An Unreasonable Man
dir. Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan
No matter how you slice it, An Unreasonable Man is a tragic portrait of hero-cum-sonofabitch Ralph Nader. Come at it from the right and you get a story about a noble, stubborn gadfly who was irritatingly effective against a corrupt auto industry and a cowardly Democratic Party. Slice a little to the left and you get a story about a noble but deluded moron whose megalomaniacal antics in 2000 have left us with the Iraq war, big tax cuts, and the ravaging of the environment and the Constitution.
Either way, An Unreasonable Man gives Nader the tragic-hero treatment. (Its title comes from a maxim by another crank, George Bernard Shaw: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.") Nader's efforts in the '60s and '70s helped give us the Clean Air Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act—he built (as the old saw goes) a legislative record that would be the envy of any president. His high-water mark was with the Carter administration, which then lightly betrayed him by refusing to help him create a permanent Consumer Protection Agency.
Then the Shakespearean descent: Reagan's revolution systematically dismantles Nader's legacy, and when Clinton takes the White House, he shuts out Nader entirely, treating him like a shameful ghost from the Democrats' wild youth.
Realizing he has no friends in either party, Nader does what he does best: strikes out on his own, fights fearlessly during the 2000 presidential race, impresses everyone as a dangerous man, just brilliant enough to single-handedly wreak havoc on whatever bloated institution he puts in his sights. It wasn't his platform that infuriated the left but his refusal to act tactically. Now he is thoroughly reviled, the man alone. The movie might as well be called Ralph Nader: Nerd Cowboy.
The documentary fails to answer two questions: Has Nader gotten kookier and crankier with time? Or has the cultural tide drifted away from him, making him look weirder than he really is? BRENDAN KILEY
dir. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's homage to low-grade exploitation films of the 1970s, Grindhouse takes an obsessive-compulsive approach to sloppy authenticity. Adhering to the formula, they cook up a double feature replete with blood, guts, babes, zombies, fireworks, tricked-out cars, scratched-up prints, and even missing reels. To complete the "grindhouse" experience, Rodriguez, Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth tack on four fake trailers.
Rodriguez's unwaveringly outrageous Planet Terror holds its own in the recent zombie renaissance, if only for the stupefying sight of Rose McGowan replacing her severed leg with a machine gun. But Tarantino sidetracks his serial-roadkiller flick Death Proof by meandering through his signature snappy banter rather than paying tribute to 1970s car-chase films like Vanishing Point. Ultimately those "Prevues of Coming Attractions" steal the show from the two feature-length main programs, especially the one by Shaun of the Dead director Wright for the phony movie Don't.
Although Grindhouse is a huge step up from 1995's Four Rooms, Rodriguez and Tarantino's latest circle jerk still reeks of gimmickry. B-movies are alive and well today, from the Korean import The Host to STIFF's monthly micro showcase at Central Cinema—yet Grindhouse tries to pass itself off as a long-lost novelty. Viewers certainly won't get the kind of authentic experience this double bill promises if they see it at a plush, stadium-seating multiplex, instead of some old suburban drive-in or a rundown theater on the seedy side of the city. This $53 million, 185-minute indulgence is essentially pointless without the flat fountain drinks, expired Jujubes, squeaky seats covered in worn upholstery pockmarked with gum stains, mysteriously sticky floors, and unchaperoned teens swapping spit while the lucky ones die fast on the screen. MARTIN TSAI
dir. Lasse Hallström
"Howard Hughes and I first met in Hollywood on the set of The Outlaw..." So begins Clifford Irving's author's introduction to The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, which was released—and quickly yanked from the public—in 1972. The meeting was a lie, as was the entire autobiography; pulling off what was then referred to as the literary con of the century, Clifford and his cowriter/conspirator Richard Suskind had invented the biography of the reclusive billionaire wholesale, terminally embarrassing their publisher McGraw-Hill, and forever tying the authors' careers with a colossal boondoggle.
And now that boondoggle has been made into a movie. Loosely based on Irving's own account, The Hoax stars Richard Gere as Irving and the great Alfred Molina as Suskind. Lasse Hallström is the director, and in a welcome change from the man lately responsible for such misery as Chocolat, The Shipping News, and Casanova, this time he appears to have his chops about him. Much of The Hoax is a harmless, enjoyable breeze, at its best when Gere and Molina are left spinning their deception, sweating and improvising their way through meetings both skeptical and celebratory—which, thankfully, makes up the bulk of the enterprise.
Hallström keeps things moving at an impressive clip. Though the script, by William Wheeler, wildly distorts many of the real-life events, its wry humor lends bounce to what could have been a staid, tsk-tsking affair. It's only near the end, when the film delves into Irving's growing paranoia via some lame A Beautiful Mind–esque mind-fuckery, as well as a Nixon-Watergate subplot that feels malnourished, that The Hoax risks derailing. But by then, Gere and Molina had already won me over. As Irving's deception came crashing down, I felt sorry to see it end. The Autobiography of Howard Hughes was a meticulously designed fraud. It was also a crime. But despite the time Irving and Suskind spent behind bars for it, the scam had to be a hell of a lot of fun to pull off. The Hoax lets you in on that fun, scot-free. BRADLEY STEINBACHER
dir. Mark Fergus
Judging a movie by what it could've been, rather than what it actually is, is a dangerous game for a critic. But, man, sometimes it's difficult not to. Riding in on a wave of promising buzz, First Snow has a number of virtues, among them a masterfully dickish lead performance by Guy Pearce. But it never quite embraces the premise's capacity for pleasurable hooey. For a movie concerned with such heady topics as fate, destiny, and mounting paranoia, it seems curiously reluctant to stick with the mystical.
Pearce, replete with greasy hair and an all but surgically attached cell phone, plays a fast-talking flooring salesman with an eye for the scam. Killing time between meetings, he stops by a trailer-park psychic, who, along with the standard predictions of riches and love for his client, drops the rather disquieting promise that he'll be dead by the first snowfall. Once the cash starts rolling in, his nerves start to fray.
So far, so good. As he previously demonstrated in Memento and The Proposition, Pearce is second to none when it comes to imbuing weak-willed characters with unpredictable stabs of nobility, and he's bolstered here by strong support from indie stalwarts William Fichtner and J. K. Simmons, as well as a nicely ominous score by Soderbergh vet Cliff Martinez. Unfortunately, things start to go seriously south in the second act, with the introduction of an ex-con with an ax to grind in the protagonist's general direction. Such a concrete threat effectively (and curiously) dispels the eerie, quasi-Lynchian vibe that the movie had previously worked so hard to cultivate. As a result, rather than the smart, somber Final Destination for adults initially suggested, it devolves into a more or less standard slab of neo-noir. Director/cowriter Mark Fergus may well go on to notable things—a sequence where the hero creeps through somebody else's house has a genuinely foreboding power—but he's not quite a believer yet. ANDREW WRIGHT
dir. Todd Holland
Irish terriers are ugly, and the central premise of this film—that an Irish terrier is the biggest doggie movie star in the world—would be ludicrous except for the fact that the star of Firehouse Dog is indeed an ugly Irish terrier. With a hairpiece. Anyway, Rexxx is the biggest doggie movie star in the world until his stunt parachute fails and he disappears into a truck bed full of squishy tomatoes. Eventually Rexxx is rescued by firefighters and adopted as their station mascot. Little Shane Fahey (sensing an Irish theme here?), coolly underplayed by Bridge to Terabithia's Josh Hutcherson, befriends the terrier. There are a few too many jokes about canine flatulence and way too many dog's-eye-view shots, but unlike some family films I could name, it's not homophobic (director Todd Holland is gay), and the moral of the story is that a new sports stadium is not necessary. ANNIE WAGNER