icelandic art-rock quartet’s 2002 album, with an unpronounceable title—officially, it’s ( ), but go ahead and call it Parentheses next time you bring it up down at the bar—and eight unnamed prog-dirge tracks to contend with, I took the liberty of assigning song titles myself: “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight,” “Big Bottom,” “Stinkin’ Up the Great Outdoors,” etc. Hilarious. When a dude resorts to Spinal Tap jokes, you know he’s sunk.

Of course, their gleefully pretentious eccentricity is only half the problem. (Though it’s a pretty big half: The lyrics to ( ) are all sung in the made-up language Hopelandic, which seems to allow for half a dozen syllables at most, revolving around the phrase “You sigh” or, if you prefer, “You’s high” repeated ad infinitum.) Sigur Rós songs are brutally delicate works of otherworldly beauty and pulverizing volume, towering monoliths of reverb, viciously bowed guitars, volcanic bass, glistening strings, braying horns, and the yearning castrato wails of frontman Jón Thor Birgisson, who sings like Vaseline feels. Such theatrics can turn even our brightest critical minds into bewildered travel writers, summoning up glaciers, oceans, caverns, cathedrals, lunar landscapes, endless summers, nuclear winters. As interview subjects, the boys are shy to the point of implosion; look up video of their chat on NPR’s “Bryant Park Project” sometime for a near-silent, cringe-worthy train wreck worthy of the U.K. version of The Office. Their music is an enormous, engulfing vacuum—any meaning you want it to have, you have to project on it yourself. Many a Hollywood director (Cameron Crowe, Wes Anderson, Gregg Araki) has tried. But that’s a mug’s game, whether you’re a professional or an amateur; better you take a seat, assume a slack-jawed expression, and just let the jams overwhelm you.

Which is what we’re all doing, last Tuesday night at the Grand Ballroom, lured into a state of joyful paralysis five minutes into their first tune: “Svefn-G-Englar,” the band’s biggest hit, a slow, booming, organ-heavy crawl wherein Birgisson mewls what for all intents and purposes is “It’s youuuooouuuu” over and over and over, standing bolt-upright and mechanically sawing a violin bow over his guitar strings, an oft-repeated nervous tic that assists mightily in making us all deaf as well as mute. The cumulative effect leaves us rapt, motionless, awestruck, as though we’re either 10 miles underwater or orbiting Jupiter. Dismiss these guys as deeply, irretrievably corny if you must, but I’m up for anything or anyone who can break your typical indie crowd’s nonchalant lethargy, that passionless throng of digital-camera-brandishing automatons, filling up their Flickr pages without a flicker of real-life enthusiasm. Plenty of flashing lights here, too, but the bulk of the audience is too reverent to move.

Next comes “Glosoli,” off ( )‘s far less knuckleheaded 2005 follow-up, Takk, a massive and hypnotic bassline slithering over a steadily clomping kick-drum rhythm like mastodons on the march. (Shit, I’m doing it again.) Then “Se Lest,” which begins as a toy-factory lullaby, buttressed by a plinking vibraphone and Sigur Rós’ in-house all-female string quartet, Amiina; mid-song, just to keep everyone company, out trots a five-man horn section (complete with tuba), seemingly dressed as Clockwork Orange droogs, emerging from the wings and traipsing past the front row and onstage, slowly transforming the tune into a jaunty oompah waltz. Such theater, along with a few confetti cannons near show’s end, is all we’ll get in terms of showbiz; no effusive stage banter, thanks. The band’s strongest statement, in fact, is to perforate one tune with 30 to 45 seconds of dead, motionless silence, daring someone to break the spell. No one does. The song kicks back in, and is soon once again incredibly, incapacitatingly loud.

Whether this stuff works on record is debatable—the isolated moments of bombastic triumph mostly justify the long, languid, syrupy lulls—but in concert, Sigur Rós are damn near a religious experience, with all the rapture and righteous bloodshed that implies. (The following night, the band played a special small-scale gig at MOMA, the tickets for which were sold out literally before they went on sale, whereupon Brooklyn Vegan commenters started murdering each other in the streets.) So consider the band’s new record, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, a splendid excuse to tour. It starts promisingly: “Gobbledigook” (haw, haw) is much shorter (three minutes!) and more organic than usual, a bouncy acoustic-guitar tumble, like someone fast-forwarding through “Solsbury Hill” or Collective Soul’s “The World I Know” and lalala‘ing merrily over top. Not every song crams 10 pounds of space-age studio artillery into a five-pound bag, which is nice. But the second half descends into a nigh-indistinguishable string of piano ballads, Birgisson in fine, angelic voice as always, but still cooing delicate gibberish whether his medium is Hopelandic or Icelandic. The quieter and more naked the songs get, the less power they have—Sigur Rós depend on excess, sonic and visual and emotional.

In that more desirable vein, as a Grand Ballroom capper, we are beaten over the head with “Popplagið,” the unofficial title of ( )‘s closing number, featuring the mother of all apocalyptic crescendos, the last three minutes or so conjuring up more sound and fury than Radiohead and Metallica combined. Right before the wave crashes, a wayward young lass leaps onstage and makes as if to hug Birgisson; a security guard materializes and very, very politely shoos her away before the messianic singer, hypnotized by his band’s own bombast, can even open his eyes to notice. It is the majesty of rock.


Some Thunder, But Too Much Lightning

Yeah, it’s supposed to sound that way. “Some Loud Thunder,” the title track off CYHSY’s sophomore release, is a fun, crisp pop song—all hand claps and cowbells and jangly guitar—fed through a haze of radio static, like it’s crackling between AM channels on a long drive through the desert. A nostalgic gesture, I guess. But it’s also hard not to be skeptical. This is a band that emerged in 2005 as though genetically engineered in some East Village basement to generate blogger appeal. Their first, self-titled disc was packed with all the hippest rock references—Talking Heads, Neutral Milk Hotel, etc.-—but instead of being angular and crisp, those influences sounded as if they’d been left out in to the sun too long and melted into something warped and druggy. Frontman Alec Ounsworth sang like David Byrne and looked like a waiter at a vegan restaurant; like true hipsters, his band was accelerated and responsive, a psychedelic amoeba consuming rock idioms and excreting catchy little bits of digested zeitgeist. Take Thunder‘s dance-punk confection “Satan Said Dance,” which wraps its pumping beat and twitchy chants in a swarm of electronic squiggles, belches, and bleeps, a rapturous sound that nonetheless sounds absolutely redolent of the Rapture. On top of all this, they had a silly name, and enough “DIY integrity” to flatten a polar bear. If they didn’t happen to be so good, CYHSY would’ve been a pretty ingenious bit of meta-parody. As it stood, they were that rare rock item: a postmodern band that seemed to be genuinely, excitingly weird.

Sadly, knob-twiddling wooze-hound Dave Fridmann makes them sound very aware of all this on
—the producer’s atmospheric flourishes have always been heavy handed, but here they muddle tightly conceived pop tunes that would’ve sounded better scrappy. Too often, there’s simply not enough of the band in the mix. What the record does have, though, is a collection of truly great melodies, and when the music focuses directly on them—meditating on simple chords—that new sense of sound and space offers moments of pure euphoria. “Emily Jean Stock” finds Ounsworth’s strangled yelp riding the crest of a gorgeous Technicolor harmony, and the sub-aquatic “Five Easy Pieces,” ripe for a Cameron Crowe love scene, is an equally beautiful bit of cycling mist. Time for a new producer. Two words: Danger Mouse.


Almost Shameless

Reviews of Elizabethtown will begin in one of two ways: The reviewer will compare Cameron Crowe’s latest to the bizarrely similar Garden State, or she’ll quip on the opening voiceover by Orlando Bloom, a rumination on the difference between “failure” and a “fiasco.”

There’s no avoiding it, so here goes. Both Elizabethtown and Garden State involve a despondent single guy in flux returning home after a death—in this case, Bloom’s Drew Baylor must retrieve the body of his father, who has died visiting Kentucky relations. As in Garden State, the despondent lad’s life is changed by a gutsy woman and some killer tunes. But where the earlier flick, in its smallness, felt like an honest representation of writer-director-star Zach Braff’s struggles with notions of home, Crowe’s is a hodgepodge of great ideas and moods in search of a plot to enrich.

Great idea number one: Spoof ’90s lifestyle culture largesse. We begin with a lengthy sequence about Drew’s career plunge after designing a flop running shoe for a hegemonic company. His boss, Phil, played with Glengarry gusto by Alec Baldwin, is a giddily drawn billionaire spiritualist-sadist, a fun conflation of two iconic “Phils,” Nike’s Phil Knight and the NBA’s Phil Jackson. But unlike Braff’s lo-fi shorthand intro that humanized his wage-slave antihero, Baldwin’s bigness and the shiny mocked milieu leave Bloom a blank. If Say Anything‘s Lloyd Dobler was the perfect boyfriend and Jerry Maguire the perfect dick, Drew Baylor is the perfect ghost.

