Thursday, June 23, 2011

Movie Review: Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?
Directed by Morgan Spurlock
Running Time: 90 minutes
Originally Released: January 21, 2008 (Sundance Film Festival)

* * ½ (out of four)

It is both a compliment and a complaint that Morgan Spurlock’s 2008 documentary, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?, remains as watchable as it does, even after the infamous leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization has been found and killed. It is a compliment in that Spurlock’s film examines just enough about America’s relationship with the Middle East, both from a cultural and from a governmental standpoint, to be of interest to those who are not already well-versed in politics. It is a complaint in that Spurlock’s film scarcely deals with what it repeatedly heralds as its main objective, the now-moot point of discovering Bin Laden’s whereabouts.

As the film begins, documentarian Spurlock (best known for his 2004 hit Super Size Me) has just found out that he and his wife are expecting their first child. This inspires Spurlock to reflect on the safety of the world into which he is bringing a child, and these ruminations prompt Spurlock to do his part as a father by setting off to the Middle East in search of Bin Laden, who at the time the film was made, had managed to evade the U.S. military for several years. Spurlock undergoes an extreme brand of self-defense training and takes to the Middle East, conducting mostly man-on-the-street-style interviews with the common folk of Morocco, Pakistan, Israel, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and more. Amidst the causal speculation concerning Bin Laden’s location, Spurlock’s interviewees share their thoughts on the United States, on the values of Islam, on Al-Qaeda, and on the inhabitants of their neighboring countries, all for better or for worse. What emerges is a kind of humanistic homogeny residing in the hearts of non-extremists, whom Spurlock happily proclaims outnumber “the crazies” and so should put our minds at ease, expectant parent or no.

Despite the transcontinental travels involved in the film’s production, Spurlock’s documentary does a lot of gearing up without really going anywhere. Though viewers are quickly taken in by Spurlock’s undeniable charm, he meanders as a documentarian. Is this a film about what it would take for the American everyman to live in the war-ravished countries of the Middle East? Is it a film about the Middle East’s misconception of America (and, presumably, about our misconception of the Middle East)? Is it a film about the common thread that exists among all groups of people, even those who have been taught to vehemently oppose one another? Is it a film about the unrelenting skirmishes between Palestine and Israel? And oh yeah, is it a film about trying to find Bin Laden??? To some degree or another, Spurlock’s documentary is all of these things. And that is the problem. No single topic is given enough attention to payoff. Had Spurlock focused his attention on any one of these issues, his film would have been all the better for it. Instead, Spurlock has succeeded first and foremost in teasing us with the prospects of half a dozen or so great documentaries, none of which he has brought to fruition. It may be a bit ironic, then, that what this film has going for it above all else is Spurlock himself—not as a filmmaker, but as a highly-likeable average Joe. A self-proclaimed redneck, Spurlock warms up the audience as readily as he does the majority of Middle Easterners with whom he interacts. Spurlock’s charm certainly makes the film watchable. But it doesn’t make it particularly good.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Movie Review: Teen Wolf Too

Teen Wolf Too
Directed by Christopher Leitch
Running Time: 95 minutes
Originally Released: November 20, 1987

Zero (out of four)

I was a little kid when the original Teen Wolf was released in 1985. Being only a lad, I thought the movie was great, and I remember watching the cartoon spin-off of the film when it debuted on Saturday mornings the following year. When Teen Wolf Too was released in theaters in the fall of 1987, I very much wanted to see it. Almost 24 years later, thanks to Netflix Instant Viewing, I have finally seen what I’ve been missing out on for nearly a quarter of a century—total and complete crap.

Teen Wolf Too, as its oh-so-clever title suggests, is not about the teenage werewolf of the first film, Scott Howard (who was played by Michael J. Fox), but about a second teenage werewolf—Scott’s cousin, Todd. Todd (played by a young and pretty Jason Bateman) knows all about his cousin’s lycanthropic tendencies, but so far he thinks himself immune to the family curse. Thanks in part to cousin Scott’s notoriety, Todd has just entered his freshman year of college on a sports scholarship. Never mind that Todd is far from being an athlete. The powers that be are hoping he can nevertheless capitalize on his family genes and, with a little coaxing, lead the school to some ferocious boxing victories. Todd is less certain, but surely enough, as Todd takes his first beating in the ring, his frustration unleashes the animal within and he soon transforms into a werewolf. The furrier version of Todd quickly knocks out his opponent and, like Scott in the first film, becomes an instant sensation. His ego inflates accordingly, and Todd soon forgets his veterinary ambitions and who his real friends are. You know the drill.

