The High Countries

because it’s all paperweight…

Get Smart (2008)

Steve Carrell LOST season 4 Get Smart

Secret Agent Maxwell Smart (Carell) and Agent 86 (Hathaway) in the Mel Brooks favorite, Get Smart.

Didn’t Miss By Much

By Bryce VanKooten

I can’t decide if I like Steve Carell (Maxwell Smart) more when he is silent or when he is talking. Either way he’s a master. Up until about a year ago, I was unsure if he could do anything besides scream with a straight face, although I won’t lie, whether it was newscast gibberish or Kelly Clarkson expletives––I laughed every time. It wasn’t until his role in Little Miss Sunshine that I really appreciated his acting skills and thus, more fully understood the broad range of talent. Still, Get Smart is not about acting; it’s about popcorn. Plain and simply––great laughs, solid entertainment, fun for all the cousins.

Carell delivers once again in this altered, but still very friendly adaptation of Mel Brooks and Buck Henry’s classic mid-1960s TV series, which starred the late, great Don Adams as super-spy Maxwell Smart, a.k.a. Agent 86. For many, Adams will forever be the true Agent 86, and if you see the movie and can’t get over that, I understand, but nonetheless Get Smart, the movie, brings Mel Brooks kind of humor to a new generation––families included.

Obviously an Oscar-worthy movie (let alone the performance…geez, nominate the guy), it’s clear that Carell was born to play this role. Very rarely (and before recent missteps, Will Ferrell seemed to be reaching this plateau) is an actor or actress so brilliantly comedic that they can simply stand on a stage, saying nothing, and get laughs. Think back to the days of Carol Burnett. Or even Bob Hope doing the Oscars. Both comic giants, at ease in any situation––the audience overwhelmed with their charm. I would like to think that this aura is simply ‘comedic charm’, but more eloquently, it is probably closer to ‘comedic genius’. Not that this movie solely places Steve Carell in comedic lore, but it definitely doesn’t hinder his rise. Once again, he holds any scene he’s in and has you shifting in your seat, leaning slightly forward as not to miss an off-the-cuff reference or quip. With Anne Hathaway playing the uptight, overbearing feminist and Carell fitting nicely as the blatant nitwit, there’s little time left for the gadgets to get laughs, save one.

The funniest scene of the entire film takes place in an airplane restroom. Hands tied, seeking freedom from his bonds (seen briefly in the trailer) Maxwell Smart attempts to free himself by using his weapon of choice: a miniature crossbow. Hilarity ensues, as aiming the bow with his mouth becomes something of a nightmare and the plane’s metallic surroundings causing unintended physics. Refusing defeat after the first couple misfires; this scene builds as we watch the entire sheath unloaded, one painful shot at a time. This sequence alone is worth the price of admission and combined with an obese waltz during a fancy gala, your cheeks will likely have had enough hilarity.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of robust corny comedy throughout the movie; more specifically––anything that happens in the Control hallway, but outside of faltered gags (which may be eliminated––I saw 6-months early test screening), the movie flows well. Alan Arkin is superb as the Chief and Borat’s own Ken Davitian (Shtarker) brings normalcy to the utterly ridiculous––this guy would have been at home in any Mel Brooks ensemble. The other actors, although working well in the flow of the film, rarely hit homerun jokes. From the ‘Silent Force Field’ to the rooftop fight sequence, one thing is true: no question, Steve Carell is funny. His timing and his flair for Death-Valley-dry under-acting make him a perfect 86, with the entire film serving as testament to his on-screen charisma––not to mention, he fits a suit better than most. Get Smart is a breath of fresh, classic air in a time of raunch-fest comedies like Semi Pro, and the upcoming and completely worthless Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Dare I say, “Best Comedy of the Year”? Ah, missed it by that much.
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*This review is based on a February 2008 test screening

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May 6, 2008 Posted by | Entertainment, Film Reviews, Television | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Matthew (Jonah Hill) looks on with Peter Bretter (Jason Segel) in one of the film’s rare clothed moments.

I Can Forget Soon Enough

By Bryce VanKooten

The night was quiet. The bold spring sunset had faded from existence and most of us were freshly done with our final papers, save one man. Andy, one of my dorm-mates — brilliant, lazy, looks exactly like you think he would — had yet to start his paper. In that moment of steady disregard for anything related to planning, an infamous quote was born. “The key to writing a great paper is hiding poor ideas behind great structure.” It was not until now that I fully realized the truth of his words. Today, after a long viewing of a bellowing, sub par film, I’m amazed that others (even a team of professionals) have yet to figure it out.

