Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Catch-Up: Part 2


When Don Cheadle appears in a movie these days, you know he'll be playing a noble, likable-but-flawed protagonist. So when he shows up as an African-born Muslim-American who provides explosive accessories to terrorists, you're almost immediately disoriented and intrigued. A smart, frequently entertaining thriller that has Cheadle on the run from FBI agent Guy Pearce for much of it, the movie's rarely boring, but it's disappointing how it pussies out as it goes along (and how it wastes Jeff Daniels). The film takes a twist halfway through (already entirely given away by every trailer and TV spot) that immediately transforms it from an interesting exploration of how terrorists are made into a run-of-the-mill Ludlum imitation. If pressed, I'd give "Traitor" a mild recommendation; it's a surprisingly engrossing, solid flick rearing its head in the dog days of late-August, just don't be teased by its initial threats to be something weightier or more substantive than another slick geopolitical thriller.

"Hamlet 2"

Having inexplicably caused a sensation at Sundance, "Hamlet 2" has had hype thrust upon ever since, and while it's not nearly as uproarious, outrageous, offensive or hilarious as you might be inclined to believe, it's a funny, entertaining late-summer comedy that might have been one for the ages had there been an opportunity to give the jokes a bit more polish. As it stands, I still laughed regularly, but never a hearty, enthusiastic belly laugh resulting from a truly brilliant joke. The story of a fruitlessly hopeful drama teacher Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) who longs to stage an irreverent sequel to Shakespeare's "Hamlet," it takes a few minutes to get used to just how low-brow and general-audience-friendly the movie is, with dumb jokes and slapstick a plenty. Of the latter, while a bit involving a frequently-abused female student may be unfunny each time it's repeated, an extended sequence of Coogan drunk in a liquor store cage is physical comedy at its finest. Other bright spots include Elisabeth Shue playing herself and allowing herself to be poked fun at (Coogan gushes, "Dreamer... with the fuckin' horse!"), the "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" finale that the film's ad campaign has been built upon, and most of all, Coogan giving his almost-too-broad all as Marschz, making him pathetically ridiculous, but somehow always human. Being haphazardly linked to "Little Miss Sunshine," "Napoleon Dynamite" and "South Park" in its TV spots, "Hamlet 2" can't offer the outrageousness or consistency of, say, "Tropic Thunder," but there's still many laughs to be had, as well as really funny supporting work from Amy Poehler and Catherine Keener.

"The House Bunny"

Anna Faris has long been one of the best comic actresses around, showcasing her mad skills in the lame "Scary Movie" franchise, "Just Friends," "Lost in Translation" and "Smiley Face," but major stardom has yet to come calling for her just yet. With "The House Bunny," a surprisingly adorable, frequently funny bit of preteen girl power, she may finally have her vehicle that gets her to a higher plateau. But while Faris may be the reason the film's worth seeing, she's hardly the only good thing about it. The screenplay is as formulaic as can be -- you keep waiting for certain, necessary beats -- but I chuckled a whole lot more than I was expecting to, and there are only a few moments that noticeably fall flat. Though some gross-out stuff seems mandated by producers Adam Sandler and Allen Covert (this is a Happy Madison production after all), there's enough here to laugh at or enjoy without feeling like you've watched an entirely brainless endeavor. Minor nitpick: a magnets-on-back-brace gag is stolen from "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion."

"Death Race"

Even though she gets to utter the line "Fuck with me, cocksucker, and I'll show you who shits on the sidewalk," it's difficult to feel anything but depressed for Joan Allen when watching her in this dull, lowest-common-denominator-targeting piece of shit remake of Roger Corman's trashy but enormously entertaining "Death Race 2000." You know walking into the theater that this movie's going to be dumb, and that's fine, dumbness isn't inherently problematic with a film if it embraces its silliness. But what's amazing about Paul W.S. Anderson as a director, is that he takes films/concepts/ideas/premises that seem destined to be turned into "dumb fun" and manages to turn them into loud, joyless, leaden affairs that just pulverize you into an uninterested stupor. Not to mention, the racing sequences on display are damn near incomprehensible; I, for one, barely had a clue of what was going on, considering there's no sense of space, proximity, distance, and no discernible aesthetic difference between the vehicles. There are fleeting moments of gore and fast-paced frivolity here that offer momentary hope, but at the end of the day, "Death Race" isn't nearly entertaining enough to classify as "fun," and will really only satisfy plebes who get off on car destruction.


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