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Fatwah / Gloats / August 1, 2008

Previews—I love ‘em, don’t you? Occasionally you’ll meet someone who doesn’t, who regards them as speed-bumps on the way to the main feature, the best time to buy popcorn or check their stocks or something. They’re to be avoided, those people. Because it’s obvious that when you pay an absurd price to see the feature, what makes it worthwhile is the five-to-ten additional movies shown to you in the form of previews. These short-form movies are usually better than the long-form, and it’s rare that anything good is added to the experience when you pump it back up to two hours plus. They show you absolutely fucking everything in five minutes, anyway, including how it all comes out in the end.

The only exceptions to the show-all rule are these:

1) the “irreducibles,” real by-God films that you need to see straight through without bathroom breaks, without blinking if possible (of course I’m talking about films by the Coen Brothers here), and

2) those “surprise twist” films, when she turns out to be a guy or he’s been dead the whole time—they don’t dare show such ultra-spoilers in previews.

But otherwise, you get the entire movie boiled down to its essence, and it usually sucks hugely, but it’s short.

There are great audience experiences to be had during previews, too. You really get the whole drama of collective judgment happening fast and furious. You can almost hear the humming of the group-brain: “Renter…renter…oh, that’s gonna suck…renter…no way…thumb’s down…that might be sorta funny…renter…wait, wait, wait, this might be it, there might be some tiny glimmer of an interesting thing going on here, yes, yes, Christ Almighty, we thank you, they actually made a movie we want to see in a theater!!!”

I’m willing to bet there’s a very high percentage of correct assessments made of movies just based on previews. Take the Iron Man preview, for example. You could just feel everyone in the audience stir with dawning hope, watching it. Standard Big Loud Action Movie stuff, explosions, ponderous male pronouncements, blah blah blah, but on the other hand….it’s Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man. This changes everything! Alters the whole DNA of the action film! We must be there opening day!

And were we right? We were!

Anyway, let’s play. Here are reviews of assorted short-form August movies that’ll save me the butt-ache of sitting through the two-hour versions. I’ll put some bets down—hit, miss, good, bad, whatever—and we’ll see how I do. Feel free to gloat about what I get wrong.

Opening Today

Swing Vote

Whole lotta Kevin Costner going on here, and that’s like saying “Whole lotta flavorless oatmeal for dinner tonight!” But wait, this is Costner unshaven, meaning he’s playing one of his supposedly more interesting characters, this one an unkempt good ol’ boy type whose vote turns out to be the key to a whole presidential election. That adds a little something to the oatmeal; yes, I believe I detect the warmish glow of vanilla flavoring. (Not to mention the light cinnamon, courtesy of Nathan Lane, Kelsey Grammar, Stanley Tucci,, all working hard to inject spice.) But there’s a weird segment of the American population that loves everything soft and bland and sort of light grayish, and they’re sure to turn out for this. It’s teaching some sort of dreary civics lesson, too, which brings out the yay-for-gray constituency every time. This is bland pap for the whole mainstream family, with populist yuks and child-actor cuteness and that somber chord-change midway through to let you know when it’s time to ponder something serious, like that a person is a person no matter how small or Costneresque. So, moderate business, I suppose.

Swing Vote is a loose remake of an old ‘30s movie called The Great Man Votes, not that anyone gives a damn but me. I only bring it up because that movie managed to be sort of interesting by starring John Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather) who was once considered the greatest living actor as well as the handsomest, not a combo you often see. He degenerated into a world-class drunk—W.C. Fields was one of his main drinking buddies, which just shows you—but in the process, lots of movies got built around the spectacle of his ravaged looks and increasingly-crazed talent. My point being, the actor at the center of this kind of sentimental story of reclamation better be able to hold your attention, otherwise you’re going to be at the mercy of the kid-acting and drab sermonizing that surrounds him. Attention-holding was Barrymore’s specialty, drunk or sober. Costner, on the other hand, as I might’ve hinted, is one of our leading cinematic bores. It helps a little bit when he pretends to be raffish or a killer or something, but even at that you can always think of fifty actors who’d’ve been a lot better.

Just think if you cast Mickey Rourke as the beer-swilling reprobate whose vote suddenly counts and who’s being courted by uptight pols in suits and nagged by a small moralistic child. Now you’ve got yourself a movie.

Opening August 6th

Pineapple Express

The verdict’s already in on this one: everybody says it’s gonna be friggin’ great. Its target young-guy audience loves everything Judd Apatow touches, apparently, and he’s a producer here. Even Step Brothers is doing decent business, and that preview was virtually chuckle-free. This preview also seems to be less than high-lare-ious—it’s more like mildly amusing, in that stonerish way—so I’m starting to lose track of what’s so damn great about Apatow and Co. It’s seems to me it’s been a straight downhill toboggan ride in quality of laughs since the high point of The 40-year-old Virgin.

