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Thursday, December 14

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Superbad

How did we get to be so lucky this summer? While the big-budget action offerings and multiple sequels that have come out this season have been a mixed bag ranging from "pretty good" to "complete crap," this has been a particularly good year for comedies, especially those aimed at older audiences. We began the summer of right with Knocked Up, starring Seth Rogen and written and directed by Judd Apatow; and now we end it with Superbad, a slightly raunchier but no less funny high school-based offering co-written by and starring Rogen (and longtime friend Evan Goldberg) and produced by Apatow. Since their work together on The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the Apatow/Rogen pairing has become something of a standard for R-rated comedies. There are no punches pulled as these films do anything and go anywhere for their laughs, but there is also a very naturalistic flow to the dialog and situations. Sometimes we feel we're listening in on private conversations, probably very similar to those we've had with only our closest friends. And the creative team behind these films also has a sincere desire to give us characters we genuinely like. They may be pigs at times, but that doesn't stop these boys/men from being likable, sometimes even lovable.

As directed by Greg Mottola (who helmed The Daytrippers and several episodes of "Arrested Development"), Superbad tells the story of two lifetime best friends (who just happen to be named after the writers, Seth and Evan) as the enter the final weeks of their lives in high school. This time wouldn't be nearly as important to the duo if Evan (Micahel Sera) wasn't leaving for college after the summer, thus separating the two for the first time in their lives. Seth (played by the inspired comic actor Jonah Hill; this guy could read directions on how to boil an egg and I would laugh) says it doesn't bother him to be separated from his best friend, but we know better. To celebrate what could be their last summer together, Seth and Evan set forth on a plan on getting summer girlfriends, which begins by getting these young women drunk at a party and hooking up with them. The fact that the two lovely women in question even speak to these numbskulls on a regular basis doesn't seem to clue them in that their tactics probably aren't necessary, but that doesn't stop them from spending most of the film trying to acquire alcohol for said party and having many ridiculous adventures along the way.

The third player in the story is Fogell (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), but thanks to a creative fake Hawaiian driver's license purchased by Fogell to buy booze, the name McLovin will go down in history as one of the great screen names in history. Seth and Evan get separated from McLovin early in the film after a botched attempt to buy alcohol. In the ultimate act of kindness to audiences, Superbad actually becomes two extremely hilarious film as Seth and Evan try to find alternatives to McLovin's fake ID to get booze, and Fogell ends up befriending and rolling around town with two local cops (played by Rogen and "SNL's" Bill Hader, who was also very funny earlier this summer in Hot Rod). All of the kids in this film talk a tough game (especially when it comes to women), but as you'd suspect, they are all softies at heart. They aren't quite full-fledged outcasts, but they do exist on the fringe of their high school society, and the prospect of starting over at college is terrifying. And it's on this pivotal life-changing event that the filmmakers rightfully expect many of us who have lived through similar situations to identify.

To talk about individual events and gags in Superbad is pointless. The film is pretty much top-to-bottom funny. Some situations will make you laugh more than others; some may make you gag (a scene involving Seth getting blood on his pants leg comes to mind); but the whole movie is a scream. What takes us slightly off guard is a thread of sweetness and honesty that weaves its way through the film. This has become Apatow's familiar trademark, and I don't think it's one that will ever get old. By making the characters in his movies legitimately nice people, their sometimes-rude behavior gets a pass. This may not seem fair or even right, but it works for me. There are no real bad guys in these movies, and in the end the characters only have their own immaturity and hang-ups to overcome in order to win over the girl or reach some milestone in their lives.

Good intentions aside, Superbad will just plain make you laugh. Hill and Cera work together so effortlessly, it's as much a treat to see them rip each other apart as it is to experience them coming to grips with the prospect of being apart after high school. I would also imagine Superbad is the kind of film that will actually get better with repeated viewings; and to test my theory, I plan on watching this film repeatedly. I recommend beginning with one viewing and going from there.

Death at a Funeral

There's no denying that director Frank Oz has made some truly great comedies in his career. I particularly like it when he delves into the darker corners of human behavior for laughs. Films such as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob? and Bowfinger are some prime examples. But he's also capable of making me laugh with his lighter fare, with such works as In & Out, Little Shop of Horrors and his Muppet movies. After his particularly disastrous remake of The Stepford Wives a couple years ago, Oz now comes at us with something much stronger that plays to his strengths as a gifted comic director. Foregoing any big name actors and trading in his familiar American setting for the quaint English countryside, Death at a Funeral is a swirling farce that hits just a little more often than it misses with its entangled multiple storylines, fairly large cast and an army of pompous British aristocrats trying ever so hard to keep a stiff upper lip while the world around them literally falls to pieces.

