Friday, April 25, 2008

"Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay" -- * * *

Upon reading early review after early review alluding to the politically-charged stoner sequel "Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay" as an ideal movie to get stoned before, and wondering how much funnier or more enjoyable its core audience might find it in that state, I did the unthinkable: I went stoned. Admittedly, my notes were a little less readable than usual, but the movie worked remarkably well as a marijuana-infused experience, though I'd imagine a sober viewing would prove just as satisfying (if perhaps filled with a few less giggle fits). Consistently amusing, the film is at once scatologically obsessed, celebratory of weed, and openly denigrating of post-9/11 policies and paranoia. It makes for a strange mix, but somehow, it really works on all of these base levels. Like its previous installment, "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle," the proceedings are noticeably episodic, but enjoyably crude and over-the-top ridiculous. Forgive me if my detail-retension is fuzzier than usual.

Picking up five minutes after the first film ended, the movie opens with the playing of "What a Wonderful World" abruptly interrupted by the sound of Kumar's (Kal Penn) explosive diarrhea, following his and Asian buddy Harold's (John Cho) ingestion of extreme quantities of White Castle at the end of the first film. Heading to Amsterdam, as they planned to in that movie's finale, the two encounter some problems that keep them from arriving at their destination. Aboard the plane, Kumar decides he can't quite wait till arriving in the weed capital of the world to light up, and retreats to the bathroom to utilize his self-invented smokeless bong with Harold. The door busts open, Kumar yells, "It's just a bong!" The passengers see these guys are, respectively, brown-skinned and slanty-eyed, and thus hear "bomb" and freak out. The two are confused for terrorists, and promptly put in Guantanamo Bay detention center. Narrowly avoiding being treated to "cock-meat sandwiches," our boys escape (at around the movie's 20 minute mark), and go on the lam. At this point, it lapses into the first film's set-up, functioning as a road movie, only this time, they're running from the law, namely Homeland Security chief Ron Fox (Rob Corddry). Along the way they encounter an threateningly urban basketball game, a KKK rally, a stereotypical redneck hunter, and a ground-breaking "bottomless" party, with lots of gratuitously exposed vagina.

Directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (who wrote the first movie), "Guantanamo" doesn't feature one moment that I think would qualify as 'subtle,' but it's frequently funny, depending on your tolerance levels for crudity and political incorrectness. Thankfully, this installment doesn't trot out the same tricks as the first film, like the "Austin Powers" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequels were accused of. The screenplay just takes a few of them (the big bag of weed and Neil Patrick Harris make return appearances), and gives them unique twists. For the most part, the movie wallows in its own absurdity (a redneck hunter licks deer blood off his knife and estimates, "born in '04"), and gets a lot of mileage out of embracing stereotypes just as much as it criticizes them; more on that later. While I appreciated dialogue like "That Abercrombie-wearing douchebag..."-- which made much of my Abercrombie-wearing crowd chuckle nervously-- it's the more bombastic, edgy touches that linger; upon hearing a loud noise, the KKK grand wizard (played by Chris Meloni, the original's "freakshow") bellows "What the nigger was that?!"

Penn and Cho do just as fine a job, and have just as much chemistry, as they had in the first outing; fans of the actors/character should certainly but pleased, but Rob Corddry all but walks away with the movie. Giving a plum role to the comedian after years spent on the daily show and spicing up otherwise lifeless movies (e.g.: "The Heartbreak Kid"), the movie makes Fox as much of a off-the-handle, paranoid, racist cartoon as possible. As a borderline-psychotic government office who at one point literally wipes his ass with the bill of rights (of course, it emerges with a large brown stain), Corddry is fearless and hilarious in virtually all his scenes, whether he's trying to tempt a black witness with grape soda, or Jewish ones with a bag of coins. The only one rivaling him for memorable moments is, however predictably, Neil Patrick Harris himself. Though regretfully Harris's role hasn't been expanded, he's still a blast to watch, and seems to love playing himself with reckless abandon. As funny as he is playing himself as a raging hetero hornball, or hallucinating a unicorn on mushrooms, his best moments are ones where he pokes fun at his ego (he wields an "NPH" branding iron).

Like the first movie, the weakest element here is an overreliance on gross-out gags that feel like a mandate rather than anything the filmmakers thought was particularly inspired. It's not that I was repulsed by said gags-- I'm kind of immune to such things at this point-- it just feels tired and doesn't bring anything new to the table. Oh yes, those diarrhea-squirt sound effects are loud. Wowsers, that cum hitting Kumar's face is thick. Ew, that exposed penis is over-the-top hairy. My audience was howling with laughter and "ewww," but I just found them boring, even stoned. Thankfully, we only get a couple of these moments.

Making a perfect double feature with "Standard Operating Procedure," "Guantanamo Bay" is one of the more slyly subversive mainstream films, let alone comedies, in recent memory. No one would make the mistake of calling this a "message" film, but there's a lot being said here; the "war on terror," racial profiling, the Bush administration's right-wing policies, the torture and humiliation of terrorist suspects, are all touched upon extensively. The movie takes a blatantly liberal standpoint, but makes its points in such funny, often crass ways, that those prone to take issue with such things might not even realize the movie is making "points." Rather than blanket Repub-bashing, the movie depicts George W. Bush as a likable, weed-loving buffoon; it's the other government officials depicted in a more despotic manner, and that's fairly telling of the directors/writers' opinions. It may be the weed and pussy jokes people remember, but it's the daring political content that makes this broad sequel stand out in our current film climate.

If there's one facet of this that falters it's that, for a comedy so unabashedly offensive and politically-incorrect, it feels the needs to cover its bases. Hurwitz and Schlossberg have Harold and Kuman encounter actual terrorists in Guantanamo Bay as a way to deflect any anti-U.S. criticisms by making sure our boys say "fuck you" to the real bad guys. While this would be fine, if a little playing-it-safe, this is problematic in suggesting that there are actual terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, a hypothesis widely-known to be false. It may not have been the filmmakers' intended implications, but it kind of bothered me.

Despite my critical nit-picking, it's hard to ignore that "Harold and Kumar," like its predecessor, is a whole lot of fun. Both films are rarely hilarious, but really enjoyable for what they are, and contain a significantly greater amount of laughs (however mild) and creativity than most low-brow comedies; for gleefully offensive stoner movies, they're remarkably charming. The rather ballsy "Guantanamo Bay" is almost endearing in its crudity and willingness to offend, and awfully hard to dislike. As for the question of if it's better or worse than it's predecessor, I'd say it's about even. The material isn't as fresh this time around, but Hurwitz and Schlosser do enough to ensure it feels like a new experience and do something radically different than the first one. It may appear questionable at the outset whether pointed political satire and dick-and-fart jokes make comfortable bedfellows, but "Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantamo Bay" successfully makes the case for it.

"Baby Mama" -- * * *

Though very noticeably NOT written by Tina Fey, Michael McCullers's "Baby Mama" is an often very funny, entertaining comedy that is most successful as a showcase for two remarkably talented comic actresses, Fey and Amy Poehler. Though I've been longtime fans of both, I thought the trailer for the movie looked "kind-of funny" at best, and I thought it had potential to be either mildly cute and amusing, or disappointingly bland. I will concede that it could have been a bit edgier, and taken a little more acidic look at the world of baby-craving women than it does, but I found myself smiling or chuckling most of the way. It's fairly broad and mainstream, but strikes just the right balance between smart and stupid, never going overboard on either.

Less a baby-making farce than a romantic comedy between two heterosexual women, "Baby Mama" begins with a voice-over narration from our leading lady, 37-year-old Kate (Fey), explaining her various travails to us. She apparently was too busy with a career to have a baby early in life, and now that she's willing to, she's essentially infertile (apparently brought on by fertility drugs mom took to have her). While working in a high level position at the WholeFoods-esque "Round Earth," Kate seeks alternate methods, eventually deciding on a surrogate to have her baby for her, namely Angie (Poehler), an essentially good-hearted, possibly functionally retarded white trash woman equipped with a slacker common law husband, Carl (Dax Shepard). When Angie abruptly leaves Carl, she needs a place to stay and forces herself upon Kate. With the latter insistent upon her baby's temporary residence being handled with care, she ultimately finds herself monitoring Angie's behavior, diet, etc. Angie, in turn, makes Kate loosen up a little bit and indulges her more "fun" impulses, while the businesswoman deals with developing a new supermarket, and engages in a romance with Rob (Greg Kinnear), the manages of the Jamba Juice competitor, Super Fruity. It's all a very conventional, movie-ish, give-and-take thing that we go along with because the actresses and the script make it work.

