Saturday, August 25, 2007

Two Unconventional Teen Comedies


Judd Apatow is Todd Phillips 2.0. Phillips collaborates with comedians skilled enough to improv around his sub-retarded set-ups and plotlines. When in doubt, they throw something slapsticky together. (Naturally, once he shifted his cast from improvisational geniuses Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn to Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller, the work suffered.)

Apatow also works with really funny actors and devises stories that give them a chance to shine, and then kind of depends on that to just generate laughs for 2 hours. When it doubt, he has a guy crash a bike into a truck or get hit by a car.

I don't mean to make too much of this comparison. The difference between these two is clear. Apatow and his team of writer/director/actors, who have turned out hits like 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up thus far, are geniuses with character, far beyond the shallow types of Phillips' best film, Old School. The Apatow films (this one directed by "Undeclared" and "Arrested Development" vet Greg Mottola) are always stacked with funny and above all charismatic performances. Michael Cera, Jonah Hill and particularly 18 year old newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse have some great bits of dialogue here and there in Superbad, but this is not exactly Woody Allen-level material in terms of one-liners. The movie is funny because they are funny, not because of anything in particular that they say or do.

But still...potentially record-breaking dick joke quotient aside, there's not a whole lot going on in Superbad. It's generally amusing, sometimes hilarious, but otherwise unremarkable.

I think the largest single problem here is that the humor is so front-loaded. Superbad starts really strong, with the cool '70s vibe of the intro and the swift but memorable establishment the three central relationships. It has considerable trouble keeping up the tempo once the adventures begin in earnest, and a lot of the material in the second half just drags everything down. (A detour to a wild, coke-fueled party, for example, goes on way too long.)

Long-time best friends Evan (Cera) and Seth (Hill) are named for the script's co-writers Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, and it's not hard to imagine that the film is fairly autobiographical, but this also makes it kind of self-indulgent and navel-gazing.

Feeling like nerdy outcasts, befriended only by a fellow outcast Fogle (Mintz-Plasse), whom even they push around and bully, Evan and Seth have isolated themselves from the general high school population in a basement, talking about all the things they would do with a girl if only they could get date with one.

Unexpectedly, the guys land an invitation to a big graduation party being thrown by the attractive and popular Jules (Emma Stone), but it comes loaded with a considerable request - would they mind using Fogle's new fake ID to obtain $100 worth of booze for the party?

It's a great set-up for a horny teen comedy, kind of a Porky meets John Hughes thing, with these guys absolutely desperate for some action and so close to making it happen, but just barely missing the mark. Rogen, Goldberg and Mottola, no offense, seem to have a genuine understanding for these guys' dilemma. The intensity of the biological drive to procreate has nothing on the social pressure to "get some" before going away to college, and the more desperate horny teen guys become to make this happen, the less likely girls are to help them out. All of the best moments with Seth and Evan - from Seth's anecdote about obsessively drawing penises as a child to his run-in with a menstruating girl at a party - build off of this undercurrent of sexual frustration, exposing in the most humiliating fashion possible their shared, neurotic need to complete this challenge and fit in.

But though Cera and Hill make a solid comic duo and will probably work together again soon, it's Mintz-Plasse who steals the show. Fogle, called McLovin after the name on his fake ID, doesn't actually share much screen time with the two leads. Early in the film, he's essentially kidnapped by a pair of unruly, bro-ish cops (played by SNL cast member Bill Hader and co-writer Rogen), and what begins as their side-story tends to overshadow the main action of the film.

McLovin brings an innocence to the film that was sorely needed amidst the overwhelming tide of body part humor. Not that I don't enjoy body part humor, but Superbad is relentless and unsparing with it. (Doodles of penises dressed up as historical figures run behind the closing credits, just to ensure that there's not a moment of screen time someone involved in the production could proudly show their Mom.) McLovin's just as horny as the other two, if not more, but he's not so repressed about it, so tied up in his own thoughts. He's like a sexy cheeseburger...

Rocket Science

The guys from Superbad are like Casanova and James Bond rolled into one compared to Hal Hefner. Hefner (Reece Thompson) develops a crush on school debate champ Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) so intense, he's compelled to join the Debate Team. The only trouble is his stutter, one so severe it prevents him from ever getting his preferred cafeteria lunch or even saying a proper goodbye to his family-departing father.

Writer/director Jeffrey Blitz, whose previous effort was the spelling bee documentary Spellbound, turns out a rather brilliant character study featuring a nearly-silent protagonist, which can't be an easy thing to do. He and Thompson have just connected here, come together to craft a portrait of an intelligent young man cripped by a speech impediment, but determined not to hold himself back any longer. The film was a hit at Sundance, and I'm pretty sure it will be one of the best films I see all year.

I did a little debating in high school, and had largely assumed when starting out that it was an argument contest. Whoever could argue with the most forcefulness and rhetorical skill would win. Of course, actual debate competitions are nothing like that. The judging is actually quite mathematical. Both teams make arguments and refute the arguments of the other team. Whoever gets through the debate with the most unrefuted arguments wins, and the way to do this is to talk really fast and get out the most information in support of your case as possible in the time provided.

The metaphor to Hal's life is not too difficult to surmise. He's constantly aiming for an unattainable perfection, afraid to speak unless he knows the words will come out correctly. (We hear him rehearse the phrase "I'd like the pizza, please" on the school bus, and then see him freeze up that day at lunch when the lady asks him "pizza or fish?") What he must learn is that there is no perfection, and the secret is to try as hard as you can and hope that more things work out for you than don't. It's know...rocket science.

Blitz builds these ideas into a story that's fairly conventional yet wildly unpredictable. This is an occasionally raw and always honest film, but it's not a painful portrait of tortured youth like Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse or anything so much as it is a fairly straight-forward comedy about an awkward teenager coming to terms with himself. Having said that, I never knew where the story was actually going to go, and Blitz comes up with some real left-turn surprises that nevertheless feel true to his impetuous teenage characters.

Hal eventually gets together with Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto), a former team debater who freaked out mid-match and left school to work as a dry cleaner in Trenton. They look alike and compliment one another well, and the sequences with the two of them preparing for the State Tournament are the best in the film.

Rocket Science is a quiet, subtle kind of movie. It's a comedy, but a dry and laconic one, not a big crowd-pleasing goof-off like Superbad. I enjoyed them both, and may have to revisit McLovin's antics at some point in the future, but it's Rocket Science that will be most likely popping up in my Best of the Year list.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Monday, August 20, 2007

So...that happened...

Dwarf's penis gets stuck to vacuum cleaner

Do I need to keep going?

A dwarf performer at the Edinburgh fringe festival had to be rushed to hospital after his penis got stuck to a vacuum cleaner during an act that went horribly awry.

Awry is right. This is objectively the most awry thing I have ever heard of in my life, ever.

Daniel Blackner, or Captain Dan the Demon Dwarf, was due to perform at the Circus of Horrors at the festival known for its oddball, offbeat performances.

The main part of his act was for him to appear on stage with a vacuum cleaner attached to his member with a special apparatus.

Now this, on the other hand, is a massive understatement. Having a dwarf place his genitals in a vacuum cleaner is not an offbeat performance. It is a perverse display, an affront to all that is good and sacred. It also has the potential to be hilarious and awesome, sure, but I would scarcely describe it as "offbeat." A Jarmusch film is offbeat. A dwarf putting his cock in a powerful home appliance is "deranged."

The attachment broke before the performance and Blackner tried to fix it using extra-strong glue, but unfortunately let it dry for only 20 seconds instead of the 20 minutes required.

Wow. How much was he being paid for this performance again? It was Linda Evangelisa who famously said, of her and her fellow supermodels, "We don't wake up for less than $10,000 a day." Well, I think I can say, on behalf of most of my fellow men, that "We don't put our penises anywhere near a large, noisy, electrified sucking machine for less than $800 billion." Unless, you know, they have been designed expressly for said purpose (and you know that this invention's bound to be right around the corner...)

"It was the most embarrassing moment of my life when I got wheeled into a packed A & E with a vacuum attached to me," Blackner said.

"I just wished the ground could swallow me up. Luckily, they saw me quickly so the embarrassment was short-lived.

He said to the reporter writing a news story using his full name set for international publication and distribution.

Man, this guy is not bright.

[Hat tip, Perez]

"Laguna Beach," "The Hills," "Newport Harbor"...Fake, fake, fake

I've been saying this for years, that these shows are clearly pre-scripted. You couldn't make documentary-style reality TV into this kind of glossy, multi-camera show. It just doesn't work. But people would never believe me. Seriously, I've had at least 10 arguments in the past two years on this very subject.

"I'm telling you, 'The Hills' is fake. They just make up pseudo-realistic stories about these kids and then have them act it out like it's happening to them live."

"But they cry on cue and stuff! No way Lauren Conrad's that good an actress!"

Surprise, surprise...It's FAKE:

They call MTV's "The Hills" a "reality" show, but we've had our doubts for some time. Fueling our skepticism, on Tuesday night, the star, Lauren Conrad, showed up at Da Silvano for dinner with three friends and a camera crew. One irked diner told us, "It was clear that this show is not a reality show. They took five takes of Lauren ordering dinner. The film crew took over the outside eating area by setting up lights and cameras everywhere. They should go back to California."