#61 - Enormous Changes at the Last Minute

Dedicated To
Grace Paley
1922 - 2007

Added 8/27/07

G’day, mates. Welcome back to your Electric Theatre for another week of cinematic musing. Not a bad week all around, with only one movie coming anywhere close to being Hell Plaza Octoplex-worthy (and even it has some good things going for it), so let’s jump right in.


The A-Picture - Once

Time was, if you didn’t see a movie in the theatre opening weekend, you could probably still catch up with it somewhere down the road. Those days are basically gone, unfortunately, and I’m as guilty as anyone of failing to see a movie when it’s hot ‘n’ fresh and then just waiting for the DVD. But every so often, there’s a movie that sneaks out, builds great word-of-mouth, and lingers in theatres long enough for everyone to eventually get around to it. Witness Once, a wonderful little sleeper that opened here in L.A. last May. I didn’t really think much of it at the time but people kept recommending it to me, so I finally figured I’d better see what all the fuss was about. The praise is well-deserved. Glen Hansard stars as a street musician nursing a broken heart who encounters a Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova) who appreciates the original songs that he only breaks out at night when street traffic is light. She’s a musician herself and they start working together a bit, which slowly and inexorably leads to love. Once is a simple story (the main characters don’t even have names…in the credits they’re simply Guy and Girl) but one with such heart, intimacy and emotion that it’s virtually impossible to be unmoved by it. It’s also, in its own way, a quietly innovative musical. The brilliant songs (written and performed by Hansard and Irglova themselves) express the movie’s emotional content better than any dialogue ever could. There’s a thrilling scene early on in a piano store with Hansard teaching one of his songs to Irglova that comes closer to showing a connection between two people being forged than most anything I can think of off hand. Once is a yearningly romantic, heartbreaking movie that I loved without reservation. Everyone who recommended this movie to me has my most sincere thanks (you know who you are). I’m not giving it four stars, only because I don’t like handing those out right off the bat, but if it turns up on my ten best list this year (and I suspect it will), consider it promoted. (* * * ½)

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

My interest in video games cooled around the time I realized that my Atari 2600 was no longer the pinnacle of gaming technology. But I spent more than a few rolls of quarters playing with joysticks back in the 80s, so I figured if nothing else, I’d get a good laugh out of The King of Kong, Seth Gordon’s new documentary about the cut-throat world of championship gaming. And for the first 20 minutes or so, I thought that’s all I’d get. What I wasn’t expecting was for the movie to transform into a crowd-pleasing underdog story that’s as enjoyable and inspirational as any of the Rocky movies. Billy Mitchell, the undisputed Donkey Kong champ since 1982, finds his title threatened by Steve Wiebe, a sweet, decent family man from Redmond, Washington. Steve’s received some tough breaks and suffers from a serious inferiority complex, so winning the title means a lot to him. Hanging on to it may mean even more to Billy, a flag-waving, ruthlessly ambitious hot sauce entrepreneur. Slowly but surely, you become thoroughly engrossed in Steve’s attempts to be the best. At the screening I attended, I daresay every person in the audience was rooting for him, completely oblivious to the fact that he was a grown man jumping Mario over barrels and fireballs. It wouldn’t shock me if Hollywood latched onto this for remake purposes, especially since the characters are so vivid. You’ve got good guys and bad guys, Billy’s sycophantic disciple, the referee whose other interests include transcendental meditation and folk-singing, and Steve’s patient and supporting family. If they do, however, I hope they don’t lose sight of the fact that some of the biggest victories here are small ones. Maybe the most satisfying moment of the film comes when Steve finally asserts himself and tells the ref that he’s been mispronouncing his last name the entire time (for the record, it’s “Weebee”). The King of Kong takes a subject that would be easy to make fun of and turns it into a story of universal appeal. Don’t think you need to know the difference between Defender and Galaga to enjoy The King of Kong. No matter what level you get to, it’s a delight. (* * * ½)

Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead

Look kids, it’s conflict of interest time! As you are no doubt aware, I am a proud graduate of the Troma Team. I wrote two books with Lloyd Kaufman and consider him a friend, so as a responsible journalist, there’s no reason on earth I should be reviewing his new movie and even less reason why you should pay attention to what I say about it. But if at any time I gave the impression that I was a responsible journalist, you haven’t been paying attention. And hopefully you realize by now that I’m enough of a straight-shooter to give an honest opinion of something. So I’m not going to say, “POULTRYGEIST IS TROMA’S MASTERPIECE!” (although I threw that in there so they could pull a quote if they want to…and if I were really writing this Troma-style, all this would be a footnote but I don’t know how to format footnotes online so now it’s a parenthetical aside…y’see how this works?). The story is pure Troma. A fast-food chicken place is built on an ancient Indian burial ground. Spirits possess the food and turn the customers into chicken zombies, while Arbie (Jason Yachanin) takes a job at the place to win back his newly lesbianized ex-girlfriend Wendy (Kate Graham). Oh, and it’s a musical. So here’s the bad news. This is Troma’s most claustrophobic production in years, set almost entirely in and around the restaurant, making it seem like a step back from the relatively epic scope of Citizen Toxie. There are a few choice cameos from familiar Troma faces like Ron Jeremy, Joe Fleishaker, Debbie Rochon and even Uncle Lloyd himself in his biggest acting role to date (at least in one of his own movies…he obviously had a much bigger part as Stunt Wang #2 in Apple Brown Betty’s House of Cornholes…this should also be a footnote, by the way…sorry, I just can’t seem to help myself from lapsing into this style when writing about Troma) but their relative absence keeps Poultrygeist from nailing that sense of Troma family that movies like Terror Firmer have. And as for the musical numbers, one of them is pretty good and very funny but too many of them just kind of peter out. In fact, the movie seems to forget it’s a musical by the end. Now the good news. The jokes that hit home are genuinely funny and subversive in a way mainstream movies would never dare. The cast is enthusiastic and they throw themselves into the Troma-style of beyond broad acting without hesitation. And the effects are actually quite good, caking the lens in a film of blood, gore and an array of other bodily fluids. If you’re not already a Troma fan, I don’t think Poultrygeist is the place to start. You’re much better off stepping into Tromaville for the first time with Tromeo & Juliet, Terror Firmer and, of course, The Toxic Avenger (a very fine novelization of which is available at places like Amazon.com…I should probably be ashamed of this bit of self-promotion in a review of a movie that has nothing to do with Toxie but I’d bet Lloyd would be disappointed if I didn’t plug as many Troma products as possible in here, so go buy my book!). But if you’re already fully Tromatized, Poultrygeist will not disappoint. People watch Troma movies hoping to see something they won’t see anywhere else. I can pretty much guarantee this is the only place you will see a guy turned into a zombie while he’s fucking a chicken (unless you stop by my favorite bar in downtown LA between the hours of 2 and 5 AM, where you’ll see exactly that…only without the zombie part). (* * ½)

The Nanny Diaries

I’ve had the exact same conversation with every person I’ve talked to about wanting to see this movie, so let’s get this out of the way first thing. The Nanny Diaries was written for the screen and directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, the husband-and-wife team behind the brilliant American Splendor. THAT is why I wanted to see The Nanny Diaries, OK? Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near the level of American Splendor but at least it isn’t quite Hell Plaza Octoplex-worthy, although it frequently comes close. Scarlett Johansson stars as Annie, freshly graduated from college and completely unsure of what she wants to do with her life. On a whim, she accepts a job as a nanny for an Upper East Side couple (Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti) and makes the shocking discovery that they’re vain, shallow and selfish with little-to-no interest in actually raising their child. Johansson is a gorgeous screen presence but she doesn’t have a whole lot of range as an actress, which makes her an unfortunate choice to anchor a movie. The worst moments focus on her and the kid (played adequately but unmemorably by Nicholas Reese Art). Come to think of it, that’s not quite accurate. Worse still is Johansson’s annoying narration, which lends the movie the feel of a subpar episode of Sex and the City. The movie sparks to life whenever Laura Linney shows up, all flint and sparks as Mrs. X, crafting at least a few scenes that provide a glimpse of a real person beneath the privileged exterior she tries so hard to maintain. Without her and Paul Giamatti, The Nanny Diaries would have been thoroughly insufferable. As it is, it’s watchable and occasionally amusing but to get to the good stuff, suffering is involved. (* *)

Your pal,