Monday, April 28, 2008

Review: Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay

Starring: John Cho, Kal Penn, Neil Patrick Harris
Director: Jon Hurwitz and Hay Schlossberg
Release Date: April 25, 2008
Running Time: 102 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Warner Bros

Man, these guys have had a rough couple of days.

Picking up immediately after the end of the first movie, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay does not waste any time getting back into the story. Having just professed his affection for his neighbor Maria, Harold (John Cho) decides he and Kumar (Kal Penn) need a vacation. This is a stoner movie, so it only makes sense that they end up attempting to go to Amsterdam. Each of the guys has their own agenda for wanting to go there. Harold doesn’t want to wait for Maria, who just happens to be there on business, and Kumar wants to go for the same reason most people who travel there want to go: legal marijuana. So here we are, staring down the barrel of inevitability wherein the sequel to a story of a couple of pot smokers heads them to Amsterdam. The very idea is obvious and lame. But low and behold something original happens; they don’t make it there. Why? Because Kumar cannot wait to land to partake in his favorite herbal enhancement and somewhere along the way they are suspected of being terrorists and sent to Guantanamo Bay.

After a very short stint at Gitmo, the guys escape by simply walking out and catching a boat to Miami. They track down a former classmate conveniently living in the area and embark on a trek to Texas to enlist the help of Kumar’s ex-girlfriends fiancĂ©, who may be able to use his Washington connections to help the guys out. Sounds simple, but in true stoner movie fashion, the quest is anything but. Along the way their encounters include, but are not limited to a bottomless party (both male and female), their infiltration of a KKK rally, inexplicably meeting up with a drug addled Neil Patrick Harris on his way to a whorehouse, and getting high with President George W. Bush.

Believe me when I say, those aren’t even the most potentially offensive parts of the movie.

As much as I hate the term, a movie like this is almost critic-proof, in that being the sequel to a story featuring pre-existing characters of popularity, it barely matters how stupid the movie may be, the target audience will see it anyway. The only thing is this one is actually pretty good. By good, I mean funny. And by funny, I mean horrendously offensive. I almost used the term politically incorrect but that term doesn’t apply here. Believe it or not, this movie has something to say about a lot of things, not the least of which being racial and social profiling. On one level, it is garden variety slapstick, gross-out, pot smoking humor and on the other, the movie works as a blazing commentary on our nations prejudices. I will not waste anyone’s time getting too deep into the discussions presented in the movie – they can be left to be debated by the people the message is intended for in the first place. The movie definitely picks a side but the satire is masked in its own idiocy so as not to be too preachy.

I had minor issues with the movie itself, but those criticisms are petty and unfair. Like the demographic of the passengers of the plane on its way to Amsterdam seemed grossly out of place. Having never been there before I cannot speak first hand for the type of passenger that should be on a plane headed towards that particular destination, I just imagine it being different than it was in the movie. And like I mentioned, the actual escape from Guantanamo Bay seemed overly simplified. Like I said, petty, but worth noting.

All in all, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay kept what worked in the first film and scraped what didn’t. Former Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry as an overzealous and under informed agent of Homeland Security cracked me up every time he was on screen. And as much of an easy and logical decision as it would have been to bulk up Neil Patrick Harris’ part in this movie, the filmmakers wisely chose to use him again in small doses, forgoing the idea that more is better. Lord knows the last thing this audience needs is to be over stimulated.

And there’s the rub

*** out of ****

Friday, April 25, 2008

tMF Top Five - Best Stoner Movies

With only one week to go before the release of Iron Man and the official start of the summer movie season, this week's offering of new releases is understandably light on quality. Really, only two films will be fighting for ticket dollars this weekend. Baby Mama should take care of the female audience and on the other side of the coin we get Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. (Hey, I told you it was a light weekend.) It does, however, provide an opportunity to take a closer look at a hit-or-miss subgenre of comedy – the stoner movie.

The American tradition known as the stoner movie is less concerned about providing movies to get stoned to than showing a day in the life and (high) times of the everyday pot smoker. Thematically, they are all cut from the same cloth: a laid-back group of guys are sent on an arbitrarily ridiculous quest of self-described nobility with their drug of choice taking center stage. More often than not, these movies are awful, even to their target audience, but a lot of them seem to gather a cult following anyway. I guess everything is funnier when you’re high. For the record, The Wizard of Oz with Dark Side of the Moon missed the cut… but just barely.

tMF Top Five – Best Stoner Movies [read full article]

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Review: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Starring: Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Russell Brand
Director: Nicholas Stroller
Release Date: April 18, 2008
Running Time: 110 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Universal Pictures

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the latest apple to fall from the Judd Apatow family tree of comedy films. For anyone having spent the last few years underground preparing for Y3K, this tree is comprised of a group of friends who take turns writing, directing, and/or starring in each others movies, all packaged and shipped with the Apatow seal of approval. I guess that makes this movie Knocked Up’s baby brother. Or first cousin. I don’t know which. It’s sort of like the mafia, only instead of getting whacked, we get penis jokes. There’s a joke in there somewhere but I’m too tired to write it.

Either way this movie stays true to the golden formula perfected by the Apatow Family over the past few years – focus on a group of men far more immature than their age should allow, force them to deal with some level of reality in their respective circumstance and see how they react. It is the textbook definition of, well, textbook, but it is also real life in the sense that every man struggles with his own evolution into adulthood at some point. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is no different.

Peter Bretter (Jason Segel) and Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) seem like a picture perfect couple - literally. Peter’s refrigerator, coffee mug, and calendar are plastered with pictures of the two of them together. She is the rising Hollywood star of a “CSI”-esque TV show and he composes music for the same show. He worships the ground she walks on. Then she dumps him. While he’s naked. I mean really naked. Crushed and with nowhere to turn, Peter goes on a hollow one-night-stand-athon. After that exercise in humility does not bear fruitful, and at the behest of his brother Brian (Bill Hader), he decides to go on vacation to clear his head. He picks a place in Hawaii that Sarah had always talked about and off he goes. Great idea, until he shows up and finds her there too; with her new boyfriend, pop sensation Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).

Peter spends the remainder of the movie retracing the steps of his five year relationship with Sarah to see what did and didn’t work, having his nose rubbed in her new relationship, and dim-wittedly flirting with a beautiful hotel employee named Rachel (Mila Kunis), who just happens to be Sarah’s polar opposite. I wonder how it will turn out…?

Movies about mans struggle out of the aftermath of a failed relationship are a dime a dozen. This one doesn’t bring anything new to the table but rather focuses on and exploits his vulnerability within the situation. Peter is not only crushed by the break-up, but he is pushed out of his comfort zone when confronted with the very person who broke his heart. He operates under the delusion that he isn’t running from the awkward situation but rather, forcing himself to grow by sticking out the vacation and being the bigger person. Only he succumbs to the inevitability of having to see for himself what she is up to at all times, regardless of the train wreck it is bound to turn into.

The R-rated comedy has taken many shapes over the past 25 years. In the early 1980’s it took Porky’s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High a topless shot or two and a couple of light drug references to earn the badge of an R-rating. Soon that wasn’t enough. In the late 1990’s, There’s Something About Mary and American Pie taught a new generation of male teens that getting caught with your dingy in an unconventional location, be it a pie or zipper, will garner a laugh. In 2008, keeping up with the times means that audiences have had to bear witness to the arbitrary penis shot, or shots. I picture the process of making Apatow-ian movies as a group of friends in a college film class being split into groups and assigned with the task of making a comedy. Each group takes a turn trying to outdo each other purely for their own amusement and in the interest of continuity and one-upsmanship; each one has to go bigger and farther than the last entry to stay ahead of the curve. It’s the ultimate game of truth or dare and trust me, nobody ever picks truth. I get that shock = funny sometimes, but I just don’t think the world is ready for full frontal male nudity in mainstream comedy. At least not the audience I saw it with, who met each scene with either groans or equally uncomfortable silence. Then again, we are from the Midwest so maybe we’re the prudes.

Being a notch on the Apatow bedpost means the use of the usual supporting players. The mostly annoying Jonah Hill, the mostly funny Bill Hader, and the always hilarious Paul Rudd are all true to type. And his penis aside, Segel not only carried the lead in the movie with surprising ease, he also wrote a pretty good script. The real growth here is the strength of the female cast for once. Kristen Bell and Mila Kunis played the antithesis of each others characters to perfection.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall will not be accused of blazing a path of originality, but lucky for us, it doesn’t have to. Thing is, this one is actually pretty funny. Not punch-you-in-the-face, laugh out loud funny the whole way through, but funny in that “funny because it’s true” sort of way; and anything it lacks in humor it makes up for in heart. Balancing the two meant it could be funny without seeming like it was trying too hard while at the same time being heartfelt without being in danger of being too cheesy.

And there’s the rub.

*** out of ****

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Review: The Ruins

Starring: Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey
Director: Carter Smith
Release Date: April 4, 2008
Running Time: 91 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Dreamworks Pictures

To the horror genre, the idea of young Americans being terrorized on vacation isn’t breaking any new ground. The setting has been around almost since the inception of the genre, explored as early on as Friday the 13th. What is it about the concept that makes for such a good, if not slightly overused setting? The idea of any good horror movie is to play against peoples common fears. Being on vacation automatically puts people on the defensive because they are out of their element. Ranging from flying to get there in the first place to simply being around people they don’t know, vacations can be a breeding ground for good horror.

As with any successfully used screenwriting device, young Americans encountering danger on vacation is becoming clichĂ©d. We’ve seen it used very well (Open Water, Deliverance, and, most recently, The Descent – my vote for the best horror movie of the decade) as much as we’ve seen it used poorly (Hostel, Wolf Creek, and Turistas). As much as they all have the commonalities of playing against basic human fears, the Hostel’s of the world have opted to ride the latest flavor of the moment and splatter gallons of blood across the screen in lieu of telling a compelling story. Don’t get me wrong; the idea of getting chopped to bits in a foreign country is probably pretty scary if it is happening to you, but for sheer watchability, call me crazy but I need something more.

Ask and you shall receive…

The Ruins is the latest entry in the “Why Foreign Countries Scare Young American Travelers” sweepstakes. The textbook opening finds four friends – Jeff (Jonathan Tucker), Amy (Jena Malone), Eric (Shawn Ashmore), and Stacy (Laura Ramsey) – nursing hangovers at a Mexican resort. They are two days from the end of their trip and trying to decide how to spend the tail end of it. Enter Mathias (Joe Anderson), a fellow vacationer from Germany. You are weary of him because you can’t quite make him out. And you are weary of him because vacation horror movie convention tells you that you should be. Both he and his friend Dimitri (Dimitri Baveas) are heading to an ancient Mayan pyramid the next day to look for Mathias’ brother, believed to have gone to an archialogical dig site in the area. They leave a copy of the map with a separate set of guys, the Greeks, to catch up with them later. After a bit of discussion, the whole gang decides to embark on a trek the pyramid the next day. The ruins are not located on any map and vague warnings from the locals fall on deaf ears. After hiking through the jungle together, they happen upon the ruins. So far, not really much to write home about. Interesting enough but riding a wave of anticipation to this point.

As soon as they reach the ruins and without immediate explanation, they are ambushed by Mayan natives, killing one, and forced to the top of the pyramid at gunpoint. The natives set up camp, presumably to ensure that no one escapes. At this point we still do not understand why. It is in not understanding where the picture begins to take hold. Without spoiling the movie I will say there is more than simply refugee natives and foreign travelers to be weary of. Our travelers soon realize the vines at the site of the ruins seem to not only be alive, but deadly to whoever makes contact with them. Both physically and psychologically.

As the movie progresses the feeling of the film quickly shifts from uncertainty and confusion to that of hopelessness and primal fear. As ironic a statement is I am about to make, the hopelessness in the movie is its high point. Most critics have panned the film for its bleak outlook but I believe the unsettling tone is what makes it as good as it is. The performances all around are just, ok. It is the tone that is set by the story that makes the movie stand out. There is gore, and some of it is difficult to watch, but a perfect balance between gore and tension is met. It is used just sparingly enough, and at the perfect times, that it plays into the film and the story more than a device to advance it. The filmmakers know the material enough to understand the movie should not pander to the type of audience that would make Prom Night the highest grossing movie in the country.

I liked the movie because of its simplicity. I liked the movie because you were never really sure of anyone’s intentions. This allowed the filmmakers to achieve something unique by involving the audience in the story enough to put them on the defensive. The simplicity of the story added to the overall feeling of hopelessness as the movie wore on. For the record, I know the difference between the ending of the book and the movie, and I liked the movie version better. Maybe I didn’t like it better but it played out better on screen, adding a spice of Greek tragedy that helped sell the movie even more. Scott Smith (A Simple Plan – the screenplay and the novel it was based on) wrote them both and had the sense to make the change for the movie. Who am I to tell him what to do with his own story?

And there’s the rub.

*** out of ****