Sunday, December 31, 2006

Beerfest (2006)

So you like beer and tits? Well, I’ve got the movie for you. “Beerfest,” the latest by Jay Chandrasekhar’s Broken Lizard Productions (“Super Troopers” “Club Dread”), explores the question of what would happen if grown men got to drink beer with a purpose. Imagine it; what if your family name and the pride of your country depended on your drinking lots of good, German beer with your buds. It’s the best male fantasy since that two women at the same time thing, and “Beerfest” takes us along for the ride.

Broken Lizard veterans Paul Soter and Eric Stolhanske are the Wolfhouse brothers, a couple of fun-lovin’, beer-drinkin’ fellas who trek to Germany to dispose of their grandfather’s ashes during Oktoberfest. There they discover that their grandfather is actually a bastard of the late Baron von Wolfhaus, and that their branch of the family is reviled for having stolen the von Wolfhaus family beer recipe. They are then humiliated in a drinking contest by their German cousins, barely escaping with an ass-kicking.

Once back in America, do the Wolfhouse boys just lick their wounds, get back to their lives, and say “good riddance” to the German side of the family? Heck no! With the clarity of men granted a purpose in life, they put together a drinking team and start training for next Oktoberfest so they can “Get sour on some Krauts!” Jay Chandrasekhar (as Barry Badrinath), Steve Lemme (as Fink), and Kevin Heffernan (as Landfill) round out beer-team USA. (The five team members also constitute the Broken Lizard acting team.) What commences is some seriously fun training. “Beerfest” really invites the audience in to enjoy the good times; I could almost taste every glass! Of course, the guys return to Germany for a big showdown, which is like a drinking-game Olympics. The film is very silly, but irresistibly fun.

Jay Chandrasekhar is doing with his Broken Lizard team something like what Christopher Guest (“Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show”) has done, using the same core group of actors in each film. So far, Broken Lizard has peaked with their 2001 cult classic “Super Troopers,” an endlessly quotable, uproariously funny police hijinks comedy. 2004’s “Club Dread” marked a serious step backwards for Broken Lizard, skating by with some mildly amusing Jimmy Buffet jokes and a handful of naked breasts. Fortunately, with “Beerfest” the boys seem to be back on track. This film isn’t nearly the classic that “Super Troopers” is, but it is a hilarious good time that allows these actors a chance to be the funny guys that they are. It also marks a promising return to form for Chandrasekhar and company, who reportedly have a “Super Troopers” sequel slated for 2008. Now that is something to live for!

4 stars.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

I suppose I am the last person in the free world to see Episode 3, or at least the last person who is likely to. At this point, I figure everyone has either seen it or isn’t interested. Me, I loved the original 3 Star Wars movies. Not dress-up-and-stand-in-line loved, but would-re-watch-them-any-time loved. Basically I am a normal Star Wars fan, and it is a testament to how bad the first 2 episodes in the new series are that I just now got around to watching the final installment. After 2 movies filled with Jar-Jar and obnoxious incarnations of Anakin Skywalker, I just couldn’t be bothered. Finally I decided to slap the movie on my Netflix queue and find out how Anakin goes over to the dark side. Great move! I didn’t think it was possible, but this film actually redeems the series. It is the payoff we have been suffering for!

If you don’t already know the plot, don’t worry, I’m not going to ruin the surprise for you. All the big secrets are already obvious if you watched the first 2 episodes. Everyone knows that Anakin Skywalker will become Darth Vader and that Chancellor Palpatine looks an awful lot like the evil emperor from the original movies. More convoluted, but equally obvious, is that the rebellion staged by Count Dooku and the cyborg General Grievous is just a giant con job so that Palpatine can get the intergalactic Senate to grant him more emergency powers. In this episode the Jedi Council becomes ever more suspicious of Palpatine’s power grab, but they buy into the basic validity of the war. They hunt Count Dooku thinking he is the Dark Sith master, but they learn, too late, that he is just a puppet of the evil Palpatine.

If some of this seems to have eerie parallels to modern affairs, I don’t really think it is because George Lucas was trying to make a commentary on current politics. It’s just that every tyrant since the beginning of history has used a war to distract the populace and get people to give up their liberties. George W. Bush is just the latest in a long line, and far from the best at it.

As for Anakin’s slide to the dark side, Yoda pretty much foresaw it when he noted, “Much anger has this one.” It is Anakin’s passion that is his undoing, which makes it a shame that George Lucas didn’t cast an actor more capable of passion. I would envision an Anakin with a truly charming but mercurial personality; something like Leonardo DiCaprio in “Gangs of New York.” (Am I the first to suggest DiCaprio as an alternative to Hayden Christensen? I doubt it.) Christensen seems to have only two emotions: wounded pride and constipation. Anyway, this is a moot complaint, so I won’t belabor it.

As for the other actors, they face the same challenge they did in the first 2 episodes, which is that there is really too much plot and action going on for the actors to do much in the way of developing their characters. They do a little better in this episode. Obi Wan and Yoda get fleshed out a little more here, which really benefits the film. I was relieved to see Ewan McGregor get a chance to actually act, and of course there’s no such thing as too much Yoda. We also get to know Chancellor Palpatine, aka The Evil Emperor, better. Which is nice.

Episode III has the same killer special effects as the first 2 episodes, but the action is better because it is linked to a more comprehensible plot, and we actually get a chance to care about the characters this time. There are plenty of great light-saber fights, and we finally get to see the Evil Emperor show his stuff. The final Obi-Wan/Anakin face-off is stellar, with a truly chilling finale. The duel is especially resonant in light of the light-saber rematch that we know is coming in Episode IV.

To the extent that human emotions are allowed to exist in these films, it is the relationship between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker that ultimately drives Episode III and makes it worthwhile. By the end of this film, we have a much greater understanding of what drives old Ben Kenobi, the grizzled Jedi we first met in Episode IV (Star Wars) back in 1977. That film was subtitled “A New Hope,” and it is only now I can appreciate how much that hope must have meant to Obi-Wan. Luke Skywalker doesn’t just represent a chance to defeat the Empire, he embodies a second chance for the potential that Obi-Wan had seen and tried to nurture in Luke’s father, Anakin. I feel the same way about Episode III.

4 stars.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Up Series (7 Up, 14Up, etc.) *****

In 1964, British television viewers were treated to a charming little documentary called “Seven Up!” The film featured interviews with several 7-year-old English children from a variety of backgrounds. Jackie is from a working class London family. She and her friends fantasize about what they would do with a lot of money, “say two pound.” Suzy comes from money, attending boarding school and spending her summers at her parents’ country estate. Tony is an East-Ender, barely understandable with his cockney accent. Nick lives on a farm, attending a one-room schoolhouse, while upper-crust Charles attends a posh boarding school. Symon, who is half-white/half-black, is in a children’s home because his mom can’t afford to keep him at home.

Despite its light-hearted tone, the film was clearly intended to serve as a reminder of how much class still matters in England. As 7-year-olds, these kids already bear the marks of their upbringing. The posh, boarding-school boys brag about their plans for prep school and Oxford, while Symon asks, “What’s University?”

As a stand-alone documentary, “Seven Up!” is enjoyable, but not something I would necessarily seek out. The extraordinary thing that makes this such essential viewing is that seven years later, Michael Apted, a member of the “Seven Up!” production team, revisited those children to see what they were like at age 14. The result is “7 Plus Seven,” a more serious look at life through the eyes of young adolescents. Seven years later, Apted returned to his then-21-year-old subjects for “21 Up,” and the series continues, with an update every seven years. Some of the original 14 children have dropped out over the years, opting not to appear in any more installments. On at least one occasion Apted has lost track of a subject, only to have them reappear in the next film. The resulting series is like a stop-motion film of several entire lives, allowing us to peek in at intervals for an intimate look at the changes that seven years have wrought on these individuals. The changes can be quite jarring at times, as these characters age visibly, have children, go through divorces, lose parents, and deal with illnesses. The eleven subjects who chose to continue appearing in the films discuss their lives with remarkable candor, even admitting to marital infidelity.

These films bring to mind a scientific concept called “observer effect,” which refers to the fact that measuring something may change it in some way. Sticking a thermometer in hot water allows you to measure the temperature, but it also cools the water slightly, because the thermometer absorbs a little heat. A wildlife photographer may change the behavior of the animals if they see or smell him, so his film may not reflect the true, natural behavior of the wildlife. Thus it is with the “Up” Series. After a few of the films, probably as early as “21 Up,” it becomes apparent that being in the films has had a measurable effect on these people. Some regret things they said in earlier programs. Others have made friends and enjoyed a certain celebrity as a result of the films. If nothing else, some of them just seem to take a more searching look at themselves and their lives than is common. It is no wonder that some of them chose to drop out. When Plato said that the unexamined life is not worth living, he didn’t mean it had to be examined by the whole world!

So far I have watched this series up to and including the “42 Up” installment. “49 Up” came out this year, and it is burning a hole in my Netflix qeue. I have mixed feelings about watching it, however. I just discovered these movies this year, and my wife and I spread them out over the last few months. We waited as long as we could stand it between films, but we always enjoyed the luxury of moving the next one to the top of our Netflix queue whenever we wanted. We may have to wait a few months for “49 Up,” but it isn’t long to wait to see these beloved characters seven years older. After that, though, we will no longer just be observers; we will be part of the experiment. When “56 Up” comes out, it won’t just be those characters who are farther along in life; I will be 7 years older as well. How will the Guy on the Couch view this series at the age of 41 compared to 34? I don’t know, but I can sure as hell wait to find out!

5 stars and counting.