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Saturday
Oct242009

Saw VI (2009)

Healing the Sixth

I really didn’t like Saw V. The original Jigsaw Killer, John Kramer (Tobin Bell), had been dead since the third film, replaced by an un-charismatic thug cop named Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). A new batch of seemingly unrelated people were locked in a maze of elaborate traps, forced to work together to survive; neither the games nor the characters were as memorable as those from Saw II, where this plot-line was first injected into the series. Then there was the ending, in which the one remaining interesting character—a good cop named Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson)—was brutally killed off in a way that seemed unusually cruel, even for the franchise that unfairly birthed the term “torture porn.” The movie left me feeling depressed, angry, and sure that the Saw movies had finally run their course.

I went into Saw VI with marginal enthusiasm. The TV spots were customarily vague; the only thing I knew for sure was that Kramer would return, and a deadly merry-go-round was somehow part of the story. I felt sort of relieved, though, because I told myself that if (when) the movie sucked, I would be unburdened of my need to see any more sequels in the theatre—possibly ignoring them altogether. Fortunately for both my mood and for Lionsgate Films, I was pretty blown away by Saw VI.

“’Blown away?’” You might ask. “Really?”

To which I offer a qualified “yes.” While the movie does have its share of problems, director Kevin Greutert and screenwriters Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan do two new things with this film: they tone down the gore and give the film a message. It’s not the same “you can’t appreciate life until you’ve faced death” message of the other movies—though it’s certainly in there. No, Saw VI is about the need for universal health care, and insurance companies that murder American citizens every day by denying them coverage.

I’m not kidding. Soak it in.

The set-up, which recalls Saw III, sees an insurance company head named William (Peter Outerbridge) navigating an abandoned zoo that has been rigged with Hoffman/Jigsaw’s deadly games. They include a race through red-hot steam tunnels, a rib-smashing breathe-holding exercise, and the aforementioned merry-go-round, in which people are shot-gunned to death when the wheel stops; all of the participants in these games are associates of William’s, from his secretary and copy boy to his chief legal counsel and the pack of power-hungry associates whose job it is to look for coverage loopholes in policies. To varying degrees, William must determine who lives and who dies.

Running parallel to the main story is detective Hoffman’s struggle to keep his alter ego a secret while carrying out the games designed by the late John Kramer. We’re re-introduced to a presumed-dead character, as well as to Kramer’s ex-wife, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), and they both intensify Hoffman’s paranoia in different ways. I was not as engaged in these sub-plots, which were heavy on details that either referenced minutiae in the previous films or—I suspect—set up events for the later ones. They do serve a vital purpose in giving Hoffman an arc, however, taking him from somber lackey to impulsive brute, a marked contrast to his sophisticated, deep-thinking predecessor. Until this chapter, I’d assumed Costas Mandylor was either a bad actor or wholly disinterested in the role; in Saw VI his character is forced from his cold shell and shown to be relentless and cunning.

Speaking of cunning, I thought it was pretty ballsy of the filmmakers to make the sixth film in a popular horror franchise into a soapbox. Sure enough, there’s a flashback in which Kramer confronts William about a denied claim for his cancer treatment; he circles the executive’s office, spouting off about how the government and the doctors are not the problem, that it’s the insurance companies who are the real societal parasites. I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Never mind that I agree with the film’s point of view; I just loved that fact that Lionsgate has found a way to make the news entertaining (and subversive: in one scene, a tearful policy reader yells to William, “I’m on your side!” Which is a variation on Nationwide Insurance’s slogan).

As I said before, the movie has problems. The director spends a little too much time constructing arguments and visual metaphors that he forgets how to make horror movies scary. Many of the gags and jumps are telegraphed way too early and way too sloppily (a security guard who’s mistaken for an assailant; a series of six envelopes containing the game’s participants, one of which turns up missing until a “big reveal” at the climax). But what Kevin Greutert lacks in tension instincts, he makes up for in misdirection, particularly as it applies to the identity of two key characters; it’s the kind of surprise one should be used to in these movies, but damn it if I wasn’t caught off-guard.

