Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pineapple Express (2008)

The Judd Apatow universe continues to grow and change. In the beginning, everything was written and directed by Judd Apatow (“The 40 Year Old Virgin”, “Knocked Up”) More and more now, the actors that Apatow has used repeatedly in his TV shows and films are taking over the creative role in Apatow Productions. The results are sometimes brilliant, as with “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” written by star Jason Segel. Other efforts, like “Superbad,” have been mostly great, definitely hilarious, but not quite at genius level. “Pineapple Express” fits into the second group. The toker bromance features Seth Rogen as a pothead process server and James Franco as his pot dealer. When Rogen’s character witnesses a drug murder, the two go on the run from the guilty drug lord and a crooked cop. Hilarity and some seriously violent action ensue.

I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like this film. There is some truly funny stuff here. I did find, however, that the movie had something of an odd tone. It’s clearly a comedy, and a farce at that, yet the mood turns quite dark at times. There are some scenes of brutal violence that seemed a bit off. Also, I did get tired of the man-love, crying buddies stuff. I don’t know why, but this seems to be a motif of Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg. These guys wrote “Superbad,” another funny movie slightly tainted by scenes of two guys hugging each other and promising to be best friends forever.

This is still a 90% hilarious film. Manage your expectations appropriately, and you are bound to have a good time with it.

3.5 stars out of 5

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Up (2009) ****

Pixar just keeps knocking them out of the park. The animation powerhouse’s latest offering, “Up,” may not be quite as much of a kid-pleaser as “Monsters, Inc.” or “Wall-E,” but it sets a new benchmark in the world of animation for quality storytelling.

Ed Asner is at his grumpy best giving voice to Carl, an elderly man who, after losing his wife, decides to belatedly pursue their shared dream of exploring the hidden wilds of South America. He launches his entire house into flight with hundreds of hot air balloons, but once aloft, he discovers Russell, an eight-year-old stowaway. The two have a fantastic adventure that leads to a great friendship and opens Carl’s eyes to the possibilities that still await him.

The whole thing sounds like it could be trite, but Pixar pulls it off. The difference between genuine emotional content and nauseating sentimentality is usually in the execution, and “Up” tells this story with subtlety and grace. Asner is the perfect voice actor for this role; he never uses words where an expressive grunt will do. There is also a heartbreaking, dialog-free montage showing Carl and his love Ellie getting married and living out their lives together that is just stunning. The sequence puts to shame just about anything I have seen in an animated film.

“Up” is also action-packed, admittedly with some poetic license taken in the physics department. Some of the action was too intense, in fact, for my three-year-old daughter. I’m glad I didn’t know that ahead of time, though. I might have missed one of the best movies of the year.

4 stars out of 5

Thursday, July 16, 2009

There Will Be Blood (2007)

You would think that an Academy Award or two would be some kind of guarantee that a film has at least some degree of entertainment value. Obviously, Oscar doesn’t always get it right, but even “Crash,” which everyone now agrees should not have won Best Picture, had something going for it. “There Will Be Blood” won Oscars for Cinematography and Best Actor, and for a while everyone was talking about the “milkshake” line at the end. I finally decided to see what the fuss was about. For such an esteemed film, “There Will Be Blood” is the biggest waste of 2 ½ hours I have encountered.

Daniel Day-Lewis won his Oscar as Daniel Plainview, a hard-rock silver prospector who strikes oil and works his way up through the oil business to become a tycoon. He takes no joy in anything save grasping for more, and once he has achieved all he can, he is swallowed up by his deep hatred for himself and others. He makes stumbling efforts, through the years, to be a loving father to his adopted son, but it seems that the part of the brain that allows most people to love is, in Plainview’s skull, given over to scheming and drilling.

I’m not here to argue that either of the Oscars that this film won was undeserved. The cinematography really is stunning, and Daniel Day-Lewis is as brilliant as always (although it has been pointed out that his character bears a strong resemblance to Victor Newman from “The Young and the Restless.”) I just feel that all that talent was wasted on a mean, pointless story about a mean, bitter man. The movie is based on the book “Oil,” by Upton Sinclair. Doubtless the book is another of Sinclair’s screeds against capitalist excess, but the film is only loosely based on it, and focuses more on the personality of Daniel Plainview. Such a bitter story does not bear telling.

As for that “milkshake” line, I’m going to save you 2 ½ hours. It’s simply a metaphor for how you can drain the oil under one plot of land by drilling and pumping oil from adjoining land. Plainview explains, “If you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake, and I have a straw that goes all the way across the room to you, I drink your milkshake. I drink it up!” The analogy is borrowed from a 1920’s speech by New Mexico Senator Albert Falls.

1 star.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)

Somehow I had the impression that this movie was a lot cooler than it actually is. I can’t say exactly what I was expecting. Maybe some sort of epic, “Dazed and Confused” kind of music extravaganza with a talkie, Whit Stillman influence. “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” does have some of those elements, but it is really more of a sweet, funny, but typical coming-of-age teen romance. Having said that, it’s a good movie as long as one’s expectations are appropriate.

Michael Cera (Nick) and Kat Dennings (Norah) are appropriately adorable as a couple of smart, hip teens who spend a night in New York City looking for an underground rock show and wind up finding love. At first I was put off by the unlikelihood of a high-schooler who looks like Michael Cera having dated one gorgeous girl (Alexis Dziena, as Nick’s ex-girl Tris ) and then hooking up with a babe like Kat Dennings, but it turns out that Nick plays in a band, so it makes more sense. (Note to teenage guys: Get into a band; seriously.) Nick is still hung up on that ex-girlfriend, who is frenemies with Norah. For her part, Norah feels she knows Nick a little from listening to the mix-cds he made for Tris. Norah is a stone fox, but she hangs out with pretty, shallow blondes, so she lacks confidence. It takes the pair all of a night out in NYC to work through all this.

From this movie and from a few snippets of “Gossip Girl,” I gather that New York City is full of orphans. (Actually, Nick and Norah seem to be from New Jersey. No parents there, either, apparently.) Call me sheltered if you will, but when I was a high-school senior I didn’t get to hop into a van with a couple of gay guys to go spend all night in a big city. I’m just sayin’. It’s fun watching these teens run around NYC having adventures with their friends and bandmates, but it‘s hard to identify.

Given this is a movie about people getting together over their shared musical taste, I was disappointed that “Nick and Norah” wasn’t more about the music. The soundtrack is full of cool, quirky, indy music, but it all just fades into the background of beautiful, funky people enjoying the beautiful, funky city. Compared to films like “Dazed and Confused” and “Empire Records,” “Nick and Norah” let me down in the music department.

Michael Cera is in no danger of losing his status as my go-to guy for smart comedy. The guy is really an amazing actor. He almost always has the same, blank expression on his face, but with just minute changes he is able to express volumes. I loved Kat Dennings in “The 40-year-old Virgin” and she acquits herself well here, showing that she can carry a leading role. Kudos also go to Ari Graynor, who plays a drunk girl perfectly and has a nice ass.

3.5 stars out of 5