Friday, August 29, 2008

Hamlet 2 (**1/2)

Directed by Andrew Flemming


It's not that far out of the realm of reality that something along the lines as a sequel to William Shakespeare's Hamlet could actually be created, but we must ask that question that we do with any kind of sequel--is it really necessary? Well, for Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan), a high school drama teacher, the answer is an enthusiastic 'definitely'. Hence forth, Hamlet 2 is born. A play such a stretch both creatively and morally from the original piece that it sends the entire nation into a First Amendment crisis.

The story involves the aforementioned Marschz (I won't even try to explain how it's pronounced), who has failed miserably as a struggling actor, wasting time in infomercials about herpes and brainless episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess. Low on cash, Dana drags his abrasive wife Brie (Catherine Keener) to Tuscon where he decides to try his hand at high school drama. He only has two devoted students, who play out his own ramshackled recreations of films on the stage, such as Erin Brokovich or Mr. Holland's Opus.

Needless to say, his theater remakes of cinema are disregarded in the school, and panned by the school paper's harshest critic: a 13-year-old adolescent with a very advanced sense of art. When the school threatens to cancel drama forever, it's up to Dana and a new crop of rough-and-tumble students to try and bring the program back into the school's good graces. How do you do that? Dana ponders, and decides that he will write his own play, a completely unrelated sequel to the Bard's classic that involves Jesus, a time machine, and Satan french-kissing the United States president.

Little time is spared before the school, the town of Tuscon, and--most importantly--the students' parents display their disdain for this offensive play, and the clueless Dana is swept up into a controversy that only a man of his limited brain function could create. Marschz attempts to put out the flames with the help of a fiesty amendment lawyer (Amy Poeler) and Elizabeth Shue (yes, the Elizabeth Shue, who--in this film--has given up acting to become a nurse in Tuscon). It is only up to the show itself to prove the nay-sayers wrong, but will the show even go on?

Hamlet 2 is quite paradoxical as a film, mostly because of its uneven humor. There are moments of great guffaws, but they are mostly few and far between other costly moments of adolescent humor, and plot points which slightly come off as serious or dramatic (though, I may have just not gotten the joke). So, what is the great equalizer? Are those few hysterical appearances enough to bouy a mediocre comedy? Well, in the case of this reviewer, it's the enthusiasm and energy of the film's main star Steve Coogan that makes this film bright, funny, and quite an enjoyable experience.

It may be my sense of nostalgia, because I was once sitting inside a high school drama class headed by a talentless bafoon. But that is not what is important. What is important in high school drama--and this film makes a point to say this--is enthusiasm, and boy did that teacher that "taught" me have plenty of that. Anyone who has ever taken any form of theater, whether it be in Juliard or elementary school, can see a resemblance in Marschz to that one crazy instructor who thought everything you needed to learn in life could be found within the pages of his favorite play (or in Marschz's case, movie).

The young actors who play Hamlet 2's cast are all competent if not carbon-copies of the way most teenagers are presented in Hollywood films. Thr truth is the film saves itself from medocrity about an hour and ten minutes in, when the actual play begins. Watching it, I felt exhilarated, thinking that if someone had ever had the moxy to actually put this show on, it could work as a satire in the form of Rosencratz and Guildenstern Are Dead. But soon, I came to my senses and noticed that the show's briliance was in part due to it's congested state within the movie.

In a fair world, the song "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus" would be in serious consideration for a Best Original Song Academy Award, but I wouldn't give it more than a puncher's chance just to score a nomination. The film squanders many moments for great humor in exchange for the kind an adolescent might enjoy, and actually puts Catherine Keener in a position that I've never seen her: stuck in a character that even she can't make sense out of. That all said, I can't say I didn't leave the theater glad I'd seen it, and glad to see a talented performer like Coogan display his brand of humor on the big stage.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Inexplicably Early Oscar Predictions


Why? Because I have no reason not to, and it's early enough to do them without looking like a lunatic. Still, though, the official nominations do not come out until January 22 of 2008, and there is truly no official buzz or apparent front-runners yet, which makes predicting at this point much more fun--but because of all the unknown intangibles that could occur between now and January, I will refrain and only do major awards...