McCullers has proven in the past that he's a funny guy. While the less said about the third installment the better, his work on the first two "Austin Powers" films was effortlessly funny, and his "Undercover Brother" is one of the most underrated comedies in the last decade or so. While he still has some things to correct as time goes on (he indulges in some amateurish directorial exercises), "Baby Mama" makes a fine directorial debut for him. He generally keeps things moving, rarely lets a joke go on a beat longer than it needs to, and has a clever way of handling familiarity; the egg implantation sequence with Fey and Poehler set to "Endless Love" is particularly inspired. He sometimes is overreliant on manipulative music cues, but if the directing sometimes falters, his writing makes up for it.

Though one can't help thinking throughout how different the film would be if Fey was behind it, the screenplay does a really nice job balancing broad humor (e.g.: that peeing in the sink joke you've seen in all the ads) and clever jokes (a very funny bit at a vegan restaurant). The movie is funny and witty enough to not feel dumbed-down for the masses, yet should appeal to those who feel like they don't always "get" "30 Rock." I worried the movie would pander too much to this audience, but it treads the line delicately enough that no one on either side should feel insulted or left out. There are some big laughs here, but there's also some funny little character details (Kate has post-its around her bathroom with stuff like "Yes!" and "Be Fertile!"written on them) and randomness that I particularly enjoyed. Kate's observation, when playing an 'American Idol' karaoke game, that "My avatar's dressed like a whore!," and Angie 's naivety when it comes to "America's Funniest Home Videos" are the sort of stuff that keeps "Baby Mama" from ever feeling lazy or an improper utilization of these two ladies' talents.

Starting together on "SNL," and eventually sharing the Weekend Update desk, Poehler and Fey have been friends for years, and their natural interplay makes that apparent. The two have an amazing chemistry together, managing to make the other one funnier, and the screenplay understands both of their strengths. I kept waiting for a character trait to be revealed distinguishing Kate from her "30 Rock" character, but nope; Fey is by all means playing Liz Lemon, and there's nothing wrong with that. The recent SAG award winner clearly enjoys playing the straight woman, and she's terrific at it. She still gets of many a one-liner with delivery that only enhances them ("I think she wants me to rub olive oil on your taint!"), but she wisely lets Poehler be the wacky woman at the movie's core. Kate's down-to-earth relatability serves as a perfect counterbalance to Angie, and not only because it makes them more of an "odd couple." I don't know if "Baby Mama" will be successful enough to spawn a sequel, but I'd be shocked if this is the last movie we see these two paired together in.

After toiling away, being the bright spot on "SNL" for years now (her recent embodiment of Cristian from "Project Runway" was brilliant) and still actively helping the live improv community flourish, big-screen success has largely eluded Poehler. Lately, she's made the most of bit parts in movies ("Southland Tales," "Mr. Woodcock," "Shrek the Third"), but I've long awaited a part that would take advantage of the hugely gifted Poehler's comic skills. Here, with a character seemingly tailor-made for her, she finally gets one. Angie rarely approaches any sort of depth, but Poehler turns her potentially one-note white trash predictability into a character that's human and hilarious, even if she did occasionally remind me of the one-legged diabetic she played on "SNL's" "The Bachelor" parody. Whether she's misunderstanding the dynamics of Tom and Jerry ("They love each other!") or simply singing "She Bangs" at karaoke, she rarely misses the opportunity to make something funnier. The woman just makes me laugh, I can't help it. Even when given kinda conventional material (e.g.: that peeing in the sink bit), she turns it into something hysterical with her deer-in-the-headlights look, or dumbfounded delivery. The jokes are usually good, but often, she's what makes things funny, not necessary the writing. Most of the huge laughs here belong to her, and I wouldn't be surprised if this is the beginning of bigger roles for her

"Baby Mama" greatly benefits from a supporting cast that actually lives up to the phrase "scene-stealers" with most being used to terrific effect. In her few scenes, Sigourney Weaver displays perfect comedic timing as surrogacy center CEO Chaffee Bicknell, whose inexplicable post-menopausal hyper-fertility seems like nature's way of taunting Kate. With photos in her office of her alongside the Dalai Lama and Hillary Clinton, Chaffee is clearly meant to represent women who smugly hold their babies as power/status symbols over others, and Weaver plays her hilariously. Though 100% omitted from the ads, Kinnear's supporting role is sizable, and even though he's playing the ill-defined male love interest, he manages to make Rob affable without making him bland; that said, I hope this doesn't represent a decrease in central roles for the often-underrated actor. Holland Taylor is momentarily funny ("Don't [adopt] a black baby," she warns) as Kate's mother but gets too little to do, and similarly, Maura Tierney is wasted in another barely there role as Kate's sister. This is her second non-comedic-character-in-a-comedy after "Semi-Pro," and I've got to say, filmmakers really should avoid using her this way. This girl's got mad comic skillz, yo-- just watch "Newsradio." Utilize them!

Also (carefully) left out of the trailer is Steve Martin in a very, very funny supporting turn as Kate's pompous, hippy-dippy, eco-friendly boss who beings conversations saying things like "I was swimming with the dolphins this morning in Costa Rica..." Martin isn't a major presence in the movie, but he gets a lot of funny material (at one point, he "rewards" Kate with five minutes of unbroken eye contact), and appears to be enjoying himself more on screen than he has since the '90s. Also, while it may only be an elite portion of the audience, anyone who's ever been to Poehler's Upright Citizens Brigade's theatre on 26th street is going to see a lot of faces they recognize here. Numerous dudes from the NYC improv scene show up in bit parts (most memorably, Jason Mantzoukas as a "manorexic"), and it's nice to see Fey and Poehler calling their less-famous friends to funny up their movie.

Though reviews have turned more towards the favorable as of late, early word on "Baby Mama" was mixed, and I think I know exactly why: the third act. I was never bored, or waiting for the film to end-- I was in it all the way through-- but in the final 30 minutes, the big laughs of the first hour subside a bit, and McCullers feels the need to have the third act do what third acts are expected to do (i.e.: fighting, complications, lovey-dovey montages, character revelations). To be clear, there are still jokes that hit in this portion, but they're more intermittent, broken up by the need to adequately wrap up the story.

It'd be nice if it kept up the comic momentum of the first hour, but "Baby Mama" builds up enough goodwill and enough big laughs in its first two-thirds to make it worth a trip to the theater. I doubt you're going to encounter many people talking about how they loved it, but there's so much here that works, it's tough to not at least enjoy the proceedings. With a comedic ensemble to rival most anything to come out lately, and script that actually gives them good material to work with, it's a crowd pleaser that will certainly make for at least a funnier girls night (though guys who don't mind how much estrogen is on display here will still laugh a lot) out than the "Sex and the City" movie.

"Standard Operating Procedure" -- * * * 1/2

Errol Morris’s “Standard Operating Procedure” is the latest good-for-you political documentary to burst out of the gate, and while it may be a little messier and more rambling than, say, “Taxi to the Darkside” or “No End in Sight,” this infuriating look at the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib will be particularly enthralling for anyone interested in this issue. Morris takes an especially narrow focus (specifically centering on Abu Ghraib, rather than taking a broader look at the U.S.’s interrogational policies as of late, like “Taxi” did), and with the unfettered interview access he’s been given, he gives us what feels like the definitive look at the situation, down to the last detail.

Starting with a look at the notorious photos we’ve all seen time and time again (e.g.: the human pyramid), Morris has interviewed virtually everyone involved, and the graphic, specific testimonials basically fill in the gaps about what happened between the photos and what went on leading up to each. Virtually all the insight here is of interest, but the two most absorbing of the interviewees are scandal “star” Lynndie England (she of the dangling cigarette and thumbs up) and former brigadier general Janis Karpinski; Charles Graner, supposedly the most substantial "bad apple," was not allowed to be interviewed.

