Thursday, August 30, 2007


Director: Greg Mottola
Starring: Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bill Hader, Seth Rogen, Martha MacIsaac, Emma Stone
Running Time: 114 min.
Rating: R

**** (out of ****)

It's sometimes not so easy to admit, but it can be tough going into a movie that's been hyped up to the level Superbad has. When I keep hearing from everyone that it's the funniest movie they've ever seen and television and the internet build it up to no end it's almost makes me afraid to see it. I mean no film can be THAT good….can it? It becomes harder to go in with a clear mind because there are "expectations." It's times like these where I wish I could lock myself in a room until the film opens so I don't have to hear anything about it. I can go in completely fresh without a single preconceived notion about the film's quality. In this media obsessed universe that notion is beyond impossible, but that's okay. I like to think (perhaps naively) that I can put all that other junk aside when the opening credits roll and judge for myself. A movie has to sink or swim on its own because hype and publicity can only take you so far. It has to, you know, actually be a good movie. It seems since the start of 2007 Superbad was crowned as the comedy event of the year and the word "McLovin" took its place in the pop culture lexicon long before the film actually ever opened.

So, is Superbad the teen sex comedy to end all teen sex comedies? I won't answer that because there have been many more before it and I'm sure they'll be even more after, but it is the first teen sex comedy in years to recapture the magic of something like Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Porky's or Dazed and Confused. There won't be another Superbad. You won't ever again see another Evan, Seth or Fogell unless we get a sequel. What you will probably get is rip-off versions of them in inferior comedies for years to come. When that happens we'll then really be able to look back and realize just how cleverly Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote those characters. Those characters, by the way, are themselves and they co-wrote this film when they were only 14. And yes, it's hilarious. The f-bombs drop like crazy and the dick jokes fly like never before, but there's a lot more there. If it there wasn't it would still be a great comedy, but because there is, it becomes a great movie. It perfectly captures the awkwardness of being in high school and growing up in even the smallest moments, while at the same time nearly slaying you with its dirty humor. Like most comedies these days it probably could have been cut by about 15 minutes, but that's a minor complaint against a mostly perfect movie. After all, it's not often you can say you spent quality time with movie characters who act like real people and whose company you actually enjoy.

Like any teen comedy the plot concerns the two things that are most important in any high school guy's life: beer and girls. Not necessarily in that order either, but in this film they happen to be. Overweight, obnoxious Seth (Jonah Hill) and his awkward best friend, Evan (Michael Cera) are inseparable high school seniors facing impending separation when they go off to different colleges in the fall. Even if, up until now, the biggest problem in their universe was which type of porn to order. The opportunity of a lifetime presents itself when school hottie Jules (Emma Stone) organizes a party and Seth volunteers to provide the alcohol, actually giving him a chance to score while providing Evan the opportunity to close the deal with longtime crush Becca (Martha MacIsaac). It's a deal he has big problems closing since he's scared to death.

The potential keys to this kingdom reside with the only "friend" they know with a fake i.d, the socially inept geek Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). That i.d., much to Fogell's delight, misidentifies him as a 25 year-old organ donor from Hawaii named "McLovin." The film follows the three over a one-day period from when they arrive at school to Jules' big party later that night. Their mission to get the alcohol and arrive at the party in one piece is the fun of the movie. It doesn't seem like much on paper but director Greg Mottola (The Daytrippers) suggests the possibility of these kids scoring at the party is right up there with the discovery of the Holy Grail. If you think about it, when you're in high school, it really is.

There are about a dozen laughs a second in this, but if I had to pick some of the biggest for me they'd include a dream sequence (or rather three of them) in a liquor store, an unfortunate accident on Seth's leg at a party and a flashback involving his very unhealthy drawing obsession when he was younger. I'm not even scratching the surface though. There are many more, but what's most impressive is how the movie succeeds in the little scenes that shouldn't be funny but are because they so accurately capture that awkwardness of growing up. There's one scene in the hallway with Evan attempting to have a conversation with Becca, but he reacts just the wrong way to everything she says and is oblivious to her blatantly obvious cues that she likes him. Rogen and Goldberg's script just nails it. It also helps that Evan is played Michael Cera, who's basically transporting his small screen George Michael character from Arrested Development to the big screen with nothing lost in the translation. He has to be the king of the awkward pause and stammering delivery. Is he capable of playing any other character? I have no idea, but I'm not eager to find out since he does this one so well.

Unlike Evan, Seth is detestable, but what most seem to have missed is that he's annoying and vulgar because he's just projecting his own self-hatred. He doesn't think he stands a chance with any girl (must less a hot one) unless she's completely trashed so he hides behind his insults and sex jokes. Is he right? We find out at the end and the answer will surprise us and him. Even funnier is his extreme possessiveness of Seth, really the only friend he has, who he risks driving away with his insane behavior. If there's ever a live action South Park movie you can bet Jonah Hill's going to be the first to read for Cartman.

Fogell represents Seth's worst nightmare: a threat to his friendship with Evan and the ultimate deal killer for any slim chance he may have with a hot girl. He wouldn't even have him around if not for that fake id. and even with that he still treats him like crap. When Fogell first appears on screen and memorably delivers the line, "Hey Gangstas. What's up?" we know we're being treated to the birth of an iconic movie character and a star-making performance from Christopher Mintz-Plasse. He's a geek, but one you'll recognize from high school, not a cartoon. That's a delicate balance to strike, but Plasse finds it. A big deal has been made about the scene where Fogell, after being victimized in a liquor store robbery, is forced to reveal his fake identity to two bumbling police officers played by Rogen and Bill Hader. What's funnier though is the cops' reaction and how they deal with "McLovin" for the rest of the picture. It was something I didn't expect to work well at all and seems out of left field, but it clicks because of the chemistry that exists between Rogen, Hader and Plasse. At First glance, the cops seem just incompetent and stupid, but later we're given an explanation for their behavior that I was actually really happy with. It makes sense in a crazy sort of way, at least for this movie. These cops may be completely reckless and irresponsible, but they're not stupid. No one in this movie is stupid, just hilariously unique.

The film's epic running time (at least for a comedy) kind of works in its favor toward the end as the suspense of what will happen to these guys at the party becomes almost unbearable. Sure, lessons are learned and realizations are made but how it happens and what is actually learned couldn't be more surprising. It's not only an unusually strong ending for a comedy, but one that's entirely believable and makes sense. It's also the rare film that treats its female characters with respect and intelligence. Neither love interest here is the typical "popular bitch" stereotype prevalent in nearly every teen movie. They actually look and act like real high school girls, not actresses or supermodels. They're smart and have actual opinions and feelings about what these guys are doing, which is never clearer than in the final minutes. They're not just props and are just as important to the story as the guys are.

This movie pushes the envelope about as far as it can go in terms of language and crudeness, but it's not gratuitous. Anyone will tell you this is how high school kids talk…all the time. It's here where you realize how much it means to have Judd Apatow attached to this project as a producer. The man just gets it and it's clear he's operating at an entirely different level than anyone else in Hollywood when it comes to comedy. This may go down as the year Apatow saved comedy as we know it. Just the thought that there could many more movies starring this core group of talented actors and writers is reason enough alone to be excited about the future of the genre. John Hughes can stay in retirement. Comedies don't get much funnier or smarter than this. Any way you look at it, hype or no hype, Superbad qualifies as super great.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Perfect Stranger

Director: James Foley Starring: Halle Berry, Bruce Willis, Giovanni Ribisi, Gary Dourdan, Nicki Aycox
Running Time: 109 min.

Rating: R

** (out of ****)

First, the good news: Halle Berry shouldn't have her Oscar revoked and Perfect Stranger is not nearly as bad as everyone's been saying. Now, the bad news: It's still pretty awful. I recently called Fracture the funniest thriller of the year. My apologies. This is. Actually this film has a lot in common with Fracture and is really isn't that much worse than it, and only slightly more ridiculous. But since that film starred Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling it seemed to have gotten a pass for its insanity. Halle Berry and Bruce Willis are easier to pick on because they're admittedly not the dramatic actors those two are and have a spottier record in picking quality scripts. I can understand the resistance to let them off the hook, but I have to be honest and admit both do just fine for what they're asked to do here. It's what they're actually asked to do that's the problem.

The movie is too silly and goofy to truly feel any genuine disdain for which is why I'm surprised it's invoked such hatred. It's like picking on the mentally challenged child in the neighborhood. This is a "sexy thriller" that isn't very sexy nor extremely thrilling, but it does have some moments. Unfortunately, they're overshadowed by the filmmakers' burning desire to pretend the movie is important and reveals life truths. If it had dove head first into its campy premise instead of taking itself so seriously we could have had a real guilty pleasure on our hands. The script is full of holes for sure but its biggest problem is that it's needlessly convoluted and talky. It goes to point Z to get from A to B. Early in the film we witness a character vomit. This is appropriate since many characters would be vomiting useless expository dialogue throughout much of the film. I was scratching my head and my eyes (out) when it arrived at its WHOPPER OF A TWIST ENDING! You'll need to take a thesis course to uncover how it got there. There's good trash and there's bad trash. Perfect Stranger probably falls somewhere right in the middle.

The film actually starts out on a somewhat intelligent note as New York City newspaper reporter Rowena Price (Berry) taunts a privileged senator with the knowledge of his gay fling and threatens to go to print with it. Unbeknownst to her, she's working for the paper that endorses him so her big story is squashed. With that start, I naively believed the movie may actually have something to it and would attempt to address issues such as abuse of power and bias in the media. I should have known better. All The President's Men this is not. This sub-plot exists so Berry can have her big drunken scene where Rowena quits her job in a blaze of glory. She then has an uncomfortable encounter with an old childhood friend, Grace (Nicki Aycox in a nails-on-chalkboard performance) who brings her up to speed on her recent affair with wealthy advertising tycoon Harrison Hill (Willis). A scene later Grace is found dead. That's right, literally a single scene later. What's worse is the movie immediately flashes back (to the previous scene!) and replays snippets of their conversation. I'm sure anyone with no attention span or severe short-term memory disorders are grateful. The autopsy finds that Grace's eyes were laced with a toxic amount of Belladonna, a drug usually reserved for women's cosmetic purposes. The result of which leaves her corpse looking like something straight out of a Romero zombie flick. I would have had my eyes sprayed with Belladonna if it meant I wouldn't have to watch some of the silly events that unfold in this film.

With the murder trail leading to the womanizing Harrison Hill, Rowena goes undercover as a temp at his ad agency to gather enough evidence to implicate him. Why she doesn't just take her suspicions to the police and let them handle it I have no idea. Possibly the most confusing development in this movie (which is really saying something) is Rowena taking on a second identity as "Veronica" in online chat rooms to pump Hill for information. Why? Isn't it enough she's going undercover at his own company? She has to take on a second uncover identity also? If she's doing one, there's absolutely no point to the other, except maybe to give us a full dose of her hipster computer geek friend Miles. He's a hacker who seemingly has access to any information Rowena wants in a matter of seconds. He also harbors a creepy crush on her, made all that much creepier by the fact he's played by Giovanni Ribisi. Not an actor known for subtlety, his most annoying tendencies have never on broader display than here. I could say his role is a supporting one, but that wouldn't be completely correct.

Ribisi not only has a lot of screen time but his performance is so memorably bizarre that his presence seems to linger long after he's exited the scene and extend into ones he's not even a part of. He seems to be entertaining himself in a one-man show of inexplicably rapid line deliveries, body twitches and facial contortions the likes of which he couldn't have possibly learned in any acting school. I heard there's a front row seat at this year's Golden Raspberry Awards with his name on it. What's scarier is as bad as the performance is, I can't legitimately claim it's inappropriate for the tone of this film. You could argue it almost kind of fits and is strangely entertaining.

Pity the poor world of advertising, which, along with news reporting, always seems to be the occupation of choice to be butchered onscreen. This may be the first time the main character has held both of those jobs during a movie, so you'd figure the chances for stupidity in the screenplay would be doubled. Surprisingly, this movie doesn't do anything too ridiculous here. Other than an unintentionally hilarious beat down of an employee in front of the entire office staff I thought this portion of the film was well handled. The biggest surprise may be that many of the scenes between Berry and Willis do contain some tension and are competently directed by James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross, Confidence).

One scene in particular with Berry in a race against time to blindly locate the power switch on her computer is actually heart pounding. There's also more chemistry between Berry and Willis than you'd expect, or at least more than I expected. Foley, of course, takes advantage of every opportunity presented to him to have the camera ogle Berry in tight, low-cut clothing, which may actually be the highlight of this entire film. At over 40, no one could argue she doesn't look as good as ever. This isn't as bad a starring vehicle for her as you'd think as she is in nearly every scene and occasionally gets to show off some serious acting chops, but the more ridiculous the film gets (and it reaches a fever pitch toward the end) the worse she fares. Anyone would.

A making of documentary on the DVD features an interview with Berry where she talks about all the interesting qualities her character possesses and how thematically deep this story is. I'll console myself by assuming there must have been some mix up and they accidently inserted her interview about another film like, say, Monster's Ball. Someone needs to have a long talk with Berry about why she started acting in the first place and tell her she's better than crap like this. This discussion should take place privately over candlelight, with some romantic music to set the mood and…oops, I've gotten off the subject. Sorry. On the other hand, I can actually see why Bruce Willis would take this role, as it does look fun to play and, much to my surprise, I did buy him as this arrogant advertising executive (despite a distracting hairpiece). At least he appears to be having a good time and knows what he's there to do. That goes a long way when confronted with material this stupid. He escapes unscathed, which is commendable. I'm not so sure the same could be said of Berry, who has the heavier load to carry in this.

After a surprisingly engaging and well-paced second half the movie squanders all of its minimal goodwill with its SHOCKING twist ending. Shocking not because it's clever, but because it's completely arbitrary and makes no sense whatsoever. Nearly 10 minutes of flashbacks and dialogue were needed to explain it and I still couldn't tell you how everything went down. I have to admit when this big reveal came I spit out my drink and laughed hysterically. I has to be up there with some of the most ridiculous twists I've ever seen in a film. I do have to give the movie credit though for at least coming up with a big surprise, as little sense as it may have made. Unfortunately, up to this point, Foley couldn't decide whether we should take the film seriously or not. For an R rated movie there's very little in the way of violence, sex or nudity, which ends up being a real deal killer for the audience because this could have really used it. With something like this you either go all the way or you don't go at all. So no, Perfect Stranger isn't as bad as everyone's been saying it is… but is it wrong for me to wish that it was?

Thursday, August 23, 2007


Director: Nimrod Antal
Starring: Luke Wilson, Kate Beckinsale, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry

Running Time: 80 min.

Rating: R

***1/2 (out of ****)

If I'm ever overcome with the sudden urge to write a horror thriller one of the first people I'm calling for advice is Mark L. Smith, the screenwriter of Vacancy. The film may not be completely perfect, but it's damn close and one of the more intelligent thrillers to come along in recent years. You can try to look for holes in the screenplay, but good luck. There isn't a single moment or action by any character in this film that rings false. No one here makes any choices that are illogical or that any of you wouldn't make if put in the same situation. Or at least you should hope you'd have the wherewithal to make the choices the characters do here, because they're smart ones. If anything resembling the events in this film were to really occur I'm convinced this is how they would happen and I'm not too sure something exactly like this hasn't. It's so frighteningly realistic it could easily be based on a true story.

A quote on the DVD jacket promises a cross between Saw and Psycho and that's pretty much what you get, with the catch being it doesn't contain the gore of the former or psychological depth of the latter. If it had a little bit more of both this would have really been something special. It also contains two memorably evil supporting turns from a couple 90's actors I was thrilled to see again, and even more thrilled to see in roles where they're clearly having a blast. One of which plays a caretaker that may be the creepiest I've seen onscreen since Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock's masterpiece. He at least has Vince Vaughn beat, that's for sure. At a trim, but effectively tight 80 minutes, Vacancy is a huge surprise.

After what may be the coolest opening title sequence of the year, we join David Fox (Luke Wilson) and his wife Amy (Kate Beckinsale) as David takes a short cut off the interstate on their way to file the divorce papers that will end their headache of a marriage. Their constant bickering is interrupted when he swerves to avoid hitting a raccoon and damages the car. They stop at the local run-down gas station where they meet an eccentric, high-strung mechanic (Ethan Embry) who offers to fix the problem free of charge. He's unsuccessful and the couple is forced to stay at a fleabag motel run by a very, very creepy manager (Frank Whaley) who isn't what he seems. Or more accurately, he is exactly what he seems. What happens when they first settle in this old, dirty, cockroach infested "honeymoon suite" initially resembles the John Cusack PG-13 horror thriller from earlier in the year, 1408. The phone rings. There are loud, banging noises. The tension mounts. I honestly thought we were in for another stupid ghost story. Boy, was I wrong.

Soon David makes a discovery. It's a stack of videotapes on top of the VCR and what's on them are graphic, disturbing snuff films. Snuff films that were shot in the very same room they're staying in. You're probably having bad flashbacks to Joel Schumacher's 8mm, but let me ease those worries now and tell you these snuff films not only look real, they're genuinely scary and difficult to watch. There's a special feature on the DVD that allows you to watch them in their entirety, but I had to shut it off. I'm not sure if this was because I was scared or that I felt guilty watching it. There's so well done there's actually a sense that the viewer is being implicated by just seeing it unfold. I won't dare spoil what happens after David makes this discovery but the film impressively picks up like a speeding train and director Nimrod Antal with cinematographer Andrzej Sekula (Pulp Fiction) create an unbelievable sense of deepening terror. This is a beautifully shot film with impressive establishing, and later, hand-held camera shots that take place mostly inside this claustrophobic hotel room. Credit should go to everyone involved for being able to keep the story in the room for that long and in a way that's continually exciting and makes sense.

After nearly sucking us of oxygen with all the tension, the bad guys, when they do show up, actually meet expectations. They're scary as hell and Antal doesn't make the mistake of overexposing them. Just when you expect the film to veer off into slasher territory, it instead reveals itself as a suspenseful story about two smart people put in a realistic situation they must find their way out of. When the action eventually does leave the hotel room it does so because the characters made reasonable decisions and problem-solved. I rolled my eyes when a cop showed up late in the film. Except this isn't your ordinary movie cop. He's actually smart! He surveys the situation, asks all the right questions and does exactly what any real law enforcement official would really do. If he fails it's because he's outmatched, not stupid. A lot of people will watch this and think the villains are fools, but that's where the brilliant twist comes in that most critics and audiences missed. They're making a snuff film so it benefits them to keep the two of them alive as long as possible. They want more material. The killers are directing a movie.

I nearly cringed at the beginning of the film when we're introduced to the information that David and Amy had a son who passed away. Luckily though, this information is brought up, then promptly dropped. They don't continually dwell on it like in 1408. It seems every other horror film released these days feel the need to tack on a dead child in script rewrites to earn sympathy points for the main character. Here, it's at least mentioned briefly as subtext and left for us to ponder the rest of the way. It's no secret this is an experience meant to bring this couple closer and Smith shows us, without ever saying it, which is greatly appreciated by me. Luke Wilson is generally thought of as a charisma deficient actor but here he really delivers the dramatic goods in a big way. His back must have been hurting after the shoot from carrying the bland as usual Beckinsale through this entire film. For once she lucks out being in a horror movie where she can just scream and coast through. While she fares just fine for what she's asked to do, the film may have been improved slightly by a more exciting actress who could have brought more depth to the role.

It took me a second to identify the creepy motel manager as a far thinner and mustachioed Frank Whaley, infamous for his role over a decade ago as the underling to Kevin Spacey's boss from hell in 1995's Swimming With Sharks. When I realized who it was I could barely contain my excitement because I knew he was going to go all out, and does he ever. He gives the kind of performance that gives Jon Voight's hilariously over-the-top work in Anaconda a run for its money in entertainment value. Yes, he's that kind of villain. He knows what he there to do and chews into every scene like a madman. It's a deliriously fun supporting performance from a great actor who we don't usually get the chance to see nearly enough of. Another actor we haven't seen nearly enough of, Ethan Embry (star of 90's teen cult classics Empire Records and Can't Hardly Wait), makes the most of his limited screen time as the maniacal mechanic. His role actually ends up being more significant than you'd think at first glance.

It's rare in a horror movie that I actually find myself doubting whether both characters will actually make it out alive. Here I did. There is actually real, legitimate doubt whether they'll survive. When the ending does come, it's perfect. Any more would have told us too much and any less wouldn't have been enough. In a way it's a throwback to horror films of the 70's that didn't feel obligated tie the ending up in a nice little bow. It also strangely reminded me of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original, not the remake) with a night of hell coming down to a face off at sunrise. If you're going to invoke the feeling of a horror film, that one definitely isn't a bad choice. From the retro opening credits to the emphasis on suspense over gore Vacancy harkens back to a better time in the horror genre.

Despite what the trailers and commericials suggested, it has more in common with The Descent than The Hills Have Eyes or Dead Silence. Ironically, though, the one thing the film could have used a little more of was gore and blood. I have no idea why it's even rated R. It doesn't contain enough violence and blood to satisfy hungry horror fanatics, but isn't quite tame enough to earn a PG-13 and be classified in the same category as the slightly inferior 1408, which was a box office success. This confusion could likely explain why audiences stayed away in droves.

I wouldn't have added more scenes of graphic violence (that would negate the suspense), but what they had could have easily been ratcheted up a notch. As frightening as the snuff films were, if they went even just a little more over the line with what was shown it could have made a big difference. This is a very rare case where showing more could have benefited a horror film and taken it to the next level. Part of me also wondered what a Brian DePalma or David Fincher would have done with the material and what psychological complexities they could have drawn out of it. It seems right up their alley. But that's no slight on Nimrod Antal, making his English feature debut after directing the acclaimed Hungarian film Kontroll, and whose first name is no way suggests his competence as a filmmaker. Vacancy is one of those rare movies that actually give horror a good name, providing some hope that it's possible for modern day films to be both smart and scary.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Director: Gregory Hoblit
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Gosling, David Strathairn, Rosamund Pike, Embeth Davidtz, Bill Burke, Cliff Curtis, Bob Gunton

Running Time: 113 min.

Rating: R

**1/2 (out of ****)

Sometimes it's fun to see great actors "slumming it," so to speak, in mainstream popcorn movies. Watching Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling in Gregory Hoblit's legal potboiler Fracture isn't one of those times. Okay…maybe it is. Just a little. But that doesn't make this a good movie. I enjoy writing reviews but this time I was tempted instead of a review to post an interview with someone I know who's a lawyer. I'd have him watch Fracture, then ask about all the ridiculous events that occur throughout the course of the film and the likelihood of anything even close to them ever occurring in our legal system. That would probably be missing the point though.

This movie is just supposed to give us a good time and despite having one of the most poorly conceived scripts of the year, I could actually see how many may enjoy it. The 117 minutes fly by, it doesn't take itself too seriously and the actors appear to be having a good time with the material (or at least one of them is). In a way this could be thought of as one of the funniest comedies of the year since the events depicted in the film are so wildly implausible and over-the-top all you can really do is laugh. I know I did. Many times. However, the movie is ultimately too stupid for me to give it a recommendation and be able to look at myself in the mirror tomorrow morning. I'm all for checking your brain at the door and suspending disbelief when watching a movie, but this one pushes it past the limit, even for me.

Anthony Hopkins is Ted Crawford, an eccentric structural engineer in Los Angeles who upon discovering his wife (Embeth Davidtz) is having an affair, shoots her in the face. Assigned to prosecute Crawford's case is young hotshot attorney Willy Beachum (Gosling), who's on his way out of the public sector and on to a job for a prestigious civil law firm. This is his last order of business and should be nothing more than a walk in the park with a signed confession and a murder weapon. Or so he thinks. Crawford has already put into motion a brilliant (but in reality stupid and implausible) plan to frame his wife's lover (Billy Burke) for the murder. Without revealing too much lets just say his plan involves him correctly anticipating a series of events before he commits the crime that Nostradamus himself wouldn't be able to predict with any degree of accuracy.

Luckily for the film, Hopkins is in the role so anything he does, no matter how ridiculous it seems, comes off looking absolutely brilliant. I won't even try to imagine the train wreck this movie could have been without him. I will give the film credit for having the sense to actually show Crawford shooting his wife and leave no mystery at all as to his guilt right away. An even stupider movie (believe it or not, they exist) would have created some shadow of doubt as to whether he actually committed the crime. At least we know he did it and the rest of the film can be spent watching Hopkins and Gosling face off, which unfortunately isn't as thrilling as you likely imagined it to be. Crawford commits himself to finding Willy's "weak spot" and exploiting it. Needless to say, he doesn't have too tough a time.

Since this is essentially a courtroom drama we're treated to some hilarious scenes of Crawford representing himself at the trial. Whenever I watch the news and hear a defendant in some kind of murder case is representing themselves, I have to laugh. If you've ever seen something like that (for example the 1993 trial of subway gunman Colin Ferguson) you know what a joke it makes of our legal system. Hopkins is very entertaining here but unfortunately the reality sets in that he must bring some degree of credibility to Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers silly screenplay. The judge lets him do some things in this courtroom that are just so absurd and unbelievable that I was rolling on the floor with laughter. If you're ever on accused of murder just pray this judge gets your case, or better yet, that Pyne and Gers write the script for your trial.

