Monday, August 27, 2007

Laugh Lines: Rush Hour 3, The Simpsons Movie, Superbad

Rush Hour 3 (2007, Dir. Brett Ratner)

Carter: Well for your information, I'm part Chinese now. That's right, Lee. For the last three years, I have studied the ancient teachings of Buddha, earning two black belts in Wu Shu martial arts, spending every afternoon in the Hong Kong massage parlor. I'm half Chinese, baby!

Lee: If you're half Chinese, Im half black. I'm your brother and I'm fly. You down with that, Snoopy? That's dope, innit?

Carter: Sorry, Lee. You can't be black, there's a height requirement.

The Rush Hour movies are indefensible -- the epitome of cynical, packaged entertainment, they're content to throw an Asian action movie legend (Jackie Chan) and a motormouthed black comedian (Chris Tucker) together, let the two stars flounder as they attempt to "riff" off each other, and inject a few stunts to relieve the boredom generated by the "plot."

These films are the modern equivalent of the Crosby-Hope road movies, and like those old chestnuts they succeed for a simple reason: they are fully aware of their awfulness, and are good natured (rather than embarrassed) about it. We're not interested in seeing Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan play real characters in a real story -- we're interested in seeing them pull their usual moves as they struggle to sweet talk or fight their way out of outlandish situations. This time, there's a whole lot of hooey about Triad gangs, an assassination attempt, and a trail that leads to France, which gives our heroes an excuse to visit Paris and do the usual Parisian things -- indulge in some La Cage Aux Folles send-ups, hit the Eiffel Tower for a bit of high-wire martial arts action, and best of all, engage in angry banter with the typical smartass French cab driver (Yvan Attal) who eventually grows wistful at the fact that he's, well, not American: "I will never know what it feels like to kill with no reason." Like I said, awful, but funny nonetheless.

In truth, Rush Hour 3 has nothing on Rush Hour 2, which featured Zhang Zi Yi as quite possibly the cutest little assassin you'll ever meet. It's clear that the mismatched-buddy concept is getting stretched pretty thin, and in a concession to Chan's advancing age, none of the action scenes truly pop, although there is a lovely moment in which Chan sprints up a banister to hide himself within the folds of the French national flag, a move that wouldn't have been out of place in a Buster Keaton classic. Meanwhile, Tucker engages in his usual shtick as the ugly-American horndog, offending everyone in the general vicinity with his shit-eating grin. Grandmasters of cinema like Max von Sydow and Roman Polanski are wheeled in, looking faintly aghast, while the estimable Hiroyuki Sanada plays his slick villain (who of course has some old history with Jackie) totally straight, somehow emerging with his dignity intact.

But all of the above is really moot. When Chris finds himself in a "who's on first" routine with the members of a local dojo, or when Jackie and Chris are forced to fend off a bevy of pursuers by crashing in and out of moving cars, or when the duo interrupts a French cabaret act with an improvised version of Elton John's "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," it's easy to see Rush Hour 3 for what it really is: an excuse to indulge in some debauchery with old friends, at a modest price. Whether you feel guilty in the morning is up to your own conscience.

The Simpsons Movie (2007, Dir. David Silverman)

Homer Simpson: Homer do good?
Bart Simpson: Actually, you've doomed us all. Again.

Was there any way a Simpsons movie could live up to the hype? For all the spectacular success of the television series, what we tend to remember are the high points, of which there are quite a few (take your pick). It's easy to forget that a lot of the jokes can be scattershot, and that the show has been riding the downward curve the last few seasons. Burdened with so many fine memories, we hope, want, and expect The Simpsons Movie to have all of the goodness and none of the fat.

Mission slightly accomplished. No one will feel guilty about our favorite Springfield family's first foray to the big screen, but no one can deny that it's all about fat -- pig fat, or to be more precise, pig excrement. In his latest affront to sensibilities and common sense, Homer Simpson, clueless and crude as ever, adopts a baby pig and proceeds to dump all its shit in the Springfield River, setting off an incalculable environmental disaster which leads the federal government to physically seal off Springfield from the rest of the world. Separated from his hometown, Homer and his family decide to hightail it to Alaska to escape the authorities, but soon find themselves cast in the unlikely role of saviors as they return to save Springfield...

Like Rush Hour, the point of a Simpsons story isn't the actual plot, save for a few trenchant comments on the foibles of modern American society. No, what keeps us entertained is observing how the characters' actions snowball into a rampaging avalanche of off-the-cuff slapstick, wordplay, cultural satire, and high and low comedy. This time out there are some decent zingers, including the "Spider-Pig" song (already deployed to such good effect in the trailer), a surprise public service announcement by Tom Hanks ("The U.S. Government has lost its credibility so it's borrowing some of mine"), and throwaway bits like the one in which Homer flips through the Bible during an emergency and wails, "This book doesn't have any answers!"

