Sunday, August 31, 2008

'07 Leftovers: Reservation Road

Director: Terry George
Starring: Joaquin, Jennifer Connelly, Mark Ruffalo, Mira Sorvino, Elle Fanning, Sean Curley, Eddie Alderson
Running Time: 109 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

It happens every year. A film released during awards season with “OSCAR” written all over it lands in theaters with a commercial and critical thud, disappointing everyone. On paper, there were few bets better in 2007 than Reservation Road. It was helmed by the Oscar nominated writer/director of Hotel Rwanda, starred two Academy Award winning actresses and even an Oscar nominated actor. Yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single review of the film ranking it above the two and a half star level and it was snubbed by every major critics group.

It’s almost impossible for me to believe, despite the critical thrashing it took, that I somehow missed a film that falls into my absolute favorite film genre: Suburban American Nightmare. My love for this genre is so strong that two films from it were represented on my recent list of top ten list of favorite all-time films. I also thought Todd Field’s 2006’s masterpiece Little Children deserves to rank among the very best covering that territory and one of the finest films of this decade. Being that both films share one of my favorite actresses, there was even more reason to see this.

The list of great achievements in this genre are staggering; Ordinary People, The Swimmer, The Ice Storm, American Beauty, In The Bedroom, House of Sand and Fog. Some are better than others, a few even masterpieces, but they’re all worthy entries that say something important about how we live. We all gravitate to a certain type of film but I keep coming back to ones like these. They hit closest to home in the most literal sense for me. They explore real people struggling with real problems that, if executed under the best circumstances creatively, can give us insight into our own challenges.
Reservation Road is not up to the level of those aforementioned titles and I could see where some would find it a disappointment given the talent involved. There’s no question it could have been better and I’d probably believe anyone who tells me the critically acclaimed bestseller by John Burnham Schwartz (who also co-wrote this screenplay) is far superior. The film succeeds in realistically depicting the intimate details of a tragedy but is burdened with a problem, and it’s a fairly big one many won’t be able to get past.

The story rests on a giant coincidence the commercials and trailers for the film have gleefully bragged about. I know my limits and won’t attempt to defend it. It’s just bad screenwriting. If this script were written on spec, or probably by anyone other than an Oscar nominated screenwriter, it would be tossed in the trash and this project would have never gotten the green light. But I’m forgiving it because director/co-writer Terry George proceeds with it honestly, like he doesn’t have a care in the world how stupid it is. It’s dumb, but at least he knows not to take it TOO FAR.

As much as I'm reluctant to admit it, this coincidence makes for great drama and tension, and the film wouldn’t have been nearly as suspenseful without it. And two actors (in performances that ARE Oscar worthy) find emotional truth in the story even when at times George’s script can’t, while another actor turns what could have been a silly clichĂ© into a real person. Saying that something isn’t nearly as bad as everyone else did isn’t exactly the most glowing endorsement, but I’m convinced a terrible film could be released in this genre and I’d still probably like it.

To its credit, Reservation Road wastes no time getting right down to business, opening with a horrifyingly realistic tragedy within its first few minutes. What works about this depiction is how the film doesn’t so much show us or tell us about the death 10-year-old Josh Learner (Sean Curley), but lets us instead feel it through through his parents, college professor Ethan (a scruffy, bearded Joaquin Phoenix) and his wife, Grace (Jennifer Connelly). We never actually hear the words “he’s dead” but we just know it because they know it. Under normal circumstances, an opening like this would just be an excuse for actors to indulge in over-the-top Oscar-baiting hysterics but Phoenix and Connelly are so restrained its scary. It would be irresponsible, not to mention insensitive, to say they act exactly like parents who lost their child (since everyone would react differently), but their believability is off the charts. They put on an acting clinic and what they do in the first twenty minutes help carry this entire story through, even when script problems intrude.

When Josh is tragically killed by a hit and run driver in front of a gas station and both parents, especially Grace, feel the burden of responsibility and guilt. The perpetrator is Dwight Arnow (Mark Ruffalo), a divorced attorney taking his son Lucas (Eddie Alderson) home to ex-wife Ruth (Mira Sorvino in a nothing role) after a Red Sox game when he makes the mistake of his life. Rather than stay and take responsibility for what he’s done, Dwight, in a state of panic, flees the scene and this begins a cat-and-mouse game of sorts.

What the film, and Ruffalo’s performance, captures so well about Dwight is that he isn’t an evil person, just a moron who’s screwed up one thing after another in his life, with this just being the latest and biggest. His ex-wife and her new husband justifiably can’t stand him and the only person able to look past his flaws is his own son, who he’s in danger of losing due to his own reckless stupidity.

As played by Ruffalo, it seems Dwight really wants to do the right thing, and many times he comes close to, but his cowardice simply prevents it. Being that Dwight is a lawyer and Ethan is obsessed with bringing to justice the man who ran down his son when the police fail him, the script sets up a very convenient coincidence. You can take a wild guess which lawyer Ethan happens to retain to help him out. If that wasn’t enough, George and Schwartz’s script add another coincidence on top of that involving the wives. If you want to talk hypothetically, I suppose in a town small enough these coincidences could occur, but then if it is wouldn’t it stand to reason Ethan would figure out fairly quickly who was responsible for the crime? Of course now I’m probably analyzing this more deeply than it deserves.
There are plot holes in this big enough to drive a tractor-trailer through but luckily George doesn’t draw attention to them and shows restraint instead, focusing mainly on the human aspect of the story. While Ethan becomes obsessed with finding his son’s killer it’s realistically grounded and he doesn’t come off as a crazed vigilante like Kevin Bacon’s character in Death Sentence.

The rift between Ethan and Grace over their son’s death feels real rather than manufactured and she doesn’t come off as an uncaring nag, but a concerned mother worried her husband is no longer capable of taking care of the child they have left (well played by Elle Fanning). Ethan and Dwight don’t become best buddies (which I expected they would) because Dwight’s constant anguish and guilt over the crime prevents it. George milks this situation for everything its worth as the two men dance around each other and await the moment Ethan will finally put the pieces together. The set-up may be dumb and recall a Lifetime Movie of The Week melodrama but there’s legitimate tension here that builds to an intelligent and exciting climax.

The material notwithstanding, this represents Joaquin Phoenix’s best acting work and it’s at least on par with his performance in Walk The Line. What amazed me was how controlled he remained in even the film’s more ludicrous moments, of which there are plenty. There were so many opportunities for him to fly off the rails but he never did, instead letting Ethan’s pain and anguish simmer.

With the similarly themed House of Sand and Fog and Little Children under her belt, Jennifer Connelly could be considered the reigning queen of the suburban nightmare film. The latter one had so many interesting things going on that at times she almost risked fading into the background. This part is much larger, almost polar opposite and requires her to do much more heavy lifting emotionally. As usual, she delivers and both her and Phoenix’s roles could have been so mishandled if played by other less talented performers. Ruffalo is just as strong and has the most challenging role of the three since he’s asked to do some admittedly silly things to service the film’s plot. Sorvino is completely wasted and given nothing to do, which is a shame, but hurts it her more than the picture.

This film may have fallen short in its quest to impress Oscar voters but the three main performances in it did warrant serious consideration. But 2007 was an unusually strong year for dark dramas so this would have probably been lost in the shuffle regardless of its problems. It was just a crowded field anyway. It’s almost unfair these actors had to work this hard to overcome the screenplay’s deficiencies but I’m glad they did. It’s a reminder of just how good they are and the reason this is worth watching. Reservation Road didn’t stand a chance during awards season but it sure is much better than it got credit for.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Smart People

Director: Noam Murro
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Hayden Church, Ellen Page, Ashton Holmes
Running Time: 93 min.

Rating: R

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

It’s funny how our perceptions of certain actors can influence how we watch a film. Had Ellen Page not given her Oscar nominated performance as the sarcastic, wisecracking pregnant title character in Juno before Smart People was released no one probably would have thought twice about her work in it. But because she did make that previous film and garnered too much publicity for it, many will go into this one wanting to rip her apart. If you’re one of them you’re going to have a field day because her role is much larger than even the trailer indicated.

Then we have Dennis Quaid playing a depressed, burnt-out college professor. Had another actor been cast we also wouldn’t have cared, but because it’s Quaid (who has a longstanding reputation for playing man’s men) we pay attention. I mention all this because the cast is the best thing Smart People has going for it. The title is supposed to be ironic. I think. These people really believe they’re smart but in reality they’re not. That same description could apply to the film itself.

Despite some fascinating (if not all necessarily good) performances when the movie ended I wondered what the point of it was. I was never bored and couldn’t stop watching but found it was an ordeal spending time with these unlikable, irritating people. I also question the benefits of releasing another one of these low-budget indie “human comedies” that expect us to break out in a fit of giggles over issues like incest and repressed homosexuality…then have a good cry.
I really wanted to like this (and came close) but the tone felt way off and when I compiled a mental checklist I realized it failed in its primary goal of getting me to care what happens to the characters. I just couldn’t root for them and all their various emotional transformations rang false. Part of the problem is that everything is painted in such broad strokes that these people don’t feel real and instead came off as a screenwriter’s somewhat narrow vision of what “real” is supposed to be. As a result he film becomes a parody of what it’s trying to be and ends up being almost as arrogant and condescending as it’s protagonist.

To say that Carnegie Mellon University English Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Quaid) is full of himself is like calling the sky blue or proclaiming the sun will rise tomorrow morning. A recent widower, he hides his pain and depression with sarcastic remarks and a side helping of witty insults. He’s one of those jerks who you actually have to think how to get along with and worry the next word you speak might set him off. He doesn’t care who his students are (even giving them name tags so he doesn’t have to) and is justifiably despised by his co-workers. Even his half-hearted desire to be head of the English department stems from massive egotism and a desperate need for attention rather than any kind of motivation to improve the academic program.

The real victim of Lawrence’s selfish behavior is his lonely, over-achieving daughter, Vanessa (Page) who is very much a chip off the old block and emulates his obnoxious, arrogant behavior. His college-age son James (Ashton Holmes) was smarter and just escaped into his own world, avoiding the situation entirely. On top of Lawrence failing miserably to find a publisher for his latest book, his adopted slacker brother, Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church) moves in and must act as his makeshift chauffer when he suffers an unfortunate head injury trying to retrieve his towed car. The accident causes an introduction to Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) a former student he doesn’t remember who used to have a crush on him. They begin dating. And so begins the redemption of Lawrence Wetherhold.

If you had told me going in that amongst these world-class Oscar nominated actors, Sarah Jessica Parker would deliver the best performance in the film I wouldn’t have believed it. It’s not that everyone else does a bad job per se, just that Mark Poirier’s familiar script turns them into indie film caricatures and there’s only so much they can do to overcome it. The worst of which is Page’s Vanessa. Anyone who hated the character of Juno MacGuff better brace themselves. Vanessa is just like her except for the fact that she’s mean, nasty and completely unlikable. Why? Because she’s a REPUBLICAN and this is Hollywood. The portrait of Ronald Reagan on her wall kind of gave it away, as did her talking about Dick Cheney in glowing terms. Her political beliefs are completely irrelevant to the family pain she’s going through which is why it feels like a cheap shot that it was thrown in there. She’s also carries an S.A.T. study guide around with her in case we don’t quite get the message that she’s an overachiever.

It's worth mentioning there’s a development with Vanessa at the midway point that’s just disgusting. It was creepy, awkward and unnecessary. I wanted to throw up. I was a fan of Page’s work in Juno and thought she deserved all the praise and recognition she received so if I found her irritating in this I can only imagine what everyone else will think. I hate to agree with her detractors because she is a big talent, but unless she starts finding some different, more challenging roles other than the “wise well beyond her years” sarcastic teen, her career will start to fizzle out.Thomas Hayden Church does what he can with the slacker brother role and had another actor been cast it could have been a disaster. It’s one-dimensional part but Church brings some real dimension to it.

The chief selling point of the film is the emerging relationship between Quaid and Parker’s characters and the best thing I can say is that the two have great chemistry and I wanted to see them in a movie more deserving of it. It’s just impossible to believe that anyone could stand to be in the same room with a narcissistic emotional cripple like Lawrence much less be involved in some kind of meaningful relationship with him. At first she can't but then, of course, she begins to warm up to the idea. I didn't. Despite the best efforts of the actors his transformation was just too much of a stretch for me to buy in the context it was presented. That Quaid and Parker even come within a striking distance of pulling it off proves how much more they could have done with a stronger script. Parker’s Janet is the only character in the film who seems like a normal, grounded human being and seems so intelligent that I was almost willing to go along with her idea that this relationship could possibly work. Parker at least made me care what happened to that character and I probably would have rather watched a film about her.

This is a huge departure for Dennis Quaid and despite being miscast he mostly does a decent job, but I found myself distracted by some of the physical choices he made. During the film I found myself asking: "Why is he walking like that?" Supposedly, Quaid traveled to college campuses to study the professors but what purpose does it serve to imitate how they walk? Unaware that college professors are some strange species that walk differently than humans, I found myself concentrating on his duck-like shuffle throughout the film. He also has a middle-aged paunch, a shaggy beard and his head wanders all over the place while talking.

Rather than worrying how professors look it would have made more sense to inhabit how they act. Quaid does do that well, which is why I found the other things so distracting. He’s an underrated actor and it was great to see him in a different role like this but everything didn’t need to go so over-the-top. I wish director Noam Murro trusted him more to tell him the physical stuff wasn’t necessary and added little to the character. Michael Douglas’ work in 2000’s Wonder Boys is a good example of more restrained work in a very similar role.
I counted about four times the movie could have come to an end but kept going. That’s scary when you consider it’s only an hour and a half long, which I can’t believe because it sure felt a whole lot longer. It was one manufactured crisis after another with these people set to one of those pretentious indie soundtracks where every song sounds like it comes from a guy who’s strumming an acoustic guitar in a coffee shop. I love movies set in academia and ones featuring dysfunctional families so with this cast you’d figure this would be a slam dunk for me. Instead, it misses its mark by trekking through familiar territory with nothing new to say. It attempts to make up for it by trying too hard. Smart People is just a little too smart for its own good.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Ruins

Director: Carter Smith
Starring: Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey, Joe Anderson

Running Time: 90 min.

Rating: R

***1/2 (****)

When Dreamworks dumped Carter Smith’s debut feature The Ruins into theaters with little fan fare this past April it became the latest horror film joined the scrap pile of other titles not screened in advance for critics. Even if the movie were awful this is a dumb move because you always want people talking about your picture. Even if some that talk is negative, at least its talk. But the horror genre has long been regarded as the bastard child of Hollywood and unfortunately that's a reputation for which horror filmmakers must share at least some of the blame. Not all, but some. Let’s be honest: There are a lot of crappy horror movies out there and the amount that go directly to DVD are alarmingly high. Still, I do have to wonder if a true horror classic came along whether critics would even acknowledge it. I’m guessing not.

Despite reading some positive reviews for The Ruins I still had little to no interest in seeing it. Can you blame me? Actors that look like they were found in a CW casting call, a lame title and a final theatrical poster that blatantly ripped off 2006’s The Descent. The only hint of artistic credibility this had was that it’s based on a novel by acclaimed author Scott B. Smith (who wrote A Simple Plan), but that detail was hidden. It turns out all of this is just poor marketing and nothing more. It isn't at all a reflection on the quality of the film.

Once the opening credits role reveals itself to not even be a horror movie, but instead a taut, intelligent psychological thriller that also doubles as a realistic tale of survival. If it is considered a horror film then it’s the best kind. It’s the kind that relies on character and situation and realizes that unless you care about the people the film has no reason to even exist. I not only cared about every single character in this, I genuinely liked them and found no joy in seeing them go through the ordeal they did. They didn’t deserve it, which is a key ingredient that’s been missing from many horror films in recent years.
By focusing on character the movie avoids nearly all the pitfalls of the genre and it's also a good example of how an R rating can make all the difference in the world. In this case it allows the movie to take that extra step in adding a degree of realism that’s frightening and graphic, yet never feels gratuitous. There is some (brief but impressive) nudity that’s gratuitous but you know I’d never complain about that. The movie also has balls of steel and is true to its bleak vision right until the final scene.

The Descent will be the obvious point of comparison but this film, while not as scary, may be superior on an intellectual level. I definitely cared about the characters more since it contains five performances that are abnormally above par for this type of film. I’d even go so far as to say one of them transcends the genre it’s in and goes above and beyond the call of duty. I realize that so far it hasn’t been that strong a year for films, but in a way that’s nice because a movie like this that most would have ignored can get some attention. It’s definitely earned it.

In any horror film these days you have the characters pegged right from the get-go. The jock. The slut. The nerd. The virgin. If you enjoy spending time with people like this then The Ruins probably isn’t your film because none of them show up here. Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) and his girlfreind, Amy (Jena Malone) are on Spring Break in Cancun along with her best friend, Stacy (Laura Ramsey) and her boyfriend Eric (Shawn Ashmore) Lounging poolside, they meet a charming German tourist named Mathias (Across The Universe’s Joe Anderson) who convinces them to go on an unsafe excursion to a mysterious Myan pyramid. And that right there could have been the set-up for an incredibly dumb movie, a movie so dumb that it could have easily topped many year-end worst lists. But the beauty of this film is that every potential creative problem is avoided as if the filmmakers studied the worst in horror/thrillers and committed themselves to doing the opposite.

The first thing to jump out at me was how beautifully shot it was by cinematographer Darius Khondji. Unlike other movies in this genre, The Ruins is shot mostly in daylight rather than darkness and the best way to describe it is when you’re walking through Best Buy and you see one of those super HD screens with an image so crisp it’s better than actually being there. There’s also an obvious difference in how the characters are presented here as opposed to other lesser horror movies. Besides none of them fitting any stereotype, they don’t even seem like friends or look like they’re enjoying each other’s company. They get along just fine, but there’s tension. The dichotomy within the group is fascinating, especially between the mismatched Jeff and Amy, how you wonder ever got together.

