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Review: The Baxter

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Like his 40-Year-Old Virgin and Deuce Bigalow counterparts before him, Michael Showalter cut his teeth in the world of go-for-broke TV sketch comedy. So it comes as a surprise that The Baxter, which he wrote, directed and stars in, has a quaintly old-fashioned feel that is both a blessing and a curse.

    Showalter has always had a terrific eye for archetypes, and here he finds his best one yet: the Baxter of the title is the name given to the loser left behind at the altar at the end of romantic comedies after the bride runs off with the Stud She Really Loves ™. That is what happens to stiff, luckless Elliott Sherman (Showalter) in the opening scene, before the film tracks back in time to reveal the full story. Needless to say, there’s no cause for alarm. Elliott himself is in love with another charming oddball, Cecil (Michelle Williams), a Midwestern transplant almost as awkward as he is.

    The chemistry between Showalter and Williams recalls that of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment, and like that classic, The Baxter is ultimately a film about the background players who always take a backseat to the Sexy, the Confident, and the Beautiful. Any other film would try and make Elliott a lot more appealing to the viewer, by giving him convenient bits of advice to dole out, or letting him cut loose. But Showalter, to his credit, maintains Elliott’s resolute weirdness; it’s painful to watch at times. Unfortunately, that also makes the film feel predetermined. Showalter has made a film unlike any of his contemporaries; he’s also sapped it of some energy. — Bilge Ebiri

Review: The Brothers Grimm
Some will complain that The Brothers Grimm is too messy, busy, confused, whatever — that it lacks the coherence of Terry Gilliam’s masterpieces of yore. To which the only logical response is: Wha? Gilliam’s oeuvre has never been one of discipline. The ambition of his flights of fancy is only matched by the speed with which he sometimes plummets to Earth, but that’s part of what makes him such an engaging, exciting filmmaker.

    The Brothers Grimm has a classic Gilliam set-up. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (Heath Ledger and Matt Damon) are con artists roaming Germany’s towns, freeing them of evil spirits. These spirits, however, are fakes, and our heroes have made a lucrative living preying off other people’s fears. Sure enough, they soon confront a real magical disturbance: It turns out there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy.

    One could see this latest film as part of a trilogy with Gilliam’s earlier Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. All three films take lovable charlatans as their heroes, reimagining the past as a hoax perpetrated on reality. One fantasy opens on to another, then another, until we begin to question the very ground beneath our feet. Are the results messy? Sure, if one treats them as traditional narratives — and, given the way The Brothers Grimm is being marketed as a kick-ass Mummy-style adventure, that’s a very real danger. But in Terry Gilliam’s hands, this hilariously twisted, wondrously incoherent fairy tale comes as a blast of cinematic fresh air. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: The 40-Year-Old Virgin
While it’s good for a few yuks, it’s tough not to see The 40-Year-Old Virgin as something of a missed opportunity. Don’t get me wrong: Steve Carrell (he of The Office and those stolen scenes in Bruce Almighty and Anchorman) is in fine form here as the titular schlub, an earnest geek more at home among his action figures than with the opposite sex. The problem is that the talent on display doesn’t exactly match the results. Sadly, the punch-the-clock style of Z-grade Saturday Night Live spinoffs has become de rigeur for high concept comedy, and the epidemic of lowered standards takes its toll here in Judd Apatow’s lackluster direction.

    Apatow, otherwise a brilliant writer and producer, has decided not to get in the way of his actors’ relentless improvisations, and he appears to have crossed his aesthetic philosophy with that of a doctor’s: “First, do no harm.” Unfortunately, he does. The flat direction gives the film an odd, flaccid pace that threatens to consume the whole enterprise, especially during some particularly dreary bits (Rudd and Seth Rogen’s interminable “You know how I know you’re gay?” gag comes to mind.) This kind of monotony might be fun for a few minutes on late-night TV, but it can’t carry a feature film. By the end of The 40-Year-Old Virgin‘s nearly two-hour running time, don’t be surprised if you’re more exhausted than elated. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: The Constant Gardener
Set against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic in Northern Kenya, this adaptation of the John le Carré novel tells the story of mild mannered British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) whose wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), has been brutally murdered, seemingly for her passionate political activism within the country. Since both the British government and the local Kenyan police appear to be involved in Tessa’s death and subsequent cover up Justin sets out on his own to discover just what Tessa was involved in and why she was killed.

    It’s basically The Firm, but with less Tom Cruise and more Cry the Beloved Country. While Brazilian director Fernando Meirlles’s previous film, City of God, was ripe with creative vision, Constant Gardener feels like just another political suspense film. Justin and Tessa’s romance, which is told through flashbacks, is touching at times and helps breathe a little life into the film. While top-notch, The Constant Gardener is overwrought with the preachy morality of so much socially conscious cinema. — Nic Sheff
Date DVD #47: Old Boy
If your date’s a wuss and you know it, you can rent Ashton Kutcher’s rom-com opus A Lot Like Love and take a nap. But if you suspect that your date’s a wuss — and secretly hope that he or she is made of stiffer stuff — administer a test in the form of Old Boy.

    Korean filmmaker Park Chanwook’s revenge flick is one of the most brutal films in recent years, and also one of the best: a brutal test of a man who is tortured beyond belief for a crime he can’t even recall committing. Locked in a hotel room, he is degraded and broken down for years — and when he finally finds his tormentor, their confrontations are horrid. At Cannes last year, Tarantino raved about the film’s wildly stylish guts and gore. Splattefest junkies will not be disappointed. But this is shades darker than the brute-cute bloodsplatter of the artful Kill Bill.

   Old Boy isn’t so interested in genre reinvention as it is in primal instinct. It works as a terrifying morality tale for anyone who’s ever done anything wrong and hoped to get away with it. Tough stuff for a date, of course, but if you’re getting the sense that there’s more to your date than is discernible over ice-cream cones and walks in the park, you should see how that he or she handles this. — Logan Hill



 
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