Saw VI is not for everyone, but I think everyone should see it; at least the insurance executive portions. If Lionsgate could have an edited version of the movie shown on the House and Senate floors, we would soon have a) universal health care and b) higher ratings for C-SPAN.

Seriously, though, I cannot wait for Saw VII. Even if they leave the political messages out of it, I at least have hope that someone is minding the store, creatively. The fact that I can be surprised and entertained by the sixth installment of a series I’d almost written off as dead is enough to earn these pictures some good will for another year or two. There are more ideas and emotions at play here than I've seen since Saw III. And if later on the ideas start to peter out again, I’d love to see Jigsaw tackle global warming or the declining U.S. dollar.

Monday
Oct192009

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Beasts, Unburdened

"Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded."

--Baz Luhrmann, Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen

People often ask me if I go into some movies predisposed to hate them; to which I’ll ask if they go into some movies predisposed to love them. I often find myself in the contrarian role when it comes to film opinion, but it’s not like I revel in sitting through boring, uninspired movies—most of them are two hours long, you know, which is a considerable chunk of time to spend doing anything unpleasant (and since I have a strict “no walk-outs” policy, I reserve the right to savage any filmmaker who subjects me to a modern-day Ludovico treatment). No, I give every movie as fair a shake as I can manage.

That’s not to say it’s always easy. I’ve been subjected to the awful trailers and hipster hype surrounding Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are for months. From the Arcade Fire song to the cute “hand-drawn” titles and aimless shaky-cam running shots, I rolled my eyes in frustration every time I saw one of these commercials. When I found out that novelist Dave Eggers—our generation’s Potentate of Pretension—co-authored the film, I almost killed myself (Eggers and Jonze are separately responsible for two of the most unpleasant moviegoing experiences I’ve had this decade: Being John Malkovich and Away We Go). Driving to the theatre yesterday, I’d given up any hope at objectivity and began to view this screening as a science experiment: could Where the Wild Things Are win me over despite my disdain for everything and everyone involved?

The answer is an enthusiastic, “Yes!” I loved this movie. Strangely, though, I found it to be very unpleasant in parts, and both my wife and I fell into profound funks for the rest of the day.

Let me begin by saying that this is not a movie for kids. It’s based on a classic children’s book, sure, and stars the adorable Max Records, but Where the Wild Things are is as much a kids’ film as Fritz the Cat. There were a lot of kids in the theatre we went to; some of the older ones seemed fine, but the rest were either restless or downright frightened (Parents, if your kid starts whining that they’re too scared to watch a movie, please take them out of the theatre and go see something else; don’t, for the love of Christ, lie and tell them, “It’s almost over, honey”; especially if there’s forty minutes left to go and your terrified tyke is kicking my seat in frustration). This is a movie about childhood that’s for adults, and the distinction is very important.

If you’ve read Maurice Sendak’s book (as I did for the first time after returning home from the film), you know the basic story. An unruly kid named Max travels to a far-away land where he runs wild with a group of weird, hairy beasts and returns home in time for supper. In the book, the Wild Things’ jungle sprouts up in Max’s bedroom, clearly a product of his imagination; in the movie, Max runs away from home after a nasty fight with his mother (Katherine Keener) and appears to board an actual boat that takes him to a mysterious island. Were you to plot out the rest of the film you could do so in just a few sentences. The story has little forward momentum in terms of traditional adventure movies; Where the Wild Things Are is about the kind of excitement that an imaginative nine-year-old boy can have all by himself: rolling down hills, building forts and having mud ball fights with friends.

This, I think, is why many have labeled this film “boring”. It’s a puzzling accusation considering this is one of the deepest, darkest movies I’ve seen in awhile. Jonze and Eggers take Sendak’s idea of Max acting out his wild fantasies and expand it to paint a disturbing psychological portrait of a boy in a broken home. The creatures stand in not for people in Max’s life, but for the emotions roiling around inside; the Wild Things bicker and fight and are sometimes intolerable, but they are honest interpretations of youthful angst. I loved that Max was not made out to be a hero in his own mind. In fact, his own petulance and rage turn against him in the end and he’s forced to leave the island. You’ll need to experience the film to find out what Max’s departure means, but trust me: there’s nothing boring about this journey.

