Anvil! The Story Of Anvil (Gervasi, 2008)

The opening minutes of Sacha Gervasi’s documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil tell the story of a musical disappearing act that seems way too hilarious, too outrageous to be true. Grainy ’80s concert footage from a Japanese heavy metal festival shows a group of four Canadian metalheads, with giant hair and elaborate leather-buckle outfits, powering through a song called “Metal on Metal.” Then the group’s frontman, a guy in ripped-fishnet gloves called Lips, pulls out a floppy dildo and starts to use it as a makeshift guitar pick. The crowd goes nuts.

Then we see an all-star gallery of interviews with better-remembered metal players—from Metallica’s Lars Ulrich to Lemmy from Motörhead to Slash—all of whom consider those Canadians, who go by the name of Anvil, some of the genre’s biggest pioneers. These guys are unabashed in their admiration, talking with glee about hearing the 1982 album Metal on Metal for the first time and all pausing, momentarily, to wonder why Anvil never made it to the next level. Slash figures it’s because everyone just ripped them off, then “left them for dead.”

But little do they know that Anvil is still together—at least, the core duo of Lips (aka Steve Kudlow) and drummer/childhood friend Robb Reiner is intact, along with two younger replacements. Not only that, they’re still going strong, writing new material and squeezing in gigs between their day jobs and family commitments, and their new fan-turned-manager has just e-mailed them to say she’s set them up on a month-long European comeback tour.

Okay, that’s as far as I can go without invoking This Is Spinal Tap. Rob Reiner’s iconic 1984 mockumentary is on the tip of the film’s tongue from the very beginning, and even though it’s never mentioned, the parallels between the two are astonishing (beginning with the freak similarity between the names of Spinal Tap’s director and Anvil’s drummer). The costumes are the same. The decidedly unsubtle lyrics and riffs are the same. Anvil’s guitar amps literally go to 11. Whole scenes, like the one where Kudlow and Reiner sit in a restaurant and muse on the first song they wrote together—a high school ode to Spanish Inquisition torture called “Thumb Hang”—are almost carbon copies of one another. Anvil! is the best example I’ve ever seen of life imitating art; it’s simulacrum incarnate.

The other major similarity, of course, is that almost nothing goes well for Anvil. Their so-called comeback tour is a poorly managed disaster: they miss trains, get paid in goulash, are promised advance promotion that turns out to be a piece of paper taped to a door, and, to cap it off, play a 10,000-seat festival in Romania for 174 people. When they come home, they decide to borrow a big sum of money and record their new album, This Is Thirteen, with a major producer—but then they can’t sell it, Kudlow’s desperation overpowering his sales pitch with a music executive at EMI Canada.

But Gervasi is an unrepentant Anvil fan, not a satirist, and his documentary never treats the group with anything less than the utmost love and respect. For all Kudlow’s goofy guitar-playing faces, Anvil! agrees whole-heartedly with his insistence that the band is in top form; just because the musical landscape has shifted doesn’t mean that the dudes can no longer rock. Some people might take issue with Gervasi’s uncritical eye, but it has the added benefit of never lingering on images that most filmmakers would milk for just a little bit of cruel pathos. A scene where Kudlow runs amok at an English festival, tripping over himself to say hello to his own metal heroes, could easily be played for laughs. Instead, Gervasi welcomes the audience into sharing his enthusiasm—you feel bad for even noticing Kudlow’s bald patch atop his shoulder-length curls.

After a redemptive final sequence where the band returns to Japan, we’re reminded with a postscript that Anvil has gone the Radiohead route, self-releasing their new album on the web. While you’re there, why not pick up some of their back catalogue? Metal on Metal, Backwaxed, Forged in Fire, Hard N Heavy, Absolutely No Alternative, Back to Basics, and Plugged in Permanent are all still in print.

(review originally appeared in SEE Magazine, June 4, 2009)

Up (Docter and Peterson, 2009)

From the death of Bambi’s mother in 1942 onwards, animated films are notorious for their mistreatment of parents, but the genre has even less time on the whole for the elderly. Maybe it’s because kids more readily identify with young heroes, or maybe because the “circle of life” is code for “old people dying to clear room for the new generation,” but until Carl Fredricksen, the bespectacled old-timer at the heart of Pixar’s Up, never has a cartoon been told from such a resolutely old perspective.