But as we sit through the equivalent of three TV-sized episodes strung together, fatigue sets in. The major baddie, a militant EPA advisor played by Albert Brooks, lacks the grand absurdity of the series' best villains (Sideshow Bob, where art thou?), and as the film lurches toward the inevitable action-packed climax, missteps accumulate. An episode with Homer and a drugged-out shaman goes nowhere; Marge must once again deride and endure her husband's irresponsibility (yawn); a subplot involving Bart feeling envious of the God-lovin' Smithers family plays it a little too sincere. Over the years, The Simpsons has grown victim to its own runaway success, as it and other bold series (South Park, The Family Guy) have mined its smart-alecky attitude and just-this-side-of-offensive laughs. What worlds are there left to conquer? Ergo, the film's climax, involving a nuclear bomb, a motorcycle, and a glass dome, is both overblown and lacking.

The best Simpsons episodes are neat little fillips in which the family's proclivities, as twisted as they are, impose eventual order on the chaos they create. Think of the episode in which Marge attempts to help the community by censoring the Itchy and Scratchy cartoon show, only to come to the conclusion that the best thing she can do is nothing -- what could be more American than that? In The Simpsons Movie, which saves the day is a little gumption and the love of one's family. It makes sense that such apple-pie creepiness would seep into a feature-length, multi-million dollar film, but it's still a little disappointing that that film happens to be a Simpsons film. "Sequel," pouts Maggie in the movie's final line, and as we steel ourselves for Simpsons 2, we can only hope that a bit more of the show's anarchy and twisted-lemon outlook infects the final product.

Superbad (2007, Dir. Greg Mottola)

Seth: You know when you hear girls say 'Ah man, I was so shit-faced last night, I shouldn't have fucked that guy?' We could be that mistake!

Superbad is a teen exploitation comedy in which not a single breast is glimpsed; a coming-of-age caper in which coming of age is looked on as a scary, tremulous thing; a beer party story in which obtaining the beer and drinking it achieves absolutely nothing. Above all, it is the latest entry from the new comedy factory known as Judd Apatow, who as writer, producer and director has given us Knocked Up and The 40-Year Old Virgin in recent years. Apatow's films are knuckleballs: they set us up with what seem to be standard comedic premises -- the lifelong loser accidentally gets a hot girl pregnant; two high school schlubs try to get laid before they graduate -- and instead of supplying the usual rat-tat-tat setups and punchlines, they dive deep into their nutty characters' psyches and fears, resulting in a strange brew of dread, intimacy, and charm, even as they still knock us over with outrageous bits of business. Take the moment from Knocked Up in which Paul Rudd, married with two precocious girls and a basket-case wife, confides in Seth Rogan that his life is "like an unfunny, tense version of Everybody Loves Raymond." What human being couldn't relate to that one?

Superbad follows the rules of the standard horny teen comedy caper, but instead of reveling in the tropes, it exposes the agony just underneath. Loudmouth Seth (Jonah Hill) and his reluctant pal Evan (Michael Cera) have their sights set on their dream girls to bang, but to get in the girls' good graces they must provide the booze for an underage drinking party. With their even more geeky buddy Vogell (newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse is a scream), the trio embark on an odyssey that leads them to some unusual places, and as they say, the journey is more important than the destination. Here, the journey includes run-ins with two cops (Rogan and Bill Hader) who might just be more irresponsible than the teens; a "grown-up" keg party that plays like a descent into a Munch-ian Hell, complete with gas cans crammed with booze, fights and gunshots that erupt at random, and misplaced menstrual blood; and a final conflagration in which all three principals discover the agonizing meaning of the term "coitus interruptus." Beneath this hubbub is a quieter story -- it's clear that brainy, sensitive Evan is getting sick of rude, crude Seth, and it's uncertain whether their friendship will last the night, even as the two endure humiliation after humiliation in the name of sex.

In the current post-American Pie atmosphere, it seems de rigueur for a sex farce to have plenty of smutty, nasty jokes centering around body functions, and while Superbad has its share (Avoid that menstrual blood! Beware the explosion of penis sketches!), what sticks are the character grace notes. Vogell could have easily been your standard-grade geekoid, but Mintz-Plasse plays him with an endearing mix of cluelessness and braggadocio -- he may not be nearly as cool as he thinks he is, but one can admire his cajones as he tries to be. As the cops, Rogan and Hader are two overgrown kids, dressing up to play their personal version of Grand Theft Auto even as they cajole and encourage Vogell (they know him as "McLovin" from a badly forged driver's license), the three of them all peas in a pod. Blessed with the inability to censor himself, Hill's Seth gets most of the film's best lines, but the story really belongs to Cera's Evan, who perfected the art of the stupefied silence in Arrested Development and puts it to expert use here. Smart but harried, sensible but beleaguered, Cera does what would seem to be impossible: he makes the act of trying to get laid seem like a delicate, even sweet affair. When Seth and Evan come to blows over their friendship, one gets the surprising notion that there is actually something at stake here; the two may literally hug and make up by evening's end (in a scene that gently skirts the line between camaraderie and homosexuality), but we are left with the impression that at the end of this endless summer, the two will go their separate ways, with only these nerve-wracking moments to remember.

