Sunday, August 31, 2008

Movie Review: Y Tu Mama Tambien

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that holds you in it's grip for two hours, shatters you're expectations, and leaves you breathless at the end; still not totally grasping this new view of life you've just been provided. Director Alfonso Cuaron did this to me once before with 2006's Children of Men, and he's done it again with his totally different, yet very similar Y Tu Mama Tambien.
Y Tu Mama Tambien combines the elements of many different genres, and blends them beautifully together into a whole. It displays the kind of humor and truthfulness you'd find in a Judd Apatow movie with the conflicted love triangle of a recent Woody Allen drama. 
The film is set in Mexico City, Cuaron's hometown. The story centers around two rich teenagers, Aztec-named Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal). After their girlfriends abandon them for Europe for the summer, they hang around and drink and get high until they eventually grow bored. At a political event, they meet the enchanting, older Luisa (Maribel Verdu), a Spaniard visiting Mexico with her snobby writer boyfriend (Juan Carlos Remolina). Desperate for her attention and a getaway, the boys make up a story to her about a secret beach known as Heaven's Mouth and invite her for a trip to the beach. Intrigued, she accepts and they set off on the road, barely knowing where they're heading and unaware of the strange experience to come.
Narrated not by one of the teens but instead by a dull sounding old man whose never once present in the story, it gives off a feeling that the characters are being watched, perhaps by a God like figure or someone like The Big Lebowski's Stranger; a man who has no relation to the characters but just finds an extreme fascination in their story. The narrator plays an important role in the movie, explaining backstories and bringing life to the vast Mexican desert.
As I mentioned before, Cuaron also directed 2006's Children of Men, a film that is behind only There Will Be Blood and Kill Bill as the masterpiece of the decade. That film dealt with the horrors of an all too real dystopian future where humans are on the verge of extinction. Y Tu Mama Tambien on the other hand, is a modern day dark dramedy about two rich kids coming to terms with reality by leaving the confines of their safe homes and viewing the devastating poverty that makes up the rest of their country. 
Like in Children of Men, Cuaron incorporates subtle political messages into this film by filling them into every frame rather than discussing them. Seeing it rather than talking about it works much more powerfully, especially the fact that Cuaron is one of the great visual storytellers of our time. He pays great attention to small details in every shot. The rundown villages of Mexico look like the refugee camps of Children of Men, only these ones are real.
Like Men, in Tambien the greatest storytelling technique is quite simply the camera itself. Like a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, the camera is constantly moving around and barely stops. In this film, it works perfectly, helping move the characters move through the countryside while capturing the restless energy of the two teens and their endless curiosity that moves the story along. 
Y Tu Mama Tambien captures teenage angst like no one's ever captured it before. It is daring and unafraid in it's graphic portrayal of sex. The film finds a way to use that as both an element of drama and comedy, as well as a way to shape Tenoch and Julio's relationship. The film doesn't hesitate to go deep and hurt and disturb the audience as it is about false hopes and lost dreams. It looks beyond the world of the wealthy and goes deep into the harsh realities of life. Not all of the world is as rich as you are, and not every friendship is as perfect as Tenoch and Julio once though. Nope, sleep with an older woman you've never met before and things might change.
Y Tu Mama Tambien is probably the best film of the year 2002 and certainly one of the best of the decade. It is one that must be seen by those with a daring spirit. It is a movie that doesn't escape you immediately after watching it. Director Alfonso Cuaron has joined the ranks of directors Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) and Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel) as part of the new movement of great Latin American cinema. 
Some say this might be Latin America's century. Well, maybe not (it's probably China's). But with more films like Y Tu Mama Tambien this will most certainly become Latin America's century in the film world.
Recommended for fans of: Children of Men, Babel, Easy Rider, My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy, The Graduate, Superbad, Dazed and Confused, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Brokeback Mountain

