Friday, June 29, 2007

Medicine Man: Michael Moore’s Scathing Doc “Sicko” Proves Laughter is the Best Medicine

It’ll make you laugh! It’ll make you cry! It’ll make you want to move to France! Michael Moore’s brilliant healthcare documentary “Sicko” even paints a realistic and positive view of Cuba to the dismay of Republicans everywhere. It may be the home of a hated dictator but it’s home to one of the best (supposedly) health care systems in the world. The U.S. is always bragging about being number one at this and at that, but how about the way our insurance companies treat their paying customers? We live in a country where hospitals reject us if we don’t have the right insurance card and doctors refuse treatment because we can’t afford it. They even let patients die because procedures, that are done everyday, are too “experimental.”

Moore’s film, while blatantly liberal-minded as always, does a wonderful job at being basically bipartisan. (except for the goofy shots of George W. Bush) This film isn’t really an attack at one person (such as the head of a corporation or the Head of State) but it does attack an industry that is supposed to be caring for the people of the United States of America. While there are millions of people with health insurance, many of us will come across a situation in which we need medical assistance and we’ll simply be passed by even if we’re supposedly covered. That’s us, the good old U.S. of A.

While many will find Moore himself to be a cloying, manipulative man, there is one thing he is certainly guilty of: making extremely engaging (whether you agree or not), entertaining movies. This guy has taking several moderately interesting subjects and turned them into enjoyable experiences. I mean I’m the last one that would line up for a documentary about our health care system, but Moore cuts together so much fun stock footage along with all of his interviews with interesting people and turns it into a masterpiece of non-fiction cinema. There are parts that are just fall down funny that are too good to spoil here. He understands that laughter is a universal language. Hopefully his humor will bring people of differently political sides together (then again this is America). And then there are the parts that will anger you and make you shed tears. Moore makes some strong statements that are sure to get people riled up as usual. And some might disagree with how non-fiction this all is.

Moore deliberately makes the case that while in the US there are medical miracles happening everyday, there are still thousands of cases of people being denied medical help for the stupidest reasons. He uses so many examples it’s impossible to note them all. One 22 year old woman was diagnosed with cervical cancer and her insurance company told her she was “too young” to have cervical cancer and promptly denied her coverage. A Black man was refused a bone marrow transplant because the procedure was deemed to “experimental.” He later died because of his ailments and his wife gives a powerful, emotionally devastating testimonial. Another case that was shocking involved a young mother whose infant came down with a terrible fever one night. The hospital she was at didn’t accept her insurance and by the time she was able to be transferred to another hospital her baby succumbed to her illness. A similar case occurred overseas and the hospital promptly treated the baby, saving its life. Why is it in America if you don’t have the right form, income or insurance card are you denied help?

Moore disagrees with the US health system and praises the likes of Canada, France and even Cuba(!?) as having successful “socialist” (yikes!) national healthcare (most of which is shockingly FREE). He insists that if we had a national health system most of us would be better off. But that would mean the rich paying more taxes so that everyone (including the poor) would get free healthcare. Who would want to pay more taxes? And who would want to (sometimes) wait months for free healthcare? Moore presents his arguments and it’s hard not to agree with most of them, but there will plenty who will be irked at the sight of Moore paying tribute to Joseph Stalin’s memorial. I’m surprised he hasn’t been blacklisted yet.

Speaking liberally for a moment, I’m guessing our government doesn’t want to fund a national healthcare because we’re spending billions funding a war that shouldn’t have begun in the first place. The point is everyone deserves equal healthcare whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, conservative or liberal. This is a film that could help to start to close the gap of blue vs. red that is dividing this great, but flawed, nation. GRADE: A-

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bruce Almighty: John McClane Kicks Computer Geek Butt in the Explosive “Live Free or Die Hard”

Perhaps they could have called it “Die Hard: Byte the Dust.” The fourth installment of the macho Die Hard series is an action thriller for the computer hacker generation. While the film ups the action ante it also adds lots of techno jargon and shots of computer screens doing things that I’ve never seen them do in real life. But it is a true fact that we rely too much on computers and technology, especially in this high tension, post-9/11 world. Bruce Willis returns to the role that made him an action icon as John McClane who must foil a plot that could bring doom to nearly half the country.

Speaking of 9/11, it’s interesting to see how action films have changed since September 11, 2001. If you look at Die Hard with a Vengeance (or any of the original trilogy for that matter) you’ll notice how particularly “unscary” the terrorists seem. They’re unrealistic and cartoonish. You never really fear for the civilians’ lives in these films because terrorism seemed like a fantasy. But now we know after 2001’s tragic events that very bad people can do a lot of serious damage. And now movies are mentioning 9/11, these films are set in a world where terrorism is our biggest concern and national threat. It has become personified in people who despise our American way of life. Terrorism has become an evil cinematic predator, not just a loony bunch of foreigners with machine guns toting one-liners.

Here we can see that terrorists don’t have to be from a foreign country. We get thirty something “Scream 2” villain Timothy Olyphant, as Thomas Gabriel, who wants the power turned off on the eastern part of the US. Why you ask? We’ll that’s a third act development, so that means it’s hush hush here. But I will tell you that he does have a coolness to his evil personality that makes him even more sinister. He’s the villain that dresses nicely all in black. He could spend his days shooting the LL Bean summer catalogue in-between his villainous duties. He heads a ragtag team of techo-nerds who hack into the country’s computer systems. They turn all the traffic lights green, they cause anthrax scares in Washington DC buildings, and they can even cause traffic to run into each other in underground tunnels.

Speaking of computer nerds, this time McClane is paired with the Mac guy from those Apple commercials. Justin Long is a fun, hip addition. He’s sort of the computer geek ying to Timophy Olyphant’s computer geek yang. Instead of the stereotyped minority sidekick (like in “Vengeance” with Samuel L Jackson) Long is a computer hacker who is on Gabriel’s hit list, until McClane foils the assassination attempt. Any computer geek who knows what Gabriel is up to needs to be disposed of. And this is no building or airport McClane must save, but nearly half the country. There is no transportation, communication or electricity and congress has been evacuated. It hasn’t been this crazy since the non-existent Y2K bug failed to show itself. And to make matters worse, McClane’s teenage daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) just might make a perfect feisty hostage.

The film doesn’t seem watered down in terms of violence even though this is PG-13. Honestly, making a Die Hard film that anyone can get into seems worse than giving "Hostel 2" an R rating. I mean seriously should a group of unsupervised 10 year olds go see this film? While there isn’t much actual graphic violence, the intense crashes, consistent gunplay and glossy coolness factor all just seem wrong for impressionable youngsters. While the violent action is just a little far-fetched it seems extremely plausible for young children to get their hands on guns and try to act cool by firing weapons.

Director Len Wiseman (“Underworld”) has a good visual sense and his strong suit here is definitely action action action. I mean he makes McClane take out a helicopter with a car just because he was out of bullets. The other addition I enjoyed here was Maggie Q as the slinky, sexy Asian baddie who gives McClane a run for his fighting money. Their fight sequence is a highlight and McClane’s one-liners, including his description of this poor henchman’s demise, (she’s a villain she’s gotta die right?) is priceless and too good to spoil here. “Live Free or Die Hard” is a slick, action-packed movie. It’s a great summer flick that brings the Die Hard films into the 21st century with style, humor and impressive stunts. GRADE: B+

Friday, June 22, 2007

Daze Inn: John Cusack Goes Crazy When He Checks Into Creepy Room “1408”

There are plenty of scary movies that take place in and around hotels and motels. “Psycho” is probably the most famous and most classic motel chiller. It was a film that not only caused many Americans not to bathe but most likely put small mom and pop motels out of business due to it’s classic Bates Motel setting. “The Shining” put the Overlook Hotel on the cinematic map due to its creepy effect on Jack Nicholson’s character. It turned him mad and it frightened the audience. And I’m probably the only one who is scared of the 13th floor of hotels due to the horribly bad yet incredibly watchable made for cable thriller “Nightmare on the 13th Floor.” Hotels can be scary places and the latest film “1408," while not destined to become a classic, is no exception.

John Cusack plays a writer who travels all over to find the most haunted places. He stays in hotel rooms where murders and other strange happenings occurred. But unlike other cinematic ghost hunters, he doesn’t actually believe in the hauntings. He writes these books because it’s a way of dealing with a past tragedy in his life. He refuses to believe anything of a supernatural nature; that is until he checks into room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel in New York City. Hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) insists that Mike Enslin (Cusack) not stay in room 1408. It has a terrible, violent past. There have been over 50 strange deaths because of that room. People check in and they don’t check out. The room has strange presence that can’t be explained; yet Mike knows there has to be a rational explanation. Let’s cut to him staying in the room as he proceeds to have the most terrifying experience of his life.

Swedish director Mikael Håfström has some interesting twists up its sleeve and in doing so he makes a very creepy movie. The plot mainly consists of Cusack trying to get out of the room once he knows it’s a realistically creepy place to be. And by the way Cusack goes give a great performance in what is essentially a one-man show. I guess had Samuel L. Jackson been in it more, they might have had to add snakes to the title in some form. The room itself is technically proficient. It’s a fantastic example of wondrous production design. We get to know that room inside and out and the various ways Mike attempts to escape it are eerie. The film establishes the room’s sinister presence the moment Cusack steps into it. The film does a great job of turning what appears at first to be an ordinary hotel room and making us believe it’s an area of hell on Earth. This movie has many genuinely frightening moments guaranteed to give you the chills.

Ghost movies or haunted place movies are almost always bogged down by too much exposition. The film sets up the room as a sinister place and that’s all. We don’t learn anything we don’t need to know. And there is usually way too much about why a person would choose to go into a haunted place if they know so many have died there. We buy right away that Cusack would go in there because he’s a non-believer. The reason he doesn’t believe is explained through a third act plot development in which we learn he has a young daughter who was ill and died. I would have liked not knowing about his daughter, since it comes into the film more as a plot revelation, yet it’s shown in the trailers, so I haven’t really spoiled anything.

We later learn that he doesn’t believe in God, because if God were real he wouldn’t have let his daughter die. Of course the point of the movie is to show how one can become a believer in the course of short time; in the case of this film an hour spent slowly becoming mentally disturbed by staying in this haunted hotel room. Most horror movies do have a positive view of religion whether it’s “The Exorcist” or “The Omen.” Here we witness a man who refuses to believe in the otherworldly who slowly comes to the realization that there are things in life that you can’t explain. And in doing so we as an audience member are welcomed into making our own theories about the unexplainable. I guess I’m getting a little too deep. The point is to see this film, be creeped out for 94 minutes and go nowhere near any inn called the Dolphin Hotel. GRADE: B

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The French Connection: “Paris, je t'aime” is a Sweet, Fun Ode to the City of Lights

“Paris, je t’aime” is a collection of shorts from American directors like the Coen Brothers, Gus Van Sant and Alexander Payne, German director Tom Tykwer, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón and even Frenchmen Gérard Depardieu! The concept has come from producers Emmanuel Benbihy and Tristan Carné. A total of twenty-one completely various directors have come together with actors of nearly every ethnicity in eighteen stories of love and loss set in Paris, France. While some films are forgettable, most are charming and fun.

The films do range from hysterical, delightful, sweet, original, to plain, ordinary and downright bizarre. But it’s always a fascinating watch. And the best part is that if you’re watching a film that is less than interesting a new one is going to start in 5 minutes time. It’s like speed dating for film fanatics. The shorts all range in technical style but they remain visually similar. You can tell they are all part of the same collective work. Some are funny, some are sad, most are in the very least watchable. It’s hard to tell what exactly the film as a whole is really saying besides that Paris can work wonders on people. The city has a strange quality that can help mimes fall in love or cause trouble for American tourist Steve Buscemi while waiting for a train.

Alexander Payne’s (“Election,” “Sideways”) was probably my favorite. He’s terrific at telling great stories with lonley yet realistic people. Take “About Schmidt”, for instance. That film had a very slow, unappealing look which was a relfection of how the characters felt. Jack Nicholson was a lost soul and it was the magic of Payne’s deliberate direction that made it so successful. And one of the reasons his short works so well is due to where it’s placed in relation to all the other shorts. By the time this film is shown we’ve heard beautiful spot-on French accents and here we’re given an American woman voiceover in a God-awful French dialect that is an insult to anyone who speaks French. This story of a lonely American tourist works on every level.

The most interesting short stylistically was Vincenzo Natali’s romantic and scary vampire film starring Elijah Wood. It was sort of “An American Werewolf in Paris” meets “Interview with the Vampire.” Wood is an American tourist who falls in love with a beautiful vampire. The blood here has a gorgeous red-orange hue that reminded me of the colorful blood found in “Sin City.” A visual delight.

Gus Van Sant takes a different turn by presenting us a possible love between two young men. A young Frenchman (young Hannibal Lector in the god awful “Hannibal Rising”) presents a long monologue to another young man who seems either disinterested or so fascinated by what this man is saying that he remains speechless. That is until we realize that the young man doesn’t speak a word of French…

Wes Craven has proved before that he can make movies that aren’t scary. Unless you count Gloria Estefan’s acting in his “Music of the Heart.” This film isn’t in the horror genre but it does have an interesting spiritual element. (Including a cameo of Alexander Payne as the ghost of Oscar Wilde) His film also probably has one of the most satisfying endings. Many of the films end abruptly, prompting me to shrug my head and think, “Okay I guess that one’s over.”

“Run Lola Run” director Tom Tykwer loves playing with time. He shows a complete romance in time-lapse photography and he features a great performance from Natalie Portman. She has one of the best lines in the entire film. She plays an American actress in Paris shooting what sounds like a horrible movie: “I play a prostitute that is kidnapped and held prisoner by her pimp. He beats her and rapes her. But they eventually end up getting married.” If that doesn’t sound like a winner I don’t know what does.

There are a few films that don’t entirely succeed, but that’s okay. There are so many films here that the bad ones just kind of leave the mind and then there’s plenty of room to remember the great ones. So grab some French fries and fall in love with this film already! GRADE: B

Friday, June 15, 2007

Fantastic Bore: “Rise of the Silver Surfer” is Anything But Tubular

I enjoy average movies. Heck, I even enjoy bad movies. I’m sure on some level everyone does. Sometimes you just want to sit back and relax and take in a goofy, silly, horrible movie that revels in it’s awfulness. Then there are the ones that are so bad that you wish you were actually watching a good movie. First off, dont get me wrong "Fantastic Four Rise of the Silver Surfer" is not a horrible movie. Yet it’s not a fantastic (pun intended) movie. It’s somewhere inbetween, but it’s a movie that while watching it will make you long for something else, anything else. It’s not so much a problem that yes it’s kiddie, immature and cartoonish (think Saturday morning level children’s entertainment) but it’s not even good kiddie, immature and cartoonish entertainment. It’s better than the first film which shows just how awful the original truly was.

As directed by Tim Story, who was also responsible for “Barbershop” and “Taxi” (what exactly qualifies him to direct this?) the film is not even on the level of so bad it’s good. First of all, the film just looks boring. The cinematography is too bright; there’s too much key lighting and if you’re going to shoot a bright movie at least make it colorful. This looks more like a comedy than a superhero movie. The action is not all that exciting. It’ll cause you to yawn more often than grip the arm rests. Also, because of the success of the "Spiderman" films, "Batman Begins" and the "X-Men" films, we’re all used to dark, mature, entertaining comic book superheroes, not a bunch of clowning around. And now that this film has acquired a PG rating, we know from the beginning that perhaps this is going to be more along of the lines of "Power Rangers" rather than the brooding drama of a "Batman." Because many of the recent comic book movies are so good, it’s easy to distinguish "Fantastic Four" as simply sub par.

The best performance of the four main cast members is still Chris Evans, as Johnny Storm the Human Torch, who’s got that cocky, hip attitude down pat. Jessica Alba (Johnny’s Invisible Woman sister Susan Storm), who looks like she just came back from the drag show Nomi Malone “Showgirls” look-a-like contest, attempts some vague emotion. Ioan Gruffudd as the future husband of Miss Storm is pretty wooden in the role of the scientist leader. His acting is stiff and I’ll blame the director for letting him give such a boring performance. (And speaking of stiff, is there a reason why this guy gets nervous around beautiful women at his bachelor party? Doesn't he realize he's marrying Jessica Alba??) Michael Chiklis (TV’s “The Shield”), who is under lots of rock make-up, has some good one-liners as The Thing. He has wooed the blind woman from the first film into a full-fledged relationship. But I guess hearing Lionel Richie’s “Hello” on the soundtrack was never meant to be.