England, heavily makeupped and with her hair did, seems to show signs of regrets without explicitly saying so (at times she seems defensive: “We didn’t kill ‘em. We didn’t cut their heads off.”), while Karpinski can barely control her outrage that she and her colleagues bore the brunt of the blame while her superiors got off clean. Some interviews, such as one recounting a horrifying story about interrogators torturing a man they didn’t realize was already dead, are illuminating, while other expose certain agendas. At first, the interviews with the accused seem like they’re coming clean out of guilt, but as the film goes on, it starts to seem some of them agreed to be interviewed to clear their names and say what they were doing wasn’t that bad.

But aside from just fascinating detail, there are some very interesting points made here as well. Either way, while what Lynndie England and her peers did was reprehensible, it’s apparent that those charged were merely a small percentage of perpetrators of such actions, and they were just the only ones stupid enough to be photographed doing it. This was the norm, and Morris makes every effort to reveal that these actions were indicative of a larger scale policy. One can’t help but be even more aghast at these unnecessary actions when one interviewee recounts the experienced effectiveness of utilizing intimidation rather than force or illegal methods. Even more startling is the Army’s thin line between what is technically acceptable and unacceptable; going through examples, the differences between ‘criminal acts’ and ‘standard operating procedure’ are nearly indiscernible.

Morris’s trademark re-creations, to make the film more visually interesting, are utilized yet again here, but it’s questionable how necessary or tasteful they are. The descriptions of these actions are horrific enough, do we really need to see actors partake in them? There’s enough other aesthetically appealing stuff here—from a score by Danny Elfman (!) to a revisited credit sequence featuring the Abu Ghraib photos making up a colorful pattern—to make one think Morris didn’t necessarily need to include re-creations of noses dripping blood and close-ups of eyebrows being shaved.

Still, despite tackling perhaps too many things, “Standard Operating Procedure” is unequivocally a movie you should see, and not merely out of obligation. Offering first-hand testimonials of what many consider the low point of our “war on terror,” while making substantive points (and more importantly, posing questions) about our post-9/11 politics, it’s an incredibly compelling look at a complex issue. Despite treading on slightly familiar territory, it easily emerges as one of the best (and most outrage-filled) of the political docs that seem to be perpetually emerging over the last few years.

"Standard Operating Procedure" opens in 2 theaters in NYC today, expands to LA next Friday May 2nd, and expands to big cities around the country throughout May.

"Deception" -- * 1/2

When Hugh Jackman and Ewan McGregor collaborate on a movie, it should be something worth getting excited about, not falling asleep to. But rather than anything resembling "entertainment," the startlingly stupid, jaw-droppingly dull "Deception" instead takes it place as this week's "88 Minutes." Both films are preposterous, shit-out generic thrillers that would comfortably fit as direct-to-DVD releases. Granted, if you've ever wanted to hear Michelle Williams whisper the phrase 'fucking and sucking,' this is the movie for you; everyone else, proceed with caution.

McGregor stars as nerdy auditor Jonathan McQuarry, whose life could use some excitement. When working late in an office, Jonathan is approached by charmingly devilish Wyatt Bose (Jackman), who almost instanty propositions him with a joint (which happens all the time, right?). Via Bose and his cell phone, mild-mannered Jonathan finds himself embroiled in a secret world of successful women-- including one played by Charlotte Rampling-- seeking anonymous sex. Jonny Boy promptly falls for one of them, who he only knows as S (Michelle Williams). After she disappears, our wise hero thinks something might be up, namely that his buddy Wyatt might not be such a nice guy after all.

However much a fan you are of these actors (I'm guilty as charged for all three leads), you should be warned these are performances entirely defined by hair and accents. Jackman's hair is gelled-up, McGregor's is matted-down. Both are aping American accents, to varying degrees of success; Jackman's as usual, is seamless, while McGregor's... well, not so hot. McGregor is a very good actor and shown himself to be a top-notch accent man before, so I imagine whatever he was doing here, he was doing intentionally, to amuse himself. In my estimation, he's doing a vicious impersonation of his "Episode II" and "Episode III" co-star Hayden Christiansen; seriously, listen for it. As for Williams, she doesn't get much to do, and mostly just looks miserable to be here (and has lost way, way too much weight).

The movie has an insanely dumb script, but rather than taking its absurdity to a fun or campy level (e.g.: "Malice"), first-time director Marcel Langenegger makes everything so overwhelmingly glossy and dull, that this thing plods along like nobody's business. I'll save the ludicrous third-act twists as surpises, but the problems start with character motivations/actions/dialogue. With Wyatt almost always having a sinister look on his face, initiating conversations like "How many women have you slept with?," and disappearing for days at a time, we start to question Jonathan's intelligence. Any rational person would realize they're being set up by a villain in a tedious third-rate thriller. And let's not even get into the repeated, ominous dangling plot-thread of a leak in Jon's apartment that you KNOW is going to factor into the finale.

The sort of movie that makes your eyes glaze over for large chunks of it, "Deception" is a lame-ass, draggy thriller that's deservedly getting dumped this weekend by the notoriously quality-bereft 20th Century Fox. Equipped with lifeless performances, and a score that seems to actually be trying to make you go to sleep, there's nothing here of value to merit a watch. I suggest you take its generic, single-word title as a preemptive warning, and instead watch the trailer again and fill in the blanks yourself.

"Then She Found Me" -- * * 1/2

Helen Hunt’s directorial debut, “Then She Found Me,” is a lot more admirable and well-intentioned than it is entirely successful, but it deserves credit for taking its ‘chick flick’ territory and attempting to elevate it into something realer and more substantial than we’re used to. Hunt is clearly reaching for something grander here, and this personal project tries to explore some weighty thematic issues that play heavily into women’s lives around the time they hit middle age. But while the movie rarely settles for predictable mediocrity, the screenplay has some problems that would rear their head whenever I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Based on the novel by Elinor Lipman, the movie essentially begins when schoolteacher April’s (Hunt) life starts to fall apart, with both her adoptive mother (Lynn Cohen) dying, and her husband Ben (Matthew Broderick) leaving her in the span of 24 hours. Adding to her stress, her birth mother Bernice (Bette Midler), a talk show host, shows up, suddenly desperate to be part of her daughter’s life. All the while, April is aching to have a baby, and soon enough begins a romance with Frank (Colin Firth), a single dad of one of her students.

What I like most about “Then She Found Me” is that Hunt has gone out of her way to strip away (as best she can) the phony artifice that usually clings to this genre, and keep things relatively realistic and largely kinda-sorta downbeat. While the direction lacks the sort of ‘oomph’ to really make the movie become something special or memorable, it’s a refreshing decision to create situations/feelings that might be recognizable to its target female audience, and not reek of bullshit. Things are kept relatively subtle and the movie prides itself on sharply observed little moments rather than grandiose gestures.

But while the screenplay (co-written by Hunt) refreshingly tackles issues that aren’t easy and has the balls—so to speak—to make its characters all seriously flawed, it ultimately has too many missteps to ignore. Even if one looks past the fact that the movie tries to do way too much, it’s difficult to look past the fact that the dialogue occasionally wildly simplifies issues and two characters in particular are frustrating in how poorly-defined they are. The issues of April’s craving for a baby brings up the subject of adoption multiple times, but the exchanges tend to run along the lines of (and I’m paraphrasing) MOTHER: “Just adopt a baby!” APRIL: “I’m not adopting a baby from China!” For a screenplay that tries to do so much, it leaves numerous ones, such as this, dissatisfyingly unexplored.

The script also gives the film’s two most likeable presences, Midler and Broderick, with sloppily written characters. Bernice never really makes sense to us, waffling between sincere and loving, and selfish and insincere; rather than making for an interesting balance, she just comes off as two disparate characters and there’s no attempt to give us an idea of who this woman is. As for Ben, we barely get anything at all; other than that he’s a mama’s boy, he’s given little-to-no definition. We’re given no inclination if we should like him or not, and his confused motivations don’t help matters.

