In yet ANOTHER summer romp from the Judd Apatow factory line Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) is a beefy rotund guy who delivers subpoenas for a living. He also dates a young jail-bait cutie Angie (Amber Heard) when he’s not visiting his sweet stoner of a pot dealer Saul Silver (James Franco) to score the latest and greatest weed. In this case that’s the title star Pineapple Express a marijuana combination so lethal and unique Dale is almost (we said ALMOST) reluctant to destroy it by inhaling. But when he sets out to deliver a subpoena to drug kingpin Ted Jones (Gary Cole) he is spotted by the man as he commits a bloody murder. Freaking out Dale ditches the scene so fast he dumps some of the precious weed leaving it behind like a trail of breadcrumbs dropped by Hansel leading a trail to Saul. Reefer madness ensues as a full-blown freak out is set in motion and Dale and Saul hit the pedal to the metal in order to evade Ted and his loony goons (Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson). This leads to so many crazy-weird encounters and near-death experiences it makes a Road Runner cartoon look like the work of Ingmar Bergman by comparison. Smashed heads sliced and diced ears banged up bodies galore--you want it Pineapple Express has got it. As the film’s ad line implores ‘put that in your pipe and smoke it!’ Rogen and Franco are the yin and yang of comedy here with wildly divergent styles that complement each other perfectly. Rogen plays Dale with such over-the-top hysteria and a high pitched sense of desperation he’s fun to watch--until you just want him to calm down and take a breath. Franco steals the film lock stock and barrel with his stoned-out weed maestro who clearly has ingested so much of the stuff himself that he qualifies for a place in the slacker hall of fame. With his parade of non-sequiturs and nonsensical ramblings Franco turns gentle Saul into one of the year’s most endearing and hilarious creations. Although the movie belongs to these two special mention should also go to Danny McBride who takes it on the chin (and everywhere else) as Red Saul’s unfaithful drug buddy and supplier. Cole is all evil menace while Rosie Perez shows up as his cop-tease accomplice. David Gordon Green a director previously known only for small downer indie films like All The Real Girls and Snow Angels seems to be getting off on all the toys producer Apatow has given him to play with. Adeptly handling the car crashes extreme violence and general anarchy on screen Green keeps the action moving and the laughs coming. The film is handsomely shot and production values are strong even though what’s on screen basically comes down to a how-can-you-top-this destruction derby. Working off a script from Superbad writers Rogen and his partner Evan Goldberg Green manages to evoke the spirit of a mismatched buddy movie along the lines of a Midnight Run but ratchets up speed tempo and noise levels to the needs of the average attention span for this type of flick. Take that Harold and Kumar! Although not as supergood as Superbad it’s all a lot of fun if you like your frivolity generously mixed with carnage. Huey Lewis also contributes a catchy title song that perfectly captures the whacked-out stoner spirit of the whole enterprise.
Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.
Based on E.B. White’s enduring children’s story we meet Wilbur the Pig (Dominic Scott Kay) a runt who is saved from the axe by a little farm girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning). She raises Wilbur from infancy but eventually she has to send Wilbur over to her uncle’s neighboring farm since there’s no room for a pig in her house. There in the barn Wilbur meets the assortment of colorful animal characters: Betsy (Reba McEntire) and Bitsy (Kathy Bates) two pessimistic cows; motherly goose Gussy (Oprah Winfrey) and her henpecked hubby Golly (Cedric the Entertainer); Samuel (John Cleese) an uptight sheep; the skittish horse Ike (Robert Redford); the self-serving rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi); and of course sweet Charlotte (Julia Roberts) a spider with a heart of gold. When the naïve Wilbur finds out he might be Christmas dinner Charlotte makes a promise to her new friend that she’ll do everything in her power to make sure Wilbur sees the Christmas snow—and everyone ends up helping her out. What could be more fun than to voice a barnyard animal? Winfrey and Cedric’s geese banter is like an old married couple. Cleese gives Samuel the sheep a certain upper-crustiness. Redford is actually pretty funny as a horse who’s deathly afraid of spiders (“I’ll listen to you but I just can’t look at you”). Buscemi is a particularly nice choice as the sneaky rat Templeton who only thinks about filling his belly with food (no typecasting there we swear). For pure comic relief there are also two crows voiced by Andre Benjamin and Thomas Haden Church who just can’t quite get around the whole scarecrow thing. And as Charlotte Roberts has a truly soothing and loving tone sort of how you’d imagine it from the book. As for the human aspect Fanning continues to do what she does best playing Fern with the right amount of youthful innocence spunkiness and determination. Just wondering how we are going to handle it when this amazing little actress grows up and starts doing like adult things. Actually it is sort of a shame they couldn’t get a live-action version of Charlotte's Web made before Babe. Sure there was the 1973 animated cutesy film but a live-action adaptation of this timeless tale really should have been the standard by which all computer-generated talking farm animal movies would follow don’t you think? Instead Charlotte's Web pales ever so slightly in comparison. Oh well water under the bridge. Director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30) still manages to invoke the wonderful and uplifting spirit of the novel keeping faithful to the text in all ways. Visually the film is crisp and flawless in its execution particularly in the beauty and splendor of how Charlotte spins her webs and emotionally hearts will indeed swell and tears will flow. Charlotte's Web is the perfect family movie to inspire the next generation of young readers and viewers as well as for the rest of us who fondly remember the childhood classic.
Along Came Polly has a place in a tiny niche of the romantic comedy genre that one might call "Poopy Love." You know these movies; they feature a nerdy guy usually played by Ben Stiller whose love interest witnesses him in the throes of some scatological or penile trauma yet falls in love with him anyway. The comedy throughout must be gross and whenever possible breast pee-pee or sphincter-related. The girl is usually a childhood friend (à la There's Something About Mary) who's grown up to be a beautiful if quirky creature--she'd have to be to fall in love with a guy who gets his wiener caught in his zipper on prom night discusses milking the cat at her parents' dinner table (à la Meet the Parents) or as in the case of Along Came Polly contracts a massive case of the squirts on their first date after eating spicy food with his fingers. But it's all in the spirit of fun as the love interest teaches the uptight guy to embrace life and there's much hilarity on the road to romance--as well as a fairly irrelevant subplot whose sole purpose is to show us what a great guy the hero is.
As Polly's leading man uptight newly wedded insurance risk assessor Reuben Feffer Stiller proves he's still the undisputed king of Poopy Love films by hamming it up to the hilt whether he's showing off his newly acquired salsa skills or making his misery and anger palpable--and physical--when his bride Lisa (played very straight by Debra Messing) has a fling on the first day of their honeymoon in St. Barts with French scuba instructor Claude (a very naked very toned very funny Hank Azaria). Crestfallen and bitter Reuben returns to the Big Apple alone and while at an art show with his best friend former child actor Sandy Lyle (Philip Seymour Hoffman) bumps into an old school chum the free-spirited Polly Prince (Jennifer Aniston). The uproar begins in earnest with Hoffman on the scene--his egomaniacal former child star is a funny tub of pomposity and insecurity--and he and Stiller have nice comic chemistry together. That's more than can be said of Aniston who doesn't seem to want to get her hands dirty even though the script offers her the opportunity. She never really participates physically in the comedy the way Cameron Diaz did in Mary--she simply reacts to Stiller's antics. Her character's pet ferret gets more laughs.
Like Stiller Along Came Polly's director and screenwriter John Hamburg is no stranger to Poopy Love having written the outrageous script for Meet the Parents and the less clever though highly original Zoolander. The jokes in Polly seem limited in comparison with a high reliance on pooping farting "sharting" (when you fart and a little poo comes out) and of course the old took-a-dump-in-your-girlfriend's-bathroom-and-the-toilet-won't-flush gag. That doesn't mean the movie's not funny--it is. There's just not much here we haven't seen before.
Based on a series of six Marvel Comics created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby in 1962 The Hulk revolves around a scientist named Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) who following a laboratory snafu absorbs a normally deadly dose of gamma radiation. Bruce thinks he has escaped unscathed--until he gets mad ... real mad which causes him to turn into a huge rampaging green monster known as the Hulk. In order to make this 40-year-old gamma theory somewhat more believable for today's science-savvy moviegoers screenwriter James Schamus and his team decided to arm the script with a somewhat more convincing scientific rationale. The story follows Bruce's father David Banner (Nick Nolte) who as a young scientist conducted prohibited genetic experiments on himself thus changing his son's life before he was even out of the womb. While modernizing the scientific reasoning behind Bruce's transformation makes sense it's a pity it had to be done in such a heavy-handed way. By adding such an elaborate layer to the story The Hulk becomes more about Bruce and David's tormented past and any semblance of a plot is buried in melodramatic dialogue between the characters. The result is a comic book adaptation that is much too serious for its own genre.
Despite the theatrical discourse don't expect complex characters to emerge from The Hulk. Although Bana (Black Hawk Down) is a good choice for the lead of the nerdy scientist and reluctant hero his character is so busy pretending he doesn't have any problems that the audience never gets to see his emotional side. Bana's character grimaces convincingly as he represses his anger for example but he fails ever to open up on a personal level to his love interest in the film his co-worker Betty played by Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind). Betty is Bruce's old flame but the two are obviously still in love: she is obsessed with fixing whatever is broken about him. As the Hulk Bruce need only look at Betty once for his anger to subside and allow him to morph back into human form. They have weighty discussions about the significance of their dreams and Bruce's past yet they never seem to connect on any level. One of the film's best performances comes from Nolte (The Good Thief) in the role of Bruce's mad scientist father David. Almost Shakespearean at times Nolte--scraggly hair and all-- completely immerses himself in the role. The cast's performances however are muted by the general heaviness of this would-be actioner. Look for quick cameo appearances by Lou Ferrigno (from the 1970s TV series The Incredible Hulk) and Marvel legend Stan Lee.
For his follow-up to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Ang Lee has turned to bigger greener matters. The Hulk the director's visual effects-intense picture (with a little help from Industrial Light & Magic) is stunning and startlingly well done. The green beast's computer generated movements from his heaving chest to the single leaps that spring him well into a different zip code are convincingly real. Not only does the ground shake when this goliath lands but his momentum even throws him off balance at times sending his lumbering arms flailing. But while the CGI Hulk has been meticulously honed Lee's homage to the world of print comic books--using multiple screens to present concurrent storylines and alternate angles of the same scene--is off-putting: Rival researcher Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) suspiciously walks out of the lab Betty reacts in one panel Bruce sits back in another. The simultaneous screens don't necessarily show anything pertinent going on making the far and wide close and medium shots of the character's reactions a distraction rather than a helpful storytelling technique. But the most disconcerting thing about the film is that in its leap from the four-color paneled pages to the big screen it lost its wit.