Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Summer Catch-Up ’07: Live Free or Knock Up

Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 31, 2007

Well, it was quite an eventful summer. The CW frakked the best show on television (and they will not be forgiven), Lindsay Lohan got bombed at the boxoffice and in real life, Michael Bay and Brett Ratner continued making movies while Bergman and Antonioni died, Zach somehow lost the debacle that was On the Lot (but at least the winner wasn’t rapping redneck Jason, whose films were generally awful yet he bizarrely became an audience favorite), and Owen Wilson… well, I don’t even want to speculate on that. But mostly, it was the summer of Apatow, Judd Apatow, the ubiquitous writer-director-producer whose name seems to guarantee a $100 million gross for his R-rated comedies (if only he had produced Live Free or Die Hard). There’s no denying Apatow’s eye for talent (hell, he’s even cast Kristen Bell in one of his upcoming films, so the guy certainly can’t be all bad) and he’s obviously going to be a driving force in film for quite some time. But I found one of his big movies this summer to be extremely overrated, while the other was an instant classic. Which one’s which? You gotta keep reading to find out. A lot to catch up on here, so without further ado, let’s get to it:

Knocked Up – wow, am I the only one who didn’t fall head over heels for this weak shoestring of a movie? I really liked Apatow’s 40-Year-Old Virgin, but this feels like an idea that should have stayed in the bottom drawer. Sure, there are some laughs here and there, but most of them come from the stoner Greek chorus, not from the lead characters, and they mostly seem improvised. Seth Rogen is a gifted clown, but I absolutely did not believe the relationship at the center of the movie. I never bought for a second that these two people could ever actually make it work in real life. A drunken one-night stand, maybe. A lasting committed relationship, no way in hell. At least not without one of them completely changing who they are, which is essentially what happens (and of course it’s the man) and even then I didn’t buy it! It certainly doesn’t help that Katherine Heigl is a complete dead zone on camera. Hot as hell, absolutely. Funny and interesting, not at all. If they had cast someone with some comic skills, someone who could compete with Rogen or at least hold the screen against him, the movie might have worked for me. Instead we have a guy turning his whole life and personality upside down for a woman who, looks aside, doesn’t seem worth it in any way, just because he got her pregnant. And Apatow is supposed to be a master of subversive comedy? Please. This is about as subversive as Nine Months or Baby Boom. Dude, if being a stoner is what makes you happy in life, then fucking be one. Don’t puss out just to conform to what society wants you to be. What the hell kind of message is that? If watching a man become pussy-whipped and de-balled is your idea of great comedy, then Knocked Up is the movie for you. It’s just not the movie for me. **

1408 – pretty decent little haunted-hotel room flick, based on an excellent Stephen King story and featuring an outstanding John Cusack performance. It’s awfully tame though, and after a tense setup winds up being not particularly scary in the end. The most disturbing thing about it is it status as the biggest (only?) horror hit of the summer. It’s pretty bizarre that people like Richard “Dick” Roeper consider this to be “real horror” (as opposed to the R-rated, genuinely unsettling kind). Really, Dick? So something has to be tame and unthreatening to be “real horror” to you? That suggests an awfully unadventurous sensibility when it comes to scare flicks, one that apparently a lot of people share. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a bad movie, just a very safe one. The idea that horror will be moving in this direction from now on (based on its boxoffice performance at least) is the only thing truly frightening about 1408. But see it anyway. ***

