Notes from the back row 

An age of innocence: Travolta in a musical wearing a fat suit

Everybody’s second favorite Scientologist, John Travolta, is back in theatres this week; even gayer than ever and crammed into a female fat suit for a singing, dancing remake of John Waters’s 1988 cult classic Hairspray .

Warning: this is a musical and I can’t stand them. Having said that, John Waters’s musicals are tolerable and although he isn’t in charge here ( Bringing Down the House ’s Adam Shankman is) at least the source material is his.

Regardless, if you can handle musicals you’ll probably dig this picture about Tracy, a 1962 Baltimore girl with dreams of being on an American Bandstand-like show with her TV idol Corny Collins. Lucy deals with teenage rivalry, puppy love and an overprotective mother (Shitballs Travolta in that fatsuit and drag). Plus she battles issues of segregation and racism alongside Motormouth Mabel (Queen Latifah) and becomes a fugitive with a nice little message about everyone getting along at the end.

Despite Travolta and the fat suit gimmick, Hairspray is a slick, entertaining film that skips right down nostalgia lane to an age of innocence (well, except that racism thing, which the picture handles very delicately so as not to push anyone away).

Shankman, usually a terrible director but good choreopgrapher ( Boogie Nights) does a swell job and crafts a film that harkens back to the old days of musicals, when you could see the whole cast singing and dancing together rather than the current style — more about close-ups of lip-quivering pop stars than anything else.

Newcomer Nikki Blonsky is “delightfully energetic” as Tracy, and Christopher Walken even sneaks in as her dweeby father (although he’s terribly underused considering he’s probably the best dancer in the film).

Hairspray is being called the non-action hit of the summer and it starts Friday at the Village 8. Go for it, I’ll be the guy driving to Vancouver to watch Rescue Dawn , the kickass, based-on-a-true-story tale of Dieter Dengler, a German-born U.S. pilot shot down and taken prisoner during the Vietnam war.

Three reasons why Rescue Dawn rules: First, it’s directed by crazy German genius Werner Herzog, better known for art pics or documentaries like Grizzly Man but who delivers a strong plot-driven action/adventure piece this time. Secondly, it stars Christian Bale ( American Psycho, Batman Returns), who rules. Third, at POW camp there’s a torture scene where the VC tie an entire ants’ nest to Dieter’s face. Plus there’s plenty of courage, inspiration, action, a sense of futility, horror, and those great man vs. nature themes that often pop up in Herzog pictures. All this without any of the standard Vietnam movie clichés (no Doors in the soundtrack). I’m not sure if Rescue Dawn will be up here next week or not, but it’s worth the drive to see.

Up here, also starting Friday, is I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and the best thing I can say about this stereotype-riddled “gay-is-okay” film is that you don’t often hear the word “faggot” in a PG-13 movie. Of course they’re quick to point out what a terrible word it is but the message of tolerance comes across more like a crappy public service announcement. Even Jessica Biel in her underwear doesn’t save the picture. Sorry Adam Sandler, it’s juvenile all right, just not very funny.

The DVD of the week, (easier to find on video) is Troll, a terrible 1986 flick about a young boy named Harry Potter who battles a mischievous troll to save his kid sister. It stars Sonny Bono, Julia Dreyfuss, and kinda makes you wonder, with that final book dropping any day now, if the “J” in JK Rowling doesn’t stand for “Jack your protagonist’s name? Don’t mind if I do.”

AT VILLAGE 8 July 20-26: Hairspray; I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry; Harry Potter; Transformers; Live Free or Die Hard; Ratatouille; Sicko; Licence to Wed.

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