Friday, October 31, 2008

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Our little Kevin Smith is all grown up, sort of. With Zack and Miri Make a Porno, he's finally made a movie that looks like a real movie. He has been criticized his entire career (most loudly by Smith himself) that his movies looked bad, and he mainly succeeded due to his writing abilities. I wondered at first if Smith had gotten a new Director of Photography to make the movie look so different, but I find that the DP is Dave Klein, the same one who shot Smith's Clerks (1 and 2), Mallrats, and Chasing Amy. Regardless, the movie looks good, and it most definitely still sounds like a Kevin Smith movie. It is profane as it can be, raunchier sexually than any of his movies have ever been, and full of pop culture references. It's also hilarious, quick witted, and more successfully heartfelt than any of Smith's previous movies.

Smith moves away from his beloved New Jersey to Pittsburgh, and gives us the story of Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks), best friends and strictly platonic roommates who've known each other since the 1st grade. Around the time they're attending their 10 year high school reunion, their water, heat, and electricity are turned off. Probably because they're a few months behind in paying their bills. They're a few months behind because Zack is a barista at a small coffee shop, and Miri (short for Miriam) works at a clothing store. They manage their small income poorly, buying sex toys and hockey equipment, instead of paying bills. While trying to come up with ways to make money, Miri jokingly says that it's times like those that lead people to hooking and/or making porn. Zack thinks it's a great idea ("Porn is mainstream now") and convinces Miri that it will save them from their financial troubles. Zack enlists his co-worker Delany (The Office's Craig Robinson) as producer, and through auditioning, some of which just involves asking strippers what they will and won't do, come across Stacey (real life porn star Katie Morgan), Bubbles (former porn star Traci Lords), and Lester (Smith regular Jason Mewes). Zack also recruits old high school friend Deacon (Jeff Anderson, previously one of Smith's Clerks) to shoot the movie. Essentially, hijinks ensue from there as the crew try to make their movie, and Zack and Miri contemplate the repercussions of having sex with each other for the first time.

It's not a perfect movie, it does drag in the second half, but at just over 100 minutes it's not like it's wearing out its welcome. The actors are all surprisingly good, especially considering that I'm told it's the first Smith movie where the actors had no rehearsal time prior to the start of production. This is Smith's best set of performances yet, especially by his two leads. Rogen is a known commodity by now, after Knocked Up, Superbad, and Pineapple Express, and he basically just plays his typical character here. Banks is less well known to most people (except us Scrubs fans). Both are good in their roles, with Banks in particular giving a lot of emotional weight to Miri. Zack and Miri each have internal struggles dealing with their feelings about their life-long relationship and how having sex (even if it is just "acting in a movie") changes that. Both actors portray believably intelligent, and emotionally inarticulate at the same time. Craig Robinson is hysterical throughout the movie (although the scene with his wife was unnecessary), and Jason Mewes shows that he can play more than just Jay to Smith's Silent Bob (but to be fair, he's not playing that different of a character). Some of the funniest supporting performances come from a gay couple Zack and Miri run into at their reunion, played by Justin Long (the Mac guy from the "Mac & PC" commercials) and our latest Superman, Brandon Routh. Although they're only in one scene, it's a great one as Routh's character tries to fend off Miri's advances (he was her high school crush) and Zack is fascinated to find out that Long's character is a gay porn star, giving Zack the intial do-it-yourself attitude towards porn.

Ok, about the title, I find it hysterical that Kevin Smith has run into issues with advertising this movie simply because of the word "porno". Many ads have just started calling it "Zack and Miri". To be fair, it isn't just the title, the poster pictured below was banned in the US due to its suggestiveness, but come on people, lighten up. There are worse things in the world than sex (actually come to think of it, pretty much everything in the world is worse than sex). Smith also had problems with the MPAA over the rating of the movie. It was initially given the dreaded NC-17 rating, but was lowered upon appeal. Apparently the MPAA didn't have a problem with the language so much as it was with the nudity (full frontal male and female), and the sex scenes (one of which has no nudity, the others being deliberately over the top). Thankfully Smith won his battle without having to cut anything that he didn't want to, and has delivered what is most likely his best movie yet. With his growth in the visual department, I'm now actually kind of looking forward to what he'll try to do with the sci-fi and horror movies he's long talked about doing.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

When a classic, shouldn't be-The Thief of Bagdad

The Thief of Bagdad had an incredibly difficult road to the big screen, it went through a reported 6 directors (only 3 of which are credited), a shift in shooting location from England to Hollywood, much more behind the scenes fighting, and production being interrupted by World War 2 (which is what prompted the move to Hollywood). But when it was released it was a big hit, even winning 3 Oscars. It was an early special effects picture, and was of the always popular fantasy genre, but I believe that in the resulting 68 years, it has not dated very well.

The movie's plot is taken somewhat from "Arabian Nights", and it concerns King Ahmad (John Justin) finding love with a Princess (June Duprez), but being usurped in power by his advisor Jaffar (legendary German actor Conrad Veidt), who is equally smitten with the princess and throws Ahmad in jail under false pretenses. Ahmad is being prepped for execution when he is tossed a cell-mate, Abu (played by famous Indian actor Sabu, in only his 3rd screen role) the titular thief. Abu breaks them out of jail and basically the movie is a series of episodes of them trying to get back into the kingdom and save the princess. The most famous episode is probably Abu's encounter with an ancient (and annoying) genie, which explains the picture I used above. But my favorite sequence is one in which Abu is chased by seemingly every merchant in town, after he steals 2 fish from one of them.

I heard about this movie through Roger Ebert, who recently wrote a nice piece about special effects in movies and how too many filmmakers take the ease of CGI for granted, and thus incorrectly use their effects. He pointed to Iron Man as a recent example of how to do it right, and offered up The Thief of Bagdad as an historic example of how to use special effects, because although they're obviously special effects, we still believe them inside the context of the movie. I agree with him in theory, but not in this specific example. The effects were certainly groundbreaking at the time, but have not dated well, and I believe distractingly so. Normally this isn't a problem for me, as many special effects from the 40's don't hold up now. But this was a big time "EFFECTS MOVIE" that really relied on its effects to affect its audience.

It definitely has some beautiful shots, a few nice sets, and some nice effects, like the matte paintings representing the skyline of Baghdad. But overall, I think that because it relied so much on its effects, it doesn't work today like it would've in 1940. Conrad Veidt and Sabu are both good, with Sabu in particular having an infectious presence on screen. June Duprez is beautiful, but too wooden in her performance to be much more than eye candy. Sadly, John Justin is just as wooden as our leading man Ahmad, making for a fairly uninteresting love story. I'm glad I saw The Thief of Bagdad, as I'm always up for anything considered a "classic", but I don't think this one deserves its status, and I'd take Disney's Aladdin (which took much from this movie, including Anglicizing the leads in an otherwise Arabian story) as an alternative take on this type of story.

Friday, October 17, 2008


I'll start off by saying that I believe George W. Bush to be the worst president that our great nation has ever seen or will ever see. I know many people feel similarly, among them film director Oliver Stone, so I was intrigued when it was announced that Stone's newest movie would be a biopic of Bush, rushed into production so that it could be out before the November elections, and Bush's final days in office. I also wasn't sure how I felt about hearing that Josh Brolin would be playing Bush. It seemed like just the type of role that could derail the rising career of a talented actor like Brolin, who had just come off of a scorching hot 2007 with his roles in No Country for Old Men, In the Valley of Elah, Planet Terror and American Gangster. I think many people, including myself, expected some sort of 129 minute diatribe against Bush and his administration. What Stone gave us instead is a movie that trys to put a human face on all the rehearsed soundbites and painful gaffes (both grammatical and strategic) that we've endured under this president. I think he succeeded admirably.

The movie doesn't follow chronological order, but basically shows us W from his days as a fraternity pledge at Yale, to around 2003 after the start of the Iraq War, but before Bush's second term. I think Stone didn't go further than that because he didn't want a 4 hour movie about Bush's entire life, but also didn't want to shortchange any of the things he wanted to show. What Stone shows us is that Bush always had the personal skills (impressing his frat brothers by quickly rattling off their names while being hazed), but he never had the political brains that some people had. People like Bush's father's political advisors Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) and Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright). He also didn't have his father's distinguished military record to get his foot in the door. All he had was his last name, a name that he at times resented, but eventually put to good use.