I admit that, personally, I was fed up with the whole Apatow phenomenon when Knocked Up was still new in theaters. He needs to be stopped. Knee-capped, hands broken, larynx removed, whatever it takes. He’s cleaned out his desk drawer full of every script outline he ever wrote by getting them all produced in rapid succession. Then he cleaned out all his friends’ desk-drawers, and his friends’ friends’. Enough. The guy’s more prolific than Joyce Carol Oates and, possibly, even a little more obnoxious. Apatow and Oates refuse to have any unexpressed thoughts. They’re pumping the atmosphere so full of their crap there’s no room for anybody else’s crap. Is this a democracy or not? Can somebody else please get their alternative crap into the mix?

Nothing to be done about it, it’ll be a big hit when all the faithful turn out, thus giving more aid and comfort to Seth Rogen, God forgive us.

If you want to feel the full shame of being a woman in a world that hates women, always has, just start reading the type of unforgivable “uplifing” sisterhood-is-cute book-club crap this movie’s based on, and then watch the movies. You’ll soon be creeping around apologizing for your existence even more than you do now. Because if this is the best we can do, goddammit, Jane Austen lived and wrote in vain.

I don’t know what the hell goes on here. Four young women of various hair colors share jeans, have faux-life experiences, get into snits and then hug, while the voice-over drools on about how “The pants have the magic of keeping us together…”

D.O.A. But I suppose it’ll make a few bucks on DVD.

Opening August 15th

The comedy must-see of the summer, no question about it. Ben Stiller can actually be formidably funny when he’s mocking the easiest possible targets, like male models (Zoolander’s a stone riot). Here we’re going after action films in all their cretinous glory, the comedic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, and this seems to inspire Stiller. We haven’t even begun to plumb the depths of mockability on this subject, though we honor the memory of the admirable Hot Shots! Part Deux. The Tropic Thunder preview is borderline radical, with Robert Downey Jr., (now clearly in the zone, so we should all watch everything he does for a few years) absolutely going for broke as an obsessive Australian actor who’s pulling a black-like-me impersonation that’s going to freak everybody out. Critical race theorists will be publishing knotty academic articles on this performance in years to come. Add Stiller playing a pretentious moron, always his best role, and Jack Black playing Jack Black, plus Ramboesque jungles for them to run around in carrying gigantic guns, and we have ourselves a winner.

Will there be weak bits, dry patches, failed jokes? Yes. Will they matter? No.

Prediction: a huge hit. Leading critics will be forced to admit that it’s funny but deplore the way it sacrifices narrative cohesion or sustained satire or something for the “cheap laughs” that are the entire point and purpose of a movie like this.

As stodgy upright Jedi types marched around in yet another Star Wars retread, this one animated—sort of—everything sort of stiff and boring—I thought I detected a hint, just a touch, of weariness in the crowd watching this preview. That’s amazing, because up to now the general-audience appreciation for all things Star Wars has seemed inexhaustible. No matter how much George Lukas cocks everything up, the faithful turn out to cheer him on. I asked a fan about this once, and he assured me that quality was not the issue: “We’d all go see Obi-wan Mows His Lawn.” Fair enough. But how about Badly Animated Jedis March Around? Still a ravening audience for that?

Sure. At least on DVD.

Given the nauseating title of this one, it was tempting to skip the preview and name that tune in one note: this thing is going to reek arthouse-style, and nobody, but nobody, is going to go see it.

However, we’ll save “Let’s Play ‘Movie Title’” for another day. And a good thing we decided to watch the preview after all, because this turns out to be Woody Allen’s latest, and he’s got a die-hard following of utterly deluded fans. All forty of them will see it for sure. Plus, as usual, he’s drawn some very hot stars like Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, and Penelope Cruz, and here they’re all getting together for sex in a Woody-Does-Europe sort of way—supposedly all good continental fun, way better than stodgy American sex, but then everyone gets stricken with malaise or ennui or galloping neuroses or existential hysteria or something, and a bad time is had by all. Still, there’s the sex, and the pretensions, a potent combo for critics and the high-culture suckers of the world.

I’m betting on respectful reviews and the NY-LA bores trooping off to see it, but everybody else remembering that Woody Allen stopped being funny in 1979. And what the hell good is an unfunny Woody Allen? Interiors, that’s what good he is.

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