Sunday, April 27, 2008

Getting Forgetting Sarah Marshall

This review contains some spoiled jokes.

The Apatow Reparatory Co. is doing great. The troupe includes many principal writers or actors from the seminal tv series Freaks and Geeks, some of whom do both, as in Seth Rogen's starring in Knocked Up and writing Superbad, or Jason Segel's writing and starring in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Both were key players on F&G.

Rogen and Segel as seen in Knocked Up

The gradual transition from the grossout-ready premise of Virgin to the conceptual adulthood discomfort of Knocked Up (which includes footage of childbirth) and profane but sensitive coming of age of Superbad has now arrived at a bare-bones romantic comedy plot structure of FSM, which sounds as cliched on paper as you can imagine:

A guy breaks up with his girlfriend and goes to Hawaii to forget her but finds her there with a new boyfriend. Then he meets a new girl.

The marketing campaign doesn't make the film sound any more intriguing, starting with the fake-graffiti posters which convey an extremely inaccurate animosity emanating from Jason Segel, star and writer -

Which are wrong! He's not even mad at her for three-quarters of the film, he's pathetically heartbroken! Oh well. Some Boomer in the marketing department with a 20 year delay from reality must've just caught up to the hipness of the word SUCKS...

As to the trailer, Roger Ebert once sagely observed that trailers represent the film the studio wanted and not necessarily the one that they got. In FSM's case, they wanted a film as simple as the premise.

The premise is annoying simple. What makes the movie very good is the level of characterization given all the supporting cast you'd expect to be two-dimensional, from the stoner surfer to the hunky new lothario boyfriend to the honeymooning Christian couple...

Speaking of Christians, the Apatow brand of comedy has been likened to a more morally responsible and sensitive form of raucous , thanks largely to the emotional integrity and basic good-heartedness of their characters as opposed to the glib party animal antiheroes of Wedding Crashers or American Pie. This comparison has been made favorably, as when conservative magazine National Review praised the implicit pro-life decision of Knocked Up, and unfavorably as when the Marxists at Slant Magazine took points off of The 40 Year Old Virgin for having Steve Carrell get married before finally getting laid.

The raunchy version of cultural conservatism remains seen in FSM. Though the two main couple of the film have sex out of wedlock (why do I feel like CAP Alert all of a sudden?) the story's Hawaiian location is a hotel full of honeymooning couples, one of whom are the aforementioned Christian who have waited until marriage to get it on.

Where the Apatow brand diverts in a big way is not making their inexperience a derisive joke at the characters' expense. Critically, 40 Year Old Virgin didn't either. Instead, there is for instance a joke where the new husband (who vaguely resembles Toxic Avenger's Melvin the Mop Boy) can't feel sexual pleasure despite endless pounding away, making him a total stud to his cute new wife.

Virtually every supporting character crosses paths with one another, and when The Lothario meets up with The Christian, his response to the former virgin's lack of experience is simply "What? Oh, right, right, the God thing" and then he proceeds to give an impromptu graphic lesson in sex positions.

Also of note is Jason Segel's witty stepbrother, a husband and father and whose wife is tricked into a harmless dirty joke of pantomiming oral sex on her spouse. The non-explicit no-hard-feelings vulgarity of this scene nearly encapsulates the Apatow ethos at play from film to film.

We have in this film a 50/50 ratio of married and unmarried people, all of whom are shown to be sexually active and open-minded about it, including Christian dorks. That's a hell of a lot more "progressive" than the manner in which Baby Mama and Juno casually offer single yuppie midwifery and guilt-free adoption as emotionally agreeable and valid alternatives to the formation of (gasp) nuclear families.

Which brings me to the first thing I noticed coming out of the theater, a strange dichotomy to the cultural sensitivity: three of the four leads are Hollywood fucks with lives most people simply cannot relate to. Titular Sarah Marshall is an actress, her new boyfriend The Lothario is a freaking international rock star, and Jason Segel composes music for television, including Sarah's show. Everyone is worried about their careers. The only non-entertainment industry person is Segel's new love interest Mila Kunis, who works at the Hawaiian hotel. She encourages him to follow his dream of mounting a theatrical rock opera, which he certainly couldn't afford to do if not for his prior industry capital.