The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button
Revolutionary Road


Christopher Nolan, THE DARK KNIGHT
John Patrick Shanley, DOUBT
Gus Van Sant, MILK


Richard Jenkins, THE VISITOR
Frank Langella, FROST/NIXON
Viggo Mortenson, THE ROAD
Sean Penn, MILK


Angelina Jolie, CHANGELING
Sally Hawkins, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY


*Josh Brolin, MILK
Michael Sheen, FROST/NIXON
Kodi Smit-McPhee, THE ROAD


*Viola Davis, DOUBT


*Dustin Lance Black, MILK
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, BURN AFTER READING
Andrew Stanton, WALL-E


Peter Morgan, FROST/NIXON
Joe Penhall, THE ROAD
*John Patrick Shanley, DOUBT

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Elegy (***)

Directed by Isabel Coixet


Both Penelope Cruz and Sir Ben Kingsley had films released earlier this summer which had me somewhat intrigued (Kingsley with The Wackness; Cruz with Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Both films were more than underwhelming experiences, though the two actors both performed as the formidable actors we all know they are. In Elegy, not only do we have both of them in great form once again, but they're also paired in a film that is eloquently made, with a story so masterfully told, that it makes up for both of the earlier disappointments.

The film is about accomplished college professor David Kepesh (Kingsley), who hosts a radio show in which he discusses literature, and appears on television numerous times to talk about other high-brow topics. But his favorite thing to do? Seduce young women. After every semester, Kepesh holds a cocktail party in which he invites all of his students. At that party, like routine, he finds one particular young woman to track down and lure into bed with him. His target in this particular film? The beautiful, elegant Consuela (Cruz).

Consuela is a Cuban-American student who, like many others, is astonished by Kepesh's seemingly infinite knowledge of all types of culture. She allows Kepesh to guide her quite easily into his bedroom, and they quickly begin a passionate love affair that--shockingly to Kepesh--becomes much more than just physical. For the first time in his entire life, Kepesh feels emotionally attached to this woman. She's all he thinks about when he's alone, and he obsesses about her when she tells him she's made plans. His jealousy turns to paranoia. All of this emotional jostling coming as a consequence of love--something which is very foreign to him.

Despite his near-stalking obsession, Consuela sees something wonderful in Kepesh. He does not know how to handle this love that he feels, and she uses that to make him putty in her hands. Kepesh, though, still cannot grasp his own strong emotions, and attempts at numerous moments to sabotage the relationship. He isolates her, breaks promises, convinced that sooner than later she would find a man more suitable to her age (Kepesh, as they explain, is more than thirty years older than her). Finally, Kepesh succeeds in his journey to end the affair, but he is faced with something even harder: loneliness and a broken heart.

The film is based on a novel by Philip Roth, an author who is frequently attempted on the big screen, but seldom told in any competent fashion (remember The Human Stain?). Much to Roth's MO, the story is filled with sexual paranoia, particularly dealing with an older gentleman's affinity for a much younger woman. Of the few films I've seen based on his works, Elegy is the only one that I've seen that truly works all of the way through. I wonder if it is poetic justice that it is Isabel Coixet, a woman, who finally makes sense of his words on the screen. She handles the material with restraint--well, as much as you can with such graphic material--and lets the story unfold through the characters rather than plot contrivances.

In truth, the film is in the hands of its two stars. Kingsley has much to do throughout this film, as its main character and narrator. I don't know if we ever believe he is the Lethario that he is suggested to be, but his portrait of sexual awakening and lovelorn is both captivating and painful. The biggest star is Cruz, as the mild-mannered Consuela. At first glance (and definitely when we first glance at her in the film), she may be seem to old to play the strong-willed but naive college student, but we're proven wrong rather quickly. For starters, certain moments in the film display Cruz's amazing grace within Consuela's skin that could only be achieved through life experience. Cruz, it seems, has found her niche in American films (another one saved by jumping that sinking Tom Cruise ship).

The film has several astounding supporting turns. One coming from the always wonderful Patricia Clarkson as Carolyn, Kepesh's consistent and unattached mistress, who is much more upset about his affair than she thought she would be. Peter Sarsgaard plays Kepesh's son Kenny, who has never gotten over the bitterness born from Kepesh's abandonment of him and his mother at such a young age. Best of all, though, is Dennis Hopper as Kepesh's Pulitzer Prize-winning friend George O'Hearn. It's much to Hopper's credit that he was able to pull off the role as a much-acclaimed poet and still hold that fire that has lit his entire eccentric career.

The film drags in more than one part of the movie, and the film never addresses anything that hasn't been said in numerous other films before it. But it makes that always amazing point that is much more true than we realize: that some of the most brilliant men who are geniuses of the brain, can be the most incompetent when dealing with the issues of the heart. I will gladly look into more of Isabel Coixet's more obscure work (I confess I haven't seen any of it), and though this film is nothing close to perfect, it holds a great sincerity for its characters that carries through to the audience.

P.S.: With The Wackness Kingsley was with both Famke Janssen and Mary-Kate Olson, and now he in Elegy, he has the arm candy of both Clarkson and Cruz. I can't think of a time in the past or can I think of a time in the future where numerous beautiful women will be throwing themselves so fervently at the knighted actor. That Gandhi is one lucky bastard.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tropic Thunder (****)

Directed by Ben Stiller


With his massive success as a movie star, it's easy to overlook Ben Stiller's incredible talent as a filmmaker. He made the Gen-X classic Reality Bites in 1994, the overwhelmingly underrated The Cable Guy, a 1996 dark comedy that truly took advantage of Jim Carrey, and then in 2000, he helmed the brain-dead guilty pleasure Zoolander. All three incredibly well-made and entertaining films, but with Tropic Thunder he takes the responsibility of trying to create a blistering comedy combined with an action picture combined with a Hollywood satire. Wouldn't you know it, Stiller manages to balance all these genres, and creates one of the best films of the year in the process.

The film involves the production of another film based on a novel about Vietnam soldiers that may or may not be true (don't worry, it's supposed to be this convoluted). The big-time producers call on rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steven Coogan) to control the biggest, highest budgeted war film in Hollywood history. The movie stars brought along for the ride are action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller), the comedian with a staple in fart humor Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and Australian, five-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.). Getting these high-profile personalities spells disaster for Cockburn, as the film production spirals out of control.

After feeling the pressure from both Speedman's pesky agent Pecker (Matthew McConaughey), and the film's verbally abusive executive producer Les Grossman (it ruins the fun to know who plays this memorable character), Cockburn takes the advice from Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), the author of the original story's novel, and puts his actors into the real hell of Vietnam. Placing cameras all around the jungle trees, Cockburn hopes he can catch the natural, gritty energy of the actors, and hopes to keep the film in check with the help of his gung-ho pyrotechnics man Cody (Danny McBride), rigging all kinds of bombs and gadgets to go off.

If it doesn't seem like another characters already, I should probably tell you that Speedman, Lazarus, and Portnoy are joined by two other cast members. One, a rapper named Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), who is in constant promotion of his soft drink "booty sweat", and the other a soldier specialist named Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel)--essentially the only man in the jungle who knows what he's doing. Speedman tries to convince the other actors to stay in character and revive the sinking film, but the plan goes awry when Tugg is captured by Vietnamese heroin manufacturers and held for ransom. It is up to the other four to go back for Speedman to try and save him, though Speedman himself doesn't even realize he's no longer being filmed.

I can go back and go over other plot details like Portnoy's serious heroin withdrawal in the jungle, or Lazarus' attempt to play a character in blackface, but I didn't want to spend all of this review trying to explain the plot. All that matters is that this film is simply hilarious. It's hard to explain what makes this film so amazing, but I'll try to focus on it's balance of hysterical humor, biting satire, and exciting action. I give Stiller all of the credit that this film works so well despite all these aspects, and his incredible puppeteering of all the jokes and stunt work gives him the best comedy of 2008.

The film only scratches the surface of self-important actors, ego-centric studio heads, and money-grubbing agents, but it's the development of the characters that makes the film so engrossing. Watching Downey Jr. play an Australian trying to play an African-American is something of extraordinary acting (with Iron Man already huge and The Soloist still to come, this could be the biggest year of his career). Still, though, there is no one actor that stands above the rest, each one having there moment of stabbing glory. And with such a long, star-studded cast, the audience gets to experience a lot of glorious moments.

Danny McBride (Red in Pineapple Express) continues to show his skill as a hilarious supporting player, and both Baruchel and Jackson hold their own with Stiller and Downey Jr. As for Jack Black, it has never been so funny watching a man struggle with his own substance abuse. It's foolish to say Downey Jr. is great in his incarnation of Daniel Day-Lewis slash Russell Crowe--it is too obvious; and Stiller does a good job of playing a slightly more intelligent man than Derek Zoolander (though that's not saying much). The true star of the movie is the script written by Stiller and also Justin Theroix and Etan Coen, which is filled with such brilliant dialogue and such industry know-how.

