Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sydney Pollack

Sorry, it's been a while since I've reviewed anything. I actually have three or four movies that I'm currently writing up, I just haven't had much time. I absolutely had to post about this loss, however.

Sydney Pollack

New York Times Article

Friday, May 16, 2008

Baby Mama

This movie has some funny moments, but in general, it's a miss. The script is uninspired, and the cast seems like they're just walking through the roles. But of course, you don't expect brilliance out of a movie called Baby Mama. Even so, with a rather credible cast, I was hoping for a movie with a little more substance.

Tina Fey stars as Kate Holbrook, a career driven real-estate entrepreneur wants a baby. One problem is she has no mate. Another, and more serious problem is that she's unable to conceive. Enter Angie Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler) a white trash woman looking to make a quick buck. She agrees to be a surrogate mother to carry Kate's baby. After a series of events, they start living together.

Pretty much the ongoing joke is a version of the odd couple. Kate is the mature, uptight business woman, and Angie is the childish, slow-witted, slob. This relationship provides more than just comedy. Clearly Angie is functioning in a role preparing Kate for motherhood. One of the characters (Kate's sister I believe) directly alludes to this fact.

There were several very amusing characters in the movie. Unfortunately, these were mostly very minor roles. Daily Show correspondent, and "PC Guy" John Hodgeman plays a hilariously awkward fertility specialist. Steve Martin is Kate's boss, and plays a cross between himself and Mr. Peterman from Seinfeld. Sigourney Weaver has my favorite role of the movie, portraying the surrogate coordinator who is also going through her own pregnancy- at 60.

The movie isn't great, but it has fun moments. Some of the more outrageous characters are amusing, but the two leads get a little irritating. Also, a sort of twist towards the end fizzles out before it even gets started, and the potential conflict that could result is barely tapped. If you want to see this, you may enjoy it, but if you're doubtful, it's best to stay away.


Saturday, May 10, 2008

Speed Racer

This is of course the much anticipated live action adaptation of the classic Japanese cartoon. I hesitate to say live action, because much more of it was animated. I really loved the old cartoon, and I think this managed to beautifully capture the style and mood of the original. Unfortunately, rhythm wise, and a plot wise, the execution left a bit to be desired.

The original cartoon is one of the most popular Japanese anime series. It ran in the late 60's, and though I wasn't around to see it, I enjoyed watching reruns decades later. When I found out about the Wachowski making a movie out of the series, I was both excited and skeptical. The first Matrix movie was one of my favorites of all time. The second two, on the other hand, were two of my least favorites. I went into this with more curiosity than any real expectations. Still, I thought if anyone could pull it off, it would be the Wachowskis.

Emile Hirsch plays Speed, the racing wunderkind of the Racer family. This talent did not come out of the blue, however. His father, Pops (John Goodman) is a race car designer, and his older brother, Rex (Scott Porter) was a champion driver until a series of scandals and tragedies. The movie opens already showing Speed wrestling with demons. As he hones his driving skills he gets an offer drive for one of the major auto manufacturers, Royalton motors. Speed must face the choice of leaving his family, or staying with them while Royalton systematically ruins their lives.

There is much much more in this movie than just that familial plot. The movie includes conspiracies fixing the outcomes of races to boost company profits, double crossing deals, and industrial take-overs. Some of this is pretty heavy for a fun and pretty movie about racing. The plot wasn't necessary difficult unto itself. The problem occurred in the execution of it. Between (and some times during) lengthy race scenes, the story was delivered like a machine gun. Plot points were not slowly revealed, but shot at us all at once. With great potential for development, this method kind of annoyed me.

