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On the Dark Side

Cooling trend.... Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton's consolation prize for losing out on the Lemony Snicket concession (surely that had his name written on it), is a remake of the fractured fairy tale by Roald Dahl, a spindly little framework freighted with production values, CG imagery, and dark dense bordello color, like some scrawny four-foot scrub of a Christmas tree adorned with enough ornaments, lights, and tinsel for Rockefeller Center. (Proposed name change: Tim Burden.) The plot premise seems to combine the theme park and the reality show: an elimination game in Candy Land. Five lucky children, all of them horrid but one, win an opportunity to tour Willy Wonka's top-secret chocolate factory, in competition for an unspecified Grand Prize. Every time one of the horrid ones is bounced out (by some nonlethal but nauseating method), a chorus line of Munchkin-like midgets known as the Oompa Loompas comes out and does a musical number, combining Busby Berkeley and David Lynch. Further combinations: the reclusive chocolatier, in Johnny Depp's peculiar rendition, combines Mr. Rogers (mincing cadence) and Michael Jackson (pancake makeup), among others; and the titular little hero, the truly adorable Freddie Highmore, who played opposite Depp in Finding Neverland as well, combines Tiny Tim (poverty-line pathos) and perhaps Frodo the Hobbit (rodenty cuteness). All of these combinations and others (the "teleportation" of a candy bar into a TV set combines 2001 and The Fly, more specifically the sixtieth humorous usage of the opening notes of Also Sprach Zarathustra and the fortieth humorous usage of a high-pitched "Help me!") pile up, two by two, to produce an unsubsiding groan, arising either from the overtaxed framework or the overtaxed viewer. Even a halfway charming idea, like the staffing of the nut-sorting room by squirrels, will immediately be followed with a groaner: "Little girl, don't touch that squirrel's nuts!" And the only respite from the ugly vulgarity of the décor comes from the prying impoliteness of the bulbous closeups. The total effect, to look on the bright side, promises to speed the rate at which people finally get fed up with Tim Burton. Assuming, that is, there remain some people who haven't yet gotten there.

Wedding Crashers, directed by David Dobkin, starts out as a men-behaving-badly skit about a couple of skirt-chasing cads who drop in on weddings to pick up susceptible girls and promptly drop them. After a frenetic montage of their modus operandi, however, the action settles into a perfectly conventional romantic comedy, hitting all the expected spots at all the expected times, as our two cads -- the equally expected Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, who earlier worked with the director on Clay Pigeons and Shanghai Knights, respectively -- discover their true soul mates, two sisters for added convenience, a phony virgin slash nymphomaniac slash bondage girl (Isla Fisher) and a save-the-planet altruist (Rachel McAdams) who reveals her superior sensibility by giggling uncontrollably at the self-written vows of their older sister and new brother-in-law. The funny business, in what amounts merely to a newer convention, is pushed to such extremes of crassness and grossness that you feel as if the laughs are being extracted not by feather tickler but by thumbscrew. E.g., the ancient matriarch of one of America's leading political families will pepper her dinner-party conversation with epithets like "asshole," "homo" (of her own grandson), and "rug muncher" (of Eleanor Roosevelt), while her granddaughter administers a hand job beneath the tablecloth. Audiences do laugh at this sort of thing. Don't ask me why. There's a late-arriving Surprise Guest Star in the role of the legendary pioneer of wedding crashing, now blazing a new trail in the field of funeral crashing. I won't be the one to give away his identity, but if I gave you three guesses, I think you could get him. He, too, is to be expected.

The Island opens in the vicinity of an Orwellian dystopia, where a closely monitored populace ("Sodium Excess Detected," reads out a urinal at a morning pee) must live in regimented drudgery and sterile isolation, under stricter rules against intergender "proximity" than at a Catholic-school dance, and with the desperate hope to hit the lottery and a free pass to the titular paradise, "nature's last remaining pathogen-free zone." Roughly forty-five minutes into the movie (or mere seconds into the coming-attractions trailer), the Island will turn out to be, along with much else, a mirage, a figment. Further revelations trickle out, but the main business of the next hour and a half is a chase, in gaudy music-video visuals, with low angles and wide angles, flash pans and smash cuts, shafts of light and blasts of glare, plumes of steam and showers of sparks. The installation of Michael Bay in the director's chair is your assurance that the slow start will not bar you from repulsively overscaled action à la Bad Boys and Bad Boys II, only bigger, and with more miraculous, or more slapsticky, strokes of luck. Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson are the two fugitives whose ostensible goal is to hang on to their humanity. But both of them had to let go of that, together with their "indie" credentials, at the front gate.

