Friday, August 29, 2008
Vicky Thunder Pants (or, three movie reviews)
The most interesting part of Vicky Cristina Barcelona is that we as viewers experience the film and its events as a trifle, which is the opposite of how the two main characters see things. For Vicky and Cristina, this was a life-changing summer and things were never quite the same again. For the audience, we realize that both girls are basically just flaky and worthless and thus are by far the least interesting things in the movie. Well, that's not quite true, I guess Vicky's fiance and Kevin Dunn's character are less interesting, but they're at least supposed to be dull by design in order to give their wives a chance to be so dissatisfied. Dunn's character's name is Mark, which was troubling from a personal standpoint. Am I crazy, or are there very few heroic Marks in films? This might be a topic for a future blog.
The reason we the people see VCB as a trifle is because this is how things seem to the two real main characters (at least in terms of audience sympathy), Juan Antonio and Maria Elena. One cannot help but see the movie as simply one in a series of episodes in the forever-ongoing drama between the couple, and frankly, given the charisma exuding from Bardem and Cruz, I would've rather seen a few more of those episodes. You have to love how Javier Bardem goes from playing the mop-haired Anton Chigurh to, essentially, the coolest man to ever live. How long do you think it took him to accept this role? "Ok Javier, I'd like you for the role of the suave artist who beds three different beautiful women in the space of 90 minutes...hello? Hello?" Woody couldn't finish his pitch because Bardem had dropped the phone and raced off to the set, leaving a Javier-shaped cloud of dust in his wake like in an old cartoon. You immediately buy into Juan Antonio's attitude towards life and love while, conversely, both mocking Cristina for falling for it so shallowly and mocking Vicky for taking such a stereotypically prudish turning-up-of-the-nose to it. Rebecca Hall, btw, got to play the traditional Woody Allen role of "The Character That Would Be Woody If He Was Acting In This Movie." This was a particularly light example of this phenomenon because, as you may have noticed, Woody Allen isn't a beautiful twentysomething woman, but still, you'll notice a Woody character in most of Allen's films. Notable recent examples include Will Ferrell in Melinda And Melinda, and Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity. While Rebecca Hall didn't exactly set the world on fire with her performance, at least she did a better job than Kenneth "I Am Jon Lovitz's Actor Character" Branagh.
But, the bottom line is, you resent Vicky and Cristina for being such posers in the magical Barcelona in the movie and basically want to just get to the fireworks factory, a.k.a. Juan Antonio and Maria Elena. They're basically a sexy, Spanish, insane version of George and Gracie. I wanted to see more of them, particularly Maria Elena. I hadn't heard much about VCB going into it, but I had heard that Penelope Cruz gave a hilarious, scene-stealing performance that was getting Oscar buzz. Maria Elena is built up for the entire first half of the movie as this wild force of nature, and while what Cruz delivers is indeed pretty great, she's only on-screen for about 10 minutes. She has the one awesome scene where she rants at Cristina while Juan Antonio (who up to this point had been the definition of cool) is meekly reduced to repeatedly asking her to speak English, but after that, we see far too little of Maria Elena. As I said, an entire movie about these two would be much appreciated, though I'm not sure if Allen is quite the man to make it. Someone get Pedro Almodovar on the phone.
In summation, VCB is pretty middling Woody Allen. If Allen's filmography was the White Album, this movie is Why Don't We Do It In The Road. This is actually kind of ironic, given that the road is one of the few locations where the characters don't have sex. The movie's other big selling point is that after seeing it, you will want to hop on a plane to Barcelona so fast that Air Canada may have to sedate you in order to not disrupt the other passengers. I kind of love how it took Woody 30 years of making movies before he discovered that he could shoot films outside of New York. If he had gotten to Europe sooner, he could've gotten in on the whole underage-wife thing a lot earlier.
Tropic Thunder is pretty amazing, though it will take a few more viewings before we can answer the burning question of 'was it funnier than Zoolander?' It's a close call. Zoolander had Billy Zane, walkoffs and using black lung as a punchline. Then again, Tropic Thunder had panda-killing, a grown man tossing a small child off of a bridge, and Tobey Maguire as a bi-curious monk. Yow.
What may eventually cinch it for Tropic Thunder is Robert Downey Jr., who gives one of the funniest performances I've ever seen. He is just so completely into it that you can't help but laugh at every word that comes out of his mouth. The weird thing is, the character is kind of a contradiction --- Kirk Lazarus is supposed to be this intense actor who gets deep into character in his films, but yet, throughout the film, he's still Kirk Lazarus talking about acting and the real world, but just Kirk adopting the manner of a rugged black Vietnam vet. I guess script-wise, one of the major three actors (Downey, Stiller, Black) had to be the semi-voice of reason, but otherwise, it would've made more sense to have Kirk so deep into character that he didn't even acknowledge the fact that he was in a movie. I guess this was all a moot point since Downey was so funny, and plus then we wouldn't have gotten the scene where he warns Stiller about the dangers of going 'full retard' into roles.
My rave review here may have been influenced by the fact that I saw the movie in a packed house that laughed at pretty much everything for 90 minutes. That sort of environment (especially when watching a comedy) definitely plays a factor. In fact, the audience provided a laugh in and of itself --- when Tom Cruise makes his first appearance, I laughed both at his character, and at the crowd's en masse slow realization that holy crap, that's Tom Cruise. I always wonder, when I see on Cribs how some famous person has a personal movie theatre installed in their home, do they bring in large groups of friends to fill the place out? Otherwise, they're losing a lot of the cinematic experience by just sitting by themselves with their feet up, smoking a big cigar like Sideshow Bob watching an Ernest movie.
The story of how I came to see The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants II: Pants Harder is probably more entertaining than my review will be. Ok, so, basically, my friend Aron and I were going to see Tropic Thunder and we invited along our friend Lori as well. Lori said she was on the fence about going, but asked what theatre and show we were seeing and said she might meet us there. So, I head downtown to pick up tickets (by the way, this was on Tropic Thunder's opening night), only to be told that the last two screenings were sold out. Uh oh. So I called Aron and hastily arranged to pick him up and haul ass to another theatre, where we just managed to get into a packed house.
Now, as you'll notice here, we didn't exactly tell Lori about this. I would've done it myself except apparently her phone was on the fritz, so calling was out of the question. Aron fortunately was able to send her a Facebook message that got to her just before she left for the theatre and got stood up, so in the end, everyone ended up winning. Well, I guess except Lori, who didn't get to see Tropic Thunder, but that leads to the next night. The two of us were chatting on MSN and I made some comment that I owed her a movie, to which she immediately brought up seeing Traveling Pants as I suddenly realized the gravity of my mistake. I then compounded things by begging off driving into town for the 6:40 show at the theatre a block away from her house since I wouldn't make it in time (it was 6:30 at the time of our chat, I stand by my claim --- I'm not Nigel Mansell, people) and instead proposed that she take the streetcar to the stop near my building, upon which I'd drive us into Etobicoke for the 7:25 show.
Now, those of you with even a basic knowledge of Toronto geography will see the flaw in my plan. I was counting on a streetcar to get halfway across the city in a pretty condensed period of time, especially given that my place is still a 5-10 minute drive to the Etobicoke theatre depending on traffic. So poor Lori ended up spending a good half-hour on the streetcar, all the while cursing me under her breath. As god as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly....and that it was no more than a 20-minute ride from Queen/Spadina down to my Queensway pad. I take that route all the time back home from the ballpark, though now that I'm actually writing it down, it occurs to me that I'm taking the streetcar at night when there's no traffic, whereas she rode it during rush hour. Huh.
Anyway, the upshot of it is that we didn't make the 7:20 show, and I ended up driving back downtown with Lori to attend the late show at (you guessed it) the theatre a block away from her house. The mood of the car ride was similar to the one that followed Homer forgetting to pick up Bart from soccer practice, except that at least I didn't spill ice cream on Lori's head. And that, my friends, is the sordid tale of how I (a heterosexual male) ended up seeing the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants II: The Legend of Curly's Pants.