Those flaws would be fine if the film didn't phone it in when it came to establishing Gosling's Willy as a human being you actually care about. There's an utterly pointless and actually somewhat annoying sub-plot involving an office romance with an attractive lawyer (played by Rosamund Pike) training him for his new position at the firm. She doesn't want his last case in the public sector to turn into an embarrassment for her and the powers that be responsible for his hiring. Oh, and she wants to sleep with him. I mention it as an aside because that's exactly how the movie treats it. Since they're two good looking people who happen to work together they must have sex. There isn't even the slightest attempt to establish anything that resembles a real relationship between them unless you count their lusty stares at one another for minutes at a time. The writers, to steal a quote from Julie Gianni in Vanilla Sky, treat her as nothing more than a "f*ck buddy."

Not helping matters is that Pike, while beautiful, is a black hole of charisma, nearly sucking the life out of every scene in which she appears. The only time the film comes remotely close to giving us anything of interest related to this romance is when they go to her parents' house. It's here where the writers bizarrely choose to give one of the few intelligent lines of dialogue in the entire film to her father (Bob Gunton), who's a civil court judge. David Strathairn is completely wasted as Willy's superior who's trying to take Willy off the case when he starts fumbling it big time. They could have hired a member the catering crew to play the role and no one would have noticed. In fact, it probably would have been a lot cheaper.

This film doesn't really contain any shocking surprises (at least I wasn't surprised by anything that happened) and not nearly as much suspense as I expected. After all, it is tough generating suspense when the characters are all really just agents for carrying out the increasingly ludicrous developments in the screenplay. While Hopkins looks like he's having the time of his life and at least knows what kind of movie he's in, Gosling plays this dead serious and fares far worse. He thinks this is Half Nelson in a courtroom. I didn't care for that film, but at least the material wasn't below him. What's fascinating about Gosling is even though he's one of our best young actors he's yet to make a great movie. If he hopes to achieve that goal, these are exactly the kind of roles he should NOT be taking, as they don't play to any of his strengths as an actor. He excels when given a character with some life or depth to him.

If you approach this film in the right mindset (or lack of one) you'll have a good time since Hopkins is a real hoot. You may even be able to argue it's at least the funniest performance of his career, even if I'll always go with 2003's The Human Stain. Gregory Hoblit is a director known for churning out competent, if routine, thrillers (Primal Fear, Fallen, Frequency) and this isn't a departure for him, even if it does stand as one of his lesser efforts. In his defense though, there isn't much more he could have done with the material. He gets as much mileage as he can out of a laughable script, at least knowing enough to step back and let Hopkins do his thing. That's where this film's bread is buttered. So if you're up for it, go rent Fracture for a good time, but be aware that side effects may include the loss of a few brain cells

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Lookout

Director: Scott Frank
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels, Matthew Goode, Isla Fisher, Carla Gugino, Bruce McGill

Running Time: 99 min.

Rating: R

**** (out of ****)

I wake up
I turn off the alarm
I take a shower
I get dressed
I make the coffee
I eat breakfast
I go to class

Seems like a pretty simple list, right? Now imagine struggling every day to just remember the steps. Such is the plight of the protagonist in screenwriter Scott Frank's directorial debut, The Lookout, an emotionally moving character study that doubles as a heist thriller. Comparisons have been made to Memento, but they shouldn't be. This character does not have amnesia. That would almost be too simple. He has a moderately traumatic head injury that sometimes cause him to forget things and act in ways that aren't entirely consistent with his personality, or whatever may be left of it. Unlike Memento, this film doesn't use his condition as a gimmick to give us a twisty plot full of shocks and surprises. His condition is there because it's who he has become and is something he has to deal with. The movie shows that struggle but never exploits it, even when certain characters in the movie are. It's a story about friendship, loyalty and betrayal that just so happens to involve a bank heist. Usually when good thrillers end I have many questions pertaining to the plot. Not here. When The Lookout concluded I found I instead had many questions about life, how we treat one another and our place in this world. I also had to ask myself a couple of more questions: Is Joseph Gordon-Levitt an actor even capable of giving a performance that's less than brilliant, or starring in a movie that doesn't rank among the year's best?

Levitt stars as Chris Pratt, a star high school hockey player who one night makes a terrible decision on a lonely highway road that results in the death of two friends and serious injury to himself and his girlfriend. The victim of a head injury from the crash, we join him four years later as the simplest tasks couldn't possibly be more difficult for him. What's most interesting about his condition is that looking at him he appears to be mostly functional, but his brain seems to spin in circles causing him serious short-term memory issues and an inability to properly sequence events. For instance he can drive, but must always keep an extra key in his shoe for when he inevitably locks a set in the car. Everything in his room and in the kitchen have labels and he always carries with him a small notepad he can refer back to whenever he gets stuck.

He shares an apartment with a blind man named Lewis (Jeff Daniels, sporting his Squid and the Whale beard) who despite his disability is amazingly self-sufficient, not to mention very funny. When one of the characters describes him as a blind Larry Flynt they're not too far off the mark. It's his dream to someday with open a restaurant tentatively, but hilariously named "Lew's Your Lunch." Attempting to impart some of his life skills onto Chris, he helps him deal with his disability and the friendship that exists between them is genuinely touching. Chris takes classes at the Life Skills Center of Kansas City where he practices such exercises as sequencing the events of the day, which he struggles greatly with. Things don't go much better with the case worker tracking his progress, as he can't restrain himself from blurting out sexually inappropriate comments during their sessions (which is completely understandable since she's played by Carla Gugino). In his ongoing struggle to maintain normalcy he works the night shift as a janitor at the local bank aspiring to one day become a teller despite the bank manager having little confidence in him handling money.

A few O'Douls at the local pub take the edge off and it's there where he's befriended by gang leader Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode, a very long way from Chasing Liberty). He takes him under his wing, introducing him to an alluring ex-stripper named Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher). They're just suckering him in. What Gary really wants is to rob the bank and he needs him to be the lookout. Gary promises him a piece of the pie and the chance to get the life he once had back. Of course we know that's impossible but Chris doesn't, or if he does, he can't admit it. We also know that no matter what happens in that bank there is no real serious risk of Chris finding himself in legal trouble because of his condition. That's not where the suspense comes from. It comes from Chris' battle to gain control of his soul and come to terms with who he's become after the accident. What happens with the heist I can't reveal, but I will say the blood-soaked final act of the film is slightly reminiscent of Fargo in that we have a Midwestern robbery spiral out of control. Frank beautifully captures the Midwestern landscape (despite the fact it was actually shot in Canada) and James Newton Howard's score, as usual, provides the perfect background.

I just reviewed Disturbia, another movie that also starts off with a life altering car crash. Like this, it goes the thriller route in the second half, but the merger of the two genres didn't seem to work, making the film seem routine. That's not the case here. This is the movie Disturbia could have been if it wanted to. When this film heads down that road it does it well and believably, not losing any of the human drama that brought us there. The two genres are mixed expertly and, if anything, the shift raises the stakes, bringing something out of the characters that was slowly burning during the course of the film. Viewers are rewarded for paying attention to the details of Chris' condition, but not in any way that feels cheap or manipulative.

Scott Frank's script doesn't contain any "big twist" regarding his memory problems, but rather gives space for the situation unfold how it really would and lets him use what he's learned to solve the problem. I loved that. When the ending does come Frank doesn't have everyone skipping into the sunset arm in arm. Everyone has problems and adversities they face in life, but they're not going to just disappear overnight. It takes some work but with small steps improvement can be made a little each day. Sometimes it's the little victories that matter most. The final scene of is as powerful a one as I've seen in any motion picture this year precisely because it doesn't try to dazzle us, but instead just fades out quietly and honestly. I have to admit I almost lost it at the end…and remember, this is a heist movie! The attention to detail in Frank's script can be seen in the most minor characters, like the local cop who stakes out the bank. Even he has an interesting story of why he's really there.

The Lookout may end up as a thriller but what this story is really about is Chris struggling to gain acceptance of who he's become. It's not often in movies a character's struggle with a physical or mental disability is treated truthfully. Here, it is. He isn't the cocky, star jock he was in the film's opening minutes before the accident. He's a different person, but ironically, a better one. He's haunted by the accident and the guilt he carries for his role in it, sitting alone at the skating rink just watching his ex-girlfriend. He dreams of finding the courage to go up to her. What should he say? Apologize? He's not sure, but he knows he has to say something. How will she react? Everything after the accident has become uncomfortable, even with his family. His own father (played by Bruce McGill) won't give him any money because he has no faith in him that he can take care of himself. A trip home is a disaster because no one knows how to talk to the "new Chris." A dinner scene wisely observes how family can sometimes say the most hurtful things without ever meaning to. A situation like this is tough and the movie doesn't patronize us by presenting a cookie cutter version of it.

Gary senses Chris is vulnerable and plays on it, but one of the neat things about the movie is we're never quite sure of Luvlee's intentions, or even if she is either. She could just be playing the game but there are hints she may really have feelings for him. That Fisher doesn't play her like your typical Femme Fatale creates even further ambiguity. Everything she knows of Chris and his reputation is pre-accident. Is she attracted to the Chris now or the Chris then? Or even interested at all? As Chris finds himself slowly being spun into Gary's web we sense we're losing him and he's losing himself. Matthew Goode, nearly unrecognizable, is a true surprise here as I'm sure anyone familiar with his previous work will be completely shocked by with his bad ass intensity. As Gary's right hand man, Bone, Greg Dunham (in his screen debut) hardly says a word but his menacing presence hangs over the picture like a ghastly specter. He's truly frightening.

The irony shouldn't be lost on anyone that Lewis, a blind man, is the only character who can see everything that's happening for exactly what it is. A scene in the kitchen where he interrogates Luvlee just crackles with tension and excitement. Beneath Lewis' sarcastic humor and off putting remarks you can tell he really cares about Chris and Daniels conveys that dimension with perfect subtly. There's a long running joke in Hollywood that quickest way to an Oscar is to play someone with a physical or mental disability. That may be true, but the sad fact is they've seen it fit over the years to honor only the most cartoonish and overblown portrayals of it.

Daniels is so restrained and detailed in his performance with two very difficult jobs on his plate: the actual physical portrayal of blindness and the creation of an engaging multi-dimensional character. It's worthy of a best supporting actor nomination. It's clear throughout the film that serious research was done on the part of Levitt and Daniels to give a real, authentic, and most importantly, honest portrait of people suffering from disabilities and working everyday to make their lives better.

Last year I called Brick one of, if not the very best, film of 2006. It starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a performance I also trumpeted as the best of that year. The Lookout may not be as creatively dazzling as Brick, but its story cuts deeper, it's more important thematically and Levitt's performance is better. It's a tougher role but he owns it all the way and we never get the impression this is acting at all. This really is someone who's had a traumatic head injury and is struggling to deal with its consequences. There's a quiet, restrained intensity he brings to the role I'm convinced no other actor could. He doesn't have to rely on any gimmicks or tricks and he just creates this person from the inside out.

Just few years ago Levitt (previously best known for his role as Tommy Solomon on t.v's Third Rock From The Sun and a feature co-starring role in 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You) probably wouldn't be at the top of anyone's list to emerge as this generation's most interesting and exciting actor. This proves a couple of things: First, that talent in this industry can be hiding where you least expect it. Secondly, hard work sometimes actually pays off. And it's important for actors to have a brain so they can make intelligent, informed choices when it comes to choosing roles. I know he had taken some time off from acting but when he returned it was clear something really clicked. First came Manic. Then Mysterious Skin. With last year's Brick we had to start taking notice that he could become one of our best actors. Now with The Lookout, he officially is. I can't recall an actor ever starring in two movies in a row as strong.

This film had long been a labor of love for its director Scott Frank, a screenwriter responsible for writing such films as Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Minority Report. Scott wrote the script which was tossed around in development for nearly a decade, with David Fincher originally attached to direct. It would have been interesting to see what he did with it, but I'm glad Frank ultimately decided to helm it himself. In other hands, I can't see how it possibly could have better (which is saying something since I consider Fincher the best living director). It's times like this where I'm glad I covered my ass a few weeks ago when I called Zodiac the best film of 2007 SO FAR, because this is right up there with it.

This is a film that rewards viewers with repeated viewings not because of intricacies of plot, but character. That's a rare feat for the heist genre. Most filmmakers would be thrilled to say they directed one great heist movie or one great character study in their entire career. Scott Frank did both already in his first time out, all from a screenplay he wrote and developed himself. It makes you wonder what could possibly be next for him. Whatever is, The Lookout goes down as one of the year's best, and an unforgettable experience.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Director: D.J. Caruso
Starring: Shia LeBeouf, Sarah Roemer, Carrie Anne Moss, David Morse, Aaron Yoo, Matt Craven

Running Time: 105 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

Disturbia attempts to marry two genres that really have no business appearing together in the same film: The teen movie and the Hitchcockian thriller. It executes one extremely well and the other at least somewhat competently. That I'm giving it three stars can only mean I'm feeling very generous and forgiving lately because, truthfully, the movie's a mess. However, when it was over I was forced to admit that for what it was trying to accomplish it mostly succeeded as well as it possibly could.

Whether a film like this should have even been attempted in the first place is a different matter altogether, but I've struggled to come up with any ideas that could have possibly made it any better. It features an at least partially clever script, appealing performances, is well directed, yet somehow manages to come off feeling routine. Maybe that's because it starts out so strongly and builds its characters so well early on that I was just hoping for more. What we end up getting is serviceable, if not very imaginative. Unusually for a teen movie, its strong suite lies in the acting and chemistry between the two leads. The movie is really bolstered by a strong lead performance from an actor many can't stand and an impressive co-starring debut from an actress who commands our attention, almost to the point where time seems to stand still whenever she's onscreen.

The first three or four scenes that open Disturbia are so gripping and tension filled that the movie really has its work cut out for it in somehow delivering on the promise of them. Right out of the gate Director D.J. Caruso succeeds in giving us one of the best prologues I've seen in a movie in quite some time as he opens with the fishing trip of our main character, Kale (Shia LeBeouf) and his dad (Matt Craven). In just a few minutes Caruso succeeds in establishing a believable father-son bond between the two and getting us to really care about them in a way that doesn't feel forced. Then he pulls the rug out from under us with a viscerally horrific car accident that kills the father. The scene is not only scarier than anything else that comes later in the film, but one of the most terrifying car crashes I've seen depicted onscreen in recent memory.

We then flash forward a little over a year later where a distant, troubled Kale stands in front of a judge for punching out a teacher who really had it coming. He's sentenced to house arrest where he must where a Martha Stewart-style ankle bracelet that goes into a blinking and bleeping frenzy if he steps outside the regulated 100 foot parameter. What's interesting here is that no one seems to have the slightest bit of sympathy for what this teen is going through after losing his father. Or if they do, they're not showing it. His mom (Carrie Anne Moss, an off-kilter casting choice), realizing his house arrest amounts to nothing more than a vacation, cancels his X-Box and I-Tunes subscriptions so he's forced to stare out his bedroom window with binoculars all day. He witnesses such exciting events as extra-marital affairs and kids watching porn channels in their room. Relief finally arrives in the form of hot new neighbor Ashley (Sarah Roemer), whose hobbies include lots of swimming, sunbathing on her roof and prancing around her bedroom topless. Kale starts to think this may not be such a bad deal after all.

Joined by his hyperactive best friend Ronnie (an entertainingly goofy Aaron Yoo) they watch her every move until, much to their surprise, she shows up at the doorstep (soaking wet). Ashley's reaction later on to the revelation he's been watching her results in the film's most memorable and quotable line, providing a hint that the best movie of the year could have come out of this material if they wanted it to. For a while it looked like it was going in that direction as Christopher Landon and Carl Ellsworth's script has a great ear for how teens really talk and act. And in what may be the film's biggest surprise, LeBeouf and Roemer nearly ignite the screen with their chemistry. If the film ended at this point I would have given it four stars.

So far the impossible has been accomplished. Caruso has given us a teen movie with intelligence and in minimal time gotten us to not only care about the characters but sold us a believable romance in a matter of minutes. Most dramas can't accomplish effectively in their entire running time what happens in the first 45 minutes of what should be a throwaway teen movie. It's clear Caruso (who directed 2002's The Salton Sea starring Val Kilmer) really knows what he's doing and it appeared he had the script to support him. I remember thinking here that even if the rest of the film collapses I would still consider it a success. Remember that statement.

You may have noticed I referred to the film earlier as "Hitchcockian" and if you've seen the trailers and commericials you know exactly why. What comes next is disappointing, but inevitable unfortunately. The teens discover their creepy neighbor, Mr. Turner (David Morse) just might be…A MURDERER! I don't know what could have given it away. Maybe the prostitutes arriving but strangely never leaving, his fascination with knives, or the blood soaked plastic bags being dragged in and out of his house. They think this may be the guy behind all these mysterious disappearances on the news. That's interesting, but what's more interesting is this psychopath who doesn't look like he has a job other than killing people can afford the live in the richest suburb in America. The problem isn't so much that this storyline involving a murderer next door is executed poorly because it's not. It's just so…ordinary. There's no mystery as to the man's guilt or what he's doing.

As I watched I tried to think of other possible scenarios the main characters could uncover that would make this story more intriguing but I couldn't. Of course, that's the screenwriters' job, not mine. I almost wished Ashley would throw down the binoculars, turn to Kale and say, "Why are we doing this?" She couldn't though because that would mean we couldn't get the obligatory scene where he's smelling her hair from behind as she looks out the window. It just doesn't seem to fit that these two, who up to until now were so engaging in a perfect movie with surprisingly clever wit and dialogue, are thrown into a paint-by-the-numbers thriller. Besides conflicting with the entire tone of first half of the movie, it feels like the script had a lobotomy, deteriorating out of nowhere into a slasher film.

As disappointed as I am with that development though, I have to admit it is suspenseful and done well, thanks in no small part to the performance of David Morse as Mr. Turner. Morse is a phenomenally gifted character actor who's appeared in films far superior to this and he invests Turner with so much more depth than the one-note psycho he's written as. He has a scene alone in a parking garage with Roemer where he's so creepy it becomes almost too uncomfortable to watch. Supposedly Morse stayed in character during the entire shoot, which doesn't surprise me since as the guy's a consummate pro as an actor. When I saw his name on the credits I knew we were guaranteed at least one outstanding performance. Caruso should count his lucky stars he even got him for this role because it scares me to imagine how much worse the last act of the film would have been without his presence. Still, despite the danger Morse's character conveys, you can't shake the feeling everyone's just playing super sleuth in this section of the film.

I know a lot of people have problems with LeBeouf as an actor, but ironically, it's his grounded performance as a regular teen that helps save the movie when it takes the path into nonsense. Because we believe him as this everyday kid, we end up buying it when he's in serious danger. He's been accused of playing the super sensitive geek card in every film but it works for him here and he gets the job done. Ryan Gosling or Jospeh Gordon Levitt he ain't but he doesn't have to be for this kind of role, and Caruso is smart enough not to have him try.

Then there's Sarah Roemer. While she may immediately grab your attention because of how she looks (though she isn't what you'd call conventionally pretty in the "Hollywood" sense), there's something else there. It's a presence and natural magnetism she has that isn't easy to describe or explain. You can't look away and end up hanging on every word she says. I'm not even sure it has much to do with acting or it's anything that can be taught, as even some great actors don't command the screen as well as she does here. She just has "it." They'll be plenty of time to see what she can do as an actress, but I do know this would have been a far different (and likely inferior) movie without her in it. She's definitely someone to keep an eye on. We won't have a choice. Carrie-Ann Moss is an interesting choice for what amounts to basically a throwaway role as Kale's mom, but she's surprisingly believable in her few scenes as a caring parent. I'd say the role is underwritten, but given the direction of the script, I'm not too sure as there's really nothing more that character could have possibly contributed.

Disturbia has been labeled everywhere as a virtual remake of Hitchcock's Rear Window and while the inspiration in concept is clearly there, the script cleverly manages to avoid all these comparisons early on by updating the story enough that it feels completely fresh and different. It's at least smart enough to know that in the 21st century being sentenced to house arrest can be a blast, especially if you live in a house like Kale does here. The production and set designers deserve a bonus for not only making the house look that good, but making it look lived in as well. His mom cutting him off from his entertainment world was the type of small, believable detail I don't think many other movies would have even thought to bother with.

Modern technology such as cell phones and digiicams were enough to make the voyeuristic aspect of the story seem new and compelling as well. Unfortunately, this just makes the disintegration of the film into genre thriller territory all the more disappointing when it finally comes. For the teen audience this is primarily aimed for though this movie couldn't possibly work any better and it's no wonder it cleaned up at the box office. What's advertised is exactly what you get. I'm sure they're probably planning a sequel as I type this and I can't say I mind since the overall concept is intriguing and more could definitely be done with it.

There are some genuine thrills and tension in the final act, but still the feeling hovers that something deeper should have been wrung from this material. It looked like it would really go there, but instead it just settles. It's almost unfathomable that a film with this many flashes of pure brilliance comes out on the other side with just a mild recommendation from me. Maybe I'm wrong though. Maybe combining these two genres was a mistake from the get-go and what we have here is the best that could have come from it. What I do know, however, is that it's been a while since I've felt this conflicted about a film. It may sound like a backhanded compliment, but Disturbia can't help but feel like a good thriller with a great movie hidden inside, just begging to come out.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Hot Rod

Director: Akiva Schaffer
Starring: Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Isla Fisher, Bill Hader, Ian McShane, Sissy Spacek, Danny R. McBride, Will Arnett, Chris Parnell

Running Time: 88 minutes

Rating: PG-13

***1/2 (out of ****)

When I saw Hot Rod there were four people in the theater, including me. By the end of the movie there were only two and both of us had been on the floor laughing the entire time. I walked out thinking to myself that someone should send a copy of this film to Adam Sandler as a reminder of the kind of movies he used to make. That's not a knock on Sandler who's too old to be playing the role Andy Samberg does here and I'm glad he's stretched as an actor and made more interesting choices. But who are we kidding? Sandler was always at his most entertaining and found most of his success in stupid 90's slapstick comedies like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. Those were the movies that really connected with audiences and afforded him the opportunity to branch out and try different things, all of which didn't result in nearly the same kind of commercial success.

While no one wants to admit it, there's a reason why those comedies are still remembered and referenced today: because they're bad. That's right, bad. And when I say bad I mean they're so bad they're great. They fully commit to their ridiculous premise and make no apologies for what they are. They're stupid, hilarious and most important of all, they're in on the joke. Nearly every comedy since Sandler's heyday have attempted to repeat that formula and failed miserably, struggling most with that last criteria. There seems to be a disturbing trend going on lately with comedies actually taking themselves seriously, even going as far as to spread their running time over two hours and giving us plots that are actually (gasp!) somewhat complex. I'm actually glad that's happened to a certain extent, and there are some filmmakers out there doing it well, but I can't believe I'm saying this: I miss the stupidity. It's been long enough. We're due. As the quality of comedies have improved in recent years, Hollywood's forgotten about giving us a brainless good time.

How ironic that even a film produced by Sandler himself (last year's Grandma's Boy) couldn't recapture that magic and contained only minimal laughs? Now, with relatively little fanfare, comes Hot Rod, from director Akiva Schaffer and stars Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone, known collectively as the "Lonely Island" comedy group. They met and became best friends at middle school in Berkeley and went on to achieve a cult following through their digital shorts online. This led to Saturday Night Live where they were responsible for two of the funniest sketches in that show's recent history with "Lazy Sunday" and "Dick In A Box."

This movie is much of that same humor, stretched out longer, but just as hilarious. That it's produced by SNL creator Lorne Michaels would usually guarantee failure, but this deserves to be ranked among the best films starring SNL cast members. Or at least it's definitely closer in quality to Wayne's World than Superstar or It's Pat: The Movie. That the script comes from Pam Brady, one of the writers on South Park, won't come as a surprise after you've seen it. After the final credits rolled I felt like running to the roof of the multiplex and screaming "FINALLY!" Finally, a movie that "gets it," basking in its own stupidity and fully committing all the way through. Why did they stop making comedies like this?

Samberg is Rod Kimble, an incompetent aspiring stuntman with a little bit of a problem. His stepfather, Frank (Ian McShane of tv's Deadwod) is dying of heart failure and Rod needs to somehow earn $50,000 for his transplant so he lives to be on the receiving end of an ass kicking. Yeah, you read that right. You see Frank is a cranky old man who routinely defeats his stepson in fights and has absolutely no respect for him. Rod cannot let him die without first earning that respect, a joke that pays off big later. Inspired by stories of his deceased biological father's history as a professional stuntman, Rod formulates a stunt of his own that involves jumping 15 buses.

He gathers a training crew that includes his dweebish brother Kevin (Jorma Taccone) and slacker friends Rico (Danny R. McBride) and Dave (Bill Hader). What's so funny about these characters is it's never quite clear what they do all day or even how old they are. It's seems the movie wants us to believe they're teenagers even though they look like they're pushing thirty or beyond. However, at other points part of me thinks they're actually supposed to be in their twenties. I'm not sure. Whatever the case may be I know it wouldn't have been nearly as funny if they had cast real teenagers in the roles. Also along for the ride is hot neighbor Denise (Isla Fisher) who Rod is trying (in hilariously pathetic ways) to win over, but of course she's going out with a total jerk (played by Will Arnett).

It's no mystery where this movie is going (although the ending is somewhat surprising), but the real fun is how it gets there. Sure, there are your obligatory training sequences and pratfalls but the difference here is they are actually inventive and consistently funny, with even more goofiness sandwiched in between. This is one of those movies that are knowingly winking at the audience the entire time with hallucinatory dream sequences, completely random jokes that could exist independent of the picture, bizarre cameos and inspired 80's musical montages that come out of nowhere. A particularly memorable one features possibly the only Europe song ever used in a movie that wasn't "The Final Countdown."

Schaffer has also uncovered a little trick not many directors are aware of. If you repeat a line or a visual joke for just the right amount of time it can be hilarious as long as you know when to stop. There's a fall down a mountain that starts off typically, but then it keeps going….and going. It extends just to the point where it becomes downright hilarious, then stops just in time. Many directors wouldn't have a clue when to yell "Cut!" and it would have crossed that line into annoyance. Not here. He even knows when to stop the movie, something most directors of comedies seem to have forgotten lately. It runs 88 minutes and it feels just right for the type of movie he's making and the story he's telling. It doesn't overstay its welcome. The film is also very cleverly directed visually, despite its low budget. When Rod performs a stunt late in the film we see him in the air giving the thumbs up to the crowd, then the camera pulls back to reveal…he isn't on the bike! Sorry, but that's pretty hilarious.

This movie contains more laughs than just about any comedy I've seen so far this year (yes, that includes Hot Fuzz) and there wasn't a second I can remember not laughing. It also puts the skills of nearly every performer to good use. McShane is hilarious as the step-dad from hell who's just begging for comeuppance while Sissy Spacek plays the mom completely straight, making Samberg's character look that much goofier, if that's even possible. We know exactly what Isla Fisher's role will be like as Denise: Smile and look pretty. It's true, but at least they picked an actress who is pretty and has a nice smile. She does what she's supposed to. No complaints here. Chris Parnell has a small role late in the film as an A.M. radio D.J. and has a gag involving the explanation of a tattoo that in under thirty seconds is funnier than anything he's ever done on Saturday Night Live. Listen to his color commentary during the big stunt.

If the movie has one problem it's the underutilization of Will Arnett in the role of the evil boyfriend (although he does have one great scene). Having the comedic talents of Arnett at your disposal in a film and not fully exploiting them is inexcusable and I had to shave half a star off for it. In way though, even that could be seen as a plus because the movie never takes the familiar route of this story coming down to a battle for the girl. Still, Arnett should have had more screen time because a killer supporting turn from him could have taken this movie over the top. Maybe he'll have more scenes on the unrated DVD, which could be out in stores by the time you've read this judging from the film's box office take.

For some reason this movie has drawn comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite and I have no idea why, aside from the fact they share a little of the same type of humor. While I liked Napoleon Dynamite, I do understand why some people despise it, and even those who love it have to admit it hasn't aged too well. That film, while sporadically hilarious, was full of itself and carried a false air of superiority and arrogance embodied by the behavior of the title character. That's not the case with Hot Rod. The title character may be goofy and delusional, but he isn't mean-spirited or arrogant and this movie never adapts a condescending attitude toward his behavior or the material. It's just out to have fun and it succeeds.

Originally this was supposed to be a starring vehicle for Will Ferrell, but I'm so glad it wasn't. Ferrell sometimes falls into the trap of trying too hard to get laughs, which wouldn't work here like it did in Anchorman and Talladega Nights. Samberg is perfect for this and it's a shame the movie hasn't done well because he has what it takes to translate his SNL success to the big screen and become a major comedy star, much like Ferrell and Sandler before him.

One of the things I love most is when I have the opportunity to review a movie that just sneaks up on me. I don't go in expecting much, and I come out with something so much better than I anticipated. That this brought in just over $5 million on its opening weekend and was massacred by just about every critic in the country says something. It wasn't meant for all audiences, which is how it should be. The best comedies aren't. I also don't think it's a coincidence that the two people who walked out of the theater I saw this in were a guy and his girlfriend, with her leading the charge. This is a guy's movie and some guys may not even care for this kind of humor. Let's put it this way: If you've never pondered such life altering questions as who would win a fight between a taco and a grilled cheese sandwich this movie probably isn't for you.

Just wait until this arrives on DVD and everyone suddenly discovers it. This is the kind of cult comedy that could end up playing in stoned-out students dorm rooms for the next 10 years. It deserves to go down as one of the funniest movies of 2007 and the prospect that Superbad, which opens very soon, could possibly be even funnier (and advanced word suggests it is) is frightening. I just read an interview with Andy Samberg where he said the goal he had in making Hot Rod was to recreate the comedies he and his friends grew up on, like Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison. As someone who grew up those also, I can honestly say that mission was accomplished. Mr. Sandler would be proud.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Hot Fuzz

Director: Edgar Wright
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton, Bill Nighy

Running Time: 121 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

Hot Fuzz
is a comedy that takes your expectations and reverses them. I went in expecting a buddy cop picture about a no nonsense police sergeant who gets paired with the exact kind of fat, bumbling partner who would have been played by Chris Farley if he were still alive. But that's not what we get at all. This isn't a slapstick farce, the bumbling cop isn't as stupid or incompetent as we think he's going to be and the movie is a lot smarter and subtler than I expected.

Judging from the trailers and commercials the film looks like it's going to be one hilarious sight gag after another for two hours, which would have probably been fun, but not nearly as interesting as what we end up getting. The movie comes from the team of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg who gave us the zombie spoof Shaun of the Dead, which I've never seen but everyone keeps telling me is hysterical. After this, I'm more willing to believe they're right.

Hot Fuzz
is an interesting curiosity as a comedy as it focuses more on character and plot development than just funny gags. It starts off very slowly and just builds the rest of the way through until the last thirty minutes when the action and hysterics really kick in. I was literally in pain laughing over what unfolds in the film's final act and at times I couldn't even believe what I was watching. Still, the movie is way too long and could have used a good twenty to twenty-five minute trim in the editing room. There's no reason a comedy of this nature should ever be this long especially when most of the first hour is just set-up. The movie does earn bonus points though for actually having a smart script featuring two main characters we actually care about and a hilarious supporting turn from an actor I thought had disappeared from the face of the Earth.

Segeant Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is a great cop. In fact, he's so great he's making everyone else on the force look bad. To solve this problem his superiors, much to his chagrin, promote and send him off to the small, idyllic country suburb of Sandford. Upon his arrival he immediately lays down the law in a funny scene where he realizes nearly everyone drinking in the local pub is underage. His iron hand of justice approach isn't respected and is often mocked by a laid back town that's never had any real crime, but plenty of unfortunate accidents. The clueless and idiotic Chief Inspector Butterman (Jim Broadbent) pairs Angel with his even more clueless and idiotic son Danny (Nick Frost) who's see way too many action comedies and spends most of his time eating cake and bombarding Angel with ridiculous questions ("Have you ever fired a gun in a high speed pursuit?") When it appears there may actually be a rash of real murders occurring in the town, Angel faces an uphill battle convincing anyone of it despite the evidence and bodies piling up by the second.

One of the funniest aspects of the film is the townsfolk's inability to admit the obvious even when gruesome murders occur right in front of their faces at the hands of a cloaked maniac who hilariously looks like he escaped from a direct-to-video I Know What You Did Last Summer sequel. Everyone, including, the Chief Inspector, just writes these off as "accidents." There was no crime before Sergeant Angel came to town so they sure as hell won't be any now. A major suspect in these murders presents himself very early and obviously in the form of scheming supermarket manager Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton!) and I love how the movie spends most of the first hour blatantly pointing him out as a suspect. He drops comments and hints almost directly to the viewer and it's great seeing the M.I.A. Dalton again (one of the more underrated Bonds we've had) in such a cool role and having this much fun with it. That was the highlight of the entire movie for me.

Aside from the most bizarre production of Romeo and Juliet you've ever seen captured on film, the first hour of this movie really doesn't contain that many laugh out loud moments and kind of drags its feet, but there's good reason for it. When it's finally revealed who's behind these murders and why, the revelation, besides being hysterical, is actually a really clever piece of comic writing that required some thought and makes sense. You could go back and watch the movie a second time and see all the seeds slowly being planted and building to its uproarious, over-the-top climax. It's rare you see that much thought put into the actual plot of a comedy and the characters' motivations rather than the jokes themselves, which tend to spring organically out of this bizarre situation.

The last half hour knowingly spoofs just about every action movie made under the sun in the past 15 years, a fact the film gleefully acknowledges when our two main characters watch a double-feature of Point Break and Bad Boys II. The finale explodes with a hailstorm of bullets likely made that much more effective by the film's leisurely, laid-back pace up until that point. Anyone going into to this expecting laughs in every scene for 2 hours will be disappointed, but if you like amusing comedy that tells a good story with interesting characters you'll be satisfied. The real belly laughs don't kick in until the last half hour.

If Hot Fuzz has a problem it's that it's probably too smart for it's own good and could have stood to be a little stupider, if that makes any sense. No matter how good the payoff may be later, no comedy should need to spend an entire hour revving its engines before it gets going and I have a feeling a lot of viewers may lose patience. The script may be too clever and developed for the kind of movie people are expecting, but wouldn't it be nice if all comedies had that problem?

I have the feeling this film was made for a specific group of moviegoers that would appreciate its dry humor. That group probably includes everyone who saw and enjoyed Shaun of the Dead and Wright's intention here was obviously for this to do for action spoofs what that did for horror. Having never seen Shaun of the Dead I can still see here Wright's gift for mixing horror and comedy, two genres that are difficult enough to pull off separately, but nearly impossible together. His choice of a ubiquitous ballad on the soundtrack during a grisly crime scene is a particular standout for me.

Pegg is smart enough as an actor to play this ridiculousness almost completely straight, while Frost couldn't be more perfectly cast as the rotund, bumbling partner. Wright also squeezes some nice cameos out of Bill Nighy and an uncredited Cate Blanchett (who you'll have MAJOR problems recognizing, if you can at all). Dalton all but completely steals the movie as Skinner. Hot Fuzz may not be the kind of instant gratification mainstream comedy audiences are expecting, but it's a smart film that offers plenty of laughs for those who prefer their humor with some intelligence and don't mind waiting a little bit until it arrives.

Monday, August 6, 2007


Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West, Rodrigo Santoro, Andrew Tiernan, Stephen McHattie
Running Time: 117 min.

Rating: R

** (out of ****)

Make no mistake about it, 300 is a film about one thing: killing people. Killing them in the most brutal, graphic, creative and exciting ways possible for two hours straight. That's it. There's nothing more to it. That the movie is a visually groundbreaking and technically unlike anything ever committed to film strangely makes this experience all the more frustrating. I actually had to restrain myself when assigning this film a star rating because if I judged it based on my expectations going in and the hype surrounding it, I would have awarded it somewhere in the ballpark of one star. I have to be fair though and admit, despite being extremely disappointed, that it is for the most part a well directed film and come Oscar time it does deserve all of the technical nominations it'll likely receive.

The movie is such a wonder to look at and listen to it becomes a shame that exists just for those reasons only because this could have been so much more than just a series of beautifully shot fight sequences. If we had more invested in the story and cared about the characters this could have actually been the masterwork everyone is proclaiming it to be. It sent fans into orgasm at last year's Comic-Con when they got their first glimpse of images from the film (which is based upon Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name) and it isn't hard to see why. Having not read the novel I could still give a pretty good guess that director Zack Snyder stayed very true to the source material. This isn't just based on a comic book. It is one in virtually every way. Unfortunately that asset becomes its greatest liability.

The story of 300 is a retelling of the ancient Battle of Thermplylae, which took place in 480 B.C. and saw King Leonidas lead 300 outnumbered Spartan soldiers into battle against the superior Persian forces under the command of King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, made up to look like a drag queen). As the film shows us interestingly in its opening scenes Leonidas has trained since childhood to become a warrior and now leaves behind his wife Queen Gorga (Lena Headey) and young son to head out into a war they have no chance of winning. If the movie is trying to tell us something it's probably some kind of message about how this leader and their soldiers when faced with insurmountable adversity demonstrated honor, courage, determination and blah blah blah. Who are we kidding? This movie isn't trying to tell us anything about the Battle of Thermplylae. It's not trying to tell us what motivates the arrogant Leonidas and his soldiers or give us any insight into his relationship with his wife. Read a history book if you're interested.

300 is trying to tell us they're are a lot of cool ways to kill people, made all that much cooler here with a dazzling assortment of computer generated effects and slow motion photography. It's also telling us that if you put in some serious time at the gym you too can get really ripped. It takes some hard work but you can do it. If you do, who knows, you may be able to earn a spot as an extra in 400. This is a videogame not a movie. And it's not just any videogame either, but one of those games that all parents fear their children will get their hands on because it's just one senseless kill after another. It's a celebration of violence without anything that slightly resembles a plot. The images are incredible and the fight scenes beyond spectacular, but if that's all I wanted I would just head over to Game Stop right now and actually buy the game. I want a movie that tells a story I care about supplemented with spectacular fight sequences, which are usually much more effective when they mean something.

The strange thing about this film is that while these scenes are an adrenaline rush like no other, the film drags in just about every other place where it attempts to present anything that resembles a storyline or when dialogue is spoken. Those in the industry who rally against voiceover narration will have a field day here as this film demonstrates how bad things can get when its used unnecessarily, as it causes nothing but distractions here. The voice in question belongs to Spartan soldier Dilios (David Wenham, eerily resembling a short-haired version of wrestler Triple H) and he occasionally breaks in during the action to deliver eloquently ridiculous dialogue that I'm guessing comes from Frank Miller's novel but I can't be completely sure. Either way, it's bad. Do we need someone telling us there's been a death when a spear is sticking out of their stomach or their head is rolling on the ground?

There's also some nonsense having to do with the Queen feuding with a scheming member of The Spartan Council (played by Dominic West) who doesn't think they should be going to battle. Some have seen this as evidence 300 takes a pro-Bush right wing stance, but they're giving the film way too much credit. Not only because the graphic novel from which it was based came out in 1998, but because they're falsely assuming this movie contains any ideas at all. As for the performances they're all fine. That's not the problem here, but I do have to say I don't understand how Headey's work qualifies as a "breakthrough performance." It's clear she's just there to look hot and goes topless, but honestly, I've seen other actresses do that better. Butler yells "SPARTA!" and broods accordingly as Leonidas but he does have a great screen presence, enough that I was curious what he could have done with an actual character.

When the first hour of the film ended I wondered what could possibly be left because it seemed like Snyder (slowly) burned through the entire narrative in 60 minutes. Then I realized he was done. No problem though. They'll just be fighting for the last hour. The onslaught of green screen effects in this film are very reminiscent of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and another Frank Miller comic adaptation, Sin City. Except those films had ideas and memorable characters to go along with the action. The only character that I found the slightest bit interesting was a deformed hunchback (Michael Tiernan) ostracized by Leonidas and the Spartans, but even that promising sub-plot wasn't developed to its full potential.

I'm sure I'll get a lot of readers saying I'm "missing the point" and this movie is just supposed to be fun, mindless entertainment with kick ass battle scenes. I should just lighten up and judge it for what it is. I can see that point, but if we go by that standard then we should never criticize a Michael Bay film ever again. When this movie ended I actually felt sympathy for Bay for being continuously ripped to shreds for bombarding us with mindless popcorn movies. Say what you want about him, but even in his worst films there's a story in their somewhere and he's at least trying.

300 has expensive CGI, but really, what else is there? I find it funny everyone is quick to put the label of "torture porn" on horror movies like Saw and Hostel but this senselessly violent movie gets a pass. Why? Because it's about war? This isn't depicting the horrors of war. If you want to see that go rent Platoon, Casualties of War or even more similarly, Gladiator. That's war. This movie is just using war as an excuse to give us cool images and even cooler looking videogame style deaths. It isn't glamorizing violence, but rather going one step further and actually eroticizing it. It's "War Porn."

I didn't see this movie in the theater (where it likely works better), but I have an image of a bunch of guys leaving the theater after seeing it, going to the bar across the street to get completely hammered as they discuss their favorite death scenes. After a final round one of them smashes the beer glass against his skull and screams: "LET"S SEE IT AGAIN!" This movie was made to invoke that kind of testosterone-fueled reaction and no one can deny it's succeeded. I regret that this review makes it sound like I hate the film because I actually don't. I'm just very disappointed. I'm giving this film two stars even though it's likely the highest two stars I can ever recall giving a film since I was entertained for the most part and think everyone else will enjoy it even more. But I can't endorse a film that should been so much more with the tools it had at its disposal.

This could have been mentioned alongside Spartacus and Ben-Hur as one of the great sword and sandal epics. There was that much potential in the story. Instead, the filmmakers decided it would be a better idea to make a cool looking special effects extravaganza. As that, it's a success, but on just about every other level it fails. As a visual achievement 300 cannot be sold short and Snyder is a talented director who I can tell has a great film in him. He just needs the story to back him up. Up next for him is another comic adaptation, of Alan Moore's legendary 80's graphic novel, Watchmen. If that project contains anything slightly resembling a story, it almost has to be better than this.