Particularly impressive is James Gandolfini as Carol, the most prominent Wild Thing and a representation of Max's ego. In the trailers, it's hard to get the actor's Tony Soprano character out of your head, but in the context of the film, it's clear there's no better choice. In fact, Gandolfini incorporates an aspect of Soprano's personality in giving voice to Carol, that of the TV mobster's private persona, the one who's vulnerable and kind of whiny in therapy. His fragile personality--tender in one instant, violently destructive in the next--is encapsulated in a hulking fur suit that evokes terror more often than cuddliness; which is why landing the right actor to give the character life is so vital. If there's an Oscar to be given for voice work, Gandolfini's a shoe-in.

I should say that if you’re on the fence about whether or not to see Where the Wild Things Are in the theatre, I beg you to run out and catch it on the big screen. There’s nothing small-scale about the picture; though Jonze evokes The Wizard of Oz early on, by keeping Max’s home-life relatively claustrophobic in framing before opening up to sprawling deserts and seascapes in the island scenes.

As I mentioned before, this movie affected me heavily. It’s so evocative of childhood and even the primal nature of man that I felt as if I’d spent an hour-and-a-half in regression therapy. Granted, I, too, come from a broken home, but my wife was susceptible to Jonze’s and Eggers’ subliminal shout-outs to awkward adolescence. The experience recalls the scene from Fight Club where Tyler Durden spliced a frame of pornography into Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—kids in the audience freaked out and cried without consciously knowing why. Even leaving that aside, there are some harsh moments in the picture that I won’t ruin here, but they elicited genuine gasps from me, and that rarely happens.

Where the Wild Things Are is a ballsy film that treats children as actual human beings, and it wouldn’t surprise me if older kids discovered the picture and made it a classic. It’s the kind of movie one could come back to at different stages in life and draw new perceptions from each time (does that technically make it an “all-ages” movie?). Whatever gripes I have with Jonze’s and Eggers’ adult work, they have nailed what it means to be a kid—at least a certain kind of kid—and I’m happy to say that they beaned my preconceived notions with a mud ball.

Sunday
Oct182009

Capitalism: A Love Story, 2009

Dead Peasants Society

As a person with liberal politics, I agree with many of the positions Michael Moore takes in his new film Capitalism: A Love Story. I’ve been a fan of Moore’s going all the way back to his General Motors expose, Roger & Me, and appreciate the passion and creativity he employs in his art; I say “art” because Moore doesn’t make straight documentaries: they’re message-driven performance pieces that happen to incorporate real-life footage in support of his arguments. He labors in the gonzo spirit of Hunter S. Thompson, revealing hard truths by way of disarming his audience with shtick. Unfortunately, Capitalism—and, to a lesser extent, his last film, Sicko—succumbs to that shtick, muddling his thesis in the process. As a liberal, I’m with him; as a film critic, I think Capitalism kind of stinks.

I should qualify that by saying if you’re the kind of Michael Moore fan who sees no inherent problems with destroying capitalism and starting over with a Jesus-style commune planet—better yet, if you actually believe that’s possible—then you may fall in love with Capitalism. However, if you’re a discerning filmgoer who pays attention not only during movies but also in real life (by, say, keeping up with current events) you’re likely to find this movie a frustrating exercise in terms of both storytelling and message.

Unlike Moore’s earlier works, there’s no through-line in Capitalism. Roger & Me began as a quest to interview GM CEO Roger Smith; Bowling for Columbine explored gun culture via the 1999 high school massacre; Fahrenheit 9/11 sought to lay out how we wound up in Iraq. All three films had central characters that we followed and learned about in-depth enough to understand how they factored into Moore’s stated goals. Capitalism opens with a montage of bank camera footage capturing robberies, and leads into a montage of people from around the country being evicted from their homes. I guessed that these would be our “protagonists”, but right off the bat, their stories had problems.

