December 27, 2007

Youth Without Youth (12/27/07)

Lettergrade: D-

We saw Francis Ford Coppola's Youth Without Youth last night, which I cannot really recommend due to its deeply philosophical passages and enigmatic density. I know it's a rare thing to criticize a movie for having too many layers and too much going on, but this one, based on a series of novellas by Romanian philosopher, religion professor and cunning linguist Mircea Eliade, is an art film in style and nature that demands the full attention and mental capacity of its viewer in a way that I just didn't find all that compelling. I respect the skill and craft that went into making this thing, but at the same time, I know that the end result just isn't for me.

The picture opens in 1938 Romania with Tim Roth as an old professor of 70 or so, who (like the author) has made it his life's work to study the evolution of Eastern language in an attempt to get to the root of human consciousness. He is struck by lightning one day while crossing the street, and spends 10 weeks in a hospital where doctors discover that his body seems to be regenerating to that of a man of 35. The lightning has provided him with other enhancements as well which gradually reveal themselves with time, including an elevated intellect and a split personality, more ruthlessly intellectual than the original, with whom Roth can reason and share revelations throughout the picture. It may sound like Francis Ford Coppola doing X-Men here, but it's really a bit more cerebral and oblique than that.

Anyway, after his time in the hospital is through, Roth is initially studied by local scientists, but when news of his condition reaches the top Nazi doctors of the day, they desperately attempt to acquire and study him per Hilter's obsession with immortality. As the years pass, Roth does not age... he goes from city to city, assuming various identities, and continuing to work on his book about the origins of language and consciousness. A major plot shift happens when Roth encounters a woman who has likewise been struck by lightning (played by Alexandra Maria Lara, who also played the deceased love of his youth earlier in the movie). Her post-lightning ability is that her id can move backward through time, revealing ancient, unrecorded languages and unwritten history to Roth as he continues his work.

I'll stop describing the particulars of the plot now, as I think that revealing them out of context like this doesn't really represent how they are used within the body of the film. I will state for emphasis, however, that the movie's somewhat episodic structure was frustrating in that it was hard to get a grasp on what the movie was about and where it might be going. I quite enjoy films that undergo "movements" as the picture progresses, but the various sections here felt a bit disconnected to me in a way that was more off-putting than engaging.

Another recurring point of confusion / frustration is that there are certain plot elements that are only revealed through dialogue, not through anything that we get demonstrative proof of. For example, early in the movie, when Roth is being studied by the local Romanian doctor after recuperating in the hospital, we are told that the woman next door, whom we have yet to see, is a spy sent there by the Nazis. Roth apparently has a relationship with her that has already become sexual, although I didn't have any inkling that sex was afoot, in spite of the occasional nipple that went by in one of the many hazy, ethereal dream-sequences from that section.

Coppola, best known for the Godfather movies and Apocalypse Now, hadn't directed a movie in 10 years or so, and Youth Without Youth was made very inexpensively in Romania, primarily funded by Coppola's ever-successful wine business. On one hand I think it's great that there are movies like this out there, and that bold, industrious filmmakers like Coppola can find ways to make them. On the other, however, I must admit that I really had only a sliver of an idea of what the thing was about.

December 24, 2007

Sweeney Todd (12/24/07)

Lettergrade: C-

I have not seen any previous version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, and therefore I am unable to comment on how faithful director Tim Burton might have been in translating the Stephen Sondheim musical for the cinema. I will say as a relative newcomer, however, that while I enjoyed several of the songs, I found the film at large to be awfully gruesome, and somewhat unpleasant to get through. I suppose one could inquire what I was expecting, seeing as this is a story of a scorned barber who kills for revenge, but I will draw a distinction between a genial sort of macabre, which most of Burton's movies have been until now, and the harsh, visceral macabre that more accurately describes this picture. Although the Sondheim lyrics are witty and playful in places, Burton's imagery rarely fits the same description, focusing instead on the grime and decay of 19th century London in addition to the dark themes of blood-lust and revenge.

At its core, Sweeney Todd is a basic revenge story along the lines of The Count of Monte Cristo. The title character, played by Johnny Depp, was once a successful London barber with a beautiful wife and young daughter. The tyrannical Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) became envious, and had Depp falsely imprisoned, leaving his family for himself. Many years later, Depp returns to Fleet Street a dark and troubled man seeking vengeance. He adopts the name of Todd, and takes up his old residence above an unsuccessful meat pie shop run by Helena Bonham Carter. Eventually, they form an alliance cemented by a series of musical duets: He will kill his way to Turpin, and she will process the evidence for use in her failing business. The cast also includes character actor Tim Spall as Turpin's lackee and Borat's Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli, a rival Italian barber.

Although no one can deny that there's a lot of talent on screen here, I must say I found many of the characters to be off-puttingly one-note. Depp's character, for example, begins the movie focused on killing his enemies, and well, frankly, he never really shows much more complexity than that. Helena Bonham Carter's role is the most interesting of the bunch, mostly because her motivations for doing what she does during the picture are the most nuanced and, at times, mysterious. The one-dimensional nature of many of the characters is, of course, an aspect of the material that probably existed long before the makers of this film touched it, but it's worth mentioning as something that dragged the film down for me and contributes to my non-recommendation.

The material had been filmed many times before; twice in the 20s and most famously in 1936, before Sondheim wrote his stage musical based on it in '79. The musical had been taped for broadcast several times, but this is the first incarnation of Sondheim's version as a true feature film. Burton certainly didn't make it feel as if it were a filmed play: As is typical of his movies, the production design, art direction, and cinematography are all top notch. Burton reveals story points in very cinematic ways, using intimate close-ups and flashbacks to get his points across.

My complaint about Burton for a long time now, however, is while he clearly knows how to make something look great, I sometimes get the feeling that he's not terribly skilled at handling story. Of the 12 films he's directed, all but two (Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands) are explicitly based on pre-existing material. Some of them have been all-around stellar pictures (Ed Wood and Pee Wee's Big Adventure in particular), but the majority seem to be awkwardly paced and in the end, strangely unsatisfying. I'm talking about Batman Returns, Mars Attacks!, his unforgivable Planet Of The Apes remake, and the visually stunning but thematically bankrupt Sleepy Hollow.

I'm sorry to say that I'd lump Sweeney Todd into that latter group in terms of pacing and unevenness. The bigger problem is that since I felt little compassion for any of the characters, by the end I was fairly indifferent about whether or not anyone would achieve the goals they had set out for. I could probably have put up with the gruesome handling of the blood-and-guts stuff a little better if the movie had simply found a way to engage. Like a lot of Burton's movies, however, this one seems to be a little more about how it looks rather than what actually happens.

December 16, 2007

I Am Legend (12/16/07)

Lettergrade: B

In I Am Legend, Will Smith faces an opponent that no amount of free-style rap can defeat: A mutated cure for cancer that turns everyone on Earth into flesh-eating monsters. The picture is partly a last-man-on-Earth melodrama, and partly an action/horror zombie flick. Normally those two genres, either separate or combined, aren't really my cup of tea, but there are several key things about this picture that I really liked. The big one is Will Smith, who gives a very strong and nuanced performance as the presumably lone survivor of the plague. The other is the stellar work by the picture's VFX team, which allows Smith to inhabit a post-apocalyptic New York City, overrun by weeds and wildlife, that looks pretty darn convincing.

Based on a Richard Matheson novel from the 50s that has been filmed twice before (once as The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price and then again as The Omega Man with Charlton Heston), I Am Legend stars Smith as a military scientist who works to find a cure after discovering that his blood is somehow immune to the virus. With only a trusty dog for companionship, he leads a life of meticulous routine as he experiments on captured subjects in his home lab. At night, the monsters come out and feast on whatever they can find, but Smith is careful not to reveal his dwelling and to take a number of Home Alone-style security precautions, should one of the fuckers get too close.

Like No Country For Old Men, another good picture that was released this winter, I Am Legend features lengthy scenes where we watch Smith wordlessly go about some task or daily ritual, generating enough intrigue to keep us interested in what he's doing and highly curious about why he's doing it. As the film continues, piecemeal flashbacks gradually reveal what exactly went down and how things got like they are. I didn't much care for the horror movie component of the picture, which is minimal, really, but I sure found the character stuff to be interesting, and that's where the film's primary value is.

In talking to others who've seen the flick, we all pretty much agree that the third act of the picture, which pits the Fresh Prince against the zombies in a more traditional I, Robot sort of way, is probably supposed to have a lot more impact than it really does. To put it another way, the movie kinda feels like its leading up to a big climax of sorts that never really happens. To its credit, the picture takes a good deal of time to build moods and set up a certain atmosphere, but ultimately all that effort, while enjoyable in and of itself, isn't used in a particularly meaningful way. There's a quasi-religious component introduced in the last part of the movie that comes out of nowhere (and fails to convince), but that's the only attempt the picture really makes at having a larger purpose.

The screenwriter/producer was Akiva Goldsman, one of the highest paid screenwriters of our day. Seeing as he was responsible for Batman & Robin, The Da Vinci Code, and that Lost In Space remake from 1998, it's really saying something that this movie wound up in the decent shape that its in. It should be noted, however, that Goldsman also wrote two other movies that weren't as shitty as those mentioned, but which didn't really go above and beyond on a story level either: Cinderella Man and A Beautiful Mind. Those films, coincidentally both directed by Ron Howard, were well-made and featured good performances, but ultimately failed to do a whole lot other than what one might have expected them to do. In other words, solid filmmaking, but a tad on the forgettable side.

Maybe that's the worst thing you can say about I Am Legend: It's got some nifty acting and some great sequences, but you may not think about it much after its over. I know that's not a terribly glowing endorsement, but the movie does have several strong components that make it worth seeing, and in a season populated by pictures like National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets and Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem, it will do.