Live Free or Die Hard – I absolutely love the Die Hard movies. Yes, all three of them. I love the John McClane character. Love everything about these films. Live Free, however, is just “pretty good”. Despite having the worst title since, well, the last movie (how exactly does one “die with a vengeance” anyway?), the film mostly worked for me. I liked the setup, enjoyed the action scenes (as ridiculous and insane as they are), really enjoyed hottie Mary Elizabeth Winstead as McClane’s feisty daughter. The problem is, it’s fucking PG-13, and you can’t do a real Die Hard movie that way. I’m sorry, no. It’s not just that McClane can’t complete his classic line – it’s that he never swears throughout the entire movie! Don’t try to tell me he’s “mellowed” in his old age, because he never shows any signs of that. It’s like watching a network TV version of a Die Hard movie, with the curses removed and the violence pared down to a bare minimum (just enough to get the point across). Yes, Bond and Bourne are both PG-13, but this character isn’t like them. McClane was born to be crude and profane – that’s why we like him. Censoring him just defeats the whole purpose of making the movie. There is plenty to like in the movie, however. I liked the way they placed McClane in the modern world, as a “dinosaur” surrounded by tech geeks, a stranger in a strange land. It’s as if he had just woken up from a coma that he’s been in for the last 12 years. The Die Hard movies have always been a celebration of the blue-collar little guy – cops, firemen, air traffic controllers, baggage handlers, sewer workers, etc. They’re the guys who keep the system running, and the villains are the guys who fuck with that system. Live Free correctly recognizes that the geeks have inherited the Earth, that it’s the techies who are keeping things running and the villains can destroy the system on a whole new level. McClane feels totally at sea in that world, as well he should. But sometimes you still need an “old-school” guy to get the job done, McClane’s talent is that he simply will not die, and that trumps anything you can throw up against him. So in that sense, it still feels like a Die Hard movie, and I thought Wiseman did a surprisingly good job with it. Willis still manages to embody McClane, his signature role and still his best, despite the limitations put on him. It’s too bad that Fox thought it wouldn’t sell tickets without being slightly neutered, even though the majority of people who are still interested in this series are way over 17 at this point. If anything, the PG-13 rating probably kept more potential audience members away than it brought new people in. But overall, it’s a pretty good flick, albeit one that could’ve been great. Or at least great fun. Yippie-kai-ay, mother – oops! ***

Sicko – Michael Moore kicks more ass than John McClane! Sicko is easily his best film to date (and that’s saying something), a necessary examination of the completely fucked-up health care system that winds up saying something larger about exactly what’s wrong in this country of ours. I’m sorry, it’s hard to wave the flag too high when you have corporations choosing to let people die because it’s financially irresponsible to save their lives. Fuck that bullshit. Murder is murder, however you want to look at it. The fact that our corrupt politicians allow this to continue is sickening (no pun intended). People apparently didn’t listen to Moore last time around (and they really should have), let’s hope they pay more attention this time. Let’s end this madness. ****

Hairspray – I was very resistant to the idea of this movie, as I really like John Waters’ 1988 original and I think it holds up very well. The film’s seemingly innocuous integration of an early ‘60’s TV dance show as a microcosm of the larger racial issues of the time is actually a quite brilliant idea. I love the period look of the film, the music and the gleefully goofy performances. So the thought of a new musical version, directed by noted hack Adam Shankman, disturbed me greatly. But to my surprise, Shankman’s film is actually pretty good, albeit somewhat mainstreamed and de-politicized. It still gets the point across, while being a fun little jaunt in its own right. Even Travolta in drag didn’t bother me as much as I expected – while I didn’t buy it realistically, it worked within the movie’s crazy funhouse-mirror world. The songs are decent, the performances are spirited. Chris Walken was just born to do musicals, wasn’t he? He’s amazing here, and I wished he were in more of the film. Michelle Pfeiffer is a suitably pissy Velma von Tussle, while Amanda Bynes is a surprisingly cute and sexy Penny Pingleton. I did miss some of the original’s more bizarre moments, though – especially the beatnik scene, which has always been my favorite (“let’s get naked and smoke!”). Some of the interracial-relationship issues feel a bit glossed over (the term “checkerboard chick” isn’t even mentioned until the very end) and the whole thing feels a bit sanitized compared to the original. But it still works, and if it inspires a new generation to expose themselves (so to speak) to John Waters, it can’t be all bad. ***

