How to train your expectations for the concluding chapter in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise: step one, lower them. I was dispirited to discover what a disappointing final chapter The Hidden World comes across, especially considering the previous movies, including the 2014 sequel, are good to great. At its core it’s always been a tale of prejudice and family, dressing up a simple boy-and-his-dog story with fantasy elements. It also presents a world with danger and cost; even the fist film ended with the main character, Hiccup, losing a freaking foot. He loses his father in the second film. It’s a series that has grown naturally with heart, imagination, and a real sense of stakes. This is why I’m sad to report that the third film feels like a different creative team made it. The villain is a repeat of the second film, a dragon hunter with little to be memorable over. The plot is very redundant, stuck in an endless loop of capture, escape, capture, escape, etc. The addition of the new lady dragon is a perfunctory means to drive a wedge between Hiccup and toothless, his dragon. The lady dragon has no personality and needs rescuing too often. Her inclusion relates to a rather regressive emphasis on the need for coupling and marriage. The titular Hidden World amounts to a grand total of five minutes of screen time. The action starts off well involving the various colorful side characters but misses out on that sense of danger that defined the other movies. It feels goofy and safe and listless. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a sizeable disappointment and coasts on the emotional investment of the first two movies. You’ll feel something by the end, sure, but it’s because of the hard work of others and not this movie.
Nate’s Grade: C
There are three apocalyptic comedies this year and Seth Rogen’s This Is The End is undoubtedly the biggest in profile. The plot is simple: Rogen and his pals, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride, are holed up in James Franco’s lavish home while the world comes to an end outside. Your enjoyment level for this movie will largely depend on your enjoyment level of the cast since they are playing self-involved, idiotic versions of themselves. While it dithers with the occasional self-indulgent sidetrack, I found Rogen to be savvy about providing enough for an audience to invest in. There’s a slew of Entourage-style cameos, though mostly pre-apocalypse, to ease us into the film. It’s fun seeing Michael Cera and Emma Watson (Perks of Being a Wallflower) play against type, but there’s so many blink-and-you’ll-miss-them figures that it can be tiring. But once it rains fire, demons emerge, and the righteous are Raptured, the movie gets outlandish and even better. For a solid hour it’s a survival tale where egotistical actors are at one another’s throats and it genuinely gets funnier as it goes. The comedy is, as you would expect, completely vulgar but hilarious often enough. A shouting match between Franco and McBride over masturbation habits, complete with angry, enthusiastic miming, is a thing of comic glory. I was not prepared for how well Rogen and his collaborator Evan Goldberg (they wrote and directed the movie) are able to handle suspense, special effects, and a climax that is equal parts silly and heartwarming. There is a rewarding payoff to a character arc amidst all the talk about penises, human and satanic, and cannibalism, and that’s saying something. I only wish the ending had more punch, settling for an extended and mostly lame pop-culture cameo that seems to sap the good times. Still, if you had to spend the apocalypse with a bunch of guys, you could do worse.
Nate’s Grade: B
This is a fairly lackluster, flaccid, infantile comedy that aims to follow the same Judd Apatow formula of equal parts heart and raunch. Where this movie utterly fails is its choice of lead. Jay Baruchel (Tropic Thunder) is not a good leading man (his voice is very nasally and hard to listen to at times), but worse, his character, Kirk, is a callow, simpering, snot-nosed dolt. He has a dearth of a personality; he’s constantly berating himself or groveling for support by his oblivious family and mean ex-girlfriend. You simply don’t care. Kirk is not a guy worth watching. There’s empathy and then there’s pity. The movie wants to be a “nice guy gets the girl” story, but instead She’s Out of My League is a “guy with zero self-esteem and charisma gets the magazine cover model” story. At least in Apatow productions, the schlubby leads had personalities and redeeming qualities. I started enjoying the respites away from Kirk, time spent with his callous family members or his annoyingly juvenile friends. Anything to escape. The jokes have a pretty low ratio of hits to misses (an early ejaculation actually almost becomes an act break that keeps the couple apart), becoming subservient to a clichéd romantic comedy that wants to teach us that looks don’t matter. It’s what’s on the inside that counts. Have you heard that one before this week? If what’s on the inside is what matters, then She’s Out of My League has little to offer.
