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Column Fri May 21 2010
It's kind of staggering to me how many people have written off MacGruber without having seen it, and yet everyone I know who saw it at the SXSW Film Festival or at one of the many college screenings that have occurred more recently are kinda loving the thing. Let me give you a hint: if you ever typed a line about this film that involved the historic failures of "Saturday Night Live" turning 90-second sketches into feature-length films, you and your statement are officially cliches. The thing that separates MacGruber from the SNL-based films before it that the central characters never had the benefit of fully realized sketches in which any amount of backstory could be attached. So the writing team of star Will Forte, John Solomon, and director (and Lonely Island member) Jorma Taccone had the freedom to essentially start from scratch.
MacGruber is the first film since Hot Fuzz that really captures in parody form what was so great about '80s action movies and what made them essential viewing when I was growing up. And while Hot Fuzz focused more on adrenaline-fueled cop movies, MacGruber is more about explosions, secret government agencies, maniacal villains, high-tech weaponry, and more explosions. And did I mention that it carries with it a fairly hard-R rating? There's violence, more than enough man ass for one lifetime, and so much crude and disgusting language that I was forced to see the film a second time because I missed so much dialog from laughing the first time I saw it. As you can probably deduce, above all other things, MacGruber is downright hilarious in its juvenile antics and obsession with fireballs.
The premise is fairly straight forward. A villain named Dieter Von Cunth (say it out loud in a crowded room of women; you'll get it) has gotten ahold of a nuclear warhead that he intends on using against Washington, DC. The head of a special branch of the military, Col. James Faith (Powers Boothe, radiating authority) calls up Forte's MacGruber, who most people in the world believe is dead, to pull together his old team to pound some Cunth (ahem!). Among those on the team is Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig, who has updated her hairstyle to be more Farrah and less poodle). Although the SNL version of MacGruber may have implied that our hero and Vicki were a couple, according to the film, they were actually just teammates. MacGruber, in fact, was engaged to Vicki's sister, Casey (Maya Rudolph, shown in flashbacks and as a ghost), while the lovesick Vicki pined from afar. Col. Faith also wants MacGruber in work with one of his men, Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe), an idea that MacGruber accepts begrudgingly.
Due to circumstances much to funny to reveal here, MacGruber is unable to use his original team of soldiers, explosives experts, and other battle-trained mercenaries and is stuck with only Vicki and Lt. Piper. Kilmer returns to his comedy roots with a great mixture of classic '80s-style villainy (slicked-back hair, sunglasses, black clothes, habit of revealing his plan before he carries it out) and modern oily bad-guy gravitas. Forte plays MacGruber as part coward, part idiot, part genius. He's a decorated war hero (16 purple hearts), and the only American to be a member of the Green Berets, Navy SEALs and Army Rangers. But he still sports a magnificent mullet, which probably gives him his powers. I just find Will Forte hilarious. And if he doesn't make you laugh the first time, he'll try 50 more times to do so. MacGruber the film hits you with jokes with the rapidity and accuracy of machine gun fire. They may not all hit the mark every time, but eventually you're gonna get sprayed. And heaven knows Cunth will get licked.
I don't want to go through the film joke by joke, but there's a sex scene between MacGruber and Vicki that might be the single most animalistic, sweaty, stomach-turning mess in film history, and I loved it. Wiig has a tough time at points finding a purpose for Vicki, but she still manages to make her character count, and she gets laughs in the process. Apparently after she thought MacGruber died, Vicki became a singer-songwriter. The results of the career choice are featured in the film. Wiig is a genius. She's also on hand during the climactic moment in the film that is the only time in MacGruber when the familiar TV version of the character comes to life ("30 seconds, MacGruber!). If for no other reason, I appreciated the film because Forte and company did not build a movie that was simply as series of "MacGruber moments" like this. I certainly didn't miss them, and when one finally does appear in the final act of the film, the nostalgia factor makes the whole experience more fun. Hell, the whole movie is fun. And feel free to prejudge it if you want, but I'd be really curious to see what the prophetic naysayers say after actually bothering to watch it. If you still don't like it, maybe you need to have your throats ripped out MacGruber style. It's not the funniest movie of the year so far, but it's right up there.
Shrek: The Final Chapter
One of the chief and justifiable criticisms about 3-D movies is that they appear too dark when viewed through the required eyewear. Taking this into consideration, it seems especially bizarre that the makers of Shrek: The Final Chapter (formerly known as Shrek Forever After) would set so much of the film in evening or otherwise dimly lit settings. Some of the small children sitting near me at the press screening of the movie in Chicago simple gave up on the glasses altogether and happily watched the movie without them. That being said, this fourth Shrek installment is a worthy, if not spectacular, conclusion to the series that started out with two strong opening films and came crashing to an ugly milestone with its third chapter.
The problem with a franchise with this many episodes is that with each new chapter the temptation is to add more and more characters to an already crowded mix. Rather than beef up some of the creations already on display in the series, Shrek's creators feel obliged to add 50 new characters and truly muddy the waters just to get a few more famous voices in the mix. And believe me, on paper the roster of vocal talent is pretty impressive: Jon Hamm, Jane Lynch, Lake Bell, Kathy Griffin, Mary Kay Place, even Meredith Vieira. My particular favorite addition is Craig Robinson as the cook of the new ogre army that is preparing to storm in castle of Far Far Away and remove its current ruler, the devious Rumpelstiltskin (voiced to perfection by animator Walt Dohrn). But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The plot of Shrek: The Final Chapter is something of a retelling of It's A Wonderful Life, in which Shrek (still Mike Meyers) makes a deal with Rumpel where he gets to see what life would be like if he was still a fearsome ogre, rather than a boring, accepted member of polite society whose house is a tour-cart stop and whose life has become routine. In return, Shrek has to agree to give Rumpel one day from his life. Through a bit of trickery (Rumpelstiltskin's specialty), he picks the day Shrek was born and effectively creates an alternate universe in which Shrek never existed. (Not to get too nit-picky, but shouldn't he have picked the day Shrek was conceived rather than born? Just sayin'...) In this new world, Rumpel has turned Far Far Away into a nasty place guarded by witches.
Fiona (still Cameron Diaz) has become the head of a band of rebellious ogre outlaws who are planning a raid on the palace. To break the spell, Shrek must get this hardened version of Fiona to fall in love with him and kiss him. She has an embiggened Puss (still the very funny Antonio Banderas) as her pet, and Donkey (still the not funny Eddie Murphy) is still around, although he's completely unaware of who Shrek is or that he has fallen for and mated with a dragon in another life. I'll admit, seeing how characters' lives have changed as a result of Shrek never having been born is an interesting, albeit kind of dark, take on this world. Although the mixed message about the moral of the story is a bit weird (settling for bland and routine is good?), I do like that Shrek does discover that having friends and people who love him is better than being feared by the populace. That's a lovely message; it's also so wretchedly affable and squeaky clean that it may make you vomit.
I still have fairly fond memories of the first two Shrek films being so clearly not for children that I'm pretty sure I said so in my original reviews. Aside from the very clear anti-Disney imagery in them, there were just ideas and bits of playful nastiness explored in those movies that most kids probably wouldn't even get. I was excited that the take on the story was geared slightly more in favor of adults having a good time understanding the subversive jokes and kids just digging the pretty pictures and laughing at how silly Donkey was acting. Shrek: The Final Chapter has a bit of that, I suppose, but it chickens out by the end. The darkness of the alternate Far Far Away is a promising start, but it never quite gets there. Sure, I laughed a few time, especially at the fat Puss (too fat for boots), who can't even get his head around his enlarged neck to lick himself. Oh, the humanity.
There's not really any point in dragging out the a story synopsis or the list of reasons the film doesn't accomplish what I think it might have with a little more daring. And if the movie lives up to its Final Chapter moniker, it won't matter anyway. And for the record, the 3-D does not add an iota to the enjoyment of this movie. Do not be the least bit afraid that you're missing anything by seeing it in 2-D. If anything, you might actually see more by doing so. Shrek: The Final Chapter is a close call, but ultimately it's a forgettable conclusion to a once-promising franchise.
Mother and Child
I'm an enormous fan of writer-director Rodrigo Garcia, the former director of photography who went on to wow many critics and audiences with his debut feature Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her from 2000. He went back and forth between directing films and HBO series, including "The Sopranos," "Carnivale," "Six Feet Under," the pilot episode of "Big Love," and "In Treatment," a show he helped create for HBO. In the film world, Garcia seemed to focus on works with multiple characters whose separate story threads would find ways of intersecting and critical junctures in their lives. Nine Lives was another great films he helmed, and although his last long-delayed work — Passengers, starring Anne Hathaway — was borderline unwatchable, his latest work Mother and Child sees him coming back on track for the most part, telling the stories of three women of varying ages, all of whom have issues with children in their lives, although none of them are actually seen raising a child during the course of the film.
The common thread among these three women is actually adoption. Annette Bening's Karen is a physical therapist, with a bitter, judgmental approach to life and others. She takes care of her ailing, elderly mother (Eileen Ryan) and has no time for a kind coworker (Jimmy Smits) who finds himself attracted to her. We find out early that she has spent nearly every day since she was a teenager thinking about the little girl she gave up for adoption. Naomi Watts plays Elizabeth, a sharp attorney beginning a new job at a powerful firm run by Paul (Samuel L. Jackson, in a blessedly dialed-back performance). The two strike up a love affair that has unforeseen consequences for both of them. The connection between Karen and Elizabeth is made clear almost immediately. However, the more mysterious third party in the film is Kerry Washington's Lucy, married to Joseph (David Ramsey) and unable to conceive. The couple has turned to Sister Joanne ("24's" Cherry Jones) for adoption options, and clearly this decision is not an easy one on the pair.
What I've just spelled out for you is only the jumping-off point for these women, and each travels their own path toward expected and unexpected conclusions. Even a weaker screenplay could be made better by the caliber of the actors in Mother and Child. With the exception of the terrible remake of The Women, anytime Bening makes a movie these days, it's probably worth checking out. While Garcia's writing can get heavy handed and melodramatic at times, he does have a true gift for writing strong female characters, and this film is no exception. The twists and turns he puts his characters through to have their lives intersect are occasionally absurd, but they don't take away from the strength of his ideas. In all three cases, the issue of adoption causes strife in the relationships the three women are in, and those are among the film's strongest and toughest moments to watch, especially in the case of Lucy and her husband, who appear to be the strongest coupling of the bunch.
Mother and Child's big, emotional moments are often the film's quietest scenes. Too often in movies of late, yelling passes for emotion, but Garcia understands that crying is often preceded by long silences or soft talking. And you know what? Sometimes just having the privilege of sitting back and watching a group of great actors do their thing is its own reward. That's certainly the case with Mother and Child, a film in which the actors hold up the weaker edges of the script and the script gives the actors a chance to play their scenes with quiet dignity and power. There's no shortage of passion and drama here, and it made me pine for the days when high drama was a more revered part of the bigger studios' release schedule outside of awards season. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
This is one of those rare films that is so staggeringly bland that the only thing this historical drama about the independence of the Hawaiian people has convinced me of is that this might be a subject not worthy of making a film about in the first place. I'm sure that's not true, but Princess Kaiulani's poorly constructed screenplay and acting that ranges from poor to dinner theater did enough to convince me that my time could have been better spent sorting my sock drawer than watching this achingly dull film.
Set in the late 1800s, the story center on the island nation that was in transition when the white Americans attempted to strip any voting rights away from non-land owners (a.k.a. most of the indigenous population). Barely a teenager when these events occurred, the princess (played by Q'orianka Kilcher of The Lost World), whose heritage is half Scottish/half Hawaiian, is whisked away to England as the situation in her homeland becomes too dangerous. She is schooled and raised in England, and even manages to fall in love with an young Brit named Clive Davies (Shaun Evans from Cashback) while making a new best friend in Clive's sister Alice (Tazmin Merchant, currently featured on "The Tudors"). But when Kaiulani discovers the unrest that has been taking place in Hawaii, she insists on returning and taking her rightful place and the royal leader.
She sets sail first to Washington, DC, to meet with the President Cleveland in hopes that he will decry the social injustices being inflicted upon the Hawaiian people, and then she moves on to Hawaii to reinstate voting and other rights, even as it becomes clear that the island has little use for royalty any longer. But the people still love her, and her word carries much weight throughout the island nation. In many ways. Princess Kaiulani is a documentation of the end of an era. As a postscript informs us, after the events depicted in this film, Hawaii went on to officially become the property of the United States and eventually a state.
Now the story I just told you sounds interesting, yes? But the way that director/co-writer Marc Forby lays out this story it feels stilted, never really getting below the surface of the times or issues. And while he scatters a few sort of familiar faces in the mix (such as Barry Pepper and Will Patton), Kilcher is simply not a strong enough actress to carry this film to the places it needs to go to be compelling. To put it politely, she's a beautiful, terrible actress. There's not getting past the fact that the locales are breathtaking, and perhaps if I were to have seen the film without any sound, I might have been more impressed. But every heartfelt speech feels like a debate-team argument, and every attempt at a tender moment falls flat with a hearty consistency. The messages in Princess Kaiulani are sound, and the story important. But the execution is appalling. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Where to begin. Remember Bollywood? Well, it actually never went away, but the access most Americans have to it has retracted somewhat in recent years, and that's a shame. I used to make a point of going to every single on that opened in Chicago and even sought out a few of the more famous ones on DVD, with and without subtitles. If the new release Kites is any indication, Bollywood has changed a bit since I was last somewhat submerged in it. First off, there's kissing, like, on the mouth kissing. It only happens in one scene, but it happens. Second, there was no singing. To clarify, there are plenty of music montages set to some lovely Indian pop tunes, but I'm pretty sure no one in the film is pretending to sing them. Also, there is no dancing with the exception of one scene in which the lead character, J (played by Indian superstar Hrithik Roshan), is teaching a Latin dance class. One thing that hasn't changed in Bollywood: everyone in it is an archetype of beauty and elegance, and emotions run hot.
The other interesting aspect to Kites (and if you have any interest in seeing the film, pay close attention) is that there are two versions of the film floating around the country. In urban areas (like Chicago), you'll probably have access to the original 130-minute version (which includes an intermission, which is weird). In other areas, like most of Indiana according to the press notes I received, the film has been cut down to 90 minutes or so and been renamed (I shit you not) Brett Ratner Presents Kites: The Remix. Now, I haven't seen the shorter Rat'ted-Out version, but I kind of want to just to see what Brett thinks middle America is more apt to digest from India. Characters in the film speak a mixture of Hindi, Spanish and English, subtitled when necessary, and that actually works considering the story.
The character J makes a living marrying women who are looking for green cards. Although he is Indian, apparently he's also an American citizen. One of the women he marries is Natasha (the beyond stunning actress from Uruguay Barbara Mori). Years later, J meets Gina (Kangna), the daughter of one of Las Vegas's most powerful casino owners, Bob. Just Bob (played by Kabir Bedi). To indoctrinate J into the family prior to wedding his daughter, Bob asks J to kill someone who has been cheating him. J comes up with a clever way not to, but Bob is still impressed. Bob's son is Tony, an old-school gangster type, who just happens to be engaged to Natasha. A secret love affair between Natasha and J soon commences (along with the aforementioned kissing — eek!).
Much of Kites involves people chasing other people, and even when these characters get battered and beaten and dirty and injured and bloody, they somehow manage to look marvelous — the cosmetically placed smudges on their cheeks perfectly match the color of their wind-swept, carefully crafted messy hair. It's a true art form. Every scene is staged like a photo shoot, the use of slow motion is intoxicating, and while I was actually in love with the acting style, it is soap opera-esque to a T. There's no way to watch this movie without laughing frequently, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. There is something kind of perfect about films that go to these lengths not to be subtle. And I happen to think Roshan is an incredible actor.
Kites is not a feel-good movie, although it is certainly entertaining enough throughout to make you feel pretty good most of the time. There is tragedy and heartbreak enough for 10 movies, but there is also an incredibly infectious joy and passion and spirit that runs right through the middle of this film and doesn't let go. Director Anurag Basu (Gangster, Life in a Metro) does a nice job blending the organized crime elements with the love story and action sequences. Kites may take you a while to get used to if you've never seen a Bollywood movie before, but I promise you, you've never seen anything like it, and I mean that in the best possible way. The full-length version of film opens today at the AMC Pipers Alley theaters, and for that reason alone, I'm sorry.