Monthly Archives: August 2007

Superbad (2007)

Seth Rogen makes me feel like a slacker. I’m two months older than him, but already he’s broken out as a comic actor on great-but-cancelled shows like Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, and now he has risen to headlining star thanks to the runaway success of Knocked Up. Now here comes Superbad, a comedy he’s co-written with his friend Evan Goldberg, and I haven’t even gotten one movie off the ground or, for that matter, a starring role in any TV series, canceled or on the air. Oh well. At least Rogen’s consistent attachment to quality projects makes me a happy, if marginally envious, moviegoer.

Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are high school seniors looking to score with the ladies. Their nerdy friend Fogell (Chistopher Mintz-Plasse) has a scheme to get himself a fake ID, and the trio seizes upon this opportunity to become important figures in the teen circuit. With the promise of the fake ID, Jules (Emma Stone) has asked Seth to provide all the alcohol for a house part that she’s throwing that night. Not only that, Evan’s unrequited crush Becca (Martha MacIsaac) is going to be there. Seth and Evan figure that this party will be the best chance they have ever had to get lucky thanks to the miracles of what some would call, “liquid panty remover.” They just have to get the booze first. Fogell’s ID lists him as simply as McLovin. He is set back when his attempt to purchase alcohol is interrupted by a robber. He’s interviewed by Officers Michaels (Rogen) and Slater (Bill Hader) who take a shine to McLovin (“It sounds like a sexy hamburger”). The threesome spend a madcap night drinking, busting crime, sharing worldly wisdom, and running away at the faintest sign of other police officers.

First off, Superbad is raucously funny. It’s plenty profane and has several memorable moments, like Seth’s imaginative scenarios for buying alcohol and a dance that goes in a very unexpected direction. The humor is timeless and built around the nervous interaction between the sexes; there are very few jokes that reference pop culture or dependent on a specific context. I imagine what makes Superbad hilarious will still make it hilarious in 20 years to a new audience that can relate to the same trials and tribulations of teen life, though perhaps at that point we will be replaced by robots.

What separates Superbad from other offensive sex comedies is that it’s really a story about male friendship. I don’t mean in the tacky, Hollywood vein of working together for a common goal, which is commonly to lose one’s virginity. Superbad is another entry into the Judd Apatow (40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up) school of comedy that professes that a comedy should be character-based and that those characters should be painfully human. This is no mere genre movie. Underneath all the boobs and booze discussion is the pain and worry of a long-standing friendship being able to survive. Seth and Evan have been close friends all of their lives, but many good friends have grown apart in time thanks to their lives moving in different places. There’s unspoken tension between the two of them and Seth is concerned he’s about to be abandoned by the person that means the most to him. Many films touch upon the indelible companionship between men but few can accurately articulate the authentic love that can foster bonds of friendship. Superbad explores the exploits of real friendship, and while it’s chock full of funny the film also has its fair share of moderately touching moments. You really do care about the characters and want them to triumph. Fogell’s ascension to becoming a confidant, cool lady’s man is one of the summer’s true pleasures. Apatow’s fingerprints are all over this, and that is a glorious thing.

But this isn’t some phony Porky’s-style high school sex comedy with male fantasy set pieces and lots of dunderheaded beauties prone to bouts of frequent nakedness. Superbad is a relatively realistic portrayal of high school life in the world of movies. This isn’t a school ordered by cliques of entrenched stereotypes like the jocks, the Goths, etc. In fact, I don’t think Superbad makes any social distinction between the students.

Superbad is a celebration of the glories and anxieties of the male members’ member. Even for a teen sex comedy, the film is very phallus-centric, complete with a hilarious anecdote about a “treasure chest of dick drawings.” It seems Seth, at a young age, was stricken with the unique compulsion to draw a phalanx of penises. The anecdote is quite unexpected and funny and underscores how often the penis prevails in the minds of young men. The boys discuss at length the life and times of the penis, especially how women can compliment this. The constant dick-chat may get old after a while for most of the female audience in attendance (a.k.a. those without), and I can’t exactly blame them, but Superbad does convey, in a convincing manner, how much teenagers think about sex (“You know how many foods are shaped like dicks? The best kind”). Some have argued that there’s an undercurrent of misogyny with Superbad, but I feel like those detractors are missing the deeper point. These guys are totally terrified of women and go through one wild night just to avoid actually confessing their feelings to the objects of their affection. These guys don’t hate women, they’re just frightened and utterly bewildered by them, and so they rely on what pop culture and their peers have taught them is the way to a woman’s heart: booze.