Would it have been so hard to make the key players non-famous people? There was nothing in the story that couldn't have worked without that detail, even the Rock Opera could've been realized by Segel's character on a smaller budget in less elaborate scale than what we end up seeing in the film.

Who relates to this, outside of people who are in or want to be in the entertainment industries? Steve Carrell's employment at a Best Buy type store in Virgin seems practically proletariat by comparison. Knocked Up's female lead was a TV hostess as well, and the detail was just as irrelevant to the story.

I really am surprised, and hope this doesn't reflect a disconnectedness stemming from the time some F&G kids spent growing up a bit in the world of The Arts - I recently saw 1998's SLC Punk and was surprised to see an 18 year old Segel in the supporting cast.

Anyhow, the next event Apatow production is Pineapple Express, some sort of stoner action comedy hybrid directed by David Gordon Green, of all people...So we'll continue to see the full spectrum of the F&G alumni's cultural outlook, which in spite of some apparent Hollywood out-of-touchedness continues to be more empathic and honest towards the post-Boomer generations' emotional needs and concerns than any of their competitors.

And those emotional needs certainly include a bigger, better weed comedy.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Joe Dante's Inferno at the New Beverly: Gremlins 2

A certain sense of childlike wonder and optimism existed amongst the post-Star Wars baby boomer filmmakers. Steven Spielberg is the most obvious example and the sentimentality of most of his films make me either want to puke or mourn that pulpy premises like Jurassic Park were carried out as children's films instead of halfway gritty fare like Duel or Jaws, my two favorites.

Hey look, someone put the whole movie on the 'tube!

Joe Dante's boomer moviegoing years were spent in the b-movie junk drawer, and as a happy result he became a sort of mutant Spielberg: sentimental but cynical, and unmarred by the temptation of mainstream respectability. Both directors are very much crowd-pleasers, but Dante's relationship with his audience is far more whimsical and mischievous. The only Dante-esque gag in Jurassic Park (and gags are Dante's forte, not Spielberg's) is when Samuel L. Jackson's arm lands on Laura Dern's shoulder. I'd much rather it'd have been Joe Dante's Jurassic Park.

Dante was also a student of horror far more the Spielberg. Duel was a thriller, Jaws was mainstream high-gloss horror adventure and Poltergeist's scary scenes were directed by Tobe Hooper as Steven indulged his fetish for magical old people. Meanwhile, Dante got his start cutting trailers for Roger Corman before directing a parody of Jaws, the junky and funny and gruesome Piranha (being remade in 3-D, oddly.) He followed with another no-nonsense horror genre entry, The Howling. By contrast, Spielberg spent the late 70s escaping the disreputable "horror director" stigma with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1941 and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Then in 1983 their careers crossed paths in the most appropriate of ways: Spielberg chose Dante to direct a horror-oriented segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie while he himself chose to direct a nauseatingly cute segment about magical old people.

They must have spent a long time discussing classic cartoons, of which Spielberg is a pronounced fan and collector. Dante's love goes a bit further than that, making cartoon logic (and gags, natch) a frequent staple of his films. His Twlight Zone segment is, after all, about an evil boy who turns reality into a cartoon.

He's not an animator-turned-director, but the influence is so strong his films somewhat deserve mention in the same category as his American contemporaries in that directorial subgenre, like Tim Burton, Frank Tashlin, Mike Judge or Savage Steve Holland. Well okay, Looney Tunes: Back In Action was an actual melding of the two mediums, but much as I love Dante I can't bring myself to watch that.

Animation means to invoke life. So what else is good for invoking life into, other than drawings?


Hence the titanic collaboration of Spielberg and Dante, Gremlins. The warm fuzziness of E.T. meets the malicious intent of Dante's monsters. The cartoon anarchy of one director runs rampant in the small town Capra coziness of another. Magnificent.

The most telling detail of their creative pairing is this: Gizmo, the lovable "good" Magwai, was initially to transform into the lead evil Gremlin, Stripe. Spielberg stepped in at the last minute and realized Gizmo was too cute. According to Zach Galligan in his Deadpit Radio interview, one of Dante's creative impetuses for the project was the ol' switcheroo - make the kids fall in love with the cute creature, and Steven Spielberg's name, and then...!