Last night I lost just under two hours of my life. Not to sleep (which I would have traded ten times over), but to the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall. As I entered the theater, I was convinced that sitting in the front row would not ruin my experience. Despite my carnal intuition, this movie could not have more needless sex than Jud Apatow’s previous films (40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, etc). I had been invited for free, how super-bad could it get? Ah, who doesn’t love famous last words…

For my sanity (I couldn’t be more serious), I’m going to skip over the first half. I’ll summarize by saying I vaguely enjoyed it. There are not words to express the angst and pain I felt for the final 4,500 minutes of this nightmare, though ‘angst’ and ‘pain’ seem to work nicely, for now. If the first half were an intriguing magazine cover, the second half would be the naked guy on page one, and page two, and three and so on, and so on, and so on, etc.

For pity’s sake, I’ll give you the high points … okay, that’s about it. Let’s recap.

Peter Bretter (Jason Segel) is busted up pretty bad after his girlfriend and budding TV star Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) breaks up with him (he’s naked and I can’t emphasize enough how not funny this is… every time). To reboot, he takes a trip to Hawaii where he meets a fresh-and-fun-brunette-hotel-clerk Rachael (Mila Kunis aka; Family Guy’s Meg Griffith), but finds out that his newly departed girlfriend has arrived with her new 60’s-inspired, rock star boyfriend, Aldous Snow (Russel Brand). Got it? Shenanigans ensue and much ‘awkwerdity’ is had, mostly thanks to the seemingly fail-safe-for-a-laugh waiter/hotel helper/Aldous stalker, Jonah Hill.

After Peter becomes jealous of Sarah and Sarah turns out to be jealous of Peter (what a twist!), the movie ventures onto a path the most clearly resembles an un-funny porno. Coincidentally, Aldous (who doubles as the funniest onscreen and the most crazed) got less time on screen than the blankets they all retreat to. The movie continues with a terrible script, an even worse storyline and one of the most distasteful and incredibly unfunny movies I’ve seen in the past decade.

I’m guessing, by the end of the film, we’re supposed to like Peter Bretter (or at least feel sorry for him––which I didn’t). But in a comedic sense, how can you like, or give any emotion to someone that doesn’t entertain you? I suppose he entertained me when he took the lengthy banana out of his Margarita Smoothie and muttered, “Whoa, look at this guy.” But outside of the few moments when he was perfectly drunk, he was plain torturous. This movie hinged on blatant, insanely awkward (re: not awkward-funny, just really dumb) male nudity. I lost track the 4th or 5th time, but there had to be a good half dozen shots of the same guy on the big screen. And what’s the most ironic part of all of this? Jason Segel, the man’s who wore his birthday suit once already in Knocked Up, decided to write his own story this time. I’ll lay it out for you simply: It’s his script. He was likely naked when he wrote it.

All horribly raunchy, 40 Year-Old Virgin had a story, Anchorman remains a recent classic and Superbad was, well … funny. My apologies for not being able to grab Andy three years ago, given him a Flux Capacitor and a megaphone and told him to scream his line at the top of his lungs all the way to 2008. I hope Forgetting Sarah Marshall will be soon forgotten (oh, that was too easy). And judging by the way The Forbidden Kingdom preformed this weekend, Forgetting Sarah Marshall may not be all it was knocked up to be.

April 21, 2008 Posted by | Entertainment, Film Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) ponders the firey road ahead.

Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) ponders the fiery road ahead.

Our Lives in Plainview

By Bryce VanKooten

I want so much to dive headlong into the story with which I just dedicated a small portion of my weekend to, but despite my deepest desire to fully immerse myself in its layers of cold, hard reality; I feel as though I must explain. Not bluntly regurgitate my circumstances, but explain…me. Explain what I felt coming into the movie, if only to allow you to see my shadowed impressions of the end.

