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He could sell you bag of dog poop: Piven in The Goods.

Gag You

By John Brodeur

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard

Directed by Neal Brennan

 

Whoops! Might have spoken too soon in declaring The Hangover the funniest movie of the summer 2009. Don’t read too much into that—The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard isn’t the better film. But if the point of a comedy is to pack as many gags as possible into its running time, The Goods has exactly that.

Ben Selleck (James Brolin) is the owner of an auto dealership in Temecula, Calif., struggling to keep his business afloat in the face of a pending buyout from a competing dealer (Alan Thicke). Selleck and his ragtag band of salesmen (including Ken Jeong, last seen doing a naked sprint in Hangover) need a major sales boost to save the store. Enter Don Ready (Jeremy Piven), a “mercenary” who makes a living clearing lots wherever he’s needed. He’s unflinchingly confident and supremely persuasive—in one scene, he convinces a stewardess to allow him to smoke a cigarette during a flight; he later brings a bag of Arby’s take-out to a home-cooked dinner. Ready’s team is peopled by some equally cocky (and deeply vulgar) individuals, played by Ving Rhames, David Koechner, and Kathryn Hahn. Their goal is to sell every car on the Selleck lot over July 4th weekend.

A lot about The Goods will seem familiar: The film, produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay and directed by Chappelle’s Show co-creator Neal Brennan, has a rhythm similar to a number of Ferrell-starred comedies. And the cast is practically a who’s-who of middlebrow comedic talent: The Daily Show’s Rob Riggle plays Selleck’s developmentally miscast son; Hangover’s Ed Helms is the son of Selleck’s competitor and leader of “man band” Big Ups!; The Office’s Craig Robinson is the “contrarian” DJ Request. There are too many to name, really.

Therein lies one of the problems: The script follows such a similar tack to numerous other recent comedies with colons in their titles that it’s hard not to picture Ferrell in the role of Ready. (Piven, in his first big-screen starring role, is suitably smarmy.) And the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it editing—it runs a swift 90 minutes—marginalizes the roles of some of the film’s most gifted comedians (Wendie Malick and Kristen Schall, specifically).

But Brennan knows his comedy, and he wisely keeps the film on-course. Potential tangents, such as Robinson’s hints at mental instability, are ignored—perhaps a missed opportunity. But between the running O-Town and Bob Seger gags, the incessant vulgarity, and the fact that a hate crime is committed within the first 10 minutes of the picture, there’s plenty here to chuckle about. It’s raunchy and stupid and delivers more than its share of gut-laughs. Isn’t that what you wanted?

Finding Midol

Ponyo

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo is a curious film; but not in the ways you might expect. Previous works by the writer-director—e.g., Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle—have gained critical acclaim and modest commercial success in the United States for their dark oddity. In those earlier films, heroines typically travel from a mundane and predictable world into a fanciful, mysterious and potentially threatening one. In many of Miyazaki’s works, female characters must first embrace the incredible, then overcome the challenges and learn the lessons contained therein to restore order and/or to win the happy-ever-after ending.

In Ponyo, the dynamic is tweaked, and the titular heroine’s progress requires a renunciation of the “otherworldly” magic she already possesses.

Bruunhilde is one of the many, many daughters of the ocean goddess and a once-human wizard, Fujimoto: in other words, she’s a magic fish. After a chance encounter with a human boy, Sosuke, who grants her the new name of Ponyo, she decides she wants to leave her parents’ world for that of her new love. She transforms herself into a human girl, and befriends Sosuke in that form. But by escaping the quite-literal bubble in which her father kept her, Ponyo has caused an imbalance in the natural harmony of earth and sea: the ocean rages, the tides climb toward the moon, satellites are pulled from the sky.

You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to raise your brows at this one. Though we’re told that Sosuke is 5 and Ponyo appears to be of the same age, the depiction of a father’s fear and confusion at his daughter’s increasing, mood-altering, lunar-linked power has fear of menstruation written all over it.

For Ponyo to make her transition, we’re told, it is Sosuke who must undergo a test; and he must agree to love and protect her—in all forms, fish or flesh. There is an interesting scene in which Ponyo offers some assistance to a breastfeeding mother, proving symbolically, perhaps, that she herself will one day be ready for motherhood. All this taken together sends a quite conventional, even conservative, message about family formation and the roles of men as responsible protectors and women as fertile nurturers.

That being said, the important adult women in the movie are far from stereotypical June Cleaver-esque housekeepers: Ponyo’s mom is, after all, the goddess of the ocean, and Sosuke’s mom is, in a word, a nut: as tempestuous, reckless and adventurous as she is caring.

So, Ponyo must make the choice to leave magic (the magic of pre-pubescence) behind and to enter the risky, awkward world of adult womanhood. Once rid of her earlier power, she must pair with a human male for protection (though Sotsuke’s mostly absent father calls into question just how useful this will be, in the long run).

This ambiguous and overthunk interpretation is of no relevance to a big chunk of the likely audience, of course. For the under 10 set, Ponyo’s lighter touch draws more immediate laughs and fewer retreats into parental shoulders than the earlier, darker work.

Ponyo isn’t dark. It’s just sensitive, right now. Shhh. Bring it some ice cream. And don’t breathe so loud.

—John Rodat


Can we rock? Yes, we can! (l-r) Hudgens and Connell in Bandslam.

High School, Musical

Bandslam

Directed by Todd Graff

As difficult as it may be for some people to wrap their minds around the fact, it’s still possible to make a smart and enjoyable teen film that neither panders to its audience nor devolves into scatology. And, as unlikely as it may seem at first glance, Bandslam is one such film. Don’t let the presence of a few Disney stars throw you—this is as much as response to High School Musical as it is a spiritual tangent of that franchise.

Written by Josh Cagan with director Todd Graff, Bandslam follows curly-haired Will (Gaelan Connell), an avid music fan who “narrates” the film via letters to his hero, David Bowie. When his mother (Lisa Kudrow, in a rare straight role) finds a new job, Will is moved to a new school in Lodi, N.J. Here, Will meets Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgens, of HSM fame), an emo-ish loner who calls Evil Dead 2 her favorite film. She tells him about an upcoming battle of the bands, and thanks in part to a school project, the two become close. Soon Will is also befriended by popular blonde ex-cheerleader Charlotte (Aly Michalka), who asks him to manage her new band—and help them prepare for Bandslam. Both Sa5m (“the 5 is silent”) and Will’s mom are suspicious of Charlotte’s designs on Will, and for good reason, as she appears to be using the competition to get back at her egotistical former bandmate/boyfriend Scott (Ben Wheatley).

It’s all too neat, in the way that these things always are, so the strengths are in the details. The filmmakers do a nice job of tackling teen issues (first love, jealousy, mother-son separation anxiety) sweetly and realistically, without coming off as too-cute—they tease cheese, but never go full-Velveeta. Well-worn plot movements are punctuated with some surprisingly sharp (but not too-smart) dialogue: When a girl carrying a cello is knocked to the ground by a careless classmate, she explains that she won’t know if the instrument is OK until she plays it, because “it’s not like it’s a viola.”

The musical scenes are key to the film’s success, and for the most part they are very good. Word has it the actors were put through a two-week musical-training intensive, and it shows in the performances—the early band scenes shimmer with creative energy and discovery. And the music selections are an absolute coup: A room full of day-care kids is calmed by “Wichita Lineman”; Will and Charlotte have a detailed discussion on the merits of later Velvet Underground records; Bread’s “Everything I Own” plays a pivotal role in the action, as does ska. (What’s more high-school than ska?)

The film sputters a bit in its last quarter—when it comes time for the titular competition, the action goes into autopilot—and a few plotlines and characters are slighted along the way in favor of focusing on the three mains. But on the whole Bandslam is a darn good time, particularly for anyone who’s ever started a band. And your parents might like it, too.

—John Brodeur

It’s a Trap

The Time Traveler’s Wife

Directed by Robert Schwentke

Science fiction meets chick lit in The Time Traveler’s Wife, and all I can say is that the merger is not pretty.

Research assistant Henry (Eric Bana) has the unfortunate luck to, out of the blue, disappear into thin air, leaving a pile of clothing behind, and resurfacing elsewhere, usually either a prosaic field or the train tracks near an industrial part of Chicago, buck naked. Forced to break into cars or stores to clothe himself, he is often hunted, even arrested, but never fear: His unusual gift affords him the opportunity of a disappearing act, leaving law enforcement baffled.

On one of his field visits, Henry encounters a little girl, Clare Abshire (Rachel McAdams), who obligingly agrees to leave clothes in the woods, just in case. The ick factor of a grown man befriending a child against the backdrop of wilderness raised my suspicions, but the filmmakers, working from the best-selling novel by Audrey Niffenegger, make it abundantly clear that these two are star-crossed lovers who will meet in time, get married, and have kids. And this is what happens, alongside oh-so-funny moments like, OMG, the bridegroom is missing! LOL, there he is, only he looks much older!?

The worst moments of The Time Traveler’s Wife are those in which Bana’s Henry must explain the rules of time travel, leaving me to wonder if a committee of kindergarten boys had a hand in scripting them, so convoluted and seemingly contradictory are they. The time-space continuum is warped, every which way. Henry, en route to a date with Clare, encounters his dead mother on the subway, only she’s the same age she was when she died. Call me confused.

Ultimately, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a not very cleverly conceived metaphor for how men miss much of the important rituals of everyday life, only instead of being annoyed by or even resentful of that absence, we—in the person of Clare—just have to accept it as one of those quirky things that makes each of us unique. Come again? There is nothing heroic or even vaguely interesting about Henry. In fact, he often seems grouchy and unappealing. There is no evidence that he’s a good friend, let alone a compassionate husband—unless you count rigging the lottery so that your already wealthy wife can afford a charming Victorian with a carriage house. OK, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. But this movie truly is, bearing as it does the dubious distinction of being the single most difficult movie I haven’t walked out on. Would that I had Henry’s ability to disappear, because I certainly would have tried to channel it.

—Laura Leon


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