17 September 2007

Into the Wild

Screenplay & Directed by: Sean Penn
(that's the phrasing of the opening credits, which are in desperate need of a grammarian)

Grade: D+
Watch the Trailer

Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild has the distinction of being the only book that I ever read straight through in a single day, a testament to the absorbing nature of the story and Krakauer's journalistic acumen. Sean Penn's filmic adaptation, on the other hand, might take you days to finish if at all, though it's only (only!?!) 140 minutes, because of the constant temptation to walk out or shut it off, depending on the circumstances of your viewing. Penn's film is nothing but a long string of montages (just one is usually the bane of good filmmaking), accompanied by an ostentatious (and instantly dated) musical score, and only occasionally punctuated by proper scenes, whose lengths are invariably less than that of the lifespan of a struck match. Add to all of this the excessive and ornate voice-over narration (also the bane of good filmmaking), and you get American filmmaking at its laziest and most astoundingly pretentious.

Penn's film is unrestrainedly verbal, the screen often cluttered with excerpts from books and letters, demonstrating that Penn has no concept of the differences between prose and filmmaking. (And as such has no business directing a film!) Added to this, he has only the most simplistic understanding of his source material. Into the Wild, both book and film, tells the true story of a twenty-something year old kid named Chris McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp, played in the film by Emile Hirsch, who upon graduating from college ran away from his complacent middle-class life, burning his cash and donating his savings to Oxfam, to search for a life of Thoreauvian independence, embarking on a quest for that uniquely American brand of natural, spiritual freedom. "If you want something in life, reach out and grab it!" he preaches in the film. McCandless eventually wound up in the backwoods of Alaska where, after a few months of successfully surviving off the land, he ultimately died of starvation. In Krakauer's book it's a story about the complex relationship between parents, both biological and adoptive, and children; the common youthful impetus for independence and adventure; and the call of the wild; it's also about the potentially fatal dangers that come with the latter. Where, in Krakauer, McCandless' story is complicated, inspiring feelings of ambivalence, of both admonishment and inspiration, in the reader, though always through the author's sympathetic lens, in the hands of Sean Penn, who directs with the maturity of a thirteen year old who's just discovered The Catcher in the Rye, it emerges as an odiously smug and self-righteous polemic against American materialism.

Penn facilely reduces McCandless' motivations to a repudiation of his mean and miserable parents, the stern father (played sacerdotally by William Hurt) and the passive-aggressive mother (Marcia Gay Harden), both drunks. (A welcome moment of comic relief, perhaps unintentional, comes from a flashback in which a drunken Hurt declares he's canceling Christmas and an even drunker Harden replies, "Who do you think you are? God?") Where the McCandless Krakauer presents cuts a complex and confusing character, Penn cuts him down with easy psychology to a kid who won't live his parents' "lies" within their "sick society". His journey into the wild is posited as a maturation of the soul, with chapter titles (more verbalization!) like "adolescence" and "manhood". Penn the partisan comes out to criticize American culture—soulless, natch—a few times; once, in a ridiculous scene in which Hirsch gets dirty looks from some cartoonish Angeleno yuppies; again when Hirsch makes it back to civilization after a stint in the wilderness only to see George Bush Sr. getting his war on; and most egregiously when he shows a bald eagle, with a gang of coyotes, feasting on the meat from a moose's corpse, a clumsy metaphor for how America and its "rules" are weighing-down on the yearning (and libertarian) McCandless. The "characteristic immoderation" that Jena Malone, as Hirsch's sister (they were last seen acting together as lovers in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys), defines her brother by also applies to the film's director.

There are countless possible manners in which to tell McCandless' story cinematically, but unfortunately Penn goes, and rather haughtily to boot, for the rote Hollywood style of uncritical celebration. It's really remarkable that such a proficient actor hasn't got the slightest bit of directorial intuition. While Krakauer never mistook sympathy for apotheosis, Penn relentlessly beats us over the head with McCandless' rectitude and admirability. The whole approach is neatly summed-up by a mid-film scene in which Hirsch is seen kayaking in Southwestern river rapids; the staccato editing gives the sequence a pulsating energy, buttressed by the sound of off-screen observers shouting "woo hoo"s of encouragement and a rollicking blues soundtrack, which leaves the viewer no possible recourse but to either stand-up and play air guitar—isn't this kid awesome?—or roll their eyes and fidget uncomfortably.

It should be noted that the categorical failure of the film is entirely Penn's responsibility, and lies not with the actors; Hirsch is fine in the lead, with a few very nice moments, such as an improvisation with an apparently delicious apple, and Catherine Keener, as a surrogate mother of sorts that Hirsch meets on the road, is especially effective. But Penn's strongest talent, and his only talent (outside of acting of course), is in the casting of old men; two marginal, elderly actors give some of the film's most striking performances: one, a trembling gent on a payphone, heard obscurely begging to be given "another chance"; and two, an artist/burnout/religious fanatic that Hirsch comes across in the desert. But the film's real gem is Hal Holbrook, who turns up in the last act playing one of the many surrogate fathers Hirsch comes across in his peregrinations. Holbrook and Hirsch have an intimacy almost entirely missing from the rest of the film, probably because Penn's directorial stamp is largely absent from these scenes, supplying a palpable tenderness that builds to a heartbreaking climax. Make it through the movie if you can—it's length is more numbing than exhausting—just to get to Holbrook's scenes. Somebody give him an Oscar!


Written & Directed by: Rob Zombie
from a screenplay by John Carpenter & Debra Hill

Grade: C-
Watch the Trailer

There were some cries of heresy when certain cineastes caught wind of a Halloween remake/reimagining, as some people consider particular films, such as that one, to be sacrosanct. (Its many sequels, some of which I'd argue are surprisingly good, still do not impugn the integrity of the original.) While I personally don't share that view of sanctification, I can sympathize with those wary of another Hollywood remake, especially of a horror film, when the past decade or so has seen an onslaught of vulgar cash-ins on familiar titles. (Did we learn or feel anything [new] from Marcus Nispel's Texas Chainsaw Massacre?) Still, there was some modicum of hope for the new Halloween among some other film fans, such as myself, since Rob Zombie, who showed at least a measure of directorial promise (or more, to those particularly partial) in his previous film, The Devil's Rejects, was on board to write and direct it.

Well, so much for that sign of promise. Zombie strives to add a bit of psychological depth to his telling of Michael Myers' origin story, but he also tries to balance it out with boilerplate slasher gore until both sides negate each other; the resulting movie that emerges is merely dull. Intriguingly, Zombie features Myers, the well-known, white-masked supervillain of slasher legend, as his protagonist rather than, as is customary, a potential victim of said villain; he opens the film, as Carpenter did, with ten year old Michael (sporting a Kiss t-shirt, suggesting only a sociopath could like that band) and the vicious slaying he commits one Halloween night—though Zombie quadruples the body-count and centuples the gore—but Zombie sticks around where Carpenter flash-forwarded into the life of a suburban Illinois teenage girl, digging into Myers' family life and staying with him in the slaughter's aftermath as he undergoes hospitalization and psychological counseling from therapist Malcolm McDowell (replacing the late Donald Pleasance and his pleasant presence in a turn as equally hammy as his predecessor's.) Slasher movies, at least those not based on real-life serial killers, rarely position their villains at the forefront, and as such Zombie's Halloween is at first curious, though it soon becomes clear why writers and directors rarely opt for that route: by the time Zombie gets to the Laurie Strode section of the film (the character played in Carpenter's original by Jamie Lee Curtis, here by Scout Taylor-Compton), he has stripped Myers of his mystique and therefore, I presume unintentionally, of his menace without leaving adequate space for something like commiseration in its absence. (We never even see the adult Michael's face.) By default, our sympathies align with Taylor-Compton in the second section, making the two halves of the movie feel like two different films. Added to that, the second half of the film merely plays out as Carpenter redux, but Zombie, in general, doesn't measure up as an equally effective frightsmith, and the remake can't help but suffer from inevitable direct-comparisons to the superior original. Aside from the last reel or two, which are as efficient as any adequate slasher, Halloween simply fails as a horror film because it fails to frighten.

