February 23, 2011

Crack-Enhanced Bad Situations

An endless swath of highways connects Cedar Rapids to Duets.

By Robb Witmer Full 

Watching this, it felt as though I was really inside Duets, the Gwyneth Paltrow/Huey Lewis karaoke classic. Like when you're in a dream, and you know that you are in a specific place, regardless of the fact that it bears no real resemblance.

Both movies occupy the same universe, the one where the American Midwest is an endless swath of highways connecting hotel bars and crack-houses. The characters' lives in both movies are centered around those bars, and making something of themselves inside of them.

The life of a Midwesterner seems pretty lame to Big City Folk, and that of Midwestern insurance salespeople doubly so. But everybody's got to get their kicks somewhere, and for working types, that's what conventions are for.

In Duets, the prize was the Karaoke Championship. The NATIONAL Karaoke Championship. (One must assume this is a title sanctioned by the U.S. Karaoke Association.) What the characters are really after in that movie is a chance to be a star, even if it's only in front of a few dozen people.

The coveted Two Diamond Award is at the center of Cedar Rapids, but like the National Karaoke Championship, the ESPY's – or, the Oscars, frankly – it is an award that doesn't have a lot of meaning outside of the room it's presented in.

For the insurance sales representatives, the ASMI (?) convention is their yearly chance to party like they used to at state universities and branch campuses. Sleeping around, doing shots, acting like they're some sort of big-shot back home.

There's also always a chance you hang out with the wrong prostitute and get caught up in some crack-enhanced Bad Situations, but that's just part of the territory, a hazing for rookies. This kind of stuff is what the convention/hotel business was built on; Vegas exists because of it.

Cedar Rapids doesn't take nearly as many chances as Duets – not that there are many movies that do or should – but sometimes the safer choices are the right ones.

Of course, in both movies we have characters fall into heavy-duty drug benders that they have no business dealing with, but Cedar Rapids never falls into the Outrageous-Comedy trap, even when it could have easily become just another John C. Reilly-playing-a-dumbass movie.

There's enough of those, or at least there will be eventually. What if the point is to make a grown-up comedy about fucking around? We could probably use a few more of those.

Robb Witmer Full is the National Karaoke Championships correspondent for America-Thrust.

February 22, 2011

Tights and Capes

Superman: The Movie shines its brightness on America. 

By Robb Witmer Full 

Superman comes from a different time in both American Comics and America itself. Comics were pure kids-stuff then, so most of the characters dressed like clowns to catch the eye of any passing children, not at all unlike modern-day cereal boxes, with the use of big, bright, primary-colored mascots to mesmerize the little scamps.

So, I get why the Tights and Capes, I guess, but it's always been a large hurdle to leap, as it were. Why would Superman dress like such a jack-ass?

Or (at least in the movie version), why would his father dress him like such a jack-ass when he made clear to his son that he should try to blend in with humans. And it's not like the film established at any point that Kryptonians ever dressed like that...

Whatever, I'm over it. For now. But, yes, Superman is kind of silly, and he's exactly the sort of character that for so long mis-defined what comic books could be.

There are no shades of gray in this Superman world, very little humor, and absolutely no irony of any kind. People will smile occasionally. Superman, for all his other-worldly advancement and wisdom, is so oblivious to Earth reality that he thinks there really are only two sides, Good and Evil.

Perhaps he just loves fascism. At the end of the movie, when he's dropping the Bad Guys off at the prison -- without all the mess of a trial -- he simply waves at the prison guards and tells them that they're all on the same team.

These same prison guards would happily smuggle drugs and weapons into the prison for the Bad Guys, so long as the price is right. Whose side are they on then, Superman? And what if they're using their ill-gotten gains to feed their family?

And for a guy who is so learned, Superman is still kind of an Aw-Shucks idiot. I know, he was raised in Kansas, but small-town values are not the same thing as dopeyness.

The tone of Superman is hard to get right. Maybe this is why any updated version seems so out of place. It operates on a cultural logic that doesn't exist anymore, except to be made fun of, and to ridicule it would destroy the whole Superman ethos.

A mid-90's Superman movie, to be directed by Tim Burton almost looked like this:

I'm not making that up. It makes the Schumacher-era Batman movies look like... well, the Schumacher-era Batman movies.

We want Superman to be dorky, and simple, and to wear the the blue and red tights even if they are, as Jon Peters once famously said, "too faggy."

Superman: The Movie gets it mostly right. Does it get too close to Cheese? Yes, dangerously so. Obviously, it's pretty hard to believe that Clark Kent's co-workers, especially Lois Lane, don't get that he's Superman, but at this point if you can't accept that then you are some sort of Secret Communist.

And a bomb that can hit the San Andreas fault right in the G-spot, causing California to fall into the ocean? Even if it were possible, come the fuck on. And let's not discuss whether or not time will actually go backwards if the Earth spins backwards.

Christopher Reeve is just un-bland enough to keep the audience awake and Lois Lane interested. Actually, it's hard to understand what she sees in Superman, except for the 6'5", studly, and able-to-fly thing. Reeve is not exactly Mark-Hamill-in-Star-Wars bad, but I don't see what he brings to the table besides looking just like Superman.

Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor is totally underused in this movie. He spends most of it behind a desk, underground, being about half as interesting as Gene Hackman can be.

Brando, on the other hand, if fucking awesome as Jor-El. The opening sequence on Krypton should have been an entire prequel itself. Who wouldn't want to see a whole movie about a planet that runs on Crystal Technology?

That would have been far too cool, however. The movie we did get is exactly what we need a Superman movie to be: action-packed, kid-friendly, a little boring, and most of all, BRIGHT.

Robb Witmer Full has never worn tights; capes, occasionally.

February 17, 2011

Digital Masks

Catfish is the real Facebook movie.

By Robb Witmer Full 

The Social Network is and will forever be "the Facebook movie," but Catfish is a movie that takes place within Facebook. The site is used as a tool to set up an entire fantasy world for the center of the documentary, Nev.

And he falls for it, hook, line and sinker. But who can blame the guy? He is seduced by an impossibly beautiful and talented country girl who is completely taken with his Big City Life and perfect teeth.

That she isn't real doesn't make their relationship any less authentic, their connection any less strong. The truth is that Megan, or Angela, rather, doesn't know the real Nev any more than he knows the real her.

Okay, a little bit more. But Facebook is just another in a long line of technologies, dating back to masks and face-paint, that allows us to hide our true selves, if even just a little. The internet hasn't changed this, it's just given us a new venue for it.

Who we are on Facebook is not who we are at work, or out for drinks on Friday evening, or at Sunday dinner with our parents; it's like a Fight Club that you can talk about. But we are all these people at the same time. Technology has allowed an unbelievable amount of connection, but also allows us to fracture our personalities in ways we chose, and in ways that we can lose control of.

Catfish is about that loss of control, and the depths to which that fracturing can take us. And like drug addiction, when we've lost that control we often hurt someone we care about.

There's nothing malicious about what Angela did, but it is incredibly fucked-up. She certainly needed the fantasy more than Nev did, and she probably ended up hurting herself more than him.

Angela is a sad, creative person, not happy with who she is, but she's able to live vicariously through her own imagination. Nev fell for her deception, but it's hard to view him as a victim. She did it for his benefit as well as hers, to continue the real friendship going between two fake people.

Robb Witmer Full is editor-at-large of America-Thrust.

A Reckless, Arrogant, and Stupid Dick

In The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg finds his place on the DAP spectrum.

By Robb Witmer Full 

Maybe Mark Zuckerberg is an asshole, maybe he's not. If I had to decide where he fits into the Team America Dick-Asshole-Pussy Spectrum, I'd have to say Dick.

Actually, now that I think of it, the whole movie is kind of based on the D.A.P.S.

Team America tells us "the problem with dicks is: they fuck too much or fuck when it isn't appropriate." That is exactly what Zuckerberg does. He fucks his one and only friend (Pussy), and fairly inappropriately.

He also sticks it into a triumvirate of rich, raging Assholes on his way there. In Zuckerberg's defense, they did want to shit all over him. And since he's a dick — a reckless, arrogant, and stupid dick — he can't really help it, can he?

This movie is nearly flawless. The script is tight and fast, every performance is spot-on, the score is not only tension-building but sometimes downright frightening, and every frame is visually stunning.

David Fincher must be an enormous prick.

Robb Witmer Full would rather not take a position on where he fits onto the DAPS.

February 2, 2011

The Prinze of Preposterousness

Don't watch Prince of Persia too closely, and it could be worth your time.

By Robb Witmer Full 

I swear that for the entire time I was watching this, I thought the star was Freddie Prinze, Jr. It may have been the Pinze-Prince connection, or that it never dawned on me that Jake Gyllenhaal would be cast in the role of action hero... Not that Prinze would have made any more sense.

But there were a lot of "Wow, where has this guy been?" -type thoughts going through my head. (IYI: Freddie Prinze, Jr.'s resume since the Scooby Doo movies is a bit sparse, but does include a writing credit on an episode of WWE Saturday Night's Main Event, so he hasn't entirely disappeared.)

Gyllenhaal, alas, is no Freddie, but that's fine. The actors in Prince of Persia are kind of inconsequential to the movie and, just like the plot and the characters, only get in the way of moving on to the next action scene.

Which are actually kind of awesome. The parkour scenes are pretty cool, even if it's never explained what it is, or where he learned it. Born with it? Sure, why not.

There's nothing to complain about in the swordplay or stabbing-death departments either, though they are decidedly gore-free. And I gotta say, there are a couple of good dick jokes for a Disney movie.

As for the plot, I've never seen a movie that was so unconcerned with how it got from one action sequence to the next. Every plot device seems to happen totally out of context, or accidentally. Mostly accidentally. I vaguely remember one scene where a character says they need some-thing or -one and another character basically says, "Oh, well, that thing or someone is right around this corner," and bam, there it was.

Maybe the scene didn't happen exactly like that. I can't really remember, since I wasn't paying close enough attention, but that's only because it doesn't matter. Getting too involved in the plot would only use the parts of your brain that should be turned off when watching movies like this.

At the end, when Gyllenhaal is explaining to his brother what has been going on the whole time, actually saying the plot out loud, the movie seems to take a moment to let it sink in so the audience can accept the preposterousness of it all. The film itself acknowledges that preposterousness throughout.

The moments that Gyllenhaal is made to look cool, or charming, or shirtlessly hunky, are done completely sincerely, but also hilariously off the mark every single time. At least a few times in these moments, Gyllenhaal seems to smirk at the camera as if to say, "Are you still watching? Yeah? Then check this out."

Can Prince of Persia compare to Road House or Only the Strong as a camp classic? Sadly, no. It's just a little too polished and Disney-fied for that. But if you are are drunk, or trying to distract a multi-generational family gathering, it might be the movie for you.

Robb Witmer Full is editor-at-large of America-Thrust.