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If big screen comedy has an assigned savior, it just might be Judd Apatow. With the beloved 40 Year Old Virgin fresh in everyone’s minds, and his producer’s imprint on other humor hits like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, this is one comic genius who is definitely on a roll. Need further proof? Well, look no further than his most recent masterpiece of mirth Knocked Up. Not only is it the funniest film in decades, but its easily one of 2007’s best efforts. It’s hilarious, heartfelt, endearing and just a wee bit evil in how it depicts the rigors of adult responsibility, and the inherent human desire to shirk same. Instead of presenting the standard Hollywood party line about biology being the balm for all individual issues, Apatow shows procreation for what it really is—a physical act that leads to seismic psychological shifts.

The interpersonal earthquake here occurs when E! Entertainment producer Alison Scott (an amazing Katherine Heigl) learns she’s been picked to be an on-air personality. Desperate to celebrate the promotion, she gets her married sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) to join her for a night of drinks and dancing at a local hot spot. There, Alison meets the bumbling Ben Stone (a brilliant Seth Rogen). Endearing in a shaggy dog sort of way, he’s a wannabe Internet entrepreneur who hopes to start a website database of famous film nude scenes. The two take an alcohol fueled liking to each other, and after a protection free one night stand, the pair have a potential pregnancy to deal with. Support is shaky from both sides. Alison’s family fluctuates between flabbergasted and favorable. Ben’s bevy of slacker roommates can only think in terms of sexual conquests and scoring.

It requires someone of substantial cinematic ability to balance this clever career girl catastrophe with the Beavis and Butthead viewpoint of Ben’s buddies, but Apatow manages remarkably well. The movie never misses a beat and finds infinitely imaginative ways to brilliantly highlight both the sacred and profane. Unlike other R rated efforts that trade gratuity for genuine wit, Knocked Up is crude, obscene, crass…and utterly charming. Apatow’s characters talk like real people talk, including all the off color craziness and foul mouthed philosophizing that comes with hanging out. Thanks to some equally inventive running jokes (Ben’s friend Martin finds himself the butt of dozens of hirsute-oriented slams when he decides to grow his hair for a bet) and a unique knowledge of when and where to push the gross out gags (always right to the edge of repugnancy), the comedy covers all aspects of the genre.

But there is more to what Apatow is doing than simply larding on the laughs. His moviemaking ideal is a throwback to the days when people, not plotpoints, drove the delirium dynamic. It’s nothing overly complicated. In fact, his secret is something very simple—he lets the characters play out organically, developing along legitimate logistical lines while occasionally tweaking the situational elements to accent their advancement. By the end, we are not only invested in the individuals suffering at the center of the narrative, but we can’t wait to see how the ancillary players pull their weight and supplement the story. When done right, the result is something entertaining and engaging. In Apatow’s case, his accomplishment far exceeds expectations. What he delivers is something close to definitive.

Of course, his actors help out tremendously. Rogen, a longtime comic collaborator, is the perfect sad sack hero. He’s not solidly self-deprecating, nor is he cravenly cocky. He exists right in the middle of both emotional extremes, and when you add in his solid sense of sarcasm, he becomes someone we can instantly identify with. Heigl, on the other hand, has the much harder role. She has to play TV personality perkiness without becoming an irritating shrew, and the moments where she has to act selfish and superior never come across as harsh or horrible. Of course, this couple will have more than its fair share of ups and downs – compatibility is not high on their initial meet-cute conceit. But as they grow, as Apatow allows them to flower and fail, we find ourselves lost in their developing love story. Soon, all we care about is how destiny will determine the pair’s possibilities. The penis and vagina jokes are just a wondrous addition to the emotional mix.

By contrast, Leslie Mann (Apatow’s real life wife) and Paul Rudd (as Debbie’s beleaguered husband Pete) are a fascinating study of responsibility ruining an individual’s hope and compassion. With two precocious daughters determining their every move, the film appears to be setting them up as the cautionary example to guide Alison and Ben. We are supposed to see how marriage and maturity undermine one’s personality to create a kind of composite shell of one’s former self. But Apatow adds layers that indicate something much stronger than that. Indeed, Knocked Up‘s entire raison d’etra appears to be acknowledging that the arriving adventures in child rearing can be just as life affirming as the old habits we so desperately hold onto. But he’s clear to show that there’s no bed of roses at the end of the reproductive rainbow.