Then again, if you lived Carl’s life, you’d probably spend a lot of time in the past too. Up’s heartbreaking opening sequence takes us on a whirlwind tour of Carl’s younger years, which are almost entirely devoted to Ellie, the love of his life. As kids, the two of them forge an instant bond over their shared love of Charles Muntz, a legendary explorer who ventured into South America in search of a mythical creature and never returned. The young Ellie is a gap-toothed, frizzy-haired spitfire, wrapping the bashful Carl up in her adventures whether he likes it or not. They get married in their 20s, fix up an old house, and blissfully grow old together—the only thing they never quite pull off is a long-planned trip to Muntz’s fabled Paradise Falls. Then Ellie dies, quietly, of old age, and Carl returns home to a house full of shared memories and one empty recliner. At this point, nearly sobbing only five minutes in, I realized I was completely under Pixar’s spell yet again.

When the modern world does poke its head in, Carl (Ed Asner) is being shipped off to a retirement home so his house can be bulldozed and built over. So he takes a page from Ulysses’s playbook and, in search of one last grand adventure, attaches thousands of brightly coloured balloons to his house, rips the whole place out by the foundations, and takes off due south.

And… that’s about all of the plot I want to give away. One of Up’s most giddy pleasures is how many loopy twists and turns the story takes, starting when Carl discovers the boy scout clinging to his balcony in mid-flight and continuing well past the legion of dogs whose special collars translate their thoughts into English. (Sample: “I hate squirrels.”) The screenplay is credited to just two people, co-directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson—the latter also provides the voice of Dug, the lovable main talking dog—but it whizzes along with the madcap energy of 12 great ideas stitched together.

True to Pixar’s sterling reputation, the film’s animation is gorgeous and wonderfully expressive, and every detail has been lovingly pored over: the way the mass of balloons loses its perky shape as the helium slowly drains out, or how the dogs refer to Russell, the boy scout, as a “little mailman.” Michael Giacchino’s score is nimble and buoyant, and aside from a few obvious jokes about prunes and denture cream, the script never misfires.

This point has been made before, but it’s worth repeating: how incredible is it that as Hollywood hedges more and more of its bets—sequels and remakes galore—there’s a company like Pixar, which is taking bigger and brasher risks as its brand grows? Admittedly, the big trailer preceding Up is a teaser for the ultra-reliable Toy Story 3, which is set to open as a tentpole property next summer, and which is guaranteed to earn Pixar at least a few hundred million dollars. But if anyone can keep a franchise from going stale, it’s got to be these guys.

(review originally appeared in SEE Magazine, June 4, 2009)

Czech Dream (Klusák and Remunda, 2004)

The Czech Dream hypermarket has it all. In a country full of slimy advertising and robotic mega-stores, it’s got an amiable cartoon bubble logo and a series of winking anti-ads. “Don’t come,” they say. “Don’t spend.” The store’s hip young managers, Vít and Filip, know that today’s customers are savvy—they want a bit of surprise with their groceries. Its prices are low, of course, but the real intrigue behind the store and its big opening gala is that the address is kept top secret until a few days beforehand, when it’s revealed that Czech Dream is located, cleverly, next to a huge meadow outside of Prague. Three thousand people show up on the morning of May 31, 2003, shopping lists in hand.

Oh, one other thing: the store isn’t real. As the shoppers approach the storefront from 300 metres away, many of them breaking into a full run, they realize it’s nothing more than a fancy banner and scaffolding. And those young managers? They’re film students, making a prank documentary about advertising and, almost by accident, Czech nationalism in the post-communism, pre-European Union era. Czech Dream is their final assignment, and it’s hard to imagine a student film—or the making of one, anyway—having a bigger impact on its home country than this one did.

