When James Cameron changed the landscape of 3D stereoscopic filmmaking with his groundbreaking blockbuster Avatar I'm sure he still had misgivings about the final product. He couldn't include a scene in which eggs are thrown towards camera. There was no moment where Jake smokes marijuana and blows it off screen. Not a single character pleasured themselves and released out into the audience. Maybe in the sequel.
Thankfully for those looking for that immersive corporeal experience there is A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas a foul hilarious and surprisingly heartwarming holiday experience that utilizes its eye-popping technology to take gross out humor to a new level. If you're not already on board with the previous stoner antics of Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) from White Castle and Escape from Guantanamo Bay it's safe to say that 3D Christmas won't be roping you back into the series but for fans the movie steps up the franchise's game. Writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg take the three years since the last film into consideration putting the duo on opposite ends of the maturity spectrum only to have them reunite for a zany Christmas adventure. The results are rather touching.
We pick up with Harold now a suit-wearing Wall Street type bending over backwards to make Christmas perfect for his ball-busting father-in-law (Danny Trejo). Adding to the stress are his wife Maria who is anxious to have a baby despite the couple's inability to do so and his next door neighbor Todd (Tom Lennon) who would do anything to be Harold's best friend. Kumar is his antithesis—burnt out baked and broken up over the termination of his relationship with Vanessa. When a mysterious package addressed to Harold lands on Kumar's door (he hasn't lived there in years) the medical school dropout takes a ride to his former cohort's white picket fence house. The package is exactly what you'd expect: an enormous joint. Admitting he doesn't smoke any more Harold throws the weed away—only to see it magically return and burn down his father-in-law's Christmas tree.
Like its predecessors Harold & Kumar 3D takes off from its wacky catalyst and shoots directly (and without regret) into outer space. Without hesitation Harold and Kumar's quest for a Christmas tree takes them from a terrifying tree yard run by RZA a coked-out Christmas party thrown by the teenage kids of New York's deadliest gangster and a holiday stage show starring—you guessed it—Neil Patrick Harris. The movie piles on gags and inside jokes (the movie winks at the camera with Star Trek and White House cracks) but few fall short thanks to their clever execution and two characters Cho and Penn help us give a damn about. Even in its lamest moments—Todd's baby finding her way into a variety of drugs is one of the movie's running gags—Harold & Kumar 3D still pops. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson squeezes every bit of silliness out the movie's various scenarios adding a dash of nostalgia for fans and making the entry worthy of the original. Even Harris outdoes himself (and the man road a unicorn in movie #2) riffing off his own homosexuality which we learn is really just a play to get more woman to take their clothes off. Obviously.
If the traditional holiday classics haven't been quite your style Harold & Kumar 3D is a more-than-worthy addition to the Christmas movie pantheon delivering on warm and fuzzy friendship cliches while filtering it through bathroom humor and bong water. By the time Harold and Kumar trip and turn themselves into claymation you'll either be cackling with laughter or on the way out of the theater. Me? I was high on it.
In Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson plays Gil, a successful Hollywood screenwriter with the desire to abandon his occupation of making the same sterilized movies over and over again in favor of exploring his creative freedom by writing a novel. His determination only grows when he and his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents travel to Paris, but instead of harvesting all the beauty of the Lourve, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe as fuel for his novel, Gil complains about the disappointments with today's world. He begins to proselytize to his fellow travelers about how much better life in 1920s Paris must have been, and on one random night while he's wandering around Paris and imagining what it used to be like, he finds himself (without giving anything away) in a situation that psychiatrists everywhere would diagnose as indicative of dementia, paranoia, or delusion. This got us thinking about other places where one would be likely to have a mental breakdown.
Nothing would facilitate a psychotic break faster than a visit to Disneyland or Disney World and encountering all your childhood heroes. You’d quickly realize how better off your life would have been if you didn’t waste your time in marveling at characters with droopy ears and falsetto voices and instead, you got up off your ass and developed a useful skill, like a curveball or an update to the Pythagorean theorem. You’d also be surrounded by children who are blissfully unaware of the challenges they will face in their futures, and you’d be disheartened by the choice you have to either end their fun by warning them of life’s hardships, or leaving them alone and prolonging their fun but realizing the pain they’ll eventually feel will be more severe because you didn’t give them any warning as to what was coming. Whatever your choice, you would not emerge the person you thought you were.
The Bodies Exhibit
For those of you who don’t know, the Bodies exhibit allows people to gain insight into the inner workings of the human body by presenting them with actual bodies that have been “meticulously dissected and respectfully displayed.” They been maintained through a process called polymer preservation, which uses liquid silicone rubber and prevents the human tissue from decaying. Some of the halls in the exhibit are quite explicit, like the one that’s full of aborted fetuses at various stages in development. This could easily trust someone into pondering the probability that one of the fetuses in the jars in front of them was their brother or sister because their mother had an illegal abortion behind her high school’s Jiffy-Lube. And looking at your sibling as they’re suspended in formaldehyde is just about enough to do anyone in.
A screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show
This classic and highly sexualized movie would make even the most heterosexual or homosexual person question their preferences, and quite possibly send he or she into an abyss of confusion regarding their identity. But besides igniting the question of one’s own sexual preference, a person could also leave the theater with the desire to leave their profession as a doctor or lawyer in favor of someone who does the real magic, which is deriving gold spandex-wearing humans out of pools of goo.
On a cruise
Not even all the shuffleboard in the world would keep someone from considering the likelihood that their vessel could suddenly collide into something in the ocean and sink within four hours, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. James Cameron’s Titanic proved that despite everyone's best intentions, some things are just unavoidable and if there's one thing that thrusts the realization of true helplessness into someone's mind, it's when you're on a boat that someone else is steering and the only things you see for miles are skinny pelicans and sea foam.
In a pet store
Pet stores are places of judgment. With all the puppies and kitties in the windows who are prancing around and playing with each other enthusiastically, it's like they know they're being watched and heavily scrutinized by people because they need determine which one of the animals has a personality that would blend in best with their families. So of course the puppies and kitties are going to ham it up for their audiences, since they're all getting really sick of the cramped in boxes and would very much like to have their own L.L. Bean dog (or kitty) bed that's engraved in red thread with their names. This process of analysis and inspection that exists in pet stores everywhere are dangerous for those who are slightly more sensitive towards criticism, because it just reinforces the idea that no matter where you go or what you do, people are always going to work hard to try and pinpoint your weaknesses so they can either exploit you or label you as being insufficient.
Who knew that Will Smith could deliver the year’s most unexpected and profoundly moving love story? He plays Ben a man with a deep dark secret that leads him help seven complete strangers each with their own particular set of circumstances. Constructed like a jigsaw puzzle we slowly get clues to the traumatic events that cause Ben to contact these people and change their lives in ways they never could have anticipated. What he doesn’t expect is to fall in love with one of them -- Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson) a cardiac patient whose heart may be weak but is clearly strong enough to make a difference in the way Ben looks at things. It’s this relationship that becomes the center of Grant Nieporte’s compelling screenplay but as it continues it’s obvious there is more to what Ben is doing a mystery not revealed until the final moments and one you will not easily forget. Will Smith is at his best. He may be the world’s No. 1 movie star at the moment but he’s continually proving himself to be a brilliant actor as well. Reteaming with director Gabriele Muccino who led him to a Best Actor Oscar nomination in The Pursuit of Happyness Smith once again finds his dramatic mojo in the role of a man whose life has been shattered by something so profoundly affecting that he reaches out to strangers in an effort to redeem himself. You will be hard-pressed to find the loveable Will Smith persona anywhere within this character. Dawson also has a career best as the spunky and courageous Emily a role that could have been sloppily sentimentalized and maudlin. She’s a revelation delivering a flawless and luminous performance. And best among the various recipients of Ben’s kindness is Woody Harrelson as a blind man he encounters. Also quite good is Barry Pepper as Ben’s childhood friend who is the only other person “in” on Ben’s master plan helping him to achieve his goal. He rips your heart out when he gets the call from Ben who says “It’s time.” Gabriele Muccino puts it all out there. He is an unapologetically emotional director and some will probably find fault with his style but as the Italian filmmaker proved in Pursuit of Happyness he knows exactly what he’s doing and where he’s taking the story. He’s most successful here in building suspense and an air of mystery around Smith’s character and then bringing it all home in a whopper of a final act. Clearly story acting and gut-level feeling are the three things that drive Muccino and his distinctive stamp and European approach is evident throughout. Most of all he has given Smith and Dawson a real showcase finding the meat of a story that’s one from the heart and good for the soul.