If you’re yet to see the trailer for “Then She Found Me,” try to avoid it at all costs. Besides selling it as a frothy romantic comedy (which is only part of the show), the 2.5 minute preview goes the “Notes on a Scandal” route and gives away every single plot point up until the film’s last five minutes. It may do a good job selling the movie, but people who show up may be disappointed that they know exactly what’s going to happen and that there’s fewer laughs than they may be expecting (it’s pushing it to even call this a dramedy.

Hunt’s performance may come off as a little shrill at times—the movie certainly gives her enough to get upset about—but she actually does a very good job of inhabiting this woman and making us understand her levels of longing, frustration and alternating optimism/pessimism. Firth does his usual charming Mr. Darcy thing, but it’s nicely balanced with sudden bursts of ferocious anger, leading me to believe that there may be an awesome serial killer role inside this oft-typecast actor. Midler makes an okay return to the screen, nicely underplaying her role here, though it’s disappointing she doesn’t have more to do. Broderick is fine here, but he could play this sort of role in his sleep by this point.

I was kind of on the fence about “Then She Found Me,” as it succeeds and fails in nearly equal measure. While it’s more perceptive and well-intentioned than other movies of its ilk, it doesn’t do a whole lot to stand out and its thematic fumbles keep it from being something special. I imagine it’ll find an audience that will appreciate the effort enough to be glad they saw it, but I hope Hunt’s next film does a better job of defining its characters, and decides to either narrow its focus, or take the time to adequately explore its central issues.

"Then She Found Me" opens today in 9 theaters in NYC and LA, and expands further on May 2nd and May 9th.

Monday, April 21, 2008

How do these E-mails end up in my Inbox?

We at Motive Entertainment thank you for your interest in The Chronicles of Narnia. As we gear up for the next installment, Prince Capsian (in theaters May 16), we want to make you aware of an exciting opportunity for pastors and other church leaders.

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o Listen to a synopsis of Prince Caspian

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o Watch a great interview with Douglas Gresham, stepson of C.S. Lewis - A FAMILY CHRISTIAN STORES EXCLUSIVE

o Experience the thrilling Prince Caspian movie trailer

Friday, April 18, 2008

"Forgetting Sarah Marshall" -- * * * 1/2

A romantic comedy that's genuinely hilarious, as well as seeming to come from a real place of heartbreak and experience, Nicholas Stoller's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" has been touted as the next film out of the seemingly never-ending Judd Apatow canon (I love the man, but he really shouldn't be getting the credit for movies he neither writes nor directs), though the real acclaim should go to its star and screenwriter, Jason Segel. He's crafted a film that's as raunchy and genital-obsessed as its pedigree would indicate (it's rare a movie features multiple tittyfucking jokes, as this one does) but it's nicely balanced with a sweetness and sincerity that really works. I would easily recommend it simply for being very, very funny, and consistently so, but it wins extra points for actually making an effort to develop its characters, and mine its subject of romantic agony for just as much subtle insight as laughs.

Our hero, underachiever Peter Bretter (Segel) is a composer of the background "tones" for TV-show "Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime," which stars his gorgeous actress girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristin Bell). Though perfectly content with living in the background-- he's mostly known as the guy who holds her purse at premieres-- he's taken aback one day when Sarah announces that she's dumping him. Initially dealing with the break-up by having bouts of random sex and crying non-stop (often during said sex), Peter eventually heeds his brother's (the truly gifted Bill Hader) advice to take a trip; naturally, he picks Hawaii, as it's the place he and Sarah always talked about going to. Unfortunately for Peter, Sarah's had the same idea, and in a bit of contrivance, they end up staying in the same hotel. Making matters worse, Sarah is on holiday with her new instant-rebound boyfriend, British lothario rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), and Peter seems to run into them wherever he goes. Luckily, our protagonist begins to click with the hotel receptionist Rachel (Mila Kunis), recovering from a heartbreak of her own, as he interacts with various characters around the island and trying to set the film's title into motion.

Rather than tossing off a quick succession of scattershot gags, which even the funniest comedies can sometimes be guilty of, "Forgetting" is especially well-written and offers moments of hilarity that simultaneously serve to enrich the characters as well as the story. The set-pieces (such as a fresh, funny twist on the lately-overused sexual encounter montage) are actually hilarious and worthy of their build-ups, but the quick, bizarre gags (the prepping of a pig for luau) and little character moments (Peter's cosmopolitan-induced impersonations of the "Sex & the City" gals) are just as funny; it sounds cliche, but there's rarely a minute without one sizable laugh. The raunchy one-liners are predictably quotable, ranging from the bluntly stupid (a character ponders about a redhead, "I wonder if the carpet matches her pubes") to the clever (upon being told he doesn't need to put his "P in a V" to get over Sarah, Peter responds "No, I need to B my L on somebody's T's").

One of Aldous's songs, "Inside of You," is given a live performance, as well as played over the closing credits, and after enough listens-- it's currently the set song on my MySpace page-- I'm convinced it's a truly great piece of music. Cleverly written, and striking just the right balance between sincere and creepily taking the double-entendre too far ("Inside of you, I could cross this desert plane; Inside of you, I can hear you scream my name"), it's representative of the level of thought and detail put into the jokes here; I won't even get into the climactic performance of a musical following in the footsteps of "Dance of the Vampires" and "Lestat." There's a four-way 'tables have turned' dinner scene between Peter, Rachel, Sarah and Aldous at about the 75-minute mark that may not be a "big" set-piece that everyone will be buzzing about, but for my money, it's the best scene in the movie. Focusing on the interplay and back-and-forth between the newly happy Peter and Rachel and squabbling, slowly-crumbling Sarah and Aldous, it's a truly great sequence in terms of construction, dialogue and pacing. It goes on for a little while past where you think it would, but it's nearly perfect, features all four leads at their comedic peaks, and will have you struggling to hear much of the dialogue over laughter.

While the movie never gets overly serious, it's made stronger by the fact that it seems to be grounded in the real world, and actually has some substantive things to say about relationships. As jokey as it gets, the themes are sincere and it seems as if the screenplay was written as a manifestation of past relationships and/or heartbreak (it's rumored to be based on Segal's break-up with his "Freaks and Geeks" co-star Linda Cardellini, though the actor denies it). The romance element is integral, and never feels shoehorned in to appeal to those in the audience with ovaries. Also, Segel and Stoller are unusually adept at character development, often not the strongest suit of romantic comedies. Both Sarah and Aldous could have easily been one-note antagonists, but the screenplay takes great pains to make sure we at least know where they're coming from, if not making them entirely sympathetic. The crowd at my screening was vocally angry about one of Peter's decisions in the third act, which I think is a testament to the fact that Segel actually makes you care about these characters

Segel is no one's idea of a leading man (he's borderline repellant to look at), and rather than try to subvert those expectations, he plays into them and gives us a different sort of leading man than we expect. Filled with self-loathing and prone to crying fits, Peter the type of character it would have been intolerable to spend 105 minutes with had he not been played right, and the actor/writer turns him into a guy we genuinely like and root for. Against all odds, we love him even when he's being crass (e.g: that pearl necklace joke that amazingly got included in the green-band trailer) or showing us his unshapely nude body (more on that later). We rarely, if ever, see our leading men this vulnerable on screen, but Segal pulls it off while always keeping us with him at every turn.

Kunis has the least interesting character of the four leads, but she has a relaxed way about her that makes us believe that this girl would be interested in someone so far down the attractiveness totem pole. While most reviews seem to just go the "She's beautiful" route when talking about her performance, she happens to have a naturalism with the funny lines that never make it feel like she's overreaching, often a problem with actresses in stock "pretty girl" roles. It does take a little bit of effort to look past Bell's looks (she's gorgeous, if disturbingly skinny), but once I did, I was able to see why so many (gay and straight alike) fanboys were smitten with her on "Veronica Mars." She has some very funny moments here, but her strongest scene is when she confronts Peter about why they broke up and she briefly, effectively makes us see things from her point of view. Though initially Sarah seems like more of a device than a character, Bell refuses to let her become a caricature.

The movie is clearly Segel's coming-out party more than anyone else's, but the unequivocal scene-stealer is Brand as the sober-alcoholic, ruthlessly honest Snow. Getting off the best lines in the movie, while creating a broad yet complex character, Brand has pitch-perfect delivery (he's supposedly a hugely popular comic in the U.K.) and pulls off Aldous's oscillation from asshole to cool guy, and back again, just as one side is starting to rear it's head. We never quite like the sexually-open (his monogamy policy is "lose yourself in fuck") Aldous, but there's something admirable about his lack of bullshit and acknowledgment of his flaws; I could easily watch a spin-off movie or TV series about this guy.

Literally every review or article about "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" has included mention of Segal's decision to go full-frontal (more than once!) here, as well they should. I've long been an advocate for more full-frontal male nudity in comedies for the simple reason that penises are just funny. While female nudity can be used to comic effect as well, there's often an artistic, tasteful beauty about the vagina that just isn't so with the dong. Penises are weird, ugly-looking dangling appendages that almost instinctively provoke laughter when seen in the right context (and not just the small ones). Last year's Apatow-written "Walk Hard" featured a cock poking into the frame as a pitch-perfect sight gag, but what Segel does here is more than that; he gives Peter's nudity a surprising resonance. In the movie's opening minutes, Sarah catches Peter by surprise on his way out of the shower, and when ascertaining that she's dumping him, he drops the towel and remains nude for the entirety of the scene. While briefly using his starkness to attempt some semblance of an upper hard and take control of the situation (when prompted by Sarah to put some clothes on, he refuses), the screenplay utilizes it as the ultimate literalization of his vulnerability in the situation. It's completely hilarious, shocking, and weirdly moving.

A common complaint by some, including me (though "Superbad" is the only film it really bothered me in), of the Apatow-produced fare, is that they suffer from a bit of a case of bloat, and play like extended director's cuts where the filmmakers couldn't bear to part with jokes they liked, rather than appropriately-edited work. Or, as it's known in certain circles, the 'it's a little long...' dilemma. "Forgetting," truth be told, continues the excess material trend that plagued the other films, even if it does run nearly a half hour shorter than the 134-minute "Knocked Up." Virtually all the moments involving Paul Rudd's surfing instructor Chuck/Kunu, Jack McBrayer's Mormon newlywed and Jonah Hill's Aldous-stalking waiter, while funny, don't really need to be here. At only an hour and 45 minutes, the film is well-paced enough that it's not likely to bother most viewers, but some may note that the minute count could have easily been 90-to-95.

Like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up," the interplay here has a loose enough feel to create an air of spontaneity, but it doesn't go off on nearly as many tangents as those films, and seems a bit more structured and logical. Though not as filthy as "Superbad" or as touching as "Knocked Up," "Marshall" has a similar comic tone to the rest of the Apatow ouvre while also clearly establishing its own comedic sensibility. I don't know how well it (or anything, for that matter) will hold up once "Iron Man" hits in two weeks, but the movie should still be a solid performer for Universal, with word-of-mouth likely to be excellent. The type of movie that incites repeat viewings and obnoxious quoting around college campuses, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" is nonetheless completely entertaining, really really funny, and insightfully offers a unique, crude perspective on well-worn territory.

"The Life Before Her Eyes" -- *

Vadim Perelman's odorous, laughably heavy-handed "The Life Before Her Eyes" is a difficult movie to properly bitch about without giving away its silly, gimmicky ending, but I'll try my best. Equipped with a stifling gloom, a delusion of self-importance, and sub-par performances and writing, it's easily one of the more insufferable movies to be released so far this year. Even those who usually fall for the self-imposed credo of 'if it's depressing and/or arty, it must be good' will have trouble jumping on board with this misguided mishmash of ideas centering around a school shooting. Employing a literalism that spells out everything repeatedly, as well as symbolism that is spelled out even more (a character gives an out-of-nowhere monologue about the human body being made up of mostly water, before we get multiple sequences where the camera lingers on shots of water), this is insulting drivel every step of the way.

Kicking things off with heavily ominous opening credits featuring Jame's Horner's alternately interesting and dull score over colorful close-ups of flowers blooming (seemingly tailor made for the film's original title, "In Bloom"), "Life" announces its very pretension almost instantly. Peppered throughout the film are beautiful, pointless extended shots of bees in pollen, caterpillars on leaves, and ants eating a dead bird. Admittedly, the cinematography by Pawel Edelman is often beautiful to look at, but there's nothing behind the images; they're used purely to draw attention to themselves and away from from the film's vapidity (e.g: "Ooh, look at that beautifully lit shot of the lone corpse in the gym!"). Sequences are staged for their maximum metaphoric potential, semblance of "purpose" and, occasionally, simply for their look; any scene involving water, most memorably a swimming sequence, is shown to us more than once for no reason other than it's pretty. No matter where we turn, everything seems to be screaming "This is a work of art, damn it!"

Based on Laura Kasischke's book, “The Life Before Her Eyes” is divided into two disparate time periods. The first focuses on two Connecticut teens, 17-year-old rebel Diana (Evan Rachel Wood), and her conservative, religious best friend Maureen (Eva Amurri). The film opens with these two being confronted in their high school bathroom by a fellow student with a machine gun, who demands they choose which one of them he'll kill. This sequence is intercut with the months Diana and Maureen spend together leading up to that point, and with Diana 15 years later (now played by Uma Thurman) as she copes with the anniversary of the massacre. Now married to a professor (Brett Cullen) and having a rebel daughter of her own (Gabrielle Brennan), Diana struggles to deal with the seemingly endless problems in her life.

I'm all for depressing or draining movies (some are among my all-time favorite films), but here, melancholy is confused with resonance, and the weight of the dour tone and horrible events taking place are more suffocating than they are poignant. There's such a steady stream of horrible things happening to Diana that one wonders why she hasn't killed herself yet. Not only does she apparently feel guilt over the events of 15 years ago every minute of her life (it doesn't help that she never moved away and drives past the school every day to work), she can't sleep at night, she has horrible flashbacks every few seconds, her daughter has a tendency to act up, run away and hide for hours at a time, and her husband appears to be cheating on her. And let's not even get started on the shit she went through as a teenager.

Even with the pretentious melodramatics, this is a film that could have been salvaged somewhat by the performances, but they're equally misguided. Thurman at least is trying her best, but her work here is in line with my past theory that she only turns out strong performances when working with Tarantino. I've found her to fall short of what the character demands in virtually everything else. Driving her daughter to school, Diana seems barely functional, wildly overdoing the "I'm shaken up!" routine, making one curious how she's managed to make it this far in life. Still, even as a psychologically damaged woman, she looks pristinely beautiful and made up, and is supposed to be believable as a professor merely because she's wearing glasses. To be fair, it'd be nearly impossible to anyone to capably deliver this dialogue, but her work doesn't help. Gabrielle Brennan as her daughter is equally not up to the acting challenges, choosing instead to smirk and immobiley bark out line readings that sound like line readings (watching a violent shoot 'em up that makes Uma cry, she yells out: "It's funny mommy! Like a joke!"). They got Thurman and Wood, couldn't they afford Elle Fanning?

I'll momentarily toss aside the fact that Wood looks NOTHING like Thurman, and just focus on the performances themselves. Thurman may be weak, but Wood is outright bad. It might just be me, but critics seem to be biased towards pretty actresses who try really hard or act big, when they should really only get an 'A' for effort. In my eyes, Wood has yet to give a genuinely good performance, and this is easily the worst (or at least the most annoying) work from her yet. With her overexpressive face, trying too hard to get across emotions, and incressant crying, Wood deserves commendation for not taking cliched teen idol parts (and for apparently being a fan of some violent sex from current boyfriend Marilyn Manson), but it's hard to avoid the fact that she's just not a very good actress. I don't quite understand why everyone seems to like her so much.

After his startling, excellent directorial debut "House of Sand and Fog," Perelman seemingly wanted an appropriately depressing follow-up, but the material fails him here. He makes numerous missteps (including the obvious flashcuts to characters when Diana was in high school saying/doing the same things we've just witnessed modern-day characters saying/doing), but his hand is probably the least to blame; this screenplay is just awful. Perelman's next project is apparently an adaptation of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," and I can only hope that given the material, he'll have better luck next time around and utilize the strong direction he employed with his auspicious debut.