This film is so great, even the closing credits provide entertainment and surprises. It's The Player meets Platoon, only it's hell of a lot funnier than both of those movies. Okay, okay, I sound like I'm dwelling on hyperbole a little bit, but I can't hold my love for this movie. It's been rare the last couple of years that I've truly enjoyed a comedy that didn't have anything to do Judd Apatow. It seems Hollywood comedies are finally coming around (though Step Brothers was a bitter disappointment). They're starting to realize their potential to affect the audience rather than make them cringe or scratch their heads. I say this knowing knock-offs like Disaster Movie are hitting theaters in a few weeks. When I see things like that, I can always think of this film to make me feel better.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The 12 Films I'm Most Anticipating For The Rest of 2008


I hate to say it, but 2008 has been a pretty droll year in search of great films. I can name four films--WALL-E, Pineapple Express, The Dark Knight, and In Bruges--that I believe were truly great. The rest that I've seen have been sincere but mediocre (The Wackness or Smart People), or just plain awful (The Happening or Drillbit Taylor). All that being said, there are still plenty of films being released in the remainder of the year that have me truly excited, but these ten are the ones that I'm looking forward to the most.

Sept. 12

The Coen Brothers are kidding themselves if they think that they can match the industry success they had with their first Oscar darling No Country For Old Men. This film is a throwback to the glory days of zany comedies. Their dramas win them accolades, but it's those wonderful comedies (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski) that has made the Coens household names. Burn After Reading seems like prototype Coen Brothers, a group of inept peoples caught up in a truly dangerous situation that they'll never be able to understand. The film includes a wonderful cast that includes George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, and Brad Pitt, and they all look like they're having fun. I think the audience will be having tons of fun as well.

Sept. 26

Jose Saramago's Nobel Prize-winning novel about the world's destructive response to a blindness epidemic seems like a difficult translation to the screen. Few filmmakers are mentally tough enough to take on such a burden, but this film is in the hands of Federico Merielles, who has also handled complex novels in the two masterful films City of God and The Constant Gardener. Merielles knows how to take on these kinds of tales, and he knows how to make them into meaningful films, and with a cast equipped with Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Danny Glover, I have complete trust that this film will do justice to Saramago's masterpiece, even if the early word from Cannes wasn't favorable.

Oct. 10

Oh, that Mike Leigh and his little indie films. His unorthodox style--relying mostly on improv, and not even writing a script most of the time--has made him one of the most interesting filmmakers of the last two decades. Most of his films fall by the wayside, but he also was behind the much-lauded Secrets and Lies, the cult favorite Topsy-Turvy, and the surprise Oscar success Vera Drake. Of coarse, the adjective usually associated with Leigh is "natural", and with a glimpse of the trailer for Happy-Go-Lucky, his technique still seems intact. The plot involves Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a forever light-hearted young woman, whose constant cheerful demeanor frequently clashes with the depression of others. Hawkins won the Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival and is getting serious Oscar buzz. A must-see for me.

Oct. 17

I'm sure everyone is tired of the dysfunctional family dramedy, and even I have to say that this film looks like a carbon-copy of last year's Margot at the Wedding. But I must say I trust this film's director, the brilliant Jonathon Demme, more than I trust Margot's Noah Baumbach. And with a fiery lead performance from Anne Hathaway this film could sneak in and become the indie surprise of the year. The film co-stars Rosemary DeWitt, Deborah Winger, and Bill "Mr. Noodle" Irwin. Sure, this premise has been beaten to death ever since The Royal Tenenbaums perfected it in 2001, but there is a reason that this theme keeps on getting revisited, and that's because everyone knows the tortures and the virtues of family, and when done well in film, it could create wonders.

Oct. 24

I've never seen a 78-year-old who works as hard and as frequently and with as much skill as Clint Eastwood. His newest film, Changeling, was the biggest American darling at the Cannes Film Festival. The film stars Angelina Jolie as a mother who finds her missing son, only to suspect that the boy may not be who she thinks he is. The film takes place 20's or 30's (don't know for sure), but it strikes modern issues of espionage and strange intervention. Clint is red-hot if we're thinking in terms of Oscar attention (woah, Space Cowboys seems like such a long time ago), and this film seems to hold the same balance of intensity and romanticism that he's had during this "Golden Years" stretch of his career since 2003's Mystic River and up to 2007's Letters From Iwo Jima.

Nov. 28

Much like Blindness, The Road is an adaptation of a superb, heavily awarded novel from a seemingly unadaptable author. The author in this case, Cormac McCarthy, had already scared off spooked screenwriters when the Coen Brothers won an Oscar for adapting No Country For Old Men, so in a way, this is actually much different than the situation with Blindness. Still, this story of a strong-willed father trying to guide his introspective young son through the wasteland that is now the world may seem like a dull movie preposition if not done perfectly. The film is helmed by rookie John Hilcoat and has Viggo Mortenson as Father, and those seem like wise choices. Truth is, The Road may be the best book of the last ten years, and I find it extremely exciting to see how it holds up as a film.

Dec. 5

Gus Van Sant has talent as a filmmaker, proven by his Oscar nomination for the earnest Good Will Hunting and the Palme D'Or-winning Elephant. He's also shown the talent to make awful movies like the horribly misguided Gerry and the completely unnecessary, almost avant-garde remake of Psycho. But in 2008, Van Sant takes on the story of Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected official, and his subsequent murder by San Francisco Supervisor Dan White. Being a homosexual, some have sighted this picture as a personal project for Van Sant, though he has never been a major player in gay cinema. What the film does have is a cast that includes Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, Josh Brolin as Dan White, and also includes Emile Hirsch and James Franco as Milk's numerous lovers. So, whether or not it's personal, it has a swell chance of being very good.

Dec. 5

This is yet another film based on award winning literature. John Patrick Shanley's play both won the Pulitzer Prize and completely devastated the Tony competition, so where else to go but to the big screen. Shanley wrote the screenplay and has even directed the film using a cast including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, and Amy Adams. The play involved a young nun in the 60's who suspects a priest is abusing a young, black student, and attacks many taboo themes throughout which usually gain a lot of attention around Oscar consideration time. All that being said, one of the hardest things to do is sufficiently adapt a very talky play to a truly entertaining movie, but Doubt seems like a good enough play to give it a shot.

Dec. 19

David Fincher is truly one of the most talented young filmmakers right now, but his films usually mire in obscurity. Last year's Zodiac was lauded by critics, but forgotten. Fight Club is a cult classic amongst many angst-y high school boys. Even Se7en, his biggest hit, is usually watered down as a horror film, even though it's a truly horrifying suspense tale. So, it seems, Fincher refuses to take any kind of Hollywood approach, but instead delves even deeper into strangeness. Based on the mildly amusing short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bejamin Button is about a man who is born over a hundred years old and grows backwards, getting younger and younger. Brad Pitt stars as the title character at what might be the peak of his career (watch Assassination of Jesse James if you don't think so), and him and Fincher seem bound to make this film a magical journey.

Dec. 26

The last time Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio starred together in a film, it was the biggest box office hit of all time. Now, eleven years later, the two star as a troubled couple in a film helmed by Winslet's husband Sam Mendes. Based on the novel of Richard Yates, the two star as a couple struggling to stay faithful and struggling to keep their family together in the 1950's. There is something very baity about that plot, but with DiCaprio, Winslet, and Mendes all on board, it seems nearly impossible that this film will be less than superior work. Like I mentioned before, the dysfunctional family seems to be growing tired as a popular movie staple, but it is the responsibility of these three artists to make it work, and I feel confident in their ability.


I don't think I'm the only film nut who adores Charlie Kaufman. Every story he creates is beautiful, strange, and best of all, perfect in its imperfection. With Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman gets his first chance as a director with yet another tale of nervous love and neurotic personalities. The story involves a man attempting to build a life-size stage of New York in a warehouse for his new play, while also trying to juggle the numerous women in his life. The film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead role, and stars Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Diane Weist, and Hope Davis as the women. If we're going based on names, this film should be a knockout. The release is still a mystery, though the Weinsteins promise it'll be before the end of 2008. I don't know how much longer I can wait.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (**)

Written and Directed by Woody Allen


You can make the case that Woody Allen was the greatest filmmaker of the seventies or the eighties if the criteria was consistently great work, but since then it's been mostly hit or miss. Basically for the last 18 years it's been feast (Bullets Over Broadway, Sweet and Lowdown) or famine (Everyone Says I Love You, Hollywood Ending). People all proclaimed Woody was back in business when he was once again Oscar nominated for Match Point, and then cringed again when they saw the lazy Scoop. With Vicky Cristina Barcelona, we see Woody continuing to probe his late fascination with European cities, resulting in a dull film which glosses over the same few themes he has addressed numerous times over the last thirty-five years.