Thanks to a remarkable ensemble made up of pals from Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks days (Jason Segel, Martin Starr), a few freaky star turns (Ryan Seacrest and Spider-Man‘s James Franco are wonderful) and some surprising cameos (SCTV’s Harold Ramis as Ben’s dad, Joanna Kerns as Alison’s mom), Knocked Up becomes a surprise a minute sensation, a film that never lets on where it’s going next, or how it will foster its next line of laughter. Make no mistake about it – this is one incredibly funny film, the kind of gasping for air joviality that hasn’t been seen since Trey Parker and Matt Stone delivered their manic musical South Park movie.  In an era when the big screen comedy has been reduced to either an exercise in insular irony or bad taste level ludicrousness, it’s refreshing to find a film that actually earns every second of side splitting splendor.

It is clear that, come December, Knocked Up will remain a member of 2007’s hit hierarchy. If it doesn’t become a big time blockbuster, earning ample accolades on top of its barrelful of greenbacks, there is something wrong with the post-millennial movie going public. Reaching across demographic designs to endear itself to oldsters and adolescents alike, and achieving that legitimate rarity in rib-tickling—that is, comedy that actually has something profound to say about the human condition—this is what pure popcorn entertainment is all about. Hollywood should scuttle its subjective sequels and ridiculous remakes and study Apatow for his take on things. Cinema would definitely be a more joyful artform because of it.

Ouch! It’s a bad week for first run DVD product. Wanna know just how awful it is? After sifting through several lists, SE&L had to suggest two titles on the current Tuesday breakdown that it knows, for sure, are absolute cinematic dogs. Naturally, they’re both half-baked horror movies, one of which purports to explain how a certain cannibalistic doctor became a flesh feasting madman. Right, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning successfully did the same thing for some guy in a skin mask. In truth, there are a couple of tantalizing choices here – a chopsocky epic based on an idea from kung fu icon Bruce Lee, a double dose of Asian adolescent atrocities, and an insightful look at one of the UK’s most infamous artists. But with summer officially starting and the local Cineplex rocking with popcorn possibilities, home theater has no hope of keeping up – not as long as they keep their release schedule as underwhelming as the one for 29 May:

Hannibal Rising

Let’s settle this once and for all – prequels DO NOT WORK! Ask Butch and Sundance. Ask Leatherface and his brood. Heck, ask the king of craptacular prologues, George Lucas. There is just something inherently impossible about matching a previously well known character’s present persona with the manner in which it was formulated. Now Thomas Harris destroys all lingering literary prestige (what little he had) with this undeniably awful Lecter illogic. Helmed with a lack of filmmaking flair by Peter Webber, we learn early on that this will not be our standard slasher endeavor. Trying desperately to make young Hannibal’s lot mirror the devastation of Europe at the hands of the Nazis, this self-important slop can’t decide if it’s a character study or a craven carve up. The answer is obvious. It’s neither. It’s the continued milking of an already tapped out horror movie franchise. How this concept went from Oscar to ungodly stands as a clear case of Hollywood hubris.

Other Titles of Interest

Battle Royale I & II

No other nation expresses its inner fears and sense of social confusion better than the Japanese. Here, out of control teens are placed on a deserted island and given a simple mandate – kill each other via any means necessary. Bloody, brave and quite brash, this clear commentary on the death of tradition stands as one of Kinji Fukasaka’s best cinematic statements.

Circle of Iron

Before his untimely death at age 33, Bruce Lee dreamed of bringing this epic meditation on Zen and the Art of Butt Kicking to the big screen. Five years posthumous, friends and well wishers more or less realized his goals. Those used to the lightning fast concepts of post-Matrix wire-fu may be unimpressed by the martial artistry on display, but there is more to this movie than flying fists and roundhouse kicks.

Heavy Petting: Special Edition

Back before DVD made such items of interest available to the general public, comic compilations like these brought the world of weird educational films to wistful film fans everywhere. The focus this time is on sex and personal hygiene, elements that go together to confuse and corrupt the youth of a nation. With guest commentators like ex-Talking Head David Byrne and musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson.

The Katharine Hepburn Collection

Not exactly the greatest compilation of this actresses’ fine work, you’ll still find a couple of concrete gems (Morning Glory, Sylvia Scarlett) amongst the other unknown entities present. The real rarity, however, is Ms. Hepburn’s 1979 TV turn as a determined teacher in The Corn is Green. It argued for the voracious viability of this legend’s terrific talent, even some 60 years after her initial start in show business

The Naked Civil Servant

John Hurt is Quentin Crisp, the famed gay writer and ebullient bon vivant in this, the author’s own eccentric autobiography. Though never fully appreciated in his lifetime, the elder statesman of British homosexuality consistently challenged convention as he tried to navigate his way through a world filled with prejudice and intolerance. This is a funny, sad, and very moving film. 

