Sunday, August 31, 2008

Hamlet 2 (2008)

I have to say that I'm eating crow with Hamlet 2. What I'd feared was going to be a bargain-basement, smug parody on the level of crap like Disaster Movie was actually a thoughtful, yet completely delusional satire about creative bankruptcy yielding unexpected fruit. In simpler terms, Hamlet 2 is a frequently hilarious little movie about a guy who's just trying to do the best with his limited talents.

When failed actor turned drama teacher Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) finds out that the Tuscon, Arizona school board is cutting the funding for his department, he plans to go out with a bang by writing an original play for his class of mostly Hispanic misfits. That play turns out to be "Hamlet 2", a play more about Marschz exorcizing his rejection and daddy issues than it is an honest stab at sequelizing Shakespeare. As obstacles begin to mount, Marschz inspires his class to soldier onward in the face of the school board, discerning parents, and the limits of good taste. Soon, the play becomes a media circus, and Marschz's ACLU rep (Amy Poehler) is convinced that she's got a First Amendment case on her hands.

While you're more likely to see and hear more about the content of the play itself in ads and trailers, the best parts of the film concern Marschz as his life crashes down around him on his journey to get the play to stage. His wife (Catherine Keener) is convinced that he's losing his mind, while his star student, Rand (Skyler Astin) rats him and his play out to the school principal. There are some smart, well-played jabs at the acting world, as we meet Marschz's idol, actress-turned-nurse Elisabeth Shue (yes, played by Elisabeth Shue). She plays herself as being wiser for her time in Hollywood, but clearly a little bitter.

Writer/director Andrew Fleming and co-writer Pam Brady take equally interesting jabs at the PC-police, those people who protest any and everything offensive. During the film's big number, "Rock Me Sexy Jesus", a group of Christian teens bow at the front of the stage and begin praying and barking shouts of protest. One of them begins listening to the lyrics, gets exactly what they're talking about, and suddenly becomes a fan. Marschz isn't trying to offend by incorporating Jesus into his play. He just thinks everyone deserves a second chance, and is willing to don the robe and long hair himself to prove it. It's moments like this that make Hamlet 2 work as well as it does. Not all art has to strive to be high art. So long as it entertains and gets its point across, who cares how deep it is?

In a nutshell, that's how I feel about the movie as a whole. It's certainly not the end-all of comedies that the ads and film festival buzz might lead you to believe, but it is a lot of fun in its own way. Hamlet 2 is a more conventional comedy than it's indie roots may lead you to believe, but with some smart humor and a delirious performance from Brit-TV mainstay Steve Coogan, it does it's job and largely succeeds. One word of warning: you may pee yourself laughing at the song titled "Raped in the Face".

3.5 stars (***1/2) out of five.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Death Race (2008)

For everyone who thought Speed Racer was too childish and silly, or who thought The Shawshank Redemption could've used some explosions, well, Death Race is probably the movie they've been desperately waiting for. The remake of Paul Bartel's 1975 Death Race 2000 proves that writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson (Mortal Kombat, Alien vs Predator) is the king of Z-grade action flicks, and that Jason Statham is Hollywood's last true action hero. Whereas the original was an ironic, silly kind of satire wrapped around fancy driving and gruesome deaths, this remake ups the adrenaline and the pyrotechnics, but does little to amplify the satire.

It's the year 2012 and America's economy is in the toilet. The opening title cards explain that the world's latest spectator sport, Death Race pits life-sentence prisoners against each other in a gruesome race for a shot at freedom. Win five races and you're free to go. The reigning champ, a driver dubbed Frankenstein (briefly voiced by David Carradine, who played the character in the 1975 version) is one race away from freedom, but dies before he can win his fifth race. Enter the wrongfully convicted Jensen Ames (Statham), whose past as a stock car driver wins him the chance to become Frankenstein and win his own freedom.

There's more plot concerning the prison warden (Joan Allen) and her "do anything for ratings" attitude, which tries to bring in some kind of satire, but really just comes and goes without a second thought. Then there are the other racers, including Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson in the Sylvester Stallone role), who's won three races and is out to squash Frankenstein like a bug. Also, we're introduced to Statham's pit crew, led by Ian McShane as a character aptly named "Coach". This introduction scene lasts all of 30 seconds. Anderson doesn't have time to waste on things like character development.

