Friday, April 25, 2008

Baby Mama (**1/2)

Written and Directed by Michael McCullers


For the last couple years, it seems that the aura of Tina Fey has continued to grow more and more. She became somewhat of a cult hit as the host of Weekend Update on "Saturday Night Live". She gained a lot of recognition, and a Writer's Guild nomination for her script for the teenage hit Mean Girls. She left SNL, and created the brilliant NBC sitcom "30 Rock", and plays the main character Liz Lemon--an ode to her geek chic style. "30 Rock" has won numerous Emmys, and Golden Globes, leading the way for Fey to headline a Hollywood motion picture for the first time in her career. It's a wonder it didn't happen sooner.

Joining her is fellow Second City comedienne, and former Weekend Update co-host Amy Poehler. Together they team up for the incredibly light film Baby Mama. The story is about Kate (Fey), an independent, wealthy woman who works for a health food company, but has been struck with a sudden case of baby fever, when she realizes her biological clock is ticking. She tries adoption, but can't seem to break through. She tries to get artificially inseminated, but her doctor has issues with her "T-shaped uterus", and claims she is infertile. Finally, Kate finds a solution to her problem.

She finds a surrogate mother program, led by an extremely fertile, but extremely strange older woman (Sigourney Weaver), who explains the process to Kate. That is when Kate comes into contact with Angie (Poehler), a coarse woman, with no manners and a slick tongue. Together, Kate and Angie decide that Angie will be the surrogate mother, and carry Kate's child. All seems well for Kate, when Angie becomes pregnant, but when Angie dumps her loser "common law" husband (Dax Sheppard), Angie decides to move into Kate's apartment.

There is plenty of odd couple moments between Kate and Angie (Angie sticks numerous pieces of chewed gum under Kate's coffee table), and they get under each other's skin on more than one occasion, but over time they come to understand and respect each other, forming a strong friendship. Weaving in and out of the story is Rob (Greg Kinnear), a fruit drink store owner who catches Kate's eye; and also, there is Oscar (Romany Malco), a doorman with a heart of gold and a strangely close relationship with the hotel's patrons.

It's a credit to the cast and their comic ability that this film comes off as funny and warm, since the story is framed by a script that is so incredibly mild and safe, that is guaranteed to only be liked by everybody or nobody. Nothing will surprise you, and everything unfolds so conventionally that there is never any real suspense to the story, whatever twists and turns that McCullers tried to throw in. Any fans of Fey's and Poehler's past comedy will be underwhelmed by this film's complete lack of bite, no doubt a technique used to agree with the most demographics possible.

But in the end, the chemistry between Fey and Poehler is infectious, as well as hilarious. Fey proves once again that she can be a very dependable actress when she is put in her comfort zone, and Kate is role taylor-made for her wonderful sarcasm and straight-man reactions. On the other hand, Poehler is a revelation. Angie is not an incredibly complex character, but Poehler takes the character and runs wild with it, creating someone who is as smart as she is inept, and as confident as she is neurotic.

Everything in this movie is supposed to feel bubbly, almost to a fault, but it's compelling to watch these actors have fun with this light material. Steve Martin makes a wonderfully funny cameo as Kate's narcissistic guru boss, but that is the only thing this film has in the way of edge. Malco, Kinnear, Sheppard, and Weaver are all dedicated to their confined roles, and with the guidance of Fey and Poehler, there is nothing dissatisfying in this film, and it gets the audience result that it searches for: a chuckle and a smile.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (***)

Directed by Nicholas Stoller


Despite Forgetting Sarah Marshall being a startling impressive debut from director Nic Stoller, and featuring to television stars in Kristen Bell and Mila Kunis, the undeniable star of this film is Jason Segal. The film's writer, and main star, Segal's presence is the dominant one throughout. Segal is another member of the oh-so-popular Apatow comedy crew. I bet I wasn't the only one who cringed when Apatow but his name on a blunder like Drillbit Taylor, but it didn't take long, and with the help of Segal's hilarious script, the Apatow films continue on successfully.

Peter Bretter (Segal) is a composer who writes music for a hit cop television show titled "Crime Scene", and is lucky enough to be the boyfriend of the show's superstar lead, Sarah Marshall (Bell). Everything is fine for Peter, until Sarah decides to break up with him. The news is so surprising to Peter, it's jaw-dropping (and towel-dropping, with Segal letting it all hang out). He can't get over Sarah, but attempts to by sleeping with random women. Unfortunately, this doesn't fix his broken heart. Taking advice from his helpful step-brother Brian (Bill Hader), Peter decides to go on a vacation to clear his mind.