To make such an elaborate lie palatable, Klusák and Remunda enlist a real ad agency to develop the Czech Dream campaign, a barrage of TV and radio spots, billboards, and newspaper flyers dummied up with false products at too-good-to-be-true prices. They conduct market research and interview families of self-proclaimed shopaholics. These scenes with the ad designers are the first indication that the film has more in mind than simply duping a crowd of repressed capitalists; we’re shown more than once how the companies in on the joke are equally driven by blind capitalism—Hugo Boss, for example, provided the directors with flashy suits in exchange for an extended close-up of the company logo. They grumble about ethics but accept the commission anyway.

In fact, it’s not clear that the directors were ever really out to embarrass the shoppers. And even if they were, it doesn’t quite work the way you might imagine it would: most of the people are either mildly amused or mildly upset, and only a handful of them flip off the camera or throw rocks at the banner. Given the tension leading up to it, it’s something of a fizzled payoff. Overall, the prank resembles a science experiment with too many variables—was the promise of a “surprise” too buried in the flyer? Did the sunny weather temper a potentially more visceral crowd reaction? Or are people just not as fired up by mall openings as we think?

The fake hypermarket does, however, bring out a fascinating latent reaction in several attendees. The opening of Czech Dream coincides almost exactly with the Czech government’s bid to enter the European Union, and after the flashy promise of a capitalist utopia falls flat, many a talk show host and newspaper columnist start drawing parallels.

Some of the specifics in Klusák and Remunda’s argument are a bit muddy, and the film goes to extreme pains to not be conclusive in any way, but hey: thanks to them, the prime minister himself had to appear on a TV panel show in order to defend his government’s EU publicity blitz. I hope they got at least an A-.

(review originally appeared in SEE Magazine, May 28, 2009)

RiP: A Remix Manifesto (Gaylor, 2009)

The best scene in Brett Gaylor’s new documentary RiP: A Remix Manifesto is a simple shot of two people lying on a bed. A man in his mid-20s works on a laptop, clicking away at a music editing program, mumbling to the camera about what he’s doing as he does it. Just behind him, a girl is drowsily sprawled out, nearly asleep.

Four things make this scene so engaging. First, the man is Gregg Gillis, better known as the mashup artist Girl Talk, whose extensive use of uncleared samples—often more than 20 in a three-minute period—has made him a poster boy in the recent but far-reaching fight over copyright reform in North America.

Second is what Gillis is actually doing on the computer. He isolates a one-second clip from Elvis Costello’s “Radio, Radio” and, in the blink of an eye, cuts it up, loops it, slows part of it down and speeds part of it way up, and comes up with a thudding club beat that’s completely unrecognizable from the original sample. It’s an astonishing display of technical and creative dexterity.

Third is the implicit cost: for Gillis to legitimately clear the rights for even that minuscule clip, it would run him, between Costello’s record label and the song’s publishers, approximately $12,500.

Fourth, and most importantly, is that Gaylor is himself showing this footage to Marybeth Peters, a register of copyrights at the U.S. government with a 40-year tenure. Peters is a nice enough woman, but admits right away that she doesn’t use a computer at home and has never in her life downloaded a song, legally or otherwise—yet she is one of the people who gets to decide whether artists on the cutting edge of technology, like Gillis, are criminals.

“Can I show you a mashup?” Gaylor asks, pulling out his laptop. After a minute of watching Gillis at work, Peters marvels, “Oh my God.”

Gaylor looks at her. “This is a lot of copyright infringement?”

“No,” she says. “I’m just amazed at what he’s doing!”

Indeed, it’s hard not to get sucked up into the B.C.-born Gaylor’s enthusiasm as he barrels along, using flashy animations and milking the fair use clause for all it’s worth to show how culture has always borrowed from its past and reimagined it in a modern context—The Rolling Stones and Walt Disney being among the most successful examples. He also lands interviews with some of the smartest copyright reform activists around, including Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig and novelist/blogger Cory Doctorow.

But Gaylor’s enthusiasm works against him, too. RiP frequently gets too caught up in its own flashiness, and its stance is about three steps too far back from its subject to make the kind of nuanced case necessary to preach to anyone but the choir. As soon as Gaylor started trying to justify Napster (yes, everyone used it and yes, it was awesome, but its users were not remixers—they were thieves), I tuned out completely.