We follow W as he goes through his heavy drinking phase, which lasted for about 20 years in reality, but isn't overly harped on in the movie, just enough so that we get the point. W meets a smart young librarian named Laura, a few years later they're married, and a few years after that he is asked to help with his fathers presidential bid. Soon W becomes a sober born again Christian, and shrewdly helps his dad get elected. After Bush Sr.'s defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton in 1992, W decides to stand up against popular Democrat Ann Richards for the gubernatorial seat in Texas. Both of W's parents advise against it since his brother Jeb was running for Governor of Florida, and they wanted "one Bush at a time". Having felt slighted by his parents in favor of his younger brother his whole life, W runs anyway and wins, while Jeb loses. He eventually feels that God wants him to run for president, so he does, and with the kind of shrewd help he personally gave to his father (both times courtesy of Toby Jones' perfectly slimey Karl Rove) he wins.

We all remember what has happened since then, but the movie covers some of that ground as well. A particularly bone chilling sequence is one that takes place in a high level meeting of the minds about the direction of the country after 9/11. Richard Dreyfuss delivers a frighteningly logical speech about "why Iraq", the country that Colin Powell keeps wondering why everyone is harping on about when it had no known connection to 9/11 (the surprise answer: oil, and strategic placement for future oil). Jeffrey Wright is fantastic in this scene as Powell, the only real military man of the bunch (a 4-star General after all), a fact that he throws back into Cheney's face when Cheney talks down to him on military matters. But Dreyfuss is also terrifically frightening as Cheney, who doesn't have the people skills that W does, so he's content to stay behind the scenes, sometimes literally standing in the shadows (next to Rove, who stays there the whole time), convincing President Bush that war is the answer.

Nearly every one of the supporting roles is well cast, most particularly James Cromwell as George H.W. Bush. He tackles portraying a person that we all know (and have seen parodies of for nearly 20 years) and succeeds mightily. We see that his father (who was Senator Prescott Bush) never really gave him any sort of affection, the closest being a gift of a special pair of cuff links, and he transfers that behavior into his own parenting. He tries to be a good father, bailing W out of many bad situations, and pulling strings to get him into good ones. He tries to encourage his son into helping with his campaign, but plays it off that Jeb was busy so he asked W for help instead. This just adds to W's lifelong feelings of being considered the lesser son. Cromwell also has a phenomenal scene where the family watches as the news reports on '92 election night, announcing Clinton's victory. Cromwell just might've earned himself an Oscar nomination with that scene, and he'd deserve it. I don't think Thandie Newton fairs as well in her portrayal of Condoleezza Rice. Her accent seemed a little fake to me, and she seemed to not quite fit into the skin of her character. Elizabeth Banks, however, is good as Laura Bush, who is always there to support W in whatever capacity she can. She and Josh Brolin create a believably loving marriage onscreen. That brings us to Josh Brolin's central performance here as President Bush. While I don't think he looks anything like the man, Brolin captured the essence of W so well that I rarely thought about him as playing W, and just accepted him as W. Brolin portays him as arrogant, often misinformed, but a genuinely good guy who is trying to do his best.

Oliver Stone has crafted a remarkably even handed portrait of one of the most divisive figures of our times. Bush has set records with both the highest presidential approval rating (92% a month after 9/11), and the lowest (19% just last month, his second time being that low). But with the empathetic way Stone shows him, we kinda feel a little bad when everything goes south for him. It's not a perfect movie, or even a great one honestly, but it does have a lot to admire and it could even be up for some awards for a couple of the actors come Oscar season.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Tremors-An A-quality B-movie

It's always nice when you revisit a childhood favorite and find out that it holds up over the years. I recently re-watched Tremors, one of the few "monster movies" I like. I hadn't seen it in many years, but I think I might've actually liked it even more as an adult. The script is hysterical, but takes itself just seriously enough so that the suspenseful parts are actually suspenseful. The actors are nearly all terrific, and the special effects are actually quite good.

The plot concerns itself with the unexplained appearance of 4 gigantic subterranean worms that begin terrorizing the almost ghost town of Perfection, Nevada. The handful of residents in the area include survivalist nuts Burt and Heather (Michael Gross and Reba McEntire), Rhonda, a graduate student studying seismology (Finn Carter), as well as handy men Earl and Val (Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon). They fight against the monsters and, blah, blah, blah. That's not important. What is important is that this is one of the best "buddy" movies ever made. The script gives us a relationship between Val and Earl that really comes as a surprise for this kind of movie, and it's aided by the performances from Ward and Bacon. They bicker like an old married couple, but do look out for, and care about, one another. Fred Ward gets laughs just from some of the looks that he gives, and Bacon is all nervous energy and sarcasm (my favorite line in the movie being "Oh sure Earl, everybody knows about 'em, we just didn't tell you").

The script by Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson is very well written, and the movie moves along at a brisk pace. The scripting is surprising coming from the writers who brought us Short Circuit and Short Circuit 2, and would later bring us Ghost Dad and Wild Wild West, two of the notoriously worst movies ever made. But their script here is full of nicely written dialog that helps the actors create a sense of history that's needed to make a town of approximately 15 people be believable. And it's not just Ward and Bacon that are terrific, Michael Gross and Reba McEntire as the survivalists have a lot of good moments. Reba was making her acting debut, and it's a strange part for her to take, considering that she was already a famous singer. But she and Gross work wonderfully together and both have their fair share of great dialog (my favorite of theirs being after they kill a monster, Gross shouts "Broke into the wrong god damn rec wreck room didn't you you bastard!). Not all of the supporting performances are good, but none ruin anything about the movie, and are the smallest of distractions from the main characters, at worst.

Tremors is thankfully a movie that wasn't just good because I saw it when I was a kid and didn't know what good movies were yet. It's an hysterical comedy, a decent monster movie, a terrific buddy flick, and just an all around great time at the movies.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

New movie I saw this week, part 2-Appaloosa

Ed Harris made his directorial debut 8 years ago with the biopic Pollock, and he's now given us his sophomore effort Appaloosa, a western based on the bestselling novel by Robert B. Parker, which Harris co-produced, co-wrote, and stars in, in addition to handling the directing duties. It holds many trademarks of the western genre, the small desert town (was there no grass west of the Mississippi River in the 1800's?), the evil cattle baron (deliciously played here by Jeremy Irons), the steel faced marshal (Ed Harris), his woman (Renee Zellwegger), and his loyal deputy/best and only friend (Viggo Mortensen). It also has the requisite shootouts, stare downs, and a few scenes of comic relief. Harris handles everything with a steady hand behind the camera, but the movie needs some paring down, as it feels longer than its 114 minutes, and isn't quite as satisfying as it probably could've been.

Harris doesn't need to prove himself as an actor, he has 4 Oscar nominations on his resume, and probably should've won the awards for his performances in Apollo 13 and Pollock, if not for The Truman Show as well. Here he's quite good as Virgil Cole, a man who doesn't always articulate his points, but is good at his job. His job is to contract himself and his partner Everett Hitch (Mortensen) to towns that are overrun with crime. They come in, temporarily become the law, and kill anyone who doesn't abide by the rules. Then they move on to the next town. The town of Apaloosa is terrorized by Jeremy Irons' cattle baron and the men who work for him, and they're happy to hire Cole and Hitch to clean up the place. Both men are expert marksmen and not afraid to show it, and Cole is a pro at diffusing the angry mobs of criminals who oppose them. Zellwegger's role is fairly well written, but she doesn't do anything here that a thousand other actresses couldn't have done. Irons is quite good as the bad guy, and Lance Henriksen is wonderful as a shady man from Virgil Cole's past.

Mortensen continues to show that he's one of the best actors around right now. The relationship between he and Ed Harris feels real, we feel a sense of history between these two men, and Mortensen's reactions to Harris' actions are priceless. Sometimes an actor will be around for a while before people really take notice. Mortensen first made his way into movies with the acclaimed Peter Weir movie Witness, playing a member of the Amish community infiltrated by Harrison Ford. He was later cast as one of the two leads in Sean Penn's directorial debut The Indian Runner, had a small role as one of Al Pacino's old gangster buddies in Carlito's Way, was the antagonistic Command Master Chief in G.I. Jane, and was Sam Loomis in Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho. For some reason, Peter Jackson really wanted to cast him as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and when the actor originally cast was fired, Jackson got his wish. The movies went on to be successes beyond anyone's imagination, and made Mortensen a star in his early 40's. He used that newfound stardom to make a pair of movies with David Cronenberg, 2005's A History of Violence, and last year's Eastern Promises (for which he was nominated as Best Actor at the Oscars, and should've won easily). Mortensen's work here isn't of the astounding quality that his work in those last two movies were, but it's still of an extremely high quality. Both his and Harris' parts are very subtle, with no big showy scenes for them to showcase their abilities. What they do instead is create a believable relationship between these two characters that we'd honestly like to spend more time with, which is always a good thing.

Appaloosa is exquisitely filmed by Australian cinematographer Dean Semler, renowned for his work on Mad Max, The Road Warrior, Dances with Wolves (for which he won an Oscar), and Apocalypto. Unfortunately I can't find a picture of my favorite shot in the movie, which was one of Mortensen in the shadows holding his gun as Zellwegger nervously walks by. But if you see the movie, you'll know which shot I mean.

Ultimately I do recommend that you see Appaloosa, because although it's not a great movie, it's definitely a good one. There are no major missteps by anyone involved, the unshakable friendship between Harris and Mortensen is terrific, and the images are worthy of mention alongside the greatest in the western genre. Seeing how wildly different this is from Pollock, it makes me quite excited to see what Harris tackles next, because he's obviously as talented behind the camera as he is in front of it.

Friday, October 3, 2008

New movie I saw this week-Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is a pretty frustrating movie. It has two endlessly watchable leads who are adorable together, a nice visual look, a terrifically engaging storyline, and some fairly good laughs. So why isn't it better than it should be? I think it's because other than its wonderful title characters, it's painfully hit and miss. An entire sub-plot with Norah's best friend flats flat on its face, the side characters of Nick's best friends have a couple of good moments, but could've easily been done without. Sub-plots with both Nick and Norah's exes work, but are underdeveloped. That said, I have to recommend this movie if only on the basis of Michael Cera as Nick, and Kat Dennings as Norah.

Nick is the bass player in a band with his two gay best friends in suburban New Jersey. They have a gig tonight in New York City, and who should show up at the gig but Nick's ex-girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena), who left him heartbroken a month ago. Nick still hasn't recovered, and doesn't even notice that another girl at the gig, Norah, was eyeing him as he was onstage. Turns out that Tris is the bitch at school that Norah has to put up with, and so as not to look like she came alone, Norah asks Nick to act like her boyfriend for a few minutes in front of Tris. Nick comes out of his stupor for a bit when Norah kisses him, and Nick's best friends take it upon themselves to make sure that Nick and Norah end up together (they hated Tris). All the while, a secretive show by Nick and Norah's favorite band is happening in the city, and they go on a night-long adventure to find the show.

The best friend characters are mostly there for comic relief I guess, except they're not very funny. Norah's best friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) is an alcoholic that the movie tries to pass off as some old timey "funny drunk", but it comes off more as tragedy than anything else. Except the actress isn't playing tragedy, she's playing comedy. Hence the reason it doesn't work. The gay best friends, and the beefcake they meet at the gig, aren't as worthless. There's one particular moment as one of the guys is explaining to Nick how The Beatles had everything right, that's one of the best moments in the movie (because, of course, The Beatles did have everything right). The exes, Tris and Tal (Undeclared's Jay Baruchel), are both nicely played and both have some good moments with Nick and Norah, but as character's they're not developed as anything more than "the exes".

A movie like this cannot survive if the leads aren't engaging. Some people will say that Michael Cera is playing the same character he played in Superbad and/or Juno, but those people aren't paying attention. Cera plays different notes of the "shy nice guy" persona in each movie, this one being the most grownup and realistic. Just as John Cusack often plays different shades of the same character type, so does Cera. Nick is a good guy that has had his heart broken by Tris, but all he wants is to find love, he's just looking to the wrong person. Kat Dennings, as Norah, is given one of her first lead roles, and I can safely say that she's a huge star in the making. She shows an intelligence and passion to Norah (two of the hardest traits to believably pull off for an actor, I think) that intrigues both Nick and us in the audience. She's not just "the girl" in this story, she challenges Nick and eventually wakes him from the coma that Tris had put him in. It doesn't hurt that she's also incredibly gorgeous. There are multiple occasions in the movie where characters say that Norah isn't in the same class of beautiful as Tris, but maybe it's because we're so in love with Norah at that point, but Tris looks like Ernest Borgnine in comparison. One small thing I'd like to single out, there's a moment near the end, where Nick and Norah silently give each other a little smile, that is absolutely sublime. Don't go running out to see Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, but it's worth a look at least, I just wish that the movie had followed just these two characters and done away with everyone else.