I have heard many impressions of There Will Be Blood, most of which have included a summarizing line of ‘brilliance’ ‘bold, incredible filmmaking’ or ‘unaltered genius’. Fundamentally, its been considered a masterpiece and its easy to see, in a disciplinary sense, acting at its finest hour. As much as I wish to dub this film as ‘breathtaking’, it can be more simplistically and eloquently described as, ‘breath-giving’. There Will Be Blood does not identify itself plainly, nor does it inhibit the viewer to follow dialogue. Often, to a fairly new viewer like myself, this would be a common bore had it not been for one thing; Daniel Day Lewis. What a pleasure it is to watch a man that is in love with his profession. What a joy it becomes for the audience to relax backwards and never be fooled. Not fooled in the sense of a plot twist or a witty mantra that takes us out of the moment, but fooled by their reality. As the film opens, we’re in a pit, and to be quite simple; we never get out. Surrounded by rough, silent circumstances, its early 1900’s and we’re digging for much more than oil. Greeted by Daniel Day-Lewis, it’s encouraging to find that we’re not watching Bill “The Butcher” Cutting or Hawkeye (easily two of my favorite cinematic characters of all time), but rather, someone new. Someone rooted in evil––splendid nonetheless.

Daniel Plainview cares about one and a half things: Pride and whatever it takes to get more of it. In many instances he finds himself replacing that half-ounce of space in his soul and 2 hours and 40 minutes later, he’s where he started. It cannot be filled with any other morsel of sanity in so far as it would eat away at his other portion. Plainly speaking: There Must Be Blood.

As the movie opens, we journey with Daniel across state lines and church kinds, winding up in the great state of California, home of the oil fields, rich for the digging and ready for harvest. Plainview, the self-proclaimed oilman, sets out to make good on the land, which so faithfully waits. With the help of his son, adopted through circumstance, we watch as his life slowly and painfully slip from his grasp. It is an ironic joy to watch as Plainview enters into a world of pure hatred for anything and anyone that stands in his way.

The movie flows much like it should, whistling and washing its way through the dragged days of the early West. Its era-savvy fashion and slow and steady language enable the viewer to easily enter the world in which Paul Thomas Anderson so blissfully takes you. Coincidentally, There Will Be Blood is not a simple film. Its simplicity can only be found in the presentation. The words, much like cuts, are few and far between, with no words arriving till nearly the 30-minute mark. The long takes seem to walk you through as if you are watching from the standpoint of a character simply off screen. There are no frills, there are no breathtaking effects; its simply movie making, in its most pleasant form, imagined.

Each scene in the saga of Daniel Plainview is precisely placed, leaving no emotion unturned. Albeit, there are few relationship formed in the movie, mostly because of Plainview’s unwillingness to let anyone or anything in. Plainview’s pride is overwhelming. Incredibly and fascinatingly overwhelming to the point where it becomes impossible to see his blatant scorn. In this movie, unlike scores of its kind, the issue at hand is pounded home over and over. Pride is not a theme depicted or an emotion sought after by the screenplay. It is the living breathing force by which the film finds life. Pride finds many competitors during its time on screen; Faith, Hope, Friendship, Family, Freedom and yet each time discovers a path to its destruction. Sometimes slowly, sometimes with the briskness of a bowling pin, it shatters its enemy and finds no joy in the outcome, simply turning its gaze forward to the next foe. As the film winds on (and as we find out later), Plainview has enlisted a young boy to be the face of the business. In great need a softer side; Plainview uses his wit to dupe each town into selling him their profits. No scene is more telling than the infamous night of the accident. While everyone is busy doing the chores and tasks at hand, H.W. (Daniel’s son) is sitting above the oil well, watching the action below. As the well fills and pressure builds in both the pit as well as the audience nearby, it explodes. Upon impact, H.W. is thrown back, showered with debris lying motionless only feet away. Striking moments of silence bear down as we see Daniel carrying the boy to the shack, away from the wreckage. As Daniel runs, the music scampers along with him in a darkly, menacing dance. When he finally lays the boy down, H.W.’s words, joined with the fire from outside, ring out in the silence, “Dad, I can’t hear my voice.” It is in that moment where we see the real change in Plainview begin to surface. It is in that moment when his choice is made. His pain can only be seen in his hate for any obstacle––and his seeming love for his son is soon revealed, when he chooses not to stay with him––as a mere façade. As the camera stays on Daniel, we see him walk outside, gaze at the fountain of burning black gold, fall to his knees…and stare. Surrounded not by his friends, nor his family, but by the Pride––embodied in black, that he so blissfully embraces.