And Now for Something Completely Different
Drive Thru

Fast Food may indeed be the work of the Devil, but once you’ve sat through Brendan Cowles and Shane Kuhn’s ode to refusing fries with that, you’ll definitely reconsider your trans-fat tendencies. Apparently, the owner of a local California snack shack franchise known as Hella-Burger has a problem on his hands – his goofball mascot, something called “Horny the Clown”, has turned into a sinister serial killer. Oddly enough, he is targeting the offspring of the ‘70s teens who accidentally murdered his son. Sound familiar? That’s because our filmmakers shot their wad on making Horny into something truly terrifying. As a result, they had to borrow plot points from better movie macabre. This makes everything else here seem redundant and ridiculous. Unless you need to experience every variation on the slice and dice genre ever conceived, your best bet is to skip this unhappy meal.

 

by Phil Gunson [McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)]

28 May 2007

CARACAS, Venezuela—Riot police clashed with thousands of demonstrators in the Venezuelan capital for a second consecutive day Monday, leaving several people injured, as protests continued over the closure by leftist President Hugo Chavez of the country’s most popular television station, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV).

International condemnation of the shutdown also continued, with criticism coming from the European Union and the press freedom body Reporters Without Borders.

Robert Menard, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, said in Caracas that the decision not to renew the station’s license was “political.” Chavez has accused RCTV of being part of a conspiracy to destabilize his eight-year-old government.

In nod to Memorial Day, Turner Classic Movies has aptly scheduled a bevy of John Wayne movies for the next few days, in commemoration of The Duke’s 100th birthday. In between all the patriotic grit and bluster of favorites, They Were Expendable (1945), The Flying Tigers (1942), and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), try to catch a screening of what is probably one of the most telling and most ambiguous war movies ever made, The Bridge on The River Kwai (1957). If you miss the movie, and you hunger for the pageantry and old-fashioned thrill of a historical epic, as well as the cerebral pacing and sense of rhythm so rarely seen in films anymore, by all means, rent it.

And try not to let that damn whistling tune get in the way. Bridge, like Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, tends to be swallowed up in the pop culture kitsch of its own theme music. But David Lean’s first major Hollywood production is the remarkable piece of filmmaking - grand, sweeping, and intimate at the same time.

Most war movies made before the ‘70s are either clearly for, or subtly against wars. Bridge is one of the few that focuses not only on the power of ideologies that drag us into conflict, but on the individuals who are made to suffer because of them. The incessant whistling of the bedraggled British POWs, Col. Nicholson’s (Alec Guinness) fierce adherence to the Geneva Code and the gentlemanly rules of European warfare, as well as his men’s diligence in building a bridge that will enable the Japanese to transport supplies and reinforcements, are all grim attempts of coping, of holding onto sanity.

Nicholson’s battle of wills with the Japanese commandant, Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) over officers performing manual labor on the bridge, (Saito wants to humble the uppity officers, while Nicholson believes that the officers will be better utilized as mechanical engineers rather than as laborers) results in Nicholson’s month-long solitary confinement, (one of the film’s best-known sequence), in ``the Oven’’ - a corrugated iron hut that stands in the sun. Nicholson would rather die than bend on his principles, and when he finally wins, after Saito realizes that the Brits will only take orders from their own colonel, he is hoisted onto his men’s shoulders and paraded as a hero for weakening the enemy’s resolve as Saito sobs, humiliated, inside his bungalow.

But the real heroes of the movie are unclear. Is the champion really Nicholson? Is his burning obsession to build a bridge better than his Japanese captors an act of courage in ameliorating the living conditions of his men, or merely an act of folly in helping the enemy? Or is the real hero Maj. Shears (William Holden), the requisite cynical American G.I. (the film apparently had to have one, or Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures wouldn’t finance the picture), a rakish hedonist who disdains the blind commitment Nicholson and his men have to their rules, and follows his own code of common sense?

The portrayal of stoic British heroism that both Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins made popular comes across as a bit dated now. Their uniformed machismo and Edwardian condescension at times seems painfully colonial, especially when, after the war, it is clear the protagonists plan to take up the reigns of Empire over India, China and the Far East. But the performances are some of the most thoughtfully rendered, nuanced pieces of acting, a stirring image of men from that time. Moments like Alec Guinness’ beleaguered walk after weeks of confinement from “the Oven” to Saito’s bungalow, chin high, physically struggling to march while his men salute him, or the sequence near the end of the film where Nicholson smugly inspects of the finished bridge, are masterpieces of characterization.

