Thursday, August 23, 2007

Superbad, better, and worse

Dispatches from the dog days of the cinema summer:

Superbad. Not supergood, only middling. It's hard to see how comedies, even more character-attuned ones, about teen horniness and pregnancy augur some sort of revolution or changing tide in the genre, as very generous critics have written. Still, co-writer and co-star Seth Rogen wins bravery points for making "Seth" (Jonah Hill), the porn- and penis-obsessed chubby kid, sexually ambiguous--are we to read Knocked Up as a "beard" movie, or is he just acknowledging a basic fact about unformed teenage sexuality that other filmmakers tip-toe around? Crystal-clear is that Rogen should have given his dumb-cop character less of a role; like Knocked Up, the overlong film plays like the extended edition DVD, with all the wisely deleted scenes retained. (You can bet that when it does hit DVD audiences who have already seen it will be zeroing in on the "good stuff," and leaving Rogen and his partner on the home cutting room floor.) And there is good stuff: Michael Cera, taller but basically, happily unchanged since Arrested Development, and Hill are appealing leads. YouTuber Christopher Mintz-Plasse, cast as "McLovin," is completely sui generis, and his initiation into many adult tribal rites over the course of the evening is one of the film's more interesting aspects (director Greg Mottola, returning to cinema after 1996's The Daytrippers, has an eye for unexpected talent). Hill's obsessive childhood drawings are hilarious (the credited artist should expect big sales). But the big deal I don't get.

Deep Water (opens tomorrow, IFC Films). An absorbing documentary, co-directed by Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell. As America headed for the moon Britain was rapt as the first single-man attempt to circumnavigate the globe by boat, a competition sponsored by the Sunday Times, unfolded in 1968-1969. Struggling navigational aids salesman Donald Crowhurst, sailing his own self-made vessel, was the underdog in the race, but broke a world record. Then, prankishly submitting false daily mileage totals to further impress Fleet Street, in the hope that he would make up the differences, he fell far behind, a personal embarrassment that had catastrophic consequences as the loneliness of his near year-long voyage ate away at his mind and conscience. Tilda Swinton narrates, with Simon Russell Beale reading from Crowhurst's journals, a sobering account of disintegration and ruin augmented by his surviving family and friends, who continue to fathom his motives while mourning his passing. Of the many strong images that bring the 40-year-old story to life, the most eloquent is that of his abandoned craft, which languishes on a Caribbean atoll.

Death at a Funeral. The ads hopefully invoke Peter Sellers and Monty Python, but this is sub-A Fish Called Wanda hijinx at a memorial service in the English countryside, efficiently directed by farceur Frank Oz. The Yank contingent, a hysterically funny and oft-naked Alan Tudyk and a conniving Peter Dinklage, get the big laughs; the charm and workmanship, however, rest with its second-string Brits (like Rupert Graves, the ones not asked to make Harry Potter films). It was nice to see English rose Jane Asher as the wife of the deceased; the 60s-era muse of Paul McCartney has been "here, there, and everywhere" (a song she inspired) on the BBC but not in films, and she is still a smashing redhead at age 61.

Resurrecting the Champ (opens tomorrow, Yari Film Group). Samuel L. Jackson high-pitchedly wheezes his way through a scenario that ends up sentimentalizing identity theft. His homeless, punchdrunk ex-boxer claims to be a former world contender, which is catnip for a Denver reporter (Josh Hartnett), whose career is overshadowed by that of his sportscaster father. In the real world a reporter could easily Google or otherwise research Jackson's story; this being a film, however, the storyline ties itself into knots explaining how the fact-checking process failed as it all unravels in recriminations, hugs, and tears. Even if you can buy into its improbabilities this semi-true drama, from journalist-turned-filmmaker Rod Lurie, fails the smell test. Hartnett, an iceberg of a performer, warms up a little as an annoyingly mannered Jackson emotes all over the place; worse is desperate housewife Teri Hatcher, who is simply incredible as a high-powered sports agent. Lurie, a middlebrow hack who ought to have known better, next threatens a kinder, gentler remake of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs.

Dedication (opens tomorrow, The Weinstein Group). Billy Crudup wants to make a romantic comedy, but can't commit. Last summer's Trust the Man was soiled by misogyny; this one, a first film from actor Justin Theroux, is even worse, a cringingly awful bag of tics and quirks with Crudup as an emotionally remote and distrustful children's book writer who is forced to surrender his baggage when he falls for the writer assigned to his latest project, played by Mandy Moore. She's cute but no match for Hurricane Billy as he showboats madly, not that I didn't applaud his championing of Gamera the giant flying turtle, one of his character's many pet obsessions. Crudup, whose girlfriend, Claire Danes, recently dumped him for his British twin, Hugh Dancy, is about as luckless in film roles as he is in love, and should I think break away from his New York comfort zone to find parts more suitable to his talent, which needn't announce itself so harshly. With Bob Balaban, who is, I think, some sort of new mythological creature, half man, half desk, in another part where he is mostly visible only from the mid-torso up.

The Invasion. The first Body Snatchers film, in 1956, is one of the tautest B-movies ever; the 1978 remake, effectively transposed and richly peopled. The 1993 version drifted towards cipher characterizations, a pod-personing now completed as shrink Nicole Kidman, clad in tight sweaters, races bustline-first from D.C. to Baltimore to save her son from the ranks of the zomboid infected. (Part of it was shot at my in-laws' Baltimore condo/hotel complex, a picaresque place, gloomily shot, that has been relocated to the center of town). The main problem (other than the fact that it's completely routine, like Kidman's other failed redos and remakes, and has that hip, silly flash-forward editing and a flat happy ending) is its insistence that our propensity toward war and hostility is what defines us as human, which it doesn't really refute. It makes being a pod (or, in this case, projectile-vomiting person, an unappealing substitute) seem like a good deal, and suggests that maybe "podding" (or "projectiling") is something we might aspire to, but that we're not yet good enough for. Is ending all war and giving peace a chance being a pod person? Stupid. But what I'd expect from nominal Euro-hack director Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose films, like the Hitler bunker account Downfall, wallow in the shallows of human existence.

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