You will find a few familiar faces in Death at a Funeral, especially if your frequent smaller British fare, and a few American faces do make their way into the mix. Alan Tudyk (Serenity, Knocked Up and the upcoming 3:10 To Yuma) is quite good as the American fiancé of Martha (Daisy Donovan from Millions). He is nervous about making a good first impression on his future in-laws, a plan that is shot to hell when he accidentally takes a designer drug that for some reason makes him want to be naked and on the roof of the manor house where the titular funeral is taking place. Impressing me even more is Peter Dinklage, the gay lover of the dead man who has photos to prove it and believes he is due some sort of compensation for time served and to keep his mouth shut about the affair. The dead man's sons (played by Matthew McFadyen and Rupert Graves) are at odds about how to handle any number of troubles that crop up during the funeral.

Oz manages his controlled chaos with mixed results. Certainly, these are all fantastic actors who have no trouble selling the mayhem, but Dean Craig's script doesn't give all of his actors the proper outlet for their talents. I'm I huge Ewen Bremner fan, for example, but his character is reduced to begging a woman who wants nothing to do with him. Pathetic is rarely funny. But going back to the Marx Brothers (and trust me, I'm not comparing anything about this film to those of the Marx Brothers), I've always had a soft spot for comedies that portrayed the filthy rich as buffoons and just as incapable of making a sound decision as the rest of us. Death at a Funeral isn't particularly sophisticated or refined (unlike its setting), but this talented bunch of actors sell the hell out of the material. In a summer filled with comedies brimming with topical humor and modern references, it was refreshing to see a film that strove to be timeless with its humor. The film is set in the present day, but it could have easily be transported to 50 years ago and been just as fun. There are barrels of laughs here, as well as a lot of heart and decadence.

The Invasion

I'm not going to lie to you; I wouldn't do that. The most recent, by-the-numbers remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a fascinating disaster of a movie. Even the title is completely appropriate, since The Invasion is basically a reduction of a film, not a fully realized piece but more of an outline that somehow skipped the script stage and went right from one-page treatment to the big screen. I'm not sure if the flaw with The Invasion lies in Oliver Hirschbiegel's (who directed the exceptional Best Foreign Language Film nominee Downfall) direction, with James (V for Vendetta) McTeigue's weeks of re-shoots, or just a flawed re-imagining from the word go, but this movie is actually a bigger cataclysm than the one depicted on the screen.

In the first five minutes of the film, a space shuttle teeming with alien microbes crashes, and the wicked spore-like substance immediately begins to infect Americans. It's never totally clear exactly what the alien spore does to humans, but the symptoms seem to include a glaze-like substance covering your body and a penchant for a dark-colored wardrobe. And when I say things move fast in The Invasion, I don't mean the film is just fast-paced; I mean it flies by, leaving us little or no time to get to know the characters, the situations, the peril, the exact means by which the alien takes over a human body (there are no giant pods in this film, and a complete transformation is never really visualized). the film also leaves us with big, gaping holes in the plot. In the beginning of the film, Nicole Kidman has an argument with her ex-husband about child visitation; about two scenes later, we see her dropping their son off with the already-infected ex. Wha-huh?

The progression of the alien infestation across America is handled very poorly, which is actually kind of shocking since the film is set in Washington, D.C. It might have been cool to watch the infected humans actually target politicians and other world leaders at different embassies. There's an implication that this has happened, but it's never explicitly mentioned. And while I've always appreciated the political undercurrents of all of the film versions of Body Snatchers, what the filmmakers attempt here by showing us how much better the world is under alien control is almost totally lost in the film's lightening speed.

The least interesting thing about the entire film is the story of psychiatrist Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman), her son Oliver (Jackson Bond), her ex-husband (Jeremy Northam) and her best friend/neighbor/potential lover interest Ben (Daniel Craig). This is unfortunate, since this is 95 percent of the film. Throw in a nice-sized supporting role by Jeffrey Wright as Ben's co-worker, and you have one of the greatest casts to ever disappoint me this completely. Wright's character figures out the means of potentially curing all of the infected humans in a time span that could either be many months or a long weekend. It's impossible to tell. Time means nothing here. And the only thing faster than the ramp up of this film's plot is its climax, which reverses the devastation of, at the very least, all of the United States (and most likely the world) in about 27 seconds.

The problems: where to fucking begin? Nicole Kidman never looks bad in this movie and that's a major distraction. She's literally witnessing the end of civilization, and her hair is never out of place. Even when her hair is a little messy, it's that kind of "I just had furious sex with myself; want to join me?" messy. Her clothes are just a little too tight, and they show off her figure to perfection. Not that I'm complaining, but it's just one more distraction. After such colossal missteps as The Stepford Wives, Fur and Bewitched, it may be time to finally admit that Kidman might be skating on a rough patch right now. It's not that she's in decent films that just aren't finding an audience; she's making shit choices. And in The Invasion, she actually makes an undeniably bad movie just a little bit worse.

As much as I'd like to say that the film's bright shining beam of hope is Daniel Craig, don't get your hopes up, cupcake. Craig could not care less that he's in this nonsense, and he adds nothing resembling a spark to the proceedings. No, I didn't miss the oh-so-clever casting of Veronica Cartwright (from the 1978 Body Snatchers remake) as one of Kidman's patients. Guess what? It doesn't help. And for those of you worshipers of Jeffrey Wright's work (myself included), The Invasion offers a rare opportunity to see him flailing like a grounded guppy. The poor man is given the film's worst dialog, and trust me when I say there's a heated battle for that distinction. Every single line he delivers feels flat. Remember than 27-second climax I mentioned? About 10 seconds of it is him explaining to reporters how he saved the earth. It would seem the script was designed to either move the plot forward at a blinding pace or to divert us from the story to some unnecessary subplot that burns up what precious little running time this movie has (about 93 minutes).

If there is some state of being beyond "pointless," then that is what The Invasion achieves. This is a gutless, damaged mess that made me embarrassed for all those involved in its making. The film borders on — and sometimes crosses over to — unwatchable. The list of flaws is long and beyond repair. Centuries from now, anthropologists may study this wreck of a production to show the rest of the how, even generations as advanced as this one, we still managed to give birth to monsters. There are always so many contenders for worst film in any given year, but 2007 may mark the first year in recent history to have a sure-fire winner.

Rocket Science

Wes Anderson is the obvious point of reference for Rocket Science, the feature film debut from Jeffrey Blitz, who made the Oscar-nominated (and -deserved) documentary Spellbound, in which Blitz showed a clear affinity for capturing the nature and spirit of being a bright child. Rocket Science is a step below that glorious work, but it has its fascinating moments even as it fails to achieve its lofty goals of showing us that teenagers can be just as complicated, intelligent, and messed up as any adult, perhaps even more so.

Newcomer Reece Thompson plays Hal Hefner, a young man with an almost-paralyzing stutter who is duped by the object of his affection Ginny (Anna Kendrick) to join the debate team. She convinces him that she can train him to correct his speech issues and perform the mile-a-minute patterns that are required of him to succeed on the team. What happens to him after that seems like an exercise in long, drawn-out cruelty. I will give Blitz credit, he manages to stay away from the conventions of most teen dramas and high school-set comedies. But for every clever or funny moment that Rocket Science presents, it follows that two or three truly obnoxious scenes that are just so outside the realm of believability for these characters in these situations, I just never felt anything for any of these people, no matter how much they suffered. The details of the film's plot are hardly worth going into, but few of the observations about teen behavior seem based in any kind of reality, and they certainly struggle a great deal to come up with anything that sustains a laugh. I'm sincerely happy that director Blitz has taken to directing features, but Rocket Science is a troubled mess. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Cut Sleeve Boys

This story of two British-Chinese men and their various exploits, loves and loses in the gay world feels like it was made by people who have never seen a gay movie before in their lives, as if every colorful outfit, drag queen, clever one-liner and failed relationship hasn't been covered in this genre a million times before. That coupled with terrible acting and an even more abysmal script makes Cut Sleeve Boys a complete wreck of a film.

The jokes fall flat, the drama has the depth of a junior high theatre troupe, and the insight into the Asian gay community in the UK is embarrassingly slight. The film actually dares to ask us to feel bad for one character because he's not as young and beautiful as he once was. Join the club, sweetheart. There are real attempts by these men at establishing real relationships, but they are both so shallow that not only did I not care if they found Mr. Right, I also didn't think either man actually deserved to be taken seriously by a potential partner or not. Both men have some serious growing up to do (which I suppose the film deals with on some level) before I start giving a shit about their troubles. I realize that Cut Sleeve Boys is not necessarily aimed at my demographic, but I do make a point to follow the gay film scene as much as I do any other cinematic movement, and I'm not seeing much growth in it recently. In fact, movies like this actually set the movement back about a decade. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Flanders

Not to boil this deeply intellectual endeavor down to its elements, but for a film that had a whole lot of set and violence, this movie made me deeply depressed. Welcome to the world of French cinema, where the human condition is dissected like a baby pig and left splayed and naked for the world to see. This is also pretty typical of the works of director Bruno (Humanité, Life of Jesus) Dumont, a one-time philosopher (although I'm guessing once a philosopher, always a philosopher) who began making films years ago that forced my tiny American brain to think harder and contemplate more fiercely than I had in years. Nothing wrong with that. His new film, Flanders, is a bit easier on the brain, while aiming directly at the heart.

Dumont casts his gaze over small-town living, the horrors of war, mental illness and sexual freedom. The film and its characters have a dirty, mud-caked look. A young woman gets sexually attached to two men in her village who are about to go to war in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. While they are gone, she learns she's pregnant and contemplating the abortion question drives her insane. Meanwhile, the two men go through and inflict absolute hell while in the army. Some of the things they say and do are unspeakable, and while in many cases they are in absolute control of their actions and could stop themselves or each other at any time, they don't. Dumont's not-so-subtle views on war are clear and brutal. The men go through an Odyssey-like series of adventures attempting to make it out alive after getting separated from their unit, and Dumont does an superb job building up a great deal of tension around these events. Flanders in something on an endurance test, despite clocking in at barely 90 minutes. It puts a strain on your conscience and your ability to care about people who aren't particularly likable. That's always a tough thing for a film to accomplish, but Bruno finds the heart and soul of these people and almost dares us not to care. The film opens for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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