will not be mistaken for a work of art -- cinematically, as is the case with all of Apatow's work, it's strictly middlebrow, and it takes full joy in ticking off most of the usual genre checkboxes. In this world, high school girls are comely, willing, and able, and even dweebs like Seth and Evan have their shot at happiness in the end. Yet this happiness is nothing if not wistful, as the two of them walk off in their arms of their would-be lady loves, casting farewell looks to each other at the local mall. Superbad is the first teen sex comedy in quite a while to capture that sense of passing youth, and recognize the glimmer of feeling in banality -- and if that's too highfalutin for you, take solace in the fact that the phrase "You cock-blocked McLovin!" will likely be immortalized in the American lexicon.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Cut to the Chase: "The Bourne Ultimatum"

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, Dir. Paul Greengrass)

"Will you commit to this program?"

Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), ex-government assassin and taciturn survivalist, is asked this very question in a grainy flashback early on in The Bourne Ultimatum, and it just as easily could be an appeal to the audience: would we kindly commit to a film series with a hero just as indestructible as James Bond, but loaded with amnesia and moral regret over the beast he has become? More precisely, is this cipher-like Mr. Bourne compelling enough for us to follow him to the ends of the world, as he seeks to break the final locks on his clouded memory and discover what it was that drove him to take on the job of ultra-ultra-secret hitman?

The answer seems to be an unequivocal yes, based on the critical plaudits lavished on the third entry of the Bourne saga. In the current real-world climate, we dig spy thrillers that can inject just a smidgen of realism into the usual outlandish antics, and it doesn't hurt if they don't insult our intelligence outright. Thus we have The Bourne Ultimatum, a nifty piece of filmmaking that is nearly peerless in its action-reaction thriller mechanics.

Like a shark, the film survives on constant movement, one breathless chase and averted trap after another. Those who haven't seen the first two films, The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy (directed by Doug Liman (who also serves as the guiding hand behind the series) and Paul Greengrass, respectively) will have to make do with some handy flashbacks, but story is truly secondary here; just think of Bourne as the wily mouse, and the big bad CIA, his former employer, as the giant cat threatening to sink its claws into him, and you're ready to sit back and have your eyeballs seared by the frenetic, handheld style that is fast becoming Greengrass's calling card. Which is not to say that Ultimatum is undisciplined or a migraine nightmare -- within the constant whooshes and bobbing movements of the camera, Greengrass manages to build choreography, rhythm, and suspense, little details popping out to ground us even in the midst of giant crowds on a train platform, or amongst the mountainous rooftops of a Moroccan city.

Happiest when our hero is in direct peril, the film's two major action sequences are adrenaline dreams. The first is a manhunt inside London's Waterloo Station wherein Bourne must rendezvous with nosy British reporter Simon Ross (a wasted Paddy Considine) and avoid the myriad closed-circuit cameras and agents on their tail. Armed with only two cell phones and a preternatural ability to sense danger, Bourne simultaneously avoids and gets the drop on his foes, and as he does so the sequence becomes a master class in geography, movement, and tension -- there must have been an army of editors working around the clock on this one, and the results are worth it. The second bravura setpiece is a footchase amongst the alleys and rooftops of Tangier in which Bourne must catch up with a CIA bagman who is on his way to rub out Nicky (Julia Stiles), his last tangible link to his days as an amnesia-free assassin. Juxtaposing pure acrobatic thrills -- Bourne pulling off his best Parkour impersonation as he leaps through windows -- with the inexorable march of the hitman closing in on his prey, it culminates in a one-on-one fistfight in a bathroom that puts a similar moment in Casino Royale to shame (ironically enough, Gary Powell is the fight choreographer for both films).

