Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Web-sclusive: Review of Balls of Fury

[Film] Remember when Christopher Walken wasn't "Christopher Walken"? I know it's been a while, but think back—back 25 or 30 years ago, to when he was a serious dramatic actor in movies like The Deer Hunter and The Dead Zone. His odd looks—the gaunt, sad-eyed face that make him look like a basset hound after a hunger strike—and tremulous voice made him hard to cast, but he seemed able to do interesting things with nearly everything he was given.

But then, at some point—maybe once he became a regular host on Saturday Night Live, including the guy who demanded "more cowbell"—something shifted. He became a go-to guy for quirky supporting roles, someone who could provide a spark of life where the script itself offered nothing. And so we got Walken in stuff like Poolhall Junkies, Envy, The Country Bears, Gigli, Click—a deadpan breath of fresh air in otherwise irrelevant crap, but essentially playing the same part over and over again.

In Balls of Fury, Walken takes on the role of an obviously-not-Chinese Chinese gangster named Feng—and he becomes the walking incarnation of the film’s hit-and-miss understanding of what’s actually funny versus what’s funny only in theory. The story’s hero, Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler), was once a 12-year-old table tennis prodigy on the verge of international stardom. But one public disgrace changed his life and cost his father his life at Feng’s hands, and 19 years later he’s a Reno novelty act bouncing ping-pong balls off of patrons’ heads. His chance for redemption comes when an FBI agent (George Lopez) invites Daytona to infiltrate Feng’s legendary underground ping-pong tournament—which will require re-learning the sport from the great blind Master Wong (James Hong).

If you’re familiar with the work of writers Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant from either Reno 911! or their 2006 film Let’s Go to Prison, you’re probably acquainted with their unique combination of low-brow gags, improbably weird gay-panic humor and surreal touches. Sometimes they nail it, as the do in the sad desperation of Daytona’s nightclub act. Sometimes they don’t, as with the over-the-top fight sequences involving Maggie Q as Master Wong’s niece. And sometimes they’re just unlucky, considering the idea of subverting sports-movie clichés through an absurdist competition was already nailed by Broken Lizard in last year’s Beerfest.

But mostly, the creative team seems to be aiming for no more ambitious audience response than good will. While Fogler’s a funny find as the gone-to-seed Randy, mostly Balls of Fury cruises on his chubby, scraggly look. Cameo appearances—by Lennon (Reno 911!’s Dangle), Patton Oswalt and Dietrich Bader, among others—serve primarily as “hey, look, it’s that guy” moments. Comedies of premise almost always start out with our amusement at what could happen—and where many of its set-ups are concerned, Balls of Fury too rarely advances past that point.

That notion applies to Walken’s presence as the film’s nominal villain. From the moment he appears—hair slicked back and shiny, adorned in silk robes—Walken brings the promise of some unexpected weirdness. Except that at this point, the weirdness is expected. We’re just waiting to hear what odd bit of dialogue will be given a twist by his halting delivery—and even when it’s something as funky as, “I bid you toodles,” it’s still not quite as amusing as it seems it should be. Balls of Fury is a decent enough diversion as such comedies go, but it just feels a little bit lazy, as though no one got too much farther than how funny it might be to cast Christopher Walken as a Chinese gangster.

For his part, Walken needs to be careful with his career. Where once there was discovery in him playing his droll comic timing against his looks, he’s coming dangerously close to what happened to Leslie Nielsen after a similar late-career shift. There’s a big difference between being funny and being “funny.”

**1/2 (two and a half out of four stars)
Starring: Dan Fogler, Christopher Walken, George Lopez
Directed by Robert Ben Garant.
Rated PG-13

(Scott Renshaw)

Friday, August 24, 2007

When Drunks Attack!

Drama on Main

SALT LAKE CITY--Witnesses recount the dramatic series of events that transpired outside City Weekly's front door on that mean street known as Main: An allegedly intoxicated fellow, attempting to secure the amorous favors of a woman stationed near the Coffee Garden, instead incurred the wrath of the woman's husband. A scuffle ensued.