I’d also be remiss in my duties were I to let Gaylor get away with never once mentioning how copyright functions in this country, particularly since RiP is funded by the National Film Board of Canada—and because we’ve been on the brink of new digital legislation for over a year now. (In fact, we don’t even have the fair use clause here, but Gaylor doesn’t seem to notice in his frequent mentions of it.) It’s very likely that our bill will closely mirror the U.S.’s suffocating Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but it’s not a foregone conclusion.

So instead of bemoaning how Girl Talk’s mashup art is illegal down south, Gaylor’s energies could have been put to much better use had he tried to prevent the same thing from happening here.

(review originally appeared in SEE Magazine, May 21, 2009)

Gomorrah (Garrone, 2008)

Watching Gomorrah, director Matteo Garrone’s meticulous and dizzying investigation into the inner workings of the organized crime circuit in Naples, I realized that one of my absolute worst fears has come true: The Wire has ruined everything. Critics have been saying for years that David Simon’s ultra-nuanced, morally grey HBO series about the Baltimore police department and the never-ending web of drug dealers it chases has permanently raised the bar for complexity and grit, but Garrone and his film are casualties of an even more tragic order—they’re peers who nonetheless remain stuck in Simon’s colossal shadow.

That’s because while Gomorrah brutally exposes the idiocy and decrepitude of the Neapolitan mafia, in the process de-pantsing pretty much the entire crime genre as we know it, a lot of it still feels overly familiar. That’s kind of an unfair complaint, I realize, but there’s something to be said for getting there first, and Simon and company were rewriting basically this same playbook back in 2002. On the positive side, if you’ve never seen The Wire—or can selectively forget everything you ever learned about the Barksdales—there’s very little to stop Garrone’s film from hitting its rightful stride as a minor classic.

Comparisons between the two works are inescapable. Both take their cues from capital-A authentic source materials—in Garrone’s case, the 2006 nonfiction exposé by Roberto Saviano, which revealed so many Camorra secrets that the author had to be put under 24-hour police surveillance (though he has emerged long enough to lend a hand to the screenplay). Both are infinitely more interested in the mundane, everyday details of crime rather than its flashy payoff. And both are soul-punishingly bleak; those who come in search of happy endings are in for disappointment after disappointment.

Most obviously, both Garrone and Simon tell dense, knotted stories that don’t so much fit together so much as rub shoulders, coexisting but essentially oblivious to one another’s existence. Gomorrah packs in five stand-alone narratives, which are, briefly, as follows: the two Scarface-worshipping teens who try to carve out their own territory; the kid who retrieves a stolen gun and gets a chance to join the ranks; the tailor who moonlights teaching Chinese immigrants the tricks of the trade; the businessman who arranges for barrels of corporate toxic waste to magically disappear; and the deliveryman who disperses payola to everyone on the Camorra’s keep-quiet list.

Yet unlike The WireGomorrah gives no screen time whatsoever to the law enforcement side of things. Vigilante justice is the only kind of justice in this universe—the best the police can do is show up every half-hour to tape off a new crime scene and scratch their heads. Citizens not under the Camorra’s protection are worse than helpless; they’re chalk outlines waiting to happen. That’s why when the deliveryman (Gianfelice Imparato) has a sudden change of heart, the first thing he does—aside from strap on a bulletproof vest and break out in a cold sweat—is yell around the apartment complex, his usual delivery route, for people to stay inside. “It’s dangerous!” he barks, and nobody has any reason to doubt him.

This ugliness is only further punctuated by the occasional burst of beauty, thrown in when you least expect it. In the midst of dilapidated condos that look more Incan than Neapolitan, a group of kids splash in a pool on a lush green roof. When one of the teens, an impossibly lanky kid named Sweet Pea (Ciro Petrone), breaks down in a forest after forgetting where he buried a stash of stolen weapons, the trees shine brilliantly on behind him. Even the soundtrack—a barrage of obnoxious, too-slick Europop—serves as a stark, strangely civilized counterpoint to the rest of the onscreen savagery.

