Forgetting Sarah Marshall
dir. Nicholas Stoller
Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god. I am going totally Geronimo-banana-bonkers over here. Someone actually made a really and truly enjoyable romantic comedy! And that "someone" isn't just any old Uncle Jerry-Joe McMiscellanewhoevers! It happens to be one sweet little plum pudding pie named Jason Segel, aka Nick Andopolis from Freaks and Geeks—which, for the purposes of this incredibly important sentence, happens to be the #1 best show ever made (just—seriously, can we not argue for one fucking night?).
Segel wrote and stars in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which was produced by Judd Apatow), the movie that dunked my week in delight and then stuffed it down the fun-time esophageal canal of entertainment. Formulaic to perfection, it's the story of a hapless, harmless musician named Peter (Segel) whose TV star girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Veronica Mars or whatever), dumps him for the world's Britishest rock 'n' roll longhair. Peter goes away on a vacation to nurse his broken heart but—surprise!(?)—Sarah Marshall and her new man are makin' nonstop lurve at the same resort! Daaaang!
Here's what makes it work: Segel's script takes this typical rom-com Mad Libs and fills in the blanks with sweet, human, relatable characters (not a Rob Schneider in sight!) and legitimately funny jokes. Sarah Marshall's hit show is a CSI clone called Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime, with Billy Baldwin doing his best Horatio Caine: "I think it's going to be hard for her to reenter the pageant... without a face." Sarah Marshall's douchebaggy beau gets political, maaaaan, with a sign that reads, "SODOMIZE INTOLERANCE." And Segel—kinda doughy, completely endearing—is the perfect down-and-out romantic comedy lead.
Also, there's this: 'Sup, America. Jason Segel knows what you're thinking. You're thinking: "Hmm, I wonder what is going on with Jason Segel's penis? I certainly would like to have a look." Right? Well, look you shall. Segel's down-below dirty front-parts appear in this movie at least as many times as Paul Rudd does. Or, to be specific, like, five. LINDY WEST
dir. Thomas McCarthy
The movie is fine.
The movie is fine, but Richard Jenkins is a miracle. Richard Jenkins has 77 film and TV acting credits to his name since 1974. He's best known as the father on Six Feet Under. He's probably lurking in your favorite film, where you recognize his anonymous, impassive white-guy face but don't know his name. Finally, he's the star of something: the second film by Thomas McCarthy.
McCarthy's first film, The Station Agent, was better. But it didn't have Richard Jenkins in it. (I am continuing to repeat both his first name and his surname so that both you and I can learn them once and for all.) In The Visitor, Richard Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a lonely professor whose every nerve seems to have been disconnected from its source. He's the walking dead—until he comes upon Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira), two illegal immigrants who have been tricked into taking up residence in his usually vacant Manhattan apartment.
It's a classic case of a white guy awakened from his slumber by the kiss of "exotic" others. He even takes up drumming with Tarek. At the pinnacle of all this harmony and cohabitation, Tarek is imprisoned by the immigration authorities, and the characters find themselves in the maw of the paranoid American bureaucracy.
None of this sounds particularly promising, but the writing is good, and then there is Richard Jenkins. He disappears in his scenes, which is a surprisingly powerful trick. It makes everything else brighter and more solid. He's a big, fat negative capability (can a negative capability be big and fat?). In The Visitor, he is the visitor; Walter Vale is a guest in his own character. He never takes up residence, and yet he's all you remember. JEN GRAVES
My Blueberry Nights
dir. Wong Kar Wai
My Blueberry Nights marks the first feature Wong Kar Wai has made without the assistance of cinematographer Christopher Doyle since Wong's 1988 debut, As Tears Go By. And the first images (shot by The Ruins' Darius Khondji) are not promising. The indecipherable mass quivering behind the credits—a rubbery pile of purple streaked by rivulets of milky white—eventually resolves into blueberry pie and ice cream, but not before you find yourself longing instead for the hot, gauzy look of In the Mood for Love. In My Blueberry Nights, you'll have to settle for nasty foodstuffs, simplistic color schemes (New York City has a violet cast, Memphis is sort of orange), and random obstacles being placed between the camera lens and the subject of the shot.