The Simpsons Movie – OK, how much fun was this? I honestly can’t imagine any true Simpsons fan walking out disappointed. You’d have to be awfully churlish for this film not to make you laugh. Whether you watch every episode of every season, or haven’t watched the show in years, the movie should absolutely work for you. There’s a ton of classic stuff here, from the opening scene lambasting anyone who paid to see “something you can get for free” to the hysterical sight gags and verbal jabs that they couldn’t possibly get away with on TV (Marge swearing made me laugh more than anything). I don’t understand the people who bitch that there isn’t enough of the supporting characters – there’s a reason they’re called supporting characters. Hello, McFly? The Simpson family is front and center, just as they should be! This ain’t The Disco Stu Movie. Each of the main characters gets to shine here, and there’s plenty of the subversive, satirical humor the show is known for (well, let’s face it, it used to be known for). Not to mention the great Albert Brooks, in what will most likely be the highest-grossing film of his entire career. I only wonder if the show will pick up where the movie left off, or if they will completely ignore everything that happened! But either way, this was such a delicious side trip, and well worth the long wait to see on the big screen. Mmmm… satire… ***1/2

The Bourne Ultimatum – more ass-kicking with America’s favorite amnesiac spy. What more can be said? Great action, great performances, badass stuff all around. Oh, and to Bill O’Reilly and the rest of the neocon cocks who bitch about the subversive subtext (oh yeah, our government never, ever does anything bad), how about you suck it? Better yet, just enjoy the ride and acknowledge the fundamental truths within the film like the rest of America. Possibly the most quality-consistent three-film series ever! ***1/2

Stardust – man, Paramount really fucked up in marketing this terrific film! By trying to sell it as “a fantasy film for adults”, and not advertising it on family-friendly channels, they pretty much guaranteed themselves a limited audience. Kids think it’s for adults, adults think it’s for kids! Oops! The truth is, Stardust is an excellent fantasy film that is perfectly suitable for anyone over the age of 9 or 10. If they’re not bothered by the PG-13 violence and innuendo of Pirates of the Caribbean, there’s nothing here that should shock or upset them. Just because it doesn’t talk down to kids doesn’t mean they can’t handle it. They should have referenced The Princess Bride in their ads, because everyone I know loves that fucking film, and this is the same type of deal. I haven’t read Neil Gaiman’s book, but Matthew Vaughn apparently did a bang-up job in adapting it to the screen. The story is quite wonderful (there’s a word I don’t use often), the effects are terrific and the performances are fantastic! Robert De Niro is absolutely hysterical here, in a role that would get him a Supporting Actor nod if there were any justice. He feels more alive (and awake) on screen than he has in years. Michelle Pfeiffer is again a deliciously wicked villainess (she could start a whole new career) and Claire Danes is luminous and feisty and very, very attractive here. I just love this fucking film! I love the story, I love the characters and I love the incredible, fanciful world they live in. It’s funny, it’s romantic (in a good way), it’s sweepingly epic, it’s just fantastic! The more I think about it, the more I realize that it’s an absolute crime that more people didn’t see this! It’s so rare that a film like this even gets made anymore, much less with this level of quality, that I honestly believe that Paramount’s marketing department should be shot (or at least fired) for not being able to bring people in to see this. I can’t imagine anyone of even moderate intelligence choosing to see Rush Hour 3 over this exquisitely crafted piece of work. They just didn’t work hard enough to sell it, and it’s a crying shame. One of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and I hope it will be rediscovered on DVD. ****