Hustle and Flow is an article of nouveau blaxploitation, a throwback even as to the chintziness of the production, centered around a small-time Memphis pimp and pusher, too cool to enunciate, who agrees to accept a kiddie keyboard as payment for a quarter bag, and sets out from there down the path of artistic self-expression ("I got this flow I need to spit"), shedding a tear along the way at a gospel recording session in church, owning up to "one of those midlife crises," and trying to follow in the footsteps of the neighborhood success story, Skinny Black (Memphis Skinny?). Et voilà, the hip-hop pimp: "Whup dat trick, get'm! Whup dat trick, get'm!" Terrence Howard plays the role with an openness and unguardedness that offer no defense against the blunt-force poignance, a bit like a ball on a batting tee. Writer-director Craig Brewer, who likes to get two or more people talking or yelling at once, mixes in four parts grit for every one part goop, a recipe for mud pie.

Cronicas, from Ecuadoran-born filmmaker Sebastián Cordero, another writer-director hyphenate, is inflammatory fiction on inflammatory journalism, an unscrupulous exploration of professional ethics, a cynical exploitation of cynical exploitation. In it, a scripture-spouting Bible peddler (Damián Alcázar) accidentally kills a child who runs out in front of his car, the twin brother of a boy raped and murdered by the Monster of Babahoyo, and just buried on the very day of the accident, an offense for which the driver gets dragged from his car by an angry mob, beaten to a pulp, set on fire (all in front of the TV cameras of One Hour with the Truth, nightly out of Miami), and thrown in jail on unclear charges. He then solicits the help of a TV field reporter (John Leguizamo), in exchange for intimate knowledge of the elusive Monster. What a scoop that would be! But could the informant himself be the Monster? The sensationalism of both subject and treatment tends rather to push you away than to pull you in. By the time of the final haymaker, you are likely to be well out of reach.

Happy Endings, to position it by its title, or anyway by the noun in its title, interweaves three plotlines with occasional points of intersection, one of them to do with the tested friendship between homosexual couples of opposite sexes, one to do with the boat- rocking new female lead singer of a garage band, and one to do with a wannabe documentary filmmaker who focuses his camcorder on a Mexican immigrant sex worker. Children feature prominently in each line, not as actual presences, but as life choices, abstract concepts: the sperm-bank baby, the aborted baby, the adopted baby. The entire cast of characters, however widely scattered, comes together in a fantasy finale reminiscent of Places in the Heart or Fellini's 8 1/2. Despite that stab at magnanimity, the film doesn't really amount to much, though it whiles away a couple of hours. Writer-director Don Roos (yet another one) keeps the tone on the light side, the glib side, the superficial side, the self-conscious and posturing side. His principal tone-setting device is the intermittent split-screen title card, dispensing silent narration in the omniscient third person, an uncommonly chatty, catty third person, omniscient into the future in addition to the past, telling us, for instance, that so-and-so has had sex with twelve women since his wife died and will have sex with two more before he himself dies. Verbatim prose samples: "She's not dead. No one dies in this movie. It's a comedy, sort of" and "Charley is now gay. Who isn't?" and "Nicky never lies. He's not her son, if that's what you're thinking." Apparently intended to be ingratiating but more apt to be just grating, these bring to mind the old Saturday Night Live gimmick (back when I sometimes still watched it) of picking out an audience member with the camera and captioning the image with some potential embarrassment such as "Has hemorrhoids" or "President of the Olivia Newton-John Fan Club." Lisa Kudrow, who did good work for Roos in The Opposite of Sex, does some again here. (Though Steve Coogan, with unconcealed British accent, seems an odd choice for her stepbrother, especially since we have met the brother sans accent in an earlier stage of life.) And Maggie Gyllenhaal habitually does good work for whoever gives her a chance. And this is a particularly good chance.

* * *

Alternative programming: the one-week booking of Machuca at Hazard Center, as part of the monthly Cinema en Tu Idioma series, is now entering its third week on Friday, and at the same time is expanding to one-week bookings at the Escondido 16 and Rancho Del Rey 16. You have no excuse to have missed it. And fair warning: Dark Water, in only its second week in wide release, looks to be sinking fast, if that's the term. Draining fast, maybe.

