Monthly Archives: April 2009

Movie Review: Away We Go (Early Screening)

At a glance of the poster for Away We Go, you might think it’s a “been there, done that” movie. The poster looks like a rip off of the opening credits of Juno and the poster of Once; all like a typical quirky indie flick. But, look closer (coincidentally, the tagline of director Sam Mendes’s previous film American Beauty) and you’ll find a small gem of a film that’s slow but ultimately refreshing in the current movie market place.

Away We Go begins with a thirty-something couple, in love for many years yet unmarried, finding out that they are about to have their first child. The man is Burt (John Krasinski). Burt never finished college and is currently struggling to make it as an insurance salesman. The expecting mother is Verona (Maya Rudolph), a struggling artist. 
Burt and Verona can barely make ends meet and hope to bring their child up in a better environment. Like a couple of pilgrims searching for a better life, they head out to explore America, visiting friends and family in different cities to ultimately find the right place to live. They travel all over, from the dry Arizona desert, to frigid Canada.
In every city, they meet a series of eccentric characters. There’s Verona’s very profane former co-worker (Allison Janney) in Phoenix and Burt’s hippy cousin (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Madison, among many others. What the audience learns is that each person they meet has a very different perception of family and a very different view of how to raise children. So as they travel they are not just visiting friends, they’re learning how to raise a family. 
Away We Go’s director, Sam Mendes, is perhaps most famous for his Best Picture winning debut film, American Beauty. American Beauty dealt largely with characters fighting their outer perceptions and eventually learning about the inner feelings of others. Away We Go deals with this theme through a wide range of American culture. Burt and Verona stay with what seems like a peaceful hippy; but she turns out to be an overbearing mother. Meanwhile, their college friend and his wife seem as happy as any couple can be, but they have a dark, underlying secret.
It is not just Burt and Verona however, who are learning new things about other people. The audience becomes sort of a third invisible character and becomes a part of seeing how the characters change as well perceptions of them. Even though Burt seems immature at times and a little lazy we soon realize that he has passion and an extreme dedication to being a parent. Verona’s refusal to marry Burt might seem like a lack of commitment at first but then it turns out to be a testament of love.
One of the finest features of Away We Go is its often breathtaking cinematography. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras focuses on the world around the characters, not just the tiny little bubble they live in. The movie takes its time to show the sun rising over the desert or a shot of the usually bright Miami in a very quiet, dark night.
The movie is bolstered by fine performances. Krasinski retains his hilarious Jim Halpert (from The Office) awkwardness and Rudolph’s very moving performance shows much depth for an actress known mostly for impersonating Paris Hilton and Oprah on Saturday Night Live. Meanwhile, the two brief appearances by Janney, Gyllenhaal, and Jim Gaffigan manage to be brilliant scene stealers.
Away We Go is by no means perfect. It takes time to get into the characters and the road trip story feels somewhat too familiar at times. However, it manages to be so original in that it does something few movies do today: rather than having tragic experiences tear the characters apart, it manages to just keep bringing them closer and closer together and the relationship feel all the more real. Wouldn’t it be nice if every movie treated its characters this way?

Movie Review: Rachel Getting Married

Is it impossible to forgive someone who has hurt you so badly? What if they are family, should you forgive them then? That is an essential questions that looms in the background and drives the plot of the heartbreaking but ultimately spiritually uplifting Rachel Getting Married.

