Broadway: The Golden Age

Also: Bush's Brain, A Dirty Shame, Faster, Gozu, The Last Shot, Shaun of the Dead, and When Will I Be Loved.

Broadway: The Golden Age

Opens Fri., Sept. 24, at Varsity

Anyone whose familiarity with Charles Nelson Reilly extends only to his seminal work as a celebrity panelist on Match Game will feel a little excluded during Rick McKay's valentine to the good old days of the Great White Way. Despite—or, perhaps, because of—his intense affection for the American theater of the 1940s through the late '60s, McKay isn't really out to educate so much as he is to celebrate: His Herculean effort, which features years of personal interviews with seemingly every major and (cue Reilly) not so major New York actor of the time, is an epic insider's feast for theater people.

It's pretty standard stuff at first. In an introductory voice-over, McKay informs us that he was just a kid from the suburbs of Beach Grove, Ind., who grew up watching old movies and listening to show tunes and . . . you get it—he's a fan. For a while, it seems all he's going to do is allow ladies like Ann Miller to bemoan the days when you could buy a hamburger for 10 cents. However, the film soon picks up a cumulative force from McKay's unabashed willingness to listen; his wistful subjects are all thrilled to reminisce, and their collective voices start to ring with the proud, excited clamor of veterans sharing war stories.

The result may be no more than a series of talking heads, but what talking heads: Shirley MacLaine tells the story of her fateful chance to take over for Carol Haney in The Pajama Game; Gwen Verdon says that Bob Fosse told her to play sexpot Lola in Damn Yankees as "a little flirty fat girl." Among other tributes, there are moving remembrances of the now almost forgotten lead of The Glass Menagerie, Laurette Taylor (who, in the film's choicest bit of archival footage, shows up in a luminous 1938 screen test for David Selznick).

Golden Age isn't a triumph of documentary film, but as a cozy, gossipy, star-struck record of a time and place, it should be essential viewing for anyone with a similar passion. (NR) STEVE WIECKING

Bush's Brain

Opens Fri., Sept. 24, at Harvard Exit

Based on the takedown book of the same name, published last year, this short documentary would seem to have the richest kind of villain as its subject: Dubya's string-puller, Karl Rove. He's like Iago crossed with Machiavelli, Lee Atwater genetically spliced with a pit bull, and the high-school-nerd-turned-über-political-boss. So why is the movie so dismal? Because history, in this case, is being written by the losers—the bitter Texas pols trounced by Rove's candidates and dirty tricks; the outraged liberal journalists (including Molly Ivins); the erstwhile GOP rivals whom Rove ground into the dusty earth during his '70s rise through the ranks of the Young Republicans (a group that sounds about as collegial as Hitler's Brownshirts). Everybody argues that he bagged such scalps as Ann Richards and Jim Hightower because of smear tactics and underhanded tactics; no one actually considers the fact that they were weak candidates—like Gore, like Kerry—out of touch with mainstream voters of either party.

The books' co-authors, James C. Moore and Wayne Slater, get the most screen time among the endlessly dull procession of talking heads. If you're a student of bare-knuckle Austin statehouse politics during the '80s, they may interest you; otherwise the stuff makes C-SPAN seem like MTV. Speaking of which, Rove pops up periodically in some speeches captured on C-SPAN, but Brain isn't smart enough to make greater use of them. It never gives us a sense of the man in his own words, and any telling biographical detail is completely lacking. (I only gathered from the press kit that Rove never actually finished college, but is he married? Does he have kids? I have no idea.)

