Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) ****

I love the premise of this film. A guy gets dumped. Heartbroken, he goes on vacation to ease his depression, but he chooses a spot in Hawaii where his ex-girlfriend had always wanted to go. Lo and behold, his ex and her sexy, famous boyfriend are there, and the guy has to spend his vacation repeatedly running into them. To me that’s just a classic, romantic comedy storyline. It could have been made in the 1930’s by Ernst Lubitsch, or in the 40’s with William Powell and Myrna Loy. Albert Brooks could have knocked this one out of the park in the 80’s. The key to telling this story at any point, of course, is the acting and script, and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” nails it on both counts.

Jason Segel plays the dopey doughboy Peter, who disintegrates into a crying mess after his actress girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristin Bell) kicks him to the curb. Segel also wrote the screenplay, and the seen where he gets dumped while naked is taken from his own life. (By the way, ladies, you get treated to some full-frontal in this scene, if that’s what you’re into.) Kristin Bell plays the heartbreaker without over-vamping it, and when she eventually tells Peter why she broke up with him, you can identify with her a little. Meanwhile, Mila Kunis is straight-up adorable as Peter’s new love interest.

Then there’s Aldous Snow, Sarah Marshall’s pop-singer, himbo of a new boyfriend played by British comic Russell Brand. He is, as he puts it, “…famous, mostly for my sins.” The former addict (“One drink, and by the end of the night I’ll be rimming waiters for their tip money so I can go buy a rock.”) struts around in leather pants and serenades Sarah with his hit single, “Inside of You,” but even this farcical character has some depth in Jason Segel’s thoughtfully crafted story.

A while back I read an article entitled, “Are Men the New Women?” The article cited “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” as an example of how movies and TV seem to be full of guys who are sensitive, vulnerable, needy, and cry a lot. It’s true; I don’t think Steve McQueen or Lee Marvin could even get a movie role these days. I have another observation to add to this role reversal bit. Movies these days feature more male nudity than female nudity. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” for example, features Jason Segel’s schlong in two separate scenes. The closest thing to female nudity is a grainy Polaroid of a girl who might be Mila Kunis flashing her tits. It used to be the other way around in movies, which is the way God intended it. I think I’m gonna blame this one on the queers. We know everyone in Hollywood is gay, and all this on-screen sausage fits right in with their “agenda.”

Other than seeing more of Jason Segel than I bargained for, I absolutely loved “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” It is produced by Apatow Productions, meaning that the major players are all connected to Judd Apatow, the new godfather of comedy with a heart. If you have the means, I highly suggest you pick it up.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Lovers (1958)

I rented “The Lovers” because it was so controversial in its day. Supposedly the sex scenes were considered obscene; so much so that a Cleveland theater owner got arrested for showing it. Obviously, we waited until our daughter was in bed to watch it. Didn’t want to destroy her innocence and whatnot. Trust me when I tell you that we needn’t have worried. By today’s standards, this film could be shown during prime-time. You could watch it with your parents and your pastor and feel only mildly uncomfortable. I can well imagine that there was a time when this film would have been a little racy, but it beggars the imagination that someone could have been arrested over it.

“The Lovers” is your typical, slow-moving French film focused on emotions rather than action. Directed by Louis Malle, the film stars the beautiful Jeanne Moreau as Jeanne, the bored wife of a wealthy newspaperman. Her husband is at once distant and jealous. She seeks happiness with fashionable Parisian friends and a lover who is dashing and popular, but a bit tiresome, with all his seriousness and protestations of love. Jeanne lives a life of quiet desperation.

One fateful day Jeanne’s car breaks down, and she catches a ride with a young archeologist. He is independent, self-possessed, and witty, and he does something for Jeanne that her husband and her lover never do: he makes her laugh. That laughter opens up something inside her, and she and the archeologist fall in love over the course of a passionate, beautifully filmed night.

Knowing the reputation of this film, I expected that that night would involve some graphic sex, but I should have known that I was failing to give the French the credit they are due. A French film would never emphasize the mechanics of sex over the passion. Most of the night, Jeanne and her lover walk or run about outside in their nightclothes in the cool night air, rediscovering what it feels like to be young and free. Naturally, they wind up in bed together, and the scene is pretty sexy, but nothing is shown that would get the movie more than a PG rating today.

I think that what upset the censors as much as the sex is the sense of amorality in this film. Once Jeanne gets a taste of true passion, she has no compunctions about leaving her husband and child, and the film does not pass judgment on this. Decency codes of the time reportedly required that sin be punished in a movie. This story of a woman selfishly pursuing her own happiness must have furrowed many a brow. The tale reminds me somewhat of another controversial story, Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel “The Awakening,” although it’s interesting that even in Chopin’s novel, her heroine is not allowed to live happily ever after, while “The Lovers” leaves us on a hopeful note. Even today, it’s rather rare to find a story of someone finding happiness outside of socially prescribed behaviors. Think of the flawed film “American Beauty,” whose protagonist ditches his stifling job and marriage in inspiring style, but is ultimately punished for it. Most movies today are just as much promoters of societal stability as the films of the 1950’s. They mostly feature people finding someone to marry and settle down with.

It turns out if you want to see something titillating, you’ll have to rent “9 ½ Weeks.” Despite its reputation, “The Lovers” is pretty mild. It is, however, a thoughtful, sexy, beautiful movie, and Jeanne Moreau is easy to look at for 90 minutes. As for that Cleveland theater owner, his conviction was eventually thrown out by the Supreme Court. Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote about the difficulty in defining pornography, “I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

3.5 stars out of 5

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ghost Town (2008)

I would pretty much watch Ricky Gervais in anything. The creator and star of the British sitcom “The Office” and HBO’s “Extras” is an absolute master of the comedy of the awkward. If Gervais ever did go on “Celebrity Big Brother,” as his character did in “Extras,” I would even watch that. I say all this to explain that I came into “Ghost Town” with some pretty high expectations. That may explain why, even though it was a pretty good movie, I’m a bit let down by it.

Ricky Gervais plays a misanthropic dentist who lives a small, depressed life in New York. He can’t even muster up the courtesy to make friendly small talk with his practice partner, let alone his patients. He is completely oblivious to the people around him. Things start to change when he dies briefly during a routine colonoscopy. He wakes up with the ability to see and talk to ghosts, who seem to be everywhere in the city. The ghosts are used to being unable to communicate with the living or directly influence the living world. Once they discover that the dentist can see them, the spirits mob him with various requests. Greg Kinnear is the most persistent of the ghosts, and he convinces the dentist to keep Kinnear’s widow (Tea Leoni) from re-marrying. You can pretty much figure out the rest from there. The dentist discovers love, learns to connect with people, and “the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day.”

“Ghost Town” is like a funnier “As Good As It Gets,” with a lighter tone, tighter structure, but fewer nuances. Everybody does their job passably well. Greg Kinnear is charming and wry, Tea Leoni is sexy and adorable, and Ricky Gervais really is quite funny. My main disappointment with “Ghost Town” is that I didn’t expect Ricky Gervais to be in something so predictable and sentimental. Looked at on its merits, “Ghost Town” isn’t bad, but it is a very typical romantic comedy. It was pretty entertaining, but I can’t really imagine making an effort to watch it again.

2.5 out of 5

Friday, October 10, 2008

Cool Hand Luke (1967) *****

People talk about the ‘60s and ‘70s as a time of great anti-establishment movies, citing films like “Easy Rider” and “M.A.S.H.” Other folks reach back a decade or two to tout “Rebel Without a Cause.” Those are great movies, but for my money, the greatest film statement against authority, hands down, is “Cool Hand Luke.”

“I ain’t heard much worth listening to. Just a bunch of fellows spouting a bunch of rules and regulations.” Of all the great lines from “Cool Hand Luke,” and this movie is choc-full of them, this line best sums up this story about the struggle of man’s free spirit against stifling authority. Luke utters these words in prison, but the bosses he deals with on the chain gang are really no different than the bosses in the army, in countless jobs, or that he has faced just walking down the street. Luke’s fate in this world is sealed because he can’t resign himself to taking orders from petty men who relish having a little power over other men.