The screenplay by Emil Stern is pretty much irritating on every level, ranging from obvious to moralizing to cliched to exposition-filled. The dialogue, the construction and the plot mechanics all gnawed at my brain for the movie's entire 85 minutes. No character delivers a speech or reads a poem that doesn't metaphorically correspond with the movie's hammered-home themes and points (e.g.: that water monologue). In the Uma portions, we get subtle moments like Diana pointing out "She's just like me!" about her daughter, to her husband, as if we didn't get the point. The Wood sequences are even more problematic and annoying, but most of all, everything that goes on in that bathroom. Upon hearing the gunshots, Diana blurts out, "I know who it is. In trig class, he told me he was going to bring a gun to school. I thought he was kidding!" Hm, okay. One one level, this makes the character both an irrational idiot and an asshole who causes the deaths of dozens; on another, no one would EVER say (or admit) that!

But when the shooter barges in the restroom, we're not shown exactly what happens, and instead, the event is milked for the rest of the film. Every few minutes we come back to the bathroom to reveal a few seconds more, starting from the beginning of the scene each time. This is an event that has a duration of 60-120 seconds, yet takes up at least 10-15 minutes of the film's running time. It's exploitatively drawn out as long as possible, broken up throughout the movie with the promise of a film-shifting revelation at the end.


Speaking of said revelation, Perelman/Stern tosses so many "clues" at us, it becomes ridiculous. The only time I've seen this kind of jokey foreshadowing of an ending outside of parody was all the "8:2" references Paul Thomas Anderson put in "Magnolia," and there it worked because it was all subtle and very tongue-in-cheek. Here, it's grasping at actual meaning and verges on parody. Between the "Choose Life" bumper sticker on Eva Amurri's character's car and Uma repeatedly coming across "She's Not There" on the radio, I was ready to yell at the screen and ruin it for everyone. The twist ending we get is pretty stupid and reeks of phony import (like everything else in the film), and judging by my crowd's reaction afterwards (I heard numerous "What happened?"), I'm guessing audience confusion at festivals was a major impetus to change the title it screened under, "In Bloom," to the more explanatory/spoiler-y "The Life Before Her Eyes." The twist, aside from being utterly silly and implausible, attaches extremely questionable moral conclusions to the film, as well as lending the affair a disturbingly anti-abortion bent.


After premiering to jeers and scratches of heads at last year's Toronto Film Festival, 'The Life Before Her Eyes" is being thrust out haphazardly now, with Magnolia Pictures probably realizing it doesn't stand much of a chance without any prospects of awards or strong reviews. Midway through the proceedings, we see Diana has a stack of books including a copy of "Meaning of Flowers in Art," which I laughed at, considering the amount of flower close-ups we get to create a semblance of "importance" or "meaning." My guess is that the filmmakers either accidentally left their research in the shot, or some knowing, low-level crew member was playing a practical joke on Perelman and Stern. Either way, it's the one genuine response besides exasperation the movie provoked from me, and most people probably won't even get that out of it. A deft balance of forced artiness, pretension and horrible dialogue, "The Life Before Her Eyes" is a complete mess of a movie that will anger the few people it doesn't confuse.

"The Life Before Her Eyes" opens today in 7 theaters (four in Los Angeles, three in New York), expands to about 50 theaters in major markets (San Francisco, Scottsdale, Long Island, DC, New Jersey, Dallas, Austin, Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Boston) on April 25th, and is scheduled to widen further (Denver, West Palm Beach, Atlanta, Baltimore, Honolulu, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Portland, Nashville, Houston) on May 2nd.

"Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?" -- * *

A rambling comedic analysis of various tensions in the Middle East, Morgan Spurlock's "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?," a follow-up to his surprise hit "Super Size Me," never seems to figure out what it wants to be, and as a result, ends up not really being much of anything. Despite a wealth of possibilities attached to the subject matter, the mustachioed documentarian chooses to play dumb, pander to his blue collar demo, and make simplistic "duh" points and mezzo-mezzo jokes. Whether the aimless feel was intentional (doubtful) or not, you keep waiting for Spurlock to arrive at some kind of conclusion or make an interesting observation, but the most he's able to muster by the film's close is "Hey, Muslims are just like us!"

I don't think it's necessarily a bad idea to approach this content from a comedic perspective, but rather than use humor as a way to amusingly deconstruct the state of affairs, Spurlock just gives us high-concept stuff like a CGI Bin Laden dancing to "U Can't Touch This" and a bomb-defusing robot talking like R2-D2. These silly, pointless interludes turn out to be the most inspired parts of the movie simply because they're the segments where Spurlock seems to be most in his element and actually have a decent idea of what he wants to do. The opening credit sequence, laid over a CG-video game "Mortal Kombat"-style fight between Spurlock and the titular terrorist, is particularly well-done. It's when Spurlock leaves his simplistic comfort zones that things get a little bit rockier, alternating between unfocused, uninteresting or outright offensive (a sequence displaying him in Muslim garb in a mall as a sight gag is in particularly poor taste).

During his exploration of foreign attitudes towards the U.S., his filmmaking manipulations are most apparent. He links together interview sequence after interview sequence of Muslims saying they looove the American people, they just hate the American government. Surely he must have found ONE person who said they weren't a big fan of America, no? This segment, apart from being repetitive and not offering much in the way of insight, is the most emphatic deployment of the tactic Spurlock seems to have taken throughout the filmmaking process: decide on conclusions, and prove them later. This method also pokes its head during much of the interview sequences where we see our on-screen narrator asking subjects baity questions like "What do you think of people who commit atrocities in the name of Islam?" He also, once again, employs his Michael Moore-esque faux-naive/condescending narration, which practically screams "this is a movie for you dumb people!"

I'll grant that people who are as uninformed about U.S. history and foreign policy as Spurlock pretends to be will probably find this film fairly enlightening (if they bother to see it); for example, a nicely done animated sequence very simply explains the United States' intricate relationships with foreign dictators in a fairly palatable manner for those who know nothing about it. But while I admire the effort of putting out a well-packaged documentary that makes non-fiction films accessible for average Joes (like both Spurlock and Moore have succeeded in doing in the past), it's hard to ignore that the film itself is wildly unfocused and doesn't really have much to say.The only two genuinely compelling segments of the film are the ones that don't appear to be carefully mapped out or planned. About halfway through the film, Spurlock travels to Israel, and while attempting to conduct man-on-the-street interviews, finds himself being violently pushed around by a group of Hassidic Jews calling him 'filth.' The other, by far the most interesting sequence, is one where Spurlock is permitted to interview two Egyptian high school students as they give clearly rehearsed answers and nervously eye their instructors whenever the questions get even slightly provocative.

Obviously, no one expects this movie to end with Spurlock finding Osama Bin Laden (if he had, we probably would have heard about it), but there's still a wealth of unfulfilled potential here. At first, it seems the filmmaker is going to, for fun, see how far he can get by investigating the whereabouts of Bin Laden, showing the hypothetical possibilities if our government actually put effort into finding him. Then it backs off of this concept and becomes a look of how most citizens in the Middle East view America/Americans. Then it shifts into an analysis of our country's support for foreign dictators. And the cycle continues. By trying to tackle all of these ideas in fits and starts, Spurlock half-asses all of them, and fails to offer any fresh, legitimate insight on any of them. "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?" attempts to give the everyman a probing voice on a subject generally confined to intellectual filmmakers, but ultimately it just proves that perhaps such weighty matters should be left in the hands of the Alex Gibneys and Errol Morrises of the world, not the Morgan Spurlocks.

"Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?" opens in 100 theaters in major markets nationwide today.

"88 Minutes" -- * 1/2

Jon Avnet's "88 Minutes" is the sort of truly stupid, dull "thriller" that so clearly required no effort from anyone involved that it hardly seems worthy of your thoughts, let alone your time and money. Unrelentingly bland, with the feel of a straight-to-DVD release (which it already was in many countries), it's only notable in the respect that it provokes a feeling rarely felt at the movies: embarrassment. Embarrassed for its director, Avnet, its star, Al Pacino, and its flavor-of-last-month supporting cast. Wildly over-complicated and filled with barely-explained threatening characters and exposition-filled dialogue, writer Gary Scott Thompson's screenplay borders on incomprehensible, and it's tempting to call the filmmaking incompetent.

Pacino plays Seattle professor and FBI forensic psychologist Jack Gramm, who spends his time dancing to "Get It Poppin'" with girls young enough to be his granddaughter, when he isn't busy giving testimony to sentence accused killers to death. One of those fellows, Jon Forster (Neal McDonough), is about to be executed as has steadfastly accused Gramm of false testimony ever since conviction. Now, with numerous similar murders being committed, Forster is given a stay of execution. In the midst of flipping out, Gramm gets a phone call informing him he was 88 minutes to live. Why 88 minutes? It has to do with some bullshit involving his little sister's murder years ago. I think.

Avnet is a competent director by most accounts, but his bag of lazy director's tricks-- he utilizes haphazard zooms and choppy slo-mo-- wouldn't earn a passing grade in a low-level film course. Pacino, unquestionably one of the all-time greats, has done his share of slumming before ("The Recruit and "Two for the Money" come to mind as recent examples), but his turn here is lazy even for him. He looks as if he drank heavily the night before, rolled out of bed, dyed his hair and ran to the set. The casting of Leelee Sobieski and "The OC's" Benjamin McKenzie in supporting roles only serves to show how long this thing's been sitting on the shelf; shot in, I believe, 2005, these two were hot items when this ball of suck was slapped together. As for William Forsythe, I just feel bad that the guy has to play yet another staid detective who says things like "It's the Seattle Slayer again," after trying to branch out in "Deuce Bigalow" and "The Devil's Rejects."

Worst of all, the movie doesn't even stick to the logic of its own stupid concept. The whole 88 minutes gimmick is pretty much incidental, with it barely being relevant by the third act and when it is, it doesn't even follow the correct time parameters (5 minutes after receiving the initial call, the stalker/killer tells Jack he has 79 minutes left). All this lame is capped with a silly goose ending that will likely provoke hearty laughter in theaters nationwide. Only given a theatrical release seemingly as a gesture of good faith towards the director and actor, "88 Minutes" isn't unwatchable or astronomically painful to watch, but it's hard to dispute that it sucks.

"The Forbidden Kingdom" -- * 1/2

The martial arts fantasy flick "The Forbidden Kingdom" is a PG-13 movie made for 7-to-8-year-olds. Though it might appeal to some diehards of stars Jet Li and Jackie Chan, it made for a pretty arduous sit for me. While I don't consider myself a fan of the genre, I like to think I have a capacity for enjoying its finer fruits as of late, such as Li's "Hero" and "Fearless," and Chan's... um... "Rumble in the Bronx," I guess? The only real draw here is the promise of watching legends Li and Chan fight each other, if you're into that sort of thing. I'm not, but I have difficulty imagining even the stars' aficionados getting excited by the martial arts sequences on display here. Though marketed as a clash of the titans, the movie features minimal fighting scenes between the two actors; adding to which, Li and Chan are so obviously past their prime and are being totally assisted by wires, that you might as well be watching CGI creatures duke it out. This saps all the potential fun out of the proceedings, and the fact that the two characters end up being allies for most of the movie seems like a bit of a cheat.

To be fair, my eyes have a tendency to glaze over during extended scenes of repetitive punching and kicking, and that happened quite a bit here. At least a half dozen times throughout the movie, I found myself staring vacantly at the screen and only snapped out of it when my friend tapped my shoulder. When I wasn't dulled by the martial arts tedium, I would tune in to watch either Chan, Li or leading man/boy Michael Angarano be wildly mugging. Some will enjoy Chan's incessant funny-face-making and cheesy one-liners, but I never really have and didn't here either. For much of the movie, Li smartly sticks to his stoic, barely-talking self, but when he shifts into his second role, the "Monkey King" (don't ask me, I didn't understand), he hams it up bigger than anyone in the cast. Angarano is as bland as it's capable of being, while looking younger, less-defined and less invested than he was in "Snow Angels."

I'm honestly baffled that some fanboys/critics have given this thing a pass, as I was bored nearly all the way through. In terms of plot, I believe it involved some nonsense about a magical golden staff, freeing the Monkey King, fighting the Jade Army, bladdy-bladdy-blah, I don't care. Though "Forbidden Kingdom" is filled with wacky, broad slapstick for the little kids (at one point, Jet Li pisses on Jackie Chan's face), I found the most effective humor in it to be of the unintentional variety. I had trouble stifling my laughter in the opening seconds of silliness, and looked eagerly around my audience for fellow mockers when the bad guys wearing turquoise eye shadow showed up, and a character sincerely uttered "Behold the tyranny of the warlord." 8-year-old boys and hardcore fans of either actor will probably mildly enjoy themselves here, but there's no reason why anyone outside of those groups should go near this. I had little interest (though some hope) going in, but once the movie had its hooks in me, I gave even less of a shit than I thought I would.

Friday, April 11, 2008

"Smart People" -- * * *

Noam Murro's "Smart People" has unsurprisingly received scathing pans from the likes of the Village Voice and Slant Magazine, and it's easy to see why; this is exactly the sort of formula quirk-fest that hipper filmgoers slowly-but-surely have gotten sick of over the last few years (I fear we may have reached a point of no return post-"Juno"). I hate clever for clever's sake as much as anyone, but I really don't think "Smart People" is that. While I'll admit it's the sort of paint-by-numbers "indie"-feeling, quirky family dramedy that seems to thrive at the Sundance Film Festival, I've also got to admit that, for the most part, it works. The characters are engaging, the performances solid, and the script is clever and economical without overloading on quirk.

Centering around self-possessed, assholish Carnegie Mellon professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), "Smart People" opens by establishing his predeliction towards not bothering to remember his students' names, and his troubled family life at home; both will prove important later on. After landing in the hospital while climbing an impound lot's fence, Lawrence is instructed by his doctor, former schoolgirl-crushing student Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker) that he can't operate an automobile for the next six months. Luckily, his mooching slacker brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) is in town to serves as his driver, as well as to teach Lawrence's Young Republican daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) how to enjoy life (i.e.: smoke weed and engage in underage drinking). Though the self-absorbed Lawrence insists on constantly reminding Chuck that he's adopted (he repeatedly calls him "adopted brother," Royal Tenenbaum style) and remains oblivious to his son James's (Ashton Homes) writing talent, his slow, uneasy romance with Janet begins to make him slightly more aware of his foibles.

This is the sort of thing that lives and dies by its ensemble, so luckily, it has a relatively strong one. And, though he's not playing the lead character by any means, any discussion of the cast has to begin with Church. In a fairly conventional role (the slacker, "free-spirited," stoner brother), the actor makes the cliched Chuck not only three-dimensional, but by far the most interesting character in the movie. He brings to mind "Sideways's" Jack by showing his ass twice here, but he manages to utilize his brazenly deadpan delivery again without cutting the two characters from the same cloth. As the family member with the least ambition, but the most attuned moral compass, Church makes the movie's liveliness jump up a notch whenever he's on screen. Said delivery is used to brilliant effect and makes me laugh more than it probably should ("I'm watching a documentary about snow apes," had me in a giggle fit). Church showed in the otherwise abominable "Spider-Man 3" that he's equally capable of solid dramatic work, but "Smart People" reminds us we need him on hand to liven up more comedies.

Despite him having his ardent supporters, I've never found Quaid to be the strongest of actors (yes, even in "Far From Heaven"); I tend to find him bland in dramas and over-reaching in comedies. However, the usually not-too-charismatic Quaid fits surprisingly comfortably into the skin of flinty, intentionally double-parking Lawrence. Normally, I flinch when I find out he's the lead in a film, but he's actually enjoyable to watch here, and it's not a chore to spend the movie's 84 minutes with him.

While not problematic per se, the females in the cast don't fare quite as well. Hot off her Oscar nom, Page is adequately (if more than a bit Juno-ily) snarky as the quickly "becoming an android" Vanessa, and gets off a few good lines, but the character's formation is hampered by a fundamental flaw. The smart-ass, hip, perceptive way Page plays the character never allows her to become believable as a turtleneck-wearing Young Republican who has a picture of Reagan hanging on her wall and idolizes Dick Cheney. And while I totally admit it's base and immature on my part, I question the decision to include a scene of the actress wearing a t-shirt and gym shorts, which did nothing but provoke a thought of "Oh my god, Ellen Page DOES have the body of an 8-year-old boy."

Parker does just fine here, but she's the one central cast member who seems to just be filling a nondescript role. While the other three seem as if their parts were tailored for their sensibilities, she makes little impression on us and the part seems like it could've easily been played just as adeptly by any other competent actress.

Mark Poirier's script has some elements that hint at more complexity, but ultimately decides to keep everything fairly palatable and mainstream. For one, a clunky drunken kiss between relatives goes nowhere, but more noticeably, the movie doesn't seem to know what to do with Ashton Holmes's James. He rears his head just long enough to show resentment towards Lawrence, but it doesn't pay off in any real way; I have a feeling we'll see much of him in the deleted scenes section of the DVD. Also, for a script that mostly prides itself on clever, smarty-pants dialogue, lines like "I downloaded the recipe off the Internet" (said by a teenage character) sounds like they were written by an aging, not too tech-savvy screenwriter trying to be in touch with what the kids are doing.

But more often than not, the prose on display here seem natural, and strike just the right balance between funny and perceptive. When Chuck offers Vanessa a joint, she quickly responds, "Great, I'm in an after-school special" before we have a chance to think the same thing. It's also much appreciated that the characters' predictable growths and progressions are of an especially mild sort, and don't strain credulity (slight acknowledgement of flaws are the order of the day here, rather than life-changing revelations). But what I most appreciated about the script was its acknowledgment of the different between clever and too clever; while characters deliver the occasional quotable bit of dialogue, Poirier knows sometimes to say more by saying less. Late in the film, there's a refreshingly different reaction to a pregnancy test than we got in Diablo Cody's screenplay for "Juno." The character seeing their test results here just utters a simple "Shit," rather than "Geez, Banana, that little pink plus sign is so unholy! Silencio, old man, I'm for shiz up the spout!"

Even with the potential to leave your mind minutes after watching it, this is a genuinely funny (if tame) dramedy that follows a formula, but infuses it with enough freshness and entertainment value to make it worthwhile. Though it does recall other films of its ilk (you'll probably hear the "Little Miss Sunshine meets Wonder Boys" application more than once), "Smart People" is a witty, enjoyable look at the sort of intellectual superiority that many of us either witness or send out on a daily basis. Living up to its title, the movie is smart enough to not give us drastic character evolutions or overly clever/cute dialogue, and manages the difficult task of making eliticism accessible.

"Street Kings" -- * * *

David Ayer’s police thriller “Street Kings” is currently sitting at 15% (!) on Rotten Tomatoes’ cream of the crop critics, and averaging a 4.9 rating out of 10. I don’t know if I’m losing it or if I just have a greater capacity than most for appreciating fun movies, but like the also-opening-this-week “Smart People,” “Street Kings” is a fairly familiar entry in a seemingly burnt out genre that I have to recommend simply because it does what it’s supposed to do in an exceedingly enjoyable fashion. Some suspension of belief is required to swallow some of the turns it takes, but if you allow yourself to work on its level, you’ll have difficulty not being entertained. Though my levels of appreciation may be due to low expectations (I really wasn’t anticipating this particular screening), it’s a rough, energetic, kind-of-silly crime flick that comfortably fits in with Ayer’s other solid, gritty works.

I don’t know about you, but I had no clue what the plot of this movie was going to be based on its indecipherable trailer, so perhaps I was more absorbed thanks to not knowing anything. But anyway, here goes. Vaguely resembling a convoluted “Training Day” (which Ayer wrote) crossed with FX’s “The Shield,” “Street Kings” centers around LAPD vice detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) and the ethical wasteland he’s immersed in on a daily basis. A hothead widower, Ludlow isn’t anyone’s idea of a “clean” cop, and his habits seem to be catching up with him, despite the assistance of his doting Captain (Forest Whitaker). Ludlow’s ex-partner Washington (Terry Crews) is ratting him out to IA and thus threatening his livelihood; tracking Washington down at a convenience mart with the intention of breaking his jaw, Ludlow instead witnesses some thugs machine gun the Detective down before he gets the chance. Even though he loathed the guy, something about the situation just seems fishy to Tom. Despite warnings by his colleagues to let it go, and hindered by a snooping, investigating Captain (Hugh Laurie), Ludlow sets about to right this wrong with the assistance of a pretty, younger detective, Paul Diskant (Chris Evans), and finds mucho corruption.

Reeves, for all the derision he gets about limited range, is pretty good as the ethically ambiguous Ludlow. Whether fighting for truth and justice, or downing airplane vodka bottles while driving, Reeves plays him as alternately sad, dedicated, angry and a little crazy, and his performance serves as a reminder that the oft-mocked actor is a compelling presence when he’s in his element (even if he should do more comedy a la “Thumbsucker”). As Ludlow’s initial adversary but eventual muscle-tee-wearing ally, Evans is no great shakes, but shows (with this and his work in “Sunshine”) that he’s significantly better when he’s appearing in non-awful movies. He’s not there yet, but there’s seemingly potential. Whitaker, on the other hand, is in the midst of the quickest post-Oscar regression in recent memory. Though admittedly, this is the first role he actually signed on to post-Oscar win (“Vantage Point” apparently was pre), he seems to still be stuck in Idi Amin shouting mode. Some of his later scenes drew laughs from my crowd, and I don’t think they were supposed to; I started to become genuinely concerned that he was going to pass out from all the bellowing and sweating.

Besides those three, the rest of this illustrious cast is mostly confined to bit parts. The Game and Common each show up in convincing one-scene stints as *shocker* criminals, while John Corbett (who I’ll still always see as Aidan) struggles to sound tough during his third act scenes. Laurie pops up every 20 minutes or so and does well with his minimal material, but my audience laughed at his first appearance in a hospital, presumably thinking he might have been playing Dr. House here too. Speaking of laughter, Ayer deserves some credit for casting three actors (Crews, Jay Mohr, Cedric the Entertainer) known for their comedic work in dramatic roles and making it work.

In his sophomore directing effort after the undervalued “Harsh Times,” Ayer seems firmly set on making this type of movie his niche and he’s doing a good job thus far. The guy makes solid, pulpy crime flicks, and whatever he helms next, I have a feeling it’ll involve cops, and I have a feeling it’ll be entertaining. The script itself—a hodgepodge of work by James Ellroy (“L.A. Confidential”), Jamie Moss (debut) and Kurt Wimmer (“Ultraviolet”)—earns a couple demerits. Some of the bad guys, in Bond villain fashion, reveal their evil scheme to our protagonist before they can take him out, and it’s fairly predictable which characters will turn out to be bad (if they’re a cop, you can bet they’re corrupt).

Still, it’s nice to see a densely plotted cop/crime film that uses shoot ‘em up scenes or action sequences merely as punctuation rather than the whole show. Even if the plot twists late in the game are entertainingly ludicrous and the story brings nothing new to the table, things are refreshingly plot-oriented, and the film wallows in compelling ambiguity. The screenplay takes a while to actually establish Ludlow as a hero of any sort, and he’s made more interesting for it.

My real question here is, why is this movie being put out through Fox’s specialty/arthouse division, Fox Searchlight, and not their main outfit, 20th Century Fox? This extremely mainstream effort isn’t arty or “specialty” in the least. My theory: Fox just wanted to maintain their recent policy of only putting out shit movies (“Shutter,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” “Jumper”) and passing off everything good (“Juno,” “The Savages,” “Once”) to Searchlight, whether it’s mainstream or not. Anyway, “Street Kings” won’t blow anyone away, but it’s assuredly entertaining and well-constructed in a manner relatively unusual within the genre. I tend to have trouble getting into these sorts of movies, but Ayer’s film is rarely (if ever) dull, and kept my interest throughout, even if it doesn’t break any new ground.