Monthly Archives: October 2008
Old people and rock and roll seem like contradictory terms. It’s easier to imagine a 70-something grandma listening to the soothing tunes of Lawrence Welk or the Andrews Sisters than the likes of Sonic Youth and The Clash. Young @ Heart is a documentary that follows a unique chorus made completely of senior citizens (the youngest member is 72) who travel the country singing contemporary rock songs. Now, bear witness to great-grandmothers rocking at a reasonable hour and partying on days where they take their meds.
Once old people reach a certain aged age they fall into the same category as children, and by that I mean you can position them to do anything out of the ordinary and it suddenly becomes adorable. Seeing a baby wear a top hat? Cute. Seeing an old person dance to a modern rock song? Cute. I don’t make the rules, folks, but the end of life and the beginning of life have much in common, which includes the universal appeal of young and old doing things unlikely for their age. So, yes, Young @ Heart has a steady supply of adorable moments, especially as you watch how joyous many of the members are when they practice. Many members of the chorus have severe medical ailments and profess that participating and singing has medicinal benefits. They feel young and energized, and sometimes the members will defy doctor’s orders to attend. It is clear how much singing can mean to these people, and watching them come alive is undeniably heartwarming, but it’s downright moving when the Young at Heart chorus branch out. They perform at a prison and literally bring incarcerated prisoners to tears. I’ll admit that I was fighting back tears myself during the stirring performance of Coldplay’s “Fix You,” which is given a somewhat profound new meaning. The lyrics, “Lights will guide you home,” and “When you lose someone you can’t replace,” are given more relevance when sung by octogenarians who have all experienced recent loss amongst their ranks.
With such a naturally intriguing premise, it’s a shame then that director Stephen Walker doesn’t do more with the material. In many ways, Young @ Heart is a rather ordinary documentary that forgoes several opportunities to dig deeper. The interviews are rather basic and rarely penetrating, and the narrative structure of practicing for the big show means that the concluding fifteen minutes will be locked into being the performance. Walker narrates the movie and often inserts himself into the film because it seems like he wants to be part of the fun. Documentaries can succeed from objective and subjective point of views, but I get frustrated when people like Walker don’t want to merely tell the story but piggyback so they are part of the story. It smacks me of narcissism.
I think there was a stronger dramatic dynamic with Young @ Heart than what Walker captures, and I think he misses this because he had lowered ambitions for the film simply to document the seven-week period of practice. Every now and then you’ll discover a moment that points to what Young @ Heart had the potential to become, but Walker’s intention is more along the lines at gushing at what geezers can do. I get that Walker feels affection for his subjects but couldn’t he have gone further than the old-people-sing-young-people-songs gimmick? Some times the film feels like it has as much depth as a prototypical behind-the-scenes featurette on a DVD.
Walker evenly divides the film between performances and interviews and he also doesn’t overdose on the pathos even after deaths hit the Young at Heart clan. The movie has several music videos where the old folks sing to songs like “Golden Years,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” and “Stayin’ Alive.” As you can see, each song is given something of a twist. However, the music videos come across as cheesy and unnecessary since seeing the performers live would be more interesting and real. Including several music videos, of songs that we never see the chorus practice no less, seems like wasted time that could have been spent getting to know our cast of characters better. I’d rather better know them as people than laugh and giggle at them performing The Bee Gees at a bowling alley.
There are some chorus members that separate from the pack like 92-year-old Eileen Hall who used to be a burlesque dancer many moons ago. She’s the oldest in the film and yet in many ways has the most indomitable spirit, frequently cracking jokes and making suggestive statements that Walker deems to be “flirting.” Fred Knittle is a man who was told he’d have two years to live after suffering his latest heart attack. By the time he rejoins the chorus he’s at two years and four months and running. He ably steps into the solo spot to sing “Fix You” after the original singer passes away. The moment is so pure and emotional that it reminds you about the power of music in a non-saccharine way. One of the more interesting figures in the film is Bob Cilman, the music director of the Young at Heart chorus. Here is a man in his 50s teaching contemporary rock songs to the elderly, and yet the film never explores this man and his infinite patience. What are his reasons for doing the Young at Heart chorus? What does he think about his own life’s purpose? The movie would have strongly benefited by spending more time exploring the life of this man and his unique mission. I want to know what makes him tick.