The story involves Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) as they take a two month vacation in Barcelona, offered to them by Vicky's relative Judy (Patricia Clarkson). Vicky is securely engaged to Doug (Chris Messina), who is rich and ready to commit his fortune to Vicky who has been studying Catalin culture--for what, nobody is sure. Cristina is an actress, trying to be an artist, practicing as a photographer--basically trying to find the perfect resource to outlay her yearning for artistic creativity. Cristina's lack of talent in any of the things she tries makes her bitter, but she is still a hopeless romantic.

The two run into exotic painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), and he offers them both the opportunity to spend the weekend with him drinking wine, seeing sights, and making love. Vicky is vocally appalled by the abrupt nature of Juan Antonio, but Cristina is excited by his aggression. Against Vicky's pleading, Cristina drags them both along to Oviedo where the story finally begins to roll along. Cristina is readily willing to fall under Juan Antonio's seduction, but Vicky takes a little work, after all she doesn't want to risk the comfortable relationship she has with Doug, even if it isn't totally sincere.

The wrench thrown into this machine is Juan Antonio's ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz). Depending on who tells the story, Maria Elena tried to kill Juan Antonio, or he tried to kill her--at this point, it doesn't really matter. The point is that the two are never able to get over each other, yet never able to function together without a chance of violence. Maria Elena is suspicious of Cristina, and paranoid that Juan Antonio might actually be in love with someone else. Soon though, the triangle of Maria Elena, Juan Antonio, and Cristina becomes a steamy love affair between the three of them. Meanwhile, Vicky debates with herself over the seemingly uneventful and unloving life she seems to be headed for.

I guess the problem I have with this film is that it is a showcase for how lazy Woody Allen has become as a filmmaker lately. He's making puzzling decisions throughout this film, for instance deciding to have a third-person omniscient narrator detail all the subtleties while the story unfolds. This is a technique that also vexed me in Little Children two years ago, so perhaps I have a bit of a prejudice where narrating stands, but it's hard not to see that where Woody used to be flawless, he now seems tired and obtuse. How else do you explain this film's long, dull passages and some of the characters' weaving in and out of some subplots for what seems like no point?

The saving grace of this film is something that has always been there for Woody no matter what: the intrigue of the characters. Both Vicky and Cristina--even Maria Elena to a point--are Woody Allen female prototypes: one a conservative, intelligent woman who must choose whether or not her life is truly living; and the other being the wild child who is almost suicidal in her ignorant romanticism. Though we've seen these women before, it's always fun to see them tossing around Woody's extended vocabulary through scenes of their extreme neuroticism. Sure, it's a male fantasy to see the three of them in all forms of undress with a single man, but Woody movies are all about the everyman getting the beautiful girl.

Scarlett Johansson is now on her third film with Woody, and this is the closest I've seen her to being comfortable in his system (I didn't buy anything she did in the overrated Match Point), but she and Javier Bardem seem to sleepwalk through their roles. Penelop Cruz is the film's fire, bringing the story's only energy as the jealous, volatile Maria Elena. An Oscar nomination could be in her future for being such a bright spot in such a droll movie. The best performance though, probably comes from one who didn't even make it onto the poster, and that's Rebecca Hall. Hall is the closest thing in the film to the natural Woody-esque actress in the form of Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow, and she deals with her complex issues with such wonderful subtlety that her performance becomes the glue that holds this tale together.

In the end, I find this latest picture just as underwhelming as most of the films Woody has made in the last decade. There was a time when he could do no wrong, but now he has a film which totally jumbles its themes and even pulls off the impossible by not knowing how to use the brilliant Patricia Clarkson. Many say that Woody has gotten a tough wrap, because most of his films that are considered mediocre would be called masterpieces if made by a no-name filmmaker. As a huge Woody fan, I think even he'd agree that there is a whole lot more to making a great film than making a 96-minute video postcard for one of his favorite Spanish cities.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Pineapple Express (***1/2)

Directed by David Gordon Green


The stoner flick is a funny genre. Technically, the original Harold & Kumar film was a film about two young men and an adventurous night, but it's considered a stoner film. The Big Lebowski is a hilarious take on modern film noir, but since Jeff Bridges smokes weed, it's considered a stoner film. No other movie prop can overtake an entire movie's genre the way marijuana does, even if it's not a focal point to the plot. Pineapple Express, the newest Judd Apatow brainchild, takes a different approach. This hilarious film tries to infuse marijuana into every aspect of the story, almost empowering all other plot points.

So I guess it's safe to say that those audience members who aren't a fan of the inebriating plant may find Express a bit vexing, but for those who watch objectively get to experience one of the funniest films of 2008. The film is about Dale (Seth Rogan), a pudgy pothead who works as a process server, constantly disguising himself so he can hand out subpoenas to those who least expect it. Well, to be honest, he spends most of his day listening to talk radio and blatantly smoking his favorite herb. He's in a puzzling relationship with a high school senior named Angie (Amber Heard) which would be a much more disturbing sub-plot if it wasn't a perfect example of his underachieving lifestyle.

The other half of this film's dynamic duo is Saul (James Franco), Dale's main source of weed. Saul spends his entire life baked out of his mind in an apartment filled with so many gadgets that go to waste on his simple mind. When Dale comes to Saul to make a purchase, Saul reveals his new stuff: Pineapple Express. A new weed so amazing smoking it almost feels like--as Saul puts it--"killing a unicorn". The two fill up on the high-level marijuana, and Dale walks away buying a quarter-bag of his own.

Later in the day, Dale sits outside the house of Ted Jones (an interestingly dark Gary Cole), and once again smokes before preparing to deliver yet another subpoena. This time, though, Dale witnesses Jones and another lady officer (Rosie Perez) murder a man. In attempts to flee the scene, Dale makes quite a racket and drops his joint. Dale escapes but Jones knows that the weed is Pineapple Express, and he knows that the only person in the city who has this rare supplement is Saul. So, Dale and Saul are forced to go on the run from these crooked cops in a chase film that is as hysterical and violent as it is impromptu.

All Apatow films have the loveable supporting character. 40-Year-Old Virgin had Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Romany Malco as a tag-team comedy force. Superbad had the unforgettable McLovin. What we get in Pineapple Express is Red (Danny McBride). Red is the middle-man who gives Ted's weed to Saul. Equipped with a 90's Will Smith flat-top and gangster lingo, Red bursts in and out of the film as loudly as possible bringing constant hilarity and unpredictability. McBride has hopped around through bad comedies like Drillbit Taylor and The Heartbreak Kid, but in Express he's a revelation of comedic ability.

The film is directed by proven autuer David Gordon Green--perhaps the last person on Earth that anyone would consider to be the director of an Apatow production. The man behind such tranquil, lovely films as George Washington and All The Real Girls has a lot of fun with his first major Hollywood film, but there still are glimpses of the master behind the camera. Bringing along his usual cinematographer, Tim Orr, Express is easily the most visually stylized of all of the Apatow productions, particularly the scenes that are driven by the dialogue and not the action.

Speaking of the action, I should take the time to say how surprised I was with the violence is in this film. Not that I minded, nor do I believe that the violence is as bad as films like Wanted or even Untraceable from earlier in the year, but I don't think I'm the only one who expected more punchy one-liners and sight gags than bullet-grazed bodies and horrific assassinations. The film, I believe can stand alone as a pretty competent action film, using the always dependable Hitchcock formula of a regular Joe who gets caught up in trouble he can't even begin to understand, but only a fool watches this film not to come out appreciating the comedy first.

I think the reason why so many love Apatow films is because of their "everyman" leads. How else could you explain someone like Seth Rogan becoming a movie star in such image-conscious times? Rogan has performances like this on lock-down: loveable loser who's put in unusual place of responsibility. It's to his credit that he's able to make this same character funny every time. The real energy in this film comes from James Franco. Franco, an actor I've always found wooden and disingenuous seems freed by the character of Saul, never relenting on his constant state of euphoric highness.

The film contains great supporting performances from The Office's Craig Robinson and a wonderful Ed Begley Jr. as Angie's impatient and gun-toting father. This film is probably the funniest movie I've seen this year (I'd have to re-watch Forgetting Sarah Marshall before I can say this definitively) and never lets go of its adrenaline. Sometimes the film falls in love with its action sequences a little too much, and the film has a black-and-white prologue that seems to be a scene from an entirely different film, but it is in no way a film experience that you will want to forget.