Of course, the story and plot turns aren't what people are coming to see. They're here to see three things: lethal races, hot women, and lots of explosions. And Paul Anderson indulges us in every single one of those things. From the powerups that feel ripped right from Twisted Metal or Mario Kart (seriously) to some truly gruesome kills. Everything action fans want is here. However, that also includes frenetic editing and shaky camera setups. Thankfully, the action is easy to follow. It also helps that the majority of the stunts are practical; CGI is used, but only sparingly.

My personal beef with Death Race is that as often as it tries to convince us of its grim, dark, halfway-futuristic dystopia, and for all of it's gratuitous violence, the movie ultimately plays things too safe. They remove the "Running over pedestrians for points" notion by setting the race on an offshore prison, keeping the public safe from all the gunfire and explosions of the race. What made the original Death Race interesting and fun to watch was that you never know who might get run over next. Sure, the satire wasn't sharp or even very timely (it is now, though), but at least there was a sense of danger. At any moment, a car could careen around a corner and take out an innocent bystander. All the violence in Anderson's film never comes as any kind of shock. These are killers racing and killing each other because that's all they can do. And in that, the film becomes predictable. Thankfully, it's fun enough just to watch the carnage play out.

This marks the third movie in which Jason Statham drives a car in order to save the day (soon to be four; Transporter 3 drops later this year). He's still playing the stoic badass, but that's what we've come to expect. The movie's main fault is that the plot holes, continuity errors, and illogical bits are a dime a dozen. Also, we get to see Joan Allen deliver possibly the worst line of dialogue this year. It's almost a game unto itself to spot them all. The story plays out like you'd expect, but if you're willing to let the adrenaline rush sweep you up, Death Race is a ridiculous and entertaining spin around the track.

3.5 stars (***1/2) out of five.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Star Wars: The Clone Wars is different things to different people. For the uninitiated, it might be a fun gateway to the larger Star Wars universe that's been unraveling for the past thirty one years. For fans of the prequel trilogy, it's a tantalizing look at what went on between episodes two and three. For the diehard fans who have loved Star Wars from the beginning, The Clone Wars can best be described as the master's thesis on everything wrong with the prequel trilogy.

This is a difficult review to write for a number of reasons. For starters, I did enjoy large portions of the prequel trilogy, but I can also recognize that it left a whole lot to be desired. I can't outright dismiss this film as being another notch in a trilogy best left on the written page, but I can say that there are many things wrong here that absolutely have to be addressed. Put simply, The Clone Wars is a mess of a film that does nothing to mend the damage caused by Attack of the Clones.

The Clone War is in full swing, as we're told by a zippy intro narration that replaces the series' staple title crawl in favor of quick action and brief recap (for the kids who were still in diapers back when Episodes I and II came out). The Separatist Army's latest scheme, cooked up by Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, one of the few returning cast members), involves kidnapping Jabba the Hutt's son, Rotta, and blaming it on the Jedi, thus causing Jabba to deny the Republic the use of his airspace.

Enter Anakin Skywalker (Matt Lanter) and his new padawan, Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), who are tasked with rescuing the baby Hutt. Here is where the story spends most of its time. The relationship that builds between Anakin and Ahsoka never turns romantic, but the teacher/student dynamic works surprisingly well here, and would have been far more compelling had it been a part of the live action trilogy.

In fact, that's probably my biggest complaint with The Clone Wars: Everything feels like one giant missed opportunity after another. The story in this film is fine, and would have been a much better fit for the second film in the trilogy than the story that wound up becoming Attack of the Clones. I would have loved to have seen this pulled off by George Lucas himself with his principal cast and special effects team at the controls. After all, this is the war that fans have been dying to see onscreen ever since Sir Alec Guinness name-dropped it back thirty one years ago. So why has it been relegated to the end of the second film, the beginning of the third film, and a questionably canonical pair of cartoons set during the interim? Not the best decision-making there, George.

