Mini Reviews (May 2008)
Standing Still, Speed Racer, What Happens in Vegas, Google Me, Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party, The Strangers
Standing Still (May 7/08)
Though the film sporadically feels like the pilot episode of an angsty twentysomething comedy/drama, Standing Still is nevertheless a progressively endearing effort that boasts several superb performances and a brisk, downright fun sensibility. The storyline follows a gaggle of friends as they congregate for the wedding of two of their own, with the exceedingly eventful weekend inevitably forcing the film's figures to reevaluate their respective lives. Screenwriters Matthew Perniciaro and Timm Sharp have infused Standing Still with a structure that is - more often than not - episodic in nature, as the pair place the emphasis on the individual characters' periodically overwrought misadventures (ie Colin Hanks' Quentin sleeps with a minor, Jon Abrahams' Pockets propositions a cop disguised as a hooker, Mena Suvari's Lana converts to lesbianism, etc). It's subsequently clear that Perniciaro and Sharp are hardly going for an atmosphere of raw authenticity, yet this doesn't prove to be as insurmountable an obstacle as one might've feared - something that's due primarily to the uniformly affable work from the myriad of actors (James Van Der Beek, cast as an egomaniacal actor, deftly steals every one of his lamentably few scenes). There's also little doubt that the movie does take on unexpected bursts of emotional resonance as it approaches its conclusion, which ultimately secures Standing Still's place as an effort that's a cut above the majority of its similarly-themed brethren.
Speed Racer (May 8/08)
Based on the cult '60s anime series, Speed Racer boasts as over-the-top a visual style as one could possibly imagine - with filmmaking duo Larry and Andy Wachowski infusing the proceedings with an eye-meltingly colorful sensibility that will surely polarize the majority of audiences. And indeed, it does take a substantial amount of time for one to get acclimatized to the film's unapologetically cartoonish look - a process that's undoubtedly hindered by the almost impossibly convoluted storytelling and downright hyperkinetic editing choices. Yet there reaches a point at which one is essentially forced to surrender to the Wachowskis insanely broad modus operandi, with the relentlessly propulsive structure and surprisingly strong performances certainly playing a key role in the film's ultimate success. The relatively simple storyline - which follows Emile Hirsch's title character as he attempts to overcome several obstacles to win a pivotal race - has, however, been augmented with a whole host of needless elements that have absolutely no place within the context of such a family-friendly endeavor, with the oddly difficult-to-follow subplot revolving around race fixing and corporate malfeasance surely the most overt and egregious example of this. It's subsequently not surprising to note that Speed Racer's 135 minute running time (!) has been padded out to an almost absurd degree, although - to be fair - there are a number of compelling sequences peppered even throughout the movie's lackluster opening hour (ie a gleefully ridiculous fight scene between Speed's extended family - which includes a chimp - and a small army of ninjas). That being said, one's dwindling interest is successfully resuscitated thanks to a thrilling mid-movie race that ultimately carries the proceedings through to its unexpectedly engaging finale - with the end result an overlong yet undeniably innovative piece of work that surely demands a big-screen viewing.
What Happens in Vegas (May 9/08)
Hopelessly uneven virtually from start to finish, What Happens in Vegas primarily wavers between obnoxious, sitcom-level hijinks and sweet, surprisingly romantic interludes - with the end result a slightly above-average romcom that's ultimately felled by its plethora of negative attributes. The storyline revolves around two strangers (Cameron Diaz's Joy and Ashton Kutcher's Jack) who get hitched during a drunken night of partying in Vegas and wake up determined to get the marriage annulled, with Jack's $3 million victory at the slot machines a short time later swiftly putting an end to that plan. After a judge sentences them to live together for six months, Jack and Joy proceed to make one another's lives a living hell through a seemingly endless series of pranks and cruel games of one-upmanship. Though the film gets off to a relatively promising start - the first reel is kind of fun and moves at a brisk pace - there reaches a point at which the central characters' relentless bickering becomes as tedious and interminable as one might've suspected. That both Diaz and Kutcher dial their respective performances up to a headache-inducing 11 during this section of the proceedings certainly doesn't help matters, as the actors' increasingly grating work inevitably infuses What Happens in Vegas' midsection with a nigh unwatchable vibe. And while the movie does improve as it drops the over-the-top shenanigans to briefly morph into a more traditional romantic comedy, there's an entirely needless fake break-up towards the conclusion that effectively brings the proceedings to a dead stop - with the viewer forced to suffer through an eye-rollingly hackneyed third act (albeit one that's topped off by an unexpectedly touching finale). What Happens in Vegas is hardly the worst film of its sort to come around in recent history - ie last week's Made of Honor was certainly far more objectionable than this - yet one can't help but wonder if there's anything of interest left to say within this increasingly stale genre.