Visually, however, the movie was stunning. I am still reeling at how accurately they were able to capture the spirit of the show. The almost absence of cuts from one scene to another, the fluorescent colors everywhere, and the extremely stylized, painted backgrounds are all reminiscent of the show. Even the cartoony acting including the understanding mother (Susan Sarandon), the mysterious loner (Matthew Fox), the seductive yet playful girlfriend (Christina Ricci), and the goofy inept sidekick (Kick Gurry). Of course the most extreme of all is Speed's younger brother (Paulie Litt) and his monkey. The two of them, and Sparky (Gurry) were probably the characters that most resembled the cartoon origins.

The movie was filled with eye-candy that might be easy to miss. For example, in one scene, Speed's car comes to a screeching halt, and he leaps out, landing on his feet in an homage to the opening credits of the cartoon. One of tracks is even a giant praxinoscope. Some of the scenes with the racers aggressively jockying for position will make you laugh in their absurdity, but they still work okay in the context of the world created in this movie. Everything on screen is there to reflect back to the series.

You should see this just for the visual splendor. The final race has a trippy resemblance to 2001, and the whole movie has this Japanese animated Wizard of Oz quality to it. The world is made even more unsettling when it whips by through the windshield of a race car. The dirty underworld hidden beneath the giant companies provides a darker contrast to the vibrant world. I can't think of enough to say about how the movie looked. I wish, though, that more time had been taken to develop this potentially complex plot, and actually have it progress naturally, instead of having the plot points shoved through a collator.


Monday, May 5, 2008

Iron Man

Summer blockbuster season is upon us. Leading off the year is the latest superhero comic book adventure- Iron Man. I'm not terribly familiar with the comics (at all), so I can only review from that perspective. A number of colleagues who are authorities on the subject, however, have enthusiastically signed off on it. In my uneducated opinion, it is one of the best comic adaptations to date. It's fun, it's action filled, and it doesn't take itself too seriously.

The cast is what made the movie for me. I love Robert Downy Jr, and am a fan of almost everything that he does. He fully captured the suave egomania that embodies Tony Stark. I was bothered by Jeff Bridges only because I could not pick out that it was him. I knew the voice immediately, but could not place it with his face- it really doesn't look anything like him. Gwyneth Paltrow is finally back in major picture after a few years of some very good, but under publicized roles (Proof, The Good Nights) and some minor misses (Infamous, Runing With Scissors). It's nice to see her back in a fun and rather sultry role.

Tony Stark (Downy Jr.) is the mechanical genius/CEO of Stark Enterprises- who among other things, manufactures weapons for the military. During a publicity demonstration in Afghanistan he is taken hostage and instructed to assemble a missile. During his imprisonment he sees the damage his weapons are causing, and vows to turn the company around on the side of good. When bureaucracy proves too much for the industrialist, he takes matters into his own hands, and becomes Iron Man- a global vigilante.

One of the appeals of Iron Man to me, is the fact that he doesn't have superpowers. He simple takes his resources and uses them for good. This adds a bit of humanity and vulnerability to the character for me. This was shown in the movie through the long process of him developing his suit, and his dependence on this technology to live. This was ruined a little for me by some of the flashier, more outrageous scenes (him out maneuvering a pair of F-22s as seen in the trailer).

Iron Man proves that comic book movies can be light hearted and still good. I'm hoping the new Hulk movie will follow suit. Pretty much from here until the end of summer is non-stop blockbusters on the horizon. This week is Speedracer, Then Prince Caspian, Indiana Jones, The Incredible Hulk, The Happening, Wall-E, Hancock, The Dark Knight, and many more. Some of those will be better than Iron Man, and others will probably fall short. This wasn't a bad way to start off the season.


Sunday, May 4, 2008

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

The original movie, with this heroic duo trying to make their way to White Castle has become a stoner cult- dare I say classic? Not generation defining like Dazed and Confused, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (or in my opinion, Superbad), but it will go down as a B level classic anyway. The sequel takes the concept and pummels it with social commentary. In a strange way, it actually works.

John Cho and Kal Penn reprise their roles as the titular characters. This time instead of trying to curb their munchies, they've been mistaken as terrorists, and are fleeing for their lives. They're on their way to Texas to get help from a connection in high places (who also happens to be marrying Kumar's lover interest).

On the surface, and after my first initial viewing, the movie was not very good. It was full of nudity jokes, flatulence humor, and of course drugs. The movie included a bottomless party (as opposed to topless) fellatio as a means of torture, a backwoods incestuous marriage, and a pot smoking President Bush (a really bad impression at that).

After that description you may be surprised to hear me recommend it. Despite all the crude humor, there is an important social undertone. Unlike the first movie which glossed over the main characters being Asians (except for one scene), that trait defines the course of this movie. A jumpy and paranoid old woman is the one who thought they were terrorists, and everyone else just followed suit. Racial bigotry is rampant in this movie- on all fronts. Every person is stereotyped, and this is done with the complete intention to not offend, but to provoke thought. You're not prodded to laugh at the stereotypes, but laugh at the people who actually feel this way.

This is a tough movie to sell. The people who will be laughing at it, are not those who will be seeing the undertones. And this may be the point. It takes a serious message and coats it in stoner humor. Best of all is that Neil Patrick Harris also returns, playing himself more wild than ever before. During his scenes I could not stop laughing.

This is a very curious movie. It's clearly low-brow humor, but with a deep intellectual message. Harold and Kumar are shaping up to be a subversive force to make even Noam Chomsky proud. I genuinely feel that it's people who watch movies like this and take these counter-stereotypes to heart (whether consciously or not), who are going to be changing the world.


Thursday, May 1, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Sorry it's been a while since my last review. I decided to watch a very light, and very funny movie this time out. Sarah Marshall fit that bill. I'll be honest, I wasn't expecting very much out of it. I was disappointed by one of Judd Apatow's last productions (Walk Hard) and didn't think this one would offer much more. Instead, I was met with a very funny story that just about any loser who's ever been dumped can relate to.

Apatow has a great production model. Find a second tier actor (possibly from a supporting role in one of your previous movies, or even from one of your failed TV shows) use their script (after all, who in Hollywood isn't writing a script?) and let him star. Then bring on board a rookie director, and just let them have fun. More often than not, you'll come out with a hilarious product. For Sarah Marshall, that star/writer is Jason Segel, and that director is Nicholas Stoller.

Segel stars as Peter Bretter, a musician who gets dumped by his Television star girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). In a vain attempt to move on, he goes on a vacation to Hawaii, where he coincidentally runs into Sarah with her new flame, Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). He is also a musician- a Gothic sex symbol, a perfect contrast to Bretter's television scores. This chance run-in sends Peter into complete despair, but due to a new romantic interest, Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis) an employee at the resort, he stays.

This doesn't sound like a terribly funny movie, and some parts of it were fairly serious, but on a whole, it was hilarious. My favorite moments were scenes from Marshall's CSI inspired procedural show- costarring William Baldwin. I hate those shows, and seeing them so deliciously lampooned (Jason Bateman appears as an animal psychic detective), made the entire movie worth it.

Some of the more absurd parts (the nude breakup featured prominently in the trailers, and Bretter's puppet-Dracula rock opera) were actually true stories. And other moments such as an uncomfortable dinner the four main characters have together are so awkward, but painfully funny. The inclusion of Paul Rudd, Jonah, Hill, and Bill Hader as supporting characters seems to support this idea of a sort of Apatow fraternity. It's a tight knit group of very talented comedic actors and writers, just appearing to have fun.

Though Forgetting Sarah Marshall is funny, it won't go down as one of Apatow's most memorable ones. 40 Year Virgin, Knocked Up, and despite many who would agree with me, my favorite- Superbad, will all outlive Sarah Marshall. That doesn't really, matter, though. The Apatow crew has been creating long strings of funny movies for a few years now, and they've hit the ground running in 2008 after a slow end to 2007. Drillbit Taylor, the upcoming Pineapple Express, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall provide cheap, but fun comedy.