The Ugly Truth (2009)

The Ugly Truth is another in an apparently endless line of romantic comedies (and I use the term loosely) about a gorgeous, serious, lonely, workaholic, glasses-wearing single woman who desperately wants to meet Mr. Right. Abby (played by the voluptuous Katherine Heigl) is such a control freak that she ranks her dates according to how many of her ten essential criteria they meet. She also prefers tap water to bottled, since bottled water is just tap water with a markup. And The Ugly Truth is just When Harry Met Sally Met Judd Apatow but Forgot to Bring the Funny.

Judd Apatow, purveyor of manboy-centric comedies, is in no way personally responsible for The Ugly Truth. His movies are actually funny. The Ugly Truth is, on the other hand, a failed effort at matchmaking between the venerable chick flick romantic comedy and crude, potty-mouthed bromantic comedies of the Apatow-knockoff sort. Both parties should file for divorce citing irreconcilable differences.

The combatants in this battle of the sexes are Abby, a TV producer, and Mike (Gerard Butler), star of a late night public access show called The Ugly Truth. Back in the day, Mike would have been called a male chauvinist pig, but we'll leave the innocent pigs out of it. Mike's a lout and a blowhard who maintains that all men care about is sex, and that women ought to give up on romance, put on push-up bras, and shut their yaps. Abby disagrees. The two come to blows when Mike is brought on to spice up the ratings of Abby's failing morning talk show. Lo and behold, it works. Apparently the good people of Sacramento want to be yelled at by a big hairy apeman first thing in the morning, because they go for Mike and his Jell-o wrestling bimbos in a big way.

Abby, meanwhile, meets Colin (Eric Winter), a hunky doctor recently arrived in her apartment building, and proceeds to take Mike's advice on how to hook him. Why would a sensible woman accept advice about anything from a knuckle-dragging, butt-slapping dope like Mike? Obviously because they've made a wager: Abby gets the dreamy guy using Mike's method, or Mike quits her TV show. There follow shenanigans involving vibrating underwear, hot dogs and spilled beverages, and Mike-as-Cyrano relaying advice via two-way radio to a frantic and inept Abby. The twist, and I'm sure nobody saw it coming, is that Mike falls for Abby and Abby gets all confused about her feelings for Mike and/or Colin. The usual ad hoc complications and hijinks ensue, leading to dumb and senseless fights and breakups that merely go through the motions of textbook romantic comedy plotting. This is a cinematic battle of the sexes that destroys everything (comedy, romance, joy, hope) and then salts the earth when the fighting is finally over.

The Ugly Truth wanders from one pointless and unbelievable episode to another. There are several quirky supporting characters jumping up and down and vying for screen time with strenuous mugging. Director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) apparently instructed his cast to do everything bigger, louder, and kookier, since that is the general tone of The Ugly Truth. Heigl is particularly effortful in her madcappery, with lots of Cheshire Cat mugging (huge smile, big eyes), while Butler's job is to toss off sexual innuendos and be charmingly uncharming. Thing is, Mike and Abby are both so unhappy and unpleasant and clearly have such good reasons for disliking each other (I couldn't stand either one of them) that there is just no good reason for them to get together, except for the fact that they are two attractive people in close proximity, and because the screenplay (penned by Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah Lutz, and Kirsten Smith) says so. The Ugly Truth violates the first rule (the only rule, really) of romantic comedy (or romantic anything), which is that the audience has to love those crazy kids and want ever so much for them to fall into each other's arms and live happily ever after. Mike and Abby spread unhappiness wherever they go. They're good for a quickie, or maybe a friends with benefits kinda thing, but happily ever after? No way. They're not even happy now.

Neither was I, watching this movie, which trots out the standard stereotypes about horndogs with hearts of gold, and desperately lonely career gals, and then flogs those dead horses for all they're worth, which isn't much, and certainly isn't the price of admission.

Food, Inc. (2009)

Whatever horrors Harry Potter might be facing this week, it's nothing compared to the horrors beneath (and in) the food on your plate. Voldemort's got nothing on a pack of Monsanto lawyers. That's the message (well, sort of) of Food, Inc., a disturbing, distressing, and frequently horrifying activist documentary about the big business of food in America.