Many people are griping over all the kid-level humor in this film. You know what, at this point, I've had to sit through Jar Jar Binks in three films, not to mention C-3PO's newfound obsession with puns. I've all but given up on Star Wars for cutting edge humor. If George Lucas wants us to believe that Star Wars is strictly for children, he's done an excellent job just in his sense of humor. Of course, Lucas didn't write a word of this film, but handed it off to a team of writers and directors. None of that matters, because this whole thing still feels like George Lucas. It sounds like George Lucas, it moves like George Lucas, it IS George Lucas. Many, if not all, of the jokes in The Clone Wars are tacky, bordering on cringe-inducing. It's like they took the worst jokes from Return of the Jedi and cranked them to eleven.

Then there's the animation to talk about. Lucasfilm claims they wanted to make this film look like Star Wars but with a smaller budget. They succeeded, and with all the problems that that implies. The character animation frequently looks jerky, the backgrounds and matte paintings look like quickly thrown-together temp pieces for much more intricate backdrops. Just about the only things the animators got right here were the character and ship designs. At least they look like who they're supposed to look like.

The same cannot be said for the voice cast. Of the prequel trilogy cast, three actors returned to lend their voices: Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee, and Anthony Daniels, who is now officially the only cast member to appear in all seven Star Wars films. Daniels and Lee sound fine, but they're not really given much to chew on. Jackson, though, sounds like he doesn't even want to be here. Mace Windu definitely sounds like Sam Jackson, but he sounds not a thing like Mace Windu. Matt Lanter does a passable impression of Hayden Christensen, which isn't much of a compliment. He sounds about as lost as Christensen did.

The only breath of fresh air here, oddly enough, is Ashley Eckstein as Ahsoka Tano. While the things she's given to say are eye-rollingly awful, she at least gets the character, and I'm willing to bet many a young female viewer will connect with Ahsoka. My other big problem with her character is more fundamental. The fact that she exists now at all is sort of a boneheaded play on Lucas' part.

Had this been released between 2002 and 2005, or had it been Episode II from the beginning, there would at least have been some dramatic tension in where things would play out from here. But now that we've seen the way the saga ends in Episode III, it's clear that at some point down the road, Ahsoka Tano will meet with some grim fate, as will all the other characters that appear here but not Episode III. This fact has to be clear to everyone at this point. That's just the way narrative works. If The Clone Wars had featured all new characters dealing with the war far from the prying eyes of Anakin Skywalker, et al, there might have been some good material to wring out of the prequel trilogy after all. As it is, however, we know what's going to happen already, so why bother?

In the end, The Clone Wars represents a big, fat "Who cares?" on the already tarnished record off the prequel trilogy. It's a blatant money grab that only offers thrills to those who know either little to nothing of Star Wars canon, or who are too young to care. Too many answers are raised to questions which nobody asked, too many jokes miss their mark to all but the most easily amused, and too many hard earned dollars were paid to a franchise that's clearly now just spinning its wheels.

I would love to see more Star Wars somewhere down the line. But not like this. Without John Williams and the title crawl, this doesn't even feel like Star Wars. It feels like Wacky Adventures in a Galaxy Far, Far Away. That's not Star Wars. Not by a long shot.

One and a half (*1/2) stars out of five.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Ledger-Joker Conundrum

I want to begin by restating the fact that I think Heath Ledger pulled off a colossal performance as The Joker in last month's The Dark Knight. It's a terrible thing that he's gone now and will never make another screen appearance as the green-haired villian, let alone as anyone else (except, of course, for Dr. Parnassus).

Having said that, I want to raise a question to you. Provided that they incorporate The Joker in the next Batman flick as a minor character rather than the chief villain, would it really be such a bad thing for them to simply recast the role?

I've done some ruminating on the subject and, in my estimation, the only way recasting The Joker would hurt the next film would be to make him the central villain again. This would still be a bad idea even if Heath Ledger were still alive, because no sane filmmaker would have Batman fight the same villain twice in two consecutive films. That's just franchise suicide, and Christopher Nolan knows this.

