Hornswaggler | The culture, the humor, a bit of the sports, not so much the politics, and the workplace distraction

Hornswaggle is an alternate spelling of hornswoggle, an archaic word that means to bamboozle or hoodwink. I take my pronunciation from the late Harvey Korman in "Blazing Saddles" --

"I want rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, conmen, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswagglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass kickers, shit kickers and Methodists!"

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Untimely meditations: capsule reviews

"Pineapple Express" -- Let's start with the least timely. I picked this up recently at Blockbuster during a used DVD sale.

"Pineapple" won me over in the second half. The beginning is a little slow and not that funny, but things begin to turn around at about the 45-minute mark, which, not coincidentally, is when Danny McBride makes his first extended appearance. McBride plays Red, the drug-dealer buddy of Saul (James Franco). He's hilarious, and probably the best thing in the movie, along with Bill Hader's cameo in the opening sequence, Franco and Craig Robinson (as an enforcer named Matheson). Now I'm going to have to rent "The Foot Fist Way," which apparently was the role that got McBride noticed, and check out "Eastbound and Down." (He was in "Tropic Thunder" too, though not nearly as funny there as here.)

Though the "making of" feature shows that a lot of thought went into this movie, it still feels slapdash at times. There were several little things they could have done to tighten up the realism. For instance, there's a scene where two hit men have come for Saul and Dale (Seth Rogen) at the home of Dale's girlfriend's family, where the hit men are in the not incredibly large home yet oblivious to the presence of Saul/Dale/family, even though they're having a loud argument in the garage. Why not have them engage in a whispered conversation? That may be quibbling, but what about this: When a cop runs a check on Dale in her cruiser, the readout tells her "arrest on site." Shouldn't that be "arrest on sight"?

Still, the movie does some good things, particularly the blend of action and comedy in the final act. Director David Gordon achieves a balanced tone where the action scenes contain moments that are actually funny, which is rare, and the violence isn't so over-the-top that it squashes the humor.

Rogen is the driving force behind the movie: writer, producer, actor. Despite his stoner goofball persona, you can tell he's an intelligent guy and relatively savvy as a moviemaker. But I think the Judd Apatow crew tends to overestimate his charm and personal magnetism just a smidge. "Knocked Up" never fully worked for me because I didn't buy the Rogen-Katherine Heigl pairing at all.* And there's a scene early in "Pineapple" where Rogen, who plays someone who is 25, is talking to his 18-year-old, high school girlfriend,** and she says she can't wait for him to meet her parents, so they can see how "great" and "funny" and "sexy" he is. Granted, the purpose of that line is to set up Rogen's reaction -- "You want them to know I'm sexy?" (paraphrase) -- but I'm sorry, no hot 18-year-old girl is going to find a 25-year-old dude who looks like Seth Rogen sexy unless her judgment is clouded by the knowledge that he's a famous, multimillionaire actor and writer. Maybe I'm just jealous of Seth Rogen. Let's move on.

*It would've worked better with someone who is pretty but not turn-around-and-stare hot, like Jenna Fischer maybe, but I guess they figured they needed some star power to ensure box office draw.

**You've got to admire the way Apatow/Rogen cavalierly smash tabboos -- there's also a scene where Saul and Dale sell weed to and get high with middle-schoolers.

"Up in the Air" -- George Clooney has a knack for starring in overrated movies: "Out of Sight," "Three Kings," "Michael Clayton" and now "Up in the Air," a film of remarkably limited scope and ambition given the hype it's received. The film is billed by its boosters as having something Important to tell us about the American experience, but compared to recent movies that actually do that -- for my money, and off the top of my head, "American Beauty," "Brokeback Mountain" and "There Will Be Blood" -- "Up in the Air" doesn't have much to say.

Clooney travels a lot, as do several million U.S. businessmen and women (though how many people spend 250 or so days a year on the road? Can't say I identify with that). But the significance of all this travel never becomes apparent. Clooney feels at home on the road. Okay. But why? What does that say about his character? What is it that makes him so desperate to avoid attachments? We never find out. Despite a mild transformation in the final act, there just isn't much evidence of Clooney's interior life.

The other thematic prong to this movie's supposed importance is that Clooney's job is firing people. Given the state of the economy, that's a timely theme to explore. But aside from some culled-from-real-life reactions of fired employees, there's no depth to it. Clooney enjoys his job, or at any rate is not depressed or much bothered by it. Even when he undergoes the aforementioned mild transformation, he never ceases being okay with his gig. Yet he's not an antihero, and this isn't a black comedy. We like our mostly amiable protagonist, even though he profits from the losses of others, but we're not led to question our empathy for him.

As for Clooney, I'm not sure why he's been nominated for Best Actor. Now, as Barack Obama might say, "Look, let's be clear" -- I love George Clooney. I love him in that special, mostly platonic way one man can love another man he's never met. But although he gives a nice performance here, he isn't called upon to do much more than squint and smirk, as is too often the case.

In sum: "Up in the Air" isn't bad. It's just vastly overhyped. Jason Reitman, who also directed "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno," is off to a very good start to his career. But this film is not worthy of Best Picture.

"Paranormal Activity" -- This is freaky little movie, and it builds to a genuinely scary climax. It's kind of like "Blair Witch," but without most of the annoying stuff. The director cleverly avoids Eddie Murphy's "Too bad we can't stay, baby!" axiom* by having the threatening force be a demon, not a ghost. It's attached to the girl instead of the house, so she and her boyfriend can't simply move to be rid of it. That said, I would have moved. I would have followed the sun up to the North Pole and camped on the tundra if necessary. Or gone to Las Vegas and just set up shop on the floor of a casino. Though I guess eventually you'd be arrested for loitering or whatever and tossed in the can, which probably isn't a good place to be tortured by a paranormal entity. A common crapper in the middle of the cell and a demon? That's rough.

The premise is that the boyfriend sets up a camera to record everything that's going on. But his insistence that he can fix the problem if they just keep trying to figure it out goes on a bit too long. This is a demon, not a faulty light fixture, sucka. Unless you got a proton pack, it's time ta go. In another plot contrivance, the psychic they bring over to check things out tells them he can't help them -- they need to speak to his colleague, a demonologist, who is sadly but conveniently out of town for a few days. Look, I would flown out and interrupted that demonologist's honeymoon. I would have Googled every demonologist on the planet. "You're in Waziristan? No problem! I'll be on a plane tonight." What I wouldn't have done is remain in that house.

*Google "eddie murphy haunted house delierious" for a NSFW clip.

"It's Complicated" -- I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. My dad even liked it (we dragged him to it over the holidays), which was shocking, because typically he is to Hollywood as a vampire is to garlic. This is the guy who took me to see "Fannie and Alexander" when I was 8.

What I liked about "It's Complicated" is that it tackles adult themes -- fidelity, being a parent while also trying to find romantic happiness -- and deals with them in an adult manner. The star, national treasure Meryl Streep, has not had her face botoxed, snipped and tightened into grotesque paralysis.* She has wrinkles. And it makes her more appealing, not less so. You hear me, Nicole Kidman? ... What's that? You're lips aren't moving. No, I can't .... Are you ... did you say something? I don't understand.

*Not sure I can say the same about Steve Martin. There's something going on there with his peepers.

.: posted by hornswaggler 9:10 PM

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