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And of course, like all real Top 10 lists, there are 11 items.
MACGRUBER shows why SNL is not past all hope
A full-length film version of a recurring Saturday Night Live sketch may seem anachronistic these days; after all, it seemed the SNL movie finally died out way back in 1999/2000 with the one-two TKO of SUPERSTAR and THE LADIES MAN. The problems were obvious: even a talented cast and crew can rarely stretch out a three or four minute skit that hinged on the personality of the performer as he or she ran through the same joke again and again. I can think of only two times it did - THE BLUES BROTHERS and WAYNE'S WORLD. These films worked because their subject matter allowed for a larger story to unfold.
Lorne Michael's subsequent production efforts have taken the smarter tack. They build new stories around established talents, with the result that we go into the film with familiarity, to be sure, but also a sense of fun and surprise at what our favorite comedians might cook up. Tina Fey has really taken the ball and run with it in her backstage-at- SNL-show "30 Rock", realizing that after a while, all comedy sketches seem the same and the audience wants a different perspective. Meanwhile MACGRUBER co-writer and director Jorma Taccone, Andy Samberg and Akiva Goldsman (together The Lonely Island), have become the most popular act on SNL by largely ignoring its conventions and doing what they want. Samberg's on-air sketches are mostly forgettable, but he shines in LI's genre-skewing short videos.
Taccone and company know how to tap cultural cliché like no one else working today. They represent a new type of humor at work in American comedy - one that lovingly wallows in cultural familiarity and the ironic potential therein. In an age of YouTube and instant dissemination of, well, everything, they know that the best way to reach the widest audience at a level that truly connects is through their pop umbilical cords.
Will Forte's "MacGruber" sketches follow an identical formula: MacGruber, a hyper skilled MacGyver parody (we learn in the opening of the film that he has something like 16 Purple Hearts and four Medals of Honor, and has somehow served multiple tours of duty as a member of every branch of the armed forces) is trapped in a control room of some bad guy's lair with his assistant, Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) and a third person played by that week's guest star. Plus a bomb with a 20 second timer. MacGruber sets to work using household items to defuse the bomb, but invariably becomes distracted, largely due to his own hubris and general cluelessness, and the bomb explodes. Forte and Taccone wisely dispense with this template until very late in the game, instead constructing a plot in which MacGruber is free to run wild. Thus: rich evil guy Dieter Von Cunth (Kilmer, having a ball) steals a nuclear missile which he intends to use on Washington, D.C. His motives are unimportant. What is important is that there's only one guy who can stop him: MacGruber. In an opening scene recalling RAMBO III (tellingly, the stupidest one), MacGruber's former commanding officer (Powers Boothe) tracks down the titular hero at a monastery in Ecuador, where he's spent the last ten years in seclusion following the death of his bride at the altar. She was blown up by Cunth. It was messy. It takes some convincing, and a team-assembling montage gone horribly, horribly wrong, but pretty soon MacGruber's back in action and taking the fight to the enemy.
Support is provided by Kristen Wiig as Vicki St. Elmo, a woman as strangely trapped in 1989-era style as MacGruber, as well as Ryan Phillippe as Lt. Dixon Piper, who actually seems to know what he's doing, if he can ever get through to MacGruber, whose home-made tactics not only generally fail to work, but often make things worse. Phillippe, Booth, and even Kilmer stand in for the audience as straight men, scratching their heads at MacGruber's insanity. Taccone and Forte give them lines that echo almost exactly what the average audience member might be thinking when MacGruber distracts some baddies by stripping down and utilizing a piece of celery in an interesting way. And yet it works. It makes sense. What's surprising is the rawness of the film: freed from the limitations of live network television, Taccone and Forte work to earn their R-rating. Boy, do they. MacGruber is a foul-mouthed near-deviant whose dedication to his country is matched only by his penchant for public nudity.
Forte is a dynamo on screen, showing that he, like Will Ferrell and others before him, will do absolutely anything to get a laugh, no matter how potentially embarrassing. While some of these gags might push the bounds of taste MacGruber has a thing for "throat rips" and the less said about his methods in the bedroom, the better Forte's exuberance for the character shines through. It's this commitment to the bit that helps MACGRUBER immensely. It's all absurd, parodic, and ultimately pointless, but it's a very entertaining 90 minutes. Taccone and Forte have great fun messing with the conventions of action movies in general and "MacGyver" in particular, though I doubt MacGyver ever offered to fellate a man to accomplish the mission. The film looks and sounds fine, and Taccone has made a smooth transition from short form music video parodies to action cinema; he's still got some things to learn, but he's definitely got chops. The best thing that can be said of MACGRUBER is that in the end, the intelligence and cleverness of its creators situate this film happily much closer to the work of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg than to the Butabi Brothers.
Let's hope this is the next step in a journey back for Lorne Michaels to producing quality comedy. Somewhere, John Belushi is smiling.
Fine-looking and well acted, but ultimately flat (possible spoilers)
"The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" would seem to have everything going for it - major stars, an enormous budget, and a conceit that can't be beat. However, in the end it's that very conceit that hamstrings an otherwise wondrous piece of movie-making.
Fincher's characters tend to be psychos, paranoiacs, obsessives, some of whom struggle vainly against the darkness in their own souls, but many others who have embraced it. Benjamin Button is none of the above, and that's perhaps his problem. Button, born "under unusual circumstances" in 1918 New Orleans, spends his early life literally surrounded by death, raised, as he is, by an orderly in a home for the elderly. As a prematurely old man himself (an effect achieved by fantastic MOCAP work from Pitt), perhaps it's not surprising that as he grows into a body with which he may truly engage the world, he is more content to observe appreciably.
Now, this may be true to the spirit of the character, but unfortunately for Fincher and his screenwriter, Eric Roth, it doesn't make for very interesting cinema. At a recent screening, Roth referred to Button's character as the "anti-Gump", a classification that seemed both apt and problematic. This film will certainly earn comparisons to Robert Zemeckis' modern classic(also written by Roth), but where that film had a truly fascinating central character, who experienced as many mistakes and tragedies as victories and happiness, Fincher and Roth's protagonist is a cipher. There's a telling sequence around the middle of the film, where Button, by now a merchant seaman holed up in a dingy hotel in Murmansk, strikes up a relationship with a bored wife of a minor British official (Tilda Swinton). Unable to sleep, they meet each night for tea and good conversation (and later, sex). But instead of letting us hear what those conversations are about, he simply creates a montage, set to music, of various meetings fading into one another. By the time Swinton's character departs the film, we know next to nothing new about Benjamin other than that he has trouble sleeping and likes hot tea. The fact is that even Swinton's character, on screen for perhaps fifteen minutes, is more engaging. It's a frustrating glimpse of what might have been, had the filmmakers chosen to put the character before the gimmick, instead of the other way around.
Which brings us to Cate Blanchett. As Daisy, whom Benjamin meets as a young girl and who grows into a luminously beautiful and troubled ballet dancer, Blanchett shines as brightly as she ever has on screen. Unlike Benjamin, Daisy is not content to simply accept whatever life throws her way - she has dreams and attempts to act on them, and does her best to lead a normal, interesting life. Benjamin, passive as always, must quietly observe as she grows out of the playmate of his "youth" and into a somewhat headstrong woman who nonetheless possessed of enormous potential. His loyalty pays off, though, when circumstances bring them together again at a time when they both happen to be the same age - a fleeting moment, and one they will cherish. But again, the relationship between couple and audience is one-sided, because while we can see why Daisy would wish to return to the rock-steady loyalty of Benjamin, it's unclear what he feels about her other than a regard (she's certainly lovely enough). We are told in rather soggy voice-over narration (spread throughout the film) that Daisy is "the most beautiful person I'd ever seen", but that's all we'll get.
And so it goes, for nearly three hours. We cut frequently, and irritatingly, back to a modern-day hospital in New Orleans, where a dying Daisy asks her daughter (Julia Ormond) to read to her from Benjamin's diary as Hurricane Katrina pounds on the windows. There's something being said in these scenes about regret and the passage of time, but the appealing Ormond's character is one-note, and Blanchett seems nearly suffocated under pounds of old age makeup. It's from this diary whence springs Benjamin's narration, but, as Mr. Roth pointed out, Gump this ain't. Suffice it to say that the budget is up there on screen as we go on this strange trip through the twentieth century with Brad Pitt as our guide. A possibly unintentional (I doubt it) laugh arises mid-film when Benjamin finally reaches something around Pitt's own age. He strides into a garage in the mid-50's, decked out in leather jacket and shades, and whips a tarp off a motorcycle, on which he speeds out to the harbor to do some bare-chested sailing on a boat he builds himself (the shades remain on his head). It's a knowing wink to the wish-fulfillment of the casting - who wouldn't want their old crotchety husband to get younger and younger until they looked like Brad Pitt? - and a clever way to underscore the underlying tragedy of the situation. Sure, he looks like Brad Pitt in "Fight Club", "Se7en", "Thelma & Louise", but eventually he's going to look like Brad Pitt in "Cutting Class", and then Brad Pitt in seventh grade, and finally Brad Pitt as a toddler, and that's not so sexy.
Pitt does a fine job. It's a pity that Fincher, who has used him to such great effect twice before, didn't let him cut loose. Instead this is his most low-key performance since Meet Joe Black, in which he played Death, who was really just a nice young man curious about the world. Come to think of it, that's pretty much all that Benjamin Button is, and, if nothing else, he knows more about death than just about anybody around. Too bad that a film that means to affirm life turns out to be rather lifeless.
Banlieue 13 (2004)
well worth the $10 - particularly the opening
If you see the poster for Banlieue B13, you've got a pretty good idea of what the movie is all about: ripped Frenchmen dodging and twisting their way through a concrete environment, exchanging gunfire with crimelords and innumerable goons, all for the sake of a pretty girl and the salvation of...the entire city of Paris. Okay. Given that the man behind this lunacy is "French Spielberg" (or perhaps Jerry Bruckheimer) Luc Besson, you may be forgiven for supposing that this film is pretty much a cartoon, but unlike such tired hackwork like the Transporter or XXX films, in which it's all about the star and how cool he looks, in this movie it's all about looking cool, regardless of who's doing it. Wisely putting attitude before depth in a film of this nature goes a long way to making it work.
The story, therefore, is necessarily simple: in France of the near future, the worst part of town (Banlieue B13) is walled off and given over to the rule of crimelords and their veritable armies of paid guns. Leito (David Belle), lives with his sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) in pretty much the only "clean" apartment block in the neighborhood, but even he can't escape the pervasive activities of drug kingpin Taha (Bibi Naceri), who rules over B13 with an iron fist (he's the sort of boss who will blow away his own men at the drop of a hat if displeased). For no reasons that are explained Leito incurs the wrath of Taha, who sends a hit squad to take him out.
The first sequence of the film, therefore, consists of a chase scene, and what a chase it is: for Leito, like pretty much everyone else in the film, is a master of parkour, the French extreme activity that involves vaulting like a flying squirrel over walls, fences, and very small windows, all while throwing punches and looking supercool. It's all familiar to anyone who's watched any Jackie Chan movie, but nonetheless delivers on a purely visceral level unlike anything in films like the Matrix. There, it's all about doing the dance flawlessly - it's not real, so Keanu Reeves never has to break a sweat or slip on a wet patch. But in Banlieue 13, folks sweat, slip and scramble all over the place (and broken ankles do occur). And it's all done with nary a computer effect in sight, which makes it all the more impressive.
But to continue. Taha wants revenge on Leito, so he grabs his sister. Leito storms the place and turns the tables on Taha, ultimately presenting him to the local police. However, they're clearing out - the government has finally given up on B13, and Taha's allowed to go free. Not only that, they arrest Leito. Not only that, they let Taha leave with Lola as a hostage. Now it's personal.
Flash forward six months. A top cop, Damien (Cyril Rafaelli), conveniently also a master of parkour, is assigned to recover a recently stolen nuke from Taha's compound. And to do it, they'll give him a partner, someone who knows B13 like the back of his hand. That's right, they give him Leito. Together these two will take on an entire army of thugs to disarm the nuke (which is on a 24 hour timer!) and rescue Lola (who's been made into a junkie and literally kept on a leash!), all while looking supercool. I have used that word a lot with good reason.
Banlieue B13 is more or less a rehash of John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, replacing the police with two twisty guys. As with that film, there's some mild political overtones to the proceedings - this whole nuke business smells fishy, as if the government, who has pulled up stakes in B13, isn't overtly concerned that Damien ACTUALLY disarm it...perhaps a social problem gone in one fell swoop, as it were. The script doesn't care all that much, nor are the actors of the sort who really act so much as say what's necessary to get them to the next kickass action scene. Instead, whatever message the film has is merely icing on the cake. No, scratch that - this film isn't deep or rich enough to be a cake. It's icing on a pan of brownies. With chocolate chips in them. Chocolate chips that can leap from a second story balcony onto concrete and then deliver a jaw-shattering roundhouse, all in the same movement. Sounds good to me.