Off to Hawaii Peter goes, only to find that Sarah has decided to stay at the same hotel. Making it even more unbearable for Peter, is that Sarah has dragged along her sex-addicted, rock star boyfriend Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). The one bright spot in Peter's trip is meeting Rachel (Kunis), a free-spirited woman, who's sympathetic to Peter's plight, having been on the wrong end of break-ups before in her life. In between awkward moments and run-ins with the oddballs of the hotel, Rachel begins to help Peter realize that there may be more to life than just Sarah Marshall, as broken-hearted as he is.

So, we all know where this one is going to go, right? In a way, that is the beauty of all of the Apatow comedies. None of them are about the destination, but about the journey. Sure, plot lines are recycled throughout this film from other romantic comedies, but it's the execution of this picture that makes it so unforgettable and so unbelievably funny. Segal's script is so honest, yet so hysterical. The words are so subtle, sometimes the heart in them is hard to comprehend, particularly when they are behind so many weed and sex jokes. But the heart is there.

We've all heard by now of Segal's notorious full-frontal scenes. Other than shock value, the scene showcases Segal's commitment to the film (not that Segal appearing nude in a film is anything particularly surprising). Of course, the film's humor is abundant, such as the numerous segments from "Crime Scene", in which Sarah co-stars with William Baldwin, who spurts out one one-liner after another ("I don't think she'll be able to re-enter that pageant... without a face").

Segal is buoyed by his supporting cast. Kunis, who's grown into a glowing beauty since her days on "That 70's Show", is probably the most rounded female character in any of the Apatow comedies. Her brashness, as well as her sweetness, play well throughout. Bell, ironically a TV star herself with "Heroes" and the now-canceled "Veronica Mars", seems to add all of it to her role as Sarah Marshall. Of course, Sarah comes around to Peter again, but Bell pulls it off with honesty, not schitck. Then, of course, there is Russell Brand. Already a famous comic in England, Brand's spot-on portrayal of rock star narcissism is gut-bustingly funny, perhaps getting the biggest laughs of the whole movie.

There is no Apatow comedy without the onslaught of hysterical minor characters, fleshed out by the Apatow mainstays. There's Matthew (Jonah Hill), the waiter who is constantly pestering Aldous with his own rock star ambitions. There's Chuck (Paul Rudd), a surfing coach who is in a constant state of weed-induced utopia, allowing him to say such classic lines as "the weather outside is weather". Also, we meet Derald (Jack McBrayer from "30 Rock"), a God-fearing newlywed, whose frightened about having to consummate the marriage. These are roles and performances that are more ambient than useful to the plot, but without them, the film's hilarious energy would not be the same.

Overall, I don't know if I'd endorse this film as much as The 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up, but it is more in the league of last year's hit Superbad, and that's not a bad place to be. This is not a film for children, nor a film for anyone who is averse to seeing Jason Segal's penis (it makes a cameo in two scenes). But it is easily the best comedy to come out so far this year. Filled to the brim with uproarious scenes, it still manages to be somewhat earnest about heartbreak and falling in love. In the end, that's what makes it stay with you after you leave the theater.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Smart People (**1/2)

Directed by Noam Murro


The story goes: renowned commercial director Noam Murro was approached to make his feature film debut with The Ring Two. Murro, after much consideration, turned it down, and decided to introduce himself to the film world with Smart People. Not having seen The Ring Two, I couldn't really say giving up one for the other was a good decision, but I can say that Murro's first film does struggle with a contrived plot. The film's charm, though, comes from it's wonderful, star-studded cast.

The story is about Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), a widowed father of two, who teaches (well, kind of) English at a university. He's become a crusty curmudgeon, judging his students before even meets them, citing that students today do not have the right amount of passion for literature to properly digest his grumpy teaching methods. His son, James (Ashton Holmes), attends the school where Lawrence teaches, but tries his best to avoid him because of Lawrence's crass attitude. Lawrence lives alone with his over-achieving daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), who's own behavior is no less self-absorbed then her father's.

After suffering a seizure, Lawrence meets Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), whom he learns later was a former student of his. She tells him that a seizure legally prevents him from driving for no less than six months. Catching wind of the opportunity, Lawrence's adopted, never-do-well brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) decides to be a chauffeur, and in return is given a place to stay. As the story moves forward, Lawrence develops a romantic relationship with Dr. Hartigan, and Chuck attempts to teach Vanessa how to get fun out of life.

