January 5, 2007 • Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan • Brattle Theater
I have been a fan of this space opera since I first saw it in the early 1980s. Starting on Saturday Night Live in the 1980s, William Shatner's bad acting as Captain Kirk has become an ironic icon, and in the 21st century, his defiant scream into his communicator (see photo, left) is a widely-distributed Internet joke. It's true, Shatner's acting on the 1960s TV show was pretty terrible at times. His performance as Kirk in Wrath of Khan is actually well modulated and subtle...except for that one scene:
Kirk: Khan, you bloodsucker. You're gonna have to do your own dirty work now, do you hear me? Do you?!!Because this one scene has become an eternal Internet gag, the crowd at the Brattle Theater was chock full of stoned college kids, primed to giggle at everything and anything: any dramatic or emotional moment, however inconsequential, elicitied giggles. NOTES: One patron loudly snored through the middle of the movie. I think I've heard him snore there before. Also, the father behind me brought his 10-year-old daughter with him. I am all in favor of exposing America's youth to the Star Trek phenomenon, but she kept asking Dad questions about the plot, in a too-loud 'stage' whisper. Bringing your kids to the movies requires some responsibility, and teaching your kids how to whisper in the theater is one of them.
My 35th Birthday • Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan|
Landmark Embassy Theater, Waltham
Very funny movie, even with only 10 people in the theater. Borat prompted a long conversation about the making of a fake documentary: We impressed with the verisimilitide, so much so that we talked at length about the logistics of filming a movie where the authentic reactions of unaware "real" people are the essential ingredient. Just imagine how many hours of footage must have been shot to unearth the few nuggets of comedy gold! We noticed the hard work that must have gone into editing this movie together- unlike the lengthy Borat interview segments on HBO, most of the interview segments in the movie are very short. I hypothesized that star Sasha Baron Cohen was unable to sustain longer interviews because subjects refused to talk to him after hearing him talk for 5 minutes; Emily suspects this was an effort to keep the pace of the movie fast: at 84 minutes it almost felt too long. We both wonder if Cohen will be able to make a similar movie from another of his characters (Bruno, Ali G) when everyone in America knows who he is now.
| Twenty Years of Best Pictures
100 movies have been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar over the last 20 years. Some of them have been my personal favorites of that year (The Departed, Master & Commander, Fellowship of the Ring), some I have only seen once (Schindler's List, Shine, The Piano, The Prince of Tides), and I fell asleep trying to watch Howards End. Here's more of the Best Pictures By The Numbers:
February 11, 2007 • Pan's Labyrinth • Somerville Theater|
Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro has only recently appeared on my radar. I missed the giant bug movie Mimic (1997), never got around to seeing his sequel Blade II (2002), and I only recently saw his comic-book adaptation Hellboy (2004) on cable TV. Only after reading rave reviews for Pan's Labyrinth this winter, alongside the critical campaigning of movie writers, begging audiences to take notice of Del Toro's vision, have I noticed this burly, bearded, bespectacled director.
Labyrinth is a stunning and fresh fantasy. While this film has a preteen protagonist, and several magical creatures, the film is strictly for adults. Two closely tied plots intertwine: Ofelia and her pregnant mother move into a army outpost in the Spanish mountains, to live with her new stepfather, the Captain. The Captain is a brutal sadist charged with cleaning out the mountains of the last pockets of armed resistance, while his civilian staff are supporting the guerillas right under his nose, inevitably to be caught. The Captain is using Ofelia's mother to bear him a male heir, and he only tolerates Ofelia and her mother to that end.
Meanwhile, a sly faun lures Ofelia into a fantastical and mysterious underworld. If she can complete three dangerous tasks, she will prove her right to return to her kingdom where she can live forever, but does she care too much about the fate of her mother and unborn brother to cut ties with our world? Del Toro cleverly juxtaposes the gothic wonders of this underworld with the unspeakable horror of post-war Spain. How can we call their world a fiction when the horrors of her daily life are equally unreal?
I highly recommend this movie to lovers of myth and fantasy, with the warning that Del Toro does not flinch from graphic brutal (but not gratuitous or fetishistic) violence (beatings, shootings, stabbings). I feel the violence did not need to be so explicit in order to be effective, but I understand why it's included. I would give this movie an A, but I can't recommend a movie so violent to everyone, so it's an A minus instead.
NOTE: In preparation for seeing El Laberinto del Fauno this weekend, I rented his 2001 ghost story El Espinazo del diablo (The Devil's Backbone) which is also an excellent and creepy ghost story for adults. Watch it with the lights off and the sound up.
March 4, 2007 • Zodiac • Showcase Cinemas Randolph|
"A West-Coast 'All The President's Men'!" raves my wife. A compelling thriller, David Fincher has created an epic rumination on The Zodiac Killer, a publicity-hungry serial killer who held the Bay Area in a grip of obsessive paranoia of sick fascination. The Zodiac killed at least seven people in 1968 and 1969, but thanks to inter-jurisdictional congestion and press involvement, the authorities never had a chance to catch the guy. The movie follows the search through three men:
March 11, 2007 • Guys Movie Night: 300 • Regal Cinemas Fenway|
A brawny and single-minded battle movie, 300 is linear and direct in its purpose, like a spear to the gut. I found the photography, production design, costumes and effects to be superb. Gerard Butler is compelling as the ancient Spartan king Leonidas. His pointy beard is frickin awesome! However, I found the battles as a whole to be repetitive, and the story slow and boring. I don't think sophomore director Zack Snyder (Dawn Of The Dead) can be held completely responsible for the monotony- I think the nature of the material is inferior to other ancient battle movies (more on that below).
