Published: Wednesday, 08 October 2008 05:00
Nick and Norah spend a night in shuffle mode
By Jared Peterson
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist depicts a long night’s journey into day, with two teens roaming the streets of New York City and slowly surrendering to their perfect musical chemistry.
It’s strange that Nick and Norah didn’t meet sooner. Nick (Juno’s Michael Cera) is a sweet and beleaguered bass player who’s smarting from a recent breakup with Tris (Alexis Dziena), a pretty but wholly unpleasant girl from a neighboring high school. And Tris, it so happens, is friends with Norah (The 40 Year-Old Virgin’s Kat Dennings), a deeply-feeling doormat who plays den mother to her party-girl friends and adores Nick’s heartfelt mix CDs. One night in the city, Nick and his band cross paths with Norah and her pals, where they discover a common goal: to locate a secret performance by their favorite band. Still hung up in previous entanglements, Nick and Norah share stumbling small talk and deadpan banter, then set off in Nick’s barely functioning Yugo—a fitting metaphor budding companionship only a bump away from a breakdown. The rest of the evening is devoted to turning circles—around town in search of a rock show, and around the mounting signs of a match made in iTunes.
Nick and Norah is a love letter to New York City and its neo-punk scene. With locations and bands ripped from the pages of the Village Voice, it strives to capture the texture and soundscape of a sleepless night in lower Manhattan and environs. (One notable slip in authenticity is the absurdly providential parking the characters manage to find.) The writing is clever and knowing but not overwritten—like a Juno with age-appropriate turns of phrase and a measure of restraint. Especially praiseworthy, comically if not morally, is a subplot involving the drunken wanderings of Norah’s friend Caroline (played expertly by Ari Graynor) which rises above slapstick to become a pitch-perfect rendering of the vagaries of inebriation.
Oddly, in this tale of musical destiny, music has a more limited role than you might think. (Parents looking to learn more about their teenagers’ tastes may leave as clueless as they came.) Bands and songs are more often simply listed, rather than debated or discussed. And while music thrums in the background in nearly every scene, we never hear a full track, let alone witness the magic that happens when someone really listens. But a playlist is only part of the connection between Nick and Norah—what they really share is self-consciousness, sensitivity and a passion for something that promises deliverance from the ordinary.
The playlist of adult content here, though hardly infinite, is broad and liberal—the film unapologetically depicts the escapades of the young and unchaperoned. Many characters drink, swear and demonstrate a distressing familiarity with sex. There’s no nudity, but we’re afforded several glimpses of young ladies’ fine washables. One or two scuffles break out, with a head butt here and a sucker punch there. Nick and Norah, it should be said, are punk-rock goodie-goodies who embrace the music but eschew its traditional excesses. (This hard-core philosophy, it turns out, has a name—“straight edge”—and a surprisingly long history.) But they eventually consummate their union with a sweetly fumbling sexual experience that we don’t see—thanks to a respectfully wandering pan shot—but are forced to listen to. All told, unaccompanied teens may laugh; accompanied teens and their escorts will squirm.
At an October 4th screening, the following films were previewed: Death Note 2, a Japanese action film; The Uninvited, an evil stepmother thriller with the usually nice Elizabeth Banks; Role Models, a men-in-their-thirties-just-can’t-grow-up comedy; Confessions of a Shopaholic, based on the novels and starring designer shoes; The Haunting of Molly Hartley; a supernatural horror film (the preview has the requisite inhuman hands and faces popping suddenly into view); and Paul Blart: Mall Cop, a slapstick comedy with Kevin James.
Jared Peterson will overanalyze anything ya got, for a small fee. Sample some of his work below or at http://proweirdo.blogspot.com.
Published: Wednesday, 08 October 2008 03:00
Film Goes to the Dogs
Summing up the quality of Beverly Hills Chihuahua can be done thusly: a shrug, followed by “It’s not awful.”
It’s not. You could probably tell me the plot just based on the ads, but here it is anyway: Chloe (voiced by Drew Barrymore) is a pampered pup living with ultra-famous, ultra-rich cosmetics maven Viv (Jamie Lee Curtis). When Viv heads to Italy on a business trip, irresponsible niece Rachel (Piper Perabo) comes to dogsit. Then she goes to Mexico with friends, as you do, dog in tow. Chloe gets separated from Rachel, gets dognapped and, in a strangely dark turn of events, is enlisted in a dogfight. With help from German shepherd Delgado (voice of Andy Garcia), she and her newly-freed mutt companions attempt to find their way home—Beverly Hills for Chloe, and other loving families for the rest of the dogs. While Chloe and Delgado make a run for the border, Rachel searches for her with Papi (voiced by George Lopez) and his owner, Viv’s landscaper Sam (Colombian telenovela star Manolo Cardona, who is a real treat to watch. His acting isn’t bad, either.)
Once you get past the freaky dogs-that-can-talk element, the adventure continues in an entirely unadventurous way. The film occasionally touches on more serious subplots: the aforementioned dogfights, plus a recurring theme that Chloe has forgotten her roots and that’s what makes her powerless—not her spoiled upbringing. This gets resolved when she ends up in a City of Chihuahuas (not kidding), where their leader makes an actually rousing speech. “We are not fashion accessories,” he says. “We were not made to wear funny hats and ride around in purses.” The point that dogs aren’t decorations and should be treated like, well, animals, is one that should have been made long ago.
Clever moments are few and far between, though. The one that stands out most is the coyote that brings “tagless dogs” over the border from Mexico to the U.S. is, in fact, a literal coyote. That’s kind of funny.
The film is so family-friendly that it’s tough to find anything objectionable. The canine villain, El Diablo (voice of Edward James Olmos), is a menacing Doberman, all teeth and snarls. Guns are pulled (by the good guys) at one point. Chloe is threatened by El Diablo at various points (though no bites are exchanged) and a mountain lion at another, although the scariest part of that scene is the horrific CGI where it’s pretty clear that the lion is nowhere near the dog. It’s possibly on another planet, in another universe, in a different branch of the space-time continuum. There’s also a moment where Chloe appears to be dead (spoiler alert: she’s not!) The Right Said Fred song “I’m Too Sexy” plays at one point, but that’s all the nookie that appears in the film—Rachel even sends a date off without a good-night kiss.
We can discuss later what it means for the state of the American film and the American filmgoer that Beverly Hills Chihuahua was the number-one box-office draw this weekend. But this short, tightly-edited little piece of fluff is as innocuous as cotton candy: nutritionally unsound, but sweet enough.
At the reviewed showing, the following previews ran: High School Musical III, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Marley and Me (Awwww! Puppy!), The Tale of Desperaux and Bedtime Stories.
Kristen Page-Kirby is the editor of Chesapeake Family Magazine. You can read her blog about first-time motherhood at ChesapeakeFamily.com/newmommy .
Published: Tuesday, 14 October 2008 05:41
Keep On Converting
The Express highlights a life spent going the distance
By Jared Peterson
Note: This review contains plot spoilers.
Early in The Express, we learn what Ernie Davis is made of. A child of nine or ten, he and his cousin are walking along the railroad tracks, collecting bottles for the refunds. From nowhere, a mob appears—boys their age, all white, enraged by a breach of racial boundaries. Threatened and outnumbered, Ernie’s best answer is to run. But rather than away, he chooses to go toward and through. At full tilt, he parts the mob. A hundred yards gone, home free, he allows a smile.
Ernie and his family have watched with excitement and pride the careers of African-American barrier breakers like Jackie Robinson and Jim Brown, a running back for an integrated squad at Syracuse University. Inspired, Ernie excels in several sports, football especially; by his senior year in high school he is sought after by dozens of colleges, among them Syracuse. Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) comes bearing an offer, accompanied by the legendary Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson), who convinces Davis that the coach can provide opportunities and challenges that may propel him to an NFL career. At Syracuse, speed and determination earn Davis his moniker, “The Express”. But double standards and ingrained racism threaten to break his stride.
The Express lends insight to its corner of history by bringing us with Davis and his African-American teammates on forays outside of the uneasy tolerance of a Northern university and into the institutionalized discrimination and virulent racism of a pre-civil-rights South. These are truly ‘away’ games, bringing them through the looking glass and down into a gauntlet of hatred. They enter arenas as bottles, trash and racial epithets are hurled their way. They suffer unsportsmanlike conduct and far worse from players and officials. More than the Orangemen’s tolerance (which is tenuous at times), it is Davis’ talent that inflames and infuriates, and he struggles to maintain his composure and his pride and just win some games.
There are many lessons here, each one powerful and necessary; but with such a full curriculum, I’m afraid there’s little room for subtlety. The atmosphere of cruelty and hatred is generated with remarkably little dialogue from its perpetrators. Opposing teams employ the standard brutes, their linemen grunting and snarling like fat, armored pit bulls. As tackles crunch and music swells and gushes, our view changes somewhat randomly—from high-speed to slo-mo, crystal clarity to grainy haze. And the coach’s halftime speech succeeds in spite of some well-worn clichés. But all told, the movie gets you where you need to go. A bob, a weave, and it’s nothin’ but daylight.
Nearly all the violence is on the field, but much of it is offsides: late hits and pummelings and more than one bench-clearing brawl. There is swearing in the film—a bit of everything, uttered both in anger and in frustration. But some of the language is searing in its malice—horrible racial slurs, including the n-word, which should rightly make viewers wince. Children, accompanied or not, may benefit from a debriefing about the history (and the reality) of hate speech.
The Orangemen went undefeated in the fall of 1960 and bested the University of Texas in the Cotton Bowl—Davis was that game’s MVP. He became the first African-American to be awarded the Heisman Trophy, and joined his hero Jim Brown on the roster of the Cleveland Browns. Tragically, he would never play a down; diagnosed with leukemia, Ernie Davis died at the age of twenty-three. The Express compresses, but never diminishes, the tremendous impact of his short life.
At an October 12th screening, these previews were shown (all titles not yet rated unless otherwise specified): Fast & Furious, another in the fast, furious racing franchise; The Tale of Despereaux, animated adventures of a very brave mouse; The Day the Earth Stood Still, proof that Keanu Reeves will not rest until he has absolutely nothing to do in a movie; Seven Pounds, a good-Samaritan drama with Will Smith and Rosario Dawson; Inkheart (PG), an intriguing-looking fantasy based on a series of young-reader novels; and The Soloist, a triumph of the human spirit starring Robert Downey, Jr., and Jamie Foxx.
Jared Peterson rushed for no yards in high school. He writes good, though—sample his work below or at http://proweirdo.blogspot.com.
Published: Monday, 20 October 2008 23:00
(Rated PG-13) Based on the bestselling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning.) In 1964, Lily lives with her not-so-nice father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany) and their housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson). Like every female teenage protagonist of every movie ever, Lily doesn’t fit in. However, while coming-of-age stories have our heroine feeling left out thanks to the wrong clothes or glasses, Lily is attempting to find a place in a home where kneeling on grits sprinkled on a linoleum floor is the preferred punishment.
When Rosaleen and Lily head to town so Rosaleen can register to vote, there’s trouble. Stopped by a group of white men, Rosaleen pours her tobacco juice over one man’s shoes and is beaten and arrested. She’s taken to the hospital, but not for healing—it’s because it will be easier for the men to return to get her and administer their final punishment. Lily rescues Rosaleen, and, lured by the name of a town written on a picture that belonged to Lily’s mother, they end up at the house owned by three African-American sisters: August, June and May Boatwright. (Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo, respectively.) She spends a summer working on their bee farm, falling for neighbor Zach (Tristan Wilds) and confronting every teenage girl’s secret fear: that she is unloveable.
Every performance is solid, the story is compelling, but the film never quite gels to deliver the knockout performances that it might. Part of it, weirdly, is the costuming. All of the women—Fanning and Latifah in particular—are dressed in a way that they would fit in at almost any mall in the country. This is problematic because it makes the movie feel too contemporary; since race is a major theme, it can make audiences think the racism in the film is the same as racism today. So when Zach is kidnapped as retribution for sitting with Lily in a movie theater, modern audiences might assume that of course he’ll come home safely—when that’s simply not the case in 1964 (or today, really, but that’s beside the point.) Moreover, the use of modern music on the soundtrack is distracting and further jerks you out of the time period of the story. Perhaps the director wanted to make the story timeless—what she forgot was the story of a motherless teenage girl trying to find where she belongs is inherently timeless. It’s called a fairy tale. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, plus some TV credits) didn’t trust her story to reach modern audiences.
Although the story treads some familiar ground in terms of “white girl/boy/woman/man learns valuable lesson from wise African-American teacher” (see: The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Green Mile), the film never falls fully into cliché. It looks like it’s going to in the beginning, but saves itself with moments steeped in realism and powerful performances.
There is mild profanity—the b-word and the a-word are bandied about. The N-word is common and is uttered by both white and black characters. There is some kissing, but that’s it; smoking and drinking is at a minimum. There’s some minor double-entendre with the southern delicacy known as “candle salad”—a banana stands up in a pineapple ring with a maraschino cherry pinned on top. Channel your inner 12-year-old boy and giggle about what it looks like. There is violence, both graphic and implied, and a handgun makes an appearance. One major character commits suicide and you see the dead body.