Friday, August 22, 2008

TV Review: It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia

Something peculiar happened as I began watching It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. It began funny, taking on some controversial topics (abortion, racism) that had already been mocked before in somewhat of an original way. Then suddenly, as the show departed from season 1 and turned into season 2, things totally turned around. The show started covering new ground and transformed into one of the funniest shows currently on TV.
It's Always Sunny is a show about nothing. Sound familiar? Well, much of this show takes after it's obvious influence, Seinfeld. The characters are no different than Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer either. Dennis (Glenn Howerton) is the self-centered, pretty boy owner of an Irish pub in South Philly. He owns the bar with his sister, Dee (Kaitlin Olson), a former UPenn girl whose constantly trying to outdo her brother. Also part of the bar business is Mac (creator Rob McElhenney) who gets jealous that he was the only one not molested by his school gym teacher. Finally, there's Charlie (Charlie Day), their dim-witted friend who can't tell Israel from India. The show follows their ridiculous encounters and mistrials of their unsuccessful bar.
It's Always Sunny proves that you don't have to be on HBO to be dirty. Airing on FX, the show can seem a bit much for network TV. It's a big f*** you to the FCC. Not just for the repeated use of the seemingly banned from network television word "shit", but for the topics few even dare to touch on. Who ever thought a racist old Nazi could be so funny?
It's Always Sunny asks many strange ethical questions one never wants to deal with or ever wants to know about, but these four people must deal with it all the time. What do you do when you find you're best friend's grandpa's Nazi uniform? Is pretending to be a crackhead the best way to qualify for a big, fat welfare check? Is it possible to get a girl to like you by telling her you have cancer? 
Like I mentioned, this show is extremely similar to Seinfeld. The comparison draws from the idea of having a show that has absolutely no plot but just follows a bunch of random, selfish human beings around that are so undeniably like ourselves that it is impossible to watch, yet it's so funny and shocking at times that it's nearly impossible to look away. Basically, It's Always Sunny is like passing a car accident on the highway, only funnier. 
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is Seinfeld for the new millennium. You could say Curb Your Enthusiasm had taken that title already, but that show is possibly beginning to wind down already. It's Philadelphia's time now. Hopefully, that time will be at the Emmys someday soon. After all, every loser has their day. And Dennis, Charlie, Mac, and Dee I'm sorry to say, are losers. Losers I'd love to follow for a few more seasons to come.
So, while the main concept behind It's Always Sunny doesn't break any new ground, the ideas circulated into each episode does, and that is what helps make one of the most consistently hilarious and original shows on TV right now.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia starts up again for it's fourth season on FX on Thursday, September 18 at 10 PM. Please watch it, if you dare...
Recommended for fans of: Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Scrubs

Monday, August 18, 2008

My Latest Discovery: Lost

Well, this discovery isn't totally new, as I am now into the second season, but I figured this show had to be discussed at some point.
Lost is a drama like few others on television. It's the kind you can watch over and over as if it's a half hour sitcom and not get bored. It's one of few Sci-Fi psycological tales that manages to put a strong human story in the mix.
Lost begins with an airplane flying from Sydney to LA that encounters some rough turbulence and is suddenly split in two. Miraculously, a large amount of people survive the crash but end up on a strange island in the South Pacific that's far from deserted. It's filled with a flesh eating monster and...polar bears? That's about the most I can give away without spoiling the entire story.
The survivors include Jack (Matthew Fox), the island's only doctor and an eventual leader. Others include Hurley (Jorge Garcia), a joker with an amazing secret, John Locke (Terry O'Quinn, baring a strong resemblance to Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now) an average cubicle worker turned skilled hunter, Sawyer (Josh Holloway), a boozed up smartass who may either be a criminal or just criminally troubled, Charlie (Dominic Monaghan), a former rock star going through drug addiction, Claire (Emilie de Ravin), a pregnant young Australian, amongst many others. 
Lost uses all these characters in a very interesting way and rather than just having them all be stuck there and nothing more, creator J.J. Abrams (Cloverfield) made the wise choice to go deeper and show their backstories. We get to see each character off the island and the reasons that led each onto this flight and why they behave the way they do. In this way, we find ties between the each of their stories and can sometimes even connect to them. This little detail and the fact that they all coincidentally got stuck on this island together shows the small and amazing things that can connect each human being on Earth in unimaginable ways.
As well as being hugely entertaining and filled with mind-blowing twists and turns, Lost is very philosophical. It asks interesting questions about life such as the differences between faith and science, the human ability of choice, the pain in vengeance, and the overwhelming weight of guilt amongst other things. It is as if being on this island is fate and a way for these people to analyze their lives and right their wrongdoings. It also ponders whether the plane just so happened to crash, or whether it was fate. In this way, Lost questions whether or not God exists and says...maybe, depending on who you are.
Lost is a show different from most others in prime time. It is for the lovers of a good twist and an intricate mystery as well as for those who crave nothing more than a good story about people trying to get through with their lives. In that way, Lost is meant for everybody, and should be watched by all.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Movie Review: Tropic Thunder