Perhaps the real complaint about Gomorrah is that even at 130 minutes, it’s way, way too short. After all, we had five years and more than 60 hours to get to know the nuts and bolts of The Wire’s Baltimore—and we still barely learned anything. As the final murders unfold on a desolate beach, you realize that you never even really figured out who was fighting whom. Was it sparring families? Rival neighbourhoods? Or just your run-of-the-mill drug cartels? The journalist Saviano could probably help us out, but I get the feeling he’s not exactly listed in the phone book.

(review originally appeared in SEE Magazine, May 14, 2009)

Examined Life (Taylor, 2008)

Documentaries about philosophy are in many ways an exercise in accessibility. By getting philosophers to appear onscreen and condense ideas that already exist as 500-page tomes into tidy, pullquote-ready anecdotes, you’re basically admitting that the field as it stands has some major PR problems. But as the Platonic epigraph in Astra Taylor’s new film Examined Life says, the unexamined life is not worth living—so if the goal is to get the wheels of self-reflection going in as many people as possible, you could do a lot worse than a film as accessible and uniformly pleasant as this one.

The Winnipeg-born Taylor’s approach is at once elegantly simple and kind of gimmicky: she takes contemporary philosophers to places that either resonate in some way with their work (Peter Singer discusses financial ethics and First World insulation while wandering down New York’s Fifth Avenue) or are in some way meaningful to them personally (the post-Marxist Michael Hardt takes Taylor on a rowboat ride in Central Park), and from there just lets them talk. Aside from one awkward early encounter with an insufferably self-righteous Avital Ronnell, Taylor keeps herself largely off-camera, silent.

This hands-off method might partially explain why the topics under discussion differ so wildly from one another, though Taylor admits to Ronnell up front that her goal is breadth, not depth; the latter takes only semi-ironic offence when Taylor tells her each philosopher has only 10 minutes to get their ideas across. (Sometimes Examined Life feels more like an anthology than a cohesive feature film, and indeed Taylor has edited just such a companion collection, to be released under the same name in June.)

Still, it’s hard to fault the argument from accessibility when it generates so many nice springboards into the underlying questions surrounding today’s big issues. You have queer theorist Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor (Astra’s sister) on what it means for someone in a wheelchair to “take a walk”; the thundering Marxist-Lacanian Slavoj Zizek, at a garbage dump, on how we ought to conceptualize nature and ecology; and Kwame Anthony Appiah on the true meaning of cosmopolitan. The small segments function like a philosophical gateway drug, or least trailers for the respective books—“If you liked this, you’ll love The Sublime Object of Ideology!”

And even if you’ve already made up your mind about some of these thinkers, seeing and hearing them just might convince you to give them a second chance. For example, I remember much of Butler’s writing to be cold and obtuse, yet here she’s nothing but courteous, eloquent, and even kind of funny. And while Zizek is a hilarious and captivating presence in any medium (he’s also the subject of Taylor’s previous film, Zizek!, which I adore), you might want to have his animated lisp in your head before tackling his intimidating body of work.

Then there’s Cornel West, riding in the back seat of Taylor’s car through Manhattan in a suit and afro, and burning through references and ideas so quickly it’s like he’s trying to beat an imaginary clock. His rapid-fire commentary bookends the film, and he does a nice job in the opening scene of setting up the importance of philosophy as an interrogator of the conflicts inherent to the human condition: desire in the face of death, dialogue in the face of dogmatism, and democracy in the face of power.

I’ve never read any of West’s work before, but that’s about to change.

(review originally appeared in SEE Magazine, April 16, 2009)

Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived (Masutani, 2008)

 

With a title as silly as Virtual JFK: Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived, Koji Masutani’s speculative documentary sounds more like a loopy, handwritten diatribe that ought to be stapled to a telephone pole beside those “Edmonton Questions 9/11” posters. In fact, it’s a modest, fascinating inquiry into Kennedy’s general presidential attitude toward war—and as Masutani shows, JFK was urged into military action on no fewer than six separate occasions between 1961 and 1963, and declined every single time.

