Friday, April 25, 2008

'Sarah Marshall' is funny and just a bit more

Writer, director, producer Judd Apatow has become a branding name like Mel Brooks or Woody Allen in their heydays. That is an almost sure guarantee of high-quality comedy. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” the latest comedy featuring Apatow’s name in the credits, is one of the most laugh-out-loud funny romantic comedies to come out in years.

Apatow, the writer and producer of the short lived but well-regarded TV shows “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” has been bouncing around Hollywood for years, but in the last three years he has carved out a niche that many will try to duplicate, but few are likely to capture.

Since 2005, Apatow has written and directed “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” co-written and produced “Walk Hard” and produced “Superbad,” “Drillbit Taylor,” “Talladega Nights” and now “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” His name is attached to numerous forthcoming films from comedy super stars like Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler.

Of the above films, “Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and “Superbad” and “Sarah Marshall” are connected by a repertoire troupe of performers and writers that go back to Apatow’s TV days. Seth Rogen, who was a supporting player in “Virgin,” got upgraded to leading man status in “Knocked Up,” and Apatow helped Rogen’s screenplay for “Superbad” get made. Now it is Jason Segel's (a co-star of “Knocked Up”) turn to take center stage with “Sarah Marshall.” It is refreshing to see films with relative unknowns getting produced in the Hollywood system.

In “Sarah Marshall,” Segel stars as Peter, a composer of TV show theme music who is devastated when Sarah, his TV star girlfriend (Kristen Bell, “Heroes”) dumps him. In an attempt to get over Sarah he heads to Hawaii only to discover Sarah is there too with her new boyfriend, a lecherous rock star (British comic Russell Brand).

The staff of the Hawaiian resort takes pity on Peter and makes him a part of their extended family. A new possible love interest for Peter comes in the form of front desk manager Rachel (Milla Kunis, “That 70s Show.”)

On a level of plot there are few surprises here, but the approach and writing is fresh with unexpected moments. For example, there’s a surprisingly affective and honest scene where Sarah tells Peter exactly why she left him.

Be forewarned, this is definitely an R-rated comedy. The easily offended should stay away. At the same time, though, this isn’t a lowest-common-denominator type of film with non-stop bottom-of-the barrel humor. Too often films that employ sexual content for humor feel slimy and smarmy.

That is not the case with “Sarah Marshall.” As with “Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” there is a mix of vulgar humor with a sweetness you don’t normally expect from a raunchy comedy. This is what makes the Apatow brand special. These are films that appeal to both men and women for different reasons. It is “guy” humor with a heart that women can appreciate.

There are funny scenes aplenty, but to cite them would ruin the experience. That being said, the puppet rock opera Peter is writing on the side and some snarky parodies of crime shows such as "CSI" are a riot.

The cast is uniformly strong. There isn’t a weak link in the bunch. Segel, who wrote the screenplay, keeps Peter a likable, even lovable schmuck that the audience wants to root for. Kunis, who looked like she wasn't going to survive life after “That 70s Show,” is wonderful here with an assured mix of charm, beauty and comedic timing.

Bell also has a likable screen presence and makes Sarah a sympathetic character. Segel’s script deserves credit for not making Sarah into a one-dimensional heartless witch. Brand has a thankless role of playing the other guy, but clearly relishes playing the bad boy clichés.

Segel’s script takes the time to create funny characters out of bit roles that would normally be glossed over. Bill Hader (“Saturday Night Live,” “Superbad”) is a scene stealer as Peter’s stepbrother who is coaching him from afar via Web cam. Jonah Hill (“Superbad”), as a waiter who is obsessed with Brand’s rock star character, also earns some uncomfortable laughs, as does Jack McBrayer (“30 Rock”) as a newlywed uncomfortable with sex. Paul Rudd (“Knocked Up”) amuses as a very stoned surfing instructor.

In terms of pacing and tightness of story, “Sarah Marshall” may be the best of the Apatow bunch. Too often in the films Apatow directs, he lets scenes run too long with a group of characters clearly improvising their dialogue. “Sarah Marshall” director Nicholas Stoller keeps the film loose and fun. He lets the cast of well-written and well-played characters have space to play but keeps the film focused, and it is all the stronger for it.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Nine favorite baseball films

Temperatures are rising,the frozen tundra is all but gone, birds are chirping and the sultans of swing are back at it. Yes, spring, and perhaps more importantly, baseball, are here again. In honor of our national pastime, on deck are nine baseball film favorites to help fill the time between games.

“Fever Pitch” (2005)
Jimmy Fallon begins a relationship with Drew Barrymore, who struggles to compete with Fallon’s first love: the Red Sox. This remake of a little seen 1997 British comedy about an obsessive Arsenal soccer fan taps into a different sport and a different team, but proves to be no less observant about what it means to be a diehard sports fan. Directors the Farrelly Brothers had no idea when they started filming “Fever Pitch” that the Sox would reverse the curse that season, in fact the film was originally going to end with them losing, but destiny had a different plan and this is a fitting, hilarious tribute to a sport, a team and fandom.