It is so rarely that I leave a movie at a loss of words; blown away by amazingness that a proper response isn't possible. I couldn't think of what to write at first, so I looked at a picture of Robert Downey Jr. in blackface for a few minutes for inspiration. I still can't believe that was him, and I still can't believe what a movie this was. Tropic Thunder mixes together every genre imaginable into a hilarious and scathing satire of modern show business.
Tropic Thunder wants so much to convince the audience this is an actual movie being made and all these actors are real so it begins with three fake trailers for the film's three main stars. Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller, also writer/director) was at one time the biggest action star in the world. Soon, audiences grew tired of his ongoing sequels (such as Scorcher I-VI) and his career was totally ruined after a shot at the Oscars with the disastrous Simple Jack, a film about a retarded farmer who thinks he can talk to animals. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a comedian whose only source of humor is fart jokes, as seen in his Nutty Professor/Norbitesque film where he plays every single member of an obese family of farters. Finally, there's Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.), a five-time Academy Award winner and method actor on the scale of Brando or Day-Lewis who goes through a controversial surgery in order to play the film's black sergeant.
And I haven't even gotten to the actual plot yet. All of these actors are getting together, either to revive their career, be taken seriously, or win another Oscar, onto a Vietnam War film. Along for the journey is rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson). If you don't understand the joke behind that name, I suggest you don't see this movie. Also tagging along is younger actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel, bearing a striking resemblance to Matthew Modine in Full Metal Jacket).
Successful movie stars? Definitely. Good actors? Maybe. The film's director (Steve Coogan) has difficulty with the actors. On the screenwriter/novelist's (Nick Nolte, perfectly cast) suggestion, the actors should be sent away from the set and into the actual jungles of 'Nam and be forced to fend for themselves...without telling the actors of course. Before any of them can figure out they're no longer in an actual movie, a group of Vietnamese drug lords mistake the harmless actors for D.E.A agents and a real war ensues.
With showing the actors outside of their natural setting, the movie set, we get to see what they really are: phonies. At least this group of actors (who may stand for all Hollywood actors) who are so up their own ass that they can't even tell the difference between a set and reality.
Tropic Thunder is one of those movies within a movies, and a total mindwharp as well. We're watching a movie about the making of a movie and reality gets so mixed together with fiction that we don't know whether or not we're watching the movie the actors are making or watching them in real life. Confusing, right? Well, like other great movie within a movie movies (Bowfinger, Get Shorty) the difference is indistinguishable yet the movie is so funny and the satire so great that we don't even notice.
The satire in Tropic Thunder hits every aspect of Hollywood. No one is left untouched. Whether you're a good actor, a bad actor, a comedian, a studio executive, a talent agent or an indie director, this movie will get you. And it's frighteningly real. The fake trailer for Fatties: Fart 2 might as well be following the Norbit trend and Scorcher VI might as well be the latest unnecessary Stallone sequel. 