December 14, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen (12/14/07)

Lettergrade: F

I've seen all three Ocean's movies now, but I honestly haven't gotten much out of any of them. They're heist movies, I guess, but more than that they seem to be excuses for the lead actors, many of whom are friends in real life, to hang out on lavish locations, wear silly costumes, and collect some nice Warner Bros paychecks. I'm sorry if that sounds cynical, but as the movies never seem to have any over-reaching themes, and the characters are not given much personality or complexity, I have to assume that the cast keeps coming back because the work conditions are pleasurable, if nothing else. Having had a couple shitty jobs lately myself, my hats off to them for finding a fun work environment and steady income, but I must say I sorta wish they were interested in telling a good story or two while they were at it.

The movies have had increasingly convoluted plots, and director Steven Soderbergh doesn't seem especially interested in letting Joe Audience know what the fuck is happening in any of them. It's a curious approach, but I guess his mission was accomplished: I went through most of Thirteen not understanding what the guys are trying to do or how they're trying to do it. There are many scenes where one of Ocean's gang is dealing with some elaborate Star Wars-like piece of equipment or interacting in strange ways with other mysterious characters that you don't know anything about and for objectives that remain largely unclear. I guess the interesting part is supposed to be listening to the groovy music while the celebrity cast unpacks shit and talks vaguely about plans that won't be unveiled until the movie's climax. During those lengthy and plentiful scenes, with no discernible plot to contemplate, I usually found myself wondering if there was anything I needed to unpack in the other room myself, but that's neither here nor there.

In this one, the guys all convene in Las Vegas after Elliot Gould, a charter member of the previous movies' Ocean's gang, has a heart attack and is rendered in a "sort of" catatonic state. Flashbacks quickly reveal that he got this way because he unwisely entered into a business partnership to open a new casino on the strip with Al Pacino, only to be double-crossed and squeezed out. Gould even says that Pacino has done this to every other business partner he's ever had, but nevertheless he was stupid enough to take no precautions whatsoever. This supreme act of gullibility and astonishing idiocy on Gould's part is too much for George Clooney and Brad Pitt, and they decide to help Gould enact revenge by sabotaging Pacino's opening night.

From then on out... aw fuck, it doesn't really matter. I think there's a scene in all three movies where the guys are confronted with some elaborate obstacle, and then an expert in a specialized area of criminal activity grimly says, "Forget it: It can't be done!" This is followed, of course, by a scene where the guys find a way to easily do it anyway, courtesy of some crazy long-shot idea that someone on the team has come up with. That's pretty much all there is to know about the plot, and if that sounds like thoughtful, engaging filmmaking to you, by all means please enjoy.

While we're talking about curious patterns, there are two things about this movie that I want to mention: One is that the film has a real hard-on for The Godfather. I mean, I love that movie as much as anyone, and it _is_ cool that Pacino, The Godfather III's Andy Garcia, and Scott Caan (son of the original movie's James Caan) are part of the cast, but I don't understand why so much dialogue came directly from that film and what all the references were about. The other thing I want to make note of is that all the characters seem to wear a lot of crazy costumes in this one. I cannot remember if Eleven and Twelve were like this, but in this one it feels like every few minutes there's a scene where Don Cheadle impersonates a dare-devil motorcyclist or Clooney comes out wearing a crazy Italian mustache or Matt Damon sports a shamefully unconvincing prosthetic nose. It could just be the filmmakers' loving tribute to the Chevy Chase classic Fletch, but it still seemed cartoonishly excessive and virtually pointless.

Ultimately, however, Ocean's Thirteen, like its predecessors, has bigger problems that mostly stem from the fact that there's very little tension in any of the proceedings. In all three films there's a point where the film slyly lets you know, "Don't worry: Clooney and Pitt had it all figured out well in advance and took care of everything!" Um... where's the fucking drama in that? I kinda thought that heist movies are generally able to get some good milage out of unexpected things going wrong. The Mission: Impossible movies, for example, feature a lot of elaborate heists, and they manage to keep it all fresh and exciting. I guess you can walk away from the entries in the Ocean's series marveling at what fine administrators Clooney and Pitt are, but the filmmakers could benefit from going for something with a little more pizzaz and showmanship. Will Danny Ocean win? He always does. He seems to have no doubt that he will, and there is no doubt on the part of anyone else in the movie either.

The original Ocean's 11, the one made in 1960 starring Frank Sinatra and other members of the Rat Pack, wasn't that good a movie, and it was a bit curious to me that anyone would choose to remake it in the first place. Soderbergh had just come off dual Best Director nominations the previous year for Erin Brockovich and Traffic (the latter of which he won), and it seemed like a heist movie made by a filmmaker of his caliber would be something worth seeing. I actually saw his Ocean's remake twice, thinking that there must have been some other layer there that I had missed the first time. Ultimately, I think I realized that it was a remake inasmuch as a bunch of celebrities had a great time making a fairly shallow movie about knocking over a Vegas casino, and not much more. There could be something more interesting and post-modern buried in these films, but it clearly takes a viewer more sophisticated (and devoted) than myself to spot it.

(seen on DVD)

December 2, 2007

Enchanted (12/02/07)

Lettergrade: B+

Send-ups of classic Disney fairy-tale pictures seem to be more common these days, but as far as I'm aware, none of them have done it nearly as well as Enchanted. I'm not sure what the secret is... the movie has an excellent cast, catchy songs and score, and a good director named Kevin Lima, an alum in various capacities of the early 90s Disney animation renaissance, who keenly fills the movie with in-jokes and references so intricate, only the most dedicated of Disneyphiles might be able to catch them all.

All that aside, though, Lima and the other filmmakers have an excellent sense of what made a lot of the older Disney hallmarks resonate with audiences in the first place, and they do a fine job of reworking the formula here. Pretty much every facet of the picture is right on. If you break it all down on paper, Enchanted might be as guilty of being homogenized, overly sweet, and as absolutist as the movies it pokes fun at. The difference, however, is that the film is witty and inventive enough to keep me, a hardened cynic at 29, charmed and in laughter for pretty much all of its running time. The film is born out of love for its source material while never submitting to obvious or petty jokes like the Shrek movies do.

The opening segment closely matches the animation of beloved early 90s classics like Beauty And The Beast and Aladdin. Amy Adams voices Giselle, a traditionally-animated princess who, on the day of her wedding to a fantastically smug Prince Edward (James Marsden), is banished to the live-action New York City, courtesy of evil bitch Susan Sarandon (who plays evil bitch Queen Narissa). The film is primarily a fish out-of-water story with Giselle having to apply her fairy-tale intellect and world-view to her new three-dimensional surroundings. I don't like describing movies in terms of other movies (unless some shameless ripping-off has occurred), but a good analogue for Adams' Giselle is Will Ferrell's Buddy in Jon Favreau's Elf, another splendid picture in which the enthusiastic earnestness of the lead in question won me over with much aplomb.

Giselle is never fully exposed to the true horrors of the Big Apple (which do not seem to be part of this New York anyway), but instead is taken in by a pretty decent guy played by Patrick Demsey, who thinks the girl is probably certifiable, but is sympathetic and charitable to her anyway. Demsey's character is a divorce attorney who has a nice relationship with his six-year old daughter and a long-term girlfriend who's on the verge of becoming his fiancée. Soon, the self-absorbed Prince Edward arrives in NYC and begins to search for his betrothed while Tim Spall, a double-agent who lusts for Queen Narissa, poses as Edward's faithful servant while sabotaging his mission.

A responsible movie review, I feel, should not reveal aspects of a movie that the audience may take immense pleasure in discovering, so I'll stop with the specifics now. Suffice to say that Lima knows the Disney classics inside and out, and has a lot of fun playing with familiar elements... be it pushing our heroine's ability to commune with nature to ridiculous extremes, or in stretching the credibility of a spontaneous musical number in Central Park. The one false note might be the somewhat perfunctory action climax, which feels a little out of tune with the rest of the movie. I will say, however, that one brief not-so-hot scene in the midst of a very enjoyable 1 hour 50 minute running time is something of a minor miracle, and a batting average that most family pictures would kill for.

One last thing to note is that (much like in the film Pleasantville) the characters from the animated world who get exposure to more complex ideas and feelings start to really expand as the film progresses. No one plays these subtle epiphanies better than Adams, who greets her on-screen encounters with vacant naiveté while working just enough subtle nuance into her performance to suggest wheels turning and revelations being made. It's tricky material to play and its success is imperative to the film ultimately earning its ending. Adams pulls it off expertly, and it is hard to imagine the other elements of the picture coming together nearly as well without her at the center of everything.

In the final stretch, Enchanted is not entirely able to hide that, while made with lightly subversive tongue-in-cheek care, it is still designed to fall within that most desired and universal genre of all; the profitable money-maker. I'm not a fan of the obligatory Carrie Underwood single that pops up toward the end, nor do I care for some of the more corporate touches, but in spite of the decisions that might have been made with marketing in mind, one has to admire that this is still a pretty good movie, full of charm and class. Family movies that the whole family might actually like are a rare and treasured thing these days, and when they come about as well as this one does, it's hard to sit in the theater and not feel a certain degree of enchantment.

November 30, 2007

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (11/30/07)

Lettergrade: B

I don't know if I'd see it again, but the first time through, at least, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was pretty funny. I should quickly mention that about 85% of it is primarily a parody of Walk The Line, the excellent Johnny Cash biopic from a few years back, with dashes of Ray, the less successful movie about Ray Charles, thrown in. Parody movies often fall down, I think, because they're more interested in spoofing specific scenes from specific movies rather than developing coherent plots of their own. Honestly, there isn't a lot of story here that hasn't been lifted directly from the two movies I've mentioned, but the picture manages to hold together anyway, probably because it pokes fun at the general history of rock throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s in addition to its cinematic forbearers. Walk Hard doesn't reinvent the spoof film, but the filmmakers understand the conventions of the genré well enough to make a pretty decent one of their own.

