Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Second Hand Smoke: Catching Up With Harold And Kumar

When I heard that my local hometown theater, where I work part-time, was going to be showing HAROLD & KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANAMO BAY I decided to give in and finally watch the first one. I had heard that HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE was funny from various friends but just never got around to seeing it. 

Since the sequel has been getting fairly decent reviews (and is #2 at the box office right now) I'd put the first one in my NetFlix queue and thought I might make a double feature out of it by going to see the second on the big screen directly after viewing the first one on DVD (yes, I have no life). Of course this plan depended on whether I liked the first one. Well, let me tell you:

(Dir. Danny Leiner, 2004)

In the four years since this was released I got the picture from trailers and friend's quotations that this was basically a crude comedy about a couple of geeky Asian stoners who get caught in a silly series of mishaps while trying to get to a fast food restaurant to satisfy their extreme bout with the munchies. 

Yep, that's exactly what is - a base teen demographic-aimed R-rated raunchy romp filled to the brim with profanity, gross scatological humour, and every stock stereotype you could put a stamp on. The fact that the DVD has a featurette entitled “The Art Of The Fart” says it all, right? That's not to say it doesn't have a certain clever charm to at times. The leads - John Cho and Kal Penn (as Harold & Kumar respectively) are likable and carry the tone with a crisp chemistry. 

A bevy of B and C-list film folk appear in cameos - Fred Willard, Ryan Reynolds, and Jamie Kennedy are on hand to randomly pop up and provide punch to the proceedings, but the cake is taken by Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser!) playing himself. NPH, as some refer to him, is a horny Ecstasy-fueled celebrity ego exaggeration who throws one of many wrenches at the feet of our THC-driven burger-craving heroes and steals the movie just like he steals their car .

This kind of comedy isn't really my thing - the bathroom base-ness of it all wears intensely thin with every compromising situation easy to predict, but there are a few decent laughs and a loosy-goosey go-with-it flow that doesn't feel forced. 

A dream sequence/love montage featuring Kumar romancing and going on to marry a gigantic bag of weed set to Heart's “Crazy On You” comes close to hitting that hilarious-line on the comic circus bell pole and there are at least 3 or 4 other crazy bits that Judd Apatow would be proud to call his own. 

Comparisons to Cheech & Chong, Wayne & Garth, Bill & Ted, and even Beavis & Butthead (oh wait, also the dudes in DUDE, WHERE'S MY CAR?) are inevitable meaning the stoner duo mis-adventure can now be fully recognized as a legit genre. 

Like I said, HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE in the end may not really be my bag (get it?) but as throw-away profoundly stupid commercial, not kind-bud, comedies go - you can get a decent buzz off of it. So, since the first in the Bong Crosby and Bob Dope road pictures breezed by me somewhat entertainingly I thought ‘sure, why not?’ I walked up to the theater putting the NetFlix envelope containing the frist one in the mail on the way. So let's take another toke: 

HAROLD & KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANAMO BAY (Dirs. Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Sclossberg, 2008)


The tagline for this sequel which takes place right after the events of WHITE CASTLE is: “this time they're running from the joint!” Sure it's obvious pot-minded spoof pandering, but we're not exactly talking David Mamet territory here! 

Well, except in that Mamet's screenplays are filled with an equal amount of profanity, but anyway such a slogan is pretty expected. 

What's expected is pretty much the game for Harold & Kumar's second time out. I mean this builds predictably on what was a sketch-piece patchwork by having even more flagrant racist-panic sex-centric pro-recreational drug antic-mania! 

Taking it up another notch is the mistaking of our slacker stoner heroes for terrorists because of a self-invented smoke-less bong that Kumar (Kal Penn) smuggles onto a flight to Amsterdam - “It's a bong - not a bomb!” Kumar exclaims. 

The Daily Show's Rod Corddry (funny here but not funny enough) as a obsessively prejudiced Homeland Security agent labels them as North Korea and Al Queda working in cahoots and that lands the flippant leads in for a stint in Guantanamo Bay. 

Through a disgusting passage of predictable scrapes they escape and withstain the usual lot of farcical flukes including more stereotypes (if a backwoods redneck archetype jokes that he has a inbreed son in the basement you can be sure that he really does have such if you get my drift), more nasty non sequiturs, and of course the reliably drugged-up Neil Patrick Harris again to make sure the formula is solidly in place. 