Nate’s Grade: C
When you’re a teenager, sometimes there is nothing more important in life than music. Generally one of the most prominent means for a teenager to outwardly define his or her emerging personality is by music. Coming of age and maturing musical tastes seem to go hand in hand. I may date myself here but I can recall my own personal blossoming thanks to the likes of Green Day, the Smashing Pumpkins, and the Offspring (you couldn’t go anywhere in 1995 without hearing “Self Esteem”). Nick and Norah’s romantic interlude begins over common musical tastes and move from there. Having a person “get” you seems to be linked with having a person “get” your music. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is an inviting and mostly successful teen comedy that “gets” it.
Nick (Michael Cera) is nursing the common teen ailment of a broken heart. He’s one part of a queer core punk band and just happens to be the only heterosexual band member. Nick has been sending mix CDs to his ex-girlfriend, Tris (Alexis Dziena), but she’s been tossing them in the trash. Norah (Kat Dennings) has been fishing those mix CDs and falling in love with her unknown musical soul mate. Norah’s best pal Caroline (Ari Graynor) has informed her that her favorite indie band, Where’s Fluffy?, is playing a secret late-night show in New York City. The slew of characters, Norah and Caroline and Tris and her new boyfriend, attend a nightclub where Nick’s band performs. Awkward. Norah poses as Nick’s new girlfriend and the two take off together to drive a very drunk Caroline home. It is here that they begin an unforgettable odyssey filled with gross toilets, drag queens, Norah’s ex-boyfriend (Jay Baruchel), jaunts to recording studios, and many stops along the way to try and find Where’s Fluffy?
Nick and Norah isn’t anything altogether remarkable but its charm comes in how, well, unremarkable it comes across. I do not mean this as faint praise or a backhanded compliment. The majority of teen-oriented films have the habit of slotting characters into rigid archetypes. Earlier this year, the documentary American Teen was released and barely made a blip. The director of this documentary condensed an entire high school year into a feature-length film, but she framed her characters as entrenched stereotypes patterned after movies (movies began the stereotype, now is life merely following its lead?). The marketing even had its main “characters” recreate the Breakfast Club poster with the requisite Jock, Geek, Princess, etc. It’s so easy to paint in broad, well-established strokes when it comes to teenage characters and a high school setting. So it’s genuinely entertaining and encouraging to see Nick and Norah where the characters just are people. Granted the gay characters are a bit too cutesy by half, though they never become swishy stereotypes and the slutty manipulative ex-girlfriend character is a pretty familiar and clichéd antagonist. But the real charm of the movie is seeing characters that cannot be painted in broad strokes, characters that do not hide who they are, and characters that refuse to be typecast. Just watching Nick and Norah interact, I felt like I was watching two friends instead of high school archetypes having the same tired class warfare. Making the characters reasonably realistic and unremarkable is a breath of fresh air.
Not all the elements in Nick and Norah entertain; some feel like they’ve been surgically attached from different movies. The entire subplot involving the sloppy drunk escapades of Caroline seems extraneous at best, providing an unnecessary plot point that keeps Nick and Norah together for the night. It provides some laughs due to Graynor’s highly amusing drunken performance, but the subplot also pushes the movie into outlandish gross-out humor, like when Caroline vomits into a toilet, drops her gum in the same toilet, and then decides to foolishly go after the gum. The same piece of chewing gum has its own fantastic journey. The coupling between Nick and Norah is also given a weird and somewhat unseemly addition. Clearly these two kids “like like” each other and the wild night presents different coupling obstacles before these fun kids eventually decide to make a move. In one scene Norah is taunted by Tris about never having had an orgasm. So then the movie makes it a point that when nick and Norah do hook up that we are presented with Norah earning her first O-face (the whole climactic sequence is done off camera and only with audio). Orgasmic proof was not needed to convince the audience that Norah has finally found a worthy guy. The fact that they’re high school-aged students brings an unsettling, seedy element into an otherwise wholesome film. It wasn’t needed.
The plot of Nick and Norah has a few bumps along the way because the emphasis is on the groovy and genial atmosphere. Watching the movie is somewhat akin to attending a party with some cool people. You leave the theater with your spirits lifted a tad, a smile on your face, and some fond memories for the time being. I’m not saying that Nick and Norah is comparable to the best teen comedies of all time but it manages to spin a little magic. I couldn’t help feel wistful as I watched the teen characters romp through the late night music scene of New York City, a character all its own. The movie manages to capture the exciting essence of being young and alive in an authentic way.