The 300 Spartan warriors of the title are an elite fighting force of the larger Spartan army. Sparta's warrior leader and king, Leonidas, is offered an ultimatum by an emmissary of the decadent Persian emperor Xerxes: become subjects of Xerxes' empire, or be destroyed. Unfortunately, Leonidas has never heard the expression "don't shoot the messenger" because it hasn't been coined yet, so he takes the less diplomatic route. He hollers "THIS IS SPARTA! and kicks the emmissary into a convenient nearby bottomless pit. Meanwhile I was left thinking "If you kill the entire Persian detachment, who's going to go back to Xerxes and tell him 'go screw'? Why did they build this pit in the middle of the town square? Do they really use it that often? What would OSHA think of this? The bottomless pit was kind of like a trampoline or a swimming pool you don't use that often- it takes up your whole backyard, and it's an attractive nuisance. Now that I think about it, if a Spartan fell down there and no one witnessed it, you'd never know where they went! Wouldn't a pit which was deep enough to break every bone in your body be deep enough? At least dig your pit on the outskirts of town, not right in a high traffic area!
Anyway, let's move on. After Leonidas decides to defend Sparta from the Persians, the Spartan Council of elders refuses to support a defensive war. Leonidas and his 300 are left to hold back wave after wave of invading hordes on their own, staging their defense at the bottleneck of The Hot Gates.
Based on the monochromatic graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley (The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City), 300 offers great cinematography. The color palette is limited in post-production, much like Sin City and O Brother Where Art Thou. The images are intentionally grainy, which subtly places this ancient story in historical context— perhpas a movie which takes place over 2000 years ago should not be crystal clear 70mm?
The meat of the movie are its fighting sequences. The choreography of the combat is impressive. I have seen far too many movies where slow-motion is overused and without purpose (the most recent example is Michael Bay's The Island). There is plenty of slo-mo in 300, but I found it appropriate and thrilling. The realism of the stabbing, impaling, and dismembering is perfect. The blood spattering is stylized, but well done.
Where 300 fails is putting its hand-to-hand combat into a larger context. Their battling is not part of a bigger war, there is no strategy. They kick ass against Horde Wearing Silly Hats, they win, they rest. Next: they kick ass against Ninjas wearing Scary Masks, they win, they rest. Repeat. Every battle is fought on the same nondescript patch of ground. Most of the action between warriors doesn't include much background action or context. The voice over narration by Spartan Dilios (David Wenham, Faramir from LOTR) makes it clear how 300 warriors could hold off an army of thousands for so long, but their campaign is boringly straightforward.
In this age of ancient battles in cinema, 300 simply cannot hold up to comparison to other, superior battle movies like Braveheart, Gladiator, and Lord Of The Rings. Even the mediocre Troy had characters we cared about: of the 300 Spartans of the title, the only ones with any characterization are King Leonidas, Dilios, The King's captain, the captain's son, "Keanu Reeves Lookalike" (who thankfully gets decapitated), and that's basically it. All the other 296 Spartans simply grunt, kill, and look manly in their leather briefs.
Pacing: the opening 20 minutes were murderously slow: we learn about the King's upbringing as a warrior, that's all good. But the political "intrigue" which gets the plot going is incredibly boring. I even found a sex scene tedious (and since when do they put a sex scene in the first 20 minutes?) Once the King decides to defy the council and march to war, they march, they meet some other warriors, they march some more, they build a wall of corpses (don't ask), and I just kept waiting for some ass kicking! Finally the first horde arrives, but after that's done, we return to Sparta, where the King's wife is attempting to negotiate for Council support for zzzzzzzzzzZZZZZZ...... The King's wife is played by Lena Headey, who looks like a hybrid of Connie Nielsen in Gladiator and Saffron Burrows in Troy, with the voice of Keira Knightley.
Perhaps I am being too hard on a movie which I'm giving a B minus grade, but it shouldn't be so hard to please me when making a movie which promises to kick asses. Plus, the bar is set pretty high by Braveheart, Gladiator, and Lord Of The Rings, so if you're going to deal in shields and swords, you gotta bring something new. The production values, cinematography, effects, and choreography were all top-flight, but everything else was neglected.
||Now's Not A Good Time To Lose One's Head!|
While dining prior to 300, Guys Movie Night participants George, Ilan, Jed, and myself discussed our favorite decapitations in the movies. Yes ladies, this is the kind of thing guys talk about when you're not around. Here's a brief selection:
March 17, 2007 • What Would Jesus Buy? • South By Southwest Film Festival: Paramount Theater, Austin Texas|
A startling, sobering wake-up call on runaway consumerism in America, What Would Jesus Buy follows The Reverend Billy and The Stop Shopping Gospel Choir as they cross America in the weeks before Christmas, staging rallies in Wal-Marts, Starbucks, Victoria's Secrets, and The Mall of America, all in the name of Stop Shopping. His sermon may seem pretty simple at first -- Celebrate Christmas with love and goodwill instead of material possessions -- but the Reverend Billy testifies before crowds of shoppers as if they are possessed by the Devil himself. Possibly a parody of the iconic Pentacostal tent preacher, no one can ignore Billy in his white suit, shouting into a giant megaphone, sweating through his bleach blond Aqua-Net helmet hair. While following the Rev. Billy & Co, the film fairly portrays The American Consumer riding straight to hell on a battery-powered Baby-sized Escalade, drunkenly gorging itself on material excess, enabled by easy credit and supplied by the slave labor in the Third World. What kind of America are we living in where parents believe it's a virtue to deny nothing to your children? What kind of reality are we preparing our children for, if the Barbie Pleasure Palace is built on a foundation of eternal debt? Giving a five-year-old child twenty presents for Christmas might make the parent feel temporarily better about their shaky parenting, but the child would be happiest with one simple toy and a giant hug on Christmas.
