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Thank You for Not Sucking

By John Rodat

Strangers With Candy

Directed by Paul Dinello

The chances of Strangers With Candy being any good were pretty slim. Feature-length films based on TV comedies, especially those with roots in sketch comedy, tend to be pretty weak. The roster of Saturday Night Live-spawned failures is only the most obvious example, but there are lots of others: From the Kids in the Hall’s Brain Candy to SCTV’s Strange Brew to the Wayans’ I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, there’s ample evidence that whatever it is that makes for brilliant sketch comedy doesn’t often translate into sure-fire big-screen laughs.

So, the good news is that Strangers With Candy doesn’t suck.

The movie tells the tale of Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris), a 46-year-old ex-junkie, ex-con who reenrolls in her old high school in hopes of winning back a normal life, distinguishing herself as a student, making her father proud, and thereby rousing him from the 32-year-long coma brought on by the death of his wife and the loss of his daughter to a dissolute lifestyle. Of course.

If the plot sounds to you like a cracked-out combination of Melrose Place and Saved by the Bell, you’ve gotten the right idea. The charm of the TV series was exactly that injection of salacious archness into the dopiest of teen dramedies. As delivered by actor-writers Sedaris, Stephen Colbert (as the bisexual, born-again science teacher Chuck Noblet), Paul Dinello (as his bubbleheaded boytoy, art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck), and talented others, the tone ranged from deadpan viciousness to full-blown absurdity. The televised half-hours were furious sprints through some very incorrect humor, and the pacing was perfect.

The movie version, a kind of prequel presenting the first days of Jerri’s return, boasts the same creative team, with Dinello directing. So, the feel of the movie and the style of the humor are much the same. Furthermore, every actor in Strangers With Candy knows how to play the material. Cameos by Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Justin Theroux, Allison Janney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman prove just how sharp the joke writing is—in that they don’t bring the movie to a screeching halt, as most celebrity cameos do.

Still, though, there are pacing problems. At 97 minutes, the movie isn’t ponderously long, but there are nevertheless gaps. The obligation to provide some kind of dramatic through line and a resolution means that some of the series’ anarchic, improvisatory feel gets sacrificed. Not enough to kill the movie utterly—Colbert alone makes the flick worth at least matinee pricing—but enough to cut its bite. It’s still got edgy moments, but it’s somehow lost its perverse danger. Call it Strangers With Ribbon Candy.

—John Rodat

Mature Love and Donkey Fucking

Clerks II

Directed by Kevin Smith

Of all the zero-budget indie ge niuses who came along in the ’90s, Kevin Smith is the geniusest. Unlike, say, Robert Rodriguez, Smith knows exactly how limited his talents are. He really knows his shtick, too: The dumb-but-beguiling characters, the self-deprecating fanboy jokes and the edgy, disgusting set pieces that leave audiences dumbstruck. You know, like the inadvertent necrophilia that ended the original Clerks.

Clerks II begins with the quickie mart from Clerks in flames. Ten years have passed, but Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) still work there; the fire wounds their souls. The story then flash-forwards a year, and the undynamic duo are working at a fast-food joint called Mooby’s—lots of dopey cow sound effects—alongside teen virgin/Transformers dork Elias (Trevor Fehrman). Just as at the quickie mart, Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith) peddle dope outside. Dante is good friends with Mooby’s smart and gorgeous manager, Becky (Rosario Dawson).

Rosario Dawson? There is no more painful experience in Clerks II than watching Dawson, a good actress and glamorous movie star, convincingly portray a woman in love (and lust) with one of Smith’s nonacting leads. Her performance lets Smith get away with trying to put over a plot about love and maturity and responsibility and values. (Catholic values, specifically—there’s a shot with a pregnant chick having a crisis in front of a women’s clinic.) This sucks, because he isn’t gifted enough to make us buy it.

So, what is there to enjoy? The Randal character, again played by a now doughy but still acerbic Jeff Anderson. His nasty jokes at the expense of The Lord of the Rings are very funny; his genuine shock that “porch monkey” is a slur against blacks is the subtlest, most perceptive joke in Smith’s script. (Only in segregated suburbia, Smith observes, could a white kid grow up not realizing his family is racist.) And it hurts to admit it, but Jay and Silent Bob’s bits were pretty good, too.

There’s bestiality, too (sigh); Smith had to top the aforementioned necrophilia. It’s awful, but he also had to balance out the family values for his own ass-to-mouth-joke- loving fanboys.

Where will Smith go from here? It hurts to write this, but he’s better at big ideas than human relationships. What sank Jersey Girl is what sinks Clerks II; maybe he should make another religious epic.

—Shawn Stone

Delightfully Grimm

Monster House

Directed by Gil Kenan

In what may well be the first hor- ror movie directed at children, Monster House evokes the fears and thrills of childhood in such a way as to scare the bejeepers out of anybody who remembers having to walk past some spooky old manse on the way to school. The fear induced by such a place ranked right up there with the secret, forbidden thrill of actually checking it out, most likely with a good friend or two for backup. Even better was knowing that somebody actually lived in the house, and could, with little to no warning, come storming out to snatch you up, or, more likely, yell at you to get off the lawn.

Young DJ (Mitchel Musso) has enough to be scared about; he’s on the precipice of adolescence. But that doesn’t stop him from incessant spying on the title entity, by way of a telescope he’s fixed up in his room, which is directly across from it. He notices, among other things, that toys get sucked into the house, never to be seen again—and that people who step foot on the front stoop are rarely seen again. As in any good adolescent yarn, Mom (Catherine O’Hara), Dad (Fred Willard) and babysitter Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are all clueless, apt to chalk up DJ’s ramblings to puberty, rather than notice themselves that things do seem a little peculiar across the way. Even DJ’s best bud Chowder (Sam Lerner) has his doubts, that is, until he witnesses Jenny (Spencer Locke) attempt to sell Girl Scout cookies at the house, only to be nearly devoured by its tongue-like entrance carpet.

When a call to the police (Kevin James and Nick Cannon) results first in the cops’ hysterical laughter and then, in the men in blue being sucked up for dessert, the plucky kids decide to get serious. There is the brainstorming; the first futile attempts to get inside the house; the actual penetration of said establishment; and the hell that follows. First-time director Gil Kenan shows a remarkable flair for combining rip-roaring action with quieter moments that establish character and advance plot. Particularly notable are scenes in which DJ and Chowder, their little pubescent, er, hearts aflutter at the sight of Jen, vie for her attention and approval. The animation is nothing short of bewitching, especially its evocation of late fall lighting.

The movie’s dark edges are evident throughout, and while it’s nice to have a movie in which no Earnest Statement about Valuable Life Lessons is bandied about, it’s also something of a shock to see, for instance, a babysitter who would just as soon spit on DJ as try to help him. The idea that cruelty is a natural part of life, and that kids deal with a variety of nasty things throughout childhood without parental knowledge or involvement, is weirdly refreshing, if still disturbing. Complementing the dark undertones is the inclusion of the ever-creepy Steve Buscemi as the owner of the house, whose deeply guarded secret unlocks the mystery. See for yourself just how truly scary and memorable Monster House is.

—Laura Leon

Scrunty

Lady in the Water

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

It’s easy to pinpoint the exact moment in M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water when the egomaniacal filmmaker loses his audience. This is when water nymph Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), an ethereal being, or “narf,” from the Blue World, scrunches down in terror behind a bed and tremulously utters into a walkie-talkie, “Turn and face the hidden scrunt!”

What in the hell kind of a word is “scrunt”? In this context, it’s the name of a flaxen-haired, wolflike creature with red eyes that wants to kill the water nymph. “Narf,” a term also conjured up by Shyamalan, is almost as aesthetically gruesome as “scrunt”; as others have pointed out, if you google the word scrunt, you’ll discover it’s a flexible slang term with a range of disgusting meanings.

Shyamalan isn’t done with the pidgin-mythological names. In addition to narfs and scrunts, there are tartutics—giant evil monkeys—who are supposed to keep scrunts in line. (Never mind the giant eagle—I forget the specific Shyamalic term—that’s supposed to save the poor narf in the end.) Unfortunately, like most of the action in the picture, the giant evil monkeys arrive on the scene far too late.

Let’s get back to that special scene and dialogue, though. Has there ever before been a fantasy in which a water nymph used a walkie-talkie?

If you’re getting the idea that this review is revealing a lot of plot spoilers, put your mind at ease. There are no surprises in Lady in the Water. Everything is explained before it happens; there is even an explicative, pre-opening-credits animated sequence. There are few plot twists. The meager suspense fails to generate much fear, other than of the will-the-scrunt-get-the-narf variety. In fact, the only misdirection the director employs is built on a gratuitous swipe at the only evil human being in the picture: a film critic.

The depressing thing is that the film, while largely ridiculous and boring, has moments of humor and emotion. The cast, which includes Paul Giamatti as Story’s protector, and pros like Bob Balaban, Jeffrey Wright, Bill Erwin, Sarita Choudhury, Mary Beth Hurt and Jared Harris, is mostly superb. And Howard, as Story, really seems enchanted; it’s a terrible waste of a performance. There’s one exception among the thespian honor roll, however: M. Night Shyamalan himself, who plays—no kidding—a writer whose work “will save the world.”

How? He can’t save his own movie.

—Shawn Stone


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