A key thing that makes this picture a little above average is that the songs are generally good. Sitting here now, I'm failing to recall any specific melodies or lyrics, but in context of the film, at least, they're amusing and help make the picture seem a little more legit. For that matter, the film is atypically well shot and edited, and most of the major tech components are of high quality. Perhaps that's no surprise, however, seeing as the movie was produced by Judd Apatow, a guy who's recently been associated with several well-made comedies that manage to be smart and very funny while on the surface appearing to be stupid.

The movies Apatow has directed (The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up) generally have a lot of heart, whereas the ones where he is a producer (Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby, and last summer's Superbad) are mainly out to be silly. He co-wrote and produced this one, and like the others on his resumé, it is refreshingly R rated and does not wuss out when it's time to drop the f-bomb or show male nudity.

Dewey is played by the hysterically dopey John C. Reilly, who warbles through the songs surprisingly well, and greets the situations he encounters during his rise and fall with enthusiastically dim cluelessness. After the death of his brother following an unfortunate machete accident, Dewey leaves home at 14 and eventually joins up with a band comprised of Saturday Night Live regulars Chris Parnell and a surprisingly funny Tim Meadows. The rest of the cast is essentially a who's who of recent comedy film and television projects, including Kristin Wiig (also from SNL), The Office's Jenna Fischer, from Orange Country (the director's previous picture) Jack Black and Harold Ramis, and various alumni of the Christopher Guest improv comedies including John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch. They come and go from the picture as Dewey achieves amazing success and loses it all due to his demons and flirtations with illicit substances.

Somehow, the talent of the cast combined with the good production value help the picture transcend the sometimes-juvenile screenplay, which is more successful when parodying scenes that are of the typical rock biopic cloth, and less successful when using Dewey's last name in double-entendre rich sentences such as "I need Cox right away!" and "Remember: It doesn't say Cox unless I say it tastes like Cox!"

While fairly consistently entertaining, the thinness of the plot does begin to wear in the third act a little. The movie is set up somewhat segmentally, so we see a small section of Dewey's life and career before jumping forward a number of years to the next thing. That's probably the right way to do something like this, but the twists are occasionally so random and detached that I caught myself thinking about how (and if) the movie was going to tie it all together, rather than what was in front of me at that moment. I would guess that Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story's target audience probably won't care about that, but it's worth mentioning as a significant stumbling block in what is overall a pretty funny movie.

November 21, 2007

The Mist (11/21/07)

Lettergrade: C

The Mist is a disturbing meditation on the nature of human fear, dressed in the trappings of an old school monster movie. Several scenes in it are very good, but unfortunately they are interspersed with many others that don't really work. It pains me to say that as director Frank Darabont previously wrote and directed two exceptional pictures of the 90s: The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Like those, The Mist is based on a Stephen King story, but where the previous films had more humanistic ideas at their core, this one has a large supernatural element and is primarily out to scare. Although the picture does have some good freaky scenes, the results by and large are fairly mixed.

Darabont's great talent, as demonstrated in his previous movies, lies in creating screen-characters who are complex but flawed versions of classic movie archetypes. Likewise, he is a master at lacing grim subject material with dashes of ribald humor; doubly effective not only because the laugh is unexpected, but also due to the fact that it creates what I think of as a "full-spectrum" experience. Life situations are so rarely as monotone as many movies would have you believe, and Darabont (or is it King?) knows this: He's good at taking beats here and there to find the bittersweet humor in the drama, and usually both work better as a result. It is no coincidence that The Mist is at its best during the character moments. The scenes where fear and panic drive human characters to do irrational things are by and large a lot scarier than the scenes where CG monsters show up.

But I'm getting ahead of myself... As the picture starts, Thomas Jayne is a commercial artist living quietly with his wife and son in upstate Maine, a favorite region of Stephen King to wreak supernatural havoc. His family wakes one morning to find that a storm has damaged their house and knocked out the phones and electricity. Jayne grabs his son (and his asshole neighbor), and heads to the local super-market to stock up on supplies, barely noticing the armada of military trucks and fire engines that frantically race in the other direction. While in the store, a mysterious mist rolls in and completely obscures the parking lot. Anyone who ventures out into the haze comes back battered and terrified, or worse, reappears in bloody pieces. With no clear way out, the group of 70 or so settles in and waits for help to arrive.

Darabont quickly establishes ways in which the group creates confrontational divisions among itself; be it year-round residents vs. city folk there on vacation, well-educated people vs. drop outs, and somewhat obliquely, conservative versus liberal. Much of the movie, however, focuses on a terrifying Marcia Gay Harden, as a religious zealot who preaches that the ongoing events are part of God's wrath. Although generally reviled by the others when the mist first rolls in, the appearance of large locust-like creatures (as well as the other supernatural beasts that turn up) work in tandem with her ever-ready Old Testament quotes to convince a small, panicky mob that she is a profit and had foreseen it all.

Religious extremism of any kind often freaks me out, and I was genuinely unnerved when Harden started rattling off some of the Bible's more fire-and-brimstone themed passages. Her performance, along with Toby Jones - as the store's resourceful asst. manager... pragmatic and level-headed in many ways that Harden is not - are the two most compelling in the picture. Unfortunately, however, as well-conceived as the Jayne, Harden, and Jones characters are, many of the others are a bit broadly drawn or conveniently display stupidity and poor-judgement in the interest of allowing the plot to move forward. Again, it is a tome on fear and the irrational things it leads people to do, but something about the way our characters in this movie behave consistently rings false.

One other thing to note is that the musical score, while largely absent for the first half of the picture, is among the most obnoxious I've heard in any movie during the second half. It mainly consists of a large church organ playing while a middle-eastern vocalist wails away. The art direction, cinematography, and editing are all great, but there needs to be an industry-wide ban on ever allowing this dude to record a note of music ever again.

In the end, however, I did not despise The Mist, but other than a few bright spots here and there, I didn't think it was all that noteworthy either. Were the film a straight emulation of the 50s monster movie, rather than a picture that tries to do more and say something while merely paying homage, some of the dopier scenes might not take the air out the proceedings quite the same way. It's a shame because Darabont has done better work in the past, and I'm sure he'll do better work in the future.

November 19, 2007

Beowulf (11/18/07)

Lettergrade: D

I pretty much hated Beowulf right from the first scene. I know that's not very constructive, but it's how I feel. I think I was expecting a real kick-ass, sword-and-sorcery popcorn flick, but that's not quite what this is. There _is_ some magic and swordplay afoot, but much of the story is fairly dreary and dull. Conversely, when the action scenes do take place, they're kind of shrill and nightmarishly unpleasant to sit through. All this is exacerbated by the fact that it's computer animation (based on motion capture), and many of the CG characters, who often look almost exactly like the actors voicing them, don't have a lot of articulate expression. I don't know if the movie would work better if it had been staged with real actors performing with CG monsters or not, but at the very least there would be the subtle nuance of human interaction that guys like Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich have spent their lifetimes perfecting, and that no digital reproduction has yet been able to match.

Indeed, several of the characters look and behave pretty much like gristled up extras from the Shrek universe, with the key differences being that they drink, get horny, and kill things in graphic ways. Curiously, there are many lengthy dialogue scenes that take place in a mead hall which, one would think, might lend itself better to just building the sets and shooting the actors in costume rather than going to such lengths to replicate such things anyway. Nevertheless, when smackdown time arrives, the digital environment does permit our heroes to perform amazing feats that no stuntman would subject himself to, and allows for dynamic shots that no cinematographer could ever shoot. The movie's aim is spectacle, and while it is perhaps a bit underwhelming, you have to give it points for being unique.

The movie is based on a 9th century poem that I wrote a report on in 7th grade, but do not remember. It starts with the monster Grendel (played by Crispin Glover) attacking king Anthony Hopkins' mead hall somewhere in bumfuck Denmark. Hopkins knows exactly what to do: He calls Beowulf and his entourage, who are known throughout the land as ace monster exterminators. Beowulf (Ray Winstone) is a hero of egomaniacal nature... as in love with the legends that have accumulated about himself as anyone. I was amused that he would always shout his own name while kicking something's ass, ala the O'Doyle family in Billy Madison. Beowulf quickly dispenses with Grendel (whom, it turns out, resulted from Hopkins slipping the pork-saber to some kind of sea-demon years earlier). The next night, however, the village is attacked by something far more wicked and foul: Angelina Jolie, bringing back her Count Chocula accent from 2004's Alexander, and her "crazy bitch" persona from everything else.

Beowulf goes to her lair, the entrance of which is designed to look like a dark vagina, but is overcome when something that looks exactly like Jolie emerges from the water instead. The naked-but-nippleless creature offers Beowulf a deal: If he performs the sexual act with her, she will turn him into a king more powerful than all others. It has been established that the prospect of nookie is too great for our vainglorious hero to resist, and he succumbs to the dark creature's promises; like Hopkins before him, and Brad Pitt during the production of Mr. And Mrs. Smith. The second half of the story picks up some 50 years later, with an elderly Beowulf having to deal with the consequences of his one-night stand (a really pissed off dragon).

There are certainly compelling thematic points about the nature of heroism, and how the lust for power, wealth, and mad-monkey sex tragically undo several men of great strength in this story. I was especially interested in Beowulf's No. 2, played by Brendan Gleeson, who is endlessly devoted to his boss, but recognizes his flaws. Nevertheless, the execution is such an unpleasant combination of 'wooden' and 'horrific' that there isn't a whole lot to enjoy here, despite the thematic food-for-thought that seems a little more meaningful in hindsight than it did to me in context of the picture.

Director Robert Zemeckis made some of the most treasured popcorn movies of my youth (the Back To The Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) before moving into more mature pictures that I admired and studied throughout high school and college (Forrest Gump and Cast Away). Lately, it seems that Zemeckis has lost his goddamn mind. His film prior to this one was The Polar Express, which, like Beowulf, boldly experimented with using motion capture to grab an actor's physical performance and map it onto a CG character in a CG environment. The result was interesting because it allowed Tom Hanks to "play" many different characters in the film of all shapes and sizes. Despite the creepy, dead soullessness in the eyes of all the CG actors, there was a unique and optimistic sense of magic that really kept the movie going.