This film and it's sequel had me obsessed from about age 8 to 12, no exaggeration. I have never been and probably will not ever be as in love with any film and it's sequel for the duration and intensity those movies inspired. Which is why I was delighted to see Gremlins 2: The New Batch on the big screen at the FABULOUS New Beverly Cinema last week.

And Dante was there for Q + A! How fucking rad! The New Beverly continues to delight. I didn't know he'd be there, and having learned more or less everything about the Gremlins films that was humanly possible over the years, I couldn't think of a question until afterwards: Were there other voices considered for the talking "Brain Gremlin," besides Tony Randall?

I realized listening to the Q and A that other nerds listen to commentary tracks too. One kid was particularly bad, asking questions specific to information revealed in the DVD commentary of the movie, and then finishing Dante's sentences. Sheesh.

The only significant thought he shared regarding the film which wasn't mentioned on the DVD and couldn't have was - and take this with a grain of salt, it's heavy - that he "made Gremlins 2 to make sure there wouldn't be a Gremlins 3."

Wow. That implies he regarded the production as a hostile action...but it's not hostile, it's a rollicking good time. The context of the comment was the self-parodic nature of the sequel, the deconstructive humor...

....Which ranges from slight:

- Characters point out logic holes in the 3 "rules" of the gremlins
- A "bat gremlin" breaks through a window, leaving the Batman logo
- One gremlin tattoos another with the Warner Brothers logo
- Gremlins often look at the camera

....To snarky, as when Phoebe Cates parodies her famous "Christmas speech" from the first film with a demented equivalent centered around Lincoln's birthday...(Dante shared another story unfit for DVD use regarding that original speech; that Jeffrey Katzenberg kicked his seat during a screening and exclaimed "you sick fuck!")

....To CONCEPTUAL, as when the fourth wall is broken, spectacularly, by momentarily tricking the audience into thinking the film itself has broken in the projector, and then we suddenly see the shadows of gremlins on the white screen making shadow puppets, as if they're in the projector booth. Dante even wanted actual theaters to be rigged with gremlin puppets in the projector booth for when people turned around! Then Hulk Hogan yells at them, and says to us, the audience, "Sorry, folks. Won't happen again." Seriously.

And boy, this is fun to see in a real theater. Brought the house down!

There is also some parodic dialogue at the end of the film regarding the marketability of Gizmo, when the Turner/Trump hybrid "Daniel Clamp" (played flawlessly by John Glover) forsees a whole line of Gizmo merchandise. According to Dante, a movie making fun of it's own marketing was still verboten in 1990. Now it's practically de rigeur.

What all this means is that Dante wasn't trying to make a BAD movie, it's just that he couldn't take the idea of a necessary sequel seriously one iota. If the first film was 50-50 horror and comedy, the second was more like 95-05 in comedy's favor.

All things considered, Gremlins 2 is Joe Dante's best movie. Why?

First of all, a truly witty fantasy/comedy is a rare thing and I hadn't seen one play to an audience so well since seeing Pee-Wee's Big Adventure at the State theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan. With this kind of movie, if you're in for a penny you're in for a pound. Every joke plays at the same tone of humor, and hits its target.

Second, none of the goofy self-parody humor is disruptive. Even as a kid I didn't feel as though the mockery of the first film was berating - it felt more like a fun celebration of the Gremlins mystique. There was even a special video/vcr version of the theater gag, which was delightful.

If there's one film that was primed for nonstop Airplane! style gags, it was the sequel to Gremlins, as if the bar scene from the original were extended into the entire second and third acts. The gags and details fly so fast I even managed to catch a new one: a dentist's office plaque belonging to one "Dr Farb" of the original, Little Shop of Horrors fame.

Thirdly, Dante's bent towards "live action cartoon" filmmaking is the perfect fit for a puppet show. This was 1990, when animatronics and practical makeup effects were at their peak and the tide hadn't yet turned toward CGI, post-....hey, waitaminit, post JURASSIC PARK!