This was my first-ever film festival screening, so it felt kind of surreal to be watching a movie when the subject of the film (The Rev. Billy) shook my hand on my way into the theater, and sat in the theater with us.
March 30, 2007 • Blades of Glory • AMC Burlington|
Honestly, we're trying to cut back on the moviegoing this year, but we needed a release after a long work week, and we couldn't wait 4-6 months for the DVD. A mildly funny comedy, Blades only really sparks when drunken debaucher-er Chazz Michael Michaels (Ferrell) and sensitive perfectionist Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder) are forced to drop their mutual loathing and join forces. I found Ferrell's character to be a dull blend of the ignorant macho posturing of Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby.
Jenna Fischer's under-written character doesn't really belong in this movie, but there are glimpses of possibility- when she's forced to crash a sex-addict group therapy session, she has to fake a sex addiction, which could have been much better. Speaking of missed opportunities, Romany Malco (The Forty-Year-Old Virgin) is totally squandered.
In comparison to the great Will Ferrell comedies, Blades of Glory does not rate alongside his best work with directors Ben Stiller (Zoolander), Todd Phillps (Old School, Starsky & Hutch), or Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights.)
April 10, 2007 • Guys Movie Night: Grindhouse • AMC Boston Common|
(Encore viewing with Mrs W: May 19, 2007) Does it matter that I never went to a grindhouse in the late 1970s? No, it doesn't.
Is it relevant that my earliest moviegoing memory is Star Wars, not Vanishing Point? No, it's not.
Is it possible to enjoy this double feature without taking QT's master class: Trashy Exploitation Movies 1975-1981? Yes, it is.
While Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror was more faithful to the spirit of the "grindhouse" theme, Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof is a more satisfying movie.
Rodriguez's gooey zombie movie Planet Terror perfectly captured the low-budget sleaze of early-eighties horror. My only complaint is that actor Freddy Rodríguez was badly miscast in the lead role, the badass with a mysterious past El Wray. When you're looking for a Snake Plissken type, you don't cast a guy who measures 5 foot 6. The entire cast towered over him, and when he stripped off his shirt to reveal his scarred, tattooed body, I almost laughed out loud at his sunken chest. He looks like a "before" photo in a Charles Atlas ad in the back of Mad Magazine.
Speaking of casting, I loved Jeff Fahey and Michael Biehn as brothers, one a BBQ joint owner, and the other a sheriff. Josh Brolin was great as the jealous, crazy Doctor Block, and I like Marley Shelton a little bit better every time I see her.
Rose McGowan is completely convincing as the take-no-s**t go-go dancer Cherry Darling. It's easy to understand how the director had an (alleged) affair with her after watching her opening-titles go-go dancing sequence (which RR shot himself). However, after seeing interviews with McGowan, it's obvious that's she's as crazy as her engagement to Marilyn Manson would suggest.
One couple left after the first feature, which I didn't think twice about, but I read on IMDb this morning that some industry types suspect that not all moviegoers knew there was a second feature on the bill-- Death Proof was definitely better than Planet Terror, so if I left after the first feature, I wouldn't recommend the movie. Harvey Weinstein has suggested he may re-release the two features separately, as they were overseas.
More prevues: Rob Zombie presents "WEREWOLF WOMEN OF THE SS"; Edgar Wright presents a silly trailer for a very English haunted house movie "DON'T SCREAM"; and Eli Roth presents an alternatingly funny, sick, and gruesome trailer for "THANKSGIVING", the last holiday not exploited for a horror movie. The best bit: when the bad guy chops the head off the turkey mascot in the Plymouth town parade.
Quentin Tarantino's last few movies have featured strong lead roles for women (Kill Bill, Jackie Brown), and Death Proof is no exception. Death Proof is a chick flick/revenge thrill ride which had the audience cheering. Stick with Grindhouse till the end- it's worth it!
Kurt Russell is back as a badass: Stuntman Mike stalks beautiful carfuls of women. It would not be unreasonable to suspect Stuntman Mike had a fetish for women in tight t-shirts with cool retro pop icons screenprinted on them either: of the nine women Mike stalks in his matte-black killing machine, seven are in tight t-shirts, and one is in a cheerleader uniform.
In Car #1, an Austin deejay (Sydney Poitier, yes, his daughter) goes out on the town with her friends, then demonstrates what happens when you ride in a Honda with your leg propped up on the open window sill. I always thought this was a dangerous practice! Let's just say QT has wrecked another little Honda (see Pulp Fiction.) I thought QT lingered too long with this quartet- perhaps our emotional investment made Car #2 even more satisfying?
In Car #2, a quartet of ladies on break from a movie shoot test drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger. Quentin casts real-life Kiwi stuntwoman Zoe Bell as herself (Bell did Uma Thurman's stunts in Kill Bill.) Bell was great. Not only was she cute and charming and capable, but her stuntwork added 150% verisimilitude to the car chase.
