Thursday, August 30, 2007

Superbad: Thoughts

I dedicate this post to The Dropcloth and her dearly departed Augustus:

It is good advice, if one wishes to maintain their credibility, to avoid the dreaded “overstatement”, less one be thought simple, or worse, gullible. It is with such thoughts in mind that I can say, without equivocation, that Michael Cera is…the funniest man alive! Being aware that Cera is only 19 and hardly “manly” material, it is a bold claim, especially while Bill Murray lives. But I’ve come to realize that I prefer Cera’s turtleish concern over Murray’s drunken (and increasingly weird) buffoonery. Basically, there is nothing Michael Cera does that hasn’t make me laugh (here, here, or here). This may be due largely to the fact that I was indoctrinated early on by Cera’s performance as the earnest but clueless George Michael from Fox’s short lived Arrested Development (or the fact that every episode of his web-show, Clark and Michael, has been downloaded onto my X-Box 360).

In Superbad (produced by Judd Apatow), Cera plays Evan, an every-dude who just wants to get to know his childhood crush, Becca. Jonah Hill (no doubt reminding many in the theater of Jonah Hill’s Jonah from Apatow’s other film this summer, Knocked-Up) plays Evan’s best-bud Seth, a guy desperately willing to do whatever it takes to obtain your average blow job (the vagina being “not his thing”—a mysterious region too complicated to master in relation to the simple/expected high school blow job, "expected" because, well…the internet says so). If the internet is to be blamed for the sexual revolution/perversion of teenage youth, the one thing it has undoubtedly failed to do is provide answers regarding adolescent inadequacies and conflicted morality, instead serving up the illusion of false intimacy... and a blow job becomes just a blow job. But porn is very clearly not intimate, and what it offers is far beyond the purview of love, which is, after all, what most teenagers really crave in the companionship that will offset the growing existential angst of adulthood (in this case, Dartmouth). Well, at least Evan does… Towards the end of the film it’s heartening to see Evan, when confronted with his (or Seth’s) “ideal” moment to (as the immature cops played by writers Rogen and Goldberg) “engage”, can’t seem to access those downloaded vulgarities and instead falls back on old faithful…health class: Becca: I’m so wet right now. Evan: Yeah…they said that would happen in health class. Ha! And he means it! Cera is like Murray without the irony or arrogance. Apatow is wise to hitch his wagon to actors like Cera, Rudd, and Rogen, decent mopes who feel the withered pull of chivalry filtered through MTV, the internet, and 80’s comedies.

Of course Apatow and crew understand that such goodness can only stand out when contrasted with the most crass male stereotypes, which is why the addition of Hill as Cera’s partner makes them such a winning duo; both look like turtles (one in face, one in shape—neither in speed: “He’s… he’s, the fastest kid alive…”). Still, Apatow is canny enough to understand that a majority of the male audience coming to Superbad live immersed in the world of porn, completely detached from the real intimacy of oral sex, or the notion that reciprocation is indeed, in fact, simply that, and not intimacy. Those people will probably find Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s (McLovin) misadventures more humorous, and see Becca’s “sex-kitten” behavior as a great missed opportunity and not the confused attempt to connect that it is (as if women don’t watch porn and have to deal with its expectations). If a larger critique of youth sex-culture (a Hollywood film subject since Porky’s) goes unnoticed, what will not is the tired but true struggle of male fidelity, epitomized in Seth’s desperate rescue of BFF Evan from the cops; watching Seth use Evan’s head to clear a table of beer bottles says more about the adolescent effort to maintain our pseudo-sexual male relationships than an hour spent engaging in ethnic chop sokey in a Paris brothel (take that Brett Rattner and Rush Hour 3).

In short, it’s hard to declare Superbad the best film of the summer, but I wouldn’t rule out calling it the most decent. You know, if I were prone to overstatement…