While a terse, testy, defensive fax the authors received from Rove in rebuttal to their book is frequently quoted, only his detractors are given the latitude to speak. The results are completely one-sided and unilluminating. If Rove is "a threat to the republic," as the film maintains, it does a terrible job of plumbing that threat. I'd rather hear from his admirers than his detractors as to what makes him such a tremendously successful political operative. Even if the Democrats shouldn't emulate his methods (and it's too late for this presidential election, I fear), they owe it to future candidates to understand their most important enemy. (NR) BRIAN MILLER

A Dirty Shame

Opens Fri., Sept. 24, at Egyptian

John Waters misses Divine. In a way, you could say he's never really gotten over the loss of his hefty drag muse; he's certainly never found a leading lady more in sync with his singularly filthy aesthetic (although Kathleen Turner deliciously lowered herself in Serial Mom). Waters' latest nasty romp, sorry to report, misses the former Glenn Milstead, too.

Tracey Ullman plays Sylvia Stickles, a pinched, unpleasant minimart employee who gets a bump on the head and wakes up with enigmatic Ray-Ray Perkins (Johnny Knoxville) going down on her. The next thing she knows, she's been reborn as a voracious sexual visionary and is begging husband Vaughn (Chris Isaak)—and everyone else in Waters' bent, beloved Baltimore—to service her insatiable needs as a "cunnilingus bottom." Daughter Caprice (Selma Blair), a delirious stripper with pontoonlike knockers, is overjoyed by the change; conservative zealot mother Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd) is decidedly not. ("You let strangers put their germ-filled mouths on your uterus?!")

Ullman is one of the great underused movie comedians of our age, but Waters is asking her to give the performance a scrappy 400-pound drag queen would have given. She tries, all right, and she can be furiously funny (her snarling orgasm, post-Knoxville, puts Meg Ryan's When Harry Met Sally charade to shame), yet even at her best, she can only ever be the idea of low-rent lewdness. Try as she may to give a good-bad performance, we know she knows better.

It's a problem endemic to the rest of the film. For a good 45 minutes or so, Waters' wild skewering of American puritanism is a happy riot, as are the requisite cameos. (Patty Hearst appears here at a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting, where she cheerfully instructs Sylvia, "Make a list of all the people you fucked, and apologize to their parents.") But all the erotic anarchy eventually becomes deadening and almost quaint, as in Waters' similarly backward-looking Cecil B. Demented. He's too polished now to ask us to buy him as a ragtag provocateur; he's eclipsed himself by doing what he does so well for so long. As feisty and foul as Shame often is, it never really feels dangerous or Divine. (NC-17) STEVE WIECKING

Faster

Opens Fri., Sept. 24, at Varsity

You'd call this a totally esoteric inside- baseball documentary, only it's about Grand Prix motorcycle racing—not a subject familiar to most Americans apart from the nether regions of cable TV (where this film properly belongs). With narration by Ewan McGregor, a big motorcycle nut himself, Faster basically introduces us to the sport's top stars during the 2001 and 2002 seasons, which range from Europe to Japan and South Africa. Unfortunately, we don't see anything of these countries save the motorcycle tracks; the brave riders and their support staff are similarly cocooned within their brightly colored, corporate-logo-covered world of speed. Among them are two Italians, apparently bitter rivals, who speak pretty good English; a nice Australian bloke with a penchant for racing despite some horrible injuries; and a 19-year-old Californian with a big, goofy smile and an even bigger, goofier tattoo on his back. Various figures from the sport's past also lend their thoughts, but Faster is all about the bike. No one racer's personality ever emerges in strong relief, despite their knee-dragging balance skills at 200 mph. Clad in kangaroo leather suits (!), these athletes are daring but dull—no matter how fast they travel. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER

Gozu

Opens Fri., Sept. 24, at Varsity

Oddball Japanese auteur Takashi Miike has already helmed one of the most deliriously gory yakuza films ever, 2001's Ichi the Killer. This equally disturbing mindfuck uncoils like one of his lithe gangster antihero's homoerotic wet dreams. At times, Gozu's parade of grotesque sexual indulgences rivals Pink Flamingos. You're never quite certain if Miike intends to titillate, repulse, or merely draw a sick laugh (e.g., the portly middle-aged inn manager who moans erotically as she squeezes breast milk into bottles for patrons), but at least his provocations are original.