The two leads are deeply enjoyable. Dennings (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) is a great find and comes across as a natural teenager. She’s not precocious or glib, but she seems grounded, unassuming, and yet intelligent in a way that doesn’t pass as hyper-literate. Dennings gives a spunky performance that is tinged with awkwardness and heartache, as she explores the scary yet exhilarating prospect of romance. She’s also got a bashful beauty to her, like the girl next door that would never admit that she could be attractive. She’s got lips like red licorice and classic features that could work in old Hollywood. Dennings gives every scene a boost of heart and the movie shines brightest every minute she’s onscreen. Cera (Juno, Superbad) seems to have patented his nervous stammer that he’s previously showcased. I wonder what Cera’s acting range actually is because he seems to be playing different variations on the same character. However, I have written before that Cera is the living master of comic understatement and the well-timed pause, and he proves it again. He mopes a bit too much through the movie but Cera manages to make him empathetic and not pathetic. The two of them have a sweet chemistry and it’s easy to yearn for their coupling.
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist exists in a world that doesn’t exactly resemble our own but seems like a swell place to visit. The movie almost contains a certain innocence to its teenage shenanigans. Dennings and Cera make for engaging leads and an adorable couple onscreen. Not all of the parts come together as well as Nick and Norah do, but the movie’s overall vibe is authentic and low-key, apt to provoke cheerful smiles more than laughs.
Nate’s Grade: B
Ben Stiller has been kicking around the idea for Tropic Thunder for nearly 20 years. It took a lot of time to get the script in fighting shape, but the time was well worth it. Tropic Thunder is tasteless and occasionally appalling but it is also wickedly, deliriously funny.
Set inside modern-day Vietnam, Hollywood is filming another epic war movie but this one’s in trouble. It’s over budget, behind schedule, and the first-time director (Steve Coogan) can’t control his actors. Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is a fading action star looking for another hit. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a crass comedian who’s after some real acting credibility. He’s also addicted to heroin and worries that people will only ever see him as a funny man who farts. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is a five-time Oscar-winning actor who, thanks to makeup and a lot of hubris, is playing the film’s African-American sergeant. Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is a rapper breaking into acting and is steamed that the Hollywood producers gave the sizeable black role to a white guy.
The director is at his wit’s end and being bullied by producers back in America. He is advised by “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte), the Vietnam vet whose story the film is based upon. Tayback says to get real emotion and real fear that the actors should be stranded in the jungle without their precious handlers and demands. So the director takes Speedman, Portnoy, Lazarus, Alpa, and newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) in a helicopter and out into the wild. Trouble is, the actors have been left in the middle of an actual drug war, except they think it’s all apart of the script.
Tropic Thunder is all things to all comedies. It could be tagged as being a bit incoherent but that’s because the movie has so much going on. It’s a sharp satire of Hollywood moviemaking and the raging egos of actors, it’s a send-up of Vietnam war movies and their bloody clichés, it’s a fairly worthwhile action film, and it’s a stupendously politically incorrect comedy with plenty of crude humor mixed side-by-side with genuine wit. It’s a comedy that has the potential to leave you aching from slapstick humor one second and biting satire the next. This feels like a complete comedy and not merely a series of sketches. Every character has an arc, some great moments, and each actor brings something different and something wonderful to the fray. This is clearly Stiller’s greatest achievement as a director.
The focus of Tropic Thunder is all over the place, and no one is safe from Stiller and his co-writers Etan Cohen and actor Justin Theroux. This is a brutal insider satire that plays it broad and loud. There are great jokes that ridicule the pomposity of the entire movie industry and the pitfalls of celebrity as a whole. I loved the jabs at celebrities going overseas and adopting children like they’re souvenirs. The movie has caught flak from disability groups that are mad about the movie’s liberal use of the term “retard.” I don’t want to say these people are missing the point of satire, or the fact that an R-rated comedy should offend on some level, but the joke is clearly on Hollywood and how movies exploit those with mental handicaps under the guise of telling their harrowing and inspiring stories. Movies have long been chronicling the adventurous lives of those with disabilities, which also has the side effect of making these people seem less like, well, just people. In the film, Speedman stared in a movie called “Simple Jack” about a mentally challenged boy who thinks he can talk with animals. Then the character has to pop up later in the film, complete with hysterical dialogue that blows apart just how exploitative these movies are (“I’ll see you in my head movies, but this is one head movie that makes my eyes rain”). It’s performed in just the right tone to make you laugh at the industry and the individual and not because of any disability.