Directed by Robert Kenner, produced by journalist and author Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), and starring, among others, locavore and real food advocate Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma), Food, Inc. looks at the big business of food, and traces how a small handful of multinational corporations came to control the American diet. That control extends from the massive, monocultural fields filled with genetically modified plants, to the industrial food factories where it's all ground up, injected with chemicals, and vacuum-sealed for your convenience. Along the way, Food, Inc. looks at the horrors of meat production, from down on the factory farm to the killing floors of slaughterhouses filled with sick, mistreated animals and exploited, mistreated workers. It reveals how soybean farmers are bullied and terrorized by agrochemical monolith Monsanto, and how the American public is fed and fattened and fairly often subjected to deadly E. coli by a food system subsidized by the US government to guarantee that a bag of potato chips costs less than a bag of actual, unprocessed potatoes. That bright, cheery supermarket? The last link in a chain of food (or what counts as food) production that seems designed to make you sick.

The film is divided into chapters that focus on specific links in the commercial food chain. This results in a film that is wide ranging and ambitious, but perhaps not as in-depth as it ought to be. Since it tackles so many subjects, Food, Inc. is a fine overview of what turns out to be a monstrously huge and systemic problem, a movie about connecting the dots and tracing the problem to its roots in consumer desire, poverty, NAFTA, human evolution, and most of all, corporate greed. Each of the chapters might have been (and should be) a film unto itself, so Food, Inc., in looking at the big picture, must sacrifice a lot of the details. It is a catalogue of horrors (and there are genuine horrors here) more than an in-depth study of them. Still, it is an essential, eye-opening film, and if it's just the first salvo in a food war to come, it's an effective and heartrending one. And the filmmakers definitely intend for Food, Inc. to be a call to arms, comparing the food industry to the tobacco industry.

It's an apt analogy. Food has become an industrial product, and the focus of Food, Inc. is on how consumers are sickened and harmed by all the processed, packaged, cheap and abundant foodstuffs that fill supermarkets and pour through the windows of drive-thrus. It also considers the way that food science has been perverted from the study of nutrition to the development of newer, better ways to turn humans into consumers addicted to cheap crap (literally) on a bun. The movie argues, fairly persuasively, that the corporations that control food production in America abuse and exploit their customers as much as they abuse the poor animals they slaughter by the billions.

Food, Inc., unlike, say, Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me, is not intended to entertain, but only to edify, to make you consider the stuff (whatever it is) you're putting in your mouth. This is pretty evident when the film's cheeriest subject (and one of its heroes) is farmer Joel Salatin, who likes to extoll the virtues of local, whole food while eviscerating a chicken. At least he's nice to his chickens while they're alive, I guess. Like whole grains and fresh vegetables, Food, Inc. is good for you. But the movie might just make you sick. It might even make you put down that bucket of popcorn (especially if it's dowsed in multiplex "butter") and that beverage full of high fructose corn syrup. On the other hand, if you've been eating the Standard American Diet (yes, it's S.A.D.) you can probably stomach just about anything, and you definitely should see Food, Inc.

Brüno (2009)

Sacha Baron Cohen might be a guerilla satirist, or a provocateur, or a slapstick genius, or all of the above. His comedy is certainly out there on the ledge, although not so much in the targets he chooses to lampoon as in his complete, unwavering commitment to his outlandish characters. Baron Cohen is a practitioner of a kind of extreme candid camera, with a critical difference: he never lets his victims in on the joke. After his last movie, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, it is hard to believe there are still people out there who can be so readily duped by Baron Cohen, but apparently he found enough of them for Brüno, his latest mock (and mocking) documentary.