The only real way to bring The Joker back for the next film would be to have him pop up once or twice much in the same way that Scarecrow reappears in The Dark Knight. Of course, to some this may cheapen the character, since he is of course Batman's chief nemesis. But then, in the comics the two are always briefly running into each other and having a scuffle or two if they're not already in direct opposition. Consider the Joker's role in The Long Halloween for a good example of that (see below)

Then the issue becomes who to cast, and there are two directions they could go. First let's consider the fact that they may want to take The Joker into a slightly different direction. This is understandable, since they probably don't want to just get someone to ape Heath Ledger. Then the question becomes what direction do you take and which actor do you choose? Even before Ledger took the role, people had been clamoring for Crispin Glover or Mark Hamill, who voiced the character in Batman: The Animated Series.

Glover would be an interesting choice, but wouldn't his Joker just be a slightly more deranged version of his character in Willard? He could certainly pull it off, but it might seem like treading on old ground for him. Then there's Mark Hamill. He's got the voice for it, but the guy's just too old. I also sincerely doubt that Crispin Glover is the kind of actor who wants someone, even if it is Mark Hamill, dubbing over his lines.

(A Photoshopped image of Crispin Glover as The Joker. Hmm...)

The other direction to take is to simply get a replacement. Find someone who can approximate the Ledger-Joker performance. Once the film dropped, I'm sure thousands of people the world over started working on their Joker impressions, and many of them probably live in Hollywood. Surely one of those people has perfected it. I can't imagine this is very hard to do. Hell, I can pull a passable Ledger-Joker voice. All you really need to do is speak with a drawl in a slightly nasal cadence. If you really study Ledger's performance, that's all the voice really is. His mannerisms, gait, body language and facial expressions are what take more time perfecting. And with a character who would really only be popping in and out of a few scenes anyway, how precise does this truly need to be?

The way I see it, The Joker would probably make an appearance behind bars at Arkham Asylum, bantering with Commissioner Gordon or whoever on how to stop Gotham's latest menace. He'd basically play the Hannibal Lectar role, or if you want to keep drawing parallels to the comics, he'd be filling in for Julian Day from The Long Halloween (see below).

My whole point, whether I actually ended up at one or not, is that even though Heath Ledger gave a monster performance, his death should not prevent Christopther Nolan from bringing back Batman's biggest enemy, especially since the character's fate is never clearly stated. Yes, it would be a shame if they recast the role and that actor ruined the character, but there's really nowhere for them to go from here but down anyway. Leaving The Joker out of the next film entirely, however, would count as an automatic failure.

I certainly respect the actor and his work, but I also respect the character, and just want to see him get a fair shake on the big screen.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tropic Thunder

After a summer of comedies that were awful at worst and passable at best, I was surprised to find myself actually looking forward to a Ben Stiller movie. Don't get me wrong, the guy's got talent, but one doesn't typically turn to Stiller to get them out of a comedic funk (or, at least, I don't). However, what a lot of people forget is that Ben Stiller is also a gifted director, who's done a good job of directing romantic comedies (Reality Bites), black humor (The Cable Guy), and simple goofball stories (Zoolander). So it's no surprise that Tropic Thunder is just as good as his past work, if not considerably better.

(Mild spoilers, maybe? Fair warning.)

The movie opens on the set of Tropic Thunder, a war movie based on a novel by war hero Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte). The two stars, Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) are having trouble making the scene work and rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) accidentally sets off a $4 million explosion between takes. Needless to say, things aren't going well. So in order to salvage the movie, Tayback convinces Cockburn to take his actors into the Vietnam jungle and shoot the movie guerilla-style. Interestingly, this is close to how George Lucas originally intended to shoot Apocalypse Now.

Almost as soon as the actors are dropped into the jungle, things start going wrong and people start getting captured. Revealing any more plot would ruin some of the fun, but rest assured that the actors, including comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), rap star Alpa Chin0 (Brandon Jackson) and rookie actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) eventually take it upon themselves to save the day.

Were this the only thing going on in Tropic Thunder, it might have still been a decent comedy, but when coupled with a subplot involving Speedman's agent (Matthew McConaughey) and movie producer Len Grossman (Tom Cruise), the movie becomes a sharp satire on the frivolity of the movie industry. Cruise's character sells this hook, line, and sinker as he barks orders, screams into phones, and walks around completely convinced of his own ego. He gets his share of laughs, but never crosses over into 'hilarious' territory.