Yakuza underling Minami (Hideki Sone) has a problem: When his unhinged colleague Ozaki (Sho Aikawa) isn't beating Chihuahuas to death, he's scheming to overthrow their crew's patriarch (Renji Ishibashi). The old man—who, incidentally, requires a ladle lodged in his sphincter to achieve an erection—sends them on a drive to remote Nagoya, instructing the reluctant Minami to dispose of his loony tunes "brother." He complies, kind of: After inadvertently doing the deed, Minami parks his convertible at a diner, barfs up his complimentary egg custard, looks out the window, and, presto, Ozaki's corpse has disappeared. Luckily, a cooperative local yakuza with a pigmentation disfigurement puts Minami up at a hostel where the aforementioned innkeeper beats her brother with a horsewhip for failing to channel spirits, and a man clad only in tighty-whiteys with a gigantic cow head slurps our hero's face. Lost? Wait 'til Ozaki's grand re-entrance—as a drop-dead gorgeous woman.

For a while, Gozu resembles the Oliver Stone misfire U-Turn in that the ostensibly sane Minami is stuck in a surreal smallville full of quirky, dangerous nut jobs. But Miike's twisted imagination isn't content with exploiting podunk idiosyncrasies. Boyish infatuation is the simple heart of his disasterpiece; even when it seems that Ozaki is out of his life, Minami finds that his former brother—sister—still has a hold on him. (NR) ANDREW BONAZELLI

The Last Shot

Opens Fri., Sept. 24, at Meridian

Jeff Nathanson has made zillions by turning real events into Hollywood fables: Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, and now his writing-directing debut about an FBI sting on mobbed-up Teamsters on a Providence, R.I., film set. As the FBI sting-meister, Alec Baldwin, that increasingly big lug, reminds me of Ken Wahl in the Wiseguys episode where his undercover-cop hero starts a record label to ensnare mobsters. Both guys flex their foreheads like cavemen in deep thought, yet concoct some ingenious Homo sapiens deceptions.

Baldwin's FBI guy must impersonate a film producer to bust wiseguy Tony Shalhoub, who fleeces moviemakers. He consults a small-time producer (hilariously vulgar Joan Cusack), then, aping her mannerisms, recruits a would-be writer-director (Matthew Broderick), his half-mad would-be starlet girlfriend (Calista Flockhart), and a washed-up, pill-popping superstar (Toni Collette). The collision between the director's dreams and shabby reality is more fun than a toy-train wreck. Broderick's desperately guileless Keane-painting eyes are ideal for the indie auteur forced to make preposterous compromises on his already preposterous screenplay. Collette redeems a too-broad part with prodigious skill: Her character egomaniacally pees in public with more hauteur than Faye Dunaway on the Chinatown set. Flockhart is even more screechily irritating than her character is supposed to be. Shalhoub is a cliché goombah, but a note-perfect one.

Unfortunately, Nathanson's tales never fully take off, because reality tends to turn phony or clunky when translated into movie formula. His screenplay here seems both formulaic and cheap, and his directing does not exactly make him the new Spielberg (which perhaps unintentionally reinforces the message in a movie about skill-free filmmaking). The Last Shot is appealingly cheesy, a tribute to the hope that springs eternal in the hopelessly inept. (R) TIM APPELO

Shaun of the Dead

Opens Fri., Sept. 24, at Neptune and others

The wind-sprint novelty of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later may have resuscitated zombie chic, but this side of the Atlantic has yet to match him, spewing inane popcorn bloodbaths like House of the Dead, the Resident Evil series, and, worst of all, the abominable Dawn of the Dead remake. It should come as little surprise, then, that two smart- ass Brits are behind the genre's latest substantive reanimation. Co-screenwriters Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have delivered the first "rom-zom-com," and even if the "rom" ultimately drags Shaun into premature rigor mortis, their imagination and irreverence are laudable.