We watch as one family videotapes a group of sheriff’s cars and county officials driving up to their house to evict them. The ostensible head of the house calls the sheriff’s office and says that the officers will have to come inside and remove them—peaceably—from the home; which they do. While the deputies work to get inside by removing the door locks, the camera whips around the room as the family members identify themselves, like they’re getting ready to film evidence of a brutal police raid. The sheriff’s men come into the house without brandishing weapons or screaming at anybody, and the guy shooting the film mutters over and over, “This is America, folks”. This scene took me back to my early teen years when my Dad was evicted from his home for not paying the mortgage. The sheriff showed up with a bunch of people and began joylessly setting all of my father’s things out onto the lawn. I never considered this an egregious act of state power over an innocent prole; I simply thought, “So this is what happens when you fall way behind on your house payments.”

Perhaps that’s heartless; perhaps not. The point is that Moore never gave the back-story on this family, or why they felt they should be ready for Ruby Ridge Part Two. The footage was apparently not Moore’s own, but he could have at least followed up with the family: why were they being evicted? Was it for not paying the mortgage or for something else? Did they get suckered into an ARM during the housing boom, or were they simply hedonistic slackers (as many of Moore’s critics might argue)? Were they given enough notice between the time the eviction was served and the day the sheriff showed up with his “goons”? Moore could have also, I don’t know, gotten both sides of the story by talking with the sheriff’s department. Was that big of an entourage typical, or were the officers perhaps worried that the people inside might not have planned to leave without a fight? The point is, I wasn’t given nearly enough information to care about these people, and the whole scene felt like a dirty trick.

The same holds true for the rest of the evicted families in the movie. We’re meant to feel bad for people who are forced to sell or burn their possessions—as well as for a family who must sleep in the back of a moving truck—but without the benefit of learning how they came to those situations. Michael Moore would have made a much stronger case had he bothered to fill in the audience and get them behind his struggling heroes instead of wasting time with cute stunts like wrapping The New York Stock Exchange in crime scene tape.

Capitalism has a pretty strong middle, though. It’s here that we’re given some history of the financial pyramid scheme that nearly destroyed the economy, along with a list of the key players—on both sides of the aisle—that birthed it.

We also meet a couple of families who learned that their deceased loved ones’ former employers took out “Dead Peasants Insurance” policies on them, essentially betting on their untimely deaths and then reaping multi-million dollar payouts—that's right, the companies, not the families; all legal, all undisclosed to anyone except via leaked memos.

On the bright side, Moore profiles entrepreneurs at a bread-making company who opt for truly democratic workplaces, where everyone votes on corporate policies and practices; the CEO has the same stake as the assembly line worker, and both are able to live very comfortably. It’s an inspiring oasis amid a series of chilling vignettes.

The most chilling section deals with the bank bailout; we learn that Congress was flooded with millions of phone calls and letters on the eve of the vote—which, if passed, would have given billions of dollars to the unrepentant fat cats who’d steered our bus off the cliff—and, amazingly, Congress turned their backs on their corporate backers and voted down the measure. That is, until a few days later, when a group of lawmakers met in secret, called for a hasty, new vote, and made the bailout legal.

This part of Capitalism is so effective that I forgot my recent history for a few minutes and swelled with pride at the notion that people contacting their representatives can actually make a difference; then the rug was yanked and I became rather depressed.

It didn’t help that Moore takes us right back to the family living in the truck. It’s definitely sad but, again, we don’t know how sad. My sympathies eroded the moment the family got together with other members of their dying community of foreclosed and abandoned homes and decided to simply “take back” their house by squatting in it. A bank rep (if I recall correctly) shows up to tell the people that they can’t live there; he calls the police and is yelled at by neighbors and members of the squatting family. I don’t know who this is meant to garner sympathy from. Certainly not me; once again, the questions came bubbling up:

Why were they evicted? If they’re so broke, how is it they managed to have signs and t-shirts made to showcase their new community action group? At one point, a family relative yells at the bank guy, something to the effect of, “How can you throw them out of their house? They’re living in a truck!” To which I asked her, in my head, “If you know about the truck situation, and if you have your own home, why don’t you let them to live with you?” It’s a cold world, yes, but there are rules that people agree to—not just in the social contract, but also on, you know, paper. And in the not-so-fine-print of most mortgage contracts are provisions that state, “If you don’t pay for your house, you don’t get to live in it.”

