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Saturday, Jun 2, 2007


Post-millennial audiences have basically forgotten how to go to the movies. The home theater experience and its myriad of personal perks (readily available bathroom breaks, unlimited snacking, selfish screening time management) have turned the average film fan into an impatient instant gratification addict. A big screen release has to deliver, and deliver quickly, or attention spans shift and butts begin to stiffen. This may explain the near 50/50 split on the viability of Gore Verbinski’s amazing old school blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Half the critical community found the film an honorable companion piece to the previous buccaneer blasts. But an equal number are not that happy at all, arguing that whatever entertainment value Parts 1 and 2 contained, this one is adrift on a sea of stunted amusements. 


Let’s start with the chief complaints against this final facet of the ‘current’ franchise (don’t worry, more movies are inevitable – Tinsel Town never kills outright this kind of cash cow). First off, there’s the grievance that, at two hours and forty-nine minutes, the narrative goes on for far too long. Well, when you’re working through an entire mythology that reaches back across two complete films, as well as a great deal of suggested storylines, you’re wrap-up is going to be gargantuan. Besides, like Roger Ebert once said, no ‘good’ motion picture is ever too long, and Pirates 3 is an amazing entertainment. The second objection rides on the so-called ‘ridiculous’ amount of characters connected to the resolution. Yes, there are a lot of loose ends to tie up here, but who would you eradicate in the process? Would you pull an Aliens3 on some of the supporting cast and kill them off during the opening credits? Perhaps put a few familiar faces in the gallows line-up that opens the film?


No, epic scope and far too many important personalities are what this incredibly accomplished send-off thrives on. For those who hated, or couldn’t handle the introduction of Davy Jones and his craven crustacean crew during Part 2, or longed for the sudden surprise of finding a Disney attraction offering that didn’t instantly suck on ice (ala Part 1), this will not be the movie for you. Instead, this journey to the ends of the Earth in search of closure – and a certain suave scallywag – is anxious to amplify the overall importance of events we’ve seen previously, while adding even more outlandish elements to the already overreaching yarn. Indeed, like the first films founded in the pure popcorn paradigm, director Verbinski is out to change the overall flavor of motion picture eye candy. No matter your issues with the overlong narrative or wealth of unnecessary characters, no one can deny the spectacle of the final pirate stand-off deep inside a whirlpooling maelstrom. It remains one of the series most sensational defining moments.


Equally impressive is the first act descent into Davy Jones’ notorious ‘locker’. Turns out the place is more like purgatory – a lonely, desolate locale where Sisyphean tasks await the unlikely visitor.  For those in the audience who’ve sat back impatiently wondering just where the Heck Johnny Depp has been hiding for the last 45 minutes, his clone-addled insanity (Capt. Jack is confronted by multiple version/visions of himself) is like a Super-Sized helping of the popular knave. Our unlikely superstar still finds ways of making this character likeable and unique, but it’s important to note that Jack will not be the sole focus here – and Depp knows it. He makes the most of his moments without overstaying his welcome. Instead, he provides the usual cinematic spice this entire series loves to thrive on.


Once we’ve move beyond Chow Yun Fat and his Hook-like seaport of Shanghai (the most unrealistic element in this entire fantasy film) we get locked into the storytelling mechanisms moving briskly by. Again, there’s no denying that the movie is plot driven, but to call it overdone or confusing is hogwash. In fact, the plot often feels like the Lucas crafted designs for Star Wars. The original 1977 blockbuster was a clever combination of recognizable genres types (the Western, the serial) with self-started and generated mythology interspersed throughout. Here, Verbinksi takes the typical high seas adventure yarn, mixes in a few post-modern references of his own, and then inserts lots of lore about ocean goddesses, afterlife debts to pay, and personal crises that must be confronted and conquered. As long as you’re attentive and open to the overall experience, you’ll easily comprehend the movie’s motivational machinery. If you’re too busy text messaging your “bff”, you’ll likely get lost.