Parts of Death Proof were shot in Austin- the characters in Car #1 have margaritas at Guero's Taco Bar, a fabulous spot for margaritas which I have been to twice. QT shot the exteriors of the Guero scene at the actual restaurant. Later, QT has his characters drinking Shiner Bock, a great local beer: QT includes many Shiner Bock bottles, cases, neon signs, etc, in the bar scenes.
The theater smelled like a junior high school gym locker. Ugh. George and I tried to decide if one of our nearby moviegoers was the culprit, but we found it hard to imagine that someone could go around smelling that bad and not notice.
April 20, April 27, and June 22, 2007 • Hot Fuzz • AMC Burlington and the Somerville Theater|
Clever, funny, and refreshingly British, Hot Fuzz is a novel action-comedy and a worthy follow-up to Shaun of the Dead. Hot Fuzz rewards repeat viewing, just as Shaun of the Dead gets better with repeated viewings. Many sequences fly by so fast, that I struggled to keep up the first time around, but I nodded and smiled the second time. Directing and writing team Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg were careful not to make a parody of action cop movies, but to make a action-cop movie with comedy. They have completely succeeded.
Wright and Pegg take a common plot outline (stranger comes to seemingly harmless small town) and fuses it with an American-style detective story (Solo cop fights to uncover dark secret no one else wants revealed).
Sergeant Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is a humorless, by-the-book police officer, kind of like a tough Joe Friday. Angel gets sent to the small, picture-postcard village of Sandford, full of friendly townsfolk, seemingly free of crime. However, all is not what it seems, and when villagers start getting blown up, decapitated, and roasted, Angel is the only one who gets suspicious. With the help of his new partner, the sweet, bumbling PC Butterman (Nick Frost), Angel tears the lid off of Sandford's dirty secret.
Diehard Shaun of the Dead fans can be forgiven for deciding to wait for the DVD. After all, this movie gets funnier with repeat viewings, but Em and I could not wait that long, and we were happy to give our $9 to see it on the big screen, even if only a fraction of that $9 goes to the filmmakers. My Grade: A
NOTE: I don't know if any of these movies will be any good, but the trailers were very good for Run Fatboy Run, Superbad, and Knocked Up Also a British funeral comedy directed by Frank Oz? I don't recall the title, but I thought it might be a quasi-sequel to Four Weddings and A Funeral: they could name it Four Funerals and a Wedding?
Cinco De Spidey, 2007 • Spider-Man 3 • Regal Stadium Fenway|
The most expensive movie ever made is a fantastic, gripping, emotional thrill ride...buried in a overlong and needlessly cluttered 140 minute movie. If the first 2 movies weren't so good, I would not be holding this movie to such a high standard. Once again, the core relationships between Peter, MJ, and Harry are thoughtfully portrayed by Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, and James Franco. The love triangle they were given to portray smelled a little soapy to me, but I really felt strong connections between the characters.
Why do moviemakers feel the need to pile on an excessive number of villains in movie sequels? I first noticed this phenomenon in Batman Returns (do we really need Catwoman AND The Penguin?) Now Spider-Man 3 includes Sandman AND Venom AND Harry "Green Goblin, Jr" Osborn. The movie would have made more sense, been much better, and a half hour shorter, if they'd saved Sandman for Episode 4, and expanded the Venom character. As it is, they had to contort the realm of possibility to fit them in: they had to rewrite Uncle Ben's murder to fit Sandman in, and sprain my suspension of disbelief to fit in Venom.
How unlikely are these new relationships? It turns out that Ben wasn't shot by that carjacker with the bad haircut after all, it was petty thief Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), who's now escaped from Rikers. Meanwhile, rival photojournalist Eddie Brock (the criminally underused and underrated Topher Grace) is dating Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard, with blonde hair, new boobs, and unreal blue eyes, looking weirder than ever), who's one of Peter's fellow physics students, who also happens to be a model in her spare time. Stacy is doing a photoshoot on top of a photocopier(?) high up in an office building (??) when she is saved from certain death in a runaway crane accident by Spider-Man. Did I mention her father is the chief of police, who is hunting Flint Marko?
Meanwhile, Peter Parker discovers that it feels good to be bad, when his suit is infected with a malicious oily goo which removes all inhibition and sets free your dark id. I am tempted to complain how ludicrous the arrival of this goo is, but it's not wise to question superpower origin stories, because none of them make any sense. When Parker wears his new black suit, he starts strutting like Tony Manero, letting his hair flop over like he's in The Killers, and picking fights with his rivals. This is a fine metaphor for his conflicted feelings about his super-heroic duties, much like his semi-retirement in Spider-Man 2. It's shocking and satisfying to see Spider-Man pick a fight with Harry Osborn, as we have only seen Spidey fight defensively for most of the trilogy.
The first two Spider-Man movies get an A minus and A grades, respectively, and this third installment gets an A minus grade, because I don't have the stomach to give out a B plus to a movie costing $300,000,000.
NOTE: Emily and I invited the whole gang for what we hoped would be the best movie of the summer. We were thrilled at the turnout- our guest list included Jon & Bobbi, Jed and Seneca & Chris, Amy & Adam, Angus, and Phil. At $10 per ticket, that's $110 in tickets from our group. Spider-Man 3 grossed over $148,000,000 over the opening weekend (the largest weekend gross since the last Pirates movie), which means our little group contributed .00007 percent of the receipts.