What the hell am I even supposed to say about the movie? To paraphrase Dennis Green, it was what I thought it was. The girls all learned important life lessons, they dated guys with rather improbable abdominal muscles and in the end, they all remained the very best of friends. The main dramatic point of the film was (hold onto your hats) when the pants were lost in Greece by Alexis Bledel's vindictive little sister. Holy. Fucking. Shit. Such villainy has rarely been seen on the big screen. The Joker wasted a lot of time blowing up hospitals when he could've really gotten Batman's goat simply by losing his pants in a foreign country. Maybe that's a DVD extra --- Batman soaring through the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, all the while using his night-vision goggles to scan the streets for any sign of the Bat-trousers.
Some basic flaws.....
* Alexis Bledel, a.k.a. the whitest girl ever, was supposed to be from a Greek background. You would've had an easier time convincing me that Robert Downey Jr. was actually black. Or that Heath Ledger actually descended from a long line of clowns.
* Bledel's character, an art student, dates the guy who's the nude model in her class. First of all, the guy looked sort of like Derek Jeter, so I immediately hated him. Second, if you're the nude model, isn't it a pretty big risk to date one of the people you're posing in front of? I mean, keeping your concentration as a nude model must be hard enough, but when the person you're intimate with is right there in front of you, doesn't that increase your chances of....uh....certain body parts 'breaking the pose,' shall we say? Unless the guy actually was Jeter and thus could more easily be absorbed in the guy trick of thinking about baseball.
* America Ferrera's mother is played by Rachel Ticotin, best known as Arnold's love interest in Total Recall but to me, she'll always be the cop from Falling Down, one of my personal choices as one of the most underrated movies of the 90's. With this vast background, ergo, I had trouble believing Ticotin as just an average suburban mom. For example, when she was giving birth, her eyes didn't even pop out of her head like when she and Arnold were trapped outside the space station in the zero-gravity environment.
* In other hilarious casting news, Blake Lively's archeology professor was Shohreh Aghdashloo, best known to most as the matriarch of the evil Araz family in season four of 24. This is the problem when someone is best-known (at least to me) as a villain, especially one as memorable as Dina Araz --- it's hard to suddenly flip the switch and accept them as a kindly teacher, no matter how good an actor they are. To this day, if I ran into the guy who played Buffalo Bill on the street, I'd probably punch him in the face and call the cops.
* Amber Tamblyn's character's boyfriend briefly dates Alexis Bledel's younger sister, the aforementioned pants-loser. He does this not out of spite or malice, but simply because he likes the younger sister and thinks nothing of the fact that his ex might be upset about it. Smooth. He further proves his worthlessness by not knowing how to properly apply a condom without breaking it, which causes his initial breakup with Amber in the first place. Seriously, what a douchebag. As a man, I was offended at this stereotypical portrayal of my gender. On the bright side, Bledel's sister at least looked more Greek, with eyebrows thicker than a Chekhov text.
* The loss of the pants is treated by the girls with DEFCON-1 seriousness. I mostly kept a look of vaguely bemused disdain on my face throughout the entire film, but I laughed out loud when one of the girls actually snapped, "Guys...we need to focus on the pants here." They actually drop everything and travel to Greece in order to look for them. Once they get there, they....well, they mostly just hang out. I guess they put up a few flyers. Maybe the DVD will have a deleted scene of Blake Lively walking through the streets yelling 'Here pants!'
* And finally, the basic conceit of the series, namely that one pair of pants could fit four women of distinctly different body types. There is not a woman on the planet that believes that such a garment would actually exist. You don't even see anything so outlandish in the Harry Potter books --- that's right, J.K. Rowling knows the score. The four girls and their single pair of pantaloons is the exactly inverse of my situation. I own four pairs of pants of ostensibly the same size, yet none fit in exactly the same way. Though if I ever lost one of them, you guessed it, I'd be off to Greece! And by Greece, I mean Mark's Work Warehouse.
In the end, Lori was entertained, if not by the movie so much as taking pleasure in watching me watch the movie. She explained to me how the plots of the movies actually differed from the books, since the plot of this film was largely taken from the fourth book in the series, and thus there's lots more to the story from the second and third installments. More Traveling Pants movies? Oh joy. I'll go and see one of those around the same time I see Rebecca Hall win an Oscar.