The reference to a certain motion picture set in a ‘galaxy far, far away’ is also apropos for what Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End strives for, from an entertainment standpoint. Like the popcorn movies of old, this is an experience as much as it is a film, a chance for audiences to get lost in elements they rarely experience in life. Oddly enough, the year before Wars arrived at theaters, Universal tried to jumpstart the pirate movie with Swashbuckler. Featuring Robert Shaw, James Earl Jones and Peter Boyle, it didn’t do well at the box office, but did set the contemporary schematics for future attempts at the sea-faring saga to follow. By utilizing the ‘yo ho ho and a bottle of rum’ archetypes within a new kind of updated narrative, director James Goldstone overhauled the entire formula. Seventies audiences just weren’t ready for the retrofitting.


Something similar could be said for modern crowds. When the first Pirates hit, it’s clear that Producer Jerrry Bruckheimer felt it was the superb supernatural angle that wowed viewers. That’s why the sequel is inundated with as many CGI and make-up monster men as possible. In Part 3, all that’s been abandoned. Now we get more of the sensational swordplay and keel-hauling adventure that recalls the grand spectacles of old. In some ways, these movies are like templates, picking and choosing the homages and references they need to succeed before moving on to another character’s individual dilemma. Without the numerous personalities to contend with, the plot would become needlessly repetitive. With a merry band of important entities, every turn of the storyline screw is important.


Still, it’s not hard to see fans giving up on this entire enterprise. They’ve been fed a failed bill of goods by a critical contingency that can’t make up its mind on what is acceptable and what is awful. For everyone comparing this film to the Matrix or Terminator titles, the point has some validity. Both initial movies were made as stand alone statements, lacking the open ended leanings that something similar to Spider-Man offers. To flesh them out, one had to use the original idea as ballast, while battling the demands of studio interference and fan anticipation. That something remotely entertaining comes out of such a schism is high praise indeed. In the case of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, the successes far outweigh the incredibly minor quibbles - not that the present demographic is patient enough to see it for themselves. 


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Friday, Jun 1, 2007


Has any film arrived with more nonsensical – and non-cinematic – baggage as Apocalypto? Granted, Mel Gibson’s egregious gaff last August clouded its theatrical release in a totally unnecessary manner, but it was the media that made tenable the connection between his personal philosophy about his fellow man and a film focusing on South American tribes at the end of their reign as civilized societies. Like any major superstar – and for a while, no one was bigger than the slightly manic Mel – the building of a celebrity is only half the press’s process. Dragging them back down the stairway of eminence makes up the second section of fame’s cyclical nature.


Perhaps DVD can help his flagging interpersonal fortunes. Gauged solely by what’s up on the screen, Gibson shouldn’t have any issues at all. From a pure filmmaking point of view, Apocalypto is brilliant. It’s a tenacious throwback to the days when human beings handled action, not CGI and special effects. It uses it’s wonderfully simplistic storyline to pour on much welcomed buckets of atmosphere and design, and it purposely leaves the audience directly in the dark. As a result, we instantly identify with his lead character’s dilemma (protecting and/or returning to his family) and discover the wild and wooly ways this foreign world works, right along with everyone else.


Unlike the ra-ra ridiculousness of Braveheart, or the subjective snuff film reverence of The Passion of the Christ, Gibson gives the audience a break here, creating an excellent antidote to the plodding post-modern blockbuster. In a script that is elegant in its ease, Gibson identifies the good guys (Jaguar Paw’s jungle dwelling tribe) and names the unbelievable bad guys (the completely corrupt and de-evolving Mayans) and puts them at odds inside a beautiful, bloody epic. Argue over his skill with narrative or characterization, but no one can doubt Gibson’s gift behind the lens. Using digital cameras and advanced filmmaking technology, there is a rawness to this imagery present that’s just astounding.


There are indeed shots in Apocalypto that will literally take your breath away, moments where you wonder aloud if this is the natural beauty of a practical location, a purely computer generated spectacle, or a clever combination of the two. In particular, there’s a moment during Jaguar Paw’s last act escape where he winds up in a pit of headless corpses. Colored a dire, dreary gray by the surrounding mud, the bodies form a kind of corrupt canvas, as perfect a painting of pain and horror as the visual medium has to offer. In addition, the entire Mayan Temple scene is radiant in its crassly colorful depiction of debauchery. As part of Touchstone’s Special Edition disc, Gibson is on hand to explain how he captured every cleverly created moment. We even witness the attention to detail in the Behind the Scenes featurettes. 