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


"Act your age, not the size of those pants."
-Full Force

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Stardust: Thoughts

Matthew Vaughn’s long gestating fantasy epic, Stardust, would love to be elevated to the venerable heights of that other classic fantasy film full of expertly timed cameos—The Princess Bride (itself recently turned 20, huzzah!); and try as Stardust does to attain such sweet heights, it falls short…but just barely. Sadly, the energy propelling Stardust is far too reliant on the well timed appearance of Hollywood A-listers (Robert DeNiro, Peter O’Toole, Michele Pfeiffer, and, heck, Ricky Gervais), unlike The Princess Bride, which was propelled by the introduction of stable-boy Wesley and the subsequent wonderfully long-winded chase of the Dread Pirate Roberts and his quest to steal Princess Buttercup back from formidable Sicilian intellectual Vizzini (the iconic Wally Shawn), Wesley/Roberts and Buttercup were played by relative unknowns, Cary Elwes and Robin Wright (soon to be, Penn). Whereas The Princess Bride was a rare example of cinematic fusion—sweetness made manifest; Stardust is irony made corporal, a fact due, in large part, to the very existence of The Princess Bride, making it almost disingenuous to talk about Stardust as if it weren’t attempting to cast a direct shadow over the past (much the way Bay’s Transformers attempted to do with Spielberg’s Jurassic Park 2). If Stardust offers up something unique, it’s the film’s adoption of the liberal awakening currently being found in the childhood fantasy epic, something simplistically hinted at in the Harry Potter series, but attacked full-force in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy. No longer is the literary fantasy epic dominated by the traditional biblical allegory, nor are such films still rooted in the conservative ethos of Regan-era Hollywood (something, regardless of its intent, The Princess Bride was). But all of this is just politics. In the end, Stardust’s attempt to become a pop-cultural, generational, phenomenon will be based solely on its contributions to the genre and what it gives us that we haven’t seen in fantasy.

Those contributions include the sporadic Claire Danes and Charlie Cox, who, before trading in his British bob-cut for a mane of virile locks, looks too much like Sam Rami on the floor of Comic-Con. The plot concerns Cox’s young adventurer, Tristan, and his quest to return a fallen star to his (temporary) “true love” Victoria (Sienna Miller—slumming it here). During his adventure, Tristan and Yvaine (the star: Danes), encounter the evil witch Lamia (Pfeiffer), a prince and the ghosts of his slain brothers (one of the more humorous bits in the film), and, being summer of ’07, instead of ’87—you guessed it… a gay pirate (DeNiro)! Along the way, Tristan (of course) learns what love is really all about (so liberal! so willing to learn!), unlike young Wesley, who from the opening moment of The Princess Bride, never had to learn (so conservative! so resolved!). It’s this paramount cliché that prevents Stardust—unlike the unwavering unapologetic decency of Bride—from elevating itself to the heights of Bride. In the end, despite all the fancy spells (read: CGI), there’s no such thing as magic as leaps of faith are prohibited and treated skeptically. It’s just Hollywood, baby. Hollywood.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Simpsons Movie: Thoughts

Fans of Fox’s The Simpsons will find much to like in The Simpsons Movie. Everyone—and I do mean everyone—is here, and how good a movie it is will largely depend on your relationship with the source material. I myself greatly enjoyed seeing my favorite animated show make the belated leap to celluloid following numerous other inferior cartoon staples (South Park, Bevis and Butt-Head… Jimmy Neutron). People who’ve never seen an episode (if that is possible) might leave the theater wondering if the show has always been that consistently funny (generally, yes—start at season 2 and go…). Fans of the show will, however, no doubt feel slightly less optimistic, for we understand that the best episodes are often the ones that feature the supporting characters (Pick one: Mr. Burns, Krusty the Clown, Ralph Wiggum, Sideshow Bob, Principal Skinner, Wayland Smithers, Grandpa Simpson, Groundskeeper Willie, Millhouse, Rainier Wolfcastle, Appu Nahasapeemapetilon, etc.). We can at least take solace in the fact that the movie’s delayed arrival allowed the Bart fad to wither (those episodes, while funny, are never classics), liberating us so that we could bask in the presence of the single greatest television character of the last fifteen years: Homer Jay Simpson. Sure, the movie would have been better if it had used the supporting cast better, but who will argue Homer’s moment in the sun as he has been the central character at the core of many of the show’s best moments and lines. With James L. Brooks (a creator) heavily involved, you knew the film would lean more towards a "cohesive" plot, rather than the scatological humor of later seasons. The film's plot follows Homer and the fallout over his role in an ecological disaster involving a new pet pig, thus relegating many of the fine bit characters to proportionately smaller parts (alas, poor Mr. Burns). Eventually the family is forced to flee Springfield, spending a disproportional amount of time in Alaska and leaving the rest of the town to survive the machinations of evil corporate environmentalist Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks: famous among Simpsons fans as the first Hollywood celebrity to actually allow his name to be shown in the credits—a fact that may have been shocking then, whereas now you it would be hard pressed to hurl a sex-tape at a celebrity who hasn’t appeared on the show). Like any random episode, the film is consistently hilarious and uncomfortably emotional. Marge’s video tapped confession to Homer, recorded over their wedding video, is particularly moving as it pulls off the amazing feat of making the audience complicit in her sadness—we, after all, do love Homer’s buffoonery. The film might not be the breakthrough the South Park film was, but it stands as a glorious tribute to a universe we’ll gladly re-visit, like Appu (even gut-shot) politely asks, again and again.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix: Thoughts

Here is a list of the Harry Potter films from best to worst:

1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

3. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

4. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Reasons why the fifth Harry Potter is better than the first two:

1. Chris Columbus didn’t direct it.

2. Radcliffe and friends are more buff, both physically and as actors. Radcliffe takes what is arguably the most annoying version of Harry and makes him more than a tantrum prone “teenager”.

3. Not so pretty in pink, Imelda Staunton, as Dolores Umbridge, is fantastic, and is the first true villain in a Harry Potter film. Sure Voldemort is the big bad, but often times Harry and his interactions result from their crossing paths during their own individual adventures. Umbridge is front and center and is directly in Potter’s face.

4. The showdown between Voldemort and Dumbledore is even more spectacular than in the book, made more so by the fact that we now know it will be the only time they face off the entire series.

Reasons why the fifth Harry Potter is not as good as 3 and 4.

1. Alfonso Cuaron is one of the top three directors working today. His version of Harry Potter was one of the most beautiful films of 2004, and the first film to tap into the rich textures of Rowling’s universe.

2. As “serious” as 5 was, it lacked the action of 4 and involved one of the least surprising “twists” of the series. Not the movies fault per se, but it’s hard to compete with the twist of 3, or that final image of Voldemort and the dead Cedric Diggory in 4. This, as well as the increasingly limited input from Harry’s mates, is the possible result of filmmaker David Yates’ desire to make the longest book of the series the shortest film.

3. Seriously, not enough Alan Rickman (Professor Snape) or Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall).

Monday, August 13, 2007

Ratatouille: Thoughts

At some point the etymological root of the word “consume” (to eat/drink) evolved to include the desire accumulate (absorb) items; as if the catalyst to horde relics of our monetary means had somehow become a carnivorous task, an impulse as base and as intrinsic as our desire for sustenance, and a word, sprouting offspring with additional appendages, became “consumerism”. It is within this history that the geniuses of Pixar, and the heartfelt and fertile mind of animator Brad Bird, provide us with a perfect parable of our day.

Remy (Patton Oswalt) is a rat. More importantly, Remy is a rat with a refined pallet and who can hardly, like a good rat should, stomach the indiscriminate consumption of the traditional garbage and refuse, and would rather, using his unique abilities, create elaborate dishes, a problem that naturally results in a unique omnivore’s dilemma. It is a tribute to Brad Bird that Ratatouille is as much about food as it isn’t. The metaphor of the individual artist’s struggle amid the economic entity of his upbringing easily stretches beyond the most populist kitchen in Paris. The rat’s (lead by Remy’s father) goals are, as a plague, to feed and live—the more they eat the better their quality of life. The guilt Remy experiences, as his desire to create consumes him, is felt by any who have wished to express their own artistic impulses in something as simple as a peasant dish, or book, or painting, or song. Remy, as the boss’s son and inheritor of his system, has a responsibility to contribute to his society, like using his talent in less pedantry ways by sniffing out the poisoned bits of garbage. In Remy’s economic social system this is an essential task, one that ensures the safety and livelihood of not only his family (including his lumbering doofus brother) but his community. But it is Remy’s continued desire to engage in the art of gastronomy that makes him a pariah, and, for those of us who have tried to explain to parents and family why we’ve chosen to be nearer to poverty than a 401k in the pointless fantasy pursuit of art, Remy’s discussions with his father are eerily pertinent. I myself have had many discussions with my own father regarding the method in which I approach my desire to discuss film, books, and politics (he thinks I’m a bit long-winded and snotty). Of course, he is right. But, sadly, to do so in a different manner would betray my own refined (or mangled, depending) pallet. A sin if I ever believed in one.

Ratatouille is another triumph for Pixar, the latest link in an amazing chain, and I nervously fret over the day when I will go to the theater and not be moved. In Ratatouille, is was during vampiric-critic Anton Ego’s (the superb Peter O’Toole) review of the (Remy) revived Gusteau’s, and his sublime acceptance of his role as a responsible critic, obligated to truly reexamine, in every event, how one truly evaluates art, for what purpose, and how this purpose must be inextricably tied to the willingness to accept that great art can come from anywhere (for instance, a kiddie film with rats), that I was most shaken. Whether it was simply the old knight O’Toole’s voice—aged and serene like the most eloquent requiem—or Bird’s words concerning said art, I found myself wistful and melancholy at the notion that, assuming one maintains their principles and strives for artistic perfection in all things, even the most stringent classicist or hardened parent can be moved to acknowledge the wonderment of it all. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott claimed that Ratatouille was “…a nearly flawless piece of popular art, as well as one of the most persuasive portraits of an artist ever committed to film.” And, seeing as I cannot find fault with such a claim and would indeed applaud it, I would simply add that Ratatouille is, by far, a truly exquisite and wholly satisfying emotional experience. In short: a work of art of the most excellent flavour.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum: Thoughts

A bizarrely specific box office “report” recently asserted that—pound for pound—Matt Damon was the most profitable actor in Hollywood, a fact that, until The Bourne Ultimatum, I had refused to accept. Damon and his elfish good looks seemed too ordinary for such a title. Whereas Tom Hanks owns his askance geekness, and Tom Cruise his unbalanced and crooked face, or even the way Brad Pitt manipulates that Californian speech impediment (from Oklahoma!) to blur adonis beauty in a way that makes us question how much grey matter may have been lost in the creation of such a physical specimen, each of them, justly, earns their place as a legitimate Hollywood face. Damon was always too boy scout, a fact that has helped his career (for instance: making him the perfect bone to fetch in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan). If there was a trademarked flaw in his visage to be found, it was a slight bulbous mass at the end of his otherwise flawless nose, and he was unable to even retain the sliver of a Bostonian accent that Mark Whalberg has spent a career trying to ditch. In short, he was rather bland. Yet he kept making movies, and I kept watching.

As an actor, Damon was solid, whether it was memorably dismembering Harvard and MIT snots, or obsessively lusting after idyllic British “mates” to homicidal affect, he was a rock. And then, one summer: The Bourne Identity. And here was Damon, much like in Good Will Hunting, playing a supernaturally talented special ops agent, disarming Swedish policemen as quick and as rough as he did Ivy League cads. Jason Bourne wasn’t much of a stretch for Damon, a juiced up Will Hunting who, as if one his way to see that girl, decided to stop by the NSA and instead take that job his buddy Ben Affleck pissed away, soon finding himself, after a bit of mental rewiring, diagramming assassinations instead of Math proofs. In fact, the speech Bourne relays to Franka Potente’s Marie in The Bourne Identity is almost verbatim the speech he gives Minnie Driver’s Skylar back at Harvard in Good Will Hunting… only without the sugar. Damon’s performance in the first Bourne film was jittery, amazed, as if, for the entire film, he kept thinking: “Holy cow! I’m Matt Damon: action hero! No way!” Sadly, Matty, this was no joke. The Bourne Identity went on to make $120+-mil and a sequel was made (The Bourne Supremacy), this time with British filmmaker Paul Greengrass at the helm. Greengrass tackled the convoluted plot of secret Black Ops training and Russian oil barons with what seemed like a digital handheld and a can of Jolt. The effect was strange…nauseous, really… and… incredibly, awesome. Damon still seemed startled by the hubbub, and, by the end of the film, we couldn’t help but sense his bewilderment evidenced in many of Bourne’s growing ticks: the shifty eyes and hands, the quick furtive glances over his shoulders. Still, coupled with Damon's performance as eager rookie heistman in the Ocean films, we were mightily entertained, but wondered, like Damon himself, when we’d finally see that there was no way he could be super-agent Jason Bourne, and that to push it with a third film might risk venturing into self-parody: Austin Powers without the laughs. After all, Bourne was no Bond.

But something clicked with Damon the actor during the filming of The Bourne Ultimatum. Here he was, accepting and confident in his role as blockbuster super-spy, and, in re-teaming with Greengrass, successfully blows the lid off of the “Summer of Three’s”. Bourne has lost the ticks. His face is at once serene, while at the same time staunchly virile, soaked in espionage to the point it is hard to determine whether he is being cold, calculating, or both: the ultimate intimidating poker stare. Damon, at last, sits confidently in the role he now appears born (ugh!) to have played. Greengrass senses it too, and, more than ever, steadies the shaky camera on Damon’s suddenly lined visage, and we, knowing completely that this is a killer, more importantly a killer searching to understand his motive, must nervously look away. As for the plot, not much seems to have happened to advance the Bourne Universe. He’s still running. Covert heads of skulduggery (this time David Strathairn) still bark orders to computer techs in dour suits, while the constabulary bounce futilely off Bourne and his various modes of transportation. But who cares with talent like this, committed and confident. Here’s to hoping big brother never gives up the chase.