This film is the second feature in Stiller's directing career. The first was 2001's critically underrated Zoolander. That explored how superficial the world of male modeling was in  way similar to how Tropic Thunder shows how superficial the world of movies can be. Stiller brings a great amount of humor to it with his directing, along with co-writers Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen (no relation to the Coen Brothers). 
The film inside of Tropic Thunder (also called Tropic Thunder) looks like a mixture between Apocalypse Now, Platoon and The Deer Hunter (with many obvious references to those movies). With over-the-top violence, over-the-top emotions, yet a brilliant soundtrack with songs from Buffalo Springfield and Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tropic Thunder looks exactly like the kind of Oscar bait pictures studios produce countless numbers of every year. The actors are no better.
The standout, steal the show performance of the movie is Robert Downey Jr. The former drug addict could've easily fit the bill as any of the washed up stars portrayed in the film but he's had a huge comeback this year with Iron Man and Tropic Thunder. He took a big risk playing an actor playing an African American but he does it just right. The performance isn't mocking African Americans but is instead mocking the method actor the Lazarus is, whose gotten so sucked into his performance that he forgets he's not actually black. Yet Downey's amazing performance keeps us under his spell and you really do forget that it's a white guy under there. Every scene with him is mesmerizing and uncontrollably hilarious, especially the scene in which he explains to Speedman that Simple Jack didn't work because he went "full retard". To keep such a straight face and stay in character so well for a scene like that no doubt Oscar worthy (ironic, for he's making fun of Oscar winning performances).
The other career comeback in this movie is Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise. Mr. Scientology almost reaches the level of Downey Jr. as a fat, sadistic, obnoxious and stereotypical Jewish studio boss. As this character, Cruise says the f-word the most amount of times in a movie since his career first took off in '83 with Risky Business when he says "fuck it". Cruise seems like the last choice for a role like this which is what makes him perfect for it. I'd lost my respect for him the past few years. But, after seeing him do comedy this impressive I'm beginning to respect him again. Mr. Cruise, it looks like you're career has taken a new direction. Stick with comedy. You're fantastic at it.
Thunder has been enduring controversy over the past week, for it's repeated use of the word "retard". The controversy is ridiculous and makes me angry. The purpose of the film is not to make fun of mentally challenged people, but it is making fun of actors who play mentally challenged people to get awards. It is only used to prove how desperate some people are to get their hands on one of those golden boys.
I didn't think there'd be a funnier film this year than Pineapple Express but Tropic Thunder has taken the title. It is even close up with The Dark Knight as the best movie so far this year. It is the satire this generation has needed. The Blazing Saddles of the new decade. It's a spot on depiction of it's own industry and the ridiculousness of the race to try to win an Oscar. Tropic Thunder bites the hand that feeds it and doesn't let go. It's not trying to incite any change but reflect on the time it was made in. Hopefully after seeing this, people won't be asking for an actual movie of The Fatties and will instead be telling Cuba Gooding Jr. to never go "full retard" ever again.
For Your Consideration: Robert Downey Jr: Best Supporting Actor

