Friday, September 26, 2008

Baby Mama

I'll be the first to say that 30 Rock is one of the best sitcoms on TV right now. I'll also be the first to say that Amy Poehler is still one of the funniest members of SNL (a torch that's soon to be passed to newcomer Kristen Wiig, but that's another story.) The casting decision to put both Tina Fey and Amy Poehler opposite each other is always a smart one since they work so well together. Unfortunately, this was probably the only smart decision encompassing the entirety of production on the film Baby Mama.

Though not without it's charm, Baby Mama can be summed up as the uglier younger sister to last year's Knocked Up. Written and directed by SNL writing alum Michael McCullers, this outing's disappointment doesn't come as a surprise when his resume includes such "hits" as Undercover Brother and the second and third Austin Powers films. The plot is pretty formulaic and the gags are moderately underwhelming, though it's impossible to hate the movie for its shortcomings when the two main characters are as damned cute as Tina and Amy.

The final ace up Baby Mama's respective sleeve is the supporting cast. I found myself saying "Holy crap, *insert celebrity name here* is in this?" at least four times, and these aren't mild mannered cameos either. Among the star studded day players are Sigourney Weaver, Greg Kinnear, Maura Tierney and (most surprising of all) Steve Martin all providing a handful of laughs a piece to prevent any unnecessary gut-busting.

Overall is was considerably endearing and pretty funny for the most part, though I'm glad I didn't end up paying $9 to see it in a theater. Worth at least a rental if all your other options have been exhausted.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Tropic Thunder

Though Ben Stiller has had about as many career misses as Nicholas Cage in recent years, the only difference is that Ben Stiller manages to climb out of the hole he's dug himself every once in a while and make something worth paying ten bucks to sit in a crowded theater. Even then, he usually has to make the movie himself to give himself any credit (excluding The Royal Tanenbaums of course) because lord knows, no one else will until they shovel out the next in the Focker series (and you know it's coming so buck up and deal with it already.) But all bitchery aside, Stiller knows his satire as proven by The Cable Guy, Zoolander and the latest and most likely to offend just about anybody, Tropic Thunder.

When early promotion for the film first popped up I had just about no interest in it because I failed to notice two things. 1) The film was co-written by Stiller himself, which I'm more likened to give a fair shot and 2) The black guy in the background on the first promo shot was freaking Robert Downey Jr, and while this was impressive and altogether ballsy, I still wasn't completely sold until the first red-band trailer was downloaded onto my computer. Yes, the movie was rated R and a hard R at that. Now, I'm not one to sing the praises of a movie just because it's garnering a MPAA tag that promises at least a handful of F-bombs and some morally questionable material, but when you're aiming for the level of comedic satire that this movie was advertising, it's kind of a must.

Now that you've got the backstory, now about the movie itself. Like Zoolander, it doesn't take it's material seriously enough to get lost in the actual "plot" at hand but rather revels in it's own absurdity while it takes merciless pot-shots at Hollywood and the entertainment industry as a whole. I'd never have left it to Ben Stiller to blatantly point out how ridiculous the idea of being a celebrity is, but he did an admirable job. Kicking off with a fake energy drink commercial followed by three trailers for movies featuring each of the "lead stars" previous films set the tone for the 2 hours that followed. Stiller the action star that's literally made the same movie six times (via the Hollywood sequel machine,) Jack Black the slapstick comedy genius with a drug problem (with some low blows to Eddie Murphy and Young Hollywood in general,) and Robert Downey Jr the method actor who literally becomes every character he's ever played, dying his skin brown the play an african-american in the film within the film "Tropic Thunder." And what surprises me was the lack of offense to a white actor in blackface for almost two hours in lieu of several minutes of dialog involving the word "retard." They're making fun of actors (Tom Hanks, Sean Penn and Dustin Hoffman come to mind... they're also mentioned in said dialog) not the handicapped.

