Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Funny Girls: Tina Fey Wants to Put Her Baby Inside Amy Poehler in “Baby Mama”

You’d think with last year’s one-two-three punch of "Waitress," "Knocked Up" and "Juno," the whole pregnancy thing would be well-worn territory. But in “Baby Mama” proves that it’s definitely hip to be preggers. This is probably one of the best movies featuring current and former members of Saturday Night Live. This is not “It’s Pat” or “A Night at the Roxbury;” heck it’s not even “Superstar.” This is a well-written and funny account of a woman’s desire to be pregnant and the lengths she’ll go through to reproduce. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are probably two of the funniest women working in Hollywood these days and this film’s success rests gracefully on their comedic shoulders. And they pull it off with flying colors.

This may not be the movie for everyone. You kind of have to suspend your disbelief just a tad. This isn’t a realistic pregnancy comedy but it certainly knows how to be funny. Most of the jokes are due to the comic timing of its talented cast. As Kate, Fey completely embodies the typical power woman who has chosen the career over the family life. While she’s not in a relationship, she decides she wants to have a baby. Easy enough right? Not really. She can’t be artificially inseminated because of her T-shaped uterus. And adoption will take too long. She decides that surrogacy is the only thing that will work. She meets Chaffee Bicknell (a hilarious Sigourney Weaver) who is the head of a surrogacy program. From here she meets Angie (Poehler) who decides to carry Kate’s baby. Kate is married to the skuzzy Carl (Dax Shepard) whom she breaks up with. This allows Angie to move in with Kate. Let the funny pregnancy high jinx commence!

Meanwhile we quickly discover that Angie is pretty much a complete slob who insists on eating junkfood and soda while carrying Kate’s child. Kate is a woman who prefers to eat organic, as she’s a VP for a natural food company (her boss is played by a hippie, ponytail sporting Steve Martin). Angie is also not exactly the brightest crayon in the box as Kate soon finds out. But this odd couple quickly bonds and Kate must juggle her work and taking care of her surrogate and even a possible relationship with the owner of a Jamba Juice-type shop (played by Greg Kinnear) with a few twists and turns along the way.

The film works mostly due to the pairing of Fey and Poehler. They are the new odd couple and watching them interact is the best part of the film. Director Michael McCullers (who also penned) really let them let loose here but not in way that lets them over act. They never seem like they’re trying to be funny, they just are. They know how to take funny lines and make them really funny. McCullers is no stranger to comedy himself, having written numerous scripts for SNL and both "Austin Powers" sequels. One could argue that the film’s third half seems more plot heavy and less funny, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

"Baby Mama" definitely works because of the talented Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. I could watch them read the phonebook and it would by hilarious. This is a movie that is silly but that’s okay. It may not be as touching or as intelligent as Knocked Up or Juno, but it’s not trying to be. Finally we have a SNL movie (Lorne Michaels produced) that is worthy of the talented people who make us laugh every Saturday night. “Baby Mama” certainly delivers. GRADE: B+

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Great Escape: Everyone’s Favorite Slackers are Back in “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay”

When thinking about “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay” I’m reminded of another sequel: “Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.” Now you would think these two films have completely nothing in common except for their R ratings but if you really think about it, they have something very much in common: they each have a promise in their titles that don’t really blossom to fruition. In the eight Jason movie we’re told that Jason will “take Manhattan.” We assume the film will take place there but as anyone who has seen the movie will tell you, most of the film’s running length is spend aboard a cruise ship headed towards New York. It’s only the climatic scenes that are actually set in the City That Never Sleeps (Especially now that Jason has taken a liking to it). In the Harold & Kumar sequel, we’re told that Harold & Kumar will “Escape From Guantanamo Bay” and yes they do, but it’s all so anticlimactic and brief that the movie really should have been titled “Harold & Kumar Don’t Go to White Castle” because that would be 100% true.

Now granted this isn’t the type of movie you’re really supposed to nit pick about because it does everything it’s supposed to do. It’s silly and stupid and provides a decent amount of laughs. The film takes place right after the events of the first film in a sort of Halloween II sort of way. Harold (John Cho) has just confronted the love of his life: his beautiful neighbor who just so happens to be flying to Amsterdam for a week. And his always-high roommate/best pal Kumar (Kal Penn) insists that they follow her to Amsterdam so that Harold can sweep her off her feet like in some cheesy romantic comedy. What could have easily turned into Eurotrip Part 2, doesn’t. Kumar is accused of being a terrorist during their flight and they’re sent to Guantanamo Bay by a sadistically racist and naïve defense general Ron Fox (Rob Cordry). You have to take the film’s humor with a huge grain of salt because none of this is supposed to be serious. Fox says there is “something wrong with Harold’s eyes” and his deputy insists it’s because he is of “Korean descent.” The film is filled with obvious racial stereotypes and that’s where most of the humor lies.

So before they know it Harold & Kumar are on the run from the authorities after their quick visit to Guantanamo. From there it’s a race to get to Texas where Kumar’s ex-girlfriend’s new Republican boyfriend who has government connections might be able to save their behinds. From there it’s a crazy journey through the southern states and they meet some crazy people along the way including a brother and sister who have a cyclops child together. They even run into the KKK and get peed on by them as well. And of course, the Pièce de résistance of the entire “Harold & Kumar” franchise is the cameo by none other than Doogie Howser MD himself, Neil Patrick Harris. Neil’s cameo in the first film is probably one of the better and most unexpected cameos of recent memory (Remember he was high on drugs and stole Harold’s car but not before humping the backseat?) Neil returns and brings Harold and Kumar to a whorehouse where Beverly D’Angelo is the House Mother. Neil’s exit is memorable and funny and the best reason to pay to even see any of this.

You know exactly whether you’re the right audience for this type of movie. It’s a buddy comedy that is silly and the writers (Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who also directed) know this. We actually get to see some flashbacks to Kumar and Harold’s college days, which was fun to see. This is a film that will no doubt fit right in with all the other raunchy comedies that exist on college shelves across America. While I don’t know whether this is necessarily a better movie than it’s predecessor, like fast food, it’s quick, tasty and processed, which basically means you get what you paid for. GRADE: B-

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Crying Game: “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is a Truly Memorable Bromantic Comedy

I don’t know whether anyone else has used the term before, but if not, I’m using the term “bromantic comedy” to describe the type of romantic comedy that appeals to guys. You know the type, they were kicked into high gear after Judd Apatow hit it big with “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” These films are popular because they have one of the widest audiences. They have the girls who love the romance and the guys who love the raunchy humor. But these films aren’t just “American Pie” clones. These aren’t just about a bunch of sex-crazed teens with lots of potty jokes. These are about real characters who you can identify with and much more male genitalia than most Hollywood films are used to.

In the latest from uber-producer Apatow, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” highlights “Knocked Up” co-star Jason Segal as a guy who gets dumped by his TV star girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Veronica Mars’ Kristen Bell). She’s the star of a CSI-type TV drama, which we get to see in some hilarious clips featuring Billy Baldwin in a cameo. Peter (Segal) is the show’s music composer (who has dreams of writing a Dracula rock opera featuring puppets). Apparently Sarah’s been cheating on Peter with dead-brained British rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), and so she wants to break up. Peter is instantly distraught, so he decides to go to Hawaii to forget about her. You couldn’t possibly guess who’s staying at the same hotel.

While “Sarah Marshall” does have some of the same formulaic rules that you’ve seen in past romantic comedies, it never feels like worn out territory. This stuff is brand spanking new. It’s as if this is the first romantic comedy to come along in ages. As written by Segal himself, the script is ever bit as smart and enjoyable as Apatow’s scripts for “Virgin” and “Knocked Up.” There are the trademark Apatow actors who show up in supporting roles including “Superbad” alum Bill Hader as Segal’s best bud Brian, Paul Rudd as a spacey surfer dude, and Jonah Hill as a waiter obsessed with Marshall’s new singing flame. And although the likes of Leslie Mann, Seth Rogen and Michael Cera don’t even show up at all, luckily we get 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer and Maria Thayer (from “Accepted”) as religious newlywed couple.

We don’t get to see much of Peter’s relationship with Sarah at first, in the opening scene, she break up with him, but not before he drops the towel around his waste and buckles down crying while completely naked. It shows a vulnerability in a male character that you just don’t see very often. So with his Brian’s sound advice, he takes a trip to Hawaii by himself to clear his head. There he meets the lovely receptionist Rachel (Mila Kunis) at a fancy resort that he can’t really afford. When Sarah shows up with her crazy new beau (relatively unknown Brand’s performance here is amazingly hysterical), Rachel feels for him and decides to give him the best suite in the place. He soon spends his evenings balling his eyes out, even after guests complain about a woman crying very loudly.

You can see that there is a slight spark between Peter and Rachel, and there’s a slight hint that maybe Sarah might still have some feelings for Peter, so in all honesty I wasn’t 100 percent sure which way things were going to go. But getting there was definitely so much fun. We get to see little flashes of Peter and Sarah’s relationships that really add to the characters and are done in a unique way. Peter is a sympathetic character, and while Sarah could have easily been labeled the bitchy shrew, she isn’t. She’s not the “bad guy.” This isn’t that type of movie. Segal’s script (and Nicholas Stoller’s Apatow-like direction) treats all its characters equally and let’s everyone have the chance to be funny.

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” has the distinction of being the best comedy so far this year. (Although that’s really not saying much, so it’s one of the best films so far this year). Guys will like it and girls will like it. This is for everyone who enjoys a great, well-written funny movie that isn’t afraid to show that it has a heart or private parts. This is one bromantic comedy that is truly unforgettable. GRADE: A-

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Intelligent Design: “Smart People” Got No Reason to Live

The only real reason to see Smart People, which is being advertised as “from a producer of Sideways” (eghh), is to see Ellen Page’s first post-‘Juno’ role. And here she’s sort of the Republican version of our favorite pregnant, hamburger phone-using teen. In fact, since seeing the movie nearly 5 days ago I can’t really remember much from it. The actors are good and most of the dialogue is funny, but there’s really not much going on in the film’s brief 95 minute running time. It’s a movie that’s enjoyable for the time and days later, you’ll probably forget that you ever went to see it.

Smart People is about a family. Dennis Quaid is the intelligent, but dull, college professor father. Thomas Haden Church is the not so intelligent freeloader/adoptive brother of Quaid. Page is the Young Republican/college prepping daughter of Quaid. And “A History of Violence’s” Ashton Holmes is Page’s college student older brother. Mom is dead. After Quaid injures himself while attempting to retrieve his briefcase from his car in the impound lot, he meets Dr. Sarah Jessica Parker who just so happens to be his former student. If you can’t swallow the fact that Dennis Quaid could have possible been Parker’s former professor, you wont even buy everything that happens afterwards.

The film doesn’t really have much going on in terms of plot. We basically get to see a few months in the lives of this untraditional family. When Quaid begins dating Parker, Page sees it as her stepping on her turf. It’s obviously been too soon since mommy has died. And then there’s the whole weird incest thing between her and her adopted uncle Church. He gets her to smoke and gets her drunk at a bar. Good thing she’s not pregnant in this one.

Overall there are a few good moments in the film, mostly due to Page’s brilliant acting style. This film is proof that she needs to be in every single film from now on. Parker and Quaid’s romance is iffy at best and not the most interesting storyline of the film. If Page was the main character it would be more memorable. The film isn’t stupid, Mark Poirier’s script does have some interesting touches. For instance, Quaid, having a small seizure can’t drive a vehicle for six months, which means Church insists on being his personal driver. Noam Murro is a good director and the film isn’t dun, it’s just not going to win any MENSA awards. GRADE: C+

Monday, April 14, 2008

Bug Off: “Superhero Movie” is Super Bad

I love the spoof genre. I mean I love it. Airplane! is my favorite movie of all time. I’ll go see any spoof movie no matter how lame. And I feel that what’s become of the spoof genre is a travesty. It’s a sad commentary when Mafia! is the best spoof to be released in a decade. That at least had to courtesy of 1) being funny and 2) being directed by Airplane! alumnus Jim Abrahams. Of course there have be scattered successes. There’s been Scary Movie, Not Another Teen Movie and Walk Hard The Dewey Cox Story. These are all very good examples of spoofs that I’m not embarrassed to say I’ve enjoyed. But for every Scary Movie there’s a Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans and The Comebacks.

In lieu of an actual film review of “Superhero Movie” I have decided to give a few bullet points explaining why most of these modern spoof films just don’t work.

1 – All these films do is recycle the same scenes and plots from popular films, sometimes line for line, without really making fun of genre conventions. You know what, Airplane! did this too. The ZAZ team has specifically explained that they stole direct lines of dialogue from the disaster movie Zero Hour! They even had to purchase the rights to that film in order to make Airplane! However, the reason it works is because no one had ever actually seen Zero Hour! I’m willing to bet that no one upon first seeing Airplane shouted out, “Hey that line is from Zero Hour!” They took ridiculous situations from a serious movie and by putting it in the context of a comedy it just became funny. Truly good parodies will follow their own plots (such as “Spaceballs” or “Hot Shots!”) while spoofing their respective genres.

2 – These films won’t be funny in 20 years because of all the pop culture references. Let me get this straight, I love me some pop culture. Hey, if you checked out my DVR you’d see I have months and months worth of Best Week Ever episodes stored to near capacity. Pop culture is fun whether it’s making fun of celebrities, humming a commercial jingle, or watching people get hurt on YouTube. But when twenty years comes along and someone pops their dusty Superhero Movie DVD in (God please don’t) are viewers going to get the references to Britney Spears or facebook or T-Mobile’s Fav 5?

3 – These movies are being catered towards children who simply gobble this crap up. “The Naked Gun” films were filled with potty humor so these modern spoofs are not the inventor of bodily fluid or fart jokes. But films like “Naked Gun” catered to a more adult audience. They had people imitating Queen Elizabeth (Part 1), George and Barbara Bush (in 2 ½ ) and in part three cameo appearances were made by the likes of Olympia Dukakis, Pia Zadora and James Earl Jones. These films parodied political situations not just pop culture situations. I mean just take a look at “Hot Shots! Part II.” I mean when the hell are we going to get a spoof where the main villain is Osama Bin Laden?! I’m waiting ZAZ!!!

Having said all that let me just say there was a few times (and I stress a few) I actually chuckled in “Superhero Movie.” Leslie Nielsen is the king of these comedies and as Uncle Albert, he probably gets most of the film’s laughs. And sue me for laughing at Stephen Hawkins’ expense (played here by Robert Joy), but I chuckled when a pot of coffee poured all over the brilliant physicist and he swore up a storm in his computer voice. And thank God for Regina Hall’s all too brief appearance (in horrible bald-headed makeup) as Mrs. Xavier. And at least writer/director Craig Mazin (who worked on Scary Movie 3 & 4) included a sequence that had actors imitating the likes of Prince Charles, The Dalai Lama and even Nelson Mandela. I’m sure the ten year olds in the audience were pleased.

What the film really gets wrong is in some of its lead roles (and a basic plot rehash of Spider-man). Drake Bell is not a comedic actor. That may have worked for Leslie Nielsen when he first appeared in Airplane! (it was his first comedic role, fyi) but it doesn’t work here. Sara Paxton as the love interest is a waste. Not only is she not funny, she doesn’t get the chance to be. Even Airplane! alum Robert Hays in a bit partouldn't save this thing from the slaughter. So what’s the point? Why did I even bother wasting my time on any of this. Just think of it this way: I wasted my time watching “Superhero Movie” so you wouldn’t have to. You can thank me later. GRADE: D

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Veteran’s Daze: “Stop-Loss” is a Powerful Look at Our Unending War

It’s been over five years since our president declared war on the country of Iraq. It’s been a costly effort and many people, liberals and even some conservatives, are wondering what it’s all been for. If you're looking for an anti-war tale about WHY “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was started in the first place then the film “Stop-Loss” will disappoint. You’re probably better off seeing one of the many movies nominated this year for Best Documentary at the Oscars. However, “Stop-Loss,” Kimberly Peirce’s follow up to her emotionally draining debut “Boys Don’t Cry,” is a powerful essay on the effects of war on the men who give their hearts, minds and bodies for our country. While many soldiers have the good fortune to come back home physically unharmed, sometimes you can’t vouch for their mental and emotional health. “Stop-Loss” takes a look at a handful of soldiers returning to their hometown and toll the war on terror takes on them.

Ryan Phillippe, who started his career in teen films like "Cruel Intentions" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer," has certainly come a long way. He has matured into a very capable and appealing actor who has chosen interesting and challenging roles. His turn as a nice cop gone racist in "Crash" really opened many people's eyes that this guy means business, as he does here as Sgt. Brandon King. The film opens with some harrowing footage of soldiers fighting in Iraq. King is joined by Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum). This opening sequence is one of the better and intense war sequences in modern film. Although many see the opening of “Saving Private Ryan” as the cinematic equivalent of hell on Earth, one could make a strong argument that “Stop-Loss” paints an equally devastating picture.

Soon these soldiers’ tours of duty are over and it’s back to their hometown in their patriotic state of Texas. At first all appears normal. These soldiers are excited to see their family, friends and loved ones. Shriver can’t wait to see his girlfriend. Burgess can’t wait to see his wife. That is until these guys, who are borderline psychologically damaged from military combat, begin to have some serious delusions. Shriver digs a pit in his own front yard and sleeps in it as if he were out in the bush. Burgess is a depressed alcoholic who can’t make his relationship work. And one soldier who lost both legs and an arm is the positive one, recouping in an Army hospital somwhere stateside. And if all that isn’t bad enough Lt. King has become stop-lossed. That is, he gets officially ordered back to Iraq even though he served out his contract. He did his duty and it’s time to be home. He doesn’t want to go back, and he won’t without a fight.

“Stop-Loss" takes a good hard look at a subject that is very difficult for some to deal with and makes it fascinating. We, as Americans, hear about the never-ending war almost on a daily basis. We’ve lived with it for over five years and it’s a part of our lives. And to think that someone is being forced back into serving their country (someone who volunteered in the first place) just seems wrong. King feels he has nowhere to turn except for a senator in D.C. who might be sympathetic to his plight so he takes to the road with Shriver’s girlfriend (Abbie Cornish).

Peirce’s writing almost oozes with preachy opinions, but it’s the actors who really sell this stuff. We’re immediately drawn to King’s dilemma because there’s really nothing that he can do, and yet it’s captivating to see him try. He also has become mentally unstable which is devastating in a scene in which he treats some simple muggers like Iraqi POWs. Peirce crafts an intriguing and sympathetic story about the men who fight for our country without ever really pissing off either end of the political spectrum. Sure you can see how she feels about this war but it's this specific military policy, which has apparently affected thousands of soldiers, that, whether you're for the war or against it, you can’t help but feel it’s a crime against humanity. Patriotism only gets you so far. GRADE: A-

Note: Don't let the film's "let's-market-this-to-fifteen-year-old-girls-because-the-guy-from-Step-Up-is-in-it" trailer turn you away. This is a harrowing and tough film that's well worth your time. And doesn't that poster make it looks like Varsity Blues II?

Friday, April 04, 2008

Vine Intervention: “The Ruins” is a Good Enough Way to Pass an Afternoon

If you’ve seen one of them, you’ve seen them all. I’m talking about the type of movie where a bunch of young Americans who vacation in a foreign country who end up…hmmm dead? If you can get past the dreadful and clichéd opening scenes of “The Ruins” you’ll be pleased to find out that the rest of this blood fest is actually quit chilling and enjoyable. Based on the book, which is sort of Steven King lite, The Ruins is sort of like “Turistas” with a supernatural twist, except that it’s much better than you’d think. And thank god there is no exposition because when it comes to films like this, frankly I don’t give a damn.

If you’re wondering what exactly is after these twentysomethings (which include Jena Malone, Jonathan Tucker, Laura Ramsey and Shawn Ashmore) let me just tell you right up front (SPOILER) that it’s killer plants. Yes I said killer plants. And you know what? “The Ruins” is the “Gone with the Wind” of killer plant movies. Of course, “Little Shop of Horrors” remains the “Citizen Kane” of killer plant movies. These four young things, while vacationing somewhere in Mexico, decide to explore some ancient ruins with their new German friend played by Across the Universe’s Joe Anderson. Before you know it, they are being quarantined on the ruins by a modern tribe who have bows and arrows AND automatic weapons. They can either try to make a run for it, or wait it out and hope that someone comes searching for them. In the meantime, they notice the local flora isn’t exactly friendly.

Like I said if you can sort of buy into the initial lame premise then you might actually get scared every now and then. The story (penned by Scott B Smith, who based it on his novel) is non-existent and the characters are just simply there to be die disgusting deaths, but I was sort of surprised at how invested I was with what was going on. I don’t know if I just liked the actors but I almost sort of felt bad for them. When one girl gets a bad cut on her leg, she wakes up the next morning with a vine attached to the wound. And it’s not just attached; it’s like growing inside her. Her boyfriend immediately yanks it out and it’s surprisingly gruesome. There are some ghastly images here (amputation anyone?) and yet there’s no scary dude with a mask, so it’s all good.

Mock me if you want, but I found the later half of The Ruins to be an enjoyable freaky ride. It may not be the most original horror flick, but if you sick of the standard slasher movie or so called “torture porn” movies, then you might as well do yourself a favor and check out “The Ruins” if only so you can say you saw that movie with the killer vines… I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence. Oh well. GRADE: B-