Beowulf isn't that lucky. The overall atmosphere is too frequently sabotaged whenever anyone steps into a close-up, and you're reminded that you're not looking at actors using their craft to convince you that they're living through something extraordinary, but instead at a computer simulation that attempts the same thing. Beowulf is an amazing use of the technology available to filmmakers of our day, but I suspect it would be more fruitfully used as an enhancement for tried and true techniques, rather than a replacement.

November 9, 2007

Bee Movie (11/09/07)

Lettergrade: D

I thought the ads looked kinda sucky, but the few reviews I came into contact with for Jerry Seinfeld's Bee Movie were generally very positive. More than that, though, was the glowing word-of-mouth: "You like Seinfeld, don't you?" Who doesn't? "It's like they took the humor from the show, but adapted it for cartoon bees!" Well, that's a hell of an endorsement, so we decided to roll the dice. A few minutes into the movie, however, I had the distinct feeling that we were fucked.

Actually, that's being a little harsh... a more measured thing to say is that, contrary to the hype, Bee Movie is not too unlike many other Dreamworks CG animated pictures that have been in theaters in recent years... Over The Hedge, Shark Tale, Madagascar, et al. Movies in which celebrity personalities are anthropomorphized onto various members of the animal kingdom and sent off for adventure. Generally speaking, they're also the kind of thing that I, a big fan of imaginative children's entertainment, have little interest in seeing. I should come clean here and admit that I never, in fact, saw the first two movies on the above list, but my six year-old cousin saw Madagascar in the theater and assures me that it's "pretty stupid."

And Bee Movie isn't "stupid," but it's also not as inventive or as subversive as the witty advertisements would have you believe. I think a key aspect of why this is not really the best use of Seinfeld's talent is that his humor often centers around spontaneity (or at least the appearance of it). Animation is about the least spontaneous filmed media that there is, and additionally it does not allow Jerry to sarcastically mug through a scene the way he could on his NBC show. I guess with that in mind, the film's main way of trying to keep the proceedings feeling extemporaneous is by instituting a series of bizarre and radical plot shifts which, at times, seriously brought my brain to a screeching halt.

The initial premise, for example, has more in common with 1998's Antz (which featured the voice of Woody Allen and was one of Dreamworks' first CG movies) than anything else in the Dreamworks catalogue. Both films assign the voice and mannerisms of its beloved New York Jewish comedian to young neurotic insects struggling to find mass acceptance in rigid societies. When the time comes for the [bee/ant] to choose his place among the [hive/colony], he decides to venture out of the [hive/hole] for a [meaningful/heart-warming] adventure of discovery.

Seinfeld's character (the somewhat unenthusiastically named Barry B. Benson) explores NYC, and winds up in a Central Park-adjacent apartment occupied by a florist voiced by Renée Zellweger. The movie doesn't get into how a florist can afford a penthouse apartment with a Central Park view, but if you're going to get hung up on that kind of shit, maybe a talking bee picture isn't right for you to begin with. Anyway, in true movie fashion, the florist is dating a real dickhead (Patrick Warburton), who is about to swat Barry into oblivion before Zellweger steps in. Barry feels a debt of gratitude, and decides to violate one of the primary rules of Bee Society: Using English, he verbally thanks his rescuer.

A bee striking up a vaguely romantic relationship with a human is not all that outlandish within the realm of the fairy-tale movie, but then things got strange:

Barry discovers, to his horror, that humans hold bees captive and harvest the honey they produce for retail purposes. This pisses him off so royally that the film abruptly becomes a courtroom parody for the next 20-25 minutes. Barry brings about an undefined lawsuit against human kind that seems to have something to do with theft and imprisonment. Although there were stern warnings at the beginning of the movie that speaking to humans is strictly forbidden, there are no repercussions when Barry appears in court and on national television to level his charges.

I'm giving a good deal away here, but the bees eventually do win their case, and THEN things get even weirder. Since the bee community now has all this reclaimed honey, they decide to stop working and no longer leave the hive to pollenate flowers, fruit trees, and all other manner of vegetation. Pretty much overnight, all the earth's pollen dependent plants dry up. The movie focuses not on the wide-spread famine or massive economic collapse that would result in such an occurrence, however, but instead on Zellweger, who tragically can no longer afford her penthouse apartment now that she has no flowers to sell. The final part of the film deals with Barry's crazy schemes to get the bees to resume their activity, so the plants will be pollenated, so Zellweger will like him again.

What's the message? I have no idea. I've gone through the trouble of describing all this, however, both in attempt to find some logic in the bizarre patchwork quality of the plot, but also to make mention of the fact that a significant portion of the film is spent dealing with an issue that is actually quite relevant to current ecological events: A significant increase in a syndrome referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder, wherein worker bees have abruptly departed their hives apparently due to some kind of orientation problem, has been recorded in North America and Western Europe since late 2006. Scientists have little understanding thus far of what's causing the disappearance - bee keeping practices, pesticides, and human activity such as radio waves and cellphone signals are all potential suspects - but if the trend continues unchecked, the end result would be something not too unlike what happens in the second half of Bee Movie: An ecosystem collapse that results in significantly fewer flowers, fruit, and vegetables for the animals on this planet to make use of.

Don't get me wrong... if the film encourages kids (or their parents) to modify their behavior in such a way that bee welfare is given more consideration, that's a wonderful thing. As it stands, however, the movie has seemingly taken on a mysterious issue that does not yet have a viable solution. I'm not entirely convinced that Bee Movie is really trying to make some sort of environmental statement at its core, but the plot point seems a little too timely to be entirely arbitrary. The only message that seems abundantly clear is that we humans shouldn't feel guilty about taking honey from bees because it keeps them doing their fucking job.

But you know, it's weird: I like animated pictures. I really do. I love many of the Pixar films, and thought that Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the WereRabbit (also a Dreamworks Animation release, although co-produced by Aardman in England) was nothing short of perfection. Is it just that these particular sorts of movies are not aimed at my demographic? Are they aimed exclusively at children and at parents while I, childless at 29, am simply not able to appreciate the appeal?

I have every respect for the time and effort that went into Bee Movie and I'm glad that people got paid for the three years or so that it probably took to make it. It's one of those things, though, where I look at the talent, artistry, and money that was involved in making a picture, and am a little sad that no one came up with an especially inspired (or even cohesive) idea for everyone to put their effort toward.

September 2, 2007

The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters (09/02/07)

Lettergrade: B

The King Of Kong is an immensely enjoyable documentary covering a rivalry between grown men over the all-time high score for the classic arcade game Donkey Kong. We saw the film the same weekend that Balls of Fury, a movie that takes the premise of Enter The Dragon but substitutes ping-pong for martial arts, was released into theaters. Although I have not seen that movie, its concurrent release combined with the 26% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes is solemn reminder that something real can often be way more entertaining than whatever a room of comedy writers and studio marketing people can concoct. Had The King Of Kong been cast with Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller and directed by the assholes who made Blades Of Glory, I can tell you with complete and utter clairvoyance that it would have been awful.

Fortunately, The King Of Kong is low-budget, starless, and pretty authentic-feeling. As numerous other reviews have stated, at times you can scarcely believe that the people on screen (and their depicted actions) are legit, but director Seth Gordon assures us that they are. The main subject is a guy named Steve Wiebie, a talented charismatic father of two who has never quite lived up to his potential in life. After getting laid off from his job, Steve buys a Donkey Kong arcade game and decides to focus on breaking the all time high score. That score was set by the enigmatic be-mullet'd Billy Mitchell, who now runs a hot sauce company in Hollywood, Florida. Billy attended the first World Video Game Championship in 1982 (held in Fairfield, Iowa and moderated by a volunteer organization calling itself the Twin Galaxies International Scoreboard), where he established himself as the closest thing the classic arcade gaming world has to Bruce Springsteen. As Steve attempts to break Billy's record, the plot unfolds with disputed scores, psychological tricks, and underhanded maneuvers of astounding description.

A wonderful thing is that the movie is assembled in such a way that the one-upmanship between Billy and Steve almost always comes as a surprise. You root for Steve because he's generally good natured and affable, with a loving wife who is clearly concerned about his well-being should he not succeed. It is hysterical to see how Billy, who grows exceedingly arrogant as the movie rolls on, continues to cement his reputation as a world class dick while behaving in ways seemingly contrary to how he proclaims a video game champion ought to behave.

When it comes down to it, however, The King of Kong is wildly entertaining not only for its heart, but because it speaks to a certain element of pop-culture nostalgia. I had a blast catching glimpses of old classics like Burger Time and Beer Tapper (an actual arcade game sponsored by Budweiser in the 80s, before parent groups stepped in and forced the barkeep to sling root beer instead!) In spite of the retro-silliness, it still manages, however, to work as an effective "sports movie."

Although I don't know anyone in their 40s who is as juvenile as Billy is, the movie is clear that while the people on screen certainly have their eccentricities, for the most part they're really not all that different from people you probably know. That's the great aspect of documentaries like this and countless others (such as one of my all-time favorites, Hands On A Hardbody): For better or worse, the film grabs a small cross section of a particular sub-culture and shows a bit about how the people live and what they do. I had a teacher in college who said that movies and books are a way in which we really get to learn about and know eachother... Not the big things, but the more intimate thoughts, fears and observations... kinks, hangups and obsessions. The kind of stuff that most people probably don't wear on their sleeves in other sorts of forums.

I don't mean to over-sell the cultural significance, but every once in a while it's really great to be reminded that films are capable of doing something like what this movie does.

August 19, 2007

Death At A Funeral (08/19/07)

Lettergrade: D

Death At A Funeral received mostly good reviews, but for me it plays like a bad joke that just keeps going and going. It’s about two brothers who gather at a country house in England to preside over the memorial service for their recently departed father. One brother went off to New York to pursue his fortune as a writer, and the other stayed around to take care of his parents. There’s resentment there, etc, and general wackiness ensues.

