Published: Monday, 11 August 2008 23:00
The Traveling Pants series—first the books, and now the second movie—are kind of a Sex and the City for the early teen set. Four girls, four personalities, and their magical clothes. The difference is the Manhattan gang fetishizes Manolo Blahniks, while these Bethesda girls share a pair of jeans that somehow manage to fit all of them perfectly. The girls—shy Lena (Alexis Bledel, outgoing and athletic Bridget (Blake Lively), quirky Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) and scholarly Carmen (America Ferrera) are now two years older than the first movie and are finishing up their first year of college. When the summer begins, they gather together for the ritual of the pants: Each girl takes them on her travels for a week, then mails them to the next girl in the rotation. However, the threads (ha! Get it?) that bind the group together are beginning to fray. Different paths in life are making it difficult for them to stay as close as they once were, and communication is breaking down. Can the pants save them?
Actually, not really. As the pants travel from New York to Vermont to Turkey to Rhode Island, they illustrate how far the young women—for that’s what they are now—have drifted from one another. Eventually, though, pants power prevails.
The movie, directed by Sanaa Hamri, is a solid picture. It’s nice to see a movie targeted towards women and girls that isn’t consumer-driven (hey, the pants were bought at a secondhand store, so they don’t count), doesn’t patronize or insult its audience, and doesn’t have Getting a Boy as its major target (though boys do figure prominently, they’re not the end-all be-all of the story or the girls’ lives.) The film is less funny and emotionally resonant than the first, perhaps because the strongest performer—Ferrera—is given less to do, while the weaker Bledel and Lively get the major revelations. All the girls learn lessons: be confident in yourself, love people and let them love you, sometimes adults have problems that can’t be really solved, especially by children. The audience learns that Greece is pretty.
Because the girls are older, their problems and situations are, too. Two characters lose their virginities (one encounter is merely implied, while one is overtly stated, although not explicitly shown), with one on the bum end of a broken condom (although there’s a pregnancy scare, it’s a false alarm.) One character drinks, although we can assume she’s underage. There’s no cursing, although there’s an implied s-word when one girl takes a spill off a donkey. During Lena’s figure-drawing class there’s a nude male model, although you see no more than you would in a Calvin Klein ad.
In short, Traveling Pants is a good story with good performances that illustrates the power (and problems) of friendship with much more nuance and heart than might be expected.
Previews included The Duchess (which has a whole lot of smoochin’ and some bare skin), The Women (which has the b-word in the preview), and Nights in Rodanthe (which, frankly, just looks nauseating and we won’t be reviewing it because I bet it’s going to be terrible).
By Kristen Page-Kirby
Published: Tuesday, 19 August 2008 06:38
Because there aren’t enough toys on your floor, George Lucas has released a brand-new, feature-length, computer-animated Star Wars film. The Clone Wars is essentially Episode 2.5 of the series and, as such, unfolds amid the mind-numbing political science course of Episodes 1 through 3. But fear not—for those who’ve come for the starships and light sabers and cute little droids, The Clone Wars is no worse than, say, playing with your action figures on a spread-out copy of The New York Times.
The Cliffs Notes: The Separatists are the bad guys, with robot soldiers led by Sith Lord Count Dooku (voice of Christopher Lee). The good guys belong to the Galactic Republic, with cloned soldiers commanded by Jedi warriors Obi-wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor) and Anakin Skywalker (Matt Lanter), who will one day become bad guy Darth Vader. Our hero is a young girl named Ahsoka (Ashley Eckstein), a Jedi-in-training apprenticed to Anakin, who would rather not babysit. Both teacher and student are rash, impulsive types, and they butt heads and trade quips while on a mission to rescue the infant son of Jabba the Hutt (you heard me) from kidnappers.
Director Dave Filoni and his crew have created a unique visual style for their computer-generated characters; they look as if they’ve been carved out of wood rather than drawn with a pen (or mouse). The overall effect, while distinctive, is a bit arid—there’s little softness to even the softest moments. Unfortunately the dryness extends to some of the script. The tween-age Ahsoka is a charmer—her funky look, wry humor and ‘whatever’ tone of voice should draw in plenty of girls not yet sold on Star Wars. But Henry Gilroy’s screenplay is a call-and-response affair: something sarcastic, something sarcastic back, and so on. You can’t blame Gilroy, though; at some point, George Lucas just stopped caring what comes out of his characters’ mouths.
But the fun of the film isn’t in the chit-chat; it’s in the toys. The film’s action seems perfectly calibrated to the playful minds of it young audience. Battles and chases are relentless, imaginative and, at times, wildly fantastical. One representative scene has Republic forces fighting their way to cliff, then straight up it—walking tanks and robot drones blasting away at each other at 90-degree angles. Because, why not? I could swear I staged the same scenario up the side of my bed when I was six—it was awesome.
The PG rating comes with a little of everything. There is some bodily harm in the picture. When Jabba the Hutt sends bounty hunters to look for his son, only their severed heads return. Clones—who, despite their genetic similarity, have different names and personalities and haircuts) are shot, blown up or relieved of their heads as well. Adult language amounts to a single ‘damn’, though several aliens use the word ‘poodu’, which, as fans of the other movies will remember, translates most delicately as “manure”. Characters occasionally call their enemies ‘scum’, and—though I can’t be sure—I think I heard a dying robot say “Oh my God.” (The metaphysical implications of that will have to wait for another time.) In a seedy cantina, Ziro the Hutt, Jabba’s uncle, is seen enjoying smoke from some kind of water pipe, though he appears unimpaired. In the same scene the camera pans briefly past two bulbous alien heads leaning in for a kiss. (Shudder.)
So Star Wars: The Clone Wars may not be high drama. But if animated summer fun is what you want, then these are the droids you’re looking for.
There was a trailer for the latest installment of the ever-darkening Harry Potter series, featuring a couple of quick-and-scary moments—you may want to distract the young ones. The other previews were for The Express, a civil rights-era football drama; Yes Man, a new Jim Carrey movie for you to forget; and the animated sequel Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.
By Jared Peterson
Published: Monday, 25 August 2008 23:00
The House Bunny: Little Bunny Fool Fool
In The House Bunny, a raunchier take on the Legally Blond fairy tale, a wayward Playboy model stumbles onto higher education and teaches (and learns) a few lessons in style and substance on the way to happily ever after.
That was easy... Okay, let’s talk about something else.
The House Bunny really is that simple. Everything that is bound to happen happens—fast—and the film moves quickly and efficiently from A to B to C, with no new depths plumbed or angles explored.
The bunny in question is Shelley Darlingson (Anna Faris, so much better than this), a longtime resident of the fabled Playboy Mansion. Shelley is no sexpot, mind you; at Hugh Hefner’s never-ending sleepover she’s more eye candy than party favor. She’s sweet and obliviously optimistic, and having grown up an orphan she sees the mansion as a home and Hef, the bunnies and hangers-on as a surrogate family. But one bleary-eyed morning she receives a note telling her to vacate the premises. With a heavy heart (and what must have been a fairly light suitcase) she heads out into the fully-clothed world.
In no time, Shelley wanders onto a college campus and into a job as house mother to the girls of Zeta Alpha Zeta, the school’s lamest sorority. Zeta’s charmingly motor-mouthed chapter president, Natalie (Emma Stone, so much better than this), has the best interests of her socially inept sisterhood at heart. She sees Shelley as a kind of popularity tutor, someone who can turn their style around and help them reel in the boys. Can you say “makeover”?
With all deliberate speed the girls are hottified—which here means squeezed into baby doll clothes and doused with make-up and glitter—and they instantly draw the fawning attention of anonymous hordes of students. Shelley, meanwhile, turns her attention to a cute and kindly nursing home director named Oliver (Colin Hanks, so much better than this). She tries to ensnare him with her bunny tricks; when that fails, she resolves to impress him with some hastily conjured book-learnin’. (Prior to this there was nothing to suggest that the university offered classes.) Lessons are learned, bonds broken and reforged, and it all ends happily—with a rap and dance number. (Yep.)
In this movie, things progress exactly as you’d expect—no more and no less. The House Bunny might have made a decent comedy of sexual manners or knowing social commentary, but dozens of opportunities are set up and left behind. The Zeta girls are crudely drawn stereotypes of ‘uncoolness’ who nonetheless harbor no reservations about superficiality or the sport of boy-chasing—even the resident pierced-and-aggressive feminist folds like a card table after only a moment’s hesitation. No one really seems to be motivated by lust, either; characters dutifully go after whoever they’re supposed to.
Adult humor is the name of the game here. Profanity is used regularly and creatively. The f-word makes an appearance, as do plenty of b-words, uttered mostly by women to women. The sight gags are often crude: there’s one involving a metal-detector wand and a girl’s hidden piercings; another involves women punching each other in the breast. The nudity you ordered comes in the form of a shot of Shelley’s naked rear; otherwise, it’s midriffs and cleavage on parade throughout.
It may seem unsporting to criticize as dumb a film that wears its dumbness so openly. But what I walked away with was a sense that the filmmakers were just running down the clock. Taken as whatever you like—satire, fairy tale, escapist fun—The House Bunny isn’t even trying.
At an August 22 screening, the previews were: The Women (PG-13) starring Meg Ryan and other women; An American Carol (PG-13), a spoof picture from Airplane master-spoofer David Zucker; a teaser trailer for Marley and Me (not yet rated), based on the book; Nights in Rodanthe (PG-13), a romantic tear-jerker with Richard Gere and Diane Lane; and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (PG-13), seemingly a cross between Juno and any number of John Hughes films.
Published: Tuesday, 02 September 2008 03:05
Meet the Cretins
Disaster Movie gazes upward at the lowest common denominator
By Jared Peterson
In fairness, Disaster Movie is not a disaster—it achieves exactly what it was intended to. Namely, to methodically reference and ruthlessly skewer as many pop culture phenomena as possible in ninety minutes or less. Oh, and to be unremittingly gross.
Writer-directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer started this parody franchise in 2000 with Scary Movie, a surprise hit that took to task the already self-deprecating Scream films. Since then we’ve had three Scary Sequels and three additional efforts structured loosely around one cinematic genre or another. Here, a weak apocalyptic premise provides the context for a cavalcade of crude jokes, random sketches and spontaneous musical numbers.
One morning, stuff starts falling out of the sky. A young man named Will (Matt Lanter) has had a mystical dream that may hold the key to stopping the chaos, and so he sets off to prevent the end of the world, while trying to save the life and win the affections of his estranged girlfriend (Vanessa Minnillo). Along for the ride is his flustered friend Calvin (Gary ‘G-Thang’ Johnson) and an assortment of familiar stock and mock characters, who join the quest for a few goofy scenes and then are dispatched by flying clichés.
The filmmakers’ crosshairs scan the whole media landscape, moving far beyond the big-budget event films referred to in the title. (The film might well have been called Recent Movie.) Equal-opportunity offenders, they take pot shots at family flicks like Enchanted and Alvin and the Chipmunks as well as Oscar darlings Juno and No Country for Old Men. Also downrange are TV shows like “My Super Sweet Sixteen” and “Hannah Montana”, and media-fishbowl celebrities like Jessica Simpson and Justin Timberlake.
Okay, credit where it’s due. Very rarely the film wanders haplessly into something like actual satire. The scene featuring Hannah Montana, for instance, goes on way too long, but it still manages to capture the absurdity and transparent avarice of the Montana/Cyrus merchandising machine. And the ramblings of a surly pregnant teenager, modeled on Ellen Page’s character in Juno, accurately lampoon the depleting charm of that film’s overwritten dialogue. A few genuinely clever quips and quirks appear to have been improvised by the actors, several of whom are current or former cast members of “MadTV”. One player in particular, Nicole Parker, has impeccable comic timing and a bright and versatile singing voice which she uses to send up several of the past year’s most annoying songstresses.
That said, to call Disaster Movie "sophomoric’"is an insult to even the rudest sophomores. Bathroom humor is a major theme, though hardly the most disgusting—no bodily function goes unexamined. Dozens of base sexual references are dispensed with locker-room exuberance, and several people appear naked save for strategically placed props. Many characters die stupidly violent deaths—the Juno character’s demise is lengthy and particularly disturbing, and played for laughs the whole time. With regard to adult language, it’s easier to say what you don’t get: the f-word. (It’s bleeped a couple of times, but never heard.) Besides that, every offensive word, gesture or inference comes into play multiple times.
So [in my best movie trailer voice] “This summer, if you see only one film with rabid, foul-mouthed, man-eating chipmunks…”
Well, it’s your dime.
At an August 30 screening, the following previews were shown: Punisher: War Zone, a violent actioner based on a violent comic book; Max Payne, a violent actioner based on a violent video game; The Haunting of Molly Hartley, a supernatural thriller; My Best Friend’s Girl, a dirty romantic comedy with Jason Biggs and Kate Hudson (this trailer had an a-word and some vomiting); and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, a teen-ish romantic comedy.
Jared Peterson taught high school English and film in Fairfax County, Virginia, for several years. Currently he works as a freelance writer and dispenses free literary and film criticism to anyone who stands still long enough. Sample his work at proweirdo.blogspot.com.
Published: Monday, 08 September 2008 06:16
We scheduled Ballet Shoes, starring Emma Watson, to be our Movie Tuesday for this week. The fun part? It's not showing around here (since we don't get advanced screeners like "real" critics, we have to see the movies in the theaters like everyone else.) So...our bad. However, next week is a twofer: Jared Peterson reviews the animated Igor while Kristen Page-Kirby takes on the period bodice-ripper The Duchess, starring everyone's favorite pirate wench, Kiera Knightly. Sorry for the mix-up, and we'll make it up for you next week by being twice as nice.