Those victims include Congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul, who was unwittingly cast in a Brüno sex tape. It's easy enough to feel sorry for the seemingly mild-mannered Paul until he starts screaming "queer!" at Brüno. Not that Brüno hasn't been called worse. Brüno (Baron Cohen) is a flamboyantly gay, über-haughty, scandal-prone Austrian fashionista TV host. To call Brüno flamboyant is something of an understatement, but our language lacks a more apt phrase, perhaps because our species lacks actual specimens as flamboyant as Brüno. Exuberant? Colorful? Flashy? Bizarre? Peacocks might have a word for it. The minimalist plot of the movie has Brüno banished from the fashion world after an incident involving a velcro suit, and so he makes his way to Hollywood to find fame and fortune. Mostly fame. A lovestruck assistant named Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten) follows him. This plot is nearly identical to the plot of Borat, and the movie does not stray from the Borat path very much, except that where Borat was a sexist, racist, dopey, horny, hairy Kazakh, Brüno is a hypersexual, dopey, smooth-skinned Austrian. Indeed, the main difference is that Brüno is better groomed.

No doubt because Hollywood provides few targets for him, Brüno, who always refers to himself in the third person, takes his umlaut and makes haste to the same places where Borat found his victims: the American South. There he gets a rise out of a daytime TV talk show audience, a trio of macho hunters, a couple of ministers who attempt to "cure" his homosexuality, and, most dangerously, a rabidly anti-gay wrestling audience. These are pretty easy targets -- they practically bring their own pitchforks. Brüno also attempts to broker a peace agreement in the Middle East in set-ups that reveal less about his targets (who are unfailingly polite), and more about his own colossal vacuousness.

What's the point of all this? There's a legitimate question as to whether Baron Cohen, by presenting a character that is so stereotypically gay, is not reinforcing homophobic stereotypes. In some sense, Baron Cohen gets to have it both ways (or at least, he insists on having it both ways). He does indeed perpetuate gay stereotypes among those who, quite clearly, already believe the stereotypes. Is that actually reinforcing those stereotypes? Anyone else is given permission to laugh at the ignorant buffoons, because Brüno is such an extreme character that (we tell ourselves) only an idiot wouldn't see through the ruse. Brüno is also every bit as ignorant, bigoted, and dim as the people he spoofs, and he is on the receiving end of a fair amount of (apparently genuine) verbal and physical abuse, which we can enjoy with a clear conscience. What makes any of it work is less that Baron Cohen has created a believable character, and more that he never, ever breaks character, no matter how absurd, grotesque, and dangerous the situation (adding to the physical danger is that Brüno is naked quite a lot -- this movie earns its R rating the hard way).

The movie is quite funny. The humor is frequently puerile -- a lot of dildos are involved, as well as assorted household implements put to novel and, er, unhygienic use. The satire is sometimes pointed -- celebrities who accessorize with adopted babies, and verging-on-abusive stage parents are mocked, as are attention-seeking fame whores (such as Brüno himself). The general point is to expose (or is it exploit?) prejudice and then wring laughs out of it. There's a certain mean-spiritedness to Baron Cohen's dope-slapping con job that is attenuated by the willingness of his unwitting marks to go the extra mile to behave badly and glory in their own bigotry, hypocrisy, and intolerance. Baron Cohen is also an equal opportunity offender -- the laughs are meant to be uncomfortable, even for those in the know. He assumes a certain closeted, faux-liberal, homophobic squeamishness in his audience. In its goofy, in-your-face, politically incorrect way, Brüno makes a case for tolerance just by making a mockery of intolerance. This is the rhetorical equivalent of throwing Molotov cocktails for peace -- there might be more effective and intellectually consistent tactics, but none with the same potential for slapstick hilarity.

Public Enemies (2009)

The country is in the grip of an economic depression. Banks have lost fortunes. Criminals run amok, with sharp-dressed men preying on the weaknesses of financial institutions. Inept Feds are seemingly helpless to combat the crime wave. The Bernard Madoff story? There will, no doubt be movies made about Madoff's crimes, but Public Enemies looks back, with a small measure of ambivalent admiration, at the life and crimes of John Dillinger. Madoff is unlikely to be treated as kindly by history.

Dillinger was once known as Public Enemy Number One, and as portrayed by Johnny Depp, he was a suave, smart, courtly criminal who was savvy about maintaining his public image. He robbed banks, which made him a Robin Hood of sorts to Depression era Americans who didn't mind seeing the robber barons robbed for a change. The press made him a celebrity, along with other gangsters of the time, like Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Bonnie and Clyde, some of whom also turn up in Public Enemies.

The movie opens in 1933 with a bold, efficiently choreographed jailbreak in which Dillinger busts his gang out of the Indiana State Pen. One man diverges from the plan, another is killed. Dillinger, it is immediately apparent, is loyal to his friends, but also unforgiving and ruthless. A little more is learned about Dillinger in the film, but not a lot -- he himself sums up his life in only a few sentences when seducing girlfriend Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Public Enemies follows a year in the life of John Dillinger -- the last, eventful year of a brief but eventful life, and one in which his celebrity status grew and the law closed in. There's not much more offered about Dillinger -- this is not a movie interested in digging into his childhood, or exploring his innermost thoughts, or in sentimentalizing and romanticizing him. Public Enemies is less interested in a psychological portrait than in looking at elements of a bigger, cultural picture: the cult of celebrity (especially criminal celebrity), the erosion of civil liberties in the name of law enforcement, tabloid journalism, and our enduring fascination with the gangsters of the thirties, about whom so many movies have been made.

Public Enemies is unlike any other film made about the gangsters of the period. Directed by Michael Mann, whose influence on modern crime films is substantial, it is artistically ambitious and serious, violent and dark, and ambivalent about romanticizing both criminals -- even the Dillingers and Robin Hoods -- and crimefighters. Mann shot Public Enemies in high-def digital video, which gives the movie a sharp, sometimes cold look that corresponds to its crisply clear-eyed, meticulous nature. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti gradually and subtly turns the lights down on the film, and, as Dillinger's life grows increasingly dark, and his prospects dim, so too does the movie. Depp offers a correspondingly low-watt performance in which Dillinger's charisma and charm are present, but there is ambivalence about the costs associated with his career and lifestyle. Dillinger appears to be cold, calculating and violent because his job requires it, and he loves his job. He is his job, in a certain sense, which makes Dillinger, in his odd way, an exemplar of the midwestern work ethic.

Public Enemies has perhaps more to say about law enforcement than about lawbreaking, and there the movie, written by Mann with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, is less ambivalent. G-man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) heads the FBI task force gunning for Dillinger, and participates in the formation of a new, more professional FBI, one that uses scientific methods to catch criminals. While Dillinger was winning hearts and minds with his bank robberies, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), dreaming of a New Model Army, attempted his own public relations campaign, which meant stopping criminals like Dillinger by any means necessary. Hoover is vaguely credited in the film with ushering in an age of ruthlessness in law enforcement, and an interpretive looseness with law and liberty that, we can safely say, persists to this day. Purvis himself is ambivalent (perhaps tormented) about some of the means used, such as tactics that in these euphemistic times might be called "enhanced interrogation techniques." Bale is an interesting choice for the role, which, in a far less flashy way, mirrors his role as Batman -- both are violent, ruthless, questionable and questioning crimefighters. Like Dillinger, Purvis is at bottom a cold realist, and determined to get the job done. But as with Dillinger, Public Enemies does not spend much time looking into the soul of the G-man.

So what is Public Enemies about? In some ways, it is as much about gangster movies as it is about gangsters and G-men. Dillinger watched a Clark Gable gangster movie called *Manhattan Melodrama* on the last night of his life. Public Enemies is no melodrama -- it's fairly stripped of sentiment and sensation, with unhammy performances and unstagy, matter-of-fact, fast and frantic, bullets-flying-everywhere action. It's a movie driven by brutal, unsentimental fact more than legend. It pulls the audience back, repeatedly, from any habit or impulse to glamorize or sentimentalize criminals, crimefighters, and violence. It is not a movie of deep feeling, and so, it is not a movie that leaves one feeling much. But in some ways, that emotional detachment is also what it is about. It's a detachment that serves as a palate cleanser, to make it possible to rethink, in a more intellectual way, the simplistic cops and robbers model of moviemaking and mythmaking.