Very little of it appealed to me. I’m not sure, but I think its due to the fact that I didn’t give much of a fuck about any of the characters. The comedic center piece is supposed to be this sequence where one of the other mourners takes some hallucinogenic pills, acts crazy, and then sits naked on the roof for a while. This tired cliche also found its way into 2002’s Orange County (among other pictures), and should really be outlawed by some kind of governmental regulation agency designed to keep lazy plot devices out of the cinema.

Oh, and the sons find out that their departed dad had a homosexual relationship with a "little person" mid-way through the movie, too. He’s played by Peter Dinklage (who has also recently appeared in In Bruges and The Station Agent) and who along with Bad Santa’s Tony Cox, continues to dominate little person acting roles in the grand tradition of Warrick Davis and Billy Barty.

The movie was directed by Frank Oz, the famed Muppeter, who has made a few good movies (Little Shop Of Horrors, The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Dark Crystral), but many more bad ones: The Score, Bowfinger, that Stepford Wives remake, House Sitter, and now this shit pile.

So that’s pretty much it. People on ecstasy, gay midget concubines, and a casket that gets knocked over at an inopportune time, causing dad’s corpse to come spilling out. I think it’s on DVD now, so in case your life is appearing too meaningful and productive, and you feel that pissing away 100 minutes of it or so would be a wise move, by all means pull the trigger on renting this fucker.

August 18, 2007

Superbad (08/18/07)

Lettergrade: B

There's nothing especially original about Superbad, but a lot of what happens in it is very funny. At it's core, the plot is not too dissimilar from that of Porky's or the first American Pie movie: A bunch of high school guys, mere days from graduation, scheme to get some intimate female contact before moving on to college. It's hard to put my finger on what makes this movie significantly better than those movies, but it probably has to do with the overall attitude the movie has toward its material. Unlike the aforementioned flicks, there's more of an emphasis here on the nature of teenage friendships and the transitional shifts that happen when high-school draws to a close and the trappings of adulthood approach: college, personal responsibility, a more serious kind of dating, and at the least the distant possibility of having sex every now and again. The jokes are just as wonderfully vulgar here as they were in the genre's predecessors, but it is the unique, well-captured element of teenage awkwardness (quite familiar to me) that makes the characters a bit more relatable than those in your average dick-in-a-pie movie.

I've heard more than one person wonder aloud if high school boys are really as sex-obsessed as Evan (Michael Cera), Seth (Jonah), and the scene-stealing Fogel - aka 'McLovin' - are. From what I remember, we pretty much were. I appreciate, however, that while our leads seem to think that everyone else is having all sort of crazy, debaucherous sex, the movie is smart enough to know very few people in high school actually are. Structured around the loose premise that the boys need to get some booze for a party being thrown by the girl Seth likes, most of the movie takes place over the course of one evening.

Superbad was produced by Judd Apataow, who wrote and directed The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Like those pictures, this one has a lot of random jokes and scenes which manage to blend the gross-out comedy with a good date flick. Apatow's movies remind me of the golden age of John Hughes in the 80s in that he's consistently made a certain kind of project that somewhat defies genre stereotyping.

The screenplay for this one was written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, childhood friends who were also both writers on Da Ali G Show back when it started on HBO in 2003. The Superbad main characters are also named Seth and Evan, and several of "movie Seth's" speeches remind me a hell of a lot of Rogen's presumably improvised rants in Apatow's previous movies. Rogen himself appears in this movie alongside Saturday Night Live's Bill Hader as a pair of truly awful cops who take McLovin on their nightly patrol after he gets mixed up in a liquor store robbery.

Although the film is consistently entertaining, certain sequences feel a little arbitrary or abnormally padded out. The scenes with Rogen, Hader, and McLovin', for example, are really funny, but they almost feel like they're from another movie entirely. At times the movie spends so much energy detailing their exploits that we almost lose track of what Evan and Seth are concurrently up to.

Minor bitches and complaints aside, though, one of the movie's key insights is that Evan and Seth are just as insecure about about themselves as they are about sex or anything else. This idea manifests itself in multiple ways throughout the picture, but most significantly through McLovin'. Easily the most ripe target for ridicule by the other characters in the picture, he learns through his adventures over the night to basically forge ahead toward whatever he wants in life and to wear his badge proudly, no matter how he may be perceived by everyone around him. It's the sort of life-lesson that you wish you could impart to every angst-ridden teenager, but that most of us, unfortunately, had to learn along the way.

August 12, 2007

Stardust (08/12/07)

Lettergrade: B+

As much as I love the Harry Potter books (and to a lesser extent, the movies), their colossal success has unfortunately laid the ground work for a bunch of other movies that I frankly have absolutely zero interest in. Fantasy literature aimed at children can be so deep, imaginative and wondrous that I simply cannot understand how they consistently result in dopey, insipid looking movies that all seem populated by the same crappy computer generated creatures. I'm talking about movies like Bridge to Terebithia, The Spiderwicke Chronicles, The Golden Compass, Waterhorse: Legend Of The Deep, Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, 2006's Eragon (which I started to watch on DVD before deciding that shaving would be a better use of my time) and that stupid looking Chronicles of Narnia movie which seems to bear no relationship to the novels I loved as a kid. I remember Bridge to Terebithia being a pretty low-key book... why does the trailer for the film make it look like the bastard child of one of the Lord Of The Rings flicks and The Wonder Years?

Like many of the films mentioned above, the trailers for Stardust are, well, kinda shitty. They make it look like every other fantasy / adventure movie that's been out lately, and therefore something that's not worth the time and trouble to go out and see. Our decision to see it resulted from a compromise: She wanted to see Becoming Jane (which I would have agreed to had I not determined there to be a low probability of Anne Hathaway showing her jugs), and _I _had a morbid curiosity toward Hot Rod, which we both certainly would have hated. Fortunately, Stardust turned out to be a wonderful movie, an artfully staged and inventive fairy-tale that really appealed to us as adults and did not insult our intelligence in the least.

The really neat and interesting thing about the movie is that it is missing the homogenized feeling that fairy-tale flicks normally have. It is not afraid to be gruesome and a little ugly at times (in the best tradition of the Grimm Brothers, of course), and it surprisingly implies that its characters do indeed have sex and sometimes have unusual amorous tendencies. It's subversive, but it's not an overload of pop-culture junk like the Shrek movies, and it's funny, but it's not trying to be a send-up. I've heard a lot of people compare it to The Princess Bride, but it frankly reminds me a bit more of Labrynth, The Dark Crystal and some of the more fantasy based Terry Gilliam pictures I loved as a kid.

Charlie Cox plays Tristran, a boy from a small English village that borders a mysterious wall separating the real world from the magical one. Crossing the wall is forbidden, although Tristran's father did so when he was a young man and stayed long enough to knock-up a woman claiming to be a princess in captivity. Tristran was left at the wall with a note nine months later. Now a teenager, Tristran wants to win the heart of stuck-up bitch Sienna Miller, but she's in love with someone who looks a hell of a lot like Cary Elwes (but isn't). One night while trying to woo her, they see a shooting star which crosses into the magical realm. Tristran promises to fetch it and bring it back to her, and she says that if he fails to do so in a week, she will marry the Elwes clone.

Upon arrival at the crater spot, Tristran discovers Claire Danes, who it is revealed is in fact the star that fell from the heavens. Now here's where my synopsis gets complicated: The star fell in the first place because of the doings of King Peter O'Toole, who sent a magic locket into the sky which came back around Danes' neck. The idea is that the first of his four remaining sons to kill his brothers (a family tradition) and retrieve the locket will inherit the throne. On top of that, there is also Michelle Pfeiffer as one of three witches who are looking for Danes as well (as eating a star's heart apparently works like some kind of Botox for old, warty, saggy, nasty-looking witches). Pfeiffer eats the last remaining bit of the previous star-heart they were able to capture before setting out, explaining why she still has the remarkably-attractive-at-48 look that she has in the trailers and on the posters. Much like Condolezza Rice, however, every time Pfeiffer exercises some of her power she appears a little more grotesque and hideous.

I don't think the above description - which I will not expand upon further for fear of sullying the joy of figuring the story out as it unfolds - quite does the movie justice. Suffice to say that it won me over with its cleverness and sincerity. The stellar cast simply disappears into their roles, including Danes, whom I've never really cared for, but adored here. Among the excellent supporting players are Ricky Gervais and Mark Williams (Mr. Weasley from the Harry Potter flicks) in small, but scene-stealing parts. Even Robert DeNiro, whom I somewhat lost faith in after the Meet The Parents and Anaylize This! pictures, is excellent as Captain Shakespeare.

Mucho credit is due director / co-screenwriter Matthew Vaughn, who I previously held a grudge against not only for directing Layer Cake (out of which I could not make a lick of sense) but also for bailing on X-Men 3 at the last minute, allowing soul-dead corporate studio "yes-man" Brett Ratner to take it over (resulting in a competently made film that, in true Ratner form, was neither awful nor was it especially inspired). If Vaughn can take a well-loved Neil Gaiman novel, navigate it through the studio system, and wind up with a movie like this that brims with originality and soul, the guy can't be all that bad.

July 29, 2007

The Simpsons Movie (07/29/07)

Lettergrade: B

I was about 10 when The Simpsons debuted as a half-hour series on Fox. Like a lot of my friends, I grew up watching it pretty regularly: It became a cultural load bearing pillar of my teens, and was still quoted quite heavily among my friend group on into my 20s. Also like a lot of my friends, however, I hadn't really checked in with the show much for several years now. There's no particular reason for this... I guess if I'm going to spend 30 minutes watching a cartoon, I simply prefer edgier fare like Family Guy or South Park over something so familiar at this point.

I mention all this, dear reader, to emphasize the point that although I was certainly curious about what a Simpsons movie might be like, my enthusiasm going in was modest at best. It so happens, however, that the movie is actually pretty solid, entertaining, and worth the time and effort to see.