As for the performances, it really is hard to challenge or criticize them. Texan Rudy Youngblood is very good in the leading role, though he tends to have less of the detailed physical maladies (bad teeth, body scars) as given to his equally impressive co-stars. Still, he never comes across as ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’. Naturally, there’s a villain, and Gibson does a very smart thing when it comes to his bad guys. He divides up the evil, making main leader Zero Wolf (played by Raoul Trujillo) a far more focused heavy. He even shows a softer side, doting on his son in a way that foreshadows a fatal event that drives the Mayans to make Jaguar Paw a palpable public enemy. Snake Ink, on the other hand, is like a pre-Columbian Simon LeGree. Face forming a constant snarling smirk, actions always poised on the precipice of outright psychosis, newcomer Rodolfo Palacios seems to be channeling every old fashioned rogue in the action movie manual. Thanks to the use of an ancient language and subtitles, the personalities all seem to merge and meld into a kind of collective clan. It is only via easily remembered art design elements, and individual idiosyncrasies that we end up with certain specific types.


While it may be bereft of real emotion – as much as we like Jaguar Paw, we don’t really feel the connection between he and his pregnant mate – there is no doubting Gibson’s ability to showboat and inspire. The entire trip through the mad Mayan city, filled with touches both natural and otherworldly, creates the kind of sociological science fiction that any good period piece can provide. We want to be transported to a world we’ve never experienced, believe in the validity of the varying little details that make up the magical whole. Some have criticized the authenticity of Apocalypto’s artistic assertions, but the added context of the DVD should help to resolve some of those lingering logistical doubts. Indeed, we learn that things were much worse – read: bloodier and gorier – than depicted onscreen.


Yet it’s the nonstop action of the entire last act, a foot race that seems to cover the entire length of Central America in its lightning paced logistics and epic scope that truly amplifies our appreciation. Obviously inspired by his stint as a certain Mad Max, Gibson emulates the best of Australian auteur George Miller and strips everything down to body parts and wooded paths. Instead of just spectacle (and there’s plenty of that) we get strategizing and opportunism. While some may question the seemingly boundless energy Jaguar Paw and his pursuers maintain, we recognize the urgency in both the escape and the hunt. Our hero has to get home to his family. The villains have a horrifying superstition to follow and feed (and a little eye for an eye payback to administer). By avoiding complicated motives and obvious stunt set ups, the action in Apocalypto’s finale is a solid cinematic adrenaline rush. It argues not only for the effectiveness of the film, but for the skill stowed away in Gibson’s bag of cinematic tricks.


For all his flaws as a human being, his history as a man both married to and marred by his convictions, Mel Gibson should never be doubted as a moviemaker. Apocalypto may not be one of the all time classics of the genre, but it surely stands shoulder to shoulder with the exceptional efforts of 2006 – at least from an inventive perspective. Besides, what’s the better legacy to have hanging around your neck – an undeniably dense anger toward people of a certain persuasion, or the ability to make startling celluloid statements? While it may be possible to judge a man strictly by his actions, art is not so easily categorized. It requires a different set of perceptive standards. Here’s DVD’s chance to change some minds


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Thursday, May 31, 2007


Don’t you hate the feeling? That dull, throbbing pain in your cinematic proclivities provided by what can best be described as a popcorn movie hangover. So far, the month of May has given us a trio of tre-quels, and another look at some very British non-zombies. It was the entertainment equivalent of binge drinking. As June begins busting out all over, the theatrical choices are becoming a little less bombastic – and if you’re not already in line to see Judd Apatow’s brilliant Knocked Up, there is something really wrong with you. The pay cable channels, on the other hand, are weeding through the remainder of last year’s lesser offerings. For anyone whose seen the ads, Cinemax and HBO are promising a big fat blockbuster couple of months. Too bad they choose to avoid that approach this week. Similarly, Starz has been on a roll of sorts the last few Saturdays. This time though, the sacrilege hits the fan. We here at SE&L are still going to suggest it, even though it represents the worst of Tinsel Town’s thriller tendencies. You have been warned:


Premiere Pick
The Da Vinci Code


Buried inside Dan Brown’s purposefully provocative premise is actually a pretty strong story idea. After all, the Church has been a notorious secret keeper for eons, and to think it would resort to violence to protect the fact of Jesus’ secular reality is not so incredibly far fetched. But then he had to go and muck it all up by turning the entire tale into one big oversized cryptogram with way too many loose ends and obvious clues. All director Ron Howard did was emphasize the sloppy code busting. In addition, Tom Hanks is horribly miscast, unable to loose his average Joe vibe to play a dorkwad Harvard scholar. Toss in the lack of legitimate surprise (the media had long ruined Brown’s chartbuster hook), some scenes of incredibly ponderous exposition, and you’ve got a massive mainstream hit that plays like a lame History Channel reenactment.  (02 June, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
John Tucker Must Die


The teen comedy has suffered significantly over the last few decades. Basically, the kind of material masquerading as coming of age fodder has been usurped by sitcoms and cable cartoon shows. While the premise of this relationship/revenge spoof sounds novel, it ends up derivative and dopey – sort of like your typical high school student, right? No amount of ‘you go girl power’ can save this sloppy satire. (02 June, HBO, 8PM EST)

Accepted


It must be matriculation night over at the HBO/Cinemax studios. When it was released last August, many felt this college jokefest could be a modern day Animal House. It ended up being another unappetizing installment of the overly ironic post-millennial excuse for a laugh-a-thon. While the notion of a student run school for partying is not a new one, the PG-13 rating which reduced every gag to something tepid and tame is. (02 June, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

 


Strangers with Candy


Before her position was usurped by Sarah Silverman, Amy Sedaris was the go-to gal for confrontational wit and wisdom. Perhaps that’s why this big screen makeover of her Comedy Central hit felt so desperate and dated. It was just so 1997. Hyped as the second coming of funny, it flopped so massively at the box office that even die-hard fans couldn’t find a screening. Thanks to endless repeats on cable, they should now have no such viewing problems. Let the reconsideration commence. (02 June, ShowTOO, 10:30PM EST)

Indie Pick
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life


Before the death of founding member Graham Chapman, the members of Britain’s undeniably brilliant sketch comedy company delivered their final motion picture masterwork – a vignette oriented comic cornucopia on the purpose of existence. While many found the film too fractured and fragmented, it plays today like a strong litany of lessons lifted directly from humanity’s metaphysical playbook. Taking on birth, war, death, and dismemberment, along with a collection of musical numbers that each rival Oliver! in their “I’m All Right Jack” Englishness, the troupe fashioned a seminal work of cinematic comedy that few, if any, could ever dare match. Sadly, it would be their final group effort, but it continues to argue for the talented men’s position as kings of skewering satire. (07 June, Sundance Channel, 7PM EST)

Additional Choices
Kinsey


Overlooked when it arrived in theaters, Bill Condon’s witty exposé remains a work of quiet genius. Well past due for a big screen biopic, the story of America’s preeminent sex researcher was watered down a little for mainstream consumption (meaning a limited glance at the subject’s rumored festishes and bi-sexuality). But the wonderful performances by Liam Neeson and Laura Linney more than compensate.  (02 June, IFC, 9PM EST)

Fried Green Tomatoes


Fannie Flagg was, at one time, the hillbilly Harlequin romancer, a novelist using standard sentimentality of the chick flick as a basis for her country cousin yucks. This story of female empowerment and under-ripe love apples stands as her most popular paean to gals abandoning men in favor of their own overriding womanliness. Thanks to marvelous turns by the entire cast and a nice feel of nostalgia, it remains a well loved lament. (05 June, Sundance Channel, 6:45PM EST)

The Sleeping Dictionary


Before she became a full blown erotic eye candy pin up, Jessica Alba actually attempted to be an actress. Proof is this unusual 2003 drama in which the future male fantasy fodder played the title character, a native girl used by turn of the century British bureaucrats to learn the language and customs of their colonies. While not perfect, it remains a lovely movie overflowing with stunning vistas and fine performances. (05 June, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

Outsider Option
Head


If the Monkees were indeed the exact artistic opposite of the Beatles, then it makes perfect sense that the Prefab Four would create a film diametrically opposed to the Liverpool boys’ own joyful saccharine romps. Head is hard to decipher at first, a social commentary without anything new or significant to say, a work of warped brilliance bathed in a slack self-effacing paradox that wouldn’t be popular for another 25 years. At its heart, thought, it remains a fascinating deconstruction of the entire Monkees myth, from the lighthearted screwball slapstick of their hit TV show to the notorious disposability of their music. It remains a movie so ahead of its time that it’s still waiting for said era to arrive. This is a brave pick for TCM’s Underground, especially when you consider that they’ve been bringing us reruns and bottom of the barrel b-movies for quite a while now. (01 June, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Grand Canyon


Back before he fell from cinematic grace, Lawrence Kasdan delivered this Crash like take on life in early ‘90s Los Angeles, and critics couldn’t’ get enough. While clearly loaded with more social observations than story (the characters here do love their long conversations), the writer/director’s intelligent insights really drive the drama. Add in some pitch perfect performances and you have one of the era’s best. (02 June, Indieplex, 9PM EST)

Satan’s Cheerleaders


Like every great grindhouse classic, this movie has a better title than truth. A Satanic janitor looking for virgin meat to sacrifice gets the local pep squad in Dutch with his fellow Devil devotees. Unfortunately, the jokes on him, in mores ways than one. Featuring a completely out of place Yvonne DeCarlo and a classic John Ireland, the drive-in once delighted in such dementia. Now you can too. (02 June, Drive In Classics, Canada, 9PM EST)

Mean Girls


Quick - when someone says dirty drunken slut, what’s the first two words that come to mind? If you said Lindsay Lohan, you deserve a double martini and a pair of crotchless panties. If, on the other hand, you named anyone else, then you might want to check out the cable channel premiere of the former ingénue’s mainstream comedy hit. There’s enough wit here to almost make you forget a certain actresses antics. ALMOST. (07 June, TNT, 8PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Sometimes, a monster merely happens. You can argue all the FBI profile material, and trace a killer’s lineage back to days vivisecting his (or on rare occasions, her) pets, but the truth is that evil doesn’t necessarily need a clinical explanation. If we are to believe the dogma and the organized ritualization of same, it is a constant within our ethical purview, and battles constantly with good for domination over our soul. So do we really need to clarify why bad things happen, or why individuals forsake morality for something more mean-spirited and sinister – even when the entity in question is a maniacal medico who likes to cannibalize his victims with some fava beans and a nice Chianti?


Hannibal Lecter, especially as personified by actor Anthony Hopkins in three separate films – The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Red Dragon – remains a stalwart cinematic sicko, a fiend formed out of everyone’s own internal horror hierarchy and imagination. Some see him as horror humanized. Others tend to treat him like the granddaddy of death, the far more eloquent bunkmate of figures as fiendish as Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger. He doesn’t demand elucidation – he readily infers his foulness. So what’s the best way to destroy said demon, to undermine his already potent noxious nature? Why, give him a rationale for being so repugnant, that’s how. And that’s exactly what Hannibal Rising does.


While not the worst prequel ever made, this might just be the most pointless. It draws on luxuriant imagery and old world charms to try and defend the insane actions of a future madman. It provides excuses instead of scares, psychological underpinnings where a couple of good gore sequences would have sufficed. Unlike the previous pieces in the Lecter legacy, Rising isn’t really about police procedure or burrowing into the mind of a serial killer. No, this is your standard revenge flick, Michael Myers and his growing slice and dice dementia moved half a world away and several decades into the past. Here, we meet the mighty Lecter clan, wealthy Lithuanian land owners who are naturally caught up in the middle of the Nazi/Russian flare-ups of late World War II. Hoping to avoid the fate of many of their fellow countrymen (including several singled-out Jews), the entire clan flees to the country. There, a pre-pubescent Hannibal and his beloved younger sister Mischa can become instant orphans and take turns starving.


The narrative catalyst that will come to guide the rest of the storyline – and by inference, the rest of our psycho’s despondent life – arrives in the pretense of some jaundiced German sympathizers led by the god-awful, grotesque Grutas (a barely recognizable Rhys Ifans). Along with his four flunkies, this misguided mercenary has been changing allegiance and looting the countryside, all in a desperate attempt to stay alive. When they see the Lecter little ones, they automatically think ‘bargaining chips’. But as the war drags on, and rotten potatoes and scrapbook leather become scarce, little Hannibal and his precocious sibling start looking like lunch. Before you can say “pre-schooler soup’s on!”, an atrocity occurs, and our title terror is left to die in the woods. Thankfully, he is rescued and sent to a Russian orphanage. The rest, as they say, is half-baked history.