In the annals of unneccessary but still somewhat passable sequels this is equal to REVENGE OF THE NERDS II: NERDS IN PARADISE. Or maybe, as Beverly D'Angelo's cameo as a whorehouse madam here suggests, NATIONAL LAMPOON'S EUROPEAN VACATION is a better likeness. 

As for non-sequel quality status Kumar says early on “it's going to be exactly like EUROTRIP, except its not going to suck” - I'll give HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO GUANTANEMO BAY that - it is better than EUROTRIP but that is so far from saying much that it's not funny. 

Also not funny is the before mentioned inbred hillbilly humor or a wretched Ku Klux Klan sequence that is as slapdash an attack on racism as the likewise lameass swipes in FLETCH LIVES (1989) or even the morally misguided Richard Pryor vehicle BUSTIN' LOOSE (1981). 

James Adomian as a goofball version of (like there's any other comical prospect) President George W. Bush (Adomian has almost made a career out of impersonating the Commander-in-chief on low level shows like Mad TV) appears in the 3rd act to offer some sort of poli-parody statement - thats he's a stoner too with a slacker perspective to be admired. Of all the notions in this fitfully funny but still unneccessary sequel that's the most unfunniest. 

Okay! I think the amount of time I've spent with Harold & Kumar today has been a bit much. Still, though laughs - we've had a few... 

More later...

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Odds & Ends With Some More Politics Schmolotics

Hey folks - I haven't been posted this week 'til now because I've been busy with a few projects. 

First, writing my long-in-the-works book “Crime & Popcorn: An A-Z Guide To Conspiracy Cinema” which I may take some time off the blog soon to finish. 

Second, the marvelous are having an April Coen Brothers blog-a-thon with reviews and articles about their incredible oeuvre. I am contributing a 2 part piece on the music in the movies of the Coen Brothers for the fine site. You can read Part I here. After my post Nitpicking on NetFlix (March 17, 2008) I was surprised to be approved as a NetFlix affiliate after applying a long time ago. 

So I proudly welcome NetFlix into the Film Babble Blog fold.

However don't think I'll stop bitchin' though - I mean you guys still don't carry the much written about and heavily advertised BONNIE AND CLYDE: 2 Disc Special Edition, and that after waiting for 4 months (very long wait from Dec. to April) for what I thought was the 2 LANE BLACKTOP: CRITERION COLLECTION DVD I got the old 1999 Starz/Anchor Bay version! 

C'mon! Uh, sorry to go off there...anyway welcome. I watched a movie the other day that I knew was going to be bad but I just couldn't resist. 

When LIONS FOR LAMBS was released in theaters last November I wrote: “I wanted to see LIONS...but just about every critic is telling me not to - though I probably still will.”

Well, I guess I never lost the lust for lameness that I had late last year. Even that its current rating is 27% on the Tomatometer couldn't stop me from putting it in my Netflix queue. So it is what it is: LIONS FOR LAMBS (Dir. Robert Redford, 2007) This is so much of a high class dud that I don't even want to write a conventional review. 

I mean I can't really add anything to the criticisms that this is a putrid preachy bore and I sure don't want to recount the plot threads that involve Redford as a heart of gold professor, Tom Cruise as a hot-shot Republican Senator, and Meryl Streep as a old school liberal journalist. 

So what I thought I'd do is take a look at one aspect of the film that particularly stuck in my craw. It's less than a scene actually; it's a few moments of dialogue-free melodrama in which Streep left alone in Cruise's office takes a look at the framed photos on his wall. 

We've seen this many times throughout the history of cinema - in the background of the offices and residencies there are often photos to show that these are real people with lives beyond what we see on the screen. Sometimes these are pictures taken from the actors' personal life - baby photos, school portraits, stills from their previous movies, etc. and sometimes they are art department fakes.

Streep gazes at a few career defining pictures - Cruise's character with Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and, of course, President George W. Bush. These are obviously but competently photoshoped and it's funny to note that Cruise has most likely really been photographed with these folks but those pictures would be of real-life movie star Cruise not the Senator act we're supposed to swallow here. 

As Streep's eyes and the camera scans the wall we see a picture of a young Cruise in military duds - hey, it's a still from his 1981 movie TAPS! Better pan faster so people don't notice that. 

Her eyes finally fall upon a fictitious Time Magazine cover - too bad it wasn't the Man Of The Year mirror that the Dude (Jeff Bridges) starred at in THE BIG LEBOWSKI in a likewise scene with phony photos on the wall. Yep - I know, any excuse to bring up THE BIG LEBOWSKI.

The pictures on the wall in LIONS FOR LAMBS would be fine if they were only in the background and never given close-ups but when prominently displayed they call attention to the seams in the film's fabric. Redford points out a picture on his office's wall as well. He does so to illustrate to a apathetic student that he was a solider in the Vietnam war. 

Redford remarks “3 of those guys never came home” or something like that - I was too distracted by how unreal the picture looked and that it was a picture of somebody taking a picture of a group of guys. 

I know the points these pictures are supposed to make just like I got all the points the film was trying to make but the Devil sure wasn't in these details. LIONS FOR LAMBS is the cinematic equivalent of “blah blah blah”; the phony photos the polish on a tedious turd. 

More later...

Friday, April 11, 2008

From A Dark Theater On A Sunny Spring Day...

This season has been pretty dicey - movies have come and gone week after week with nothing really catching on to reel in the crowds. 2 new films open today at my local downtown theater are hoping to buck the trend. Let's see if either has a fighting chance: THE COUNTERFEITERS (Dir. Stefan Ruzowitsky, 2007) It's frustrating making Oscar picks every year in the category of Best Foreign Film because of no access to the nominees. The films don't show in my area until months afterward (if they come to theaters here at all) or their DVD releases are way after the fact. The buzz was strong on this one - it won the Academy Award as predicted and it is thankfully making the rounds arriving here today. It is so welcome because THE COUNTERFEITERS is an excellent stirring World War II era drama about what has been called “the largest counterfeiting operation in history”. It begins in the late 40's with an infamous forger named Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) who while gambling in Monte Carlo with large sums of money flashes back to 1936 Berlin. In that turbalent time his success in the illegal trade is interupted when he is arrested by the police led by Superintendent Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow) and thrown into a concentration camp. He impresses his Nazi captors with his skills in art drawing romantised portraits of his guards which helps him avoid harsher treatment. He is transferred and brought up before the snooty Herzog again who places him in a select group of other talented print-minded prisoners is forced to forge in a special secret unit of Sachsenhausen called Operation Bernhard. The accomendations, including actual beds and showers, are extremely appealing in this new deal but the concept of helping the Nazis flood the market with fake currency destroying Britain and America's economy is more than a bit troubling. A fellow forger with a reactionary agenda - Adolf Burger * (August Diehl) constantly sabotages the efforts to counterfeit the U.S. dollar as the Nazis turn the heat up creating a level of gripping tension that never lags. Markovics carries the movie with a stern furrow-browed brood intensely persuading us to Sorowitsch's cunning sense of survival. While not pretty this Austrian film is filled with what I can only describe as a lush grittiness - Benedict Neuenfels' cinematography, even with a limited pallette of greys and darkness, is as absorbing as the story. THE COUNTERFEITERS is a near perfect depiction of a true story, albeit with amalgams and slight embellishments, and a film that I really hope folks will seek out. * The film is based on the book by Adolf Burger who is "the only prisoner character in the film that has an authentic historical name and is not synthesized from several real-life prisoners involved in Operation Bernhard." Thanks again Wikipedia! SMART PEOPLE (Dir. Noam Murro, 2008) Dennis Quaid is Lawrence Wetherhold - a haggard looking washed up widower professor at Carnegie Mellon University with a ne'er-do-well adopted brother (Thomas Haden Smith), a wisecracking Republican daughter (Ellen Page), and what he is told is an unpublishable manuscript. It is illustrated right off the bat that Wetherhold is a schlub. He doesn't take time to get to know his students - let alone learn their names and he double parks his car which gets it towed and him injured, getting knocked out cold jumping the fence trying to recoup his briefcase. Coming to in a hospital room he is greeted by Sarah Jessica Parker as his attending doctor. There is something of a spark between them so Quaid and Parker attempt to have what he calls a face to face meeting despite disaproval from his daughter and his being extremely embarrassingly 'out of practice' as he apologizes after their first disastrous dinner date. The underlining question is - will Whetherhold get his groove back? The jaded faded writer/professor role has shades of Quaid's role in D.O.A. (he who crucially stated publish or perish) - another character who had to regroup to reclaim his passion and Thomas Haden Church seems to be macking on his former glory in SIDEWAYS - a fact the poster calls attention to with it's lime green and from the producers of plug. Then there's Ellen Page whose character is conservative with a 8X10 of Reagan on her bedroom wall and citing career steps from Dick Cheney but this character trait is just a disposable detail - it never comes up in any conflict or specified way. Her lines just come off like recycled JUNO: I Appreciate the tip, Dr. Phil and suddenly I'm in an Afterschool Special. It's her schtick and Haden Church's dubious deliveries in the first half that has SMART PEOPLE play like quirk by the numbers. The second half is more of a sober drama with introspection and pondering close-ups but the whole affair never rises above WONDER BOYS-light. Quaid does befuddled wonderfully and it's nice to see Parker as someone less neurotically obsessed with romance as her Carrie Bradshaw character on Sex And The City but this, as earnest as it is in some scenes, never really amounts to anything special. SMART PEOPLE was no doubt made by smart people but I wish they were smarter about making them interesting people. Then maybe I would give a damn about them. More later...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Gus Van Sant's Skateboard-Gazing Snore