The Invasion – it’s pretty rare that such a fascinating failure hits screens with a thud – the only movie this summer with more of a protracted production history would be Alec Baldwin’s Shortcut to Happiness (aka The Devil and Daniel Webster) which was actually shot in 2001! But this comes a close second. Originally shot in 2005 by talented German director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall, Das Experiment), the film was recut with additional scenes directed by James McTeigue (V For Vendetta) and written by the Wachowski brothers (you know who they are) added in. The result is sort of a spellbinding mess, a movie that doesn’t work at all on any level, yet still retains an inherent fascination as an “I can’t believe they made that movie” kind of movie. This misguided latest version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers manages to be completely incompetent at generating suspense, rooting interest in its supposed heroine or in making whatever point about the state of the world it was trying to make. Nicole Kidman looks surprisingly hot here (for a woman being terrorized by aliens, I mean, not that she doesn’t look hot normally) and that baby-doll voice still gets to me, I have to admit. She’s actually not bad in the film. But the story makes no sense whatsoever, and all her efforts to make you care or at least believe what you’re watching come to naught. Daniel Craig just looks zombified here compared to his live-wire Bond. Who knows, maybe Hirschbiegel’s original version was brilliant and they fucked him over, but frankly the whole thing seems misconceived from the very beginning. It seems more like they had a movie that didn’t work, and did whatever they could to try to fix it. Too bad they failed completely at that task, but you have to admire the effort. I’m not sure what they were thinking by having the alien infestation be a virus that is spread by puking green slime in a person’s face. That’s just nasty in a vague, pointless way. But what’s really bizarre is the film’s supposed message – that humans are by nature doomed to commit atrocious acts of violence, war and genocide, and our only salvation could come from a possible alien invasion. Dude… what the hell kind of message is that? So I guess we shouldn’t strive for peace, love and progress, we should just continue to go around killing and raping each other and fucking each other over because, after all, we’re only human. And I thought I had a cynical view of the world! Fuck man! But even taking that statement as a given, why then should we root for Nikki to stem the alien invasion, as the film seems to want us to do? If anything, it seems more like the aliens have a point! It’s very odd that what was once a metaphor for the spread of Communism has now become the potential salvation of our fucked-up planet, and we’re not supposed to want it! How ridiculous! On the other hand, I understand why Nicole makes the choice that she makes – I just don’t understand why we’re supposed to cheer her on to get to that point. Oh, and it doesn’t help that the story is so awkwardly told that important plot points feel random and arbitrary, characters act inconsistently and illogically, and the invasion is so quickly and easily disposed of that it might as well have been a flu virus. Blah. I get that the story is told from Kidman’s character’s point of view, but it still feels small and underdeveloped for what’s supposed to be a simultaneous takeover of the entire planet. It’s a shame, because they had a chance here to actually say something and make a film that’s relevant to the world we live in (god knows the story’s been adapted enough for that purpose), and they completely blew it. Maybe this means Hollywood will think twice before they decide to do another one, who knows. For a good modern telling of this story, check out Abel Ferrara’s underrated 1993 Body Snatchers. * 1/2

Superbad – now here’s the Apatow movie that really deserved its phenomenon status this summer. But truth be told, Apatow only produced it, so give the credit to director Greg Mottola and writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. What can I say – this film is just fucking FUNNY. Hysterically, wonderfully raunchy and profane to the max, this is the best teen sex comedy in years, and makes American Pie look like the stupid little punk-ass bitch that it is. Jonah Hill and Michael Cera are a fantastic comedy team – Hill is especially great as a sex-obsessed pottymouth, a walking Id with a perpetual hard-on. But this wouldn’t work at all without Cera’s more deadpan, sensitive-guy performance balancing him out. But it’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse who walks away with the movie as “McLovin” the movie geek to end all geeks, the kid who makes Anthony Michael Hall look like Steve McQueen by comparison (I’m talking ‘80’s AMH, not Dead Zone bulked-up Hall, who actually does look like Steve McQueen). Together, the three of them are truly the ne plus ultra of movie geekdom, the point at which you can go no further. But they’re also surprisingly endearing and sweet, and the big shock is that behind all their locker-room dialogue, they actually like the girls they’re after and really want to be with them. They just have to scheme and connive their way to get there, which is probably the most realistic depiction of male-female dynamics I’ve ever seen in any movie. Rogen and Bill Hader are hysterical as the insane cops who take McLovin under their wing, and their antics often seem more juvenile than the kids’. The story initially seems like just one gag set-up after another, but there’s a poignant coda that suggests what the movie’s really been about all along, and that there’s more to this story than “teens want to get laid”. My one problem with the movie was that this seems to be the only high school in America where there’s apparently no social hierarchy, where guys like these could possibly score with total hotties, or even talk to them without getting their asses kicked by their jock boyfriends. Who knows, maybe that’s the way high school is now, I don’t know. But I doubt it. Some things really don’t change. Despite that, though, I absolutely loved this movie. It’s just HUGE, gigantic, Godzilla’s-footprint-sized laughs throughout, the kind of laughs that we rarely see in movies anymore. And it’s absolutely honest and direct about the teenage libido in a way that puts most of Hollywood’s “teen comedies” to shame. Oh, and Seth is right, home economics is bullshit. Trust me on this. ****

That about does it for now. I’ll be back with more reviews and rants about stuff. Later.

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