Paul Newman, in one of his greatest roles, plays Lucas Jackson, a poor, fatherless, southern boy tossed into a prison work gang for two years for the heinous crime of getting drunk and cutting the heads off parking meters. One imagines that Luke must have had some prior convictions to get such a stiff sentence, or maybe he just wasn’t remorseful enough in front of the judge. It is quickly apparent that Luke isn’t much of one for bowing and scraping in front of his so-called superiors. Luke fits in well enough at first. He says “yes, boss” and “Captain” like he’s told, keeps his head down, and does his work. That isn’t enough for the “bosses”, though, who aren’t satisfied with obedience, but also require FEALTY. He first runs afoul of the massive Dragline, a boss of sorts among the prisoners. Dragline thinks that his superior size translates to superior intelligence. He constantly subjects his fellow prisoners to his pontifications, and he doesn’t take kindly to being contradicted. Dragline challenges Luke to a fight to put him in his place, but Luke wins the fight, and alpha-male status, simply by refusing to stay down when he is clearly beaten. The scene defines Luke’s approach to life. He doesn’t have anything to fight with, but he keeps standing back up, refusing to surrender. It’s as if he has embraced having nothing to lose as the source of his strength. As he puts it after bluffing his way through a hand of poker, “Sometimes nothing is a cool hand to have.”

As Luke’s undefeated attitude and zest for life infect the whole prison, he and the boys have some great times. Things turn serious, however, when the warden unfairly punishes Luke and blatantly ignores his humanity. Luke, who had previously seemed inclined to serve out his time peacefully, embarks on a series of escapes, culminating in a confrontation with God himself. Luke begs God to “Love me, hate me, kill me, just show me something!” and his final, good-humored accusation of The Almighty, “I guess you’re a hard case, too,” is pure Luke. One imagines that if the Christian God is real and is the petty punisher that His followers make Him out to be, then Luke is down in Hell, standing up to Satan, getting up every time he is knocked down.

5 stars out of 5

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Ice Harvest

“As Wichita falls, so falls Wichita Falls.” Only those who have been to either Wichita, Kansas or Wichita Falls, Texas, or, God forbid, both places, can grasp the bleak desperation contained in that statement. It’s the kind of desperation that would drive a divorced, mildly miserable mob lawyer like Charlie (John Cusack) to steal $2 million from his boss. He and a more hardened mobster named Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) pilfer the money quietly on Christmas Eve and figure on skipping town on Christmas. (Makes sense, because they say it’s actually easier to travel on the actual holiday.) That gives them a whole night to get into trouble and blow the whole thing wide open. Charlie tries to take one last shot at his crush, titty-bar owner Renata (Connie Nielsen), but she has her own agenda. Meanwhile, it turns out the Mafia didn’t get where they are by being stupid about money, so Charlie and Vic wind up with a hit man (Mike Starr) and the top dog himself (Randy Quaid) after them. Add in an ice storm, and hilarity and some raw violence ensue.
The thing is, this is a decent flick where nothing surprising happens. It is pretty cool when a guy locked in a trunk starts blasting away with his backup gun, but you already know that is going to happen from watching the trailer. Everything else is just what you expect in this type of noir, heist movie. It’s still pretty kick-ass, thanks to the awesome cast. Cusack, Thornton, Starr, Quaid, Oliver Platt; they all make this funny, violent movie a joy to watch. My only complaint would be the casting of Connie Nielsen, who is gorgeous as hell, but is more of a two-dimensional caricature of the “femme fatale.”
“The Ice Harvest” is about bad people fighting over money, and I don’t think there is a whole lot under the surface. The only philosophical aspect is when Charlie (Cusack) relays a story about how his alcoholic crook of an uncle and his upright, reliable father died within days of each other. This fuels his existentialist view that “it doesn’t matter what you do; the end result is the same.” By the end, as Charlie shivers in the cold, Kansas wind on the side of the road, you get the sense that he is rethinking that philosophy.

3.5 out of 5