Nicholson, like Lean’s depiction of T.E. Lawrence, is a military man whose hubris blurred his sense of reality. “One day,” he muses to the skeptical army doctor, “the war will be over, and I hope the people who use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built, and who built it.’’ Noble as his motives are, the bridge will help defeat the Allies.  In his obsession to outdo the Japanese and prove the superiority of British engineering and efficiency, Nicholson forgets that there’s a war going on.

The last seven minutes of the movies lay out a complex interplay of characters’ motives and disastrous consequences, as the demolition team led by Shears and Warden (Hawkins) are poised to blow up the bridge. Lean had learned from William Wyler that the key to creating a suspenseful sequence is to bore the audience for several minutes before you thrust the surprise. The cuts between Nicholson’s misguided scrutinizing of the bridge and the demolition team’s desperation is harrowing, and the epiphany at the end is almost Shakespearean in its realization.

Epic spectacles in the past few years, with a handful of exceptions, have become associated with commercially viable B movies—easily digested, easily forgotten. Watching Bridge, you realize that an epic movie is not only about the grand production values, but the scope of the filmmakers’ vision and intelligence. The movie wavers between exhilarating thrills, explosions, jungle fights, and haunting losses, the unexplicable waste of human life that war demands. Made over forty years ago, its as resonant today as it was then.

For a long time I tried to not drink bottled water on principle, the principle being not merely habitual cheapskatery but that I didn’t want to contribute to the erosion of safety standards of tap water—if the political constituencies that matter all become de rigeur bottled water drinkers, then the will to ensure that the government protects water supplies weakens, and waterborne diseases among those too poor to secure bottled water increases. But the insanity of the packaging waste brought on by people requiring a special container for every single serving of water is brought home in an article in the NYT Magazine by Jon Mooallem, who has written several illuminating articles about the food-packaging industry and its implications. The article mainly looks at the bottled water industry’s attempts to remain exempt from laws that tack on bottle deposits, as on beer and soda. Grocers, who have to deal with the infrastructure of collecting and repaying deposits, are the primary opponents of this arrangement; they protest the hassle of having to cope with storing all the bottles and the chaos the redemption process forces them to try to manage. Bottle-deposit laws encourage the development of a scavenger class, who might turn up in your alley rummaging through your garbage and then can be found pushing their battered shopping carts full of empties to the Trade Fair for cashing in. Proponents of bottle deposits seem to think they provide useful incentives to the indigent; instead of begging or menacing people, they can be doing something useful for society. But it also incentivizes waste in the more fortunate, who can rationalize littering (and the unnecessary disposable-single-serving consumption it stems from) with the classic patronizing line of how it gives some bum a job to pick up after them.

The problem with deposit laws is they don’t punish the wastrels, namely the people who can’t be troubled to refill a Nalgene bottle but instead burn through plastic throwaways instead. I was staggered by the following quotes from a market researcher, which depressingly enough, seem right on:

Michelle Barry of the market research firm the Hartman Group told me, “Water is not really critically considered” — not even the object itself, it seems. “We believe bottled water has become less about the physical act of hydration and more about being a companion to people,” she said. “They like to walk around with it and hold it.” Increasingly, the typical consumer sips out of a bottle of water “to mark time.” “It’s like their bangie,” Barry added, meaning a security blanket. Or rather, each bottle of water is one in a readily available cast of interchangeable security blankets that we can capriciously acquire and toss throughout the day.
Several industry people told me that water’s most exciting growth is now in sales of large multipacks or flats of single-serving bottles — stockpiles that we keep in our pantries or garages and grab a few bottles from on our way out the door. The obvious question then is, why not fill up a reusable bottle from the tap and take that with us. “If you’re on the go, and you’re buying something to consume on the go,” Barry told me, “that assumes you don’t have the time for preparation before you go. You need that ultimate convenience.”

A tax on bottles needs to be high enough to inconvenience such people. Individuals tend to default to the more convenient option unless they are given a reason to think about what they are about to do, every time they do it. It’s not always an active choice indicative of a strong preference—convenience lures are grounded in the human tendency to want to evade choices, after all. Who wants to be part of the heedless, littering masses? It seems like a little “libertarian paternalism” might help in this instance, encouraging people through slight institutional tweaks to make the choice they would prefer to make and would be proud of rather than make the destructive and embarrassing choice out of laziness and habit, to the benefit of multinational manufactures of plastic and the petroleum companies that supply the raw materials.

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The Best and Worst Films of Spring 2015

// Short Ends and Leader

"January through April is a time typically made up of award season leftovers, pre-summer spectacle, and more than a few throwaways. Here are PopMatters' choices for the best and worst of the last four months.

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