July 19, 2005

Wedding Crashers

Wedding Crashers is a messy sort of film starring two modern comedy heavyweights finally unleashed from their PG-13 expectations. We've seen this storyline many times before, but Vaughn and Wilson attack it with such low-key ferocity that stars of lesser films of this ilk are revealed for the pretenders to the throne that they are.
Unquestionably, what allows this film to stand out from the other derivative crap is its rating. Finally, a modern screwball comedy that doesn't feel the strain of pushing PG-13 limits. The picture is comfortably R; not border-line PG-13, not hard R, just R. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it gives it a somewhat raunchier spin than we've been used to lately.
Like all meeting-the-family comedies, this one features jokes with the inappropriate grandmother. Heavily mined terrain, but here the shock value comes as much from what's being said as the fact that it's an elderly woman that is saying it. Another scene involving Vince Vaughn's character and a priest will surely go down as one of the most hilarious film moments of 2005. And Christopher Walken plays against type as a father-in-law that — rather than being the expected villain of the piece — actually conveys some genuine warmth.
It's details like this that elevate Wedding Crashers, if only slightly, above what I expected. This is a name picture, and the two leads are charismatic enough to keep the picture afloat through the dry patches. Even when the movie wasn't doing anything new, their characters were enjoyable enough to sustain my interest — much like the easy pleasure of crashing in front of the tube to distant repeats of a well-oiled sitcom. Vaughn and Wilson only worked together once before, in last year's surprisingly enjoyable Starsky & Hutch. But they star with the same people enough that their on-screen chemistry is almost expected as a matter of course. They bounce of each other with ease, two different styles of understated comedy coping in differing and fascinating ways with an onslaught of slowly escalating insanity.
Their command over the picture is tested late in the game when a frequent co-star of both Wilson and Vaughn makes a cameo appearance. The fact that the marketing team didn't blaze his name across every trailer is a minor miracle, and I will not ruin the surprise here. Suffice to say that it is the modern equivalent of John Belushi blasting in on the proceedings, and it is a sign of the wonderful dynamic forged between the two stars that they are never once in danger of losing command of the screen.
This film will never go down in history as a classic about great and important things. Yet it is fun, immature, wild, and quite probably inspired. The perfect summer movie, it is fun and harmless; a happy night at the movies, without all the sharp edges sanded smooth. ()


July 04, 2005

Uptown Girls on DVD

Molly Gunn and her father's guitar
The original title of Uptown Girls was Molly Gunn, which gives me an idea of what this movie was before the MGM marketing department wreaked its havoc upon it. This film is packaged and marketed as as girly-girl comedy, but underneath is a film of surprising grace and power. Revisiting it two years later, it still managed to get under my skin.
Like any Boaz Yakin picture, the cinematography is inventive and marvellous and the performances far more engaging than they have any right to be. Don't let the title or menu fool you; stirring under the farcical moments (which can border on asinine) is one of the most stirring portraits of desperation and revivification I've ever seen. Much like its characters, this film quickly grows past the stereotypes it seems to be doomed to occupy.
Molly Gunn is a creature of histrionics, but the emotional moments are quiet, and true. The trailers would have you believe that the rigid little girl, Ray, is every irritating precocious child character wrapped up into one, but this is not so. She is no more or less fragile than Molly, though they look in the opposite places to cope. It is this fact that makes they perfect for each other, yes, and the simple fact that they both are willing to care.
Ray on her way to an amusement park for the first time; the idea of it bemuses her.

One of the film's many inventive shots
Uptown Girls is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer which preserves its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is generally pleasing, with colours as I remember them and detail and sharpness usually as good as one could expect. However, grain was occasionally obtrusive, and there are print defects if you look for them. Edge enhancement was minor but present. The most shocking flaw was compression artifacts, which I thought had been eradicated from modern transfers.

The love interest takes to the stage one last time.
The Dolby Digital track never rises above the pack, but I have no real complaints for what it is. Dialog always remains clear, with motion across the front of the soundstage that rarely makes it into the rear channels. Bass is strong, particularly for the music, but never stands out. The music is mixed well, never overpowering the dialog or fading into the background. A comfortable track that never does anything good or bad to call attention to itself.

This menu is everything that makes me cringe about marketing today.
One of the most disgustingly girly menus I've ever laid eyes on, this single disc release never the less has a number of interesting special features.
"The Lowdown on Uptown" is a thirteen-minute featurette plays out like your typical fluff piece, standing out because the participants are generally a little more honest than usual. The director openly defies the marketing edict to lay out what it's really about. Brittany Murphy pats a few too many backs, but it's more charming than irritating. We learn that Dakota Fanning is what got the film greenlit, a fact which clearly bemused the director at the time. But the back and forth comments between Yakin, Fanning, and Murphy is filled with anecdotes that transcends the "What a joy it is to work with..." comments these usually have. I also love Turk on Scrubs, so any extra Donald Faison goodness is welcome. It was also nice to hear Yakin go into the look and influences at play in the film. That exploration is another way this is just a smidgen better than an EPK.
"Rockin' Style" is a featurette on the costumes. This is also pretty standard fare, but some of the costumes took more ingenuity that you expect from seeing the film; the rare craft featurette that has a bit of personality.
"Video Stills Gallery" takes what would be in the average DVD's stills gallery and sets them to motion against music. The concept seems pretty iffy on paper, but I found it far more engaging than flipping through manually with the remote. The way it's put together actually manages to create some energy with the stills.
The vast majority of the "Deleted Scenes" embrace the qualities that the marketing campaign played up. Since this film is at its worst when it tries to play up the slapstick, I was fairly relieved that these didn't make it into the film; many are really groaners.
"Music Video: Chantal Kreviazuk - 'Time'" is exactly what is says. I've been a fan of the song since I heard it in a Smallville episode a while back. Time is a powerful theme in the movie, so it seems like it would be a good fit. Efforts to integrate the video with the movie are mixed, however, sometimes it works great, sometimes it doesn't work at all. Chantal's lip syncing is also less than perfect. I'm glad it was included though, as one of the movie's few tie-ins.
"Soundtrack Spot" does little more than make me hate sky blue and pink just a little bit more.
"Theatrical Trailer" is just that, presented in anamorphic widescreen.
"Other Great MGM Releases" is pretty much the same ads you find on all DVDs anymore; at least this one avoids sticking them before the menu.

Uptown Girls
is a movie that shouldn't have been good, but is. Once it abandons the early slapstick and stereotypes, the film becomes almost entirely enjoyable and at time incredibly stirring, with two leads that know how to hit the right emotional notes. The DVD, like the movie, is better than you'd expect - a good case for not judging a book by its cover. Strongly recommended.

July 03, 2005

War of the Worlds

Let me say right off the bat that this incarnation of War of the World has one of the most inappropriate and embarrassingly awful endings I've ever seen. Lest you think my problem is with the story itself, think again; the concept is one of the great masterstrokes of science fiction, one whose novelty far exceeds the drawback of the plot holes that result. I loved Signs, I loved the original Wells story. The embarrassment of the ending is unique to this particular telling.
And yet I find myself forced to recommend the film even considering, because everything up to that point represents disaster filmmaking at its finest and most horrifyingly real. I've never seen an alien invasion but if I'd had I'm certain it would almost exactly like this. The tripods are an aesthetic decision, a nod back to the source material. But the view from the ground nails human nature more accurately and more comprehensively than any film I can remember. There is a moment early on where Rachel gives her father parenting advice. It raises the irritating precocious child red flag and is notable for being the only time I doubted the believability of a character's actions in the entire movie.
And thank God, because the film peaks with its human moments. I winced at moments of humanity's worst, like when men murder innocents without hesitation such is their desperation for a leg up in the game of survival. I was inspired by moments of humanity's best, as when the son risks helping a couple people onto a ferry after he has already made it to safety. I've seen masterpieces with one view or the other, but by placing them in sharp relief within the same movie, Spielberg allows the reality to finally cut through the editorializing. The matter-of-fact presentation is the opposite of what we expect from him, and gives the money shots real power. When we see bodies floating down the Hudson, for instance, he allows the image itself to do the talking — its lack of fanfare caught me off-guard and shook me to my core. Likewise, there is a sequence where Rachel sings herself a lullaby while her father does what must be done behind her that is a formalistic masterstroke, presented in the most realistic of ways. I have seen other sequences in other movies that operate off the same principle. None achieves what this does here, surely one of the best of Spielberg's career.
Both War of the Worlds and Mars Attacks! feature tripods firing heat rays that vaporize people. The fact that the former never once reminded me of the latter throughout its entirety speaks to the staggering level of verisimilitude achieved here. They operate as opposite ends of the same spectrum, with the decision to shoot the majority of exteriors on-location grounding the proceedings with an inherent reality that the other apocalypse movies can't even approach.
So it is that an ending which very nearly undoes everything the movie has worked so hard for previously cannot entirely rob this film of its power. Snip off that final scene and move right into the closing narration, and this film would have surpassed Batman Begins as the best film of the year. Even as it stands, there's far too much greatness here to be ignored. ()