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Cooling trend.... Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton's consolation prize for losing out on the Lemony Snicket concession (surely that had his name written on it), is a remake of the fractured fairy tale by Roald Dahl, a spindly little framework freighted with production values, CG imagery, and dark dense bordello color, like some scrawny four-foot scrub of a Christmas tree adorned with enough ornaments, lights, and tinsel for Rockefeller Center. (Proposed name change: Tim Burden.) The plot premise seems to combine the theme park and the reality show: an elimination game in Candy Land. Five lucky children, all of them horrid but one, win an opportunity to tour Willy Wonka's top-secret chocolate factory, in competition for an unspecified Grand Prize. Every time one of the horrid ones is bounced out (by some nonlethal but nauseating method), a chorus line of Munchkin-like midgets known as the Oompa Loompas comes out and does a musical number, combining Busby Berkeley and David Lynch. Further combinations: the reclusive chocolatier, in Johnny Depp's peculiar rendition, combines Mr. Rogers (mincing cadence) and Michael Jackson (pancake makeup), among others; and the titular little hero, the truly adorable Freddie Highmore, who played opposite Depp in Finding Neverland as well, combines Tiny Tim (poverty-line pathos) and perhaps Frodo the Hobbit (rodenty cuteness). All of these combinations and others (the "teleportation" of a candy bar into a TV set combines 2001 and The Fly, more specifically the sixtieth humorous usage of the opening notes of Also Sprach Zarathustra and the fortieth humorous usage of a high-pitched "Help me!") pile up, two by two, to produce an unsubsiding groan, arising either from the overtaxed framework or the overtaxed viewer. Even a halfway charming idea, like the staffing of the nut-sorting room by squirrels, will immediately be followed with a groaner: "Little girl, don't touch that squirrel's nuts!" And the only respite from the ugly vulgarity of the décor comes from the prying impoliteness of the bulbous closeups. The total effect, to look on the bright side, promises to speed the rate at which people finally get fed up with Tim Burton. Assuming, that is, there remain some people who haven't yet gotten there.

Wedding Crashers, directed by David Dobkin, starts out as a men-behaving-badly skit about a couple of skirt-chasing cads who drop in on weddings to pick up susceptible girls and promptly drop them. After a frenetic montage of their modus operandi, however, the action settles into a perfectly conventional romantic comedy, hitting all the expected spots at all the expected times, as our two cads -- the equally expected Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, who earlier worked with the director on Clay Pigeons and Shanghai Knights, respectively -- discover their true soul mates, two sisters for added convenience, a phony virgin slash nymphomaniac slash bondage girl (Isla Fisher) and a save-the-planet altruist (Rachel McAdams) who reveals her superior sensibility by giggling uncontrollably at the self-written vows of their older sister and new brother-in-law. The funny business, in what amounts merely to a newer convention, is pushed to such extremes of crassness and grossness that you feel as if the laughs are being extracted not by feather tickler but by thumbscrew. E.g., the ancient matriarch of one of America's leading political families will pepper her dinner-party conversation with epithets like "asshole," "homo" (of her own grandson), and "rug muncher" (of Eleanor Roosevelt), while her granddaughter administers a hand job beneath the tablecloth. Audiences do laugh at this sort of thing. Don't ask me why. There's a late-arriving Surprise Guest Star in the role of the legendary pioneer of wedding crashing, now blazing a new trail in the field of funeral crashing. I won't be the one to give away his identity, but if I gave you three guesses, I think you could get him. He, too, is to be expected.

The Island opens in the vicinity of an Orwellian dystopia, where a closely monitored populace ("Sodium Excess Detected," reads out a urinal at a morning pee) must live in regimented drudgery and sterile isolation, under stricter rules against intergender "proximity" than at a Catholic-school dance, and with the desperate hope to hit the lottery and a free pass to the titular paradise, "nature's last remaining pathogen-free zone." Roughly forty-five minutes into the movie (or mere seconds into the coming-attractions trailer), the Island will turn out to be, along with much else, a mirage, a figment. Further revelations trickle out, but the main business of the next hour and a half is a chase, in gaudy music-video visuals, with low angles and wide angles, flash pans and smash cuts, shafts of light and blasts of glare, plumes of steam and showers of sparks. The installation of Michael Bay in the director's chair is your assurance that the slow start will not bar you from repulsively overscaled action à la Bad Boys and Bad Boys II, only bigger, and with more miraculous, or more slapsticky, strokes of luck. Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson are the two fugitives whose ostensible goal is to hang on to their humanity. But both of them had to let go of that, together with their "indie" credentials, at the front gate.