The Secret Life of Bees is a good story well told. But it never steps into transcendence, and it had the possibility to do so. But teenage girls and their moms should find some common ground in a timeless tale that just happens to take place in 1964.
At an October 17 screening, the following movies were in previews: Milk (about the first openly gay politician; rated R); Revolutionary Road (about Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet yelling at each other; also rated R); Seven Pounds (not yet rated; Will Smith changes lives, or something), Nothing Like the Holidays (PG-13; pretty much looks like My Big Fat Latino Christmas).
Published: Tuesday, 28 October 2008 03:02
High School Influential
Disney's ubiquitous franchise takes a (final?) bow
by Kristen Page-Kirby and Jared Peterson
Kristen Page-Kirby, editor of Chesapeake Family magazine, and writer Jared Peterson are the regular movie critics on ChesapeakeFamily.com. They are also friends who enjoy making fun of things. When it was announced that High School Musical 3 would hit theaters (the previous two were television movies), Page-Kirby and Peterson decided that the temptation to mock together was just too great, so they teamed up over gchat to review the jazz-handsy juggernaut. Below is the transcript:
KPK: Want to tell our tens of readers the plot?
JBP: Having not seen the first two films, I'll do my best.
KPK: I can help fill in the holes
JBP: The whole High School Musical gang is back, this time wrestling with the trials and tribulations of their senior year. Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) are still the perfect couple, but they have to wrestle with the prospect of a long-distance relationship and which dreams to follow as they move on to college.
KPK: Oooh, you got all the actors' names and everything
JBP: I have cable--I watch The Soup. This is not my first rodeo. Anyway, the big musical is being written by the seniors themselves, based on their feelings about the big choices on the horizon. And, of course, it's also about the pure and chaste love of Troy and Gabriella, and the prospect of the best years of their lives being ahead of them. Naturally, I'm horribly bitter about the whole thing.
KPK: Heh. You forgot that the evil Sharpay returns, trying to steal the best songs from Troy and Gabriella. She does that in every movie, and she'd get away with it, too, if it weren't for those meddling kids
JBP: Yes, it's business as usual for all the characters (or so I take it).
KPK: Did you get the sense that they were trying to set up High School Musical 4 and kind of crowning a new generation?
JBP: With Sharpay going to the local college and returning next year to "help run the theater department." Sequel!
KPK: In terms of the first two, this is probably the strongest. It's got the same wholesomeness (Troy and Gabriella never kissed in the first movie, and only kissed in the second after some pretty over-the-top, yet funny, interruptions.)
JBP: Right. The kiss spoilers consist mainly of self-restraint here.
KPK: But I liked that the message has grown with the characters. The first one was pretty much about how--gasp--a boy can be an athlete AND be into theater. The second one was about how you should stay true to your friends and not sell your soul for money. And this one is about how what your parents want and what YOU want may be two different things. And about how a boy can be an athlete and into theater.
JBP: Heh heh
KPK: Which is, of course, a timeless lesson
KPK: I have to say I was never bored during the entire movie
JBP: Me neither. Even though there were no big surprises, the movie got on with its business, took you along for the ride.
KPK: Right. It was tightly written--although I kind of wish the music served a more traditional function in moving the story along, like it does in "real" musicals
JBP: And I found--to my surprise, though it may have been a forgone concluson to fans of the other films--that the whole thing was executed with a remarkable dignity.
KPK: I know! I think the performances really helped that--Zac Efron in particular has kind of the earnest cheesiness that is necessary in musical theater. And I mean "earnest cheesiness" as a compliment
JBP: Yes, of course. The performers are all quite talented (I always respect films in which the actors have to know how to DO things--sing, dance, feel). And they all perform with a refreshing unselfconsciousness.
KPK: In fact, the whole movie has that feel. Like the scenes in the High School Musical within High School Musical, the props are clearly intended to look "handmade"--the limo that takes them to "prom" is cardboard, etc. The "sets" actually look like something high school kids might have made. Really TALENTED high school kids, but still.
JBP: Great use of space in the film. Stage sets, the absurdly spacious high school, especially the outdoor spaces.
KPK: The rooftop scene? Fantastic. And the song was good, too
JBP: The scene on the roof, with the mountains (of Utah, standing in for those of New Mexico)
KPK: HAHAHAHA! We think the same
JBP: The graduation, too. Excellent use of natural light.
KPK: I also noticed a couple of very clever things. During Troy's Big Insanity Number,there was a pretty clear allusion to "Footloose." Which I enjoyed. I also have "Sharpay is wearing Carol Channing's wig for some reason" in my notes
JBP: Sharpay got off a clever Bob Fosse reference.
JBP: One for the old school theater geeks. (Peterson raises hand)
KPK: The thing is, the movie doesn't pander to its audience. However, I'm pretty sure its audience isn't ACTUAL high school seniors
JBP: Absolutely. There were all 2nd to 6th graders in at my screening
KPK: Which, oh, these kids are going to go to high school, and try out for the musical, and their little hearts are going to be crushed into bits when they're cast as Villager #7 in Fiddler on the Roof.
JBP: I was taken--as an adult viewer who, again, has cable--by the fact that this is a high school world that is refreshingly desexualized. Such a welcome departure from, like, everything else in the entire world.
KPK: I have in my notes "odd to have a teen movie that's not all about getting laid.” Even though this isn't, strictly speaking, a teen movie
JBP: But desexualized thoughtfully. It never, ever seemed forced. That is a genuine filmmaking achievement.
KPK: But to see high schoolers not having sex, not drinking, not smoking--even nearly everyone that appeared on a bike wore a helmet--it was well done. They created this entirely sanitized world that's totally unrealistic, but you buy it, because everyone associated with/in the film seems to buy it
JBP: Yes. It's important to note that no film in the history of cinema has ever portrayed high school realistically.
KPK: Although, let's take a moment to look at anything that might give parents pause. I've got boys in towels with no shirts, a flash of dance panties in the last number and Troy and Gabriella are in her room alone at one point
JBP: Yes. Distressingly low-slung towels.
JBP: And Sharpay's big entrance, owing partly to the director's attempt t keep her face hidden for a bit, focusses on her body, to include her short skirt. In one shot, her swishing purple leather enveloped backside fills the frame.
KPK: You know what I like best? Or almost best? That Gabriella is smart. And it's not played for laughs. She's smart, she's pretty, she unfortunately sings through her nose, but she dates a really cute guy who LIKES that she's smart. Also, the heavier girl who's a minor character but can really dance--she's a cheerleader? It's like, "Hey! Some people in high school don't look like they belong on Gossip Girl!"
JBP: It is what it is. Sweet--treacly, even--but a well-executed and perfectly appropriate entertainment.
KPK: Yes indeedy. Oh! I meant to say that I thought the last number was kind of weak and too meta for its own good
JBP: Yes. Plus the commencement scene...Drawn out too long.
KPK: Well, yeah. But I think you were supposed to use that time for dancing in the aisles
JBP: And who picks their major, let along announces it, while still in high school?
KPK: I was Spanish and pre-law! And ended up being English and Poli Sci
JBP: I was theater to start. But again, no way in hell I was announcing that to anyone.
KPK: YOU WERE A THEATER MAJOR? I MOCK YOU
JBP: For nine seconds.
KPK: That's ok. I was three credits short of a theater minor
JBP: I was English. 3 credits shy of an Anthropology minor.
KPK: I did kind of want an American Graffitti-style update, about how Troy and Gabriella broke up 7 weeks after arriving at school, because YOU KNOW THAT'S WHAT HAPPENED
JBP: That's what sequels are for.
KPK: So, to sum up?
JBP: Again---no film, ever, has escaped teen stereotypes completely.
KPK: It didn't suck. I didn't hate it. Zac Efron is cute. I now have something to talk about my niece with at Thanksgiving
JBP: So it's not a wash. You came out ahead. That's all you can ask these days.
KPK: But I think it was better than "We thought it would suck, and it didn't!"
It was actually kind of...good on its own merits
JBP: I went in with very low expectations, and came out pleasantly surprised.
KPK: Previews, at a 2:20 showing at Annapolis Mall, I had "Bedtime Stories," "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," "Coraline," "Despereaux" and the "Bolt" meta-trailer
JBP: I had Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (PG), an animated wildlife movie; The Tale of Despereaux (not yet rated), an animated mouse movie; Bolt (PG) an animated dog movie; Marley and Me (not yet rated), a live-action dog movie; Bedtime Stories (not yet rated), a live-action family movie; and Paul Blart: Mall Cop (PG), a live-action doofus movie.
Kristen Page-Kirby is the editor of Chesapeake Family. Jared Peterson writes at proweirdo.blogspot.com.