Nothing about The Simpsons Movie reinvents the wheel, relative to what the show does, but then again it is pretty clear that it was never the intention to do so. The picture was written by writers of the series, and directed by one of its frequent directors. The notable exceptions are that executive producer James L. Brooks and Simpsons creator Matt Groening have stepped up and apparently taken a much more hands-on approach than they have in the last several years with the show.

I don't really want to get into the details of the plot, but suffice to say that it feels like a somewhat amped up version of a storyline they might do on the show. We should make a distiction here, however: the movie feels like an expanded episode of the show, but not a bloated one. The jokes are well-placed, consistent, and occasionally surprisingly funny. I never had the feeling that they were just padding sections out to fill the time.

"Movie" versions of popular shows can sometimes be risky propositions. South Park was able to expand itself brilliantly for the big screen, but others franchises that come to mind such as many of the Saturday Night Live movies, Beavis And Butthead Do America, and 3 of the 4 pictures featuring the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast all fell somewhere between "underwhelming" and "painful" by my standards.

The people who made The Simpsons Movie, however, are keenly of what the fans were hoping to see, and skillfully play it out over the film's 90 minute running time. It's not a movie that will change your life, but after so many years of expectation, it could have been worse, and it's hard to imagine it being much more solid.

July 24, 2007

Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix (07/24/07)

Lettergrade: C+

I first saw Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix when it came out last July, but I never got around to writing about it due to my busy work schedule (combined with, let's face it, unblushing laziness). Recently, however, I saw it again on DVD and was reminded that while it is a decent picture overall, there's something a little uneven about it too.

I love the Potter books, but have had problems with several of the movies, particularly the fourth film, Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. It felt like director Mike Newell either hadn't read the same book I had or he just didn't give a shit about where the series had been or where it was going next. The emphasis was on the action scenes and the set pieces rather than the meaty character material, and when you prioritize that way, it becomes just another bullshit fantasy / action movie ala The Golden Compass, Bridge To Terebithia and The Spiderwicke Chronicles, all movies that you couldn't pay me to watch.

Phoenix, part five in the series, isn't as playful or as imaginative as the first three movies, but it's not as sucky as part four either. The director this time was David Yates, who had never had much stateside attention previously, but is notable for directing an excellent BBC miniseries called Sex Traffic as well as HBO's The Girl In The Cafe. Yates isn't the series' most visual director (that honor still goes to Alfonso Cuarón, director of the the third film), but I think he's the one that demonstrates the most mature understanding of the material. I've got my complaints about which components of the story made it into the movie and how certain plot points were handled, of course, but I'll give him some major points for getting the overall tone of the picture pretty much "right."

Like Cuarón, Yates was able to take the dense plotting and structure of the book, and boil it down in a way that empasizes themes that are important to him. In this one, Harry, finds himself a pariah within the wizarding community after reporting that the evil Lord Voldemort returned at of the end of the previous movie. The newspapers and the wizarding community at large are out to paint him as serial liar, and early in the picture, Harry is introduced to the Order: An underground organization comprised of Hogwarts teachers and the parents of his friends, charged with countering the efforts of Voldemort's "Death Eaters." Concurrently, the Ministry of Magic installs a real cast-iron bitch as a teacher at Hogwarts in the interest of keeping an eye on Dumbledore and Harry. Like the book, the movie highlights the theme of standing up to authority when it is oppressive or unjust, in addition to the series' overall emphasis on the important bonds of family and friendship.

Of note is Yates' inventive way of translating bulky passages to the screen using clever montages, voice over, and even footage from the previous movies: All techniques which, for the most part, make for clean, economical filmmaking. The flip side, though, is that there is a certain "thinness" to the film in places as well that has increasingly bothered me on repeat viewings. It feels like there were clear opportunities to weave more texture and nuance into the material than Yates saw fit to take advantage of. I understand the aversion to making the picture feel over stuffed -- as the fourth movie did -- but certain sections would up feeling more like television than cinema.

These feelings are not helped by somewhat lackluster work by two key creative personnel: The first is composer Nicholas Hooper, a long-time collaborator of Yates, who wrote a perfectly passable score, but one that has the misfortune of appearing in a series that also includes some dynamite music by John Williams (for third film in particular).

The other is Mark Day, the editor. I find it is difficult to evaluate film editing unless it clearly isn't working, and in this case, it's not. I repeatedly felt that the picture fails to cut to key actors for important lines, and that numerous scenes are replete with awkward pauses and unusual pacing choices that do not feel entirely consistent or satisfying. One early scene in particular... where Dumbledore defends Harry against the Ministry of Magic's equivalent of the People's Court... contains a number of bizarre edits, erratic performance shifts that don't match from one cut to the next, and jarring reaction shots that conspicuously feel like they were stolen from other parts of the scene. Excerpts that appeared in the early trailers were edited in a much snappier way than they appear in the finished film, suggesting that either Day fucked up, or that Yates insisted on certain things in the editing room that were, in the long run, bad for the picture. In either case, many scenes feel like they're functioning in spite of the picture editing, not because of it, which is a rare and tragic thing to have to say.

Every one of the Potter books has a really long scene toward the end in which one of the characters (usually Dumbledore) gives an extensive explanation of all the book's previously unexplained plot turns, and often throws in some moral wisdom for good measure. They're the "Scooby Doo" scenes. While these scenes have traditionally been a bit cumbersome - both on the page and on screen - they're worth it because usually provide some pretty good payoff as well.

The film version of Phoenix made the somewhat disappointing choice to reduce its Scooby scene - a big conversation between Harry and Dumbledore after the action climax - to all of five lines or so. It's a sad loss because in the book the scene not only packed a strong emotional wallop, but also clearly set the stage for the grave seriousness of the events that would follow in the next two books. The first time I read book five, I reached the last page late at night and was heard to exclaim, "Holy fuck!" upon which I immediately set out looking for a 24 hour grocery store or pharmacy that might be selling book six. Phoenix, the movie, does not conclude in a way that inspires such enthusiasm (that is to say, feelings similar to crack addiction), but there are a couple stellar scenes toward the end that ultimately made me glad that Yates, in spite of this picture's shortcomings, will be back to direct the next entry in the series.

The key stand-out sequence is where Voledormort possesses Harry at the ministry. In the book, there's a lengthy passage later (during the Scooby Doo scene) where Dumbledore would have explained that Voldemort could not stand to possess him. Yates, of course, cut that scene, but the way he attempted to make up for it is interesting: Using quick cuts showing Harry's thoughts (as well as footage from the previous movies), he paints a really impressionistic picture of the internal struggle that he's going through - first focusing on despair and loss, then deliberately moving through the whole spectrum of emotions including friendship, compassion, affection, the comfort of togetherness and love. In a highly abstract way, it all underlines another key theme of the books which is that in the winding road of life, a lot of bad things can happen to you, but it is how you choose to deal with loss, rejection, and disappointment that determines a lot about your reality and what kind of person you will be moving forward.

The brilliance of this scene also greatly enhances the picture's final scene, where Harry and his friends walk to the train station that will take them away from Hogwart's and back to the real world for the summer. During the penultimate shot, Harry has some sparse dialogue, and then the camera cranes up, just a little, and holds on the mass of school children for a slightly prolonged beat. In that moment, it is clear that Yates has come up with a clever, non-verbal way of communicating what this year in the lives of these kids has been about. Harry has learned that speaking out when its unpopular and standing up for the commonwealth of all is key for the greater good, and he has a sense of what he stands to lose if he fails to do so.

When I think about it, I guess I'm little disappointed that Order Of The Phoenix isn't quite what I pictured when I read the book the first time. I still kind of have the feeling that the movies are somewhat designed for people who already know what's happening, rather than for people who are only watching the movies. Nevertheless, its been a consistently solid and rewarding series thus far, and I'm excited to see how the last few installments play out.

July 6, 2007

Ratatouille (07/06/07)*

Lettergrade: A

The Transformers (07/06/07)

Lettergrade: D

The new Transformers movie, based on the cartoon series and the toys from the 80s (both of which were staples of my youth), delivers a lot of cool visuals and robot-induced shit blowing up. Although there were several moments when my heart glowed with nostalgia during the picture, I didn't find the experience of watching it all that pleasurable. I hold one man responsible for that: Michael Bay. Although it's hard to deny that Bay, whose crimes against humanity include Armageddon, Bad Boys II, and Pearl Harbor, seemingly handled this massive production with the managerial skill and competence befitting a big-budget commercial film director, I can't shake the feeling that many other competent filmmakers (even when given significantly more meager resources) could have made a better one.

The general story is nifty enough, I suppose, and the roster of producers, which includes Steven Spielberg and X-Men's Tom DeSanto, have been associated with good projects in the past. There's something about Bay's attention-deficit style of shooting and editing, however, that really harms the material. I so rarely felt like I got a good look at anything. The early character scenes -- usually designed to make you give a shit about the people you'll be spending the next two hours with -- are completely blown through at lightning speeds, as if Bay found them to be a mere nuisance one must endure when making a movie. In many ways, Transformers feels like 1987's Masters Of The Universe, (also based on a toy line) which had a ridiculous, nonsensical plot that none involved with the movie seemed to understand or take all that seriously.

The plot itself is a shameless mish-mash of recent and not-so-recent sci-fi flicks including Independence Day, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Maximum Overdrive, Men In Black, The Iron Giant, My Mother The Car and Robot Jox. Basically, there are good Transformers (Autobots) and bad Transformers (Deceptacons) who have spread throughout the galaxy looking for the mysterious "All-Spark." It's not clear what the All-Spark does, but in alternating scenes it is described as being able to help the Transformers recreate their home world of Cyberton and then having the power to blow everything to high hell.