Stiller handles his character well, though his screen presence can be a bit cumbersome at times. Jack Black serves up his best performance since High Fidelity. Robert Downey Jr goes without saying, but I'll say it anyways, is a brilliant performer and provides the most quotable performance of the summer (I found myself saying the "I know who I am!" speech at least 10 times the week after viewing.) Though the most surprising cast member was the underplayed but genuinely funny Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up, TV's canceled UnDeclared and Million Dollar Baby) as rookie actor Kevin Sandusky. The kid's got promise and I look forward to more of his work. Danny McBride's (The Foot Fist Way and Pineapple Express) gung ho pyrotechnic specialist was well played and Nick Nolte was in it, so there's that. More surprising were the unexpected appearances by both Matthew McConaughey and Tom Cruise (the latter almost unrecognizable.)

Overall, Tropic Thunder was one of the better comedies I saw this summer and I didn't feel bad that it knocked The Dark Knight out of the number one slot the week it came out. If you're looking for a good laugh and you don't get offended too easily, go ahead and give Stiller one more chance.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pineapple Express

It's come to my attention lately that there are very few mainstream comedies worth seeing lately. Maybe it's due to a maturing sense of cinematic awareness on my part or it could be that studios don't know what's funny anymore. Either way, there are few names left in the comedy game that I can trust anymore, luckily one of those names is still Judd Apatow. Following the success of last years breakout comedy Superbad, which thrust the uber-talented Michael Cera and Jonah Hill into the public eye and unleashed the writing styles of Apatow alum Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg on an unsuspecting world (both with writing credits on the underappreciated TV series Undeclared.) Now comes their sophomore feature length Pineapple Express.

I’ll go ahead and say right now that Pineapple Express is the type of movie that I’m normally likened to hate at first glance and without Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow’s names involved I may not have stepped into the theater in the first place. If it’s one sub-genre that I don’t find entertaining, it’s “stoner comedy.” I have trouble laughing at what is generally two guys sitting in a room bantering about how high they are, and unless there’s a pretty engrossing plot going on (a la Dazed and Confused ) I can usually find better things to be doing with my time. While marijuana is a prominent factor in Pineapple, the usual stoner mechanics takes a backseat to the actual story. The thing that proved funniest was that while they never draw attention to how much pot they’re smoking, what you realize is that 90% of everything they do is motivated by how high they are. This way, when either of the characters do something outlandish or unrealistic when faced with a situation, you don’t have to suspend your disbelief that far at all.

The script is consistently solid. Rogen and Goldberg have proven that Superbad, their 10 year pet project, was not just a fluke. Instead of injecting the mainstream with yet another in a long line of teen-comedy clones (College, The Rocker, the umpteenth American Pie sequel, etc. etc.) they’ve concocted a well timed action-comedy satire. Playing up the ridiculousness of most action movies (the never-ending ammunition, the conveniently placed and accessible firearms, the over the top splatter-gore) definitely kept the laughs coming.

It was good to see Seth Rogen and James Franco side by side again after eight or so years (since the disintegration of Freaks & Geeks, one of the most promising shows that never got a chance) and their chemistry is still right on. I've been defending Franco for years, in light of his role choices in a flurry of inspirational military academy flicks and the Spider Man franchise, and I was happy to see him knock this role out of the park. Rogen was good as usual, I'm curious as to how much was actually ad libbed and how much was scripted. There were some nice "guest" appearances, most notably Ed Begley Jr. ,Nora Dunn and the surprising return of Rosie Perez. I was also very impressed by newcomer Danny McBride (the new recruit in the Apatow Army after his breakthrough mockumentary The Foot Fist Way, of which I have yet to see.)

All in all, Pineapple Express is not just a Pot Comedy. It's a well developed action-comedy-satire that happens to have a fair amount of pot smoking in it. Needless to say I'm looking forward to Seth Rogen's take on the classic character The Green Hornet.