You could easily compare this movie to Galaxy Quest. The setups are all similar and the metajokes are in just about the right place, though Tropic Thunder goes a bit further in skewering it's targets. A lot of the film's success rides on the backs of it's peanut gallery: McConaughey, Cruise, and Danny McBride, who plays the film crew's explosives expert. Last week I said I was getting tired of McBride doing the same old thing, but here he really gets the chance to cut loose and be as ridiculous as he wants.

Just like Pineapple Express last week, the action sequences of Tropic Thunder are equally as impressive as the comedy. A lot of this stems from the fact that Ben Stiller is, in fact, a competent director. None of the effects are staged poorly, and are silly only when in service of the comedy. It's enough to make one wonder what Stiller could do with a serious action film.

A lot has been said lately about the movie's discussion of the mentally retarded. From my point of view, it's much ado about nothing. Yes, at one point Tugg Speedman plays a character who is handicapped, and he and Lazarus discuss the politics behind this (Lazarus reasons that Dustin Hoffman and Tom Hanks won Oscars based on the fact that their characters were merely handicapped and not, as he puts it 'full retard'.) I'm guessing this is what the uproar is all about.

But why? Because two characters in a movie discuss the portrayal of the mentally handicapped in other movies? Sure, they talk about it nonchalantly, and not as clinically as some (including myself right now) might, but that's because those are the characters. When we see the scene from the film they're discussing, "Simple Jack", we're not laughing at Jack because he's 'simple', we're laughing at Tugg Speedman because he's clearly trying way too hard to parody Lennie Small.

From the politics of whites and blacks in the movie business to those of actors portraying mentally handicapped characters, Tropic Thunder is just as much a satire of the Hollywood system as it is of the war movies it winkingly rips off along the way. None in the cast ever really drops the ball, and the comedy clicks from start to finish. It's no The Player, or The Bad and the Beautiful, but Tropic Thunder is up there with Galaxy Quest and Bowfinger, and it's the comedy to beat in 2008.

4 (****) stars out of 5.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Beijing Olympics: Opening Ceremonies

So did anyone else catch the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics? According to USAToday, one billion people watched the ceremonies, either on TV or actually in attendance. That's roughly fifteen percent of the world's population. That's insane! I don't have any sources to back this up, but I'm willing to bet that it was one of the most watched broadcasts in TV history.

Some people here in the States took issue with the fact that the broadcast was delayed for Prime Time, but I didn't mind. It might have been fun to get up early in the morning just to watch, but it was just easier to wait til 8PM the next day. I doubt anything was stopping NBC from running it live, then rebroadcasting it later in the evening; they just didn't. But what an amazing broadcast it was. Spectacular setpieces representing different eras of Chinese history, from the coordinated efforts of 2008 drummers playing ancient Chinese drums, to an even more impressive display of calligraphy through interpretive dance, culminating in a marvel of visual effects with massive LED screens. It was truly a sight to behold, and if I didn't know any better, I'd have sworn I was watching a Yimou Zhang film.

But wait. It turns out Yimou Zhang was on hand as the director of that night's ceremonies. As that New York Times article says, for an artist whose films have been largely critical of the Chinese system (and then rejected because of the fact), it's good to see the country at least recognize his talent.

Then of course, came the Parade of Nations, which is always a fun thing to watch, provided you have a few hours to kill. And if you listened carefully to Bob Costas' rambling commentary, you could hear snippets like, "And now here comes the Central African Republic, which, as you may know, is a Republic in Central Africa." But just before the world collectively said "Bob Costas, you're an idiot," he added, "That was a joke I'd made 1992 Olympics, and some people thought I was serious." Still though, Bob. If it wasn't funny then, it probably won't be fully 16 years later.

Finally, there was the torch lighting. I've seen replays and clipshows all over the internet and TV of past torch lightings, and this one seemed pretty standard in comparison to the show that had just come before it. But at any rate, it was great to watch as the torch came to the final runner, who took off on wires and 'ran' all the way around the top of the stadium to light the torch at the end. Breathtaking maybe isn't the right word. But it sure was something.

For better or for worse, these opening ceremonies were absolute entertainment, and I loved every second of it. Now, let's hope the events and closing ceremonies are just as enjoyable.

Oh, also: If you ask me, the Beijing National Stadium (aka the Bird's Nest) looks an awful lot like a giant bedpan wrapped in rubber bands.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Pineapple Express

The typical conundrum with the stoner-comedy genre is that the movies are almost always pro-drug ramblings with nothing more to say than 'drugs are awesome'. And there's nothing wrong with that if the movies prove to be funny regardless of your sobriety. But for too long, it's become clear that movies like this have nothing more to say. To a certain degree, Pineapple Express remedies this by at least trying a different approach. This is a stoner-comedy that plays fast and loose with the gangster genre in such a way that whenever the jokes don't work, the violence does.

Dale Denton (Seth Rogan) is a process server, driving around all day in various disguises handing out subpoenas left and right. One night, while arriving at his next assignment, he witnesses a murder, and suitably has a freakout in his car. He gives himself away immediately, and flees the scene in a flash. Thanks to the marijuana roach he left at the scene, the murderers link him right back to his drug dealer, a lovably aloof pothead named Saul Silver (James Franco). Together, Dale and Saul run for their lives with the mob hot on their heels.

Where the movie succeeds is in mining the behavior and thought processes of those under the influence (or at least, as far as I know). There are scenes in which we get to watch Dale and Saul try to figure out their next move, and the conversation is little more than incoherent musings on the way the world is maybe supposed to work. More often than not, these scenes are hilarious. It's only when Saul's connection, Red (Danny McBride) shows up that these scenes become, well, not quite as funny. I've seen McBride in three movies this year, and each time he's applied the same "I think I'm smarter and better than you when I'm clearly a huge fuckup" schtick. He does that here as well, and needless to say, it's getting a little tired. I think he's a funny guy, but it would do him a world of good to try out a new character.

What's impressive is that the action and violence in the film is executed just as well as the comedy. The action is cartoonish, yet remarkably well staged. Dozens of blood squibs go off, guns fire constantly, things explode, and cars speed off in all directions, but director David Gordon Green does a good job of keeping things coherent. This isn't the point of the movie, but just like Hot Fuzz last year, it helps if you stay true to the genre you're poking fun at.

In the end, Pineapple Express is a fun ride with two characters that, for better or for worse, we end up loving. I guess the movie's ultimate joke is that it's message is to stop being an idiot and just be a man, yet Dale decides to be a man by picking up a gun and taking out the bad guys. I love a movie that understands how simple it really is, and embraces it as fully as Pineapple Express. The movie doesn't try to be anything more than it is: a comedy about two guys who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Go to see Rogen and Franco, stay for Huey Lewis & the News' theme song. It encapsulates the movie better than any review. It's light, it's fun, and it invites you back for more.

3.5 (***1/2) stars out of 5.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Still Alive

Hi, folks. Just wanted to drop in and let you all know that I am still here, that I am still alive and kicking, and that new posts are indeed on the way.

I spent all of last week at the Las Vegas Furniture Market. Not a whole lot to report there except for the free Rod Stewart concert that the market threw the first night. It was a good show; Stewart played most of his big hits (and a few hits that weren't his) for a solid hour and a half. For a performer in his 60s, Rod Stewart's definitely still got it, not that I can claim to be an authority on the matter. The above photo is me at the top of the World Market Center looking snazzy and kinda like a jerk.

Aside from that, my laptop computer decided to die out on me back in July, and I've been living off other people's computers ever since. That is, until today, when my new laptop arrived at the doorstep. It's pretty fancy stuff.

Finally, I'll be moving to Raleigh this coming weekend to begin my stint in graduate school. This really shouldn't keep me from posting here, and I still fully intend on reviewing a whole bunch of movies this month (and beyond). I'm even working on a couple of other posts that I think are particularly fascinating. When it's ready, I'll post it to see what you all think.

Until then, be on the look out for two reviews this week. "Pineapple Express" and "The Midnight Meat Train". Peace out, gang!