The way the film establishes character back-story is genius. Tropic Thunder introduces all four major characters through fake commercials and trailers, like Grindhouse. The trailers are hilarious and a great way to kick off the movie. Stiller stars in a sinking action franchise where the world keeps being overtaken by fire (“Now, the one man who saved the world five straight times — will have to do it again”). The action franchise’s idea is to just reverse the scenario and, as sequels do, make everything bigger. Black’s trailer revolves around an obese family of super flatulent idiots all played by Black. The sequence is constant farting but it’s so over-the-top and pumped with contempt for lame-brained Hollywood comedies. The best trailer is the one that gives us Downey Jr.’s character, the esteemed Kirk Lazarus. Set in an Augustine monastery around the Middle Ages, Downey plays a monk who finds that he must conceal his inflamed passions for another man of the cloth (a figure I won’t spoil). Think of it as a 12th century Brokeback Mountain, and Stiller and company know exactly where to hammer Hollywood: the go-go eye stares, the hesitant naughtiness, and the ridiculous marketing angles – the title is inexplicably Satan’s Alley. The opening collection of fake trailers serves as perfect comedy bon mots for the feast that is to follow. They whet your appetite and may be the greatest opening 10 minutes of any comedy in memory.
Downey Jr. gives an unforgettable performance comprised of sheer brilliant comedic bliss. I loved every second he was onscreen and I fully expect the man to get an Oscar nomination for his work here. Now, the role of a Method actor playing a black actor naturally presents a tightrope that needs to be walked just the right manner to maintain a satiric tone that doesn’t turn ugly. Let me state clearly that blackface is never funny. It is repugnant and Hollywood has a rather depressing history with the unsavory practice (Gene Kelly and even Bing Crosby sadly did it). Tropic Thunder is not a Stepin Fetchit-style minstrel show where Downey makes eye-rolling racist stereotypes. The joke is not that Downey is playing a black man, the joke is that he is such an arrogant and egotistical actor that he thinks he can play anyone. Besides, Jackson chides him throughout the film for his unorthodox portrayal, which tells you where the filmmakers stand. Downey elevates every scene he steps into and gives a performance, like the film, that is densely layered with comedy. He never breaks character even when the cameras aren’t filming and even when he’s alone. He’s two steps removed; channeling a performance as a heralded Australian actor playing his idea of a 1970s black male. When Alpa derogatorily drops the N-word, Lazarus slaps him and then begins a speech with, “For over 400 years they have been using that word to keep us down,” and ends it reciting the lyrics to the theme song from The Jefferson’s. In that span of time, Downey takes you along on every stop in the dense, hilarious mind of Lazarus.
While the rest of the actors don’t ascend to Downey’s heights (years ago this would have doubled as a drug reference), the ensemble of Tropic Thunder works together smoothly and they help make the film so much more enjoyable. Black is great when he’s trying to be seen as a “serious” actor when they are filming. I love his rushed and hushed line deliveries. But he’s even funnier after going through the wringer of heroin withdrawal. A sight gag involving Black digging through his speedo had me in stitches. Stiller is playing his usual dimwitted blowhard but propels the plot forward. He knows exactly how to oversell for laughs, like when he’s being riddled with bullets in dramatic slow-mo or when he’s playing Simple Jack. Baruchel is a nice counter foil to the uncheck bravado and craziness of the other actors. Jackson has fun voicing his mounting vexation with Lazarus. Coogan and Nolte provide good small moments, and Danny McBride steals his scenes as a pyrotechnic special effects expert that wants to “make Mother Nature piss her pants.”
By now you’ve likely heard all about Tom Cruise’s small role in the movie as an irate, bald, fat, extremely hairy studio executive. It’s nice and amusing but I could have done with something different. Downey is unrecognizable in both physical appearance and through his speech; he fully inhabits a character that fully inhabits characters. Cruise, on the other hand, is instantly recognizable even with glasses, a paunch, and a shiny dome. It’s Tom Cruise playing a profane asshole but the joke wears thin. Cruise either needed to do something different or just be seen less, including his hip hop dance moves. And yet, Tropic Thunder has a running joke about Hollywood taking its beautiful A-listers and thinking that, through the power of makeup and superficial physicality, they can play any role. We’ve had a streak of Best Actress Oscar winners that have won accolades by stripping away their beauty and packing on the pounds (check out Charlize Theron in Monster). It seems like even the pretty girls are getting the ugly girl roles now; what’s a homely actress to do nowadays? So, in a way, Tropic Thunder is making fun of this line of thinking, that fat suits and some makeup are the great equalizer, but then it has Tom Cruise more or less falling into the same trap. He puts on a fat suit, a bald cap, but it’s still him and you hear Tom Cruise in every utterance. Maybe it would have been funnier if Cruise were playing a parody of himself since he is a studio executive at United Artists.
Tropic Thunder is a wildly funny movie that takes no prisoners when it comes to its sprawling satire. Stiller and company cut down the self-absorbed lifestyle and mentality inside the film industry and insecure actors. The film really shares the spotlight and each actor provides something different and welcome, and there isn’t a weak link in the bunch. Downey Jr. gives a brilliant comedic performance that will be long remembered. The movie is rude, crude, stupid, smart, and all over the place thanks to such a broad comic canvass. It took many years for Stiller to finally get Tropic Thunder off the ground but the wait was worth it. This is a rare comedy that eels loose, hits hard, and may warrant multiple viewings just to catch all the jokes-within-jokes. This is a movie with plenty on its mind, perhaps too much, but I wish more comedies were as well executed and skillful in their gags about gas passing.
Nate’s Grade: A
Judd Apatow scores again. The man has a long history of creating memorable and heartwarming character-based comedy, and Knocked Up is another winner. This man creates thoroughly human and engaging stories that focus on our own foibles and triumphs. Apatow wrote and directed yet another poignant, clever, and uproarious comedy that has so much more below the surface and becomes universally appealing.
Alison (Katherine Heigl) is out on the town celebrating her promotion at the E! Entertainment Channel. She’s going to go from behind the camera to in front of the camera. It’s at this Los Angeles club where she meets Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), a doughy Jewish slob of a man content to drift through life penniless and high. Their night of partying leads to a drunken one-night stand. Eight weeks later Alison is going through extreme nausea and can’t figure out what kind of flu bug she has, that is, until she remembers her one night out. She locates Ben and informs him that she is pregnant and, yes, he is the father. The two decide to try and make it work, forging a relationship as they plan on becoming parents. Alison’s sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd) and their two kids are a potential glimpse into the future. Pete and Ben hit it off real well, to the point that Alison feels like her mate might not be the one for her even if his DNA is growing inside.
Naturally, this is a comedy where sex is at its very inception. The humor is ribald and playfully profane. I believe one of the greatest compliments you can give a comedy is when you cannot single out a single set piece or moment as an instant standout. Knocked Up is packed with many wildly funny scenes but it also has killer one-liners from start to finish and sharp pop-culture references (Ben on an exercise bike: “Matthew Fox? From Lost? You know what’s interesting about that guy? Absolutely nothing.”). Ben credits the flick Munich for the ability to get Jews laid. Ben watches the 2003 version of Cheaper by the Dozen with horror, saying that 12 kids is no laughing matter. The roommates are plotting a flesh-friendly website that notes the time and location of celebrity nudity in films. This commercial venture plays right into the frat house lifestyle for this band of stoners that bet their friend not to shave his beard for a year for free rent.
Knocked Up is bawdy and hilarious, sure, but it’s also far more realistic and a lot more emotionally involving than any romantic comedy Hollywood has offered in years. Apatow seems to have mined his personal parental experiences for a lot of hard-earned truths. The film is most natural when it showcases the male perspective of prolonged adolescence and an unplanned pregnancy, but Knocked Up also has a mature and thoughtful view on marriage and feminism. We see the array of personal challenges a woman would go through but the movie still manage to slip in humor amidst the uncertainty. There’s a montage looking for the right gynecologist. The gauntlet of sexual positions is explored while pregnant, with Ben afraid that his child’s first impression will be daddy’s manhood constantly poking it. When Alison and Debbie go shopping for pregnancy tests we see them fill their cart with every kind of tests, and then test after test comes back positive. “Hey this one has a smiley face,” says Debbie, before realizing, “Oh, that’s not a good thing.” Debbie then tests the reliability of the tests herself and for a brief moment panics when she thinks she may be pregnant for a third time. She then calms down and says, sarcasm-free, “Whoa, that would have sucked.” The inclusion of Debbie and Pete offers a whole other relationship viewpoint, something that Alison and Ben can learn from. She’s paranoid and blunt, and he’s apathetic and passive-aggressive, and Alison is terrified that she and Ben are doomed to a similar fate. The insights into marriage and secrecy are realistic and give the film so much more meat to its bones. This isn’t just a movie about what to do with an unplanned pregnancy; it’s fully about male-female dynamics and what it takes to make a family work.
In the end, you really care about these characters because Knocked Up is a raunch-fest that has a sweet gooey center of sentiment. Ben is pushed into adulthood by this unexpected development and, as they say, puts away childish things after a lot of trial and error. There’s an undercurrent of emotional vexation under most of the comedy, like when Pete confesses that he doesn’t know if he can accept love, and Ben cannot pity this because he sees his love being rejected. Alison doesn’t quite have as big of an arc, but she never gets callously cast to the side and forgotten. She too has a lot of growing up to do very quickly, and when both characters welcome their newborn into this world it’s rather moving and exciting to experience it alongside them. Ben’s confesses to his child that not putting a condom on was the best decision he ever made. In any other movie this ending conversation might seem trite or hokey, but Apatow has paid so close attention to his characters that the emotional payoff is earned and rewarding.
Another hallmark of an Apatow production is how perfect the cast seems with one another. There’s a real camaraderie with the actors and it produces natural onscreen chemistry and amusing improvisation. Rogen and Rudd, teaming again after 40-Year Old Virgin, can riff off one another for a whole movie and I would gladly pay to watch. I loved when the two boys go to Vegas, take mushrooms, see Cirque Solei, and then freak out in their hotel room (“There are five different kinds of chairs in this room”). I was laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes, and I’m sure the crux of this moment was born from the freestyle exchange between the actors. Ben’s roommates have a believable kinship to them as a collection of amicable oddballs and stoners. Mann and Heigl also seem believable as sisters, much more so than would Anne Hathaway, who was originally cast as Alison but left due to creative differences (I guess the difference was she didn’t wish to be apart of a good movie). The Knocked Up cast work together like a truly wonderful team that appreciates the material and each other.
Rogen is destined for stardom after this movie. He can make anything funny with exceptional comic timing and line delivery that never feels forced. Hearing his unique giggle at the end of jokes, you can sense that this sweet and amiable guy would crack himself up and for good reason. Rogen was great in 40-Year Old Virgin and is even better in a bigger dose. Heigl gets to play more familiar notes, from stressing that work will discover her little bun in the oven to the expected birthing scream session. She has a good rapport with Rogen and brings a lot of warmth to her role. Rudd is so effortlessly charming and easy going. Mann plays a perfect bitch, but she also has a nice scene where she explodes at the realization that her days of youth are finally behind her. Special mention must go out to Kristen Wiig. She steals every scene she’s in as an E! Channel employee that makes plenty off-the-cuff passive insults against Alison during two staffer meetings.
I’ve read online that several leftist bloggers are angry and flabbergasted that Alison does not get an abortion. They argue Ben is a fat and unappealing slob, she’s an attractive career woman, and not having an abortion in this situation is, as one put it, “stupid.” Excuse me, but this may be the first mainstream comedy that actually discusses the prospects of an abortion (or as one character deems it, a “smashortion,” as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of his roommate). I also take umbrage to anyone saying 1) choosing not to have an abortion is a bad decision, and 2) that these critics would be so daft to miss the point that if Alison had an abortion there would be NO MOVIE.
Knocked Up is a very funny and very wonderful sex comedy for adults, but it also happens to be an endearing and heartfelt romance. The cast is excellent, the comedy rarely misses a beat, and Apatow is a instant classic hitmaker. Just like The 40-Year Old Virgin, Apatow has explored a deeply personal topic for all the comedy and pathos he could wring from the material. Knocked Up is nothing short of a knockout. I hope you’re happy with your decision Anne Hathaway. I know I am.
Nate’s Grade: A
Million Dollar Baby, much like its fledgling female boxing character, has come out of nowhere and made a considerable deal of noise. This little homespun film directed by Clint Eastwood didn’t have the glitz and sheen of other awards friendly movies, but now it seems that Eastwood?s own baby may clean up come Oscar time. Can Million Dollar Baby tackle the enormous hype surrounding it? Yes and no.
]Frankie (Eastwood) is a hardened boxing trainer too concerned for his fighters’ welfare to allow them to fight in championship bouts. He’s the kind of cynical old man that enjoys pestering a priest and causing him to unleash an F-bomb. Frankie and his longtime friend Scrap (Morgan Freeman) run a rundown gym and talk un-sentimentally about their older days as prize fighters. Then along comes Maggie (Hilary Swank), a 32-year old waitress who’s got nothing to believe in except her possibility as a boxer. She wants Frank to train her into the champ she knows she can be. He refuses saying he doesn’t train girls. She’s so determined she won’t take no for an answer. Frank finally agrees, especially after some help from Scrap, and starts to teach Maggie everything she needs to know to be a star pugilist. The two begin to open up to each other emotionally and Maggie seems destined to become a force in the ring.
Million Dollar Baby‘s greasiest attribute is its trio of knockout performances. Swank owns every second of this movie. She’s unremittingly perky, conscientious but also dogged, stubborn, and irresistibly lovable. Swank embodies the role with a startling muscular physique and a million dollar smile. Her performance is equal parts charming and heartbreaking. Maggie’s the heart of Million Dollar Baby and Swank doesn’t let you forget it for a millisecond. Come Oscar time, I’m sure she will be walking onstage to grab her second Best Actress Oscar in five years.
No one does grizzled better than Eastwood, and maybe no other actor has made as much of an acting mark by squinting a lot. Million Dollar Baby is probably his best performance to date, though for a good while it sounds like Frank has something lodged in his throat (pride?). Frank has the greatest transformation, and Eastwood brilliantly understates each stop on the journey until landing in a vulnerable, emotionally needy place.
Freeman once again serves as a film’s gentle narrator. There isn’t a movie that can’t be made better by a Morgan Freeman performance. His give-and-take with Frank feels natural and casual to the point that it seems improvised on the spot. Freeman unloads some great monologues like he’s relishing every syllable, chief among them about how he lost his eye. It’s wonderful to watch such a great actor sink his teeth into ripe material and deliver a performance that may net him a long-awaited Oscar (I think he’s due, and likely so will the Academy).
For whatever reason, Eastwood is hitting a directing groove in his twilight years. First came Mystic River, an ordinary police whodunnit made exceptional by incredible acting. Now Eastwood follows up with Baby, an ordinary sports film made extraordinary by incredible acting. Hmmm, a pattern is forming. The cinematography is crisp and makes great use of light and shadow to convey emotion. Eastwood’s score is also appropriately delicate and somber. The boxing sequences are brief but efficient.
Million Dollar Baby is a very traditional story that is at times surprisingly ordinary. Maggie’s the scrappy underdog that just needs a chance, Frank’s the old timer that needs to find personal redemption, and Scrap?s the wise old black man. Once again, an old curmudgeon takes on a rookie and in the process has their tough facade melt away as the inevitable victories pile up. Million Dollar Baby is a very familiar story but then again most boxing tales are fairly the same in scope.
What eventually separates Million Dollar Baby from the pack is its third act twist. You think you know where Eastwood’s film is headed, especially given the well-worn terrain, but you have no clue where this story will wind up. The plot turn deepens the characters and their relationships to each other in very surprising ways. You may be flat-out shocked how much you’ve found yourself caring for the people onscreen. It almost seems like Eastwood and company have used the familiar rags-to-riches underdog drama to sucker punch an audience into Million Dollar Baby‘s final 30 minutes. We’re transported into an uncomfortable and challenging position, and Eastwood won’t let an audience turn away.
Million Dollar Baby is not the colossal masterpiece that critics have been drooling over. For one thing, the group of antagonists is not nearly as textured as our trio of leads. They’re actually more stock roles that further enforce the ordinary story of Million Dollar Baby. Maggie’s trailer trash family is lazy unsupportive batch of stereotypes. The evil female boxing champ just happens to be a German who doesn’t mind playing dirty. One of the boxers at Frank’s gym is an arrogant showboat just waiting to be nasty while the teacher’s back is turned. Million Dollar Baby excels at showing depth and humanity with its lead trio, yet it seems if you aren’t in that circle you’re doomed to wade in the shallow end.
Eastwood shows that great acting and great characters you love can elevate a common framework. The package may be similar to a lot of films before about scrappy underdogs, but Million Dollar Baby lacks comparison in its genre when it comes to its enthralling acting and characters. The father-daughter bond between Frank and Maggie is heartwarming. The final reveal of what her Gaelic boxing name means may just bring tears to your eyes. The results are a very fulfilling movie going experience, albeit one that regrettably may not live up to such hype.
Million Dollar Baby has been showered with heapings of praise and become a formidable Oscar contender. The story treads familiar waters but its outstanding acting and deep and humane characters elevate the material. The film can’t match the hyperbole of critics but Million Dollar Baby is an ordinary but greatly satisfying ride led by compelling acting. The film hums with professionalism and seems to just glide when everything comes together magnificently, particularly in that last 30 minutes. Eastwood is hitting an artistic stride and it’s actually exciting to see what Clint will do next. Million Dollar Baby may not be a first round knockout but it definitely wins by decision.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The Rules of Attraction is based on Bret Easton Ellis’ hedonistic 80s novel about boozing coked-out, aloof teenagers and their rampant debauchery. Roger Avary was Quentin Tarantino’s writing partner for years, with an Oscar sitting at home for co-writing Pulp Fiction. As a director Avary lays the visual gloss on thick utilizing camera tricks like split-screens and having entire sequences run backwards. While Ellis’ source material is rather empty, echoing the collegiate friendships bonded over substances or social lubricants, Avary does his best to represent the dazed world of college.
