When you get snowed in every couple of days, and you live across the street from a video store, you end up watching lots of movies. Here are some I'm "late" reviewing.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters (U.S., 2007) * *
D: Matt Maiellaro & Dave Willis
Before you fans attack me for the two-star review, let it be known that I am one of the original fans of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, although I haven't watched it in a few years. I used to look forward to the block of late-night Cartoon Network programming called Adult Swim, which, amidst reruns of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, would feature Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, Sealab 2021, The Brak Show, and the Aqua Teens, all of which fused supremely poor animation with non sequitur, quasi-hallucinogenic comedy. Adult Swim continues, expanded and more popular than ever, but for me watching the inevitable feature-length film based on ATHF was an act of nostalgia. (I always preferred the early days of Adult Swim, with lots of recycled Hanna-Barbera animation, and, God, those brilliant early episodes of Harvey Birdman, and the Captain Murphy era of Sealab...but anyway.) For about half an hour, I was enjoying the hell out of the Aqua Teen movie. There's a great parody of "Let's Go Out to the Lobby" which opens the film, and typically bizarre humor involving ancient Egypt, Abraham Lincoln, and a legendary exercise machine. It might take the non-initiated quite a while to figure out that the humor isn't supposed to make sense; the more dizzying the momentum, the more irrelevant the digressions, the better. But the movie drags on to 80 minutes, and it's important to remember that the Adult Swim version lasted no longer than 12 minutes. Those shorts were euphoric bursts of mayhem, followed by commercials, followed by another inexplicable program. To drag out this brand of comedy to feature length is fatal. And I'm surprised by that. I found myself thinking of the Mr. Show feature film spin-off Run Ronnie Run, in which David Cross and Bob Odenkirk took Ronnie Dobbs, just one of the hundreds of characters on their brilliant HBO sketch show, and developed his personality over a straight-faced plotline with very few irreverent digressions. Their approach had its logic: it's difficult to write a sketch-comedy movie that can sustain interest for 90 minutes, and even the Pythons hammered out plotlines for Holy Grail and Life of Brian. But with Run Ronnie Run you felt that they were taking their plot too seriously. The audience couldn't care that deeply for a one-joke character. They needed more digressions, like the profane, Jack Black-led Mary Poppins parody which is that film's high point. On the other hand, the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie proves that if you have no plotline (well, a very insubstantial one), you can fall off the other edge of the cliff. The film's just a chore. But I suspect that if you chop it up into 12-minute segments, and watch it one day at a time, it will be restored to full hilarity. This may take some surgery, but I think we can save the patient.
Knocked Up (U.S., 2007) * * *
D: Judd Apatow
Much was made by the press that the summer of 2007 would be the season--if not the year--of Judd Apatow, who already had a major hit in 2005 with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and was now releasing Knocked Up, which he directed, and Superbad, which he produced with Knocked Up's star, Seth Rogen, co-writing. It was, I suppose--as much as these things matter (which they don't; I don't think audiences were screaming, "It's the summer of Apatow!" while leaving the theater). Both films--smart, crude, sarcastic, and funny--were hits. I don't even know why I'm going through all this with you. You already know everything you need to know about Judd Apatow, and you've seen Knocked Up, most assuredly before I did, and you've come to your opinion. Still, let me tell you the plot: unemployed stoner Ben (Rogen), on an extraordinarily good night, flirts successfully with entertainment news host Alison (Katherine Heigl), and sleeps with her. Because of some bedroom confusion, he didn't wear a condom, and several weeks later she learns she's pregnant; unexpectedly, she decides to get to know Ben better rather than ditching him entirely, which leads to dating, love, etc. If the plot is conventional, the execution is not. Apatow is a master of populating his comedies with convincingly human characters. Ben seems real, perhaps because he's modeled so closely upon Rogen himself. Certainly Alison's sister, Debbie (Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann), convinces--I have a friend exactly like her--as well as her husband, Pete (Paul Rudd, behaving like Paul Rudd). All of these actors are excellent, including Heigl, although it is very difficult to believe that she'd fall in love with Ben so quickly. In fact, it almost seems like a crucial scene is missing: a moment when Ben sacrifices something for her, so that she can see his commitment, and thus see him for more than he'd presented. That scene, actually, comes at the very end of the film, but long before then she's confessed her love, and they've pursued an active sexual relationship. (This leads to a wonderful little scene in which Ben, deathly afraid of harming the unborn baby, tries to find the safest sexual position.) Anyway, it's an obvious flaw that somehow doesn't seem that important, since the film is so consistently funny, the characters so likable. You want to hang out with Apatow's friends, in Apatow's universe. Yes, if only it were always the summer of Apatow.
Tekkonkinkreet (Japan, 2006) * * 1/2
D: Michael Arias
Regular readers of this blog know that I'm a rabid fan of original, boundary-stretching animation. What I like most about Michael Arias' Tekkonkinkreet (original name Tekon kinkurîto, which I presume is pronounced "Tom Tancredo") is that it does not resemble any other Japanese anime ever made. The characters don't have the oversized, expressive features typical of anime and manga, but diminutive eyes placed just a little too far apart; though admittedly, their mouths stretch as wide as any Sailor Moon, and the central characters, "Black" and "White"--two kids who preposterously are the ganglords ruling over a Japanese district called "Treasure Town"--sail through the air and land from great heights with little apparent damage. They are our escorts through this bizarre metropolis, a landscape of lavishly detailed painted backgrounds. There's an elevated train, a clocktower with an animatronic Ganesh, and countless blocks of seedy movie theaters. Pursuing the two boys--the younger of whom is nearly autistic--is a new gang-boss, who controls superhuman warriors who may or may not be extraterrestrial. Just when this disproportionate gang battle begins to heat up, little White is severely injured and taken out of Black's custody and into a home where he begins to furiously sketch out crayon visions, most curiously of some evil entity he calls the Minotaur. Whatever the film means in concrete terms escapes me completely--and this is coming from someone who claims to understand Akira. Obviously the film is ultimately about loyalty and friendship, and on a basic level it works--and the action scenes are exciting. But the climax is a bit of a puzzle, and there's a long lull leading up to it which is genuinely morose (and curious). American FX wizard Arias' first film is successful as an experiment in style, not storytelling. I'm anxious to see what he does next.