The movie is taken to an extra level of excellence thanks primarily to the outstanding comedic performances by its cast. Cera was a star of brilliant understatement on TV’s Arrested Development, and when it comes to portraying awkwardness, Cera is king. The gangly teen is a textbook example on high school awkwardness; he feels uncomfortable in his own skin. He seems antsy to leave most scenes. His self-effacing smile, wide-eyed gawk, and nattering stutter are spot-on signals of clumsy, confused, and embarrassed teen life. Cera is a master with impeccably punctuated line deliveries. The kid could make any line funny by flawlessly placing a pause in the right place. Arrested Development was a great showcase for Cera’s comedic chops, and now Superbad is a juicy platform for the funniest straight man on the planet (and he’s only 18 years old).

Hill has been a supporting player in previous Apatow productions, but this is his first major role. Hill is the loud, boorish, vulgar, and more outlandish half of the duo. When he gets worked into a frothy rage you can practically feel his indignant teen spittle. What makes Hill special is that, in an instant, he can go from foul-mouthed cretin to a vulnerable buffoon. In the end, when the police bust a party, Seth runs on instinct and his instinct is to save his friend. It’s the versatility of Hill that allows Superbad to channel the sweet, gooey center behind all the sex-obsessed hijinks.

Not all the different elements of Superbad seem to fit together. The cops subplot is played very broad and relies on a lot of physical comedy; it feels at odds with the genuine teen comedy that is the heart and soul of the movie. The subplot is indeed full of laughs and it turns McLovin into a legendary teen character, but it feels like a separate movie, albeit an interesting one. For a male-dominated comedy, the female roles are pretty sparse but even those take heed not to slip into empty stereotypes. Becca and Jules are portrayed as sensible and approachable.

In short, Superbad is super good, and it’s thanks to relatable characters, a sweet sensibility, plenty of raunch, and some excellent performances. Apatow has opened the 2007 summer with a winner and now he closes it with another one.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Stardust (2007)

Director Matthew Vaughn is about as far away from his previous film as he can get. 2005’s Layer Cake is about as far from princesses and unicorns and pixie dust as can be expected. He turned down X-Men 3 to helm this adaptation of famed comic scribe Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel, Stardust. In style with one of the film’s characters, allow me to say to Vaughn, well played, sir.

In turn of the century England, Tristan (Charlie Cox) is trying to woo Victoria (Sienna Miller), the haughty town hottie in the small village of Wall. The town is called such because there is a winding stonewall that runs alongside that people are forbidden to cross. He’s given seven days to retrieve a fallen star for Victoria to prove his affection for her. In order to do so, he needs to venture beyond the wall, and beyond the wall is another world altogether. The fallen star is a result of an dying king (Peter O’Toole) hurling his enchanted necklace to the heavens. The jewelry collides with a star and causes it to crash to earth. But it’s no smoldering rock taking refuge in that crater; the star has actually taken the form of a slender, long-haired blonde woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes). I can only hope other astral bodies that crash into this planet will result in the same lucky outcome. But Tristan is not the only one after the fallen star. Three very old witches have taken notice and seek to cut out the star’s heart and consume it, which will grant them youth once again. The oldest witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) uses the last bit from the previous star to shed her wrinkles, but every time she uses a speck of magic she loses part of her much-desired youth. Also on the hunt for the star are the king’s ruthless sons, each trying to retrieve their father’s necklace and declare themselves the next king, and each trying to bump off their family competition.