“The Sandlot” (1993)
A sweet, good-natured movie about a group of kids playing ball in the 1950s that is equally enjoyable for kids and adults alike. The new kid on a backyard team doesn’t know much about baseball. He knows so little, in fact, that when the team needs a ball he swaps his step-dad’s ball signed by Babe Ruth. When the ball is hit over a fence the film becomes a riotous battle to get it back from a supposedly man-eating dog called The Beast. A fine young cast makes this an utterly charming piece of nostalgia.

“A League of Their Own” (1992)
A loving look at a brief, but important chapter in baseball history in which a women’s league was formed to fill the void left behind by the men who went to fight in World War II. Rich, well-written characters are ideally cast from top to bottom from the league’s star player Geena Davis to the league tramp Madonna to talent scout Jon Lovitz to coach Tom Hanks. The period detail feel authentic as does the baseball, but this earns a place in baseball and movie history if only for the classic line “There’s no crying in baseball.”

“Field of Dreams” (1989)
Kevin Costner seems his best when he’s in movies about baseball but if you have to pick just one Costner baseball movie to put in a time capsule it is “Field of Dreams.” This is a movie that transcends mere sports movie conventions to be about the mystic, the history and the very reason we watch baseball. James Earl Jones delivers a monologue about the timelessness and magic of baseball that is absolutely perfect. And even the toughest guy is likely to shed a tear when the "he" of “if you build it he will come,” finally comes.

“Eight Men Out” (1988)
John Sayles' dramatization of the infamous Black Sox scandal in which players took bribes to throw the 1919 World Series is a compelling piece of drama because it doesn’t paint the players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, as being innately crooked. Instead Sayles shows how each player is slowly, and in some cases reluctantly, convinced to take the fall. The dream cast is packed with rising stars and veterans of the 1980s including Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, David Strathairn, Christopher Lloyd, John Mahoney, Michael Rooker and D.B. Sweeney.

“The Natural” (1984)
A film that deserves to be on this list for featuring the iconic, oft-parodied scene of a home run that rains down a cascade of sparks when it smashes into the stadium lights. That single scene is so tremendous it nearly overshadows the rest of the film, which has respect and reverence for the game, but also isn’t afraid to show the shady behind-the-scenes deals of owners and managers. Robert Redford’s 35-year-old Roy Hobbs just wants to play for the love of the game, and Redford brings a passion to his character that is the film’s heart.

“The Bad News Bear” (1976)
This is the original underdog kids' sports movie and still the best. Crotchety drunk Walter Matthau reluctantly becomes the coach of a team of misfit little leaguers. The team starts to win when he brings in daughter Tatum O’Neal as a ringer. These sort of movies would later become pure formula, but “Bad News Bears” played by its own rules. Too often kids' movies have a bad case of the cutes, but that’s not the case here. It is foul-mouthed, not political incorrect and wonderful for it.

“Naughty Nineties” (1945)
What is a movie set on a steamboat in the 1890s doing on a list of baseball movies? Well, it just so happens to feature Abbott and Costello’s classic comedy routine “Who’s On First?” Although the bit had appeared numerous times before on radio, television and partially in the film “One Night in the Tropics,” this is perhaps the best filmed version of the definitive baseball comedy routine. It is only six minutes out of a running time of 76 minutes, but it is one of the funniest six minutes you’ll ever see.

“Pride of the Yankees” (1943)
No matter what you think of the Yankees, it is hard not to be touched by the story of Lou Gehrig, the baseball hero whose life was cut short by the disease that to this day still bears his name. Made only two years after Gehrig’s death, he was already a legend in his own time, and in an era of war, was an example of strength and grace in the face of adversity. The recreation by Gary Cooper of Gehrig’s farewell speech is a guaranteed tearjerker, and there’s the added bonus of Babe Ruth playing himself.

Friday, April 11, 2008

'Leatherheads' is a winning throwback to '30s screwball

You have to admire George Clooney. As an actor, write and director, he does what he wants and he does it with style, wit and intellect. His clout gets important, challenging projects made that otherwise wouldn’t, and even when he does lighter fare he often goes against the mainstream grain.

Case in point, “Leatherheads” is a throwback to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s that is made with no sense of irony or cynicism. It so closely follows the screwball template in terms of pacing and tone that it could’ve been made 70 years ago and easily hold its own next to the films of Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, George Cukor and Frank Capra. Is Clooney’s film as good as the works of those greats? No, but it is a loving homage to a forgotten style.

It is hard to imagine what modern audiences who last year swarmed to raunchy and vulgar comedies like “Knocked Up” and “Superbad” will make of “Leatherheads,” a film that uses a gentler blend of fast-paced dialogue mixed with broad slapstick comedy.

Clooney is clearly a nostalgic guy. His directorial debut “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” was set in the seedy world of 1970s game shows like “The Dating Game.” His second directing job, “Good Night, and Good Luck” sent him back to the 1950s newsroom of Edward R. Murrow. Now he’s gone back to the 1920s and the early days of pro football.