May 27, 2007 • Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End • Beach Theater, Cape May, NJ|
What a sad conclusion to the PotC trilogy. Even if they decide to make more Pirates movies, I won't be there. After the clever and entertaining Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003, the filmmakers proceeded to film two sequels simultaneously, and ignore every lesson we've ever learned about how to make good sequels. They fall into every trap! The middle episode, last summer's Dead Man's Chest, was overly long, confusing, and bloated, but in a fun and entertaining way. Episode 3 is a confusing, charm-free slog to the finish line, like watching a runner with a leg cramp limp across the finish line.
It's possible that I would be giving this film a higher grade than C plus if I had seen it in a modern theater. I was warned in advance that the Beach Theater in Cape May, New Jersey has none of the charm of a vintage movie theater. The Beach has been showing movies since the early 1950s, and all the improvements in the last half-century have been...what's the opposite of improvement? I've had a wide variety of bad moviegoing experiences: reels missing (The Fifth Element), hostile audience members (The Italian Job), out-of-focus with no surround sound (Shrek 2), and a film break right before the climax (Tremors), but this has to rank right up there. The sound system made understanding the dialog (especially Chow Yun-Fat's accent) difficult; the image bled over all four sides of the screen, meaning the shot composition was totally lost; someone opened a door in the projection booth during a crucial plot point, casting sunlight all over the screen; and the theater smelled like gym socks. I'm reminded of the best moviegoing experience of my life, when I saw Ocean's Eleven at the THX-certified Framingham Premium Cinema-- the surround sound was so good, I thought people were talking at the back of the theater when in fact it was only the surround speakers!
|Summer Sequel & Remake Letdowns: 1998-2007|
My C plus grade for Pirates 3 inspired me to review the last 10 summers and collect the 10 most disappointing sequels and remakes. Just think of the billions of dollars spent to create these 10 films. Worse yet, think of the billions spent on tickets! When my will to live returns, I'll compile a list of the most satisfying summer sequels and remakes...
June 9, 2007 • Knocked Up • Regal Fenway Stadium 13, with my friend Eve|
Another funny and human comedy from Judd Apatow, the writer-director of The Forty-Year OId Virgin. Alison (Katherine Heigl) is a gorgeous PA on the E! cable network who gets a breakout promotion to on-air personality. She's about to become a big TV star, so to celebrate, she goes out clubbing and gets drunk. She gets pregnant during a drunken 3am hookup with Ben (Seth Rogen), a sweet, furry, occasionally charming slacker. In the classic knocked up scenario, the man ditches his responsibility and fucks over the woman. In this story, the guy is the ugly duckling who's always been fucked over by women. Ben's the one who wants to stick around, but will Alison agree to give him a chance?
The more Alison learns about Ben, the more conflicted she is. On the original hookup night, he only made it into her bed thanks to a brief moment of charm, a "completely harmless guy" vibe, and a lot of tequila. The next morning, she views his soft ass in her bed and immediately starts regretting her non-choice. Over a brutal cup of coffee, she learns that besides being sweet and thoughtful, he's also crude, penniless, and unemployed.
So why does Alison decide to give Ben a chance? Apatow crafted this part of the movie very carefully, to make it plausible that a gorgeous blone with money and fame around the corner would try and invite this unpromising stranger into her life. Apatow tries to play it as if Alison starts falling in love with Ben, but when Alison first says "I love you", we didn't buy it.
Alison's living in her sister's guest house (much like Kato Kaelin, and Matthew on The New Adventures of Old Christine), therefore, this gestating relationship takes place under the judging eyes of Debbie, played with great humor, finesse, and sadness by Leslie Mann.
Debbie and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd) are Alison and Ben's cautionary tale: they're the prototypical unhappy married couple. Debbie and Pete got married because Debbie got pregnant, and 10 years later, they're both dissatisfied. They love their kids, but its a daily grind to live with each other. Apatow reportedly based this relationship on his own marriage to actress Leslie Mann (who plays Debbie!), and their children play Pete and Debbie's kids in the movie. Their relationship is so well drawn, it's almost uncomfortably realistic at times.
I am so impressed with the care and thoughtfulness that went into making this movie, that I have neglected to talk about how funny it is. It is funny, and crude, and ridiculously rude. But it's all those things in a uniquely mature adult kind of way. I didn't feel like I do when I watch American Pie and that class of comedy- with those films, I feel like an old man watching jokes for 16-year olds. In Knocked Up, I feel like the fart jokes are for the 30-plus club!
Rogen and Heigl are so busy carrying the story that they don't get to be funny very often. Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd are both wonderfully funny. Not only is Mann funny when she's barking at people, but also when she breaks down later on the movie. Calling a babysitter a c*** was never so well delivered. Paul Rudd's character shares some of the fatalistic 'what does it all mean" attitude of his character from The Forty-Year Old Virgin: instead of dwelling on his departed girlfriend and his self-imposed celibacy, Pete dwells on his complete inability to feel anything. While watching his kids play with soap bubbles, he remarks "I wish I cared about anything as much as my kids care about bubbles."
Ben lives in a run-down marijuana den with four fellow stoned slackers. Their comic riffing forms the base of comic relief on which the movie rests. Apatow reportedly films hours and hours of footage with this quintet joking around, and through endless preview testing, picked the bits with the best reactions for the movie.
I am holding this movie to quite a high standard, so if it sounds like I didn't like the movie, let me reassure you, I really enjoyed it. I'm just being tough and examining the film with the kind of scrutiny that the latest Ashton Kutcher or Tara Reid comedy doesn't deserve. I happily award an A grade and I look forward to more from Mr Apatow. Next up: Superbad (co-written by Rogen and co-produced by Apatow).
|Halfway through 2007|
We're halfway through 2007, and I am making progress in my efforts to cut back on the mediocre movie-going: I've only been to the movies 16 times this year. If I go to the theater 32 times total in 2007, it will be my lowest yearly total since 2000, when I only saw seventeen films on the big screen. I have reached the mythical "once per week" plateau only twice: 1995 and 2003. For more, see Moviegoing By The Numbers.
June 30, 2007 • Ratatouille • Entertainment Cinemas, Fresh Pond|
Best movie of the year, the finest use of computer animation ever, and possibly the best Pixar movie. A completely delightful adventure into the world of creating for its own sake, bringing something into the world, a movie for aesthetes everywhere.
Co-writer and director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) has created a film with a surprisingly subtle premise, which still satisfies everyone from children to seniors. Yes, the movie's about a rat who wants to cook, but it's also about declining aesthetic values versus mediocrity and commerce. The Parisian restaurant where Remy the rat (Patton Oswalt) meets a aspiring garbage-boy Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano) is a formerly five-star restaurant Gusteau's, which has slipped two stars since its eponymous chef (Brad Garrett) died. The new Chef Skinner (Ian Holm, channeling his Napoleon from Time Bandits) is happy to neglect the food quality, as long as the ignorant tourist trade keeps the receipts up, and he can continue to sell out the Gusteau name with frozen foods for Americans. The arrival of Linguini and Remy puts all this in jeopardy.
The movie makes a not-too subtle jab at American taste buds: all the French rats in the movie eat garbage indiscriminately, and love it, but they're all voiced by Americans. Only Remy tries to convince his brother and his father that there is merit in eating fresh food.
The animation looks effortless- the quality of light, water, bread and soup are all magnificent. The medium of CGI allows Bird to tell a story where most of the movie is shot from a rat's eye view: when Remy the rat is trapped under a colander, he peeks through a hole to see out, and we see his POV of the hole, the hand which is holding the colander down, we see up Linguini's sleeve, and we see the heated dialog between Linguini and Chef Skinner (Ian Holm). Obviously this "shot" could be accomplished with hand-drawn animation, but the CGI work puts you right in the action without the artifice of ink art.
One "if I didn't love the movie I wouldnt care this much" quibble: Janeane Garofalo voices Colette, the sole female chef in the kitchen. Her lengthy rant to Linguini on "the facts of kitchen life" was almost completely incomprehensible. In a movie full of French accents, hers was the only one I could not make out. I try to save the highest grades for movies which make the Top Five, so here's me going out on a limb in June: I predict there won't be five better movies this year. My grade: A plus.
The Movie Theater at Fresh Pond Continues to Suck|
I make a habit of staying away from the sad, sucky theater tucked behind the Fresh Pond Mall in Cambridge. When I pass within sight of it, I curse three times and gag on the bad memories of the House Where Dreams Go To Die, the Cursed Lantern, the noisy playpen where the parents of Cambridge send their unsupervised rugrats, the multiplex with "screens" so cruelly small Bono and Chris Martin have held benefit concerts to have the place torn down. That movie "1408" was based on one of the screening rooms. Iran evacuated their embassy and airlifted their ambassador off the roof. Get the idea? Only children, fools, masochists, and adults with depressingly low expectations pay $10 to spend 90 minutes inside.
I experienced the horror of Fresh Pond all too often in the mid 1990s. In the mid 1990s, there was no Boston Common or Fenway cinemas. If you lived in Somerville, your choices were a rat-infested hellhole (Assembly Square) or a hellhole without the rats, I chose the rat-free option. I stayed away from 1995 until 2003, when I saw View From The Top on a dare from my girlfriend. The movie was terrible, I had a coupon, so the whole experience fit together. No one wants to see a terrible movie in a majestic movie house!
Now it's been 12 years since I last frequented the not-so-Fresh Pond. We went to see Ratatouille (what turned out to be the best movie of 2007) at Fresh Pond, only because it was ridiculously convenient. (My wife's parents and sister were in town, staying at the Hotel Tria, located in the same shopping plaza.) I admit Fresh Pond is a great location for a theater. North of Boston and inside of Route 128, your choices for first-run, non-art house fare are Fresh Pond, Revere, and that's it. They finally closed Assembly Square, ten years after I last set foot in that rat-infested hellhole.
So how was this moviegoing experience? It was like watching a movie on a TV in an E.R. waiting room...and by the way, you're horribly injured. I don't recall the last time I had to focus so hard on the action onscreen. It took all my will to screen out all the distractions. We had a row of chatty teenagers behind us. I suspect they are aware that "there's no talking allowed in a theater", but they didn't care. The kid directly behind me silently belched his dinner on my neck twice. A group of children across the aisle, who are too young to know better, talked through the whole movie, asking their mother questions. Mom, of course, just shushes them, in a voice even louder than her kids. The picture quality was good but the sound was only OK. The entrance to the theater includes a shiny plaque SONY DIGITAL DYNAMIC SOUND but I don't believe it. I know what you're thinking: it's a kids' movie, and you went to a 7:35 show, what did you expect? That's a good point, but I have been to plenty of movies with teenagers and children, but nobody ever belched on the back of my head before. Twice.
July 15 and 24, 2007 • Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix • Regal Cinemas Fenway Stadium 13, with Amy and Adam (15th) and AMC Burlington with Em (24th)|
Adapting the longest Harry Potter novel into a watchable movie is a thankless task. Somehow, Brit TV director David Yates manages to create a more-than adequate feature film... and the shortest Potter movie to date. Our three young actors playing Harry, Ron, and Hermione are ageing gracefully. I find Emma Watson's acting a little mannered, but certainly more than acceptable. Imelda Staunton is great as Dolores Umbridge, even if I found her characteristic "cough/laugh" a little off. I really appreciated the changes in art and production design from the previous movie to this one: the Death Eaters's masks are different, the dementors are different, Sirius's fireplace conversation looks different, and Hogsmeade is changed radically. I really enjoyed the black brick look of the Ministry of Magic– there's no reason for the whole wizarding world to look like either Arthurian legend or a Dickens novel.
Dramatic highlights include Harry's detention with Umbridge- the cute kitten plates and tinkling music box score add a creepy touch to the "lines" Harry writes in his own blood. Fred and George's departure from Hogwarts brings smiles and tears to my face. And finally, the battle at the Ministry, which I found needlessly confusing and overly complicated in the book, is reduced to its essential components and delivers a great visceral and emotional whallop.
Potter author J.K. Rowling has admitted her regret that the novel was not more tightly edited, and Yates fufills her wishes on the big screen, by cutting out Quidditch and S.P.E.W, for example, plus several pleasant montages condense the school year into managebale chunks.
Unfortunately, the Order of the Phoenix is barely present in their eponymous movie, at the expense of several chop-worthy subplots. For example, I don't know why the thestrals are included in the film. For dramatic purposes, the winged horses give Harry and Luna something to bond over. Also, the thestrals are used by the D.A. to travel to the Ministry in the third act. They seem so easy to excise from the movie, that I wonder why they were kept in. There's plenty of other places where the movie does not faithfully recreate the book— thankfully none of the movies have been too faithful since Chamber of Secrets —so why not just cut them out? Another subplot which is totally unnecessary: Grawp, the centaurs, and the Forbidden Forest. The initial visit when Harry, Ron, and Hermione visit Hagrid and Grawp is a lengthy time-sink devoted to a dopey giant which is completely ancillary to the drama. The centaurs appearance is less of a waste of time but equally unnecessary. I suppose the writer and director could not figure out how to save Harry from Umbridge and her threatened Cruciatus curse without Grawp and the centaurs.
What's lost from the movie? The Order itself. Nymphadora Tonks, for example, has one line in the movie, and one brief scene goofing off at the Grimmauld Place dinner table. She has an important plotline with the Order and an upcoming romance, but she is only "on the radar" of this movie because Moody calls her by name, and two special effects are devoted to her. Her future husband Remus Lupin is also reduced to a supporting role, Kreacher gets one line because Rowling insisted he be retained, and I don't remember spotting Fletcher Mundungus at all.
July 29, 2007 • The Simpsons Movie • The Somerville Theater|
What a challenge, to create a successful and satisfying Simpsons feature film. We've been anticipating a Simpsons movie ever since the show was just a fad in the early 1990s. It grew from pleasant fad (remember the bootleg Bart t-shirts?) to one of the all-time best TV shows by the mid-1990s. For most of the last decade, as the show treaded water creatively (and frankly slumped badly circa 2003) rumors of a feature film percolated. I suspect many fans hoped that a movie would restore their faith that these characters could be creatively reborn. In my wildest dreams, the movie would be as funny and special as my all-time favorites (You Only Move Twice, Marge vs the Monorail, Kamp Krusty, Homer's Barbershop Quartet, Mr Plow, Homer Badman). However, the most I could realistically hope for is a movie comparable to an above-average episode, which would take advantage of the large scope and PG-13 rating of the big screen, and yet stay true to the hand-drawn and family-first tone of the TV show.
Finally The Simpsons Movie has arrived, and I cannot complain. The plot is classic Simpsons (Homer adopts a pig, Homer causes ecological disaster, Homer goes on vision quest, Homer hammers himself repeatedly), but expanded in scope to fill a movie screen. Homer and Marge's marriage is strained to the point of a heartbreaking emotional climax, and possibly the saddest moment in Simpsons history. Bart and Lisa get their own plotlines: Bart is puzzled but eventually embraces a functional paternal relationship with Flanders, and Lisa is adorable when she has a mini-romance with an adorable Irish exchange student/environmentalist/troubadour. Even Maggie has some key scenes.
The character animation looks all hand-drawn, but I noticed some inconsistency: sometimes the thickness of character's outlines would vary from scene to scene, or even within a scene, and I noticed the character animation occasionally was definitely cruder in some brief shots, especially in non-closeups. I suspect the producers had to budget where they spent their time and money on finesse. The object, background, and landscape animation was highly detailed and very well rendered, with moving cameras much like the animation on Matt Groening's other TV show, Futurama. It's about time The Simpsons got this fancy treatment! The movie does take advantage of its PG-13 rating, with some well-placed strong language, one incredibly belated drug reference, and yes, we get to see Bart completely naked. Completely.
August 17, 2007 • The Bourne Ultimatum • The Somerville Theater|
We're nearly at the end of the summer- all our teacher friends are going back to work, my wife is preparing her syllabus, cargo shorts are on clearance at Target, and the Halloween candy has arrived at Stop & Shop. After a summer of disappointing three-quels (Spider-Man 3, Pirates 3), a truly kick-ass three-quel has finally arrived: The Bourne Ultimatum is the best action movie of the year, and one of the best three-quels of all time. Ultimatum is as good or better than Bourne 2, which was much better than the good-but-not-great Bourne 1.