After many long years Daniel’s life wages on, with his Pride still well intact. We see time and time again its ability to save him. Even when honest transparency seems realistic; he is betrayed twice, by liars. Once by the self-proclaimed prophet Eli and once by his lonely self. What once was the man, who found a glimmer of hope in a hate-imposed prayer, now clings strong to means of survival, which he knew best.

I would wish for everyone to be able to sit down and enjoy the film like I did, while also realizing that the film is far from over upon its completion. I’ve discussed many of my favorite things about the film with many of my favorite people and have still only begun to unwrap all that is inside. Can it really be said that we are so different from Daniel?

Surely, there is not a competition in any of us.

January 29, 2008 Posted by | Film Reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

I Am Legend (2007)

Alone, Robert Neville (Will Smith) fights all of life's demons.

Alone, Robert Neville (Will Smith) fights all of life

The Legend of Us

By Bryce VanKooten

The night ended much like it began with many of us, fearful of our sleep that night, but overwhelmingly intrigued beyond reasoning, negotiating our way through the maze of tangibility brought upon us by this mysteriously unassuming story.

All too often, I bring to the theater the intent to be scared twice, surprised once and relish the big screen for little more than an hour. Never once is my heart touched. Not for a second do I forget that, at any minute, a grisly ghost could pop out and kill my popcorn. I am a simple man, living in a simple world. I am a lifeless, heartless zombie, watching unfortunately…the same.

Enter, I am Legend. One of the most enjoyable films I have seen in past couple of years. Incredibly well paced and fittingly subtle, I am Legend showed compelling storytelling in its ability to pleasantly mold the characters around their objective reality, while never allowing you to escape the reality that alas, you were still perspiring from suspense. Determined to keep it simple, the saga of Robert Neville had me pleading for resolve in an inexplicably hardened world.

Neville presents a key aspect to the story in his appeal to reality. Focused on a cure and presently preoccupied with disaster, his thoughts on God make up little of the physical movie, but lay much of the groundwork in the emotional balance beam presented by Francis Lawrence. Convinced that God does not exist and that man brought itself into total destruction, Neville presses on in his attempt to free the remaining, infected humans of the disease.

Lawrence draws key elements from Neville’s story in his underlying silence. Burdened with the fate of the world, Neville does not see humanity (or rather, infected humanity) as the enemy, but rather as a problem in need of his help. Despite fierce attack, heart wrenching betrayal and incredible anguish, Neville is focused on one thing: redemption.

Of all the cinematic elements, none is more gracefully poignant than the relationship woven between Will Smith and his dog Samantha (Abbey). The last survivor on Earth, Robert Neville is left completely alone, save one, his dog Sam, albeit the film relies heavily on silence making much of the dialogue unspoken. In the twitching ears of Sam, hours of afternoon car rides can be rekindled and through the battered fur of his best friend, Neville’s primary hope can be clearly seen. Their bond is factually explainable––but in many ways––exhaustively complex, proving that despite their exclusivity, friendship remains that which is most scarce. Buildings still stand. Technology still brimming. Fear, still very present. But despite these realities, the most coveted of all emotions, love, remains atop the list breathtaking dialogue, heart wrenching silence and the simple journey of a man and his dog.

This filmed touched me in ways only a soft, whispery song could reach. Its silence invited me to a place where the world was no longer about you. It used the most simple of tactics to garnish the most striking of emotions and created dialogue not between the characters on screen, but between those walking on screen and those watching on a few feet away.

I wish not to go further into the details of this movie for fear of labeling something it very well may not be for every viewer. When I watched it, I saw a lonely man, angry at much and altogether searching for hope. Exhausted by effort, depraved of his sanity, he finds hope in his failures, showing us that it is only in our transparent weakness that anything can be done together.

I throw up my hands, over the impossibilities.
For straight and tired, where do I go from here?
Now I’m searching for the confidence, I’ve lost so willingly.
Overcoming these obstacles, is overcoming my fears.

-Relient k

Although this movie found true resonance in both my heart and mind after the first watch, it was significantly improved when Warner Bros. recently released the Original Ending. I’ll put it bluntly: I like it much, much more. I could go into detail about the depth of this ending, but instead, I’ll leave you to the clip. So much dialogue in the silence, making it authentically amazing. This is the step that the film should have taken long ago. Enjoy it here.

January 26, 2008 Posted by | Film Reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment