Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

You’ve already seen this movie.  Trust me.  Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist has nothing new to offer, no new revelations to show, no mysteries to solve.  It won’t expand your mind or teach you anything about yourself.  But you know what?  I really liked it.

 The reason I say that you’ve already seen it is that it uses a lot of clich├ęs and conventions, and the plot goes exactly where you expect it to go, with little to no deviation.  There’s the drunk friend, the indie soundtrack, the creepy older-guy quasi-boyfriend, the Holy Grail-like quest (this time it’s for an elusive show by an elusive band), and the climax that involves every character in the film.  If the movie were just the sum total of those parts, it would be boring, trite, and a little insulting.  But instead, it’s charming, sweet, and winning.

 Why?  This is almost completely due to the chemistry between the two leads.  Michael Cera plays Nick, a completely stereotypical emo kid: quiet, passionate, plays bass, drives an ugly car, and runs on low-octane emotions exclusively.  His girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena) dumped him a few months ago (on his “b-day”), and he’s been sending her mix CDs (he’s on #12) in an effort to win her back.  She’s just throwing them out without listening to them, laughing at what she presumably started dating him in the first place for.  Norah (Kat Dennings), a frienemy of Tris’s, is fishing them out of the trash and falling in love with him, despite the fact that she’s never seen him.  Nick is still hopelessly depressed over the breakup, but is convinced to come out for a gig with his band (and put on some pants) by a rumor of a secret show by his favorite indie band (the fictional Where’s Fluffy).

 Thus begins a night of hilarity and goofiness.  At Nick’s band’s gig, Tris attends with an anonymous guy in tow, as does Norah and her vodka-soaked friend Caroline (Ari Graynor).  In an act of desperation, Norah asks Nick (not knowing who he actually is, of course) to be her boyfriend for five minutes, just to prove to Tris that she came with someone.  When Tris sees that Nick has a new flame, her mindset instantly changes, and she sets out to get Nick back.  Add to that Nick’s band members (who are both gay), who volunteer to bring Caroline safely home while Nick and Norah hunt for Fluffy.  While tons of comedic mileage is provided by Caroline’s drunkenness, her alcohol consumption is eventually shown as pretty icky and disgusting.

 Nick and Norah have an instant connection, one that is undeniable.  This is a movie couple you really root for.  I wanted to see them end up together, and the movie really would have left a sour taste in my mouth if that hadn’t happened.  In this way, it’s very good that the movie was predictable.  But their relationship is not without complications, both internal and external.  Both of them are too easily offended, but also very willing to forgive.  Then there are their ex-es.  Tris is one, and Norah’s semi-ex is Tal (Jay Baruchel), who does a pretty good Matthew McConaughey impression.  He’s older, Jewish, conniving, and so creepy he makes Travis Bickle glance nervously at his shoes.  Norah and Tal have a “friends with bennys” thing going on, and Norah just goes to him when she needs to feel special, ignoring the fact that he’s just using her for her rich father’s connections and the fact that she can make restaurant bills evaporate.  The time comes when Nick and Norah must makes choices between their ex-es and each other.  You can guess how it goes.

 There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, some great music, and beautiful New York imagery, but the real thing that makes this movie worthwhile is the Cera and Dennings pairing.  These two simply sparkle.  They’re great in their own rights, but they really shine together.  Nick and Norah, as well as Cera and Dennings as actors, have more chemistry between them than all the Brads and Angies this world can muster.

 Credit also has to be given to director Peter Sollett, who is only on his second film.  Credits that ride on the coat-tails of Juno aside, he has a good if predictable grasp of the teenager road flick genre.  The movie takes place in New York City, and Sollett lovingly peppers the movie with shots of famous NYC landmarks in such a way that you know he’s proud of where he comes from.  He also shows a sweet sensitivity and emphasis on the beautiful and touching, showing them in the most subtle way.

 While Nick and Norah doesn’t cover any ground that movies like American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused, and Sixteen Candles didn’t, it updates the motif for a new generation, and tries to capture a modern moment the same way those films did.  It deals too much in stereotypes and is completely predictable, but the sterling performances by Michael Cera and Kat Dennings more than redeem it.  You’ve seen it already, but this is the sort of movie that bears repeating.

 Iconic Lines:

“Why would you buy these pants?”

“I love you so much it’s retarded!”