My faults with the film do not fall upon the subjects. This batch of senior citizen rockers is a delightful group and watching them perform can be entertaining and occasionally inspiring. However, I cannot fully recommend it because its scope and interests are far too narrow given the subject matter. Director Walker would rather treat his senior subjects like they were posing for a calendar in adorable poses, and I’m glad he has such warm affection for these lively octogenarians. But his affection clouds his filmmaking judgment and Walker ignores plenty of palpable drama. The concluding concert will certainly produce smiles and some toe tapping, but this drama could have been so much more. I can honestly say that, beyond the communal experience, there is no reason to catch this movie in a theater. It will play the same on your TV screen. If only Walker had listened a little harder to his older subjects then maybe he would have realized that true wisdom does not come merely from a cute gimmick.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The story of Henry the Eighth and his many wives is a tale full of romance, danger, betrayal, and sweeping historical changes; it’s the most popular soap opera of its age. The 700-page book was naturally going to get slimmed down as a feature film, and The Other Boleyn Girl feels a bit too streamlined for all the heavy historical events that take place. The production values are all top-notch and the story has some juicy moments. It presents an intriguing angle by showcasing the conniving rivalry between the Boleyn sisters (Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman). The acting falls under that period film gravity where the actors all speak stately and enunciate every syllable slowly, like they were testing out the sound for the first time. Portman is especially fun in a villainous role. Eric Bana is completely at odds with history as Henry VIII, but I suppose it would be harder for modern audiences to accept young nubile ladies vying for the affection of a huge, ugly man with a leg of mutton in his grip.
Nate’s Grade: B
2008 is becoming a year dominated by Tina Fey. She won three Emmys for her Best Comedy TV series 30 Rock, including writing and acting, and her dead-on portrayal of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has branded the public perception of this political figure. Baby Mama is a mildly entertaining comedy that works because of the finely honed chemistry between Fey and her former Saturday Night Live co-star, Amy Poehler. The movie is at its best when these two women can play off one another. The banter isn’t laugh-out-loud funny but provokes plenty of smiles and chuckles. The movie goes in an unforeseen direction in the third act that attempts to raise the stakes through drama, but it feels like a disappointing direction for what is essentially a female buddy comedy. The jokes flow at a steady pace and the movie has a great supporting cast of big names that know how to leave their mark, like Steve Martin as a daffy New Age CEO and Sigourney Weaver as a amazingly fertile boss.
Nate’s Grade: B
This may be the most boring film about treasure hunting I’ve seen in a long time. Clearly the filmmakers were intending to strike the comic/romance/adventure balance of Romancing the Stone, but boy does this flick flounder. It progresses but it never builds any sense of momentum; Fool’s Gold works almost entirely in lateral moves so no scene feels any more important than the other. It’s like the film succumbed to Matthew McConaughey’s foggy, stoner spirit and decides to just shrug its shoulders through gunfights and explosions. The characters are grotesquely annoying and yet the supporting characters keep elbowing into what should be a combative romance between Kate Hudson and McConaughey. It’s like the filmmakers thought exotic locations, sunny skies, and extremely tan lead actors would take care of the rest. Nothing in this movie ever crosses over into intentional comedy. The treasure angle is so contrived that it requires extensive sit-downs to just go over the convoluted exposition. Fool’s Gold is an empty-headed errand that takes far too long to go absolutely nowhere. For goodness sake, the movie has a puffy Malcolm-Jamal Warner (Theo from The Cosby Show) as a dreadlocked Caribbean gangster. You tell me if you think that sounds like a good idea.
Nate’s Grade: C-
I was a big fan of the first outing to White Castle, a crude stoner comedy that also happened to be clever in its outrageousness. The Harold and Kumar sequel returns the same writers but what the hell happened? The first film separated itself from its class of juvenile jokesters because it had charm and wit, but this mediocre movie just stumbles from one uninspired comedic setup to another. The boys get mistaken for terrorists and then the movie becomes a ramshackle road trip through America. The gags are lame and easily telegraphed. Regrettably, many jokes are reheated from the first film, like Kumar’s fantasies involving an anthropomorphic living bag of weed. The presence of the hysterically gifted Neil Patrick Harris gives the film a boost but even NPH cannot save these less-than-stellar shenanigans. The comic set pieces don’t add up together into something greater, and the only scene worth remembering is when the boys smoke weed with President Bush. You know you’re in bad shape when even the gratuitous nudity feels tacky and boring.