Played with a Giovanni Ribisi–like impotence by Pegg, Shaun is an utter dullard, an interim home-electronics store manager who frequents the same London dive bar every night, retains boorish college crony Ed (Nick Frost) as a flatmate, and can't be bothered to disengage from PS2 long enough to accommodate easily aggravated girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). Great excuse for a broad zombie metaphor, and Shaun's is surely the best since George Romero's original 1978 Dawn, which used the undead to vivisect consumer culture. In this case, when a (never-explained) zombie plague commences right outside Shaun and Ed's door, they're hilariously oblivious, routinized into a similar inertia via their boozing, amateur DJ adventures and first-person shooter video games. Only when a zombie infiltrates their garden do the lads get "proactive," hurling vinyl at it, all the while bitching like Nick Hornby characters over which of their beloved Britpop 45s are expendable.

Of course, this undead epidemic is the perfect opportunity for Shaun to show his mettle to Liz and ride his predictable character arc toward nobility. His motley crew sequesters in a pub, where much unfunny bickering and melodrama ensue; Wright and Pegg share Kevin Smith's weakness for extracting lame life lessons out of inspired lunacy. The ball's now in the American court to one-up the Brits' exceptional, if ultimately fizzled, premise. Better yet, we haven't heard from the Italians in years. . . . (R) ANDREW BONAZELLI

When Will I Be Loved

Opens Fri., Sept. 24, at Meridian

James Toback may be the most shameless man in Hollywood. A ridiculous pickup artist, he makes preposterous movies about pickup artists like him, self-gratifiying sex fantasies, sometimes with lurid crime fables grafted on. Improbably, there's genuine charm and pulpy energy to some of these movies, partly redeeming their disgustingness—especially when they star Toback's puppy-lovable pickup artist pal, Robert Downey Jr.

Here, the sleazebag protagonist is unpuppyish Ford (Frederick Weller, building on his creep repertoire from The Business of Strangers). If Downey's big dark eyes and upbeat demeanor make him Mickey Mouse, shifty-eyed Weller is Mickey Rat: jittery, skeletal, unhealthy. You wouldn't want to touch his leathery reptilian skin. He's a showbiz hustler in New York, like a young, infinitely less successful Toback. Instead of promising girls on the street he'll introduce them to Warren Beatty, as Toback used to do, this guy falsely vows to get his "actress/model/rappers" face time with hip-hop hero Damon Dash. Ford's line of jive is self-skeweringly funny, whether he's cruising for girls to do him in a sunlit Central Park, ducking an old flame he owes $9,300, or worshipping his goddesslike girlfriend, Vera (Neve Campbell).

Campbell plays Toback's dream girl: rich, careless, trying to find herself by impulsively fucking drop-dead gorgeous girls and any old boy who drops by her fab loft with floor-to-ceiling windows (when she's not fetchingly masturbating in the shower). She's also applying to be the personal assistant to a professor of African-American studies (played by Toback with self-mocking brio). Though she's just as up for insta-sex with passing strangers as the guys are, she's nobody's fool. It's so fun to watch her trifle with their trifling affections, we don't mind that the first many minutes of the movie slip by with no apparent goal. We just cut back and forth as Ford cruises the streets for sex and showbiz contacts, while Vera verbally fences with the horny prof. The dialogue is smart, arch, brittle, and as smooth as the Steadicam that captures it.

At length, Toback introduces a plot. Ford talks Vera into meeting a wolfishly courtly Italian media baron, Count Lupo (The Sopranos' Uncle Junior, Dominic Chianese). (He previously promised to pimp Vera to him for the $100,000.) Vera reacts more interestingly to this proposal than you'd expect. I won't spoil the upshot, except to say that the real revelation is Campbell's nimble acting. It's the performance of her career, and not to be missed, no matter how you feel (Feh! Ptui!) about Toback's erotic imagination. I never would have thought it, but this dame could play the hell out of the mysterious ingenue or femme fatale in any noir ever made. She's the real artist in this film. (R) TIM APPELO

 
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