Recently, some friends introduced me to the considerable pleasures of Freaks & Geeks on DVD, and I understood why the show barely lasted a season; it was a nearly pitch-perfect rendering of high school's everyday horrors and comic humiliations, and what mass audience, hoping for mindless entertainment, wants to subject themselves to that? And just like that sublime TV series, Mean Girls, the new teen comedy directed by Mark Waters and written by Tina Fey, is so wickedly sharp and achingly funny that its target audience probably won't know what to make of it.(At the screening I attended, everyone laughed like hell at the overt physical comedy, but the movie's most hilarious dialogue fell on deaf ears.)
A sort of Heathers-lite, Mean Girls focuses on home-schooled Cady (the sensational Lindsay Lohan), whose attempts to secure popularity in her new public school become increasingly complex as she's torn between her true friends and the hateful girls (led by a comically voracious Rachel McAdams) who run things. All manner of adolescent one-upmanship ensues, and Fey's script crackles with vivid dissections of a teenager's cliques, projections, and fears of individuality. Within the parameters of its teen-movie format, Fey's script is positively ingenious; its leading characters are wonderfully fleshed-out, its marginal characters are good for numerous laughs, it employs a great screenwriting conceit - the unreliable narrator - and Fey has a rare gift for making characters' dialogue reveal as much about themselves as it does about others. (My favorite example among dozens of contenders: McAdams dismissing an old boyfriend with "All he cares about is school and his mom and his friends.") Mean Girls meanders a bit and might, like many an unpopular kid, be too smart for mass acceptance, but it might just be the best teen comedy the movies have given us in 15 years. No joke.
MAN ON FIRE
For years, I considered Joel Schumacher my least favorite director, with heavy competition from Tony Scott, but since Schumacher recently gave us the punchy Phone Booth and Scott's current release is Man on Fire, the latter finds himself moving up (down?) a notch. For Man on Fire is absolutely repellant, a grossly slick and manipulative thriller that trashes whatever good Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning are trying to bring to it. Washington plays a former CIA assassin hired to protect Fanning from Mexican kidnappers; after her inevitable abduction, Washington begins a vengeance-fueled killing spree. Nothing we haven't seen in dozens of other thrillers, of course, but it's Scott's sadistically protracted presentation that turns a pathetic movie into one that verges on the unwatchable. For nearly an hour of the film's ass-numbing 145 minutes, we watch sweet little Dakota attempt, and eventually succeed, in melting surly Denzel's heart; this first hour is heinous not only because of its obscene length, but because Scott seems to think this time spent justifies every bit of outré violence Washington subsequently inflicts on his adversaries. The rest of the movie is one long, grisly payback sequence, totally lacking in logic and basic coherence, and by the time the filmmakers pull their last-minute "Gotcha!" on the audience, I wanted Denzel to direct his vengeance against them. Filled with Scott's patented, obnoxious flourishes (the changes in film stock, the lawnmower-inspired editing) and boasting a few new ones (Scott sometimes subtitles his English-speaking characters and even plays bizarre, unnecessary tricks with the subtitles' typography), Man on Fire is a constant assault on sense and taste, and it felt like the longest movie I've ever seen.
When Martin Scorsese watches Robert De Niro in a movie like Godsend, does he laugh himself silly or cry himself to sleep? What happened to this man? Many still consider De Niro a great actor, but it's been eons since he's given us any reason to continue believing it. He occasionally delivers fine work, yet his most recent efforts feel phoned-in and nearly apologetic; with his lethargic air and indifferent line readings, he might almost be warning us that, despite the cachet that accompanies his involvement, the movie we're sitting through is going to be a real dog. There was probably no way for Godsend to work, yet, somehow, the presence of De Niro makes it even worse; we go in expecting a luridly engrossing piece of horror trash, but everyone involved with the movie seems to have picked up the De Niro bug - the film is presented with such laborious seriousness that there's not an ounce of fun to be had. Greg Kinnear and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos play a married couple who decide, with bewildering ease, to have their young son cloned after his death, De Niro is on hand to do the dirty work, and naturally, the couple's "new" kid begins showing signs that he is, in fact, Pure Evil. What could have been an intriguing look at the perils of medical and scientific advancement is sacrificed for fourth-rate "Boo!" moments, ridiculously convoluted plotting, and a nagging feeling that director Nick Hamm and screenwriter Mark Bomback have no clue where to go with this material; Godsend appears to contain about five different endings, each more asinine than the one that preceded it. None of this is really surprising. What is surprising is the strenuous, wrong-headed earnestness of the presentation, embodied by De Niro's so-grave-it's-funny-which-just-makes-it-sad portrayal. Godsend isn't the least bit frightening; it's the willful squandering of this once-magnificent actor's talents that's truly scary.
THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS
The Barbarian Invasions, this year's Oscar-winner for Best Foreign-Language Film, features one of the most extended deathbed scenes the movies have offered us - it runs the entire length of the film's 100 minutes - but the movie isn't the least bit morbid; it's a comforting, at times even joyous, account of absolution and acceptance, a tearjerker that affects your head more than your heart. Written and directed by Denys Arcand, the film centers on the last few weeks in the life of a history professor (Remy Girard) dying of cancer, the renewed bond he forms with his estranged son (Stephane Rousseau), and the group of friends and former lovers who surround him in his waning days; Arcand's work, presented in English and (mostly) French, isn't so much a feature-length version of Terms of Endearment's farewell scene as it is The Big Chill if Costner's character hadn't yet expired. (The film's considerable humor protects Remy's impending demise from excessive sentimentality.) Arcand writes lovely, searching passages of dialogue, and his blackout structure, with scenes ending a few seconds before you expect them to, gives the movie a lulling, melancholy pull; the movie is a graceful and effective piece of work. The Barbarian Invasions, currently playing at the Brew & View, might be a tad dry for those who like their weepies obvious and smothered in a violin-laden soundtrack, which is all the more reason for the rest of us to seek it out.