Norah Jones plays Elizabeth, an adorable NYC naif who gets dumped by her boyfriend and starts hanging out till closing time in a hyper-American (and hypo-Manhattanian) cafe owned by chatty Jeremy (Jude Law). Following a booze-and-pie bender, Elizabeth falls asleep on the counter with some ice cream on her lip. In a sequence first observed from a security camera in the corner (creepy!), Jeremy's head swoops down and blocks our view of Elizabeth's face. Apparently, he's kissing the food off her lips, but he might equally well have been gnawing her face off. (This is Jude Law, remember—the possibility of malice is always lurking.) Anyway, when a semiconscious, visually obscured, human-napkin makeout session is the emotional core of your movie, you've got a problem. My Blueberry Nights is just too unfortunate to be sexy.
Elizabeth soon decides she's afflicted by wanderlust and embarks on a cross-country road trip, interrupted by episodes of waitressing at dive bars. There, she runs into flawed but sympathetic freaks like a depressed, alcoholic cop (David Strathairn) and a charming gambling addict (Natalie Portman). The plot is dumb and the dialogue is dumber, and you can't help but wonder if Christopher Doyle might have made you forget about all that. ANNIE WAGNER
The Forbidden Kingdom
dir. Rob Minkoff
Other than Godzilla vs. Gamera, or the outcome of a footrace between Superman and the Flash, perhaps no topic inflamed video-store clerks in the early '90s like the following: Between the improvised, often life-threatening clowning of Jackie Chan and the gorgeous Zen blankness of Jet Li, who would win in a fight?
The two chop-socky icons do briefly duke it out in The Forbidden Kingdom, but, somewhat disappointingly, they spend most of their time on wires battling CGI ninjas and imparting life lessons to a young audience surrogate. Yeah, it's a dopey kid's movie, but—significant detail—one that feels like it was actually written for kids, rather than slumming thirtysomethings easily amused by pop-culture references. Also, whenever things threaten to get too schlocky, this amazing villainess with a magic bullwhip shows up.
Originally concocted as a bedtime story, John Fusco's script follows a Wu-Tang–obsessed twerp who gets transported back to feudal China via an only-slightly-Freudian magical staff. Once there, he teams up with a drunken poet (Chan) and a mysterious monk (Li) to return the staff to the mystically imprisoned Monkey King (Li again, mugging to a degree that would make Rip Taylor blanch). Fusco and director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) certainly know their martial arts clichés (drunken fracas in a teahouse, people pausing midkick to announce their preferred martial arts style, old white-haired dude with freaky eyebrows, etc.) and execute them faithfully, if rather mechanically. The resulting nostalgic fluff isn't a patch on Jet and Jackie's glory days, but it makes for a more-than- passable two hours, especially those parts with the aforementioned bullwhip. Oh, and for the record, Gamera all the way. ANDREW WRIGHT
dir. Bruce Van Dusen
You've seen Backseat before—it's an indie slacker dramedy from 2005 that feels like any indie slacker dramedy from the last decade or so. Watching it is like eating at a Chili's—another replication of a familiar experience that offers no surprises and gratifies every expectation. Which is just fine, if you're into thirtysomethings, gnawing self-doubt, and jalapeño poppers.
Two NYC pals—let's call them Dumb Actor and Sad Sack—borrow a car and drive to Montreal, ostensibly so Dumb Actor can meet Donald Sutherland, who frequents a restaurant staffed by a relative of Sad Sack's. Or something like that. Really, the trip is a (spoiler alert!) voyage of self-discovery and a chance to give the people what they want: Dumb Actor is a wannabe lothario, Sad Sack is stuck with a mean girlfriend, the car breaks down, the pals ruminate on their wayward lives, they fight a little, they hurt each other, they make up, they meet chicks, they have a few adventures (involving a big bag of cocaine and a seedy motel manager), and Sad Sack has a transformative moment in which he temporarily becomes a badass.
This transformative moment is Backseat's one surprise, as it involves the sudden appearance of several guns. Even after plugging the bag of cocaine into the Predictable Plot-o-Meter, no one was expecting so many guns, so suddenly. And this moment contains one of the movie's funnier exchanges, which goes like this:
Sad Sack: "Why does everybody have a gun?" Dumb Actor: "It's your First Amendment right!" Sad Sack: "Second Amendment." Dumb Actor: "What?" Sad Sack: "Second Amendment—right to bear arms." Dumb Actor: "It is?"