Jumping way too soon into his big-song, window-stare contemplation mode, Crowe takes identification with Drew for granted. Though it’s played for laughs, the fact that
mom Susan Sarandon and sister Judy Greer are too frazzled to go to Kentucky comes off as simply weird. Sarandon seems as confused as we are that her character would take tap lessons instead of making funeral arrangements, and Greer just seems an unfunny version of her Arrested Development nut job.

But then there’s great idea number two: casting Kirsten Dunst. Drew meets flight attendant Claire on a plane to Kentucky, and Dunst, like Kate Hudson before her, devours her role as the wise, goofy, music-savvy goddess. Like Woody Allen, Crowe repeatedly scripts the perfect girlfriend (without, thank god, injecting himself into the fantasy). But Drew is such a void that Claire’s obsessive affection for him verges on stalker-esque. So too do the suffocating attentions of Drew’s Kentucky cousins. Without an emotional anchor, absurd touches veer into almost Lynchian creepiness—as when Drew arrives in Elizabethtown and everyone wordlessly points him toward his family’s street.

Crowe’s confident, clockwork tearjerking often seems baseless. Just when we’re sure Drew hardly knew his dad, moving soft-focus flashbacks of father and son sucker punch us
out of nowhere. Crowe’s mastery of the music-aided emotional catharsis is in fine form; it just needs a real story. Of course, you’ll have long given up on narrative by the time you reach great idea number three: the perfect-girlfriend road trip map and mix tape. By the time Drew ditches the titular town and heads west alone with his dad’s ashes, following a route charted and scored by his muse, we’re as ecstatic to be on the road as he is, and the sad, funny shots of him talking to and patting the urn in the passenger seat might make you cry from both the inherent pathos and for the movie this could have been. It’s not a fiasco, but as the voiceover admits, anyone can fail.


Shave Anything

“There’s a difference between a failure and a fiasco,” shoe designer Drew (Orlando Bloom) says in Elizabethtown—a difference quantified by the 12 minutes Cameron Crowe trimmed from the widely dismissed “unfinished” version unveiled at Venice and Toronto. A little spit shine has transformed an unshapely, undisciplined movie—inspired by Crowe’s experiences after his father’s death—into something professional, if still irritatingly self-involved. Copious dead time has been shaved off. Drew expounds more succinctly on “last looks” and has fewer run-ins with kooky newlyweds-to-be Chuck and Cindy. Crowe has removed at least one scene of funeral planning and tightened the meandering road trip that concludes the film, which quasi-girlfriend Kirsten Dunst has timed (by landmark!) to her favorite songs. Despite criticism, Drew’s mother’s eulogy-cum-breakdown remains largely intact, with Susan Sarandon still musing about a neighbor’s erection and tap dancing to “Moon River.” But the single most fatuous footnote has been excised: In the original ending, not only does Drew get the girl, see the nation, and learn the true meaning of family, but the winged “Spasmotica” shoe that gets him fired at the outset turns out to be bigger than the Pump circa 1992—some kid discovers the sneaker’s wind-chime-like aural properties. For once, it seems, Crowe realized his movie already had enough music.


Icon See Clearly Now

There comes a moment in every massively popular movie star’s trajectory when his or her movies become expositions on the fermented psychology of fame and popular anointment. For every icon, the ultimate subject is his or herself. In this sense, the new Tom Cruise project, Vanilla Sky, may be the most vividly discomfiting star vehicle since Yentl. The faith that it displays in the transcendence of essential Tomness is astonishing. Those eyes, those teeth: With a fervor and passion we haven’t quite seen before, Cameron Crowe’s movie treats Cruise like a visiting archangel on hormonal overload. Though a by-the-letter remake of Alejandro Amenábar’s 1997 Dickian psychodrama Open Your Eyes, Vanilla Sky is the weirder film, if only because of its contexts: 2001 America, Hollywood, and, most vitally, Tom’s brainpan, where human life as we know it is empowered toward glory by the sheer effulgence of the man’s generously availed grin. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie so hauntingly frank about being a manifestation of its star’s cosmic narcissism.

Calling it a parable on the brittleness of a gorgeous celebrity’s biodome is going easy: The movie’s tone is Emerald City fake and its mechanics are predicated on opportunities acquired by physical allure and paid for with traumatizing damage. Inhabiting a wealthy, consequence-free Manhattan, Cruise’s high-living hero David Aames is a hedonistic, babe-magnetizing publishing-empire heir who, like many movie stars, beds and discards beautiful women for even more beautiful women on a dime. Crowe and Cruise obviously find this behavior pattern roguishly adorable, even after the movie delivers its comeuppance in the form of a wild-eyed stalker-vixen (Cameron Diaz), who, once she’s sidelined by David’s newest desire object (Penélope Cruz), drives the giddy libertine off an Upper West Side overpass and into a brick wall.

Prefaced by a dream of an abandoned Times Square and framed by a psychological interrogation (performed by shrink Kurt Russell) of David wearing a latex “facial prosthetic,” Vanilla Sky seeks out disorientation, particularly when Cruise reappears post-crash with a wretchedly scarred puss and not-entirely-earned John Merrick affect. You don’t have to be Umberto Eco to read the resulting crisis as Cruise’s own worst-case scenario: losing the world’s adoration (and the passion of new inamorata Cruz) by having suddenly become terrifically ugly. (Along with the ubiquitous Godard movie posters, the film has Godardian implications all over it, but Crowe works obliviously past them.) This kettle of fish becomes even more nightmarish once David begins awaking into various scar-free, identity-swapping alternate existences—ricocheting, as it were, between Cruise-ified versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Fatal Attraction.

Like Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Amenábar’s original film was preemptively one-upped by an episode of the old Star Trek, so Vanilla Sky‘s sci-fi-ness seems particularly turgid and bogus. Still, it installs a redoubtable paranoid buzz, and its hyperreal finale, complete with Tilda Swinton deranging things further as a corporate shill, sticks to your skull wall like a wad of thoroughly chewed Bazooka. That Hollywood has finally managed to capture Cruz’s endearing charms on film sans crude stereotype is a relief. For better or worse, Vanilla Sky is a genuine, albeit jejune, statement of star consciousness—blustery with self-awe and feverish with cataclysmic self-doubt.

Unreality bites: In Leon Ichaso’s Piñero, the robust, chiseled Benjamin Bratt playing dissipated funky-junkie Miguel Piñero scans as disjunctively as the fine-boned, sleepy-eyed Will Smith pretending to be Ali. Standard bottom-shelf hagiography shot on crummy digital video and rock-skipping through its subject’s predictable life, Ichaso’s movie is under the impression that Piñero’s ethnic cachet somehow outweighs his status as literary pocket change; one overrated play and some episodes of Kojak are all that stand between him and the void of obscurity. (An opening title self-importantly informs us that Short Eyes “became a movie.” It doesn’t take much.) In any case, biopics about inebriated artists are always stranded by their own non-stories, and Piñero’s short life was apparently little more than a series of dimebag mooches and public stumbles.

Trying to grind his Method ax, Bratt performs Piñero’s witless scat-rap as if he was doing an impression of Sammy Davis Jr., and indeed strains for what, say, Paul Calderón could’ve done before his first cup of morning coffee. Without a narrative, Ichaso tries to give his movie a jivey groove, but it’s all typewriter keys, drunken grandstanding, clumsy flashbacks, pointlessly compiled news footage (Nixon, Khomeini, Lennon, Ali), and boppy sax punctuation. At its most indulgent and posturing, Piñero plays like a movie the man himself might’ve made, between scores.

Related story:
That Puerto Rican Swing: A Talk With Leon Ichaso and Benjamin Bratt” by Ed Morales


NY Mirror

I was horrified on sweeping into the Essex House and seeing the woman I was scheduled to interview. “That isn’t Julie Walters!” I shrieked to the publicist, convinced that there’d been some hideous mix-up and I was being made to sit down with a supporting starlet I’d never heard of. Walters plays cigarette-chomping, split-ends-laden hausfraus with varicose veins on their knees. This babe looked like her spiritual granddaughter—or maybe Brenda Blethyn‘s inner ingenue.

“It’s her,” the flack assured me, and for once a flack wasn’t bullshitting. The woman’s positively creamy looking in person, and it’s a testament to her spunky acting skills that she saves her most presentable character for real life. “I always get drabbed up,” the British diva told me over high tea, “but I like a drab woman. Generally speaking, they’re the most interesting ones to play, because they have more facets.” If fewer gowns.