Nate’s Grade: C
It’s amazing how integrated pornography has become in our culture. Merely a few decades ago people had to wear disguises to venture out to a ratty theater to watch an adult movie alongside plenty of folks in raincoats helping to add to the sticky floors. Nowadays releasing a sex tape is considered a career boost. Porn stars have replaced supermodels as rock star arm candy, porn has become more socially acceptable, and a wealth of bizarre and explicit possibilities exist just a few keystrokes away. In the end, it’s all fantasy with bad acting.
And yet Kevin Smith’s newest comedy, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, got in trouble with advertisers because of people getting in a tizzy over the goofy word “porno.” Major League Baseball was told that a father was uncomfortably asked by his son what a “porno” was after seeing a commercial during a ball game. Heaven forbid our nation’s parents have to deal with an uncomfortable subject, so baseball banned any ads for the movie. Many newspapers nationwide have refused to list the full title. The original poster was deemed too inappropriate so Smith and crew devised a poster of stick figures. Poster version 2.0 then came under fire for being attractive to children because of the stick figure art. It seems Zack and Miri is getting it at both ends (no pun intended).
Times are tough for lifelong friends Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks). They’re scrambling to pay their bills and keep the electricity in their apartment during a chilly winter in Pennsylvania. Inspired by a conversation with a chatty gay porn star (Justin Long) at their tenth year high school reunion, Zack believes amateur porn can solve their money woes. The two will make their own porn video and sell it to the alumni list from their graduating class, who, Zack rationalizes, would buy a porn if they knew someone involved. Zack convinces his coffee shop co-worker Delaney (Craig Robinson) to help fund the project. Delaney agrees as long as he can have a say in casting; after many years of marriage he is eager to see something new. The team also recruits a squeaky-voiced stripper (current porn starlet Katie Morgan), an old bachelor party performer (former porn starlet Traci Lords), a cameraman (Jeff Anderson), and a man free from any inhibition (Jason Mewes). But Zack and Miri must confront their unspoken feelings for one another as they approach their own sex scene. Can they go from platonic friends to lovers?
Being a Smith film, naturally Zack and Miri is outrageous and often hysterical. The film manages to become witty and dirty at the same time, often stringing together vulgarities in exciting and imaginative ways (the curious “Dutch Rudder” as a means of escaping being deemed gay). Smith has a love of the profane. The movie is vulgar like most Smith movies but the beauty of its filth is in the sparkling, rapid-fire dialogue that adds eloquence to the scatological. This is Smith’s comedic brand, the verbose dirty joke. As in other Smith comedies, the true humor is not found in set pieces and set-ups but in the everyday camaraderie of the cast and through casual conversations. Smith writes characters that you just want to listen to for hours. Zack and Miri does have some funny moments that are specific to the production of randy moviemaking, like an unforgettable de-clogging that “frosts” a cameraman. The joke is swift. However, akin to the Judd Apatow brand of comedy, this is a movie where the charm is watching the characters interact, regardless of setting. I do think the movie unfortunately missed plenty of other potential gags on the silly minutia of homemade pornography. How about the crazy duties for a sound design? Imagine a guy trying to recreate the many weird bodily sounds during sex. I’m mildly shocked that Smith didn’t even touch the vagaries of pubic hair style.
What the movie does nicely is dwell upon the distinction between love and sex. Now I’m not conveniently forgetting the thousands of movies that have come before and dealt with the topic of intimacy and carnality, but Zack and Miri goes into the nuts and bolts (no pun intended) of an industry that has turned intimacy into a mass-market business model. Zack and Miri stress out about their Big Scene and try to convince themselves that it won’t mean anything, but of course their body language betrays them. The actual deed is an obvious turning point for the twosome and count this as one sex scene that is actually, well, emotionally climactic and, yes, sexy. Though the camera only stays at shoulder-length and alternates between two angles, the actors convincingly convey an array of genuine feelings, notably love. It’s not easy for an actor to display honest-to-goodness love, but Banks and Rogen achieve this feat. The aftermath of their onscreen coupling extends into a seemingly unnecessary third act that divides them apart in a contrived fashion. Seriously, the typical third act misunderstanding in standard romantic comedy fluff is alive and well in a Smith vehicle. The characters do not react to this misunderstanding in a realistic manner; one character would rather be sequestered than easily prove their innocence.
While Zack and Miri has plenty of laughs and a nice, mushy center, I cannot help but feel mixed about the results. The characters are not nearly as sharply drawn as they have been in other Apatow comedies, even other Kevin Smith movies. I can go back and remember the multiple dimensions of the funny people that populated Superbad, Sarah Marshall, 40-Year Old Virgin and others, but Kevin Smith’s latest comedy suffers in comparison. Zack and Miri are the only characters with moderate sums of characterization, and yet their unspoken love is essentially the bulk of that. Neither character is well defined or explored in a substantial way that doesn’t involve the other. I get that the movie is a romance. But I expect more from characters than to be defined by whom they desire. I just wanted more. Yes Zack is a slacker who says he’s just looking for a good time, though we know he has his sights set on more, and yes Miri is a gorgeous gal with a lot of patience, but these characters are staples of Kevin Smith movies. The assorted side characters have fun moments but are mostly insignificant. There’s the stripper with a heart of gold, the been-around-the-block type, the henpecked husband, the secret freak behind the button-down exterior, the loudmouth, and the sex-crazed dude. Zack and Miri establishes the idea of filmmaking as a community by introducing this lot, but the movie then forgets to incorporate the supporting characters in meaningful ways. They’re mostly used for jokes that fail to extend beyond the immediate. A late scene involving Delaney’s angry wife (Tisha Campbell-Martin) relies on too many grating “white boy” japes that I tuned out. I’m not intending to slam Smith’s film, but the lack of character work hampers the audience investment in the central romance.
What is lacking on paper is nearly compensated by the great performances from Rogen and Banks. Both are on loan from the Apatow comedy company, and both are skilled at being raunchy one second and heartfelt the next. Rogen finds his comic groove easily and is an enjoyable schmo that taps hidden ambition in the most unlikely of scenarios. It really is Banks who comes across as the star of the flick. She can talk trash with the boys but she is radiant during the film’s dramatic moments, selling Miri’s emotional highs and lows with crinkling smiles and fluttering eyelashes. Banks has always been a solid actress underutilized by most of her marginal film roles. With Zack and Miri, Banks showcases a devilish comedic gleam. Of course yet again the audience must believe that a beautiful gal with a beaming smile would be down on her luck finding a good guy.
In the end (no pun intended), Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a crude romantic comedy that might have benefited by more attention spent on the romance or the comedy. The tone never breaks as sharply as with Chasing Amy, arguably still Smith’s finest accomplishment, but the dirty humor and the gooey romance have a hard time expanding because of the presence of each other. Too often the ribald humor doesn’t feel fully realized because the dirty jokes are just window dressing for the romance, and I had trouble fully engaging with the romance because the characters haven’t been rendered to have substantial depth. Smith may have been better served by making his movie longer; the film is barely an hour and 40 minutes long. Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a sweet movie with a dirty mind but it does not measure up to recent comedies like the best of Apatow’s brand. Smith is a talented wordsmith who certainly knows how to make an entertaining comedy, and Zack and Miri certainly entertains, but like pornography, it just made me want something more fleshed-out and real (no pun intended).
Nate’s Grade: B-
Count me as one of the many who were surprised at how effective Sylvester Stallone was when he dared to make a sixth Rocky movie. That 2006 swan song was an effective and somewhat emotional return for a character that had been dormant for over 15 years. Now Stallone is trying to work his resurrection magic yet again. Rambo was the epitome of the 1980s action star as he laid waste to vast stretches of enemy armies. What few remember is that Rambo’s first film, 1982’s First Blood, is actually more of a psychological drama about a Vietnam War veteran coping with adjusting to life back home. The action only comes at the end and a grand total of four people perish. Stallone had bigger plans for the character, I suppose. Just as he did with Rocky, Stallone has brought back an old character now with an older face.
John Rambo (Stallone) has been living outside the Burma (now known as Myanmar) border in Southeast Asia. He’s commissioned by a group of missionaries, including pretty blonde Sarah (Julie Benz), to transport them upriver into Burma. They want to do aid work, but Rambo says that Bibles cannot help a country overrun by men with guns. Eventually, all those Christian missionaries are kidnapped by a ruthless warlord. Rambo teams up with a group of mercenaries to go back and rescue them. A lot of people die horribly in the process.
Do we need another Rambo movie? The first one was linked to the Vietnam War, the increasingly cartoonish sequels involved John Rambo going back to Vietnam and then going to Afghanistan to help take out the invading Soviets. Perhaps the figure of Rambo should be added as a footnote to Charlie Wilson’s War. But the world has changed and the notion of a one-man army taking out the trash seems a tad ludicrous when a modern enemy isn’t a clear, identifiable source. Stallone wisely returns his scarred soldier to the jungle, back to where atrocities are going down in international lands. In some manner, Rambo becomes like a wishful force for justice, and instead of Vietnamese and Russian soldiers being shot out of jingoistic American glory, it’s Burmese military warlords that meet their makers. Stallone even opens the film with real archival footage of the Burma military junta committing violence acts. The bad guys feel real and relevant, which makes it partially more fulfilling when Rambo meets out his own brand of punishment.
The dialogue is sparse and kept to an expository minimum. This is for good cause. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to perfectly showcase for you why it is a blessing that Rambo is as dialogue-free as possible. This exchange happens early in the film and is a glimpse into the philosophical rumblings of one, John Rambo.
Sarah: Really? If everyone thought like you, nothing would ever change.
John Rambo: Nothing does change.
Sarah: Of course it does! Nothing stays the same.
John Rambo: Live your life cause you’ve got a good one.
Sarah: It’s what I’m trying to do!
John Rambo: No, what you’re trying to do is change what is.
Sarah: And what is?
John Rambo: Go home.
That’s the kind of dialogue you hear during fake audition scenes in movies, where the aspiring actors are saddled with ponderous drivel. There is some discussion over whether it is right to take a life. You get an idea of Stallone’s worldview when he has the pacifist preacher eventually kill his fellow man out of survival. After the twenty-five minute mark or so, Rambo essentially becomes a silent movie with added grunts.
The plot is as thin as possible; it’s essentially a rescue mission stretched to 90 minutes. Of course Rambo is a brutal and bloody action flick, but man is this thing tremendously gory, and it’s war gore so that means bodies being blown to bits. I’m somewhat awed at the sheer variety of ways bad guys have giant holes punched in them and through them. Limbs go flying, blood soaks the ground, heads go rolling, insides spend more time on the outside, and bodies are ripped apart. The blood and guts splatter the screen so much that sometimes even the camera can’t escape. There’s so much carnage that you may be advised to wear a poncho if you sit close to the screen. According to the Internet Movie Database, Rambo has 236 onscreen kills and that averages to 2.59 killings per minute. It’s a viscerally violent flick that can become occasionally entertaining, if you can stomach other people’s stomachs exploding in your face. In the end, though, the violence is just another bloodlust high that completely dissipates once the movie concludes, and you?re left with nothing of value. It’s somewhat fun while it lasts, but once it stops Rambo is an empty exercise. Then again, if you’re hungry for lean, mean action, and only action, then Rambo will certainly provide the gory goods.
Stallone has somewhat re-energized his career by going back to the well. Rambo isn’t as nuanced as that big palooka Rocky, but the taciturn man of action suits Stallone. After a 20-year absence, Stallone eases back into the character and gives him a satisfying weariness, as solitary life has taken its toll. You won’t find me specifying the accomplished feats of acting in this movie because most of the acting is the equivalent of running and falling down, though perhaps not in one whole piece. Credit must be given to the 61-year-old Stallone, who still appears physically agile and spry when he could be cashing a Social Security check. Benz (TV’s Dexter, Saw 5) spends most of her time wailing through tears. It must have been exhausting for her tear ducts and her lungs.
Rambo is a movie that doesn’t pretend it’s anything but a grisly, masculine action flick. The story isn’t anything remotely involving and I doubt that Rambo was a character that needed to be reawakened. However, as a meaty old school action film, it aims to satisfy in the moment. Stallone does what he does well. It should be noted that the Myanmar military government has naturally banned this latest Rambo entry but rebel factions have actually used the film as a source to renew the spirits of the oppressed. They have even taken to using some of the dialogue as rallying cries. To think after all these years Rambo could still have an effect on the world. That’s more amazing than any of the creative carnage within the 90 minutes of Stallone’s rumble in the jungle.
Nate’s Grade: C+