From this, Masutani and his talking-head expert, James G. Blight, wonder what would have happened if soldier-happy Lyndon B. Johnson hadn’t taken charge after the assassination, and… well, you can see where it goes from there. It’s a one-note conclusion, but the archival footage of JFK’s press conferences and phone transcripts leading up to it make the trip more than worthwhile.

In chronological order, here are Kennedy’s crises, each of which could have led to something like World War III: the Bay of Pigs fiasco, civil war in Laos, the raising of the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban missile crisis, with the growing destruction in Vietnam gathering ominously like storm clouds in the background the whole time.

As Blight repeats several times, it wasn’t that Kennedy was merely presented with the notion of going to war—it’s that every single of his top advisers insisted that military action was the only possible solution. To not fight back would be to appear weak to Khrushchev and the Soviets. (These advisers were veterans of an earlier generation of warfare, where the enemy was recognizable and victory clear-cut; Kennedy’s recognition of the changing face of diplomacy is one of the reasons he was seen, initially, as a young Ivy League softie.)

Still, six times out of six, Kennedy stuck to non-military strategies. Even during something like the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, when the U.S. was about to become the target of international ridicule, and a pack of ready Marines was in fact waiting to swoop in from mere miles off the Cuban coast, Kennedy saw how easily the stakes could be raised to a nuclear level, and he held off.

These case studies are fascinating—admittedly, I’m not enough of a Kennedy expert to assess the minutiae of some of Masutani’s case—but for my money, the best part of Virtual JFK is the extensive footage of Kennedy’s press conferences. While Masutani is clearly implying parallels between JFK and Obama, the latter is sorely outmatched here. After all, these were some of the tensest weeks in the entire 20th century, and there’s Kennedy, a bucket of charm, calmly explaining his actions in a way that’s intelligent and easily understandable, but which also manages to seem completely unrehearsed. It’s gorgeous, inspiring stuff.

And somehow, amidst it all, Kennedy’s press conferences always involve the room exploding with laughter. He makes time to expertly skewer his critics in the Senate, and breaks the tension following the Cuban missile crisis by cracking a joke about spending Christmas in Florida, just 90 miles north of the nuclear hotspot. Cool as a fucking cucumber.

(review originally appeared in SEE Magazine, April 9, 2009)

Adventureland (Mottola, 2009)

No disrespect to Greg Mottola’s last directorial project, 2007’s super-caffeinated Superbad, but it’s a hollow shell compared to his utterly sublime follow-up, Adventureland. The new film (which Mottola also wrote) is so good, in fact—so touching, hilarious, and expertly put together—that all of mainstream Hollywood comedy is on genre-wide notice: the bar has just been raised. Letting a group of funny people riff on a lukewarm script while the cameras roll is no longer going to cut it. I’m looking at you, I Love You, Man.

At first sight of this third-rate amusement park in Pittsburgh in 1987, however, there isn’t much joy on display—and certainly no adventure. Then again, you wouldn’t want to draw too much attention to what Adventureland does have: crudely rigged carnival games, boxes of expired corndogs, and a staff of underachieving, disillusioned twentysomethings who maintain their thousand-mile stares even while helping customers use the rickety Skee-Ball machine. Plus, the couple that owns the park (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) keeps “Rock Me Amadeus” playing over the loudspeaker ad nauseam.

So when his family can no longer afford to help pay for his trip to Europe, recent liberal arts grad James (Jesse Eisenberg) is forced to take a summer job at the park to make up the difference. But his shame at having to clean up puke all day quickly fades away as he recognizes some kindred spirits amidst the landscape of kitsch: there’s his fellow games operator Joel (Martin Starr), a self-conscious pipe smoker whose real passion is Russian literature and Slavic languages; and especially Em (Twilight’s Kristen Stewart), an NYU undergrad who also happens to be a pale, deadpanning knockout.