Google Me (May 14/08)
Google Me is a fun yet entirely inconsequential documentary revolving around filmmaker Jim Killeen's efforts at tracking down other Jim Killeens across the globe, with the Google search engine inevitably used as Killeen's primary source in the quest for locating his namesakes. The first-time director has infused the movie with a light-hearted, almost Morgan Spurlockesque sensibility that certainly proves apt, as the brisk pace ensures that it's initially fairly easy to overlook the distinct lack of substance within the proceedings. There's little doubt, however, that the padded-out running time contributes heavily to the increasingly uneven vibe, and it's subsequently difficult to muster up any interest in some of the stories proffered by the film's subjects (ie why should we care that a certain Jim Killeen's house flooded?) Killeen's late-in-the-picture emphasis on the problems within his own family - particularly the mental illness that's plagued two of his siblings - is interesting, to be sure, yet it's hard to shake the feeling that such elements probably would've been more appropriate within the context of an entirely separate endeavor. Generally speaking, however, Google Me is an affable piece of work that benefits substantially from Killeen's infectious enthusiasm - although it's ultimately impossible to deny that the whole thing probably would've worked better as a short.
Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party (May 19/08)
True to its title, Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party essentially follows Stephen Tobolowsky as he prepares for and eventually celebrates his 53rd birthday - with the bulk of the film revolving around the prolific character actor's myriad of stories and anecdotes. The result is a surprisingly solid 87-minute endeavor that's been jam-packed with yarns both funny and sad, as Tobolowsky's effortlessly engaging storytelling abilities prove instrumental in hooking the viewer almost immediately. Director Robert Brinkmann kicks things off with Tobolowsky's vivid recounting of a confrontation with a grizzled dolphin (in which an "oceanic detente" was eventually reached), with the remainder of the film subsequently devoted to memorable tales revolving around his encounters with stick-bearing monks, a gun-wielding supermarket psycho, and a fellow actress who would eventually become his wife. And though there does reach a point at which the viewer's interest starts to wane - stemming from Tobolowsky's admittedly tedious recollection of a bad LSD trip - the film recovers immediately thanks to a hilariously captivating story about Tobolowsky's stint as a heavy on the Mel Gibson flick Bird on a Wire (where the actor eventually found himself face-to-face with "vegetarian piranhas"). The end result is an effort that'll probably have the most positive impact on Tobolowsky's fans, although it does seem entirely likely that even those who've never heard of him will inevitably find themselves won over by the actor's warm, irresistibly inviting persona.
The Strangers (May 29/08)
While there's little doubt that writer/director Bryan Bertino deserves some credit for attempting to evoke an old-school horror vibe - ie this is a leaps-and-bounds improvement over what generally passes for a contemporary scary movie - The Strangers has been saddled with an increasingly uneven sensibility that ultimately dulls the movie's overall impact. The degree to which Bertino takes his time in getting things going surely plays a substantial role in the film's mild success, however, with virtually the entire opening half hour devoted to the low-key exploits of feuding central couple James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler). Of course, there reaches a point at which the pair find themselves stalked by a trio of masked maniacs and the movie subsequently revolves around James and Kristen's cat-and-mouse efforts at avoiding their pursuers' increasingly sinister advances. And while some of these sequences are admittedly quite tense, there are just as many moments that are prolonged well past the point of tolerance (ie there's a long stretch in which we tediously follow Tyler's character as she hobbles around looking for a place to hide). Bertino's reliance on excessively shaky camerawork inevitably becomes more of an annoyance than anything else, and it's impossible to deny that the inclusion of an eye-rollingly needless shock ending leaves the proceedings with an exceedingly bad aftertaste. Still, Speedman and Tyler acquit themselves nicely and it's certainly difficult to recall a more suspenseful horror effort as of late - yet, given the strength of the film's promotional materials, one can't help but feel a twinge of disappointment at the the final product's relentlessly erratic nature.