“I found Jesus!!!  He’s much taller in person…”

22 Rating: 10

Particle Man

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Sex and The City

Sex and the City was a big hit when I was too young to understand the show, however after catching reruns after I got older I realized that it was a show I really liked. Naturally, I was excited that a good show was being made into a full length feature, as opposed to some of the crap we're handed these days. I had heard great things about the movie from people who had seen it before I did, which is basically anyone who saw it in theaters since I didn't catch it until it was on DVD, but now I sit here and wonder what happened.

The movie picks up five years from the series finale in which everyone gets their happy ending. Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is finally with Mr. Big (Chris Noth), Charlotte (Kristin Davis) has gotten word that her and her husband Harry's adoption application for China was accepted and that they'll soon be the parents of a baby girl, Samantha (Kim Cattrall) who is the one of the group who hates monogamy has fallen in love and moved to L.A. with an actor, and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is living the married life with her husband and their son Brady. So when we get to the five years later part everything seems to be in place. Of course true to Sex and The City style, something has to go wrong and the conflict is mainly presented in the pending marriage of Carrie and Mr. Big.

As I said before I was excited when I heard this movie was coming out, but I have to say that this story was better off in half hour episodes than a feature length film. It is drawn out too long and becomes very stagnant. There are some humorous scenes but you know what is going to happen in the end so it feels like there is this pointless journey. The acting was alright and some of the clothes were nice to look at (which is part of what Sex and the City is all about). Jennifer Hudson has a supporting role as Carrie's assistant and adds a whiff of freshness as the newbie on the cast. I just think that this movie was good on paper and not so good in practice (kinda like Communism). If they wanna reunite the cast they should do it in the original form. Sadly, I have to give this movie a -10.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Religulous

The main idea of Religulous seems to be pretty well encapsulated in its title's portmanteau : Religion is ridiculous. But a film that seems like it might just be a lighthearted—if slightly mean—romp through a cascade of religious idiosyncrasies takes a left turn down a dark path in its final five minutes.

In a lot of ways, this isn’t so much a documentary about religion as it is about Bill Maher, or, rather, about Bill Maher’s views of religion. And, to Maher’s credit, he does not zero in exclusively on one religion. The film has him talking to (to name just a few) Christian truckers, Jewish scientists, a Muslim singer, and ex-Mormons. He takes shots at Scientology, at Ken Ham’s Creation Museum, and at the religion of Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda—a man with followers in about 35 countries who calls himself both the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and the Antichrist.

Of course, this scattershot approach means Maher really can’t go any more than ankle deep in any of these discussions. But that’s really his point: You don’t need to go beyond ankle deep. To Maher, religion is just that shallow.

This helps explain why he doesn’t spend more than a minute or so with genome researcher (and Christian) Francis Collins: It’s not as easy to make him look ridiculous (though Maher and director Larry Charles—who also directed Borat—do their best). Father George Coyne, former director of the Vatican Observatory and another proponent of the compatibility of science and religion, comes off significantly better; Maher’s purpose with Coyne is simply to undercut the creationist Ken Ham.

In the end, two things really bothered me about Religulous. The first was pretty predictable: The interviews were somewhat akin to bullying—just intellectual rather than physical. While Maher was certainly able to mine some comedic moments, my response as an audience member was caught in that uncomfortable place between wanting to laugh and wanting to shout “Hey! Pick on someone your own size!”

The other troublesome aspect was the film’s jarring—and somewhat unexpected—final moment. Bill Maher delivers a rousing monologue—intercut with images of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks—that essentially boils down to this: Religion has been used to violent ends in the past, and it will be again, only now we have nuclear weapons. He calls upon his allies—atheists, agnostics, even the religiously uncommitted—to come out of hiding, to break the polite code that we don’t talk about religion, and to challenge religious people’s beliefs.

Certainly, certainly, certainly, Maher means well. His intentions, by all means, seem completely pacifistic and idealistic. The problem is this: We’ve seen calls to convert the unconverted in this way before, and—even when they’re delivered by the most well-intentioned, non-violent messengers imaginable—they frequently do devolve into hatred, resentment, and violence against those not in the group with the “truth.” He’s not really speaking to religious believers in this film (as the R rating will ensure); he’s rallying his base.

In the end, one of the most prescient lines in the film comes from the unlikely source of Tal Bachman (the musician famous for his 1999 hit “She’s So High,” but interviewed by Maher because of his credentials as an ex-Mormon). Bachman, answering a question from Maher about why more people don’t leave Mormonism, explains that once you call into question the teachings of founder Joseph Smith, you’ve severed a bond with your family and friends.

Unfortunately, the moment passes with no follow-up comment. Which makes sense: There’s no reason for Maher to explore the idea of religion as a social adhesive. His goal in this film was to splash around in the puddles of religion, not to plunge into the ocean.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

If you were in charge of marketing the film, you'd have no hesitation before deciding to advertise Forgetting Sarah Marshall as the latest from producer Judd Apatow. Which is why it's a bit ironic that this film would be better if we were somehow able to completely forget that Apatow's earlier films existed.

Sure, Forgetting Sarah Marshall was written by first-timer Jason Segel, but this film (along with Superbad, the recent Pineapple Express, and the upcoming Zack and Miri Make a Porno) is unmistakably part of the Apatow franchise. It centers around a positively Apatowian slacker-star; it features numerous references to cannabis; and, while it does cash in quite a bit on gross-out humor, it does so without checking its brain at the door.

Writer Jason Segel, recognizable as one of Seth Rogen's stoner friends in Knocked Up, also serves as the star of this film, a musican named Peter Bretter. The movie begins with Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), the star of a prime-time crime procedural drama called "CrimeScene: Scene of the Crime," breaking up with Peter, who does the music for the same show. Peter's pain is magnified by the fact that Marshall is now dating Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), a vaguely Liam Gallagher-esque British rocker. The pain is further compounded when Peter takes a Hawaiian vacation to ease his pain, and ends up at the same hotel that Sarah and Alduous are staying at.

The movie cashes in on the pathos of Peter's impossibly bad trip for awhile, until he starts falling for the hotel's hospitality director, Rachel (Mila Kunis). Then there's the excitement of new love, the confused and complicated mixture of feelings for lovers old and new, the inevitable misunderstanding, and, finally, the satisfying resolution.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is helped quite a bit by the loving attention it devotes to its smaller roles, most notably the suddenly ubiquitous Jack McBrayer as a sexually confused honeymooner. It's also helped by the fact that it avoids making any character entirely into a villain. Sure, Sarah Marshall cheated on her boyfriend, but it's not like he was being an ideal boyfriend at the time. Sure, Aldous--as the new boyfriend--is kind of a tool. But he's also--as Peter admits--kind of cool.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is hurt by the fact that it seems about 30 minutes longer than it needs to be. And by the fact that it's kind of, well, forgettable. But why is it forgettable? Well, that'll require us to glance back at the recent history of comedy.

When you do look back, there's actually a pretty predictable pattern with comedy franchises. There's the Discovery, the Crowning Achievement, and then the Gradual Decline. For example:

The Farrelly brothers announced themselves to the watching world with Dumb & Dumber, established themselves as a lucrative comedic force with There's Something About Mary, and then released a few more movies that ranged from decent to abysmal, none of which could come close to matching the success of Mary.

While Will Ferrell made his reputation on Saturday Night Live, he got "discovered" by the greater public by being the funniest thing in Zoolander. He was then given a vehicle that was distinctively his in Anchorman, and has yet to match the success of that vehicle.

Even a more highbrow comedic director like Wes Anderson fits this model: He announced himself with Rushmore, had his financial crowning achievement with The Royal Tenenbaums, and hasn't had any movie do as well since.

So it shouldn't come as any surprise that the Judd Apatow franchise is falling into the same pattern. He was "discovered" after 40-Year-Old Virgin, crowned after Knocked Up, and is now enjoying a very slow decline.

So what really hurts Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the same things that hurt all the other comedic franchises listed above. What makes any comedy sparkle is the element of freshness, of surprise -- the ability of a comedic mastermind to make you see something in a way that you've never seen it before. But the Faustian trade-off of the Crowning Achievement is that once you've been crowned, you're known. And your perspective--which was once fresh, unique, surprising--is now, well, mainstream.

That's not necessarily a death knell; comedic franchises can go on to have long and successful Gradual Declines (as Adam Sandler has proved). But it's nearly impossible to recreate the success and excitement that comes with the Crowning Achievement.

So for better or for worse, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is sort of what you'd expect. It offers that same Apatow sensibility that you already know, which is both its benefit and its curse. In the end, it's not an embarrassment, but neither is it a triumph. In short, it's about a 5.

Iconic lines:
"When life gives you lemons, just say 'F*ck the lemons,' and bail."
"You have Christ between your thighs... only with a shorter beard."
Aldous, in a music video, holds up a sign that reads "Sodomize Intolerance."