Nearly every scene with a puppet manages to blur the line between reality and the animation of the puppets treats us to pure nonverbal filmic storytelling. So too does the brilliant music of the recently departed Jerry Goldsmith, whose score runs nearly the entire length of the film and helps support that magical, lyrical stream-of-consciousness style.

In summary, the film opens and closes with Chuck Jones animation of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. Welcome to Joe Dante's wildest untethered imagination.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Netflix Doc Double Punch

Super High Me

I always feel guilty seeing a movie like this on the big screen. The production company is "Red Envelope Entertainment," which is Netflix's outfit - basically a guarantee that what you've got is best watched on the computer or TV. There's just no reason to pay extra money to see the non-existent handheld cinematography. This goes double for amateurishly videotaped, hastily edited docu-comedies.

Ahh, docu-comedies. Almost every documentary now is a docu-comedy, post Michael Moore. Of course, this is a pot comedy docu-comedy. So it's okay if you take the sloppiness as a given. Maybe getting stoned first would help.

The pot-specific comedy (all of it) IS funny, though not really as much as Doug Benson's stand-up act on any given day. Benson once had a pretty funny, casual comedians-on-the-movies podcast for a while. The scenes excerpted from his performances were the best by far. Today's alternative stand-up scene is very pot-fueled, West Coast stoner style.

It'll make you laugh, but be warned, the docu-comedy in question contains "serious" moments that bring everything to a screeching halt. Scenes of medical marijuana protesters waving their signs at cops with no warrant to raid their "dispensary."

This is where the Michael Moore influence slips its greasy fingers in. The movie should be funny, or it should be a serious examination of something because the two elements are anathema to each other (unless you're as morally frivolous as Moore.) I've seen this a thousand times in student film documentary shorts - here's the part where we make you laugh, now an awkward shift to the part where you nod your head in seriousness...

What we have is a comedy, shot as a documentary, and since it's a documentary, there has to be some soapboxing. Welp, sorry, my passion for justice hasn't been stirred by handheld footage of well-off suburbanites lazily holding bad signs halfway above their heads and chanting. (Can we acknowledge that chanting has jumped the shark as a force of cultural change, yet?)

Netflix it and fast forward through the parts that try to make you take a movie called "Super High Me" seriously.

A much better disc to Netflix, currently distributed stateside by Red Envelope Entertainment is a documentary one would think to be funny...and is, occasionally...but even also even sadder than you'd expect.

The Great Happiness Space is a peek inside the Japanese world of "host boys," male geishas for girls with the money.

This one of the best documentaries in years!

The boys are in their 20s, mostly long-haired and feathered up like boy band members. They work at a bar, essentially. The women come in to be with these charmers and get charmed into buying more drinks. Like Hooters. There are apparently several hundred of these bars but we only see the one.

The boys also hook. They stand on the sidewalk and chat with each and every little darling they meet. There's a scene where a rookie host boy is told he'll have a month's training, but the director doesn't follow that thread. I think if this were an American film, it would've, because as evidenced by the success of The Game, the males of my post-boomer generation are in an obsessive panic about their lack of manhood.

One host boy says he's whatever the girl wants him to be. Funny, intense, moody, straight-up chivalrous, crazy...whatever. That's what the women are there for, and if/when any woman actually has sex with her favorite host boy crush...that's the last time they'll ever see that host boy. Such is the difference in male/female brain calibration. The host boys are always leading them on, teasing them with the prospect that if they stick around the club long enough, they might fall in love.

Which leads to the most shocking thing about the movie: many if not all of the girls who pay for the company of the host boys have fallen into prostitution to afford it.

Let me repeat that: regular female patrons of charming boys they do not have intercourse with turn to having intercourse with patrons of their own so that they can afford to be charmed.

As much as I think host boy clubs could go over gangbusters anywhere outside Japan, the virtually casual indifference with which the interviewed women discuss how they get the extra money to finance their obsession may be endemic of societies with deep seated misogyny.

Amongst the fascinating character studies, The Great Happiness Space is a unique angle on how profoundly detached and lonely relations between men and women have become.

You must see this movie.