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Movie Review: Pineapple Express

Well, it's the movie event I've been waiting for all year. Were my expectations too high? No. Was it amazing (just like every other Judd Apatow film)? Yes.
Pineapple Express is a stoner film yet it's something more. Yes, it's also an action movie but it's something more than that. It's a buddy comedy. A buddy comedy where the friendship that arises feels so strange and unexpected that in the end it feels so real and natural. Well, don't rely on a Judd Apatow movie to succumb to stereotype.
First we meet Dale Denton (Seth Rogen). He's a process server who drives around in his car all day and hands out subpoenas to unsuspecting citizens in between joint hits. To pick up a new stash he goes to his dealer Saul (James Franco, perfectly cast), who sits around his apartment all day and watches TV while waiting for customers. Saul gives Dale this new type of weed called Pineapple Express. The stuff is so powerful, even Saul has a coughing fit over it.
Later that night, Dale is about to hand out a subpoena to a man named Ted Jones (Office Space's Gary Cole) who happens to be Saul's dealer. Before going in Dale decides to try out his new weed. Suddenly, he's become a murder witness after watching Ted and "female cop" (Rosie Perez) shoot someone. In a rush, Dale drops his roach and speeds away. Well, it turns out Saul is the only one with Pineapple Express in the entire city, and the roach gets traced right back to him. Now, Dale and Saul find themselves on the run from corrupt cops and a gigantic drug war about to begin.
Perhaps the funniest joke of Pineapple Express is the fact that everything Dale and Saul fear is about to happen is not weed-filled paranoia; these two are actually being traced and chased in every way imaginable (well, minus the foxes, bloodhounds, and barracudas). It also helps the characters break away from stoner movie stereotype and seem more like a bunch of stoned guys who are well...actually in a lot of trouble. 
Everything that makes this movie so great can be attributed to the writing team of best friends who met at Bar Mitzvah class of Rogen and Evan Goldberg. They previously wrote last year's brilliant team comedy Superbad. This film is a lot like Superbad for many reasons. There's that witty pop culture dialogue infused throughout the story (less so in this movie though) and the moving inner-story about friendship amidst the humor. 
Overall, it is the dialogue that's the best part of the movie. Rather than just being there to explain the story it shows simple human conversation. People interacting with each other like they normally would because, well, life isn't a movie. The dialogue is so very free flowing that many scenes seem like they're improvised (such as the hilarious scene where Dale and another character, Red, look for guns) even though many probably aren't. This helps move the story along through character development rather than lame plot devices and cliches. 
With the exception of a few herpes jokes, Pineapple Express is much less raunchy than other Apatow films. It trades in raunch for violence. And even though it's a comedy, the violence isn't cartoony but extremely graphic and realistic. The action doesn't way down the film and turn it serious. A perfect balance of serious action sequences and comedy is instilled in every scene so the movie never turns into a serious drama.
The film is directed by David Gordon Green. He seems like an odd choice for a film like this, as he is the directors of such critically lauded indie films as Undertow and George Washington. I still have yet to see any of his other movies (which I will try to now) but you can see he puts in an artistic sort of style into the directing with freeze frames, fast motion scenes and such. Green's directing helps give the story a good balance of mainstream appeal and good old fashioned story telling.
Pineapple Express shows why the Apatow gang is truly the funniest in Hollywood right now. They can make a comedy just right, and Pineapple Express is just that. They've made a plot about stoners that isn't too over-the-top or stereotypical. And some of the situations the characters get into would make us hate them in any other film but here it is done just right. Take for example, 25-year-old Dale's relationship with a high school girl (Amber Heard). Any other movie would make it seem just plain creepy and atrocious but this movie portrays it in a way so that it may be slightly creepy but there's something about it that's also kind of sweet, for the fact that Dale doesn't seem to care about age yet it also shows his need to grow up already.
Before I forget, the funniest performance in the movie is by James Franco. He nails Saul's character perfectly from his weird laugh to the way he dresses. Every time he opens his mouth you can't help but laugh yet you manage to take him seriously as you see all he wants is a friend. He helps make the unexpected friendship between him and Dale seem extremely convincing. Well Saul, I guess it's okay to dip that pen in company ink sometimes.
The Apatow gang has thus far reinvented the romantic comedy, the buddy comedy, the high school comedy, and now the stoner comedy. It's a genre with great potential. Pineapple Express shows that a stoner movie doesn't just have to be a bunch of guys passing a bong around and giggling at their own jokes for two hours. It can work if you make it original and add a human story to the mix. Pineapple Express has set ground for maybe the final comedy frontier to be explored: the action comedy. Until I see Tropic Thunder next week, Pineapple Express is far and away the funniest movie of the year.

Monday, August 4, 2008

This Week's Sign of the Apocalypse

Justin Timberlake might host the Oscars this year. Yep, no joke. He's in the running to host the Academy Awards. Are the Oscars really that desperate for ratings. In my opinion, Jon Stewart was a fantastic host and is probably even more popular with the American public than Justin Timberlake. This just shows how out of touch the Academy is. Anyway, I thought the Oscars wouldn't even have difficulties finding an audience after they nominate The Dark Knight for best picture (yes, they better). And if they really want a popular comedian how about Stephen Colbert? Tina Fey? Conan O'Brien? Seth Rogen? Judd Apatow? The list goes on.
Yes, the Oscars are very out of touch. And I hope High School Musical 3 destroys the world before Justin Timberlake has the chance to show off his (non-existent) "talent". Please, the right thing.
If you don't believe me, look at this site: