If any film can make "the primacy of the visual" a threat rather than a marvel, it's The Fall. As he made clear in The Cell, director Tarsem Singh is infatuated not with the eloquence of the striking image, but with his own facility with pepper-spray pastiche that squeezes art history into tableaux that are processed and flattened and bereft of feeling but looook coool, maaan! Scheherazade here is a silent-movie stuntman laid out with a broken back (Lee Pace), swapping tales for morphine with a fellow hospital inmate, a chubby-cheeked five-year-old Bulgarian (Catina Untaru). The fragments of dream and fantasy, meant to fuse into an awe-inspiring mural, include horned bodybuilders, chortling armies, dervishes, elephants, and an appearance by Charles Darwin, each and every one costumed by Eiko Ishioka and designed like an R.E.M. clip reel. In other words, exactly the picture Pan's Labyrinth might have been had it absolutely sucked. Its trompe l'oeil cribs from Dali (among many others), but didn't Dali once make fun of this sort of turgid aestheticism by producing a "work of modern art" with canvas, ink cartridge and pistol? The problem with Tarsem is not that he's placing images before narrative (indeed, cinema these days would be less arthritic if more filmmakers displayed similar ambition) but that he insists on erecting monuments to an imagination that has so far been remarkable only for its many shades of gaseous pretension. (At least Speed Racer was upfront about the cartoony roots of its avant-garde splashiness.) The Fall is a long, long trip through the museum, during which the sheer weight of useless beauty just about crumbles the visitor's spine.
No image in The Fall is as surreal or rich as Adam Sandler proving his awesomeness by dropping a piranha into his protruding codpiece in You Don't Mess With the Zohan. Can it be that his new film goes further than Munich, the way last year's I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry went further than Brokeback Mountain? Not likely, though Zohan unmistakably references the anguished Mossad-stud of Spielberg's film ("Eric Bana kicking fucking ass," according to the Knocked Up bards) with Sandler's eponymous Israeli secret agent. Tired of the unending hatred and filled with hairstyling dreams (he yearns to make the whole world "silky and smooth"), he fakes his own demise at the hands of a Palestinian archenemy (John Turturro) and takes off to the New York City of Eighties hairdos, corporate skullduggery, and good-hearted ethnic ribbing. It does not take long for the crotch-thrusting, hummus-dipping, yenta-humping hero to become a part of the movie's melting-pot Manhattan, rather disarmingly envisioned by Sandler, director Dennis Dugan and co-writers Robert Smigel and Judd Apatow as equal-opportunity vaudeville in which Rob Schneider as a Palestinian cab driver delivers a Proustian ode to his goat, Lainie Kazan's ass still holds up nicely, and George Takei and Bruce Vilanch welcome rednecks to queer parties. The filmmaking is crass and artless (a blessing, coming after Tarsem's doodling), but the gonzo gags -- Sandler and friends playing feline Hacky Sack, Turturro gulping down chicks and punching out flames -- are a nice return to the absurdism of Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. Warts and all, Zohan adds to a beautiful vision, a clown's utopia where prejudice gets a pie in the puss.
From expansive inclusiveness to ineffable Otherness. Evil in The Strangers lies behind kewpie-doll masks, talks in a singsongy murmur, and comes a-knockin' at 4 a.m. The stage is an isolated vacation home made all the more vulnerable throughout one excruciating night by the forlorn emotions of its inhabitants, a young couple (Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman) reeling from a romantic evening gone curdled. He dulls the pain of a rejected wedding ring with a carton of ice-cream, she dolefully wipes the rose petals off their bed; they're briefly separated, the camera lingers on the composition until one of three faceless goblins materializes by the window. Bryan Bentino, the first-time director, has clearly studied John Carpenter, and shows a resourceful sense of space despite the insistent jiggling of the camera -- taunts scribbled on walls, shotguns, cell phones with low batteries, crawling in the dark, every screw is tightened with the ruthless efficiency of a surgeon. Comparison with Haneke's Funny Games (both the Austrian original and the recent American transposition) is de rigueur. The older filmmaker's distress-machines are supposed to work like castor oil for viewers weened on commercialized brutality, yet the films would be less deplorable if Haneke's own penchant for sadism -- a sort of school-masterish disdain shading into emotional terrorism -- was acknowledged and confronted. Grinding and suffocating as it is, The Strangers is the more humane film: The furies aren't symbolic jocks wearing Mickey Mouse gloves to punish a family's supposed complacency, but manifestations of the psychological disconnection in a relationship.
Also in the better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be department: Kung Fu Panda. The ursine martial-artist of the title (voiced, appropriately, by Jack Black) is actually a roly-poly fanboy stuck with noodles while longing for the kung fu grandeur of the Furious Five, a group of noble fighters trained by a cranky old master (Dustin Hoffman). The main joke (and the center of the believe-in-yourself message) is that the shambling panda, whose blubber throws off his attempts at Shaolin grace yet cushions him from enemy blows ("Stop it! I'm gonna pee," he giggles while being pummeled in the gut), finds himself chosen as the legendary Dragon Warrior, protecting the village from the disgraced snow-leopard villain (Ian McShane). A CGI, furry version of Beverly Hills Ninja, then, though a vast improvement over such previous DreamWorks dreck as Shark Tale and the Shrek flicks, thanks to a couple of kinetic action sequences worked out in spatial moves out of House of Flying Daggers and to some uncommonly good voice acting (Black is in routine Baby Huey autopilot, and Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, and Seth Rogen all barely register, but Hoffman, McShane, and James Hong have delightful bits). And not only does the movie take the plot seriously enough to lay off pop references, but the animators have also resisted the urge to give Angelina Jolie's tigress-warrior anthropomorphic jugs. I'd call that accidental maturity, but, of course, there are no accidents.
Reviewed June 15, 2008.