We open with Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) getting raped by some drunk “townie” while the film buff she had her eyes on videotapes it. She’s just broken up with the bisexual and apathetic Paul (Ian Somerhalder), and both are interested in the sociopath Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), a self-described emotional vampire. Lauren keeps a picture book of venereal diseases to ward her from her wayward sexual urges. Her roommate Lara (Jessica Biel) needs no such book. Our introduction of Lara has her dancing down a hall, liquor bottle in each fist, bedding an entire sports team. Some attractions connect, many don’t, but the fun is watching the characters interact in their own seedy yet often hilarious ways.
The best thing that The Rules of Attraction has going for it is its about-face, against-type casting. The film is populated with the WB’s lineup of clear-skinned goody-two-shoes getting a chance to cut loose. Van Der Beek broods like a predatory hawk and bursts with spontaneous rage. Biel sexes it up as a cocaine-addicted harlot who asks if she’s “anorexic skinny” or “bulimic skinny.” Even Fred-Wonder-Years-Savage shows up briefly to shoot up between his toes! The adults of this world are no better than the kids. Eric Stoltz has an extended cameo of a duplicitous professor offering a higher GPA if any coeds are willing to go down on their morals. Swoosie Kurtz and Faye Dunaway show us that pill-popping ditherheads may likely breed drug-addled teenagers.
Attraction may have the most disturbing suicide I’ve ever witnessed in film. After having her advances rejected a woman slips into the bathtub, razor in hand. The scene is as unsettling as it is because the camera hangs on the poor woman’s face every second and we gradually see the life spill out of her as the music becomes distorted, not letting us escape the discomfort.
Some of Avary’s surface artifice works perfectly, like Victor’s whirlwind account of an entire semester in Europe. Some of the visual fireworks are distractions to the three-person narrative but the film is always alive with energy, even when it’s depressing you. What The Rules of Attraction does get right is the irrational nature of attraction. Each character is trying to fill an inaccessible void with what they think is love but will often settle for sex, drugs, or both. The Rules of Attraction is made up of unlikable, miserable characters that effectively do nothing but find new ways to be miserable. It constantly straddles the line of exploitation and excess but maintains its footing. The movie is entirely vapid but it is indeed an indulgently fun yet depraved ride. If you’re looking for degeneracy instead of life-affirmation, then The Rules of Attraction is your ticket.
Nate’s Grade: B
Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical 70s rock opus is like a gigantic hug. It’s warm, engrossing, feel good, and leaves you with a smile wishing for more. Almost Famous may be the best movie going experience of the year. You likely won’t have a better time from a movie.
Fresh-faced newcomer Patrick Fugit plays the 15 year-old version of Crowe who is a budding writer for Rolling Stone. He’s tapped to tour and send in a story on the fictional band Stillwater fronted by singer Jason Lee and guitarist Billy Crudup. Stillwater is everything the typical early 70s rock band was and should be: long hair, tight pants, and continuous inner turmoil and squabbling. Little Fugit captures all of this with wide-eyed exploration as he stretches away from his overprotective mother played by the lovely Frances McDormand. Phillip Seymour Hoffman also pops in to do a brilliant portrayal of music critic Lester Bangs. Kate Hudson shines in a break-out performance as a “band-aid” to Stillwater; which is an uncertain mix of naive groupie and musical muse. She’s together with fellow “band-aids” Anna Paquin and Faruiza Balk.
The writing of Almost Famous is textured and fully satisfying. The turns it takes down the road are expert and you know you are in the hands of a true artist. Crowe’s direction again makes leaps and bounds in improvement with every new feature. He and his wife wrote all of the songs the fictional band performs and it sounds like, to my ears, he had a few more job offerings he could have easily been suited for.
The acting is phenomenal with every cast member contributing nicely to the fold. Crudup is the anchor, Hudson is the gleaming star, Fugit is the tender surprise, Lee is the emotional lightening rod, and Frances is the mother that we all would love to have deep down inside. She is at the level that is most difficult for a parent: she must begin to let go so they live their own life, yet she’s raised him from harm since he could spew mashed carrots. Surely, if the world had justice Frances will be winning her second Oscar.
Almost Famous is a breathing work that borderlines perfection. It’s a great time to be had just sitting and experiencing what the movie has to offer.
Nate’s Grade: A