In some ways, this film fits the same format as the first two movies: Bourne is chased across the globe as he seeks out the truth, while the CIA spooks in the nerve center under-estimate him at every turn. This time, Bourne comes out of hiding when an intrepid reporter Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) turns up some fresh leads on the origins of Treadstone, the CIA black op which created him. Bourne makes contact, and CIA deputy director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) intends to do anything to keep a lid on the story. Vosen brands Ross and his source within the CIA as traitors. When Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) points out his slippery slope of secret-keeping, she asks "When does it all end?" He barks back "When we win." If that's not an indictment of "if you're not my friend, then you're my enemy" policies, I don't know what is.
In Supremacy, Brian Cox played the evil father figure role much like his part in X-Men 2. In this film, in a total casting surprise, a certain five-time Oscar nominee portrays Bourne's original initiator, the doctor who made Bourne into the brainwashed assassin. He's so grandfatherly in his demeanor towards Bourne, that the subject of their conversations is all the more creepy, compared to when Chris Cooper barked at Bourne in the first movie.
Julia Stiles is brought back, which is implausible plot-wise, but thankfully she is not over-used. Some kind of prior relationship is only hinted at, and their dialogue is thankfully brief. The wordless exchanges are potent, particularly when Stiles cuts and dyes her hair to change her appearance, which evokes the same scene with Franka Potente from Identity.
What keeps this movie from feeling redundant are the inventive and clever action set pieces. As an action conniseur, I can esily think ahead of the plot and see outcomes a mile away. I want to be surprised, and I want to see action and thrills staged in new ways. A cat-and-mouse chase in Waterloo station, London, is smart and fresh, as Bourne guides a journalist through a gauntlet of agents by remote control. A motorcycle and footchase around Casablanca is thriling in its reality- it's not necessarily Matt Damon throwing himself through windows and racing down alleys, but it feels like it's all really happening to someone. Finally, a demolition derby in midtown Manhattan demonstrates what really happens to cars when you smash them together. I've been watching some late-1970s Bond movies recently on cable, and I have really appreciated the car chases. They're very obivously really cracking up these cars, and they stick the camera right in there. Ultimatum and Supremacy have that feel.
I didn't see either of the first two Bourne movies in the theater. When The Bourne Identity came out in 2002, Matt Damon was not an action star. I had most recently seen him in The Legend of Bagger Vance and Ocean's Eleven, neither of which included any ass-kicking. I may have eventually seen Identity on TNT, or maybe from Netflix, I don't recall. I didn't see Supremacy (2004) until the spring of 2006. That's when I finally realized what I was missing. In anticipation of seeing Ultimatum in the theater, I rented both Bourne 1 and 2 via Amazon Unbox on my TiVo. We watched Bourne 1 on Monday, Bourne 2 on Tuesday, and Bourne 3 on Friday. What a week of ass-kicking!
September 7, 2007 • Guys Movie Night: Superbad • Regal Fenway Stadium 13|
A honest, funny, crude, and realistic depiction of high-school drunken foolishness. Another example of the new comedy process where the director tries out 100 jokes per scene, then edits the movie based on which jokes get the most laughs in preview screenings. This may result in guaranteed quality humor, but the resulting movie sometimes feels rough and choppy. For example, the most famous scene where Fogel shows Seth and Evan his fake "McLovin" ID included plenty of punchlines ("Are you an Irish R&B singer? Are you Seal?") but it never felt like a character actually said two sentences in a row. The chop-chop-chop rhythm eliminates any flow. Seventy years ago, the Marx brothers would try out their routines on the road in front of live audiences, crafting and honing their jokes before they filmed them onscreen. I'm generally pleased with the results of this style of comedy-moviemaking, but it would be refreshing to see a comedy with takes which lasted longer than five seconds. Where's the Ghostbusters when you really need them?
NOTES: Angus, Jeff, Phil, and I saw the movie in the mostly empty Screen 8 three weeks after the movie's debut. A trailer for National Treasure 2: We Remake The Da Vinci Code drew open laughter from the entire audience. The trailer for the Coen brothers new movie, No Country for Old Men, makes the movie look a-w-e-s-o-m-e!
September 8, 2007 • 3:10 to Yuma • Regal Fenway Stadium 13|
A great Western and a awesome film all around. A big step up for director James Magnold, after his biopic by-the-numbers Walk The Line. Russell Crowe is Ben Wade, a charming, handsome, ruthless, notorious stagecoach robber. By a fluke, Wade has finally been captured, after 22 heists, who knows how many murdered, and $400,000 in cash stolen. He's being taken to Yuma AZ for his trial and certain hanging. Christian Bale is Dan Evans, a desparate rancher who must save his ranch, make a man out of his son, and redeem his own manhood, by agreeing to take Crowe to the 3:10 train to Yuma, a 3-day, two night overland journey. A solid and thoughtful script, world-class performances, and fine location photography equal a fine Western we were talking about all evening afterwards.
NOTES: We went to the 4:40pm screening, which led to some verbal confusion at the box office: I stepped up and declared "Two for the 4:40 to Yuma, please", which is only half right. According to movietickets.com, you can see 3:10 to Yuma in two theaters in Yuma, Arizona (The Harkins Palms 14 or the Main Street Cinemas), and the Harkins 14 is even showing the film at 3:10. I joked with the teenage clerk, who asked "Oh, is that what that movie is about?" Sigh. George, Mandy, and Amy joined Emily and myself. We went to El Pelon Taqueria for dinner afterwards, and had a lively cinematical conversational critique.