The script in this second installment written by Don Payne and Mark Frost revolves around a bunch of global anomalies that have been occurring around the world ala “The Day After Tomorrow.” Los Angeles has a black out, what a shocker. Asia’s oceans have frozen over. And other strange catastrophic events are occurring (One of which leads to the resurgence of Dr. Doom, played by Nip/Tuck’s Julian McMahon). It’s as if the planet were dying. Of course it’s left at that because this isn’t “An Inconvenient Truth” or anything. It appears the planet’s fate is in the hands of some sort of celestial villain who is controlling a T-1000 look-a-like who rides around the world on his silver surfboard. This “Silver Surfer” (who kind of looks cool) as he is eventually nicknamed might just be a big enough match for the Fantastic 4. Of course that puts the dampers on Susan and Mr. Fantastic’s wedding plans (They have to stop a crashing helicopter during the ceremony in a unexciting, yawn-inducing sequence).

One amusing idea the film has to offer is when Johnny comes in contact with the Surfer it causes his powers to shift with whichever teammate he touches. So when he embraces his sister Susan, she bursts out in flames crying, “I’m on fire! I’m on fire!” Eventually Johnny is able to use all four powers to help defeat the enemy. And it’s ok kids, because the Silver Surfer is really a good guy, he’s just under mind control. Susan, the super hero, is able to break the emotional barrier even if Jessica Alba, the actress, isn’t. And by the way, composer John Ottoman adds yet another boring music score to his resume.

Did I really care for any of this? Not really. This movie is dumb and mildly entertaining. Yet it acheives a major feat: it’s a definite step up from the first film. It’s towards the bottom of the barrel when it comes to comic book flicks (although I’ve never seen the craptistic "Daredevil," "Elektra" or "Ghost Rider"). It’s too bad that "Knocked Up" is rated R, because I’d recommend dragging the kids to see that instead of the kids dragging you to see this. GRADE: C

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Danny Ocean, Prince of Thieves: “Ocean’s 13” Fits Somewhere Between 11 and 12

Ah, to be George, Brad or Matt. They could make utterly awful films and yet they’d still manage to be superstars. “Ocean’s 11” brought them all together. It was fun, exciting and memorable. Then there was the sequel “Ocean’s 12.” It was not fun, boring and forgettable. After the disaster that was “12” I was all but prepared to never give Ocean’s con gang a third shot. And now with “Ocean’s 13,” it’s mostly a mixed bag. Put simply it’s better than part 2 but not as good as part 1.

“Ocean’s 11” was a great movie. It had a great structure: Here’s Danny Ocean, here are his con artist men, here is the bad guy, let’s rob him. Fun, comedy, suspense, suaveness, style and plot twists abounded. “Ocean’s 11” was the definition of cool. “13” brings us back to the casinos where the audience feels right at home. The cast is good as usual, and I welcomed the wonderful Al Pacino and the sultry Ellen Barkin (who has some humorous scenes with Matt Damon) to the cast, however when you’re pushing eleven main characters, adding more only takes screen time away from the others. Thankfully there’s not a traditional love story subplot to waste any time.

What’s missing is the key to why the first film was such a success: screenwriter Ted Griffin. His story was great (with a good setup and interesting twists), his characterizations were great (was it his idea to have Brad Pitt eating something in every scene?) and he truly made you care about what was going on. He put you on the side of expert thieves and con artists (like he did in his other phenomenal script “Matchstick Men;” go rent that now!) and perfectly balanced all of the numerous characters. The first film was such a fun and rewarding experience. George Nolfi’s screenplay for part 2 was horrendous. It was jumbled and muddled and he turned everything off that we liked about the characters. Sorry I’m venting, I never got to write a review for that piece of garbage. And now we get writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien who wrote the popular poker drama “Rounders.” Their first smart move is to set the film in Vegas where it’s hip to be cool and it’s even cooler to be George, Brad or Matt. Their story revolves around Pacino’s hotel owner scuzball who double-crosses Elliott Gould. Gould ends up in the hospital because the double cross apparently gives him a heart attack. So Ocean and his gang of merry thugs decide to give Pacino a taste of his own medicine.

It is fun to see the gang working together again to squeeze all the money out of the hotel’s casino in one opening night evening. Instead of just robbing him, they’re going to rig all the games so that the everyday gambler can walk away with the millions. A decent idea, that’s not exactly pulled off well. There’s still plenty of confusion here. The first film was never confusing. The film expertly handled each set up so that we, as non-experts in committing crimes could understand what was going on every minute. We were right in there with the gang; here we kind of feel like an outsider, forced to ask the person next to us, “Do you get what they’re doing?” And probably the silliest stuff here (almost as silly as Julia Roberts pretending to be Julia Roberts in "12") involves David Paymer as a hotel rater who's stay at the hotel is less than spectacular.

The film’s strongest element is it’s director who also doubles here as his own cinematographer. He is a visual storyteller whose style is just simply scrumptious. I wouldn’t be surprised if he used thirteen different colored filters. He paints with his lens and the film is worth it to see all those beautiful saturated colors.

Ok ok so the bottom line here is if you enjoyed “Ocean’s 11” you’re probably going to think “13” is adequate. But that’s just the problem. If you’re going to make a third ocean caper then it’s got to be great not just adequate. I don’t want to say that the movie robbed me of my two hours, but, like Pacino's character, I felt cheated. GRADE: C+

Friday, June 08, 2007

Last Hostel on the Left: Eli Roth’s Bloody Sequel “Hostel Part II” is Better Than Part I

One thing came to my mind while watching “Hostel Part II:” The guys who run Guantanamo Bay must serve double duty as members of the MPAA film ratings board. Or at the very least Rob Zombie must be the head of it. (Of course I know better after seeing the informative documentary "This Film is Not Yet Rated")There’s no other explanation as to why this film got an R rating except that it’s bound to make a killing at the box office. But let’s be honest, that’s no real reason to dislike a movie because frankly this isn’t half bad. In fact, I liked it much better than the first Hostel, so director Eli Roth is headed in a good direction.

The first film was over hyped, they used Quentin Tarantino’s name in vain and the ads claimed the movie was based on actual events. Yeah sure. But here there’s no hype, no overwhelming urgency to check out the second hostel chapter, and yet after seeing it, I have to say I enjoyed it a lot more than it’s predecessor. The first film took too long to set up the idea of a sadistic hunting club that pays big bucks to torture and kill backpackers. Here we already know about the existence of this torture palace so we can get to the good stuff with minimal exposition. We’re introduced to new characters and we actually get to see more of how these sick bastards actually get to “purchase” their victims: eBay-style of course! Richard Burgi and Roger Bart are two buddies who fly out to Slovakia to take part in the fun. I enjoyed and didn’t predict how their characters would eventually turn out.

I liked how the opening picks where the first film left off: Paxton (Jay Hernandez) has escaped by train with only eight fingers. I honestly wanted Paxton to die in the first film because he was such a misogynistic jerk, but by the end it was hard not to root for him. These sick freaks who pay to torture these people are so perverted you couldn’t help but hope for Pax to get the heck out of there. But I’m glad his role here is short.

The film then introduces its new main characters pretty Beth (Lauren German), skanky Whitney (Bijou Philips) and geeky Lorna (Heather Matarazzo basically reprising her Dawn Weiner character) as they decide to travel to Slovakia from their art school in Rome. Roth makes the good decision to make them female, not annoying frat guys. Having women in the leads means a scarier, more suspenseful film (Case in point: “The Descent,” go rent it now). Having females in danger, for the most part, is scarier than men in danger and that’s the way it’s been since horror films have been made. I know it seems wrong to constantly have women in peril, but it works for the audience’s benefit. And Roth has written female characters who aren’t complete morons or jerks like in the first film. The non-bloody scenes aren’t as torturous the second time because I actually found myself enjoying the characters. I enjoyed Lorna even if I didn’t understand why she went on this vacation with the other girls. But the way it works here is the more you care about a character the quicker they die. It takes a while longer to give a crap about the skanky blonde and the pretty brunette.

Having said all that, let’s get to the reason people want to see movies like this: gore gore gore! I don’t think Eli Roth should be locked up for showing such graphic violence although I’m sure some would put him on the same level as the fictitious Hannibal Lector. I have to give him props for having the guts to go full out with his movies, this by far out surpassing the horrible (and unintentionally funny) Cabin Fever. The violence here is mostly so extreme that it borders on the silly and anyone with half a brain will realize that you shouldn’t take all of this too seriously. I mean how serious can you take a film that has a man’s genitals being cut off and fed to dogs? Roth uses the extreme violence as means to comical catharsis. Crazy I know, but I need give myself a reason to think any of this junk is actually worth my time and money. (And by the way, I’m not a parent and I know that if you bring your child to see this, you are more messed up than Mr. Roth himself.) There is one scene that is so perverse and disturbing that you actually feel for the poor character. In fact you may even feel for the humility of the actor. He takes it that far.

Roth is simply paying tribute to the gross out films that he grew up on in the 70s and 80s and can you blame him? Growing up watching the likes of Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper and George A. Romero (let alone Faces of Death) obviously had an effect on someone, which I have to respect. And here we are in a new generation of torture horror with the Hostels, Hills Have Eyes, High Tensions and Saws. “Hostel Part II” is not a film for everyone, but aren’t you curious about it in the slightest? No? Well obviously. GRADE: B

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Womb Raider: “Knocked Up” Delivers On All Accounts

“Knocked Up” is, so far, the funniest movie of the year and one of the best. Now I realize we still have more than 6 months to go, but I have found 2007 to be kind of lackluster. There are plenty of good movies, but not many excellent ones. “Knocked Up” is an amusing riot from start to finish. Director and writer Judd Apatow has made a movie that takes everything everyone loved about the “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and makes an uproarious, affecting and, best of all, intelligent movie about human nature that’s worth every penny of the ticket price.

We’re first introduced to Ben Stone (played by Seth Rogen). Stone is the most appropriate last name for this slacker because he spends most of his time with his friends in a drug induced cloud of stupor. This unproductive twenty-something lives in a messy crib with his fellow slacker buddies Jason, Jay, Jonah and Martin (who all have the same first names in real life). Their dream job is starting a website in which they catalogue all the female nude scenes for every movie ever made. They can tell you who strips, when and for how long. I guess you could call them entrepreneurs. It’s obvious that Ben has no real goals in life and enjoys sitting on his bum. Maybe we’re all just a little bit jealous of him.

Then we meet altogether Allison Scott (played by Denny-loving “Grey’s Anatomy” star Katherine Heigl). She works behind the scenes for the cable TV network E! and has just been promoted to an on air job interviewing celebrities. This is not before having to deal with a complaining Ryan Seacrest (in an amusing cameo) who believes, along with the rest of the world, that Jessica Simpson is simply dumber than mud. Allison lives with her sister Debbie (the wonderful Leslie Mann) and her husband Pete (the indispensable Paul Rudd) and their two adorable kids. Unlike Ben’s life, Allison’s life is going somewhere and she’s destined for great things. Then after a night out of celebrating with Deb, Allison and Ben’s lives collide: they meet, they drink, they do it, and Allison gets pregnant.

Apatow stages every scene with some form of humor, emotion, reality, believability or wit. Every scene has a pay off. Debbie and Pete are supposed to be a reflection of Allison and Ben. I loved how Debbie and Pete (who are in a rut) aren’t just supporting characters, but they have their own appealing story arc as well. These characters are all realistic people who, to me, have scarily realistic conversations. If you don’t believe that people talk like this and reference pop culture every 10 seconds, listen in on my conversations with friends. They even quote movies with each other. And by golly Paul Rudd does a great Robert De Niro impression!

Heigl and Rogen seem like an odd match but that’s exactly the point: we all know that opposites attract. Here we have two completely different personalities who are forced to bond. We get to watch their struggle to get to know each other, become friends and possibly fall in love. These two actors are great at portraying the emotions they both go through in this extremely stressful situation. Their encounters are natural, realistic, charming and truly successful in terms of believability. Their quest to get through their pregnancy and start a new life is such a rewarding experience. Apatow knows that comedy and drama fit hand in hand.

There is so much to love in this movie it’s impossible to describe all of it. Rogen’s slacker/drugged up friends are so completely likable I forgot that in real life I would probably find these people annoying; they have no real jobs or motivations yet Apatow has given them amazingly funny things to say. For instance, one slacker says his bearded friend’s face looks like Robin Williams' knuckles. As Heigl’s older sister Mann is comic gold (you’ll probably remember her as the drunk woman who wanted French toast and vomited on Steve Carrel in “Virgin”). And her 7-year-old daughter spends her free time Googling words like “murder” on the Internet.

The whole screwball pregnancy comedy has been done before, in fact, it has been done to death. But somehow Apatow has created a surprisingly original take on the “she’s having a baby so we’re all going to act crazy” comedy. There are no talking babies or high concept ideas here, just great writing and funny characterizations (and plenty of entertaining improvisations). It’s true that this is a perfect combo of “Nine Months” and “Animal House.” The dramatic parts are real and emotional; the funny parts are comical and sharp. It’s probably one of the best combinations of comedic raunch and truthful drama. It seems that Mr. Apatow and all involved have delivered a million dollar baby. GRADE: A