Enter meglomanicial child-actor Shia LeBeof, who makes a mild attempt at playing a normal kid in this movie. His father (played by Kevin Dunn, oddly reprising exact same role he had nine years ago in Small Soldiers) purchases a car from Bernie Mac that turns out to have curious properties, such as driving away when it's not supposed to and helping LaBeof woo astonishingly bad actresses like Megan Fox, who plays the remarkably hot, bitchy girl that LeBeof likes for no clear reason other than that she's got a great rack and exposes her midriff regularly.

After what feels like two hours of screen time, it is revealed that the car is, in fact, a Transformer! I, personally, did not see it coming. Anyway, all the Autobots then show up and explain everything, including the fact that Megatron, the leader of the Deceptacons, came to Earth 70 years ago but was unexpectedly frozen by the polar ice-caps. By coincidence, LeBeof's great-grandfather discovered him and somehow got the coordinates of the All-Spark (which Megatron was getting ready to transmit to his comrades) imprinted on his glasses. Now, they have to find the glasses, locate the All-Spark, and defeat the Deceptacons before Megatron thaws and starts stirring up all kinds of hurt. Other running subplots and ancillary characters include the survivors of a U.S. military base in Nevada who track the Deceptacons that attacked them, and Jon Voight, slumming it as the U.S. Defense Secretary who oversees a group of cyber-geeks that ultimately do not contribute a single thing to the film's resolution.

Oh, and there was something later on where if an electronic device gets too close to the All-Spark, it suddenly becomes a Transformer too, and starts slashing away at stuff. I completely didn't understand what the hell that was supposed to be about. Even if a cellphone could become a Transformer instantly like that, where did it get the blades and other weaponry from?

The action scenes are well staged, and you have to admire Bay's sense of showmanship to some degree. It's undeniably cool to watch the Transformers do the task for which they're named. Certain moments of the movie are really exciting, but mostly they're the moments that echo something from my vague memory of the cartoon series. Of note is the fact that they brought back Peter Cullen, movie-trailer voice over artist extraordinaire and the original voice of Optimus Prime, to reprise his roll. Without his scratchy, John Wayne inspired vocal stylings, I doubt I would have found the film even half as engaging.

Truth be told, Transformers is not a bad movie as much as it's a misguided one that does not entirely live up to its potential. In the cartoon show, the Transformers were always front and center with the humans only dropping in occasionally. In this movie, it's the opposite with the Transformers kept on the sidelines, never given concrete identities or personalities. At the end of the film, I still, frankly, could not tell a single one of the Deceptacons apart, and even if I could, I'm not all that sure that it matters.

Ultimately, however, if you're looking for explosions, mayhem, and robots, this movie certainly has all three. It's a little disappointing, though, that Bay had all these resources and such potentially rich source material, and this is what he came up with.

June 27, 2007

Live Free Or Die Hard (06/27/07)

Lettergrade: B

Having been burned by shitty "part 4s" in the past, I feared the worst for Live Free Or Die Hard. The TV ads, which have been shoved into every known crevice in the television broadcast universe, depict a level of surreality that seemed foreign to Die Hard. In them, John McClaine (played once again by the venerable Bruce Willis) is a one-man wrecking machine, spouting off ridiculous one-liners and taking part in insanely elaborate, unrealistic action. Consider, for example, the trailer-friendly segment where an astonished Justin Long stares agape at Willis' recent stunt: Running a car up a ramp so that it smashes into a helicopter that's been shooting at them. "You just killed a helicopter with a car!," exclaims the 'Macintosh' half of the popular Mac / PC commercials. "I was out of bullets," replies McClaine cooly. This seemed to be a far cry from the earlier movies, where McClaine was more of a reluctant every-man caught in a crazy-but-vaguely-plausible situation.

After seeing the picture itself, however, I'm pleased to say that despite all the insane action, silliness and general implausibility, Live Free Or Die Hard is actually pretty good. Well... by "good," I mean "entertaining." It's more like an old school Bruce Willis action movie from the 80s than the trailers would have you beleive, and it surprisingly feels pretty much in keeping with the spirit of the other movies.

Each successive movie has upped the scale a bit, while adopting increasingly stupider titles. Die Hard had McClaine in an LA office building taken over by German terrorists. In Die Hard 2: Die Harder McClaine battles mercenaries who hijack the communications systems of Dulles International Airport and threaten to crash planes unless a South American drug lord is released. In the third movie, Die Hard With A Vengeance, a mad bomber threatens to blow-up various parts of New York City unless McClaine and Samuel L. Jackson run around town and play his deadly game of "Simon Says." The dude doing all the bombing (Jeremy Irons) is the brother of Alan Rickman's character from the first movie. This might explain the With A Vengeance part, but the title still sucks.

Which brings us to Live Free Or Die Hard. Derived from a famous state motto symbolizing aggressive American independence, the title suggests that we'll finally be getting what fanboys have dreamed of since the series began; Die Hard: New Hampshire. Alas the film never visits the Granite State, but McClaine is sent off on a wild race through much of the east coast when a band of cyber terrorists hack into pretty much every computer in the US simultaneously, holding the entire nation hostage unless paid a shitload of money. I am barely tech-savvy enough to post this movie review, and as such I have no clue if the film's scenario is even remotely possible, but I'm guessing it's mostly fantasy. I'm willing to go with it, however, as long as the action scenes and the vague semblance of story remain engaging (which they do).

The key problem with the shitty-but-enjoyable Die Hard With A Vengeance is that it didn't really have the heart of the first two pictures. In 1 and 2, Willis was working to rescue his wife, played by Bonnie Bedelia, who was in various ways in peril as a result of what the bad guys were doing. I know it would have been silly for McClaine to be saving his wife in every single movie, but the alternative they came up with in part 3 was to turn McClaine into an alcoholic burn-out, estranged from his Bedelia altogether. Part 4 introduces McClaine's daughter, seen briefly as a child earlier, I believe, and uses her pretty much in same way that Bedelia was used.

A major weak link in the movie is that the main antagonist isn't especially interesting or threatening. Alan Rickman as Hans Grüber in the first Die Hard expanded on the James Bond tradition and forever changed what scenery-chewing villains were all about. The lead bad guy here is played by the exceedingly metro-sexual Timothy Olyphant, who looks like he's running his entire cyber-terror operation out of a Banana Republic outlet center. I've liked him as an actor in the past, but I think he was the wrong guy for the roll.

Another problem I have with the movie is that the bad guys have apparently hacked the nation's cyber security to the point where they can press a button and make anything happen anywhere pretty much instantly. While I can understand the screenwriter(s) impulse to do this, I sort of feel that they diminished the tension by giving the bad guy too much power. It's sort of like what they did with the female Terminator in Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines... she could control "anything with a microchip" ala Maximum Overdrive, making her powerful, yes, but oddly not as menacing as Robert Patrick as the T-1000 in T2, who had limits.

A word about the editing... The general thinking is that it's often tough to evaluate how the editor did unless something really isn't working. For the most part, the cutting here is smooth, albeit a little hyperactive in places. There is the occasional scene, however, where I seriously did not know what the fuck was happening. Not only is it unclear where people are in the scene (and who is looking at what), but there is, without question, the most inept ADR that I've ever seen in a movie. I assume that some of these scenes were edited like this to compensate for plot changes that happened during post production. Why not, however, simply hold on McClaine's face for a little longer while Justin Long says whatever he's saying off camera?

And now for a bit of unsolicited personal history. I wasn't always as jaded and cranky about movies as I am now. There was a time when I was much more excited about summer blockbusters and action movies than the black-hearted pessimist who's been keeping this blog the last several months. I know when the change happened, too; It was July of 1998, when I excitedly plunked down my money to see Lethal Weapon 4. I had really liked the previous three movies, which I considered to be fine character-based storytelling combined with the added bonus of shit blowing up semi-frequently. Part 4, however, as anyone who was unfortunate enough to have seen it knows, ranks among the most perfunctory piles of shit ever shoveled into theaters. I read that the movie had been rushed into production only seven months before it was released because of a hole in Warner Bros.'s summer release schedule after Tim Burton's proposed Superman reboot dissolved. And it showed: Mel Gibson was playing a character who in no way resembled the guy he was playing in the first picture, and I later found out that producer Joel Silver basically cut-and-pasted the script together from four completely different attempts at writing a sequel previously!

From that point on, I've had a certain hostility toward schlocky, corporate studio decision-making, and manipulative misleading marketing bullshit. I will say, however, that if I - nearly 10 years later - can go to see a picture like Live Free Or Die Hard and walk out pretty much satisfied, perhaps there's hope yet.

June 23, 2007

SiCKO (06/23/07)

Lettergrade: A-

I was in high school when a friend made me watch Roger & Me, Michael Moore's first movie which depicted the effects of General Motors' decision to close its factory in Moore's home town of Flint, Michigan. I can honestly say it became one of the most influential films of my youth. I was simply amazed by what Moore was able to pull off: during the film I felt angry, I felt deep empathy and sadness, it made me realize that I needed to educate myself and read the news... and of course at times it was very funny. I understood immediately (and had a lot of affection for) what Moore was trying to do. At the risk of repeating myself, I'll mention my former writing instructor's contention that using humor to tell a grim story is an excellent way to get people to listen to what you've got to say.

These days, of course, Moore needs no introduction. After several films, two TV series, a slew of books, an immensely popular website, and legions of both supporters and detractors, Moore is about as public as it gets. His new picture, SiCKO centers around the American health care system and contrasts it with that of other nations. Like his previous movies (Bowling For Columbine in particular), the film is structured as a collection of vignettes that all deal with social issues loosely surrounding the same subject. SiCKO is actually a little less scattershot than his previous two movies, focusing largely on insurance company horror stories, and then shifting to the pathology of U.S. private health insurance, and the country's long-standing aversion to socialized medicine. The latter part of the film is spent visiting several other nations and having a look at how their public care systems work.

Is it propaganda? You bet. As always, Moore has a masterful way of using music, pop-culture references and juxtaposed images to make his point. People cry on camera - which he milks for all he can - and interview fragments are taken slightly out of context to make certain people seem slimier and more calloused than they might have appeared otherwise. Moore makes no bones about wearing his biases on his sleeve, and frankly I have more of a problem with news and documentaries that clearly use similar tactics, but do it while claiming to be objective.

The big criticism of the movie is that Moore spends a good deal of time painting a very rosy picture of the socialized health-care systems in Canada, England, France and Cuba. My finaceé's parents are from England and lived in Canada before moving to the US. One of my sisters also lived in Canada for several years and is now in France. Although each will commend certain things about health-care in those respective countries, there is also a good deal to complain about in terms of having to wait weeks to see a specialist, etc. I can't remember if the film brought this up, but it is common for the wealthier citizens of France, for example, to have private health insurance to supplement the service that the government provides. These complaints go virtually unaddressed in Moore's film, and have already been major attack points for its critics.

The omissions are also disappointing because it seems he missed an opportunity to underline a point that is suggested at in the movie, but never stated clearly: While none of these other countries are devoid of problems, some kind of American socialized medicine system, however flawed, would at the very least be a God-send for the 50 million or so who cannot afford it or cannot get it through their employer (to say nothing of the thousands more who are left out in the wind when their insurance company refuses to approve something necessary). Such a system in America would not be perfect and would certainly mean significantly higher taxes (another point the film doesn't annunciate clearly, although it should be kept in mind that one might no longer pay for private insurance). The unspoken reality is that a combination of the systems detailed in Moore's film will probably be needed if better health-care is to materialize in the US.

While Jon Stewart has been careful to remind people that The Daily Show isn't trying to be great social commentary, Moore seems to be a bit more eager to promote himself as the spokesman for the angry and under-represented of America. You can safely call him a muckraker (in the very best meaning of the term, of course), and it's fair to call him obnoxious at times as well. One of my friends who is _not_ a Michael Moore fan recently described him as a blunt instrument, lacking subtlety on pretty much all levels.

These are all valid complaints, but I will say that I'll always have a soft spot for guys like Moore. Not because I agree with his politics all the time (although I frequently do) or because I think he has some good ideas for the country (some of them are good, some of them are bat-shit crazy), but really because he's achieved a certain kind of celebrity and a particular public podium which he uses to prompt discussion on ideas he really cares about. Both Moore and Stewart take delight in running footage where politicians give wildly contradictory statements on the same issue. Both point out when newscasters and politicians alike are fear-mongering, spreading misleading information, or otherwise exhibiting behavior that we should not tolerate from our nation's legislators and decision-makers. People who might not be inclined to read a lot of news or take part in political discussion could perhaps watch for the entertainment, but walk away a bit more informed. I'll gladly take that over any Michael Bay movie you can show me.

June 17, 2007

Fido (06/17/07)

Lettergrade: F

Fido is the sort of film that makes for a funny trailer, but a dull, laughless movie. Produced in Canada and starring some moderately well-known actors, the film takes a look at what would happen if - after space dust turns the Earth's deceased into flesh-eating zombies - those zombies were then domesticated and put to work in closed-off communities that resemble the American 1950s for no reason whatsoever. It's a horror/comedy that is frequently gruesome rather than scary, and marginally clever rather than funny.

After we saw the movie, the guest host on Ebert & Roeper reminded me that the picture is pretty much derived from a 12 second gag at the end of the infinitely superior Shaun Of The Dead, where a news clip announces the government's program to do pretty much the same thing that the government does in this movie. The concept could make for a funny movie, I suppose, but in Fido it all plays out in a surprisingly lengthy way that makes it almost impossible for anything to have a good comedic snap.

Fido himself is a zombie that is bought by an unhappy family. Mom and dad (Carrie-Anne Moss and Dylan Baker) don't interact much with one another, or with their adolescent son Timmy. Timmy isn't popular at school, and Fido (played by an unrecognizable Billy Connolly) becomes his only friend. While playing in the park one day, Fido's restraining collar momentarily deactivates and he savagely chews the arm off of the old woman who lives next door (I could fish around on IMDB and try to figure out what her character was named, but fuck it). Anyway, because a zombie bite will turn you into a zombie, Timmy whacks the old lady's head off with a shovel and buries her in a local park. Unfortunately, she rises from her grave (it is later explained that a zombie head can reattach itself) and starts a whole wave of zombie killings in the town that need to be covered up by Timmy and his mom (who has become smitten with Fido for reasons that are unclear).

What I just described plays out over 45-50 minutes... quite a bit more time than would seem to be needed. We understand right away that it's a Leave It To Beaver / Lassie type world in which zombies live. It takes maybe 40 seconds of screen time to communicate that, and yet the movie found it necessary to set the premise up somewhat meticulously, as if we'd start questioning things if details were glossed over. We also might feel like we're a little more in on the joke if the human characters more closely resembled campy archetypes from TV of that era, but instead the film puts some effort into giving them nuance and depth where it is really not required. It's all an unhappy marriage of material that probably shouldn't have been combined like this.

Yet another inhibitor to the comedy is the film's slick production value: The cinematography is bright and saturated, the sets and costumes are elaborate, and there's a wall-to-wall music that sounds like it was recorded with a big orchestra. I generally feel that movies like this - which try to strike a bizarre / satirical / subversive chord - are better when they feel cheaper (or at least give the illusion of cheapness).

It might have been okay as a bizarre retro-comedy ala The Brady Bunch Movie or some of the more successful segments of Grindhouse, but Fido's nearest relative might surprisingly be 1998's Pleasantville. In that movie, Tobey Magurie and Reese Witherspoon are sucked into a Donna Reed like TV show to illustrate the point that while it might be easy to romanticize the past as this wonderful time where everyone was nicer to one another, in truth there was a lot of repression, bigotry, and pressure to stick to social norms that people selectively leave out when getting nostalgic. Maguire learns that a little rebellion and social progress can be a really good thing, while Witherspoon starts to understand that an excessive amount of the same can be quite bad.

Fido operates in a similar way, setting its people and zombies in a fictional past, the likes the which never existed. There's a character arc toward the end that seems to be trying to make the point that the uninhibited zombies sort of of show the living how to really live. If the movie is indeed trying to be deep on this level, however, I don't understand what the filmmakers want us to take away from everything. The zombies teach people who would never have had to endure such social conditions to throw up their heels in a way that really isn't relevant to anything going on today (or at least, it's not all that relevant to life as I have experienced it). It's okay if your movie doesn't have a "central message," but I've got a problem with movies that act like they're about something when in fact a small amount of critical thinking directed at the plot makes everything completely unravel.

I'm not saying that every movie has to have an underlining theme or a message, you understand, but I somewhat feel that if you're not going to have a good reason for existing, you at least need to be entertaining on some level. Fido doesn't do either of those things, and as such it should pretty much be avoided.

June 2, 2007

Knocked Up (06/02/07)

Lettergrade: B

The marketing campaign for Knocked Up sort of went nuclear the week before the film came out. The 92% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes -- along with the hearty endorsement of most critics, several internet sites, and Oprah -- all suggest that it's the funniest movie of this year and many another. Of course, the problem with this sort of astronomical hype is that it sets expectations that no movie can really meet. Joe Audience is bound to be disappointed when such a well-reviewed picture turns out to be merely "good."

And in spite of the media blitz, Knocked Up is pretty good. The movie was written and directed by Judd Apataow, who made 2005's The 40 Year Old Virgin among other quality projects. Like that film, this one is a surprisingly well-written, layered movie that hides inside a very vulgar, funny one.

The movie starts with the tried and true tradition of pairing people who normally wouldn't associate. Alison (Katherine Heigel) is a floor director at E! Entertainment Television. Ben (Seth Rogen, who was also in Virgin) is in the country illegally, lives off a settlement he got from a car accident when he was a teenager, and doesn't do much other than smoke a lot of weed with his five roommates. The two go their separate ways after an awkward breakfast following a drunken hook-up. Weeks later, she discovers she's pregnant and calls to let him know. Alison considers the options and decides she wants to have the baby. Ben, after a great scene where his father (played by Harold Ramis) says that having a son is the best thing that ever happened to him, decides that he wants to be there and as supportive as possible.

It might sound a little like Look Who's Talking without all the talking baby shit, but it really isn't. One thing that usually pisses me off about this sort of movie is when characters behave in ways that no one in real life ever would. I appreciated that Knocked Up is mature enough to deal with ideas and situations relevant to actual relationships that people have. The movie tries to find humor in reality, rather than twisting reality to accommodate some contrived gag. When Alison and Ben have an argument, it's over something highly plausible -- not because of a cheap plot device such as her snooty ex-finaceé showing up at the weekend house suddenly, or because she walks in and finds him with his dick in a pie. For instance, I liked the scene where Alison and Ben scream f-bombs at each other in the waiting room of her OBGYN, which manages to be incredibly uncomfortable, tragic, and entertaining all at once.

That's not to say the movie doesn't have a couple leaps which don't entirely add up, but it's not as insulting as your average bullshit Ben Stiller / Adam Sandler / Ashton Kutcher movie these days where the lead guy is some overly cute, independently wealthy frat boy who everyone loves, despite his clear psychological issues and man-child like aversion to responsibility. In this movie, you can understand why Alison starts to fall for Ben as they get to know one another better, and it is refreshing that at the end not all the problems are solved or tied up neatly.

I had a writing instructor in college who often would underline the difference between telling a depressing story in a depressing way, and telling a depressing story in a less obvious, possibly comedic way. The meaning I took is while any method you choose is perfectly valid, a "light" approach to heavy material can often make what you're trying to say more palatable to people who might not listen otherwise.

That's sort of over simplifying things, of course, but the neat thing about Knocked Up is that it manages to contemplate having children (whether planned or not) and accepting the responsibility and the role of being an adult, while still pleasing a crowd the way something like There's Something About Mary or Talladega Nights might. You can argue that Knocked Up isn't as funny as those movies, but it does have a lot of interesting thoughts and layered ideas in it, and for a big summer comedy to pull that off is something worth seeing.