25 September 2005

everything's connected

Based on an offhand recommendation from somebody at work, tonight as I washed the dishes I watched Harold and Kumar go to White Castle. I hadn't heard much about the movie before, and frankly never added it to my list because it sounded mindless, and was written and directed by the 'auteur' behind Dude, where's my car, which I have not yet seen. That movie has been described to me as equally hilarious and stupid, and, well, I just haven't gotten around to checking it out yet.

On the Harold and Kumar DVD is included the trailer for Festival express, the 33 years overdue documentary about the 1970 Canada train that shuttled Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Buddy Guy, The Band, the Flying burrito brothers, and others between three massive concerts and the jam sessions and parties and liquor store raids in between. I mention this because part of the trailer is scored with the Dead's "Casey Jones" (a song obviously inspired by the trip), which I had inexplicably running through my head for a number of hours two days prior. Ooooh, spooky.

While we're on the topic of music, however, I must give credit to Harold and Kumar for finally letting me hear the lyrics of "Let's get retarded" by the Black-eyed peas*. You could well recognize this song, as it is largely the title phrase repeated over some catchy beats over and over again. I'd heard it every week at work during our weekly lobby meetings to announce how well the business was doing, and I'd taken the lyrics to say "Let's get things started" or something similar. Never once had I thought that our company's co-presidents would use a song about getting wasted as a lead-in for a meeting.

Speaking then of bureaucracy (well, I guess I was), I also watched The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks and Stanley Tucci. Stanley's one of those actors whose name is immediately recognizable even if his face or his films are not. At least, he was to me. For many a year I've had Joe Gould's secret on my list of films to watch, and I think it was probably because Ian Holm was in it. Oddly enough I happened to see it at the library today, as I often have, since it doesn't seem to get checked out very much. Every time I see it I consider watching it, but the few times I glance at the covers I put it back, not wanting to see a period piece or a sappy drama. Well it turns out that Stanley stars in it and directs it. Go figure. I'll probably watch it soon, as Stanley does a pretty good job in Terminal. Also on my list is 1996's Big night, his directorial debut, and I'm pretty sure I'd added that because Tony Shaloub is in it.

That's what I like about having such a long list (over four hundred films long), the fact that I often forget why a certain one is on it and get the thrill of figuring it out while watching. Of course not every movie I watch is on my list before I see it; such was the case with The last shot, in which, coincidentally, Tony Shaloub appears.

His scenes aren't the high point of that film, but they aren't its lowest either. It's an adequate Hollywood farce, more or less, but doesn't seem to make much of its potential. The story is about a fake film production to cover a mob crackdown, and it turns into a fable about compromising one's vision and selling out and cashing in and filming a movie called "Arizona" in New England.

Matthew Broderick actually looks like a grownup, for once, but that might just be the beard talking. Alec Baldwin doesn't impress as much as he could as a starry-eyed FBI agent finally seeing his chance to do something big. The rest of the cast fails to make much of an impression as well (except in small bits, such as Toni Collette providing a drug test urine sample while chatting in a restaurant). Prominent for the lack of prominence is Calista Flockhart as a foul-mouthed struggling actress who takes small animals hostage to get her way at least twice. I think that her doing this is the old hackened phenomenon of the tv actor trying to escape typecasting as a popular, wholesome character, but she comes off as more annoying than startling or eye-opening.

On the other side of the cliché is Neil Patrick Harris's appearance in Harold and Kumar, as himself. Not only is he a former wholesome character trying to expand his reperitoire, his character is expected to be as nice as Doogie Howser and this allows him even more of a free hand to mess with the protagonists and the audience. He reappears later in the film and neatly ties up his little plot tangent, and satisfyingly so (for us and for the guys onscreen) and overall it works. Yes, it's a stunt, and one as blatant as Dustin Diamond's uncredited cameo in Made (as himself, the guy who played Screech on Saved by the bell) and just as well incorporated into the plot.

So did I like any of these movies? I'm not sure. Harold and Kumar go to White Castle made me laugh a number of times and brightened up what would otherwise been dull dish-washing. It has funny moments, but they don't gel into something of significance, unlike, oh, Office space, for example. The boys aren't Cheech and Chong reincarnated, and fail to overcome the limitations of the road movie, drug movie, and mismatched buddy films all in one shot.

The Terminal also made me laugh, and at more sophisticated jokes. It too falters, relying on too many neat little touches or strays too far from plausibility, but everybody involved puts so much into it to make it nevertheless watchable and enjoyable. Knowing Andrew Niccol had a hand in writing it helped me understand the inclusion of some of the film's scenes that were too quirky to be believable, but Spielberg and Hanks handle them more masterfully than Al Pacino and Niccol himself did with the clunky, dull and totally unbelievable S1m0ne from a couple years back. Niccol's an interesting writer, but in smaller doses and concepts not quite so high. Still, I think I liked it, and I'll probably watch it again someday, if for nothing else but the rich performances and the impressive set construction that doesn't distract from them at all.

I've probably seen The last shot the only time I'll watch it. My track record with Hollywood farces and insider jokes is spotty at best. Of the ones I can list off the top of my head:The Player, Get Shorty, Swimming with Sharks and The Big Picture, I wasn't particularly enamored with any of them. There are better movies about making movies, but that would be a whole different topic to address. Perhaps another time.

* The Peas are at the forefront of the so-called 'crunk' genre of music, revolving around partying (i.e. smoking marijuana), getting drunk, and having fun. While I am certianly fond of that last one, and occasionally have partaken of the previous item, I haven't ever smoked up or smoked out or partied or whatever the kids call smoking pot these days. While I seem to be able to enjoy drug-reference movies on some level (Half baked was funnier than Harold and Kumar), what little bit of crunk I've heard has no appeal to me at all**.

** Moreover the popular crunk appropriation of the term 'retarded' to mean 'drunk and/or high' is at the same time offensive and disappointing. In addition it brings to mind the reprehensible Saturday night live sketches starring Jimmy Fallon and Rachel Dratch as idiot teenagers with a camcorder and a crush on each other. In every sketch, many times more than once, they play-insult each other with "You're retarded" in a stupid accent before making out. I do not like to be reminded of these sketches.

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