I’m not aiming to do a historical research paper here, but it seems fairly evident that Teen Wolf Too was pushed through to production simply to capitalize on the success of its predecessor. That happens often enough, but what makes this film particularly terrible is that it feels as if it were scripted—and that might be a generous word, in this case—not by a professional screenwriter but by a board of executives who knew nothing more than that Teen Wolf was a smash hit. There is next to no development here whatsoever. Todd goes from being the nice boy next door to a self-centered jerk and (spoiler alert!) back again with all the subtlety of a paddle ball being batted around by a six-year-old who’s just eaten one too many Smarties. But how could there be any genuine character or story development when half of the film consists of musical montage? Two of the full-song-length montages even occur back to back. I can only hope the original theatrical version of the film included an onscreen notice to the audience that it was now safe to head to the restroom and visit the concession stand. (Probably not, for fear they would never return.) In the end, I’m unsure if the filmmakers thought viewers would be so stricken with wolf fever that simply watching a werewolf in sunglasses cruising around in a Ferrari for seven minutes at a time would be rewarding enough, or if they simply didn’t care what audiences would think, presuming that movie-goers would line up at the box office either way. I’m guessing the latter.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Movie Review: Just Go With It

Just Go With It

Directed by Dennis Dugan
Running Time: 117 minutes
Originally Released: February 11, 2011

* ½ (out of four)

The first rule of improvisation, pre-teen aspiring actress Maggie informs us, is never to shoot down an idea. Always accept another’s suggestion. Run with it. Make the most out of it. That’s the key to success. As Maggie spews this wisdom onscreen, it’s hard not to interpret her remarks as a veiled and subtle plea from the filmmakers to the audience itself, asking viewers to make the most out of whatever they are given, no matter how lousy, uninspired, or preposterous it may be. Indeed, Just Go With It is clearly hoping audiences will follow the advice found in the film’s title. Surely enough, only the most gracious and forgiving viewers will enjoy the few laughs that Just Go With It can provide.

Just Go With It is a romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston, and new to the silver screen, Brooklyn Decker and her breasts. Sandler plays Danny Maccabee, a 40-something plastic surgeon who lures college-aged girls to his bed by playing the sensitive victim in a fabricated marriage gone sour. Aniston plays Katherine, Danny’s nurse, who knows her employer’s schemes and derides him for them, but only in a friendly and none-too-serious way. Danny’s ruse has proven quit successful over the years, but problems arise after the surgeon meets and fairly immediately sleeps with Palmer (played by Decker and her breasts), the 23-year-old blonde bombshell with whom he feels a genuine connection. Coincidentally, Danny didn’t pretend to be married with Palmer, and yet she happens upon his prop wedding ring—the lone relic of a broken-off engagement years earlier—and won’t accept that he’s single. Not wanting to miss out on the chance to develop things with Palmer, Danny enlists Katherine to pretend to be his wife and prove to Palmer that she and he are on the brink of divorce. Katherine’s two children, Maggie (Bailee Madison) and Michael (Griffin Gluck), unwittingly enter the picture, as does Danny’s goofy friend Eddie (Nick Swardson), who acts as Katherine’s extramarital love interest. The rest, as they say, is clich├ęd history.

Just Go With It treads so much familiar territory that it’s hard to say anything novel about it, even in criticism. Thankfully, a rather fitting analogy can be found in the movie’s soundtrack, which is comprised almost entirely of “mash-ups.” For those who don’t know, a “mash-up” is where various parts of several extant songs are blended together, resulting in a new mix of old material, something akin to a musical collage. Creatively speaking, Just Go With It is about the same—there is nothing new here, but the jokes and plot lines have been shuffled up enough to become, technically, a new film. If that weren’t intellectually insulting enough, the film should also offend those viewers who have grown tired (as I have) of stereotypical gender roles. Is it really funny to see men drooling over a woman in a bikini when it’s been done infinitely many times over the last 40 years of filmmaking? Are we really supposed to be charmed by Danny, who’s not even painted as much of a villain but should probably have countless STDs at this point? These things offend me much more than, say, the explicit sex of Blue Valentine. But that’s me. I feel especially disappointed with Aniston, whom I believe should be ashamed of her participation here—not because she’s starring in a frivolous rom-com, but because she’s starred in something that is degrading of her as an artist. Sandler can do better, but at least we’re familiar with his penchant for vulgarity and stupidity. Decker and her breasts are probably quite at home here, but so much for having a woman’s supposed attractiveness amount to anything more than her cup size and the amount of skin she is willing to keep bared at all times.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day 2011

It’s been a good Father’s Day. I slept in a bit later than I probably should have. I ate a responsible bowl of Wheat Chex, but topped it off with a Svenhard’s cinnamon roll. We went to church and I remained surprisingly positive through it all, even when kids were getting a bit out of control. I came home and let my wife pour me a tall glass of Diet Mountain Dew. We baked a margherita pizza (yum!) from Costco for lunch, and we ate it while streaming Teen Wolf Too on Netflix. (A horrible movie, but more or less family friendly. I hadn’t ever seen it before and wrongfully thought at least one or two of us would enjoy it.) I started a new book that I’m reading just for fun and not for any academic purpose, which can be rare nowadays. And now we’ve just gone on a drive where Melanie and I actually got to talk for more than a few minutes without interruption. Quite a lovely day, I’d say.

To celebrate Father’s Day, I’d like to take a brief moment to appreciate publicly each of my children.


Edison is such a big kid nowadays. I’m loving it, especially his creativity, which has changed a lot over the last little while. He still doesn’t quite get jokes. About a month ago, I read him some jokes out of a kids’ magazine. He picked up on the general overall tone of them, but puns are still beyond his ability fully to appreciate. As such, I found myself in hysterics when Edison recently performed a bit of stand-up comedy for Melanie and me. He really did, too. On our way out of church a few weeks ago, we stopped by the primary room, which everyone had left, and Edison stood at the podium and talked into the microphone, telling us jokes. Here’s a bit of his routine:

What do doors like to eat for breakfast? (Pause.) Pianos.
What do chairs like to eat for breakfast? (Pause.) Doors.

I couldn’t stop laughing.

Edison also fancies himself a photographer. A couple of months ago, he took this disturbing photo of a firefighter who bravely gave his life in the line of duty:

And finally, I was really impressed by this drawing that Edison made for me today. The red people are he and I. The thick red blur going out of my (the person on the left’s) head is to show that I’m thinking about Eddie and me going on a rocket into outer space. You can see the sun (obvious enough) and Mars and Neptune (on the left side of the page, in brown and pink, respectively). The blue above the red line is of the rocket blasting into space. I was sincerely impressed that he would draw me as thinking about these things and capture that in a visual way. Pretty cool.


Peter is barely into being three years old, which I learned with Edison is a much more difficult age than two. Fortunately, there have been a lot of sweet times between Peter and me lately. It wasn’t long ago that I was feeling bad about my relationship with Peter, feeling like he just wasn’t very playful with me. But recently, this has improved a ton and we seem to play around together a lot. It’s been really wonderful for me. We even have our own special little game, where we talk gibberish nonsense to each other, sometimes rather extensively. And I love that Peter is always quick with a drawn-out “I love you, toooo” whenever I say “I love you” to him.


Creegan and I have gotten a lot closer lately, even though we’ve always felt close. I love tickling his belly with my face or head, which he always laughs a lot at. Recently, I’ve done a lot more putting him to sleep at night, too. He can be fussy, but miraculously he’s been content to let me pat his back and bounce around with him while he falls asleep on my shoulder. Most of the time, he just wants his mom, so it’s nice that I’ve been able to do this with him. And the other day, we spent a little bit of time playing with toys together—or at least he quite contentedly watched me play with toys in front of him. It was some nice one-on-one time, and it happened right after we danced around together to some really great music. It’s fun having him around.

To finish this post off, I’ll share this video, which Melanie made of Edison and Peter just a few hours ago. Peter gets a little behind, but he catches up at the end.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Movie Review: Zombieland

Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Running Time: 88 minutes
Originally Released: October 2, 2009

*** ½ (out of four)

Sometimes the only thing more dangerous than a zombie with a craving for brains is Woody Harrelson with a craving for Hostess Twinkies. If the two were to get into a fight, who would win? Zombieland seeks to answer this question and few others of little to no import. It is a movie as decadent and indulgent as a Twinkie itself. Nobody’s claiming it’ll do you any good—but that doesn’t mean it won’t give you the cinematic equivalent of a sugar rush.

Harrelson is just one of the four central figures—sans zombies—at the heart of Zombieland. Joining him is Jessie Eisenberg as the film’s narrator, an intelligent but borderline geek who strictly adheres to the dozens of rules for survival he’s compiled since zombies have all but destroyed the human race. Heading to Columbus, Ohio to check on his parents, Eisenberg’s character (known only as Columbus, because of his chosen destination) runs into Harrelson’s character (dubbed Tallahassee), and the two subsequently run into a pair of con-women, Wichita (played by Emma Stone) and her 12-year-old sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). The foursome then travel across the country, fighting off the living dead as they go along.

Zombieland is a love it or hate it movie. If it appeals to you at all, you are bound to think it’s absolutely great. It’s a hyper-stylized, unabashedly gratuitous action/horror flick with a constant dose of dark humor strewn throughout, not to mention cadavers, blood, and guts. The humor is what you’d expect from a film like this, but it works. Case in point, when Columbus has his first run-in with a zombie, he finds himself trapped in a bathroom and fighting off the zombie by bashing it in the head with the only things within reach—a bag of cotton balls and a roll of toilet paper. Special mention should be made of an extended cameo from a comedy legend at the film’s midpoint. I won’t give it away, but I’m tempted to use the phrase “a real hoot” for perhaps the first time in my life. Yes, the film has its laugh-out-loud moments, plenty of smirk-worthy scenes, and enough action to keep you frivolously entertained. It’s nothing brilliant, but it is a mighty tasty cinematic snack cake.