By Stephanie Zacharek
By Simon Abrams
By Michelle Orange
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Nick Schager
By Amy Nicholson
By The Invisible Woman
By I Used to Be Darker
Some Like It...Not
When My Big Fat Greek Wedding scored a surprise hit for comedienne Nia Vardalos, the former Second City star may have figured that any old second act would do -- even a penny-dreadful ripoff of one of Hollywood's most beloved classics. Not so. A flop at the box office, lambasted by critics and quite possibly the most unwatchable movie of the year, Connie and Carla labored mightily to update Some Like It Hot with the tale of two loudmouthed showbiz wannabes (Vardalos and Toni Collette) who take it on the lam from a Chicago drug dealer and flee to L.A., where they disguise themselves as drag queens in a gay nightclub. Never mind the conceit that these corn-fed pseudo-dragsters convince a far hipper, more observant transvestite crowd in West Hollywood that they, too, are men impersonating women; they also wow the locals with their awful caterwauling. Vardalos attacks the scenery like a starved hyena. Collette shrieks like a banshee, her jaw three inches from the camera.
Accessories to the crime include director Michael Lembeck (although it looks like Vardalos wore the pants on the set); an uncomfortable-looking David Duchovny, who bravely conveys the part of a straight guy who falls for Vardalos's overwrought Connie without quite knowing why; and the great minds at Universal Pictures, who bankrolled this lame vanity project in the hopes of cashing in on the quickly dissipating Vardalos heat.
The Moore the Merrier
One film looms over all others in 2004: Fahrenheit 9/11, released in the heat of summer and the heat of an election-year battle, casts all comers in its estimable shadow and renders them moot. Combined, the dozen or so political docs that received theatrical distribution this year didn't make a fraction of its fortunes, and deservedly so, because not one of them was a good movie -- meaning not one outraged, engaged or entertained the way Michael Moore's did, no matter who you were voting for.
Love him or hate him -- and it's possible to do both, even if (or especially if) you agree with him -- Moore is still a masterful director, a street-corner propagandist whose sense of outrage is tempered by his sense of humor. He's too sloppy to make converts and too infuriated to make peace, but his was never offered as straight-up documentary; it's political cartoonery, as A.O. Scott pointed out in the New York Times, exaggeration born of genuine rage. And now, with his regime change failed, it even looks a bit quaint -- a man shaking his fist at 35 million people who patted him on the head on their way to vote for the guy he hates the most.
To list the other political docs released in 2004 would take up the rest of this small space; to add the others released on video and sold over the web would eat up the rest of this issue. Suffice it to say that Moore launched two separate industries: There were movies that looked an awful lot like Fahrenheit(Liberty Boundand Robert Greenwald's Uncovered: The War in Iraq) and movies that existed as its antithesis (George W. Bush: Faith in the White House, Michael Moore Hates America, and the incredibly dunderheaded Celsius 41.11). They all preached to the choir; none would make a single convert or, for the most part, more than a single dime.
Some of the better political docs focused not on politics, but on the media outlets that report on them, and quite poorly at that: Control Room, an evenhanded look at Al-Jazeera, damned by the U.S. government as the terrorists' CNN; Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, Greenwald's no-shit movie about how Fox News Channel is the Bush administration's private press room; and Danny Schechter's disturbing WMD: Weapons of Mass Distraction, which revealed how easily the media can be manipulated in the interests of maintaining the illusion of access. And for those with good-old-days nostalgia, there was The Hunting of the President, about the right-wing conspiracy to take down Bill Clinton. Smell that? I am inhaling, and exhaling, as you read this. -- Robert Wilonsky
History Kinda Repeats Itself
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," exhorts a character in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It's advice that makers of history- and biography-based movies seem to have taken to heart. After all, why let a few pesky facts get in the way of a good story?
Numerous movies based on "real" people were released in 2004. While few, if any, of them choose the straight mythological route, just about all of them omitted, condensed or modified facts. Among the epics and biopics were Alexander, Kinsey, Ray, Beyond the Sea, (about Bobby Darin), Finding Neverland (Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie), The Motorcycle Diaries (pre-revolutionary Che Guevara), The Aviator (eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes), and De-Lovely (songwriter Cole Porter). Even King Arthur played around with the truth, although that's easier to do when nobody quite knows what the truth was.
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