Before long, James and Em begin a fumbling romance that struggles at every turn to hit its stride. Em can’t seem to break off her ongoing secret affair with the park’s mechanic (Ryan Reynolds), a married man. For his part, James is loath to admit he’s never had sex, and makes up for it by intellectualizing his virginity and reading Henry Miller. Both of them are shaken by their parents’ respective dysfunctional relationships. Then there’s Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), Adventureland’s resident hot girl, who takes an interest of her own in James as well as his easy access to pot.

It’s been 10 years since the adored but short-lived sitcom Freaks and Geeks was cancelled, and since then its reputation and influence have grown at an exponential rate. Nearly every coming-of-age story these days seems to crib one angle or another from it, but Adventureland is the first project that truly holds its own against that show’s complex layers of heartache and note-perfect period details. It’s no surprise to hear that Mottola worked at the real-life Adventureland in the summer of 1987—he nails all of it.

The cast is so funny and well-chosen that it seems like they’ve been working together for years. In particular, Eisenberg (best known from his role as the eldest son in The Squid and the Whale) plays this combination of sweetness and hurt confusion so well it’s as if he owns the patent, and Stewart’s Em, beneath her neuroses, is lovable as hell. SNL cast members Hader and Wiig give excellent smaller performances, and Reynolds hits just the right mix of sleazeball and guru when he gives James dating advice on one hand and seduces Em on the other.

Then there’s Starr, the only actor here who actually comes from Freaks and Geeks, and who steals quite a bit of the show—in one superb scene, he presents his crush with a copy of The Overcoat and happily tells her that Gogol burned his last manuscript and starved himself to death. Starr’s delivery is so sincere and unassuming that, just for a second, it sounds like the most romantic thing you’ve ever heard.

It can get irritating when films set in the present day load their soundtracks with cutting-edge artists—how many times has Vampire Weekend made an unnecessary appearance in the last 12 months?—but for a film like this, set lovingly in 1987, those of-the-moment songs give it yet another ring of truth. Adventureland is loaded to the brim with choice selections from The Replacements, Big Star, and Hüsker Dü—not to mention tons and tons of Lou Reed. When Animotion’s “Obsession” comes on at a nightclub, everyone runs, shrieking, to the dancefloor. The characters constantly talk about music, and every stereo is in use at all times; it will make you nostalgic for a time (if indeed there ever was one) when “Pale Blue Eyes” was on your local bar’s jukebox.

Exuberant, meek, hopeless, exhilarating, depressing, funny, full of ennui and romantic sparks and vomit—this is life as a teenager, and this is Adventureland.

(review originally appeared in SEE Magazine, April 2, 2009)

For The Love Of Movies (Peary, 2009)

People have been making movies now for over a century; for nearly as long, other people have been writing about them. Film and film criticism have evolved in tandem over the years, and their relationship has always been symbiotic, with good work in one medium generally begetting good work in the other. Ideally, a smart review will make audiences smarter, who in turn will demand smarter movies to watch, as well as smarter critical analyses thereof. When it all comes together, discourse takes a glorious upward spiral.

Sometimes, though, the relationship between the two is so close it’s downright nepotistic. Take, for instance, Frank E Woods, who was in many ways the first American film critic, and who raved about DW Griffiths’s The Birth of a Nation in print while at the same time receiving a co-writing credit on the very same film.

Or how about Gerald Peary, a critic and columnist for The Boston Phoenix, who now wades knee-deep into conflict-of-interest territory with his directorial debut, For the Love of Movies? The documentary attempts to explain both the history of American film criticism—98 percent of whose examples come from either Boston or New York—and why criticism matters as a form. It doesn’t really deliver on either end. Considering that its target audiences are cinephiles and other film writers, there’s very little to chew on here; the movie feels like the kind of chatty, throwaway shoptalk you’d overhear in a screening room.

Peary interviews many of today’s most prominent critics, including AO Scott, Kenneth Turan, Roger Ebert (taped before he lost the ability to speak in 2006), Andrew Sarris, Lisa Schwarzbaum and John Powers. There’s also, judging by the outfit changes, at least four or five sit-downs with Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman.

But what does Peary ask them? I’m still not entirely clear. Not about the craft of writing a good review, and not why their profession matters in the grand cultural scheme. Mostly their off-hand anecdotes are used to illustrate a rather bumpy tour of the taste-making critics of decades past, and the cinematic values they held: from Bosley Crowther’s strict moral code to Pauline Kael’s apolitical aesthetics to Ain’t it Cool News's Harry Knowles and the rise of the gut-level amateur reviewer.

This is a useful timeline to keep in mind, but it still feels like an awful waste of several roomfuls of talent. The film could lop 10 minutes off its longwinded summary of the auteur theory—the idea that the director of a film is its true guiding force, which generated a decades-long rivalry between Sarris (pro) and Kael (con) starting in the 1970s—and instead tell us a little about the art of reviews as a form. Corny interstitial titles and narration like “It’s an Internet world—log in, look around” aren’t exactly helping the cause.

No, Peary doesn’t grill his peers about their relevancy in any way, which reflects exponentially back on his own film, and not in a good way. After all, he’s made a movie about people whose job it is to write about movies, and he is, himself, one of those people. The temptation to navel-gaze is mighty indeed. (The Woods story mentioned above comes from Peary’s film, though he doesn’t seem to notice the irony.)

Plus it puts me in the rather awkward position of having to add to the problem by writing an article about his movie about people who write articles about movies. Thanks a lot, Peary—feels like I’m trapped in an Escher painting over here.

(review originally appeared in Vue Weekly, July 21, 2010)

Winnebago Man (Steinbauer, 2009)

Winnebago Man isn’t a movie. It could have been a movie, maybe, and it’s definitely an intriguing idea—tracking down Jack Rebney, infamous star of one of the first viral videos, a pre-YouTube outtake reel taken from a promotional Winnebago tape in the late 1980s. In the footage Rebney screams and curses from the slightest of provocations, including smudges on the camper’s windshield and his own inability to pronounce accoutrements. One of the tape’s working titles is “The Angriest Man in the World.”

Most ideas, though, as you dig in deeper, don’t pan out. It takes a mature artist to be able to recognize a failing idea and have the confidence to let it go. By this criterion, director Ben Steinbauer is not a mature artist. Instead, he barrels ahead with his non-idea for years, even as it becomes apparent that Rebney, now a crotchety hermit who lives alone in Northern California, is not documentary-subject material. He has minimal interest in the Winnebago footage, and absolutely zero in his own quasi-celebrity and the profundity, or lack thereof, in Internet culture—the only reason he encourages Steinbauer to hang around is so he can give vent to his many complaints about the state of the American economy.

What’s worse is that Steinbauer enables him, and, as narrator, puts himself through excruciatingly trite intellectual gymnastics to try and explain what the appeal of the “Winnebago Man” footage is, when we know full well it’s because we get to laugh at some poor sucker. The way he goads and leads Rebney on simply to keep his movie afloat, especially as Rebney’s health continues to fail (he’s functionally blind by the end), is downright cruel.

Steinbauer repeatedly tells Rebney that he ought to make use of what Steinbauer calls his “fans,” his “audience.” These are, to put it lightly, not the right words for it. (Think about it: do you want to have a sit-down chat with the “Boom Goes the Dynamite” guy? Better yet, do you want to hear his thoughts about Dick Cheney? I don’t think so.) Rebney is the butt of a joke, pure and simple. The vast majority of his audience, such as it is, is a constantly replenishing wave of 13-year-old boys.

At least things end on a promising note, when Steinbauer hauls Rebney down to the Found Footage Festival in San Francisco. Here he is received with vigorous applause by a roomful of hip 20-somethings (a tiny, far-from-representative fraction of Rebney’s “audience,” but still). It’s a triumphant moment, seeing Rebney subtly turning his cantankerousness into a lovable angry-grandpa routine for the crowd. He seems touched, too, by all the autographs and handshakes he’s asked for afterwards.

But the lengths to which Steinbauer pokes and prods him to get to this point sour the whole thing. He should’ve done what Rebney tells him to do time and time again, which is to put his camera down and walk away.

(review originally appeared in Vue Weekly, September 14, 2010)