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.