Hustle and Flow is an article of nouveau blaxploitation, a throwback even as to the chintziness of the production, centered around a small-time Memphis pimp and pusher, too cool to enunciate, who agrees to accept a kiddie keyboard as payment for a quarter bag, and sets out from there down the path of artistic self-expression ("I got this flow I need to spit"), shedding a tear along the way at a gospel recording session in church, owning up to "one of those midlife crises," and trying to follow in the footsteps of the neighborhood success story, Skinny Black (Memphis Skinny?). Et voilà, the hip-hop pimp: "Whup dat trick, get'm! Whup dat trick, get'm!" Terrence Howard plays the role with an openness and unguardedness that offer no defense against the blunt-force poignance, a bit like a ball on a batting tee. Writer-director Craig Brewer, who likes to get two or more people talking or yelling at once, mixes in four parts grit for every one part goop, a recipe for mud pie.

Cronicas, from Ecuadoran-born filmmaker Sebastián Cordero, another writer-director hyphenate, is inflammatory fiction on inflammatory journalism, an unscrupulous exploration of professional ethics, a cynical exploitation of cynical exploitation. In it, a scripture-spouting Bible peddler (Damián Alcázar) accidentally kills a child who runs out in front of his car, the twin brother of a boy raped and murdered by the Monster of Babahoyo, and just buried on the very day of the accident, an offense for which the driver gets dragged from his car by an angry mob, beaten to a pulp, set on fire (all in front of the TV cameras of One Hour with the Truth, nightly out of Miami), and thrown in jail on unclear charges. He then solicits the help of a TV field reporter (John Leguizamo), in exchange for intimate knowledge of the elusive Monster. What a scoop that would be! But could the informant himself be the Monster? The sensationalism of both subject and treatment tends rather to push you away than to pull you in. By the time of the final haymaker, you are likely to be well out of reach.

Happy Endings, to position it by its title, or anyway by the noun in its title, interweaves three plotlines with occasional points of intersection, one of them to do with the tested friendship between homosexual couples of opposite sexes, one to do with the boat- rocking new female lead singer of a garage band, and one to do with a wannabe documentary filmmaker who focuses his camcorder on a Mexican immigrant sex worker. Children feature prominently in each line, not as actual presences, but as life choices, abstract concepts: the sperm-bank baby, the aborted baby, the adopted baby. The entire cast of characters, however widely scattered, comes together in a fantasy finale reminiscent of Places in the Heart or Fellini's 8 1/2. Despite that stab at magnanimity, the film doesn't really amount to much, though it whiles away a couple of hours. Writer-director Don Roos (yet another one) keeps the tone on the light side, the glib side, the superficial side, the self-conscious and posturing side. His principal tone-setting device is the intermittent split-screen title card, dispensing silent narration in the omniscient third person, an uncommonly chatty, catty third person, omniscient into the future in addition to the past, telling us, for instance, that so-and-so has had sex with twelve women since his wife died and will have sex with two more before he himself dies. Verbatim prose samples: "She's not dead. No one dies in this movie. It's a comedy, sort of" and "Charley is now gay. Who isn't?" and "Nicky never lies. He's not her son, if that's what you're thinking." Apparently intended to be ingratiating but more apt to be just grating, these bring to mind the old Saturday Night Live gimmick (back when I sometimes still watched it) of picking out an audience member with the camera and captioning the image with some potential embarrassment such as "Has hemorrhoids" or "President of the Olivia Newton-John Fan Club." Lisa Kudrow, who did good work for Roos in The Opposite of Sex, does some again here. (Though Steve Coogan, with unconcealed British accent, seems an odd choice for her stepbrother, especially since we have met the brother sans accent in an earlier stage of life.) And Maggie Gyllenhaal habitually does good work for whoever gives her a chance. And this is a particularly good chance.

* * *

Alternative programming: the one-week booking of Machuca at Hazard Center, as part of the monthly Cinema en Tu Idioma series, is now entering its third week on Friday, and at the same time is expanding to one-week bookings at the Escondido 16 and Rancho Del Rey 16. You have no excuse to have missed it. And fair warning: Dark Water, in only its second week in wide release, looks to be sinking fast, if that's the term. Draining fast, maybe.

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