But some critics argue that Zombie actually makes family dramas that only masquerade as horror films. ("Halloween isn’t so much a horror film as a biopic" — Nathan Lee.) But that argument seems bordering on the spurious to me. In Zombie's Halloween, the dysfunctional Myers family—the prick-creep stepdad, the pole-dancing mother—has a campy, cartoonish tone, and one wonders what exactly Zombie hopes to accomplish by introducing serious subjects while refusing to treat them with a modicum of seriousness. The only explanation I can muster is that Zombie is not being unintentionally facile in his psychologizing but that he is being cheekily snarky, mocking those who might actually take such things seriously. In Zombie's film Myers, despite the early scenes, is still, as in Carpenter's film, not a product of his environment, a boy gone wrong due to a combination of circumstances, but a born monster—Satan himself. Hiding under his Halloween is a running criticism of 20th-and-21st Century cultural namby-pambiness; a rather large portrait of President Kennedy looms on the Myers wall, a crude indication that Zombie blames modern American liberalism for creating this monster. In fact, Zombie reserves some of Myers' most gruesome (well, they're all gruesome) murders for those who've only tried to reach out to him and help him, including McDowell (eyes gouged out), a friendly nurse (fork to the throat) and, most cruelly, a just-short-of-retirement hospital guard who was unfailingly kind and understanding to Michael for nearly twenty years; he gets tortured by being repeatedly dunked in a toilet bowl just short of drowning until finally put out of his misery, having his head crushed by a television set. Zombie seems to suggest that Michael Myers is the inevitable end-result of a debauched, permissive and effete America where the kids are extra sassy and the teens super salacious. I suppose if only the young Myers had committed his initial crime in Texas rather than Illinois, a sissy Eastern state, then perhaps he could've been dealt with for good.

14 September 2007

The Camden 28

Directed by: Anthony Giacchino

Grade: B

Watch the Trailer

In political conversation nowadays the word "religious" tends to be immediately succeeded by the word "right", and for those dismayed by the hijacking of Christianity to fight abortion but not to fight against war, director Anthony Giacchino, in his straight forward documentary The Camden 28, takes us back to once upon a time when there was such a thing as a vibrant and active religious, specifically Catholic, left. Essentially, the film is about acting consistently with one's faith; "life is important," Father Michael Doyle says, boiling down his group's perspective. Even the lives of distant brown peoples.

The New Jersey activists of the title, named for their city of origin and their number, not only are inspired by their faith to engage in civil disobedience to stop a war—"What do you do when a child's on fire?" Doyle asks, "Write a letter?"—but, when their 1971 plans to break into a local draft board to destroy their files are foiled by an FBI informant within their ranks, they even, though reluctantly, forgive his betrayal; ain't that Christianity? The informant then becomes their star witness against the government, who lose their case against the activists amidst accusations that it was the FBI that funded, trained and allowed the attempted burglary to occur. The informant, mostly unapologetic, says that the FBI promised him no one would go to jail, but "of course, they lied," he says. "Their intention was to destroy the Catholic Left."

But instead of a gauge of the defendants' guilt or innocence, the trial of the Camden 28, according to the film, became a referendum on the war and the general national condition; Doyle was even allowed to silently present a slideshow featuring images of Vietnam horror blended with those of Camden poverty, drawing a connection between profligate military spending and the decimated condition of the ghettoized city. (Howard Zinn pops in too, as he tends to do in these types of documentaries, to give a convincing speech on the distinction between justice and law, conflating the Camden group with the great American disobedients of yesteryear, such as the Boston Tea Party gang.) The group's trial victory, in 1973, was the first for the anti-war movement of the time, and as one group member notes it left them feeling "vindicated by the system." One juror later noted that the verdict was intended as a message to the "powers that be" that they disagreed with their war.

Comparisons to the situation today are glaringly obvious though mostly unspoken until the very end, when some members of the original Camden 28 are glimpsed in present day footage protesting the Iraq War, but what the Camden 28 were protesting then is still true today; as Doyle points out from the present, money spent on bombs could be spent on buildings, and the final shots of the film, of burned-out homes in contemporary Camden, are indistinguishable from similar archival footage seen previously, save perhaps for their digitality and color. Technology changes, but poverty stays the same.

13 September 2007

3:10 to Yuma

Directed by: James Mangold
Written by: Michael Brandt & Derek Haas
based on a script by Halsted Welles

Grade: B

What can one hope to accomplish with the Western anymore? As a filmic genre, American and otherwise, it's been a mainstay in moviehouses for nearly ninety years—to say nothing of its literary tradition—ever since Edwin Porter fired a pistol at audiences in his silent classic, The Great Train Robbery. To speak its vernacular, is there much territory left to mine? You can subvert its conventions, sure, put a white hat on your clad-in-black villain, but even that route has by now been exhaustively explored. The best you could hope for, I think, is, going back to basics, to spin a good yarn while incorporating some of the revisionism that's preceded; within the first twenty seconds of 3:10 to Yuma, director James Mangold promises to do just that: he gives the audience a close-up of a ten-cent volume of Western adventure resting on a child's bedside, thus making his overall intention clear—this is going to be a Western, plain and simple. Enjoy.

Unfortunately he's not entirely successful, though that's not to say there isn't some measure of complexity to his telling; after all, this isn't some pre-Stagecoach John Wayne vehicle. Christian Bale stars as the hero, or the closest thing to it in the conventional sense, a rancher whose land is threatened to be usurped by railroad prospectors. (Mangold has a bad habit of stuffing in every generic trope imaginable; in addition to an encroaching railroad, being built by Chinese laborers, there's a stagecoach robbery and even a dangerous trip through Apache country! All that's missing is the drunk doctor.) From the get-go, Bale's established as a gelded failure when his barn is burned in an act of arson, intended to scare him into abandoning his land. "No one can think less of me," he says sorrowfully, later on. As if it weren't clear enough that he's hardly got a leg to stand on, he's actually missing a leg, an injury from his time served in the Union Army. When his wife scolds him for making a financial decision without consulting her—"we're supposed to make decisions together"—it at first seems like an anachronistic slip, but really it's a symbol of just how emasculated he is, a rancher in the Old West who needs to ask his wife's permission to spend his money as he sees fit. His son disdains him for it. I'll never walk in your path, he tells him.

Meanwhile notorious coach-robber Russell Crowe—"he's killed more people that the drought," Bale helpfully notes—has finally been apprehended, and Bale jumps at the opportunity to assist in his transport to a town called Contention, where Crowe will be put on the 3:10 train to the prison camp at Yuma. It's a bit of overcompensating from Bale, who risks his and his family's safety for two hundred silver pieces. But all of the film's characters are motivated by self-interest: Bale wants to save farm and face (he might be "courageous" but he has hardly a noble intention to back it up); the railroad men want their interests protected; miscellaneous bandits and bounty hunters fill out the margins. It's a West without a Code, without a sense of right or duty. In short, it's the birth of modern American capitalism, where right and wrong are mere slogans intended to obscure the real motivating forces—money and power.

Mangold has always had a fine eye for casting and a talent for coaxing memorable, often award-winning or award-nominated, performances from his actors, but he comes up short time and again when it comes to crafting memorable films. Here, Bale is fine as always, establishing himself as possibly the most reliable actor working today. Crowe is excellent as well, anchoring the film particularly in the quieter moments of dialogue. He imbues his quick-witted cad, who could've easily been (miserably) played without any nuance, with a pensive glare and a loping gravity that belies his claims to villainy, exposing a sensitivity possessed by no other character in the film. (When introduced, he's busy sketching a bird on the prairie trail.) It's the right choice on Crowe's part, whose character, though the Long John Silver to Bale's Dr. Livesey, is the only one who finally performs a selfless good deed; good and evil are not so simply distinct.

But while Mangold's film has a welcomely complex view of the world, it's too sprawling otherwise. Crowe's rapport with Bale, and their characters' developing friendship, is the crux of the film, but too often, especially in the film's first two thirds (the last third is very redeeming) it's overwhelmed and muddled by supporting characters, many of whom are played by actors not quite up to the task. (Dallas Roberts is particularly hammy as the railroad man; Ben Foster, thank God, gives a much more tempered turn than he did in Alpha Dog and is thus passable.) Ultimately, 3:10 to Yuma is too expansive, almost epic, that it loses sight of what ought to be its major focus. It takes far too long to get to the point, to get into Bale and Crowe's relationship and their similarities; some might defend it as characterization, but it seems to me like superfluous, scattershot filmmaking, the kind that wouldn't have passed muster in the old studio days. I'm all for revising the old ways and means, but palimpsestic films like 3:10 to Yuma ought not forget nor elide those things that used to work just fine, like lapidary storytelling.

11 September 2007

Carnal Knowledge (1971)

Written by: Jules Feiffer
Directed by: Mike Nichols

Grade: A-

A character portrait, both epic and intimate, that studies the sexual lives of two men, friends, over the course of the mid to late Twentieth Century, Carnal Knowledge does nothing if not remind us that life in post-war America was a lot dirtier than we're often led to believe. The script by Jules Feiffer, who, though known primarily as a cartoonist, wrote the screenplay for another 1971 study of American moral degradation, Little Murders, feels a little dated by today's standards, especially in its portrayal of college-aged sexual naivete (in this, the age of Superbad), but it touches on enough hard-hitting truths about the now universal character of modern romance to maintain a level of compelling convincibility and absorbing authenticity.

In its assessment of modern romance, Carnal Knowledge seems like a precursor to the films of Woody Allen, despite its lack of flaunted intellectualism or quick-witted hilarity. (The comparison seems especially obvious early on, when big band music of the sort Allen often features plays at a college mixer.) Carnal Knowledge is structured as three era-spanning glimpses into the evolving lives of college roommates Art Garfunkel and Jack Nicholson, from their university days as two vertices on a love triangle (the other being Candace Bergen) through the various relationships that fill the rest of their lives. Nicholson's the cocky, snaky one—"believe me," he says, in contrast to an assertion from Garfunkel, "looks are everything"—Garfunkel, the timid and impressionable type. Both are on a lifelong quest to find fulfillment in the opposite sex and wind up married, but lacking the capacity for love they can look only for sex, and they find domestication to lead to a lack of sexual fulfillment. "I'm so bored," Garfunkel sighs mid-way through the film, "I'm going out of my mind."

Both Feiffer (Little Murders began off-broadway) and director Mike Nichols came to this project from theater backgrounds, and Carnal Knowledge has a conspicuous theatricality to it, both structurally and formally. The visual patience works, though, in the film's favor, thanks to its sophisticated sense; Nichols never treats the material as a recorded stage play, but he does have a theater man's confidence in the text, as well as in the actors to shoulder the dramatic burden. Often, Nichols has Nicholson and Garfunkel, in conversation, stare directly into the camera, using the theatrical technique of direct address, incidentally forcing the audience, uncomfortably, to alternately identify (probably against their wills) with both leads. Nichols also often allows the camera to linger on a single character, visually (but not aurally) oblivious to the action beyond the frame, underlining the alienation that defines the characters' relationships to each other and the larger society. As Garfunkel cautions Nicholson, "you can't make fucking your life's work."

Nicholson's character overshadows Garfunkel's, becoming the most lucid avatar of psychological corruption in the film. "I want you!" his girlfriend pleads. "I'm taken," he answers, "by me!" Nicholson, as Twentieth Century American male, needs no love nor woman—to him, they are little else than pieces of ass, and as such always wind up only busting his balls. During the opening credits, we overhear Nicholson asking Garfunkel if, he had to choose one, he'd rather be loved or in love. Nicholson offers that he'd take the second, and by the end we know it's because he knows it's not something he could ever actually otherwise feel.

10 September 2007

Exiled (Fong Juk)

Directed by: Johnnie To
Written by: Szeto Kam Yuen & Yip Tin Shing

Grade: B

As it stands, Exiled makes a nice little trilogy of gangster (triad) films for Hong Kong director Johnnie To, but unfortunately it lacks the pensive grace that characterized his previous entry, Triad Election (aka Election 2.) This time around, To posits the gangster flick as a hybrid Western, set in the closest thing, in modern times, to a frontier, Macau on the eve of its 1999 transfer from Portuguese rule to semi-Chinese rule. Many of the action set pieces have traces of Sergio Leone, in the tense and protracted build-ups to shootouts, and of Sam Peckinpah, in the ultraviolent gunfights themselves. The characters drink shots of whiskey, saloon-style, and even rob a shipment of gold bullion from an armored car (a modern stagecoach), in an overall milieu of Victorian architecture (a Johnny Guitar style hotel) and urban lawlessness, where the police are established from the get-go as an ineffective and corrupt force of order. But this isn't exactly Stagecoach; the standard Code of the West is subverted here, as the characters act according to duty and loyalty not triumphantly but to their ultimate undoing.

Shot by To's frequent cinematographical collaborator Cheng Siu Keung, Exiled is rich in the same melancholic hues that characterized the Election dyad—Godfather/Gordon Willis-esque shades of deep and rich red, brown and gold—but this time around the content, except in brief flashes, doesn't seem to match the visual plaintiveness. As the story of a group of childhood gangster friends, now grown, forced into exile by their refusal to kill one of their own, there are some moments of ironic hilarity, including when two warring factions show up, following a battle, at the same underground clinic, and infrequent bursts of pathos in the leads' deep platonic bond, encapsulated in a sepia photograph of the crew, and Anthony Wong's hangdog expression, but mostly Exiled plays out as one long gunfight, occasionally stopped but always soon started up again. Though some of the sequences are marvelous the effect is, overall, exhausting.

Exiled might have more to offer in its political subtext, but it went straight over my American head. "It was a peaceful transition," a Macau police officer about to lose his job says, presumably ironically, near the end of the film after an epically savage bloodbath. If it's an allegory for the troubled transition, the incongruity, of the special administrative regions (the other being Hong Kong) into the "one country, two systems" system, I imagine it speaks more powerfully to the Chinese. All I could see was a cut-above genre picture.

05 September 2007

The Lives of Others

Written & Directed by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Grade: B+

"I'm your audience," Ulrich Mühe confesses to an actress in a bar somewhere in the middle of The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), and he means it in two ways: one, he has seen her perform on the stage but two, he is a member of the Stasi, the secret police arm of the East German government whose stated goal is "to know everything", and he has been keeping her and her playwright boyfriend under surveillance for some time. The Lives of Others is concerned with three things: ostensibly and obviously it tackles the effects of government oppression, specifically on the lives of artists, but on a subtler level it also addresses the transformative power of art and how our ordinary lives can be interpreted as narrative.

Sebastian Koch is a writer of plays, loyal, perhaps to a fault (at least according to some of the company he keeps) to the ideals of socialism and the German Democratic Republic. "He's our only non-subversive writer," a government minister remarks, one night, to Mühe while watching a performance of his latest play. But Koch has some questionable friends, and Mühe recommends they monitor him, on the basis that his loyalty is, counterintuitively, more suspicious than it is reassuring. Mühe's recommendations are acted upon, it turns out, because a superior official is having an affair with Koch's aforementioned girlfriend, Martina Gedeck, and he wants to muster up some dirt with which to dispose of his romantic rival. Because he discovers that the Stasi is trying to steal his woman, and because of the death of a director friend, driven to suicide by his inability to work in GDR due to government blacklisting, Koch is actually turned into a subversive when he wasn't much of one before; it's a powerful reminder, in the age of the Iraq War, that sometimes in trying to overcome our perceived enemies we actually wind up creating them.

The Lives of Others, filmed with cool precision to match the exacting equability of the Stasi, is more than just a tapping-into of the modernly universal fear of surveillance, which unfortunately didn't end with the fall of the Berlin Wall; it has an added dimension, and a much more interesting one at that, that deals with spectatorship and the nature of vicarious experience. Mühe is often cut to in his surveillance bunker, keeping an ear on the spied-upon couple as he transforms into a voyeur, in a sense becoming a representative of the audience, by proxy. When Mühe, who plays his scenes brilliantly, with the slightest fluttering of longing in his otherwise steely visage, changes political sides midway through the film, becoming an anonymous accomplice to Koch & Co.'s shady dealings, it's possible to ascribe several motivations: clearly, he's undergoing an awakening of conscience, evidenced by a scene in which he lets a loose-lipped little child off the hook, but in equal measure he's addicted to the show of Koch's life, fascinated by its passion and intimacies. Like a soap opera addict, he doesn't want his favorite show to end, as he's fallen for the characters in a very personal way, much like the average spectator might with the average narrative. (At one point, Mühe is reading a report of Koch's activities during his off-shift; the report reads, and looks, like a set of stage directions.)

The source of his political awakening is a romantic/artistic awakening; he secretly steals Koch's Brecht book to read, is brought to tears by Koch's playing of a Beethoven sonata, and ultimately, most importantly, he is led to betray his government for the sake of protecting what he sees as two deeply sympathetic characters. As such, The Lives of Others is not so much a condemnation of oppressive government (in fact, it suggests that freedom is actually art's enemy, that art thrives, in a burning sort of way, under the threat of oppression), but a celebration of the sacrifice and fortitude required to create, and the power of art to change the world.

03 September 2007


Written by: Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen
Directed by: Greg Mottola

Grade: B+

The opening credits of Superbad, featuring silhouetted dancers against dayglo backdrops, are a pastiche of '70s movies (and iPod commercials) but, despite several other nods to that decade, like the repeated, tiny eruptions of funk music throughout, it shares more in common with the teenage sex comedies of the '80s and '90s than with any American cinema from the Ford and Carter Administrations. But Superbad distinguishes itself from all of its forefathers in that it lives up to the promise of its genre by actually being quite funny, and surpasses the ilk of American Pie, to which it bears superficial resemblance, by being well crafted dramatically to boot, avoiding rote bathos to achieve genuine poignancy.

Much more so than Knocked Up, which was directed by Superbad producer Judd Apatow (currently comedy royalty in Tinseltown), Superbad feels like it might be the defining comedy of the decade, thanks in large part to the comedic rapport of underage stars Michael Cera and Jonah Hill, whose authentic yet crafted dialogue is painfully familiar to anyone who's been to high school (at least lately) and exceedingly modern in its prurience. Respectively named Evan and Seth after the screenplay's authors, Evan Goldberg and Apatow-regular/apparent protege, Seth Rogen, Hil, in stature and temperament, is a perfect mini-Rogen, but it's Cera, who should be well-known from playing Jason Bateman's son in the towering achievement known as Arrested Development, who steals the show; he's shaping-up already, at his young age, to be his generation's most brilliant straightman as he's able to obscure a layer of sincerity and pathos beneath a sheen of sheer comic skill.

Though Apatow is only marginally involved, the mastery of awkward teenagespeak that was on display in his television series Freaks and Geeks, co-created with Paul Feig (attentive fans will spot Martin Starr in a cameo, F&G's math teacher Steve Bannos as the math teacher as well as friends of the show David Krumholtz and Clement E. Blake), is Superbad's bedrock, as Hill, Cera and their lispy co-star Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who goes by the sobriquet McLovin for big laughs, interact with one another in a hilariously stylized, pop-culture savvy language of sexual fanaticism, while they interact with their peers, specifically the girls at their high school, with shyness and awkwardness since their driving desire for sex surpasses in strength their understanding of the rules and norms of a sexualized society; as David Denby writes, "they know more about sex than boys did a couple of decades ago, but they’re frightened by what they know." Their whole lives, in fact, seem to be based on an unhealthy overload of sexual knowledge and irrepressible lust. If their discussions aren't directly about sex, they're at least heavy in sexual imagery.

Set over the course of a single Friday-into-Saturday, Superbad is at its strongest early on, as the boys prattle on during the course of an ordinary school day, soon faced with a momentous task/dramatic-conflict: when invited, uncharacteristically, to a big party, they're put in charge of procuring booze for their respective love interests. (Their hope is that, once drunk, it will be far easier to convince the girls to engage in some form of sexual congress or, at least, tongue kissing.) The film slips a bit when the narrative forks at the end of the first act; Plasse winds up in the company of two irresponsible policemen (Bill Hader and Rogen), while Cera and Hill go on an adventure of Homeric proportions to get liquor and get to the party while their friendship slowly unravels. Superbad is one long coitus interruptus, a dry-dream nightmare, summed-up visually at one point when Plasse, on an all-night, police-custody bender, is prevented from firing a gun.

Superbad's comedy mostly deals in high obscenity and indecency, as in a hilarious sequence in which Hill confesses a childhood obsession with drawing big veiny cocks; but it also functions on a more serious level as well, revealing the (intentionally) strong current of homoeroticism that boils beneath Cera and Hill's relationship; the film is set during their last summer before they go off to their respective universities, and it's a source of tension between them as though they are two lovers who got too close, too serious, forgetting that it was just supposed to be a short fling. Cera's should-be-benign revelation that he plans to room with Plasse in the fall is read by Hill as an act of malice and infidelity, while later an awkward, late-night plethora of "I love you"s between the two leads leads to an awkward morning-after, set up like the product of a one-night stand.

But while their relationship is played homoerotically for laughs, Superbad winds up, surprisingly, a terribly affecting film about lost love, whether it's romantic or simply platonic. While Cera and Hill drunkenly, smilingly confessing to loving one another is the sort of thing you quote for weeks at parties, it's also clear, without being sappy, that they really mean what they're saying. Greg Mottola's direction is, for the entire film, impersonal and distanced (I don't mean that pejoratively, it's a perfectly satisfactory job), but he deserves major kudos for the film's stinging final shot on an escalator. Forget anything out of Syndromes and a Century, it's the most beautiful image of the year.