She drabbed up for the political drama Titanic Town and told me that though the Northern Ireland setting puts people off, “it’s not a worthy film about it, really. It’s funny!” And she’ll soon surface as a drab-alicious dance teacher in Billy Elliot, which is soft and formulaic, but winning—a sort of Shine with tutus. Billy is a coal miner’s son who gets hooked on ballet in Walters’s ragtag class and tells his disapproving father, “It’s not just poofs, Dad.” But don’t worry—he’s nice to the poofs, Dad learns to be nice to him, and things work out just duckily, thank you.

In one of those weird pop-cultural phenomena that crop up every year or so, the upcoming flick Bootmen happens to have the same exact plot thrust, but when I told Walters that Billy‘s way better, she laughed and said, “That’s good to know. I’m wasting me time here otherwise!” Walters wouldn’t want that. She triumphed, if drably, in 1983’s Educating Rita, but since then has not always been given movies worthy of her talent (though her overall achievement nabbed her a prestigious OBE last year, the same year I got an OB-GYN). “When we went to Cannes with Billy Elliot,” she said, “I couldn’t believe it—people clapped. I’m used to going in and defending myself!”

Walters’s character gets a hand for sheer chutzpah. As her deadpan daughter puts it, “She’s unfulfilled. That’s why she does dancing.” In fact, she seizes on Billy with the tenacity of that guy who created ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, all while smoking like a Cup-A-Soup billboard. In person, Walters didn’t even want to eat too many salted nuts. Her biggest acts of abuse are “shopping and shows,” though she never saw Cats and asked me, “Would T.S. Eliot turn in his grave?” “He spun for 18 solid years,” I informed her. “Oh God, the poor bloke,” she bellowed. “Let him have some peace!” Yeah—stop drabbing him up.

Having gone from Billy Elliot to T.S. Eliot, I did a Mama Cass Elliot and made my own kind of music while watching drab woman Dr. Laura Schlessinger‘s new talk show. Alas, it didn’t drown it out. Dr. Laura’s premiere program was the expected reactionary screed about how girls “are getting knocked up right and left” and how parents should swab their kids’ mouths to see if they’ve been boozing. Never is it considered that the parents themselves might be the root of the problem. In fact, the esteemed doctor showed her true colors by giggling uncontrollably when an audience member admitted he would slam his daughter on the head if he found out she was on drugs. What’s more, the guy was black and named Darwin, prompting Laura to quip, “That’s a whole other discussion”! Why did we waste one second protesting this appalling yet somehow profoundly boring morality fest? It’ll gleefully destruct on its own.

Frances McDormand keeps telling her kids, “Don’t do drugs!” in Cameron Crowe‘s Almost Famous, a really sweet, if almost Wonder Years?y movie about depravity, and one that pretty much had me at hello. The hotel-key invites got us into the after-party at
Centro-Fly, which was done over as ’70s rock haunt Max’s Kansas City, down to the chickpeas, if not the chicks. The aptly named Patrick Fugit, who plays the film’s Crowe-like coming-of-age journalist, told me he was nervous about his deflowering scene. “I hated it at first,” he said, “because it was described in the script as a sex scene, so I was worried about who was going to be naked and who’d be doing what to whom. Every day I’d drink warm water to calm down, but it turned out to be a lot of fun—though hanging out in my tighty whiteys was embarrassing at first.”

After shamelessly ingesting a few dozen crudités—that’s my sex scene—I cornered Crowe, who said he probably scared Fugit by admitting he likes the way sex was handled in An Officer and a Gentleman. “He thought I was going to have him cavorting nude like Caligula,” said Crowe. “The night before shooting, I realized I wanted to do it like a carousel at the circus. Then he figured, ‘Hey man, I get to be in underwear and the girls are in panties. Let’s shoot this for weeks!’ ” Cameron also crowed to me about Kate Hudson, whom he cast as the fragile groupie Penny Lane because “she was sort of angst lite. Her fears and tears were just below the surface. She had that Shirley MacLaine quality in The Apartment.” He looked down and added, “I gotta stop writing that character—Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment!” It’s better than Fred MacMurray in The Apartment.

I left the apartment for an open rehearsal of the splashy musical version of The Full Monty—I’m unfulfilled. That’s why I like dancing—which isn’t a new idea; as the producer reminded us, Billy Crystal did a short musical spoof of the movie at the Oscars to the tune of Hello, Dolly! But this is the full, well, monty—though it remains to be seen if the complete package will be a truly inspired adaptation that’ll have us drinking warm water or the kind of thing that made me allergic to T.S. Eliot. The choreographer is the guy who put me way at the end of the line in both a Cyndi Lauper video and the hoedown scene in the Jeffrey movie, so he must know what he’s doing. And one number they showed us, in which the working-class guys realize they could adapt Michael Jordan‘s court moves to their tighty-whitey dance routine, was a real wowser, both sensational and touching. Alas, though I’m unfulfilled, I don’t do basketball.

I do expos, though, like the Gay Life Expo at the Javits Center—”downstairs and all the way to the back,” instructed a guard—where you were targeted by insurance salesmen, a monogamy magazine, and a lesbian sculptor, as a motley batch of dance divas and drag queens performed in the corner. Club promoter Marc Berkley was busy hawking his The Chelsea Boy Coloring Book, which has a picture of a jockstrapped stud slipping a bottle of steroids to a pal, with the subtitle “The gym is an ideal source for nutritional supplements.” Quick, Chelsea moms—get out the swabs!


Generational Tastes

A historical marker in more ways than one, American Graffiti perfected a near Pavlovian formula for manufacturing the myth of a generation out of dated pop music and period ephemera. Cameron Crowe’s quasi-autobiographical Almost Famous, which is set mainly in the spring of 1973 (a few months before American Graffiti‘s epochal release), seems to be working to similar effect—although in a more fashionably starstruck context. American Graffiti‘s implanted memory aspired to the generic; Almost Famous shows its hero inventing that memory. The scenario demonstrates its creator’s preordained success.

As Almost Famous is dedicated to the demographic defined by its sense of having missed the big party of the ’60s, Crowe begins by projecting self-righteous counterculture anticommercialism back onto his mother. His alter ego, William, is introduced as the son of a wildly controlling widow (played, with charmless aggression, by Frances McDormand). Supposedly some sort of lefty college professor and professional protestmonger, Mom is sufficiently clueless to imagine Simon and Garfunkel as dangerous apostles of “drugs and sex.” Mom’s moralizing drives William’s big sister out of the house, but before she leaves she bequeaths her LPs to the 11-year-old with the promise that “one day you’ll be cool.” Cut from 1969 to 1973 when precocious William (Patrick Fugit), a would-be rock critic, wangles his first assignment from Creem editor Lester Bangs (embodied by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a living legend).

No less than Mom, Bangs is an anticommercial loudmouth—albeit of a different type. Thus, the aspiring writer has a crazed, overprotective mother and a distant, wacky mentor who, in preparing to cede the oedipal struggle, wearily informs him that rock is over: “You got here just in time for the death rattle.” In fact, rock will provide William with a surrogate family, an education, a few cheap thrills, and a clear career path. The kid can’t get backstage to interview Black Sabbath, but thanks to the sympathetic groupie—”band-aid” is her preferred term—who calls herself Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), he manages to attach himself to the up-and-coming Stillwater, a sort of amalgam of Led Zeppelin and Bad Company, led by Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee). “I’m the front man and you’re the guitarist with mystique,” Jeff tells Russell in an amusing contretemps over their respective placements on a promotional T-shirt.

Despite blathering Jeff’s classification of the diminutive, enthusiastic William as “the enemy,” Russell realizes that Stillwater (or at least he) can make use of the kid reporter and invites him to join their tour. Almost Famous has been described as a movie about the heroic era of rock criticism, but it has far more to do with establishing the coolness of celebrity journalism. The power of pop is seen from a backstage perspective rather than out front with the fans. William has nothing intelligible to say about Stillwater’s music but everything to learn about their lifestyle. It’s mere moments before the kid is called by the self-important Ben Fong-Torres and gets upgraded from Creem to Rolling Stone.

Panoramic yet cozy, enthusiastically glib, Almost Famous suggests a universe of interlocking sitcoms. (It might almost be a special two-hour version of The Wonder Years.) In one running gag, Mom keeps calling William’s various hotels and compulsively tells her students that “rock stars have kidnapped my son.” In another, William seeks midnight advice from the incorruptible Bangs. “I’m always home—I’m uncool,” his guru frankly admits. (Hoffman and his character should have been the movie.) Warned by Bangs against imagining that he has become friends with the band, William pursues the elusive interview with rueful Russell as though it were his white whale—even as Penny shacks up with the star. William is more wide-eyed than usual when he is ravished by three lesser band-aids while Penny looks on in amusement, favoring us with her trademark nose-wrinkle and pretending she possesses the wisdom of the ages.

William enjoys a few other rowdy adventures, tagging along with Russell to a teenage party in Topeka in which the star drops acid and begins proclaiming himself a “golden god.” (Another sign of the times—the Orgy has penetrated deepest Kansas.) Russell jumps off the roof into the pool; I fell off the bus in the next scene, designed to provide the designated moment of communion, with the band and band-aids all singing an Elton John anthem. (It’s a generational taste—like flat soda pop.) The partying and careerism get more intense as William pursues his story to Cleveland and finally all the way to New York—at which point he receives a phone call from Jann Wenner himself. (The real Wenner has a cameo here just as he did in Jerry Maguire. What does it say about Crowe’s directorial personality that his trademark is the presence of a powerful erstwhile employer?)

“It’s not about money, it’s about playing music and turning people on,” the members of Stillwater keep telling each other en route to the cover of Rolling Stone. Almost Famous is a movie that defuses its own bad conscience. As suggested by Jerry Maguire, Crowe’s specialty is the principled sellout. Almost Famous experiments with a variety of potential endings, most of them involving some sort of betrayal, before settling on the most positive alternative. You keep waiting for William to become disillusioned and he never is.

Budd Boetticher is almost almost famous—at least in some circles. His last feature released around the time William’s big sister left home, the 84-year-old filmmaker is the sole survivor of the Fuller-Siegel-Aldrich generation of auteurs who entered the movie industry during World War II and made the 1950s the golden era of genre flicks.

Boetticher, whose AMMI retro will be complemented by a retrospective presentation of Seven Men From Now at the upcoming New York Film Festival, is best known for a cycle of low-budget westerns starring a very middle-aged Randolph Scott and a couple of bullfight films that he made to suit himself. A college athlete and a youthful tough guy—his photos show a resemblance to Warren Oates—Boetticher went to Mexico to learn bullfighting and wound up as a technical adviser on the 1941 Tyrone Power vehicle Blood and Sand.

Following the production back to Hollywood, Boetticher directed 10 Columbia B pictures before securing the patronage of John Wayne, who produced The Bullfighter and the Lady as a Republic prestige flick in 1951. This single-minded account of a driven gringo (Robert Stack at his most demented) pitching woo at a demure señorita while studying to be a Mexico City matador remains Boetticher’s favorite movie. It was the first that he signed “Budd” rather than “Oscar,” although it was cut before its release from 129 to 87 minutes by Wayne’s bud John Ford. (The restored print, showing this Sunday, includes a lengthy steam bath scene that struck Ford as dangerously homoerotic.)

As Boetticher began his official career with a movie about an obsessive bullfighter, so he ended it in the ’60s, spending nearly a decade making a staged documentary on the Mexican matador Carlos Arruza (it screens next Saturday). In between these two personal projects, he knocked out his seven Scott westerns—starting with Seven Men From Now (1956). Made on 12-day shooting schedules, these elemental cheapsters unfold in a distinctively ahistorical, underpopulated frontier that, in various ways, anticipates the western milieus associated with Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, and Monte Hellman. Boetticher’s barren, rocky wasteland—compared by one French critic to Yves Tanguy’s surrealist pebblescapes—is scarcely more mutable than his star’s craggy visage. That the director was uncharismatically saddled with the granite-faced, stiff-limbed, fiftysomething Scott doubtlessly served to keep down the violence—or rather to sublimate it into existential quests predicated on a series of shifting tactical alliances and haunted by the hero’s mortality.

Boetticher made the Scott westerns as ritualized as a bullfight. The sense of narrative action doubling back on itself is reinforced by the similarities the films share. Ride Lonesome (1959), screening Sunday, in which Scott plays a bounty hunter with a hidden agenda, is the leanest and most abstract (a prophecy of spaghetti westerns to come); Comanche Station (1960), the last film of the cycle as well as the retro, is a metaformulaic summation that reprises situations, music, and even dialogue from its predecessors. There’s also a case to be made for the comic Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), a crooked-town western that might have been written for the theater of the absurd. So far as I know, Boetticher only once again vented his dark sense of humor: The bleakly geometric Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) is a mordantly minimalist gangster farce that, in an apt bit of programming, shares the bill with Buchanan on September 30.