If you're an action junkie, those two sequences alone would be worth the price of admission, but it's a shame that one must consider the rest of the film. The Bourne movies have followed a strange inverse progression -- as the filmmaking has become more accomplished with each entry, the story has become less and less interesting. Doug Liman, who directed the Bourne Identity, has nothing on Greengrass as a filmmaker, and yet the first film, which also had the advantage of introducing the mystery of Bourne, had a dog-eared soulfulness about it despite the de rigeur car chases and shootouts. What tends to linger from The Bourne Identity are the character moments -- the mounting bewilderment and horror on Franka Potente's face when she witnesses Bourne making his first kill; the resignation in the mortally wounded Clive Owen's voice when he groans, "Look at what they make you give"; the pitbull ferocity in Chris Cooper's CIA operator when he confronts Bourne and throws the amnesiac's confusion right back at him. In contrast, Greengrass's Supremacy upped the ante on the action scenes, and even though the ruckus all seemed a bit too much by the finish, at least there was a semblance of emotional payoff, as a rueful Bourne came face to face with the orphaned daughter of the Russian diplomats he assassinated. With the film's final shot of Bourne emerging on the streets on New York City, back on his home turf so to speak, we seemed primed for an escalation of intrigue and emotional involvement.

Disappointingly, Ultimatum puts our hero back in the deep freeze. Damon seemed a bit too callow as a trained assassin in Identity, but he has grown into the role, and one can read hints of regret and uncertainty within his terse silences. Too bad that screenwriter Tony Gilroy has run out of actual conflict or ambiguity to fill up those silences. Limited to maybe a couple dozen lines through the entire film, Bourne as a character has never been more dour or distant, save an unconvincing little speech in which he proclaims he sees the faces of the people he killed -- in Damon's monotonic delivery, he might as well be talking about tomorrow's weather forecast. The only shot of humanity arrives in the form of Julia Stiles, and even though continuity is screwed with (the two apparently had an affair in the past which is not even hinted at in the previous movies), her guarded delivery of the line "It was difficult for me ... with you" is the one moment in the film in which emotional disclosure is even broached.

More a frazzled pinball than a human in this movie, Bourne in Ultimatum bounces from locale to locale just long enough for Greengrass to throw in a disinterested panoramic shot of the city before cutting to the next chase. Confusingly, the action begins in Europe before finally relocating to New York City, as the chronology from the preceding film gets juggled. It might have been a neat move if the filmmakers didn't regurgitate the same "get Bourne" plot from Supremacy; alas, we are exposed to yet another conspiracy within the CIA, as "bad" honcho Noah Vosen (a sly, slick David Strathairn) tries to eliminate Bourne before the "good" honcho Pamela Landy (Joan Allen, doing what she can with a character that is essentially reduced to standing around and wringing her hands) can make contact with him and discover the ultra-ultra-secret program that converted Bourne from Army officer to black ops specialist. So once again we get to see control rooms filled with video screens, shout-downs between men in ties and shirt sleeves, and dialogue that sinks to B-movie action cliches ("I need the information, and I need it yesterday!").

It is curious -- for all the sophistication and cutting-edge brio of the filmmaking, the plotting of Ultimatum rests on some awfully hoary devices (incriminating classified documents kept in a safe, a newspaper reporter and his Deep Throat source, a clue scrawled on a scrap of notepaper). Posing as a brainy spy thriller, Ultimatum has nothing on the classics of the genre (The Sandbaggers, John Le Carre's George Smiley novels), which perfected the art of the mind game, spies engaging each other through espionage, counterstrategems, and gamesmanship, tension generated through smarts as well as physical audacity. Ultimatum's single trump card is sensual assault, and by the time the action hits New York City, the center can no longer hold, the film winding down with an anticlimactic car chase that mirrors the one in Supremacy without adding anything new, and a mushy confrontation with the decrepit doctor (Albert Finney) who programmed Bourne in the first place. Suffice to say that the final revelation, when it does come, seems pale and pitifully small compared to the extravagant mayhem which preceded it. One is left with the underwhelming thought: Oh, so his past is pretty much what we expected. What with the allusions to Abu Ghraib (prisoners with hoods tied over their heads getting dunked in tanks of water), and Greengrass's status as the first man to direct a serious picture about 9-11 (United 93), one suspects that he's reaching for political significance in these closing passages, which seems a bit much given the flimsiness of the story. In Identity, Liman took an almost jocular approach; Bourne was capable of doing amazing things, but that didn't discount the possibility of the audience chuckling a bit at the craziness of his derring-do. Greengrass, on the other hand, is committed to the seriousness of it all, and you may find yourself rolling your eyes when his shakycam, so deft and expressive during the action scenes, transforms what should be a simple dialogue scene at a diner into an epileptic fit.

As Bourne escapes to freedom (and the inevitable sequel), one must ask, where do we go from here? The Bourne series has come full circle: it began with a man minus his memory adrift in the ocean, and it concludes with a shot of a man minus a personality swimming away. As an example of buffed-up action cinema, The Bourne Ultimatum fits the bill, but there's a remarkable hollowness at its core -- after three movies, the chase is over, and what a marvelous chase it has been at times, and yet can one truly say that the story has even begun? Folding back in on itself, like a snake engorged on its own tail, the series is an exercise in high style, conducted in a vacuum.