Interestingly enough, there’s a great segment on the Chicago glass company that went on strike earlier this year. The workers were given three days’ notice to vacate the plant after Bank of America refused to back the corporation that owned it. Moore successfully gets the audience on the workers’ side as they state their case and stage a peaceful sit-in that garners media attention and the support of president Obama. This should have been the film’s through-line, rather than an inspired mini-movie bookended by vague, cloying crap.

I left the theatre thinking that Michael Moore should have stayed away from the camera altogether and simply produced a movie about the economy with journalist Matt Taibbi at its center. Taibbi’s thorough and thoroughly entertaining articles for Rolling Stone this year have documented the downfall of the big banks and highlighted their practices’ effects on average Americans better than anything in Capitalism. Taibbi writes the way Moore used to film: with an emphasis on the problem and not the man talking about it. It’s gonzo journalism that never forgets which word in that phrase is more important.

Tuesday
Oct132009

Trick 'r Treat (2008)

Let's Try the Next House

Much like a good comedy, a good horror movie depends on surprises. And, no, a cat jumping out of a closet with shock music blaring on the soundtrack does not count as a surprise—unless you’re eight years old. This is precisely the problem with Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat.

This movie has developed a cult following in the two years since it was filmed, mostly because Warner Brothers put off and eventually canned the release. With a handful of screenings here and there, Trick ‘r Treat built a heady buzz. Horror fans were especially eager to get a look at the star-stuffed anthology, and now that it’s been released on DVD and Blu Ray, everyone can see for themselves. I checked it out the other night, and am sad to report that the only way to get a kick out of this movie is to significantly lower your expectations.

How sad is that?

The one thing I’ll give Trick ‘r Treat is that it exudes atmosphere. For all its (many) faults, the movie certainly evokes Halloween and—more importantly—the joy and giddy terror associated with trick-or-treating. Unlike slasher or demon movies that take place on Halloween, this movie is about the day itself, which some believe allows ghosts and “other things” to wander our reality for a night; this movie centers on a small Ohio town beset by monsters and monstrous humans.

If you’ve never seen a horror anthology or television series, you may be wowed by the serial killer neighbor story, the Little Red Riding Hood allegory, or the man-trapped-in-a-house-with-a-demonic-kid story. There’s also a tale about a gang of kids looking for a phantom school bus in a rock quarry, which was kind of interesting but ultimately failed to—again, this is really important—surprise me (I’ve seen It, Carrie, and Sometimes They Come Back, after all; I wonder if Stephen King is getting residuals on this thing?).

There’s nothing wrong with putting a new spin on classic horror storylines, but the spin has to be there. Otherwise, the audience might as well pop in Trilogy of Terror or Pet Sematary; or they could just read some Poe or old Tales from the Crypt comics. The point is, when there’s such rich, easily accessible source material laying around, a suspense-less knock-off simply won’t cut it, especially if you’re trying to convince people that your little horror movie is an amazing throwback to Creepshow (and not a tame copy of it). I say, don’t be Creepshow. Be something wholly original and unsafe.

The only boundaries Trick ‘r Treat pushes are those of patience and credulity. The film it most wants to be, I think, is that Oscar-winning coincidence-fest Crash. I mentioned that this film takes place in a small town, but for all the ludicrous connections it makes Dougherty might have well just set it on the same block (preferably Sesame Street). It’s one thing to have the serial killer live next door to the house where the old man is terrorized by the pumpkin-faced demon child, but it’s quite another to have that same middle-aged doofus be a “vampire” who stalks women in the town square—and eventually fall victim to a pack of female werewolves (this is a semi-spoilerish point, unless you’re actually paying attention during the movie—in which case you’ll clearly see Dylan Baker’s distinguished face in the vampire’s half-mask). All of the stories connect, but in the most obvious ways, so as not to leave even the most oxygen-deprived brains in the dark.

I wanted to love Trick ‘r Treat, but it’s too pedestrian to garner anything more than style points. If you can manage the feat that has eluded me all my life—that of “turning off your brain” during a movie—chances are you’ll like this picture; Hell, you’ll probably like a lot of movies, maybe even every movie.

But is that the kind of bar we should set and accept now? Horror movies for everyone? No thanks. I prefer my horror movies to be suspenseful, imaginative and dripping with, you know, horror.

In fairness, there was one genuinely cool moment in Trick ‘r Treat. The line, “Always check your candy” is delivered so perfectly that I laughed and got chills. But in keeping with the lowest-common-denominator spirit of the rest of the movie, the line is followed by a protracted vomit gag that would’ve made Sam Raimi tell Michael Dougherty he’d gone too far.

Monday
Oct052009

Whip It, 2009

Skating Around the Issues

I’m not generally a fan of remakes, but I’m looking forward to someone dusting off Whip It ten years from now and turning it into the interesting and fun all-girl roller derby movie it tries so hard to be. I’m clearly not the target audience for this film, but director Drew Barrymore goes out of her way to not only exclude me from the story but to actively scold me for being a lame-ass “boy” for 111 minutes.

Let me back up.

The problem I have with so-called “chick flicks” is not that they're made for women, but that they’re manufactured to appeal to the kind of woman you’d never hope to meet—or aspire to be. They often confuse female empowerment with a hatred of men (either overtly, or by perpetuating the tired stereotypes that we all love sports, power tools, and excessive carousing), while putting forth the idea that true happiness comes from finding the right man and enjoying mani-pedis and chocolate ice cream with a coven of non-threatening girlfriends.

This might be forgivable if the heroines of these pictures were at all smart. While they might hold day jobs as lawyers or book editors, their social lives are stifled by clumsiness or an ice-veined bitchiness that can only be thawed by the attention of a dashing cad (see The Ugly Truth or The Proposal; on second thought, don’t). Chick flicks may have a problem with the male sex, but their unflattering, unrealistic portrayal of women can, at their worst, border on misogyny.

Whip It attempts to break some of those awful stereotypes, but it gets so caught up in the familiar that it suffers an identity crisis and eventual full-blown psychotic episode. I really wanted to like this movie (though I had to practically medal in mental gymnastics to separate Ellen Paige from her grating Juno role). Going in, I knew nothing about roller derby, small-town Texas living, or what it’s like to be a confused seventeen-year-old girl; having now seen a film that is ostensibly about those things, I’m still in the dark.

Paige plays Bliss Cavendar, a sullen teenager who lives in a small town outside Austin, Texas. She and her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat) work at the Oink Joint slinging grease to hicks; the girls desperately want to shake off their stifling small-town and…do something. To be honest, I didn’t realize they were supposed to be high schoolers until they popped up in a locker scene—which took place, I might add, in the most sparsely populated hallway I’ve seen since Slaughter High, another low-budget movie featuring kids that deserve to die (“just kidding”).

No, Paige and Shawkat are obviously in their twenties, which makes their juvenile behavior seem less rebellious and more pathetic. Pash convinces Bliss to dye her hair blue right before the local pageant that opens the picture; Bliss does so and pisses off her square mom, played by Marcia Gay Harden. I guess the audience (again, not me) is supposed to laugh or feel empowered by this figurative middle finger to conformity, but I just got depressed, realizing I had another ninety-plus minutes to spend with an actress playing a character five years her junior that acts half that age.

One day while Bliss is shopping for look-at-me boots in the local head shop (of which there are several in every nowhere town in America), she’s handed a flyer for a roller derby game in Austin. She and Pash sneak off to the big city in a stunt that I swear was stolen from an episode of Growing Pains. At the arena/warehouse, they are wowed by muscular tough girls who skate around in circles trying to knock each other down. After the match, Bliss meets one of the teams and is encouraged to try out. I’ll skip over the requisite tryout montage (in which Bliss uses a pair of magical Traveling Pants-style skates that she hasn’t worn in a decade) and get to the good stuff. She makes the team, falls in love with a guy in a band, and embarks on a journey of self discovery that lets her burst her shy, awkward bubble to become…Juno.

Yes, there’s a spectacularly abrupt mid-film switch where Biss begins snarking it up and defying authority. She alienates her friends and family in pursuit of derby greatness; that is until one of her new heroes, nicknamed Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), tells her to stop being a brat and treat people with respect. This was the only genuine scene in the whole picture, and I was frustrated to realize how great Whip It might have been had Drew Barrymore ditched Ellen Paige and made a real movie about Wiig’s mid-thirties single mom who loves roller derby.

But, no, we’re left with a half-baked third act involving bogus teary apologies, followed by a Big Game where Mom and Dad and Sis show up to Cheer On the Passionate Daughter Who’s Finally Found the Courage to Follow Her Dreams. Christ, the only thing missing in Whip It’s climax is a goddamned slow clap. On top of that, there are some truly jaw-dropping developments, such as Pash falling madly, randomly in love with her Oink Joint boss, and Bliss dumping her rocker boyfriend after the most weasel-y, tacked-on infidelity sub-plot I’ve seen in years. Oh, and we also get a food fight that takes place in some mystical kitchen/cafeteria where the owners don’t seem to mind such things.

Circling back to the men in this movie, I’d like to note that the four of them are nothing more than insulting penile placeholders. You have the clueless boss; the hapless but caring dad; the really smart, interested coach who is constantly shit on by his all-female team (but in a fun, spirited way that is in no way demeaning); and the long-haired, heroin-chic rocker that is shown to be unfaithful simply so that the movie can assure female viewers that they don’t need no man to get their propers. This same treatment is not given to women in so-called “guy” movies. Sure, women are often objectified in action flicks and sex comedies, but there are at least one or two in any given film who are painted as driven and strong, and who eventually earn the respect of the films’ loutish men. Cinematic female empowerment can, in fact, exist in a world where guys are caring, smart, and ambitious (beyond the ubiquitous gay best friend roles); movies like Whip It are afraid to admit that.

Note: I should probably mention something about Drew Barrymore as a director, seeing as this is her debut in that role. I'll say that she should have fired her cinematographer, whose track footage is so repetitive as to be the equivalent of a sci-fi director filming a chase in a “labyrinthine” alien spaceship by having the main actor run along the same stretch of twenty-foot backdrop for ten takes and using edits to create the illusion of expanse. Barrymore should also never have appeared in the movie; her “Smashley Simpson” character is like a live version of Animal the Muppet—cloying, loud, and inconsistent; it’s her worst performance since 1992’s Poison Ivy (you know, in her pre/post Drew Barrymore phase). Staying off-camera certainly would have allowed her to focus on some of the sloppier storytelling aspects, such as:

1. Why does only one character in the entire movie sound like they’re actually from Texas?

2. How early do roller derby players show up before a big game? Early enough for a determined Dad to plead with them to travel all the way back to his suburban town so that they can plead with his daughter to travel all the way back to Austin to suit up and compete in said big game?

3. If the cops shut down a warehouse in which the derby games are held because of overcrowding on one night, would it not stand to reason that they’d keep an eye on the place—and, by extension, shut down the venue on the night of the sport’s biggest game?

4. Is there really no penalty for knocking a high school student over a stairway railing, even if the script wants us to believe she really deserved it?

5. Is it just a “kids-do-the-darnedest-things” moment when your underage daughter tricks you into letting her down a whole can of beer?

 

6. At film's end, Bliss announces her intention to move to Austin. To do what? Roller skate professionally? Or is The Oink Joint opening an Austin franchise?

If you’d like to see questions seven through forty-five, please make a request in the “Comments” section, and I’ll consider devoting a special column to this shit.