The allegedly intoxicated fellow, reportedly enraged, proceeded to kick and punch the glass windows of the nearby Keith Christensen campaign headquarters, which fortunately are seldom occupied. Police arrived and forcibly removed the allegedly intoxicated gentleman to a squad vehicle, at which time he began to howl obscenities and kick at the inside of the rear passenger-side door.

Police eventually subdued the man. Witnesses report the police vehicle then drove away.

The object of the man's advances said that she emerged unharmed.

"I told the cops I don't like drunks," her husband said. "I mean, I drink occasionally, but usually only at night."

(Brandon Burt)

Friday Letters Round-Up

(Brandon Burt)

Web-sclusive: Review of The Nanny Diaries

[Film] At first glance, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’s best-selling The Nanny Diaries looked like the pinnacle of snotty art: A couple of young women make bank watching the kids of Manhattan’s beautiful people, then make even more bank for writing a fictionalized tell-all pissing on the foibles of those same beautiful people. But for all its broad satire of preoccupied absentee parenting, it was also a surprisingly wistful story of a fragile child desperately seeking stability. It was clear-eyed, funny and more than a little angry.

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini—the documentary filmmakers who moved into features with 2003’s American Splendor—would seem to be the ideal choice for keeping a film adaptation of The Nanny Diaries focused on its unpleasant realities. Instead, they steer the narrative towards generic story elements and an artificial uplift that replaces the edginess of New York with the shiny happy gleam of Hollywood.

Scarlett Johansson stars here as Annie, a recent college graduate who seems destined for the corporate fast-track encouraged by her success-conscious single mother (Donna Murphy). But at an interview for an internship, Annie freaks out and heads to Central Park, where she saves a 5-year-old boy named Grayer (Nicholas Art) from near tragedy. His mother, Mrs. X (Laura Linney), mistakes Annie for an out-of-work nanny, and quickly offers her a job as Grayer’s caretaker. And when she accepts, Annie has no idea that she is about to become babysitter, teacher, nurse, errand-runner—and, for all practical purposes, mother.

The novel’s coy román-a-clef devices—the generically-named employers, the protagonist’s name as “Nanny”, a romantic interest dubbed “Harvard Hottie” (Chris Evans)—occasionally feel forced, by Berman and Pulcini cleverly fold them into the idea of minor-in-anthropology Annie viewing her job as cultural research. Early on, the upscale New York stereotypes are presented with a wink as museum exhibits, and the filmmakers slip surreal flights of fantasy into Annie’s observations (like imagining herself on a Mary Poppins umbrella flight over the Upper Ease Side). For a while, it seems as though they’re about to nail the wry perspective on their milieu.

It even seems that they could nail the relationship between Annie and Grayer.

Johansson’s an odd case as a performer, so preternaturally poised that it’s hard to accept her in situations that are supposed to be embarrassing. But she develops a genuine rapport with the unfairly adorable Nicholas Art, whose wide open face suggests just the hunger for affection that Grayer doesn’t get from his mother or workaholic father (Paul Giamatti). When Annie hesitates at leaving her job—and the increasingly demanding Mrs. X—it’s easy to believe that it’s because of her concern for abandoning this boy.

Where The Nanny Diaries falls flat is forgetting that Grayer is the emotional center of the story. Berman and Pulcini completely manufacture the subplot involving Annie’s fear of disappointing her mother, spending far too much time on a journey towards a foregone mutual understanding. Annie’s relationship with Harvard Hottie also takes up a larger percentage of screen time, though it’s hard to fault any filmmaker for wanting to include more of budding star Evans. The few scenes devoted to the hard-won connection between Annie and Grayer end up forced to carry too much weight, and the consequences of severing that connection aren’t taken seriously enough.

Of course, given the new, more upbeat direction that Berman and Pulcini take with the ending, the consequences don’t actually seem that serious. After a “moral of the story” tirade by Annie that’s just as unnecessary on screen as in print, the filmmakers choose to redeem a character who was more tragically interesting without an improbable epiphany. Annie, too, gets to walk into the sunset having learned something about what she wants from life, but The Nanny Diaries was never really about any of that. It was about a lifestyle where the hard work of being a parent is deemed too much for anyone with wealth and a full social calendar. The film, unfortunately, seems to deserve the same plea as the people it targets: Won’t someone please think of the children? (Scott Renshaw)

Monday, August 20, 2007

People Before Profits

Reading statements by the families of the trapped Huntington miners should be enough to convince anybody that, if there is even a slight chance that any of the trapped miners are still alive, it is Bob Murray's responsibility to do everything in his power to get them out.

These men risked every day (and eventually probably gave) their lives to turn a profit for Murray. Now it's his turn to pay back a bit. He doesn't even need to risk his own life (what exactly is that helmet is supposed to be protecting him from? Falling stacks of earnings reports?) just some of the money those men made for him.

If it's too dangerous to send rescuers in horizontally, send them in vertically. Even in the worst case, the families deserve the comfort of decent burials for their loved ones. (Brandon Burt)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Like a Strolling Stone

[Art] There's nothing particularly admirable about visiting 10 Salt Lake City galleries in two and a half hours on Gallery Stroll night. There have been months like July where my stops were fewer, but the longer stay at each one -- like the 15 minutes I spent absorbing just one of Wynter Jones' remarkable paintings at Art Access -- was a necessary trade-off. Quantity time vs. quality time: the essential challenge of the busy 21st century urbanite.

But for an arts editor, sometimes aiming for a broad sampling is the right course of action. Some months I don't make it out of downtown, which this month might have meant missing Annie Kennedy's fascinating, unconventional mixed media works. Her Mormon upbringing -- particularly end-times thinking -- informs many of them, including an interpretation of "The Second Coming" that turns baked paper, olive oil and grape juice into a contemporary Shroud of Turin. And if you think art can't save your life -- literally -- you haven't imagined a 72-hour emergency preparedness kit turned into a wall-hanging quilt, with beef jerky and dried fruit turned into floral patterns and ibuprofen stitching the perimeter.

"A" Gallery, on 21st East, might also have been given a pass on one of those downtown-centric months, and then I would have missed abstracts like Dave Adams’ “Desire Followed Her As Birds,” the bright oils bursting out of the aluminum surface almost three-dimensionally. And my sniggering inner adolescent would have been denied Brent Godfrey’s more representational suggestion of post-masturbatory release, sort of evident even without the title “Eruption.”

Even downtown is getting harder to keep up with, as new galleries like Saans join the stroll itinerary. Located next door to Kayo Gallery on East Broadway, Saans debuted with Capree Kimball’s two evocative photographic series: the bubbling, distorted, tactile black-and-white portraits of “Beauty and Decay,” and the popping colors of women immersed in a bathtub, one representing each of the Seven Deadly Sins. I had to pry myself away to make time for Art Access (an eclectic mentor/protégé “Partners” exhibit), Rio Gallery (the sound portraits of “Salt Lake Audioptic,” profiled in next week’s issue) and Palmers Gallery (a juried group show, but also the best and biggest buffet spread of any gallery on a regular basis). Hey, a 10-gallery stroller’s gotta keep up his strength. (Scott Renshaw)

Friday, August 17, 2007

Broken News

[Media] Talk about a whuppin’! On Thursday evening (Aug. 16), the night of the second collapse at the Crandall Canyon mine, news began filtering onto the Internet about Emery County’s latest disaster. All the major cable networks were on it, and our local broadcast and print media were as well. Except for one—KUTV 2, which was basically asleep and inept.

Around 9:30 p.m., Fox News' Greta van Susteren announced that The Salt Lake Tribune was reporting that of the injured miners, one had died. Click to Fox 13, and the same announcement was made at nearly the same time. It was unclear for a while how many miners were injured and to what degree. Both Fox stations were in the midst of regular news broadcasts and did admirable work of keeping their viewers well informed. Indeed, hats off to Fox 13’s Max Roth. During a live report, it was clear he came upon some very distressing news about one of the miners but did not report that detail until official confirmation and out respect for the grieving family just feet behind him.

So, what happens at 10 p.m.? Channels 2, 4 and 5 all lead with that blaring announcement of “breaking news” from Crandall Canyon. No one takes that ‘”breaking news” crap seriously anymore since, often as not, it’s only a cat stuck in a tree. ABC 4 and KSL 5 both began with current facts about how the accident happened and that one miner was confirmed dead. Channel 2—not even bothering to watch the latest events unfold on competitive monitors—stuck to the same script written before whoever wrote it went off to coffee: “Eleven coal miners injured in second collapse” read King and Koebel. No, guys, that’s not “breaking news.” Nine miners were involved—everyone else cleared that matter up before 10 p.m. You were “broken news.”

After about five minutes of confusing bluster, Channel 2 made their belated announcement that a miner had died and there were nine total involved. But, that news came with another nutty surprise. At the end of a press briefing regarding the dead and injured, Tammy Kikuchi, spokesperson for the Utah Department of Natural Resources, was asked to spell her name. K-I-K-U-C-H-I she said. But, Channel 2’s reporter at the scene kept calling her Kikunich. Slav, Japanese—all the same over at Channel 2, I guess. And poor Michelle King repeated that pronunciation later in the broadcast. Yeeoouza!!

It wasn’t like they didn’t have reporters and cameras at the scene—half the world is there. The train left the station on Channel 2 on this one. Makes me wonder if the cat really got stuck in the tree. (John Saltas)

Friday Letters Round-Up

(Brandon Burt)

Friday, August 10, 2007

Top 10 Movie Product Placements

[Film] It's time for another Weekly Top 10 list, including contribution by yours truly. This week, we take a look at the best product placements in movie history. Granted, that's a short history so far, but you can argue about the choices over a frosty bottle of Coca-Cola. Mmmmm, that's refreshing. (Scott Renshaw)

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Pregnant Pause

[Sex Ed] I just finished a telephone interview with Melissa (Missy) Larsen, executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Council for Utah.

PPAC is the political action committee for Planned Parenthood. It has the legal status to lobby and raise funds for pro-choice and family planning education. So whenever you hear or read about a small but determined cadre of activists at the Utah Legislature trying to keep the Capitol Hill braintrust from turning back abortion rights to the Flintstone era, it's pretty much PPAC doing heavy lifting.

Fun facts about Utah's lack of smarts in preventing pregnancy, via Larsen:

1. Utah's Planned Parenthood clinics have the highest distribution rate of all PP clinics in the country of Plan B contraception, aka "the morning-after" pill. You know how this works, right? You think you might be pregnant from sex the night before and you don't want to be. You get a prescription for Plan B. You have to take it before 72 hours are up--after that it's useless.

2. The highest numbers of Plan B prescriptions in Utah come out of the Orem Planned Parenthood clinic in Utah County.

3. Why? Because in Utah, where we refuse to talk openly or educate kids in school about what makes babies and how to prevent having them, men and women are doing it just as often as in any other state. It's just that, according to Larsen, the women who come to the clinics "think the planets are alligned or the moon is right and I won't get pregnant if I do it just this once."Then they visit the clinic for a dose of morning-after magic and "swear they will never do it again."

4. They do it again, of course. And again. They keep coming back for Plan B,which makes you nauseous and carries a much higher risk of not working than the good ol' birth control pill ever did. Says Larsen, with a sigh: "They don't want to use contraceptives routinely because that would mean they are actually thinking about sex and planning for it. And good girls don't do that." (Holly Mullen)

Monday, August 6, 2007

Still Dying to Live

[Follow-Up] In City Weekly’s June 14 feature, “Dying to Live,” senior staff writer Stephen Dark followed the battle of 31-year-old Chris Hutcherson against a rare cancer and a slowly looming death. The story ended with Hutcherson facing a difficult decision: whether to give up his hospice team and try a radical, potentially life-threatening new chemo therapy or experiment with a Chinese herbal tea. Three months later, Hutcherson reveals in the first of a series of blogs what has happened since:

I had a meeting with my mum, my brother, [step father] and I decided I’d try the tea for two weeks and then have a MRI to see if there were any changes [to his abdominal tumors]. If not, then I’d do the chemo. In the end I never tried the tea. Mum never cooked it, I couldn’t find the directions to do it.

On July 18 I saw Dr. Ward [oncologist]. “What do you want?” he asked me. I said “Let’s shoot for two weeks, then try the chemo. My Mum was upset afterwards. “I’ve seen what chemo does,” she told me, “how it affects people, what it does to the body.”

I told her “I’ve done four rounds. I know what it does.”

I’ve got two options. Either I die slowly as the tumor suffocates my organs or I try chemo. It could slow it down or speed it up. My sister said do something you can live with. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t try this.

It will be four days in hospital, 96 hours of straight chemo, continual drips. While I’m doing the chemo, I’ll start going through side effects: irritability, nausea, diarrhea, blurred vision, constant pain, my joints aching. I won’t be able to sleep that much.

Then depending on how I feel I go home or to a care center. I still don’t know if I can stay in hospice or not. I will do a second round in a month. In five months you see the difference.

I drove down to California with my brother and spent eight hours helping my sister move, going up and down stairs. I took two Oxycontin through the day to function. My legs were swelling. They wanted me to stop, but I kept going. I went out in the rain, got a 104-fever, but I kept pushing through the whole thing. It’s about mind over mater. You just stick it out through the pain.

[Dying from the chemo] is a risk I’m willing to take. I wouldn’t want to spend too much time at home [if he was close to death]. I’d rather go to hospital. Give it a little bit of ease. It’s a feeling I’ve got. I don’t want my family to have to live long with that kind of memory. It was painful when grandfather died at home. My mother hasn’t been back to his home since, [although] partly it’s tied up with legal issues.

You can’t let the illness get you down—bad things start happening. I’m trying all these things to help others who come later, to provide insight. That’s one of the things that keeps me going during the tests. If not I would have given up a long time ago.

But I’m not a give up person. I put a little fight into what I do.

If you want to write to Chris, you can do so at:
Chris Hutcherson
P.O. Box 65704
Salt Lake City
UT 84165

Friday, August 3, 2007

Keep on Runnin'

[Pop Cult] In my capacity as occasional contributor to the pop culture site, I get to weigh in on the catchy Top 10 concept of the week. People, they love them some lists.

This week, Nerve's
ScreenGrab blog piggybacks on this week's theatrical premiere The Bourne Ultimatum by suggesting the "Top 10 Running Scenes" -- cinema's finest moments of people in motion. Where does Chariots of Fire belong in the pantheon? How about Rocky (one of yours truly's contributions)? Run on over and offer your own comments. (Scott Renshaw)

Friday Letters Round-Up

  • I've always wanted to know what hummus is. Now I'll never know. Thanks a lot, Daily Herald.

  • Rocky can have my water bottle when he pries it from my cold, dead Springville fingers.

  • Family values in Utah? Hah! If we have such strong "family values," then why are we showing pornography at Capitol Theatre?

  • The only thing that will save our culture is to bring back the era of bleak, four-hour movies examining obscure philosophical concepts! Audiences love movies about people playing chess with Death.

  • It's OK; I'm a Mormon--you can keep those donations coming.

  • If it weren't for that commie pinko FDR, maybe those rotten kids would stay off my lawn.

  • I'd be able to relax at home once in awhile if only my no-good husband would quit pestering me.

  • Faith-based actions invariably make the world a better place, if you ignore the Crusades, the Inquisition, suicide bombing, anti-gay bigotry, the subjugation of women, a slew of pointless wars and biblically sanctioned slavery. Other than that, religion has a pretty clean track record.
(Brandon Burt)