Written by Sports Illustrated writers Rick Reilly and Duncan Brantley with an uncredited re-write by Clooney, “Leatherheads” will likely disappoint those going in expecting a sports film. Yes, there is some great on-field humor, especially involving a rather large high school recruit, but football is not the focal point of the film.

Clooney uses football as the backdrop for a love triangle involving himself as an aging football player, John Krasinski (“The Office”) as a war hero and college ball hot shot and Renee Zellweger as a reporter sent in to check the validity of Krasinski's war story.

We all know where the story is going, but that is sort of the point. The classic screwball comedies were the equivalent of comfort food and acted as escapism from the dire reality of the Depression. There was solace in watching a film with an undemanding story reach a happy conclusion. With screwball comedy, we watch for how we get to the end, not what happens in the end.

And the how in “Leatherheads” is quite enjoyable. Clooney in Cary Grant-mode is effortlessly charming, and, like Grant, handles the physical comedy and witty repartee with equal aplomb. Zellweger is a worthy adversary in verbal combat in a role that Katherine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert or Rosalind Russell might have played. Clooney and Zellweger’s scenes of combative dialogue are gems in precision timing and comedic acting.

Krasinski, the rookie of a cast of heavyweights, holds his own and plays his role of a reluctant war hero with a sweet, low-key charisma. As with Zellweger, he plays nicely off of Clooney, although their battles are a bit more physical. A fist fight in which neither one wants to get injured before a game is a comic highlight.

Stephen Root, who appeared with Clooney in the Coen Brothers’ “O’ Brother Where Art Thou,” also provides fine comedic support as a sports reporter.

This is pure, simple, easygoing entertainment that looks and sounds great, thanks to well rendered period details and a nice, jaunty score from Randy Newman. Comedy this good is harder than it looks, but Clooney and company make it look like a breezy stroll in the park.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Count on '21' for a decent time at the movies

“21,” the fact-based story of a group of M.I.T. students who took Vegas for all it was worth by putting their brilliant minds to use counting cards in blackjack, is a good movie that could’ve been great. Much like sin city itself, it has style and attitude to spare, but lacks substance.

Based on the book “Bringing Down the House,” “21” focuses on Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess, “Across the Universe”), the new guy on a team of M.I.T. students who under the tutelage of one of their professors (Kevin Spacey) have learned a system of counting cards, word associations and hand gestures that allows them to go under the radar while taking Vegas for big money.

Of course, there are complications. The team’s former hot shot (Jacob Pitts, “EuroTrip”) becomes jealous of Ben, and, in one of the movie’s best scenes, attempts to blow Ben’s cover in a manner that is oh-so-satisfyingly clever.

There is also a security officer (Laurence Fishburne, “The Matrix") who is onto their counting ways. Although counting cards isn’t illegal, the casinos certainly do frown upon it. You don’t want to be taken into a back room by Fishburne, that’s for sure.

It wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the cast to say this is Spacey’s film, but he does dominate in every scene he is in. Few working actors can do this kind of fast-talking, slimy intellectual character as well as Spacey. He is given the film’s the best dialogue and he delivers it with flavor and gusto that is a joy to behold. When Spacey enters the game toward the end, you can't help but grin.

Fishburne, the other veteran of the cast, also adds a necessary weight to the film. He brings a genuine sense of threat to the proceedings. Sturgess’ Ben is the main character and he carries the film nicely. In only his second lead role following “Across the Universe,” Sturgess is developing into a talent to watch. He has a low-key charm and an innate likeability.

Unfortunately, Ben's other team members are not developed into full characters. Kate Bosworth’s (“Superman Returns”) Jill gets the second most screen time of the younger cast members, but is only required to be a love interest. Aaron Yoo, who provided solid comic relief in last year’s “Disturbia,” is asked to do the same here but isn’t given enough of a chance to do so. Laughs are also supplied by Ben’s friends back at M.I.T., played by Jack Black look-alike Josh Gad and Sam Golzari (“American Dreamz”). Their antics play like a PG-13 version of “Superbad.”

The film fascinates when it focuses on the mechanisms of the system these kids use to run their scam. On that level the film works as a con movie with team members taking on different identities and playing their specific roles in the con. Director Robert Luketic (“Legally Blonde”) brings a flashy, CGI-enhanced look to the blackjack table that keeps things exciting.
Things are also fun when the film looks at the double life of the characters, who are brainy students during the week and Vegas big shots on the weekend. This aspect isn’t explored enough as the film goes into plot auto pilot.

Ben swears he’s only in it to get $300,000 for grad school and then he is out, but can he resist the temptations of Vegas? Of course he can’t, but will be redeem himself? Of course he will, and telling you this by no means spoils the film. The trajectory of Ben’s character is no surprise, and at times the film doesn’t even try to hide the fact that it is relying on a basic story template.

While the characters are counting cards, you in the audience can count clichés. By the time Ben tells Jill that “I’ve lost it all. I don’t want to lose you too,” the more cynical in the audience may just throw their hands up in the air.

Moments like that make “21” seem like a bad bet, but for every clumsily written scene there are two that are sharply put together with some real wit. Two-to-one odds aren’t too bad, so as you cash your chips in it has overall been a good day at the movies with “21.”