Stardust is very much in the fractured fairy tale style of The Princess Bride, complete with nudges and winks. The movie works more with the macabre, but this only seems to heighten its magical qualities. I loved the ongoing wisecrack-filled commentary from the increasing number of ghost princes (“Well played”), and I loved that each was stuck in limbo Beetlejuice-style looking as they did when they died. Stardust is stuffed with hocus pocus hokum but it never seems foolish; the movie takes great steps to present the rules and characters of its universe, and as all of the assorted creatures race toward a showdown, Stardust makes total sense. It doesn’t betray the logistic parameters it establishes for such a fantastical parallel world. It means that if you can accept the opening 20 minutes than you should be fine for the duration of Stardust. The film spins a familiar tale of hidden princesses, races against time, battles over a throne, and wicked witches, but it handles the material with aplomb. Stardust‘s biggest asset, beyond the cheeky sense of humor Vaughn instills, is that literally anything could happen next. Suddenly there’s a flying pirate ship out to harness lightning, or a goat-turned-inn keeper, and it’s all so exciting what could be waiting around the corner next.

Vaughn assembles a lot of pieces and then keeps the momentum strong. He makes judicious use of special effects and keeps the audience involved with all the story’s moving pieces. Vaughn has taken the usual fantasy quest framework and channeled the imagination and dry wit of Gaiman. Not every moment runs as smooth as possible, and some are downright awkward, but Stardust stokes a nice balance between high-flying adventure and doodle-on-your-notebook romanticized love. Vaughn’s steady control and vision allow the material to really shine because the audience can open themselves to the magic of the movie.

The acting ensemble brings a lot of enjoyment to this enchanted tale. Pfeiffer is a bewitching villain and relishes her bad girl role; she’s a devious delight but is even better when dealing with the physical comedy of her increasingly aging body. De Niro is immeasurably enjoyable thanks to a role that conflicts with audience expectations for the famous force of movie masculinity. I was howling with laughter watching him cross-dress, swish, and become a giant exaggerated gay stereotype. It might seem trite or offensive to some had it not been for the setup and the film’s tolerant philosophy. Danes delivers a performance that seems to teeter on camp. She ramps up her vocal inflections thanks to her hyper English accent and seems to perform like she’s in front of a mirror and testing out all of her facial muscles. A bit odd. Cox fits snugly into the Hollywood slot of bland male lead.

The one main drawback for the film is that the screwball bickering between Tristan and Yvaine never really works. The constant arguing rarely comes across as funny and is too poorly veiled to camouflage the film’s romantic intentions. The romantic setup is pretty formulaic. The audience will know right away that Tristan is not meant for his conceited and high-maintenance village girl, and that true love is staring him in the face along the course of his most fantastic voyage. We know from the first second of their meeting that their combative relationship will in time transform into a romantic relationship. But that’s not to say Stardust isn’t a romantic fable. Its heart is simple but it is genuine. While its path is predestined and unshakable, this does not stop the audience from feeling something between Tristan and Yvaine and their eventual coupling. I may be going soft, or perhaps Stardust just won me over completely, but I found myself even slightly moved by the romantic climax.

Stardust is assembled, like most fairy tales, from the working parts of other tales. It’s rather predictable with its big moments (boy meets star girl, boy loses star girl, boy regains star girl), but oh what a fun time the film has from point to point. Stardust is vibrantly alive and cheerfully creative and watching the film almost becomes a dizzying experience. It has a sweet and gentle romance at heart, and its knowing whimsy and charms are hard to resist. You’ll never look at Robert De Niro the same way again.

Nate’s Grade: A-

I Know Who Killed Me (2007)

We interrupt the nonstop barrage of Lindsay Lohan media coverage and speculation to bring you her movie, or, more accurately, further proof that Lohan is in desperate need of a career makeover. The tabloid target has a pretty shoddy track record of late when it comes to picking acting projects, so it’s no wonder that her splashy private life has overshadowed her cinematic duds. Thanks to a second summer DUI Lohan was unable to promote her new movie, I Know Who Killed Me. This may be a blessing in disguise because if I were her I would want to draw the least amount of attention possible to what is destined to contend for the worst film of 2007.

We open to Aubrey (Lohan) reading her story in her high school class. The story revolves around a stripper named Dakota and the amorous attention she earns from creepy older gentlemen. One night Aubrey goes missing and the police believe she may be the next victim of the local blue-gloved serial killer that hacks off the limbs of his victims. The last girl, currently residing in the morgue, is missing her right forearm and her right leg. Her parents (Neal McDonough, Julia Ormond) fear the worst. Then a motorist finds Aubrey’s mutilated body on the side of the road. She wakes up in the hospital and will survive, except the problem is that she has no idea who any Aubrey is; her name is Dakota and she worked as a stripper. She vows to find the “real” Aubrey.