The film was produced by Michael London, the same guy who was behind the masterpiece Sideways. There are many concepts within Smart People that reminded me of Sideways, mainly the cranky, socially-nonfunctional protagonist whose only coerced out of his introverted persona by a sweeping romance. The big difference between the two films though is its story development. With Sideways, we never wonder why the characters do what they do, because the film took the time to truly develop them, making sure the audience knew them better than they even knew themselves. Smart People--which was penned by first-timer Mark Jude Poirier--has a conflict which goes from sad, to happy, and back to sad so inexplicably, we wonder why these characters do anything we see them do in the film.

But that being said, I enjoyed Smart People quite a bit. Its quick-witted, snappy dialogue pops, and the film has a perfect cast to fill the shows of every part. Dennis Quaid, a much underrated actor, finds a soul within the grizzled Lawrence. It's difficult play a character that's so unbelievably unlikable, yet is on the screen more than 75 percent of the time. Very easily, he could have given Lawrence a very honorable personality, to give him more leeway with the audience, but instead, he makes Lawrence even sadder, more sunken into his own narcissism. I wouldn't be surprised if Quaid's performance turns off some of his loyal fans, but it was the right thing to do for the character.

Thomas Haden Church, an actor with uncanny comedic ability brings most of the laughs of the film. Church, an actor who's always brought depth to his black sheep characters (see him also in his Oscar-nominated performance in Sideways), gives little to no energy to Chuck, instead relying on his subtlety and comedic timing to flesh his slacker character out (not to mention more than one shot of him bare-ass). Ellen Page, the little Canadian that could, is in full Juno-mode here, if Juno were a grade-grubbing Republican, whose worries were not babies but getting a perfect score on the SAT. But there is a depth to her performance, creating a character with complex (almost Oedipus-like) issues, brought on by her maddening father. It's not until Chuck brings it out of her, that she sees the emptiness of her ambitions.

Parker and Holmes, as well, are striking in their supporting roles, each successfully portraying how someone can both hate and fall in love with Lawrence. Truth is, for a first director, Murro truly hit the jackpot with his cast. This film is hard to market; it is certainly too high brow for casual moviegoers, but not nearly as complex for hardcore movie fans to give full acclaim. I, myself, am on the fence with this one, and probably won't know my true opinion of the film's quality until I view it a second time. But I will say this, I enjoyed this more than I enjoyed any other film I've seen so far in 2008, so I guess that's something.

10 Music Videos

This is a bit of a sidetrack, but this was a list of the ten best music videos I thought up the other day while I was bored.

10. "Hypnotize", Notorious B.I.G.

The quintessential rap video of the nineties: big-budget, shot in widescreen, and equipped with a strong, intriguing plot line (usually hacking off a famous action film). Though Tupac’s “California Love” was bigger in terms of style, concept, and popularity, it was B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” which perfected this style of video which is still common today. Involving a sing-a-long bouncing ball which allows to follow along with the lines of the song, our eyes are mostly focused on one of the best car chase scenes in music video history, which involves B.I.G.’s sidekick at the time, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, driving backwards. What it lacks in coherence it makes up in style with the white suits, and the surprisingly stunning cinematography.

9. "Freedom '90", George Michael

George Michael’s career has seemed to have an unfortunate devolution into numerous gay jokes, but he was at his peak in the year 1990, when he released the song “Freedom ‘90”, a huge hit that was supported by a wonderful music video. The video, which involves numerous famous super models of the time canoodling alone within a ragged building, while simultaneously lip-synching the lines of the song, was most notorious for the absence of Michael himself. Looking to do away with his Wham! past, Michael took himself virtually out of the video, instead being replaced by Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, and Cindy Crawford. Nobody can forget the ceremonial explosion of his niche leather jacket and jukebox.

8. "Smells Like Teen Spirit", Nirvana

Nirvana's introduction to the music world came with a bang, leaving the phony prestige of 80's hair bands in their dust. Set in a murky school gym, it was a video that reached out displayed teen angst in its most bare form. With essentially every band member covered by long, unclean hair, the band performs with an audience of moshing schoolchildren, and high school is shown the way it feels for most of it's inhabitants: a grim hell, where the only escape is letting off steam listening to your favorite band with the volume all the way up. It was as revolutionary as it was innovative, setting the stage for incoming alternative rock throughout the 90's, and inadvertently placing lead singer/songwriter Kurt Cobain to the forefront of the movement. The song and the video still stand as a cornerstone for that entire decade.

7. "Need You Tonight/Mediate", INXS

This double video, containing to songs and videos with completely different styles in terms of tone and complexity, became a huge hit in the late 80's. A majority of "Need You Tonight" consists of a groundbreaking (for its time) multi-layering technique which allowed a black & white band to play in the background, while a color, and almost grainy Michael Hutchence sang in the foreground. The dark tone of the video's visuals coincide with the song's dark, immediate lyrics. And for a moment, for what seems like no reason other than to add a moment of strangeness, Hutchence walks in the foreground with a white mouse nestled on his shoulder. "Mediate", the second part is a nice homage to Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues", arguably the first official music video, which you can see here.

6. "Virtual Insanity", Jamariquai

A video that is brilliant mostly because of it's simplicity. Consisting mostly of lead singer Jay Kay trying to find his way around a room where the floors refuse to stop moving, throwing couches, chairs, and love seats in every which direction. There are cameos made by several large bugs and a bird, and when all is said and done, both couches are left bloodied by the abuse the room has put them through. Sporting a trademark hat, Kay performs moves some of the best gymnasts couldn't pull off, working his way around a room where lord only knows which way the walls will close in on you. On top of everything, the hyperactive room and the bleeding furniture is all allegorical for the meaning of the song, spouting the fear that technology can have over our simple minds.

5. "Coffee & TV", Blur

Another video pulled along by allegory. The video tells the story of a very optimistic carton of milk attempting to find the missing son of the family who purchased him. On his journey, he comes along the terrors of the real world, including angry hookers, dark alleyways, and watching the love of his life (a pink milk carton), getting smashed rather violently by a rather omnipresent foot. Despite it all, the little carton continues on his trek, determined to find the boy, and when he finally does, the boy pays him back by drinking his milk, and throwing him in the trash. Representing our own mistreatment of the little guy, the video's imagery is bettered by the most adorable milk carton anyone's ever seen. There is a happy ending, though: he meets up with his pink-carton love in milk heaven.

4. "Everlong", Foo Fighters

After the end of Nirvana, drummer Dave Grohl moved over to the Foo Fighters, and when they released their underrated masterpiece The Colour and the Shape, along with it came the video for one of the album's biggest hits, "Everlong". The video, a dream sequence mixed with an action film mixed with a romance, is as hard-rocking as it is nonsensical. In a quest to save his wife from a dream in which she's being attacked by two strange men with Elvis hairdos, lead singer must go to sleep himself, to enter her dream and kill the attackers. His weapon? A magically large hand that grows when he gets angry, so he can bitch-slap people to death. Of coarse, all of the characters are played by the members of the band, and the video ends as they rip off their costumes and conclude the song, instruments in hand.

3. "Weapon of Choice", Fatboy Slim

There's a famous rumor that actor Christopher Walken has never turned down a part in his life. Whether or not that's true, I don't know for sure, but one thing that I do know for sure, is that Walken did not turn down the part for the Spike Jonze-directed Fatboy Slim video, "Weapon of Choice". The video displays the wackiness we've come to love from Walken, as he shows off some surprisingly good dance moves throughout an empty hotel lobby. Defiling desks, magazines, and escalators, Walken glides from area to area with an exuberance of a man half his age. His youthful energy becomes so much, that it actually allows him to fly toward the end. Brilliant in its simplicity, the video is a collaboration of two masters of their craft: Walken and Jonze. Hopefully, it is not the last of the projects the two will have together.

2. "Loser", Beck

From depths of underground folk in 1994, came the long-haired, pasty-white Beck. "Loser", a song mixing alternative guitar strumming mixed with nonsensical rap lyrics ("Shave your face with some mace in the dark"), struck a chord with most music-lovers, in the first sign of great music to come after Kurt Cobain's suicide. The film that has a message that combines apathy with downright laziness seemed was supported with a groundbreaking video that matched the song's style exactly. Consisting mostly of homemade-looking videos scrapped hastily together, creating a feeling of havoc which only Beck could make so harmonious. With film negative shots of exercising cheerleaders, and another image of death cleaning someone's windshield in blood, the film's viral energy brought Beck into pop music where his strange innovation still reigns true.

1. "Sledgehammer", Peter Gabriel

This is easily music video equivalent to Citizen Kane. It's innovation and bold attempt to recreate the definition of what a music video was make it stand any other music video of its or any time. Using stop-motion animation combined with Gabriel's face, we're able to go on a pretty interesting adventure through the depths of somebody's subconscious. The video's constant shape-shifting ability makes it fascinating to watch even today. At one point, "Sledgehammer" was the most played video in MTV history, played so much that Gabriel himself called to ask the station to please stop. The film's near-cinematic quality and hypnotizing visuals culminate in a sequence involving two uncooked, dancing chickens. Of coarse, the video ends as Gabriel shifts shape one last time, into a man made out of stars.