This film is leaving my hometown theater after its 2 evening shows tonight after playing for only one week. It was poorly attended but well reviewed - though not by me:

PARANOID PARK (Dir. Gus Van Sant, 2008)

I'm in the minority on this one - it has a 76% rating on the Rottentomatometer with much fawning from major critics who use words like "dreamy", "impressionistic", and "haunting" I have to declare that PARANOID PARK bored me to tears. 

Concerning a teenager skateboarder who may have been involved with the murder or accidental killing of a security guard this slow dreary movie uses a fractured narrative and documentary-style footage (some shots have people with bars across their eyes suggesting they aren't actors but members of the public caught on film) to disguise a weak premise and severe lack of substance. Gabe Nevins plays the kid in question who sulkingly plods through the paces trying to put into perspective what happened one fateful night on a train track near Paranoid Park (actually the nickname of O'Bryant Square) - a Portland, Oregon hang-out of other aimless skateboarders. 

He writes down the event as a letter to somebody which provides voice-over narration but it is too vague, like the film itself, to have much impact. He moppingly deals with the police who are investigating the crime and a girlfriend (Taylor Momsen) who is nagging him to have sex with her. It's told out of order with some scenes repeating from different angles - a method Van Sant used in LAST DAYS and just like in that lame film it does little to illuminate anything it just adds to the boring repetition.

PARANOID PARK is based on the young adult novel of the same name which its author described as a retelling of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" with a teenager's point of view. That's an interesting notion certainly more interesting than anything I saw on the screen here. Not sure how I'm supposed to get such a concept when suffering through long shots with nothing happening. 

There is a scene in which Nevins takes a shower shortly after the incident and it is shown as an unbroken take. We see Nevin's long scraggily hair gradually get wet and slowly the camera pans down as the water flows through the strands streaming down below his head. I just yawned writing about how tedious and meaningless the scene is and how it is not alone in this dreadful film. There's also a unneccesary shower scene in ELEPHANT (another Van Sant film I'm not a fan of) but it at least had more going on in it. 

Filled with a mostly emo score and way too much skateboard-gazing nothingness, though honestly some of the skating scenes are well shot and at least give the movie motion at times, PARANOID PARK is dark, dull, and even at its short length (85 min.) qualifies as a genuine waste of time. Many though, will tell you different but I'm going with my gut here. Tomorrow 2 new movies open at the Varsity (the theater I work at part-time) - THE COUNTERFEITERS and SMART PEOPLE

Stay tuned to Film Babble Blog for more views. 

More later...

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Exile On Mean Street Part II - Shining A Light On Scorsese & The Stones Yet Again...

At the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year Mick Jagger made the joke before anybody else could: “I want you to know that SHINE A LIGHT is the only (Scorsese) film that 'Gimme Shelter' isn’t played in.” I had written before about Martin Scorsese's Stones obsession with “Gimme Shelter” singled out in Exile On Mean Street - Or Scorsese & The Stones Together Again (October 22nd, 2006). In that post I speculated about the proposed concert film/doc and how it may capture the definitive performance of “Gimme Shelter” - well alas, as Jagger quipped this is not to be. No matter - the prospect of America's greatest director taking on the greatest rock band in the world (just go with their own self generated hype on this will you?), in a ginormous IMAX feature no less, is enough to wipe away such pop culture pigeon-holing persnickety. So let's get on to the show:

SHINE A LIGHT (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2008)

The Rolling Stones are no strangers to being the cinematic subject of famously impulsive control-freak film makers. Jean-Luc Godard, The Maysles Brothers, and Hal Ashby have had their turns at capturing the legendary rockers on celluloid but now the British hitmakers have met their match with Martin Scorsese - not because he is a more of a meticulously-minded master director than those luminaries, but because he is more of a giddy hardcore fan. 

As the film begins in grainy black and white Scorsese is seen scurrying around trying to get the setlists for the 2 Stones shows at New York's Beacon Theater he is preparing to shoot, with 18 cameras * mind you, and comically getting the rock star brush-off from frontman Mick Jagger. 

This opening has a frenetic almost SPINAL TAP-ish quality to it but when the Stones hit the stage splashing into full color with the picture expanding to the full screen I was swept up into the cross-fire hurricane of the ferociously jolting “Jumpin' Jack Flash”. * Helmed by such cinematographers and behind the scenes A-listers as Robert Elswit, Robert Richardson, John Toll, Emmanuel Lubezki and Albert Maysles (GIMME SHELTER!) 

As the Glimmer Twins (the nickname and producing credit of Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards) and their mates tear through their classics (“Sympathy For The Devil”, “Brown Sugar”, “Start Me Up”, etc.) and a few obscurities for the faithful (like “Far Away Eyes” for one) Scorsese's cameras swoop down and around the band, barely ever pausing to rest lest anyone would get bored with a shot. Scorsese's scrupulous sense of timing and exciting effective editing rocks as hard as his subject material making this the best concert film since Jonathan Demme's STOP MAKING SENSE

It's awe-inspiring to watch Jagger conducting his fellow Stones, the back-up singers, the audience, and all the cameras into a riotous groove then drive it into a frenzy over and over again. The effect was so powerful and absorbing that I had to refrain myself from clapping at the end of several songs, having to remind myself I wasn't in the audience at the Beacon - I was just one of a handful of people at an IMAX theater in Raleigh.

The 2 shows (Oct. 29 and Nov. 1, 2006) this film was constructed from were star studded affairs - both onstage and in the audience. Former President Bill Clinton, whose 60th birthday was being celebrated by this charity benefit, introduces the band (which is fitting because he was called the first “Rock 'N Roll President”) and Bruce Willis can be seen but despite this Scorsese thankfully keeps audience shots at a minimum. 

What's more notable is the musical guest stars - blues legend Buddy Guy calmly appears to throw gas on an already raging fire by duetting with Jagger on Muddy Waters' “Champagne & Reefer” and a starstruck Jack White (from The White Stripes) joins the band for a infectious moving rendition of “Loving Cup”. Christina Aguilera helps bring out the raunch in the lusty “Live With Me” gyrating then grinding with Jagger while long-time Stones sideman Bobby Keys's saxophone levels out the showbiz sleaze with some pure class. 

The only minor quibbles I have would be with some of the archival footage from old interviews that serve as segues between some songs. They are brief though and only cut into one song (the Keith Richards sung “Connection”) so they don't hold up the proceedings much.

Living in a town of snarky hipsters (Chapel Hill, N.C.) I am highly aware that many have long ago dismissed the Stones (especially their recent output) as overplayed Baby Boomer bombast long past its expiration date. I wish those folks would get their bed-heads out of their asses and make the trip to their nearest IMAX theater to see SHINE A LIGHT

It's as fast paced and exciting a concert experience that can be imagined on the big screen (no, I haven't seen U2 3D!) and it is powerful enough to re-ignite the fanatic spark in even the staunchest Stones cynic. 

Sure, they've become part of the machine they used to rage against with inflated ticket prices and infinite rehashes of their greatest hits but they're still THE ROLLING STONES. When these grand old men who can still bring the rock are seen through the loving lenses of Scorsese I doubt many rock movie lovers will complain that they get no satisfaction. 

More later...