We don’t learn much about anyone early but we’re effectively pulled in and what these characters are really all about is fully revealed in the ordeal they go through together. And what an ordeal it is. I fully expected a Hostel-like situation with naive traveling tourists being trapped by a foreigner. It didn’t happen. I expected the film to degenerate into the supernatural when they reached the Mayan ruins. That didn’t happen either. What does happen I won’t reveal, not because I don’t want to spoil anything, but because you’d laugh. In conceit it probably isn’t any less ridiculous than, say, the events in The Happening, but there’s a HUGE difference in tone and approach. As presented by Carter Smith the situation is terrifying because he relies on the psychology of the characters to tell the story. In horror, the true enemy is always ourselves.

If you’ve ever seen the terrible 80’s horror sequel, Creepshow 2, the one bright spot in the film was a brilliant segment titled “The Raft.” The Ruins very closely resembles that segment on a bigger budget, its narrative deepened and expanded for maximum terror. It has nothing in common with films like The Hills Have Eyes 2 as some would have you believe, but instead comes closer to something like Werner Herzog’s survivalist drama Rescue Dawn, where characters are first battling the elements to survive, then each other. There’s even a culture clash and communication gap with the Mayans that isn’t too far off from the situation in that film.

What helps ground the situation in this reality and prevents it from going overboard are the performances, the most impressive of which is delivered by Jena Malone. This isn’t your typical “scream queen” role. When the film opens we think we have Amy pegged as a slut, then as it progresses we think she may actually be a brainiac, then the focus shifts in such a way that we suspect Amy is just a complete hysterical idiot. Or maybe she’s all of those things, or none of them. Whatever she is, Malone doesn’t box her in and gives a multi-dimensional portrayal.

You could argue this entire ordeal is Amy’s fault, but Malone somehow manages to actually create sympathy for a character that couldn’t possibly make worse decisions. She's done strong supporting work for years (most recently in Into The Wild) but this may be the best performance I’ve seen from her.

Laura Ramsey doesn’t lag too far behind Malone as Stacy and late in the film she has to do some heavy lifting emotionally and proves herself up for it. You’d think her name is more likely to be associated with direct-to-DVD cheapies than anything of substantial quality but she really delivers here. Of the five it’s probably the most physically grueling role, right next to Joe Anderson’s. He’s involved in a scene so brutal and graphic I actually had to look away. Jonathan Tucker made for a surprisingly capable leading man and after seeing him in this I’d be ready to buy him in more serious roles instead of the goofy low budget comedies he's frequented. Shawn Ashmore probably has the least to do of everybody but it makes no difference since I was too distracted by his eerie resemblance to the late Brian Pillman to even notice what kind of a performance he gave. But this movie belongs to the girls all the way.

Oddly enough, Ben Stiller co-produced this and it’s probably one of the better creative contributions in the past couple of years (although I haven’t seen Tropic Thunder yet). That’s why it’s disappointing this was marketed so poorly and never given a chance. Looking at the posters and the commercials you’d think this could be shown as a double feature with the remake of Prom Night. I wouldn’t even classify this as a horror film and it’s times like this where I wish the actual word “horror” would just go away because I think it actually makes people avoid the movie. But if we have to go there, The Descent is the movie to which it comes closest, and that’s never more clear than at the end.
The film only steps wrong twice. An opening scene at the beginning that doesn’t work, and a second awful choice that isn’t technically in the movie but comes over the final credits when a ridiculous fake-metal song is played. It completely clashes with the overall tone of the picture and was a decision clearly based on test screenings. More likely the result of a focus group than a filmmaker. Actually, the final scene feels a little fiddled with, much like The Descent, so it wouldn’t surprise me if there are a bunch of superior alternate endings out there. These are minor quibbles though in the broad scheme of things. I guess there's something to be said for a novelist adapting his own work for the screen because Scott B. Smith's script could have been dumbed down in many ways, but wasn't. I went into The Ruins with the lowest of expectations, and an hour and a half later I was reminded what quality horror is supposed to be.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay

Directors: Jon Hurwitz and Hay Schlossberg
Starring: Kal Penn, John Cho, Danneel Harris, Neil Patrick Harris, Rob Corddry, Eric Winter

Running Time: 102 min.

Rating: Unrated

*** (out of ****)

If you’re going to make a one joke movie that one joke better be really, really funny. Fortunately, in the case of Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, it is. When Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle was released in 2004 few expected it to make any waves and during its theatrical run it really didn’t. But thanks to DVD it found a well-deserved cult following and also garnered some critical praise for not only being a hilarious stoner comedy but also a story with real heart that addressed and challenged stereotypes. This is not that film, nor should it strive to be since a sequel’s job isn’t to duplicate the original.

Calling this a one-joke movie might be a little harsh so let’s just say it effectively tells different variations of the same joke. With the characters of Harold Lee and Kumar Patel already well established there’s nothing left for them to do but be mistaken for terrorists and escape from Guantanamo Bay prison. I’m not complaining though and neither should you because anyone who enjoyed the first film will likely love this one as well.

The plot may be paper-thin and not contain nearly as much substance as the original but I couldn’t stop laughing the whole time. The targets for humor may be cheap and easy, but so what? That doesn’t make it any less funny or sharp. There may actually be more laughs per minute in this film than the first and probably better fits the textbook definition of what a stoner comedy is supposed to be because the plot feels so disjointed (no pun intended) and discombobulated. And this is coming from someone who wasn’t high when they watched it. Plus, finally finding out the answer to the burning question of what the “P.H.” in NPH’s initials stands for is alone worth at least three stars. And no, it isn’t “Patrick Harris.”
When we last left stoners Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn), Harold had finally worked up the courage to act on his feelings for hot neighbor Maria (Paula Garces) and now the duo is on their way to Amsterdam so Harold can surprise her. At the airport they run into Kumar’s ex-girlfriend and love of his life, Vanessa (Daneel Harris) and her preppy fiancĂ© Colton (Eric Winter) who big right-wing political ties. In a superb flashback scene we find out that it was Vanessa who introduced Kumar to marijuana in college and helped him come out of his shell (as tough as it may be to imagine a time when Kumar DIDN’T smoke pot). The guys hit a snag in their plan to go to Amsterdam when Kumar sneaks his new “smokeless” bong onto the plane and mid-flight the two are suspected as terrorists.

They’re apprehended and interrogated by the arrogant and very, very dumb government official Ron Fox (Rob Corddry) who throws them in Guantanamo Bay prison, where the main course of the day is a “cock meat sandwich,” which unfortunately for them is exactly what its name suggests it is. But they escape and realizing Colton is the only one with the political ties to get them out of this mess, embark on a wild road trip to Vanessa’s wedding in Texas, which Kumar is intent on stopping.

This road trip just represents one big opportunity for the writers to send up just about every offensive racial and ethnic stereotype imaginable. Nothing and no one is safe or off limits in this. Asian Americans, African Americans, Jews and Klu Klux Klan members are all targeted in a wide variety of sight gags that unfold throughout the story. My favorite involves a translator apparently clueless to the fact that those who speak English don’t need translation. Bravely, most of the satire revolves around post 9/11 paranoia and perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment is that it introduces this as a topic in such a way that we don’t feel uncomfortable or guilty laughing about it. The scene where Kumar’s bong is mistaken for a bomb on the plane doesn’t play as tasteless or offensive, but flat-out hysterical. It understands that it’s okay to bring up controversial social issues so long as they’re introduced in a way that causes us to not only laugh ourselves, but also the ridiculousness of the situation.

One of the major highlights from the first film was the career resuscitating performance by Neil Patrick Harris as “Neil Patrick Harris.” It doesn’t have quite the same effect this time since when Harris appeared in the first film he had been out of the public eye for a while and could have really been playing himself for all we knew. That’s what made it so funny. Of course, now we know he’s a great comic actor who was brilliantly parodying himself, or at least the public perception of what he could have been. But the sequel makes up for this potential problem by making his antics here even more shocking and over-the-top, as he seems to go even further with less. It’s funny how since we now have a better idea what Harris’ was up to his appearance seems even more important this time around.

Another Harris, former One Tree Hill star Danneel (no relation) fares a lot better than I thought she would as the leading lady and that aforementioned flashback does a better job making us care about the relationship than most romantic comedies do their entire running length. We’re also treated to a poem so bad that I’m convinced only a genius could have written it. If anyone knows where I can find it please let me know. But if there’s a real show stealer in this its Corddry whose playing perhaps the stupidest man to ever serve the U.S. government (which if you think about it covers a lot of ground). The movie is smart in how it presents the character completely dead-set in his ways and unaware how idiotic and offensive he is. Cordrry plays him completely straight which just makes it that much funnier.

There’s a scene toward the end of the film when his character does something completely insane that defies all reasonable logic…but I believed Corddry's character would really do something that stupid. It made perfect sense. And wait until you hear the explanation of what (or rather who) inspired him to get into this line of work. Even funnier is watching the facial reactions of his put-upon subordinate (played by Roger Bart) the only person in the film who realizes just how much of a moron this guy is

George W. Bush also shows up (or at least a really good impersonator) and normally I hate stuff like that because it can come off like a Saturday Night Live outtake. I thought it was just a cheap and cartoonish until a night later when I saw an interview with the President and realized it was actually a pretty endearing portrayal, at least compared with the real thing. Bush should only hope for such a kind treatment when Oliver Stone’s controversial W is released in the fall. You could almost say they let him off easy here and was the one area of the film where they showed some restraint.
This is one of the very few times that when given the choice between watching the rated or unrated version of the DVD I’d pick the unrated every time. With these movies you don’t want a watered down version of anything. But what really make this series work are the performances of John Cho and Kal Penn. They play off each other perfectly with Harold remaining uptight as ever about society’s expectations of him, while Kumar couldn’t care less about anything not involving weed or girls. The two compliment each other perfectly and this time around we're exposed to a side of Kumar we weren't in the first film.

They’ve already announced plans for another sequel and while I love the series I wonder just how much further they can go with this. Plus, I very surprised by a development involving an important character in this film and worry how it could negatively impact the next one. Nevertheless, I’m pretty much willing to follow these guys wherever they go. Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay may be more pedestrian than the first film and lack the heart, but it’s just as funny. Fans of the original won’t be disappointed.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

'07 Leftovers-Wristcutters: A Love Story

Director: Goran Dukic
Starring: Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon, Tom Waits, Shea Whigham, Leslie Bibb, Will Arnett

Running Time: 91 min.

Rating: R

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

Everyone has their dream pairing of actors they’d like to see star in a movie together. For some it may have been De Niro and Pacino finally sharing the screen (albeit for one scene) in Heat. Maybe it was Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic. Or maybe it was a dream pairing that looked great on paper but didn’t exactly pan out the way you’d hoped, kind of like Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman in Ishtar. My choice is very different from others and would probably have most movie fans scratching their heads. It’s Patrick Fugit and Shannyn Sossomon

It might seem weird to you but to me it makes perfect sense because both gave “should have been nominated” performances in two favorite of my favorite films this decade (Almost Famous and The Rules of Attraction). I do realize there are technically “better” actors out there who have yet to appear together in a film but none of them gave performances I felt reached into my soul and spoke to me personally like those two did. In other words, there are no two actors I like or want to see succeed more than them. It’s a safe bet that had different actors been cast in those roles the films would not only not occupy the exclusive place for me they do, but I wouldn’t be reviewing films at all right now. And that’s why I was terrified to see Wristcutters: A Love Story when it was released last year. Going in I had two fears:

1. My expectations would be so high that I’d just end up being disappointed with whatever shows up on screen. You know the feeling: When how it plays in your head is so good you just don’t want to mess with it.

2. My love for these two actors would completely cloud my objectivity.

The first scenario would be awful, but thinking it over the second might not be too bad. After all, who can be objective about something as personal as film? My recent blog on the fantasy casting of The Dark Night sequel in which I picked Sossoman out of some really tough competition to play Catwoman reminded me and finally motivated me to check this movie out. And after watching it I felt even more secure in my choice of her for the role, if that’s possible.
Really, all I cared about going into this were whether the two gave great performances and were as awesome on screen together as I’d imagined they’d be, even if the movie ended up sucking. They were, which was so thrilling for me, but the film also delivered in a big way. At times it does drown itself a little too much in quirky indie sensibility but it’s a fascinating, original work that was probably just an edit or two away from absolute greatness. It covers a topic that’s so important but approaches it in a way we’ve never seen before and with very little sentimentality. I was moved in a way I didn’t expect, especially in the final scene, which is a clinic on how to end a movie effectively.

I always found it disturbing that when someone commits suicide the reaction (whether they knew the person or not) always seems to be: “They were SELFISH.” I always thought that was a really disgusting thing to say. Someone who would go so far as to take their own life must have been feeling emotional pain we couldn’t even begin to understand and they’re calling them names and making moral judgments on what they did. Worse yet, the statement focuses on the living and the burden they bare rather than the memory of the actual victim. I kind of see the twisted logic behind the remark but a part of me thinks it’s just a way of absolving themselves of responsibility. The comment reveals more about their selfishness than that of the person who probably deserves better than to be remembered for a single act out of a life. Wristcutters: A Love Story is the first film dealing with this topic to understand that and know that those who commit suicide deserve compassion not judgment.

For those who are alive “life goes on” but so what? It doesn’t for people who are dead. And let’s be honest, if we gave anyone free rein to move on without us they won’t waste any time. They’ll re-marry. Make new friends. It’s only human nature. I know a woman who suffered an unimaginable tragedy a few years ago and still hasn’t been able to move on with her life. Of course this isn’t healthy and is self destructive, but a part of me respects that she refuses to let go, as awful as that sounds. And I’d imagine it isn’t easy to with people in your face telling you they “understand” what you’re going through. We all wonder if there’s such a thing as the “right way” to react to someone’s death and how others would react to ours.

These questions and many more seem to be on the mind of Zia (Fugit) when he cleans his room, then goes into the bathroom to slit his wrists in the opening scene of Wristcutters He just broke up with his girlfriend Desiree (Leslie Bibb) and as far as he’s concerned his life is over so may as well just finish the job. He suspects that after a brief period of grieving she’ll just move on to someone else and forget about him and we suspect he’s probably right. The afterlife he finds himself in is so bad because it’s exactly like the world we live in now, just a little worse because it’s more boring. He gets a job at Kamikazee pizza and meets others stuck in this suicide purgatory like Russian rocker Eugene (Shea Whigham) who intentionally electrocuted himself on stage.

When Zia gets wind that Desiree also killed herself he and Eugene embark on a road trip to find her when they pick up a beautiful hitchhiker Mikal (Sossamon) who’s looking to talk to the “People In Charge” about getting out. She insists she didn’t commit suicide and is in this world by mistake. One of the more engaging aspects of the film is seeing the flashbacks of how the people Zia meets along his journey killed themselves. It nicely conveys the idea that everyone has a different story and of course we do eventually find out what Mikal (a name that would be funnier if it were actually spelled “McCall”) means when she says she doesn’t deserve to be there. Flashbacks are tricky but every one does count for something here and makes us feel closer to the situation.

Most depictions of the afterlife on film are hyper-realized like the worlds of Defending Your Life or What Dreams May Come. This takes a completely different and original approach by making the after life drab, boring and washed out looking. Everyone even kind of looks dead and pale, arriving in a state likely similar to when they entered the morgue.

There are intentional echoes of The Wizard of Oz with Zia and Mikal’s quest to complete themselves and if that comparison should be made then the “Wizard” is a bizarre cult leader named Kneller (the film is based on Etgar Keret’s 1998 short story, “Kneller’s Happy Campers”) played by legendary singer/songwriter Tom Waits, who I bet probably did really want to kill himself after hearing Scarlett Johansson’s recent covers of his songs. It’s one of those weird supporting roles that if Waits turned down it probably would have went to either Bob Dylan or Keith Richards. Take your pick. Waits is Waits and he gives an appropriately loony performance. There’s also a cameo appearance by Will Arnett as an even weirder cult leader feuding with him and I wouldn’t even know whether to classify his work in this as comedic or dramatic. Whatever you call it, fans of his won’t be disappointed that’s for sure.

The screenplay is smart enough to know that sometimes what you wished to find all along isn’t exactly what you thought it was cracked up to be. That’s very true for both Zia and Mikal’s quests. The weak acting link in the film is Bibb who in her flashback scenes doesn’t convey why Zia would want to travel the ends of this world to be with her. Although, that may be the point. Whenever a film features the sub-title “A Love Story” certain expectations are bound to accompany it, most of which are negative. This is very much is a love story but not the sappy, sentimental kind but more of a real one that begins as a reluctant friendship between two people who have nowhere else to turn. I knew there’d be little chance Fugit and Sossamon would do anything less than superb work and I was right but I had my doubts just how much chemistry they’d have together. That was the part that really surprised me.

I know I’ve ranted and raved enough already how much I love Sossamon but I’ll do it some more because she just has such a natural, effortless presence onscreen and never forces it. I think I could watch her read the phone book for 2 hours. She’s met her match in Fugit, who plays this character not unlike William Miller in Almost Famous. Both William and Zia are innocents that come of age in strange worlds they know nothing about and end up understanding themselves better because of it.
This is the first film I’ve seen Fugit in since Almost Famous 8 years ago and he may look older but all that talent didn’t go anywhere. I’m glad he’s been showing up in more films lately and was even heavily rumored at one point earlier in the year to be replacing Tobey Maguire in the next Spider-Man film. I would much rather see him continue to do more character driven work like this though. Not to be outdone, Shea Whigham provides invaluable comic relief as the Russian rocker. His character manages to feel like more than just a third wheel.

About a minute before the closing credits I had a feeling how the film would end but doubted filmmaker Goran Dukic would have the guts to go through with it. He did. Many will probably view it as a manipulative or a cop-out but I found it brave. He wasn’t afraid to give the story the closure and finish it needed at whatever cost. When a film is already dealing with the less than cheery topic of suicide why would you want see characters who you’ve grow to like and care about suffer just uphold the imaginary “rules” of the story? I can probably name only about 20 movies I’ve ever seen that ended at the EXACT moment they should. Most directors don’t know when to get out and just linger pointlessly for minutes longer than is necessary in the final moments. Here you can almost hear the book closing on the story and it’s a beautiful moment. There was also a neat twist I didn’t see coming.

I’ve already listed my best films of 2007 but had I seen this earlier it probably would have just missed the top 10, which makes me wonder what else of great value I could have missed from last year. I like it when movies leave you talking about important issues for hours and this one definitely does that. Wristcutters may not be perfect, but it’s close enough for me. And now I can say two of my favorite actors finally have a film that binds them.