When eccentric writer/director John Waters made the subversive but colorful Hairspray in 1988—about a plus-sized girl and her dreams to dance as she breaks taboos in the early ‘60s—he probably thought it would be chalked up as another of his cult favorites. But here we are reviewing the latest Hairspray incarnation a movie version of the smash hit Broadway musical based on the 1988 offbeat classic. Funny how things work. The story is pretty much the same: The bubbly Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) a big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart wants to dance on Baltimore’s TV dance show The Corny Collins Show. Her mother Edna (Travolta) isn’t too keen on her daughter’s aspirations only because she doesn’t want to see Tracy hurt. But against all odds Tracy wows them on and off the TV screen squashing the reigning princess Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) finding love with the local hunk Link (Zac Efron)—and fighting for racial equality on the hippest dance party on TV. Tracy is the cornerstone to making Hairspray zing—and every actress who has played her has nailed it in her own way. Ricki Lake gave us a good start as the original; Marissa Jaret Winokur won a Tony playing her on Broadway. Now we have brilliant newcomer Nikki Blonsky a former ice cream parlor employee who beat out several hundred girls to win the role. Her happy-go-lucky Tracy quite literally lights up the screen every time she appears and you find yourself grinning like a fool the whole time she is shimmying and shaking. Let’s hope she isn’t just a one-trick pony. The supporting cast is also very appealing. Michelle Pfeiffer who once again gets to use those lovely pipes of hers is perfectly unctuous as Velma Von Tussle Amber’s scheming mother and the TV station manager. Queen Latifah adds her certain joie de vivre as Motormouth Maybelle the host of Corny Collins’ “Negro Day.” Also good are Amanda Bynes as Tracy’s lollypop-eating best friend Penny Pingleton and Elijah Kelley as the groovin’ Seaweed Penny’s forbidden love. The one drawback is Travolta as the oversized Edna. He does a fair job as the caring mom who is reticent to let her daughter go out into the big bad world. We can even see the old Travolta we know and love come alive when Edna dances. But because the actor simply looks so very wrong in latex and lipstick it takes away from the performance. No one can really surpass the late Divine the original Hairspray’s Turnblad matriarch who did it au naturel. Directing a movie like Hairspray is basically a no-brainer and choosing Adam Shankman to helm is as good a choice as anyone else. He is certainly not known for his cinematic genius having directed fluff such as Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and The Pacifier but he understands the bubblegum appeal of a bee-bopping musical. Fueled by catchy tunes from the Broadway show plus a few new ones created just for the movie Shankman orchestrates the big song and dance numbers—of which there are plenty—in such a way to get you moving in your seat every time. He also frames his talent in their more personal character-driven songs with a steady hand. I just wonder what John Waters would have done with it. Maybe a little more dog poop? In any event forget about Chicago and Dreamgirls--Hairspray is the perfect popcorn movie musical that will get everyone dancing and singing the way Grease did a generation ago.
Based on the best-selling book of the same name Fast Food Nation has three intertwined stories revolving around the fast food industry. Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) is a corporate marketing guy assigned to put a positive spin on the bad news that fecal traces has been found in the meat. He goes to the meat factory to investigate and doesn’t like what he sees but no one offers him a viable solution. Then there’s Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) Mexican immigrants who cross the border illegally. The only job they can get is in the meat factory. She bears with demeaning sexual advances while he faces the unhealthy and dangerous conditions to try for the American Dream. Finally we meet Amber (Ashley Johnson) who works in a local franchise. She’s just a high school girl trying to pay for her car insurance. This isn’t her future but it dominates her present. The corporate story is a comedy about ineffective management and media spin. The immigrants’ story is a hard drama about a bad life. Amber’s story straddles both lines--a slacker teen comedy but also introspective about what the job is doing to her soul. It may be no secret these days but it’s still fascinating. There is plenty of juicy dialogue for actors to sink their teeth into (pun intended). Kinnear plays the corporate suit as lovably as possible. He’s the put-upon business cog similar to his characters in The Matador and Little Miss Sunshine but funnier because it’s the system that’s futile not his own dreams. Valderrama has a smaller part just supporting his wife going through a horrible life with noble determination. Moreno is as heartbreaking as she was in her Oscar-nominated performance in Maria Full of Grace. You sense so much potential in her and she’s stuck in the factory demeaned by sexual harassment and unable to save her sister from succumbing to it. She adds new colors of despair to the immigrant experience. Johnson is careful not to make her character too wise beyond her years. She really is just a normal kid. High school sucks so do counter jobs. It’s not about being unique just relatable. Cameos stand out too. Ethan Hawke plays the coolest uncle ever. He comes to town for two scenes spouts off his cool-uncle advice and then leaves. Even though he’s a self-confessed loser he’s convincing. And he buys her beer. Bruce Willis gives a speech on the meat industry with his David Addison smirk while chomping into a burger. We’re sold. Director Richard Linklater does a good job keeping the comedy and drama balanced. He cuts back and forth between stories at sensible intervals. Towards the end Greg Kinnear disappears for a long time but Ashley Johnson’s story beefs up to compensate. Showing the inner workings of the meat factory is pretty powerful. Cow guts falling out and bodies mangled by machinery are not fun things to watch but they are important to remember. It’s all up there on the screen but not gratuitous—and doesn’t have to ruin meat forever. Just think how all foods have processes that we don’t see and still taste good. There are plenty of scenes in which the characters are talking a real Linklater specialty (Before Sunset Before Sunrise for example). Whether they’re talking about meat or minimum wage jobs or life ambitions the conversations have a catchy flow. The satire of corporate America and slacker lifestyles juxtaposed against the drama of immigrant life makes Fast Food Nation both ridiculously funny and appropriately uncomfortable.
Tanzie (Hilary Duff) and Ava Marchetta (Haylie Duff) are heiresses to the multimillion-dollar Proactiv-like cosmetics company started up by their late father. Much like all the celebutante sisters in Hollywood (the Hiltons the Olsens the Simpsons et. al.) they live the privileged life--seamless entry into the hottest clubs maids waiting on them hand-and-foot actor boyfriends etc. But early on in Material Girls their high lives come crashing down when at a gala feting their beloved dad a video exposes the cosmetics line as dangerous. Their father’s oldest friend Tommy (Brent Spiner) tries to work damage-control magic but the damage is already done only to be worsened when the ditzy sisters accidentally set fire to their mansion. Forced to relocate to their maid’s (Maria Conchita Alonso) tiny apartment blacklisted by the people that matter--and their credit cards declined--the gals decide to go to work as um private investigators looking into what they believe was a scheme to sabotage the company. Along the way self-discovery bangs ‘em over the head. Separately the Duff sisters stay the ‘tween course recycling virtually the same type of role in the same movie and TV show after movie and TV show. The riskiest role either of the two has taken was Haylie’s turn in Napoleon Dynamite--not because it was edgy but rather because it had a potentially larger or smaller appeal than just the Lizzie McGuire crowd. Together in their first movie collaboration it’s double the nausea. It’s as if they decided to come together under an even wider safety net. Their talent as actresses won’t be clear until they take an ever-so-marginal chance but un-ironically they know how to play mini-mogul sisters. Anjelica Huston also stars as Fabiella the one trying to swoop in on Marchetta Cosmetics’ misfortune. We know precisely what we’re getting with Huston but we may never know why she took this role. Same can be said for Lukas Haas as a pro-bono lawyer who went from fare like Gus Van Sant’s Last Days to this (should-be-made-for-Nickelodeon) movie. Martha Coolidge has directed so much TV (The Twilight Zone Sex and the City) and film (Lost in Yonkers The Prince & Me) over the years it’s surprising to learn she wasn’t behind the movie that looks like Material Girls’ biopic: White Chicks. In all mock seriousness though it’s sad to see anyone attempt to helm what can essentially be considered “Duff Corporation” movies let alone a talented Hollywood vet like Coolidge. She had to know the limited parameters she was cornering herself into here but the director still manages to seem a bit lost. For example when she uses visual techniques such as juxtaposed scenes—which looked cool in say Sideways--it feels almost offensive here. It’s the dead-tired rich-girls-to-blissfully-bourgeois-girls story however that delivers the deathblow to the gut. And it’s Coolidge’s (possibly correct) assumption a movie that can be so narrowly focused toward a specific sect of moviegoers is the one that delivers a blow to the soul.
You may not have heard of George Jung before this but you quickly learn that whoever was doing coke in the '70s and '80s (and according to this movie who wasn't) was probably sniffing his stuff. This biopic tracks Jung's travails from his troubled poor boyhood to his pot-dealing days in California to his life as a millionaire cocaine trafficker for the Colombian Medellin cartel. The party has to end sometime and for Jung it does when he's repeatedly busted eventually loses his family and ultimately destroys his life.
Johnny Depp might just get an Oscar nod next year for his performance as a regular guy who turns into the foremost drug distributor in U.S. history. But in all honesty he's startlingly one-note (couldn't he change his facial expression just once? A millionaire drug dealer must have had fun sometime). Ray Liotta and Rachel Griffiths are terribly miscast as his parents (which one is Depp supposed to take after?) although Liotta is quite good as Jung's heartbroken but accepting father. Penélope Cruz goes overboard as Jung's hateful wife and clunks her way through her lines; her bad wigs make it even worse. Now an open plea to casting directors everywhere: Please put Paul Reubens in your next movie. Without overdoing it he's great as a femme hairdresser who becomes the first to introduce Jung to his life of crime.
After the schmaltzy beginning showing Jung's childhood the movie cruises into high gear using nifty camerawork and freeze-frames to convey his thrilling rise to trafficking stardom. Then a little over the halfway point the film loses a lot of steam and starts exuding sap. Maybe it's the subject matter maybe it's the direction but the tear-jerking last half hour doesn't support its snappy carefree start. Depp looks as intense celebrating his birthday as he does when his family leaves him; moreover Jung seems to have had no moral concern for his actions (except where it affected him). So while you do feel sorry for the guy you aren't as sorry as the film implies you should be. The movie tugs unrelentingly at the heartstrings the coup de grace a full-screen mug shot of the wretched real-life inmate Jung.