If you thought your family was dysfunctional, then you truly have no idea. The family of Rachel Getting Married makes the Tenenbaums look like the Bradys.
Rachel Getting Married isn’t so much about Rachel. The story focuses on Kym (Anne Hathaway). Kym has been in and out of rehab for ten years and returns back to her Connecticut home to attend her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarrie DeWitt) wedding. Once Kym returns, old family tensions and tragedies are resurrected and the perfect wedding weekend turns into a near ship wreck.
What could’ve been a typical indie flick about quirky and dysfunctional characters is carefully guided away from cliche with a complex screenplay by Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sydney Lumet) and finely crafted direction from Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs). Even though this movie is a world apart from Silence of the Lambs, Demme doesn’t treat it much differently. Kym isn’t much different from Clarice Starling; both characters are haunted by a tragedy in the past that seems to in one way or another have engulfed their life and their well-being. 
Rachel Getting Married‘s cinematography is like a mini tour de force. It often looks shakey like a home video, other times the screen is covered in a light shade of yellow, other times it gets blurrier as the family’s relationships get more and more strained.
As mentioned above, the movie is not about Rachel, but about Kym. It’s Hathaway’s commanding performance that turns Kym into the film’s most powerful character, as she steals every scene she’s in. It’s a huge contrast for the actress who once starred in Princess Diaries. Kym is no princess; she’s emaciated, bruised, and scarred internally in a way that to most would be an unimaginably harsh pain to ever get rid of. 
Even though Kym is so flawed, Hathaway makes her so likable. She does this by focusing on her strong points and turning her into a human being who is hiding incredible will power and even has a strong sense of humor. If Hathaway continues to play characters like this, she will likely go down as one of the finest actresses of her time. In the future, critics and historians will be scratching their heads over why the Academy snubbed this performance.
Rachel Getting Married is like a double-edged sword: it is both unbelievably heartbreaking yet so uplifting at the same time. That is because it deals with the idea of redemption and the possibility that a person can face one’s demons and overlook anyone’s flaws no matter what and ultimately learn how to forgive. Rachel Getting Married gets this message across without hammering it in the audience’s face; it gets it across by showing simple, relatable human interactions. This is the kind of thing that propels a movie from good to greatness. This is one of the best movies of 2008.

"Parks & Recreation": A Good Start?

On Thursday April 9, the much anticipated “Parks & Recreation” began. It comes with much hype and in a time when good comedy is in dire need. So, how is the show thus far? Not amazing, but based on precedent, I will give it benefit of the doubt.

“Parks” was made by the creators of the American adaptation of “The Office.” The show centers around Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler). Knope works for the government in the Parks & Rec department in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. Knope is ambitious and too overly giddy for a public servant. While her co-workers don’t care much about their jobs or the government, she takes her job seriously. Looking up to her idols Sarah Palin and Nancy Pelosi, Knope dreams of being the first female president.
The office members of “Parks” are fewer than those of “The Office,” but each have their own quirks. There’s Knope’s wise-cracking assistant Tom (Aziz Ansari) and the pessimistic, government-hating Ron (Nick Offerman). Joining the crew is Pawnee local Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), who comes to complain about a vacant lot where her boyfriend broke her leg. Knope then comes up with the idea of turning the lot into a new park, a story line that will most likely carry out the rest of the first season. 
“Parks” co-creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur have a perfect eye for casting. Poehler is perhaps most flawlessly cast. She plays the same sort of kind-hearted, over ambitious, and loopy characters she made a career out of while on “Saturday Night Live.” Knope herself is probably something of a young Hilary Clinton. 
“Parks” will likely draw comparisons to “The Office,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Like “The Office,” the show is shot in a documentary style with tracking shots and shots from far away or through bushes. It gives the feeling that we’re watching from afar the lives of these ordinary people that we never thought could be so interesting.
The problem with “Parks” is that there’s nothing really bad about it, but nothing too amazing either. However, “The Office” had the same, tepid start but grew over time. “Parks” may need that same time to grow, and expand its characters; so don’t give up hope on it yet because based solely on two episodes I can say that I am excited to see Leslie Knope and the rest of her Karl Roveesque schemes.

Temporary Vacancy

From Friday, April 10 to Saturday, April 18 no new posts will be up. During this time, I will be in the Dominican Republic, building an aqueduct for a poor, waterless community. Hopefully, I will return with much video footage and maybe reviews of “Adventureland” (which I hope to see soon) and Parks & Recreation” (thanks NBC for deciding to premiere it on Passover. Not like many Jews like comedy anyway…). I don’t want to leave you on a bitter note so I will inform you that “Eastbound & Down” is officially coming back for a second season. Good. The more Kenny Powers, the better.

In the meantime, I hope this will alleviate your boredom:

Movie Review: I Love You, Man

Finally, a romantic comedy that guys and girls alike can enjoy. “I Love You Man” is a movie that takes a tired plot and tries to do something new with it. For the most part, it succeeds.

  “I Love You Man” begins with Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd), a timid real estate agent, proposing to his long time girlfriend Zooey (Rashida Jones) in an empty lot amid downtown Los Angeles. She says yes. From there, the movie is about pre-wedding anxiety. Peter realizes his whole life that he has connected with women so well, but has never had any guy friends. So, he goes on a quest to find a best man before his wedding.

   After a series of failed “man-dates,” Peter stumbles upon Sydney Fife (Jason Segel). Sydney is the kind of guy everyone wishes was their friend: he’s funny, philosophical, and does his own thing. Plus, he has a dog named after an Egyptian president. In no time, the two become nothing short of best friends.

   “I Love You Man” is equipped with an ensemble that includes some of the best names in comedy. There are a few old legends (Jane Curtin, J.K. Simmons), a few new legends (Jon Favreau, Andy Samberg), and a few rising stars (Thomas Lennon, Sarah Burns). However, the real stars of the movie remain Rudd and Segel.

  For years, Rudd was known as a great sidekick in movies like “Anchorman” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Last November, his performance in “Role Models” proved that the hilarious pessimistic cynicism he brings to supporting roles could work well in lead performances as well. In “I Love You Man,” he is given the chance to once again lead, and he shines. This time, he manages to bring more awkwardness than cynicism into the character of Peter. Rather than being someone who can’t communicate with women as in most romantic comedies, he is someone who can’t communicate with men. Rudd uses this for full, cringe worthy effect.

    Also further improving his comedic ability is Segel.  His performance here is less sad sack than his performance in last year’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and more like his performance in “Freaks and Geeks,” as he is someone who seems to enjoy his ridiculously unrealistic life while being totally oblivious to reality.

   Although “I Love You Man”’s plot is at times by-the-numbers, it doesn’t feel that way because of the twist added to it. The writers also deserve credit for incorporating the Lou Ferrigno cameo into the plot rather than just having it there for the sake of having a celebrity cameo. Also, it is great that writers John Hamburg and Larry Levin turned the final wedding scene into a somewhat serious moment rather than a cheap parody of “The Graduate.”

   Unfortunately, this movie isn’t flawless. Favreu steals almost every scene he is in, but his marriage plotline could’ve been tied together better with the main storyline to provide insight into the struggling relationship between Pete and Zooey. Also, Samberg and Simmons are criminally underused. 

  While “I Love You Man” contains the usual cast and crew of a Judd Apatow production, his name is totally absent from the credits. However, he still manages to leave his mark on the final production. Like an Apatow film, “I Love You Man” shows great respect for its characters and doesn’t laugh in their faces when they fail. “I Love You Man” shows you don’t have to be mean to be funny. 

Movie Review: Lawrence of Arabia

Is “Lawrence of Arabia” the best epic ever made?
Is it proper to state that “Lawrence of Arabia” is the best epic ever made as a question? Or would it have been better to do so with a period? Hollywood has retained a fascination with epic filmmaking, but it is best to say the statement “best epic ever made” should end with a period. David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” is the pinnacle of epic filmmaking. It is vast and stunning in nearly every aspect. Everything from the editing to the score is absolutely overwhelming.

“Lawrence of Arabia” is a biopic about T.E. Lawrence. The first scene is visual trickery; it begins with a not-so old T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) crashing his motorcycle. Within five minutes, the main character has died. Before he crashes, he looks so young. Even in his short life, he achieved more than most humans have in their entire lives. 
Lawrence was a British poet and lieutenant. During World War I, Lawrence helped lead the Arabs to fight off the invading Turks of the Ottoman Empire. With all of the strife today in the Middle East, the film feels all too relevant. It is one that may contain some great wisdom to deal with the region. 
But, forget about politics for now. What really needs to be focused on is every technical aspect of this film. First off, there is the cinematography, which ranks among the best in film history. Director of photography Freddie Young makes you feel like you’re right there in the desert with the troops. The aerial shots combined with a sweeping musical score is nothing short of awe inspiring. Seeing thousands of camels from the sky is almost more powerful than being right there on the ground with them. 
Another of the film’s most impressive feats is its editing. The best transition ever in a movie is in “2001: A Space Odyssey” when a bone flung in the air suddenly turns into space station way into the future. Millions of years of human progress was covered in one tiny leap. The second best transition ever comes from “Lawrence of Arabia.” It is when a small lit match suddenly turns into the rising sun over the desert; a sunrise that makes the sky look literally on fire. One small flame turns into a giant overwhelming fire; one man will lead an army to unimaginable results.
There are too many other classic moments in this film to recount. Omar Sharif walking out of a mirage. The train crash. And the final battle.
Of course, the movie has its flaws. It is filled with historical inaccuracies, exaggerations, and racism (don’t get me started on Anthony Quinn in brown face). In a worse movie like say, “300,” all of the inaccuracies would’ve bothered me to an extreme. But because “Lawrence of Arabia” is such an incredible achievement in filmmaking, all of those inaccuracies seem miniscule amid the gigantic scope of the film.
The definition of an epic film today seems to be a movie that consists of giant battle sequences that include a crusading hero giving an uplifting speech. Of the movie’s nearly four hour running time, barely thirty minutes of it consists of battle scenes. What makes the film epic is its scope in nearly every aspect. The directing, cinematography, and editing set up a larger than life story. Even O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence is epic. He adds more conflict and mixed emotions to his character than any actor I’ve seen. “Lawrence of Arabia” reminds us of the endless limits a film can go, even without the help of computer technology
Recommended for Fans Of: Lord of the Rings, Gladiator, There Will Be Blood, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, Once Upon a Time in the West, Seven Samurai, The Searchers, Anything by Steven Speilberg
Here are what two of the film’s surviving cast members (who sound an awful lot like the Jonas Brothers when they sing) have to say about “Lawrence of Arabia”:

Announcing the Return of Sacha Baron Cohen: Bruno

The past few weeks, I’ve had the fortune of being poured on with good news. News of a new Richard Linklater movie. News of a new Miyazaki movie. Trailers for “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Inglourious Basterds,” and “Funny People.” Now, I give you the official trailer for the movie version of “Bruno.”

Of the three characters Sacha Baron Cohen’s gay Austrian fashion designer was the least compelling (Ali G and Borat are hard to beat). But, I think a very short segment in a 30 minute show wasn’t enough time, and maybe a full length movie is what this character needs.
“Bruno” is very similar to “Borat”: Baron Cohen heads to America, in character 24/7 and ironically mocks stereotypes and exposes ignorance. The trailer looks strange, shocking, over-the-top, and hilarious beyond belief. As I watched the trailer, I remained nearly speechless as to how Cohen was able to get Ron Paul and a television talk show to fall for his elaborate scheme. Sacha Baron Cohen is by far the bravest comedian working in the field today.
“Bruno” comes out on July 10. Unfortunately, those censor-loving tyrants at the MPAA gave the movie an NC-17. Hopefully (and most likely), the movie will be downgraded to an R. It better be, because I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t see this movie in theaters.
Verdict: As I said, Bruno isn’t the best of Cohen’s characters; but this movie has huge potential. Hopefully, it won’t get as overexposed as “Borat” did (not to say “Borat” isn’t funny anymore. This clip still scares me).