Voilà. BRENDAN KILEY
dir. Pierre Salvadori
A romantic farce with a plot as thin as a credit card, Priceless is the story of Irène, a hardened gold digger who preys on elderly men at lavish parties and seaside resorts. Except it's a French movie, with sweetie-pie Audrey Tautou as the minx—and despite the screenplay's occasional protestations to the contrary, there's nothing remotely arch or calculating about her appetite for wealth. In one dinner scene, Irène reports that she orders caviar not because she likes it, but because she needs to learn to eat it convincingly. We're supposed to feel sorry for this needy woman and her big brown eyes, not admire her skills.
Condescension is the quality that has aged worst in Breakfast at Tiffany's (well, if you don't count the yellowface), and you'd think a latter-day imitation like this one would drop the pretense of Irène's essential naiveté. But Priceless just finds her an equally naive boy toy. Irène's newest paramour is Jean (the blue-eyed, droopy-lidded Gad Elmaleh), a bellboy and bartender at a swank hotel who believes that being mistaken for a rich man by a woman like Irène is a stroke of luck. Ha! She takes him to bed—the sex scenes are very demure—and promptly clears out his retirement accounts.
After a couple more improbable social demotions (mistaken for a bellboy, Jean becomes a kept man) and promotions (gossip endows him with royal blood), Jean ends up with better taste in clothes, while Irène rediscovers the simple delights of sleeping on a beach. Clearly, they are made for each other—even though they have zero chemistry. It's not often that one finds oneself yearning for a French film to indulge in a touch more cynicism, but this is what Audrey Tautou hath wrought. ANNIE WAGNER
dir. Stephen Walker
Considering that human beings have been eating, singing, dancing, and dying for more than 200,000 years, you'd think we'd be as good at dying as we are at eating and singing and dancing. But we're not. Getting older, falling apart, and dying "is not an appealing prospect, and people naturally prefer to avoid the subject of their decrepitude," Atul Gawande wrote in a fantastic piece of reporting about medicine for old people published in the New Yorker in April 2007. According to Gawande's reporting, "Throughout most of human history, a society's population formed a sort of pyramid: young children represented the largest portion—the base—and each successively older cohort represented a smaller and smaller group," but advances in the treatment and prevention of diseases have changed that. "Today, we have as many fifty-year-olds as five-year-olds. In thirty years, there will be as many people over eighty as there are under five."
In other words, there are a bunch more old people wandering around than ever before, and they have nothing to do. This is essentially why the Young@Heart group (the subject of this documentary) started meeting in 1982 and continues to meet to this day. The group gives old people something to do—namely, learning the lyrics to popular songs and traveling the world performing them. The group's director is a not-old guy, Bob Cilman, who thinks men and women in their 70s and 80s singing songs by Sonic Youth and Coldplay is hilarious, inspiring, a good thing. The old coots, for their part, accept the challenges with gratitude. Because, suddenly, singing is all they have. When one of them dies before a big performance—well, you sort of knew it was coming. We all know what's coming. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE
Where in the World
Is Osama bin Laden?
dir. Morgan Spurlock
Morgan Spurlock's first film, Super Size Me, was a thought experiment gone sickeningly gonzo, but his newest documentary is straight from the Michael Moore playbook: Insert yourself into an issue that an hour-long episode of Frontline could have covered more rigorously, add gratuitous animation, and never for an instant doubt your own charisma.
Faced with the imminent birth of his first child, Spurlock pretends to freak out about the rise of global terrorism. What better way to make the world a safer place for your kid than to track down Osama bin Laden—simultaneously earning a multibillion-dollar bounty to put toward college? Off he tromps to Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia (where he interviews some nervous students and their minders at bin Laden's high school), Israel (where he almost provokes a riot in a camera-shy ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Tel Aviv), and—maybe if he'd done some research, he could've saved some time and started here—the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, courtesy of the United States Army and your tax dollars. Unsurprisingly, he doesn't have the guts to play tourist in North Waziristan, so at this point the entire enterprise grinds to a halt.
The film pretends to discover that Arabs are people, too—but of course Spurlock knew that in the first place. His film consistently condescends to the non-Americans it portrays while pandering to its American audience. He conducts short interviews in English, being careful to keep his interpreters off-camera and mic; whether his subjects respond in French or Urdu, he nods dumbly, feigning sympathy even when they say outrageous things. The film conveys a bare minimum of historical or sociological information, content to assert that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been erratic and that poverty and joblessness feed terrorism. Meanwhile, the hodgepodge of animation more than once approaches racist caricature. Spurlock should really stick to hamburgers. ANNIE WAGNER