From the minute we meet Gaspard Ulliel as the adolescent Lecter, we start to sense where the rest of this tale will be taking us. In his adult years, our villain is portrayed as an intellectualized façade housing an animalistic viciousness. As he’s eating the meat off another human’s cheek, he’s simultaneously rationalizing and relishing it. Here, Ulliel is given a different task all together. He is supposed to be youth corrupted by circumstances, naiveté obliterated by the horrors one human can inflict on another. As he escapes his institutionalized captivity, he leaves the orphanage bully scarred and scared. When he arrives in France (to hook up with his Samurai loving Japanese Aunt – don’t ask), he embraces chivalry to a fatal fault. All the while, our actor resembles a reject from an Armani ad, high cheekbones and chiseled jawline making him the most sinister supermodel on the planet.


Up until this time, we’ve been patient with Hannibal Rising. We’ve accepted the overlong warfare footage (expanded, if only a little, on the new Unrated DVD released by Genius Productions) and snickered ever so slightly at all the feudal Asian claptrap. Gong Li is wasted as Hannibal’s arch relative. Frequently dispossessed of her only means of support or shelter, she still manages to act and dress like a character carved out of Memoirs of a Geisha. There is supposed to be some connection to her sword and sandal traditions and Hannibal’s eventual descent into death dealing, but we never see it. Perhaps it was something that screenwriter (and novel author) Thomas Harris left for readers to discover. The final piece of the puzzle is a shot of sodium pentothal. It helps our troubled anti-hero find some clarity, and before you know it, he’s traipsing around Europe exacting retribution on the men who made Mischa-bobs out of his kin.


It’s too bad that we’ve stopped caring. You see, the inherent problem with Hannibal Rising is not its exterior make-up. Ms. Li aside, the performances are fine, and Ulliel is diabolical and dapper. We don’t even mind the war criminal crusading police officer, or the less than effective henchmen who surround Ifan’s indelible antagonist. In fact, if we didn’t realize that this entire narrative is building up to the creation of that master of corrupt quid pro quo, this would be a well made, period horror film with lots of atmosphere and some effective moments of dread. We’d even forgive the last act’s sudden shift into slasher film territory, Hannibal creating cleverer and cleverer ways to exact his wounded revenge. But the prequel specter hangs heavy over this entire production, leaving one feeling disoriented and angry. Two plus two does not equal four in Hannibal Rising. No, this is a movie that wants to question the existence of addition before even getting down to the brass tacks of finding said sum.


Indeed, the two concepts of Hannibal just don’t gel. The cold blooding killing is there, as is the unhealthy appetite for corporeal foodstuffs, but when you view this newest version of the character alongside the one well established over the last two decades, it’s like seeing a bad Turkish knockoff. There’s a basic recognizability, but the pieces aren’t quite fitting together. Forget the attempted nods to Hopkins characterization – this Lecter is light years away from his eventual self. In fact, one could easily argue that this entire film is merely the opening salvo in a series of Hannibal prequels where we learn – over time and many body parts – how a cruel kid from Lithuania turned into the bane of Will Graham and Clarice Starling’s existence. It’s not that Hannibal Rising lacks justification. It’s more that these descriptions just aren’t good enough. Lecter is larger than life, a freakish combination of dozens of other famous mass murderers filtered through one man’s incredibly inventive mind. But here, Harris is resorting to tabloid basics. As a result, we spend most of the time wondering when young Hannibal will stop sulking and start carving up his hamsters.


Showing the same deftness for period flare as he did in Girl with a Pearl Earring, director Peter Webber acquits himself quite well. He doesn’t understand the first elements of suspense or thriller pacing, but he can offer up a nicely evocative abandoned cottage. He does rely a little too heavily on chaos-creating montages and quick cuts meant to hide most of the hideousness, but he delivers the dramatics with practical aplomb. It’s a shame then that he’s left holding the Lecter mythos bag. Had this been any other lunatic, Webber would be welcomed as the newest member in the macabre makers fan club. As it stands, he sits lording over the shattered remains of a once viable film franchise. At least he has a co-conspirator. Thomas Harris was thought of as the gold standard of horror literature. But thanks to this unappealing prequel, he’s now a sell-out shill. And that’s more terrifying than anything present in Hannibal Rising


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Tuesday, May 29, 2007


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.



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