This films is sleazy and tries to energize a lame straight-to-video thriller with some tawdry turns. The movie exists to pacify the cult of Lohan; there’s flesh to tantalize those attracted to the freckles wild child, and there’s distasteful torture for the detractors. Without Lohan’s name, I Know Who Killed Me would never have gotten a theatrical release. The torture sequences are drawn out to the soundtrack of Lohan’s muffled screams. The violence fails to excite or horrify, but instead it just seems like a sorry attempt to ape the success of recent torture-heavy horror flicks.

The sex is even less believable. Aubrey/Dakota, fresh from the hospital, beds the quarterback in one of the least convincing, most unintentionally hilarious sex scenes of recent memory. She throws the jock onto her bed and pins him down for a good pumping. In the ensuing two minutes, the pair engage in exaggerated and noisy PG-13 sex where the woman stays on top and keeps her bra on the whole time (does any woman do that?). The whole time the movie cuts back and forth to Aubrey/Dakota’s mother listening and furiously cleaning the kitchen sink. I think the juxtaposition is intended to be funny, and it is, just not in the manner the filmmakers were probably hoping for.

The movie would be more revolting if it weren’t so incomprehensible. I Know Who Killed Me begins to disassemble at a fantastic rate of idiocy once it attempts to explain its central Aubrey/Dakota conflict. But the movie only presents two options: 1) Aubrey and Dakota are the same person and she just created a fictional persona as a means of post-traumatic stress (yawn), or 2) somehow there are TWO Lohans on this planet (what?). The first scenario is pretty dull and obvious and way too feeble for such a dank exploitation thriller. The second scenario requires a scheme so convoluted and ridiculous that it cannot be taken seriously. In the end, the movie becomes Saw meets The Parent Trap, and it’s every bit as terrible as you would concur from such a description.

For the sake of the morbidly curious, I will be discussing some heavy-duty spoilers to fully shine the spotlight on how ludicrous the movie gets. Don’t say you were not warned. Aubrey/Dakota keeps swearing she is indeed her own woman, but no one seems to believe her. She researches the unexplainable via the Internet and it is here that she gathers the theory of stigmatic twins. The idea is that whatever happens to one twin will magically happen to the other, no matter the distance and no matter the situation. In the online example, a man with gambling debts is shot in the throat, and thousands of miles away his twin brother bleeds to death thanks to a perfectly placed and ill-timed hole in his own throat. I Know Who Killed Me tries to wrap up its questions with answers that would seem preposterous even in a soap opera. Not only does the film give us the old long-lost twin chestnut but it also goes the extra inane inning to say that one twin endures whatever happens to the other. So when Aubrey is losing limbs during her capture, Dakota is mysteriously waking up some considerable weight loss. If my limbs were disappearing I might consult a doctor. Essentially, if there’s any merit to this theory, the best way to get revenge on your twin (long-lost or not) is through extreme masochism.

I Know Who Killed Me is littered with stupid behavior and stupid plot points that stick in your brain. A doctor fixes Aubrey/Dakota with a pair of prosthetics – a fake leg and a robot arm. He slides the robot hand onto her stump and it reacts to her nerve impulses. As soon as I saw this scene I blurted out, “Oh my God, Lindsay Lohan becomes the Terminator!” Where the scene earns its stupid wings is that the doctor says she’ll have to charge her prosthetic when not in use or else the battery will go dead. Naturally, I’m thinking he’s referring to the robot arm of doom, but no, he’s talking about her freaking leg. Aubrey/Dakota’s leg amputation is below her knee; therefore this fake leg is little more than a pole. There’s nothing mechanical to it. Why does it need to be plugged in? Will it hop away? It doesn’t matter because the leg and arm never pose any trouble or danger for Aubrey/Dakota. It’s a strange setup without any payoff.

The bloody ending to I Know Who Killed Me is such a mess that it takes special attention just to pick apart its awfulness for further clarity. Aubrey/Dakota figures out the whole complicated rigmarole and declares in titular fashion, “I know who killed me.” Given the silly stigmatic twin theory, even this statement is incorrect from a tense standpoint (if it was true she wouldn’t be able to utter the words). Aubrey/Dakota and her dad head off to the dismembering serial killer’s home without bothering to contact the authorities. She says they don’t have time because, apparently, cell phones do not exist in this universe. I don’t know how it’s possible for Aubrey/Dakota to dig up a grave with one arm. When she goes running into the woods she’s looking for an owl from a vision. That’s good. It’s not like the woods are big or have more than one owl. For that matter, how did Aubrey even get kidnapped in the first place when she was among a large crowd on a busy sidewalk? Would no on have noticed and done something? Even the identity of the serial killer cannot give the movie a sense of finality that it wants. This is your standard serial killer movie where the killer has no working motivation and their identity is relatively meaningless. The limb-slicing maniac might as well have been the janitor seen in the background of one scene for a fleeting moment.

Lohan gives a performance that suits the material – dreadful. Her idea of a bad girl seems more like a perturbed and insolent child. Lohan gets to hurl her share of F-bombs but never seems adult in whatever she’s doing onscreen. Her husky voice sounds like she has a continuous head cold. She never decides to alter her walk or physical movement. Lohan seems painfully lost during her stripper escapades. Lohan struts and makes goo-goo faces that she thinks are sultry. After a while you start to realize that Lohan is just preening for imaginary red carpet photographers and has no clue. I Know Who Killed Me is a depressing low point for such a once-promising young actress who had the world on a string.

Director Chris Sivertson seems to know he’s the captain of a doomed vessel. He overwhelms the movie with irritating lighting excesses. Sivertson takes a cue from Shyamalan and ramps up the color symbolism; there’s blue roses, blue gloves, blue killer tools, blue stained glass of blue roses. You may start to wonder if the Blue Man Group suddenly became a symphonic serial killing side project.

I Know Who Killed Me is a disaster in every sense of the word. The ineptness on display is staggering. The movie is trash from start to finish but it’s not even redeemable trash. The movie tries to cover its numerous plot holes with images of Lohan canoodling with a stripper pole, but the trouble is that Lohan is abysmal as a figure of lust. She’s supposed to be provocative in her first real adult role but really seems more like an inebriated pre-teen playing sexy dress-up. I Know Who Killed Me is a ludicrous, incomprehensible, and rather sundry thriller that won’t help Lohan’s troubled life. I have a lot of good will for Lohan after her performances in Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, and yes, at one time, I found her attractive. I want her to succeed, but truthfully, if she needs to know who’s killing her career, the answer is in a mirror.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

I think the best aspect of the The Bourne Ultimatum, the third in the memory-troubled spy series, is how kinetically improvised it feels. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is a human weapon and he thinks constantly with his body, feeling the situation and his environment, and he comes up with improbable weapons, be them pens, magazines, or kicking ass with just a book (knowledge is power). Bourne doesn’t rely on fancy gadgets or a caustic wit; he just outsmarts the competition by reading his world and reacting instinctively, and that is thrilling to watch. The Bourne films have separated themselves from other spy series like James Bond and standout because of how viscerally realistic they play out. That said, Bourne still survives scrapes that would kill any mortal. At this point, we know just about all we need to know with most of the characters, so Ultimatum is one long, fantastic, and gripping series of chases between Bourne and the CIA operatives that want to rub him out. Ultimatum is Paul Greengrass’ (United 93) second film in the series and he enhances the excitement through his docu-drama style of shooting. The editing is constantly roving and perfectly channels the nervous wariness of a spy that is constantly looking over his shoulder. The action sequences are stellar and raft with suspense and top notch stunt work amongst exotic locales. Ultimatum tacks on some awkward political commentary (black hoods, secret CIA torture, breaking the law to “win” the battle against terror) and tries squeezing its story into a fight between Bourne and the dangerous and lawless elements of the American government that have flourished under President Bush’s watch. It doesn’t quite work in the context of a summer action movie, but thanks for trying. The Bourne Ultimatum is a spry and refreshing action movie that serves to cleanse the summer palate of huge special effects blockbusters.

Nate’s Grade: A-

%d bloggers like this: