Tuesday, August 21, 2007

'Superbad': Superawesome

Well, I had been looking forward to this one for a while and for the most part, "Superbad" (trailer) didn't disappoint. Although it was not as fun as my earlier funniest movie of the year thus far, "Knocked Up", I had a great time and certainly wished there were more comedies like this. Some might call it low, vulgar humor. I don't really buy that. I thought it was some of those things, but it had a heart and it was well done. It doesn't assume that its audience is stupid and instead finds humor in pretty human things -- not ridiculous things. I've read that it's not really a teen comedy, it's a movie about adolescence and I think that's pretty accurate.

The movie focuses on two high-school seniors hoping to score as they prepare to go to college. Sound familiar, maybe a bit like "American Pie" or any number of teen comedies? Where it differs from "American Pie" and others in this genre is that instead of trying to just get chuckles from teens with a story that is simply filler, "Superbad" seems to be actually attempting to tell a story about two friends who are really close but will soon be separating and how in many ways this friendship is more significant than any lame sex they might have at some party. Even though the movie only takes place over about one day, you get to know and love these guys and at the end you're both happy and a little bit sad for them. And boy do you laugh along the way as these guys attempt to get alcohol and go to a party while their friend ends up partying with two juvenile cops. Sounds ridiculous? Surprisingly it didn't really seem so.

One reason the movie works is because of the great pedigree it has behind it. There's definitely the stamp of producer Judd Appatow, who in "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" showed a knack for creating lovable losers and put a lot of heart into hilarious comedies. Seth Rogen, who acts as one of the juvenile cops, has soared as one of Appatow's losers and in co-writing this comedy, he shows that this "comedy with heart" knack is really a part of all the people involved. But what really makes this movie work is the actors involved, who turn these guys into real people and make you laugh with them because they've let you into their world and into the joke. Although he is a side character essentially, Christopher Mintz-Plasse plays a supergeek who ends up hanging out with the cops and although he was great for comedic moments, was a bit overused. Jonah Hill plays Seth, the goofy, tubby slacker who is going to the state school, and does justice to the general goofball who excels and physical comedy. I just wish he would tone it down a bit and not yell so much. The star is Michael Cera, who plays the more straight man Evan, who is ditching his boyhood friend Seth to go to Dartmouth. As in his fantastic performance as George Michael on the brilliant "Arrested Development", he is a master at playing awkward and using his voice and pauses to make the laugh and feel bad for him at the same time. Even if the character was a bit similar to George Michael, I loved it.

So, yeah, go see the movie. It's a lot of fun and you won't feel like you have to wear dark glasses and a hat when you go to the theater.

Grade: B+

Monday, June 25, 2007

'28 Weeks Later': Now, with gore!

It's not very often that one feels like a sedative after a movie. Watching '28 Weeks Later' (trailer) was great, but not for the weak of heart. It was one of the most thrilling experiences I have had in a theater in a while, and I only kind of mean that as entertaining. The action sequences in this movie were terrifying at time and I began feeling that I, like the characters in the movie, were dreading the possible reappearance of the zombies. Wow, I think I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here.

This movie is one of those rare breeds of sequels that actually aren't crap. A follow-up to 2002's '28 Days Later' (review), the movie follows the results of an evacuation of the UK following an outbreak of the "rage" virus that turns humans into zombie-esque killing machines. By the time of the sequel, the "infected" have all supposedly died and the U.S. military has created a green zone in an effort to rebuild the city. If you're getting shades of Iraq and September 11, well, you're not stupid. The references are supposed to be there (and elsewhere throughout the movie), but the director does not beat you over the head with them. If anything, the similarities come across as being more intrinsic to the situation than simply a carbon copy of current events as, like Iraq, the situation in London gets out of hand and a foe that was thought to be defeated rears it's bloody head. It's more political underlying message differs from the original, which was a more personal story about survival. This movie also differs in its treatment of the zombies/infected: they are actually there. In rewatching the original, I was struck by how little they were in it. For the sequel, they went all out and made a movie that was bloodier and, at times, more terrifying. It was the type of movie that I think could actually give me nightmares.

I was glad to see that Danny Boyle, who directed the first movie, was around for the second, even if only as an executive producer. I imagine that his influence helped keep the movie a more creative flimmaking experience, instead of simply an exploitative followup aimed at capitalizing on the profitability of its predecessor. It was great that they also decided not to just remake the first movie or continue the story but, in a way, sought to reinvent the franchise it had created. A third movie is reportedly in the works and I'm sure it will have just as unoriginal of a title. I'll just have to see what new direction they take with the the third one.

Grade: B+

Sunday, June 24, 2007

'28 Days Later': Hell is other people (as zombies)

I guess I kind of forgot '28 Days Later' (trailer). Having watched the sequel a little while ago, I figured I would rewatch the original and review each of them. I sure didn't remember how much the two differed and I really was accurate when I thought the second was more bloody. Although its sequel follows the zombie/horror conventions more, it is important to recall that the first movie "reinvented" the zombie movie by proving one point: it doesn't actually have to be about the zombies.

The movie, directed by Danny Boyle, follows Jim, who wakes up in the hospital from a coma to discover that London has been abandoned as a result of the "rage" virus, which turns people into zombie-like creatures. Along the way he meets a young woman, Selena, and then a father and his daughter. The four of them set off in search of survival and although the zombies are the danger lurking around every corner, the search for survival and meaning in an empty world presents the existential drama as more harrowing and significant to the characters -- although perhaps I can say that because I am more detached from the first time I saw it and was pretty spooked by Boyle's filming of the zombies, or infected as they call it. Aside from creating a different method of horror, there are a couple of other remarkable innovations. It was (for me at least) an introduction to Cillian Murphy, who as I wrote before, has turned in a number of solid performances and shows a lot of promise as an actor. I found myself chuckling, though, because it seems they told him to speak a bitter deeper than his natural timbre. Naomie Harris was also good, but I kept thinking of her as the creepy woman in 'Pirates'. What really stands out in the movie, though, are the fantastic shots of an empty London. It really sets the tone for the more serious analysis of it's themes and the innovative use of digital video creates a documentarianesque authenticity. The filming is grainy and jarring at time, but without feeling gimmicky. It's a shame how much that method has been copied in crappy horror movies as a cheap thrill and not to further any sort of storytelling.

In all I had forgotten how good of a film Boyle made. It's of the type that is more than just good filmmaking, but actually movies the medium forward. It tells a story in a different way and challenges the audience instead of merely entertaining. Best of all, it proves that genres are not set in stone, and one of the best ways of making a movie that isn't boring is by merging genres (like 'Shaun of the Dead' did) and tell a story no one has seen before.

Grade: A

Saturday, June 23, 2007

'Breach': No TNT Movie After All

'Breach' (trailer), could have been really crappy. It was based on a true, recent story; it is from that always dangerous "thriller" genre; and it's lead actor is the milquetoast Ryan Phillippe. But filmmaker Billy Ray works the same magic he did with 2003's 'Shattered Glass', where he told the story of fabricating writer Stephen Glass with Hayden Christensen as his leading man. 'Breach' is a taunt thriller that kept my attention the entire time, even though I knew what was going to happen at the end. And it walked that tight line of making a thriller where you care about the events and a drama where you analyze the emotions without going too far either way.

The story Ray tells is that of Robert Hanssen, and FBI agent who sold secrets to the Russians for at least 15 years. Not only do we know this from the beginning, but at the top of the movie, we see former Attorney General John Ashcroft talking about the apprehension. Instead of focusing on the villian, Ray focuses on Phillippe's Eric O'Neill, and FBI operative who went undercover as Hanssen's assistant to gleam incriminating evidence. Because they've already told us the ending, they are able to keep it interesting on how Phillippe's character is affected by the work he is doing. Plus there's the fact that Hanssen is played to brillian effect by Chris Cooper, who is reliably supberb. He's an actor who is known for playing characters brilliantly without being showy and trying to grab the spotlight. Here he really gets to shine by using these gifts to leave out much of who Hanssen is and keep us wondering -- that's part of what keeps it exciting. It's also great watching him pull of the staunch piety and chew out Phillippe the next. It truly is a well-cast film (Phillippe being the weakest rung, although he does OK), with great supporting roles by a number of people, including the always great Laura Linney, who has proven to be great at bringing depth to what could be small, cardboard characters.

Overall the movie is not particularly innovative -- there's nothing here that makes me rethink how a film of this genre can be made. It's not a movie that at the end of the year will probably be on my best of 2007 list. But I certainly enjoyed the movie and thought the pacing and the acting were both notable. There is no reason why more movies can't be like this -- a blockbuster action movie could learn a lot from it.

Grade: B+

'Spider-Man 3': With third movie comes..no creativity

This seems to be the summer of the threequel, and 'Spider-Man 3' (trailer) continues the trend set by Pirates of, well, let's just say not living up to the the predecessor. In spidey's case, though, it has two solid movies to contend -- and 'Spider-Man 2' was bigger and better than the first 'Spider-Man'. That left some high hopes for Tobey Maguire's third time stepping into the red and blue tights. But something happened on the way: Even though the same actors and the director were in place, the movie was sapped of the excitement and the resonance that made the previous two memorable. The cast and crew, including director Sam Raimi, are still able to hobble together a more enjoyable movie than, say, a Fantastic Four, but when the previous efforts were among the better comic book movies, it's just sad.

To understand where the third movie went wrong, it is best to look at what worked in the second movie. First step, create some thrilling action and a challenge for spidey to overcome. In the third movie, instead of pairing the reoccurring struggle with with Harry and the Green Goblin with one villain -- Doc Oc -- they chose in the third to bring in two new villians, Sandman and Venom. Because of this, they fail to get me interested in either plotline. Even the parts with Harry seem to just putting him in their because they wanted to bring James Franco back. Anyway, the second step is to create a compelling exploration of Peter Parker as a character. Tobey Maguire has shown he has the chops to explore some of the more serious sides of the character, which in the second one took the form of considering whether the whole thing was worth it and if he should continue. There's a particularly great moment when he saves people on a subway and the all see him for who he is and marvel over how he is just a kid. After what he has done and seeing the looks of sheer exhaustion and fear on his face, they have a moment with him and they promise to keep his secret and then try to stop him from having to face Doc Oc, but he stands up and faces his job. There's not moment like this in the third movie. A few times in the movie I started to get a sense of the overall theme of this movie, but somewhere between a dancing scene and the scenes following Kirstin Dunst as Mary Jane, I lost the elements it. There could have been a movie about the twin dangers of hubris and revenge, but too much was going on to sustain it. Even worse, both Thomas Hayden Church and Topher Grace are brutaly underused as the villians (with many out there especially ticked at the lame use of Grace's Venom) and neither manage to make much of a mark

As a whole, there could have been a lot worse ways to spend a couple of hours. I could have watched one of the many, lesser movies that are made out of comic books lately -- due in a large part to Spider-Man's success. But I expect more from this franchise. That's what left me most disappointed. Despite having read some negative reviews, I was fully prepared to like this movie. I just couldn't. Here's hoping that the next iterations will be better.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

'Pirates': An almost three-hour tour

I should say that I have a bit of a bias toward the 'Pirates' movies, seeing as how I have a cousin named after them. And I saw the latest, 'Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End' (trailer), on opening weekend. That said, what I enjoyed about the third installment was more the idea of the first one than what I was seeing in the third. The original, 'Curse of the Black Pearl', was fantastic -- it was an action movie that dared to care more about being funny and enjoyable than having the best effects. It's star, Johnny Depp, wasn't really a hero; he wore a lot of makeup and acted like Keith Richards before he became a walking corpse. Perhaps its fitting that the third movie features Richards in all his cadaver-like glory. This third film surpassed its predecessor, 'Dead Man's Chest', in that it seemed to recognize the outcry from some over the seeming lack of humor, but it doesn't go far enough. The later two, which are essentially just one extremely long movie (seriously, they're together five hours long) that was split, begin a preposterous and confusing story revolving around a squid-like Davy Jones coming back to claim a debt from Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow. This is mated with the East India Trading Company trying to bring down piracy.

The plot of the first movie was, to me, kind of superfluous. It was there and it kept humming along, but it was the journey more than the destination. There is so much going on and so many plot lines among Depp, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom -- not to mention the myriad of supporting players -- that there's not a whole lot of time for the goofiness. Perhaps when the movie starts with long line of men, women and children heading to the gallows for piracy, I should have taken that as a hint. Throughout the movie (in which I was constantly checking my watch), I kept wishing that they would all quit being so serious and have some fun. But they didn't and I felt even the ending was unsatisfying. That said, I thought that this one did make an effort to crack more jokes and for that I've got to give them credit and rank it higher than the last one.

Of course the point of this movie was not to impress sophisticated moviegoers -- it's meant to make a lot of money, which it has, and sell toys. Unlike a lot of blockbuster series, at least this one has a worthy link in its chain. If two unimpressive sequels are part of the deal from which we get one fantastically fun summer movie and one of the great popcorn movie characters of recent years in Captain Jack, I'll take that deal any day.

Grade: (a generous) B-

Monday, June 11, 2007

'The Sopranos': Tony goes on and on and on and on

Although I focus mostly on movies, 'The Sopranos' is a show in a class of it's own. If you haven't watched last night's series finale, STOP READING NOW. I would like to go on record as saying I thought the finale was excellent in that it was how it should end -- with life going on. Most seem to disagree with me, with the LA Times writing that, "It is one thing to flout the conventions of television, it’s another to flip dramatic tradition, not to mention your audience, the bird." Although the Seattle P-I agreed with me, calling it "so cruel it's brilliant." For my take, I thought the theme of this season seemed to be decay and we were reminded of that during last night's episode as Tony's empire seemed to come crashing down, only to be saved by making last-minute deals. The whole arc of the show has been about a man who has to find a way to live a life where the weight of trying to raise a family has clouded his ability to carry the family business in a world that is passing him by. To make the finale end with Tony dying or getting arrested or singing (as in to the cops) as his name suggests, would have been to make the show about events shaping characters. 'The Sopranos' has always been the opposite in my view and even the most violent acts have sprung logically from some of the best written and best acted roles on television. That final scene was the epitome of the show and where David Chase (the show's creator who wrote and directed the last episode) wanted us to see Tony and his family (epitomized by the family meal at an Americana diner), as going on and living through this world that they have created where possible arrests are looming anything could happen -- the guys walking in or sitting at a table could have a gun. That final scene (which did NOT fool me) was great because it left it so we do not know what happens -- because of the world he lives in, Tony will never be happy and never be comfortable.

I have to take a minute, though, to say what really makes this ending a cultural milestone. It is arguably television's greatest show and is without a doubt one of those paradigm-shifters. It showed that television could be a home to true quality, film-like shows could exist. It was a show that was both brilliantly written and featured the highest quality production values. One could make a case that even shows with no similar thematic elements, like 'Lost', owe a great deal of debt to the surge of cinematic quality on television. What the show also benefits from is some of the greatest acting on television, including Edie Falco, who turned in a performance as Carmela that should be studied in acting schools, and Michael Imperioli as the tortured Christopher. And although some might argue over how the show ranks in the pantheon of great television, it is beyond question to me that James Gandolfini turned in the greatest acting work ever on television. His Tony Soprano is truly one of the all-time great characters and he brought such depth to the role that kept the audience forever on the edge of embracing or being disgusted by the mob boss.

I think I'm with Edie Falco, who said in the NYT this weekend that the show has taken breaks before and it will take a while for it to set in that this is the end and not just another hiatus. The fact that the show left us with a sense of loss, especially those who had hoped for a bloody denouement, was fitting for the story that David Chase set out to tell in 1999. Although some, including the NYT, called the choice of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" a bit of a joke, I think that's only half true. Yes, I think that Chase enjoys putting a bit of humor in a cheesy bit of pop to fit his scene and make a comical nudge to those hoping for a grand finale, with his choice of music there is often more than just the surface level. After looking a bit more are the lyrics, it seems a bit more telling to Tony's situation:

Working hard to get my fill,
Everybody wants a thrill

Payin' anything to roll the dice,

Just one more time

Some will win, some will lose

Some were born to sing the blues

Oh, the movie never ends

It goes on and on and on and on

For Tony it will go on and on and on and on. Unfortunately for us, we won't be a part anymore.

Grade: A+