Baby Mama (2008)

Tina Fey is funny. She's not particularly funny in *Baby Mama*, in which she plays it straight while everyone else runs comedic circles around her. Fey plays Kate Holbrook, a VP at Round Earth (a Whole Foods-style organic grocery chain). She's climbing the corporate ladder, making money, living in a posh pad in Philly, doing the whole successful single woman thing, but... can she have it all? Of course, even asking the question implies that she can't. And in Kate's case, what she can't have is a baby.

Babies are the accessory du jour in Hollywood these days, and in movies, babies in utero are the comedy plot prop du jour. Kate desperately wants a baby. She gets all dewy-eyed every time she sees one. She sees a fertility doctor (John Hodges) who tells her he really doesn't like her uterus. She's too impatient to adopt -- she lives a stopwatch life and it's ticking fast and loud. And so, she hires a surrogate to gestate and birth her offspring.

That would be Angie Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler), a gum-chewing, trashy clothes-wearing, dumber-than-dumb blonde from, as they used to say, the wrong side of the tracks. Angie and her doofusy, ne'er-do-well common law husband Carl (Dax Shepard) -- whose idea of a job is to stay home all day trying to win concert tickets on the radio -- need the surrogate's fees, but Kate needs a baby even more, which is how the Kate and Angie odd couple comes to pass. After Angie and Carl break up, Angie moves in with the controlling, nervous Kate, who disapproves of her junk food junkie ways and TV habits and general slovenliness, which is a set up with comedic potential that results in scant actual comedy.

While the bun is in the oven, Kate's got a couple of other projects going, including launching a new store (which, in the movie's universe, takes less time than gestating a baby), and launching a tentative romance with a smoothie shop owner (Greg Kinnear). Plot complications ensue.

*Baby Mama* was written and directed by *Saturday Night Live* alum Michael McCullers with minimal pizzazz and a sappy, happily-ever-after ending that would make Fey's *SNL* alter ego cry "feh." This is the sort of movie in which the small parts are far more fun and inspired than the lead character, reflecting, perhaps, the movie's *SNL* roots. So many of the movie spin-offs that have emerged from the sketch comedy show have fallen flat in part because its quirky characters work best in small doses. It's easy to imagine most of the supporting characters in *Baby Mama* working in a short sketch comedy routine, and they work well here in appropriately parsimonious amounts: Siobhan Fallon is a hoot as a supercilious birthing coach with a pwobwematic speech impediment; so too is Steve Martin as Kate's aggressively New Agey, ponytailed CEO boss; Romany Malco is Oscar, the sort of snarky doorman who is always hanging around with helpful advice and who, here, serves as a kind of surrogate baby daddy for Angie and Kate. Sigourney Weaver is weirdly funny as the hyperfertile Chaffee Bicknell, who operates the surrogacy agency. Poehler invests Angie with a lot of goofy energy and a fair amount of sweetness, which salvages her character from the fairly crudely sketched, white trashy slot she occupies. All these characters skip and whirl around the fairly stiff, mostly immobile Fey, whose job here is just to be the smartest girl in the room. She *is* the smartest, but also the least invested with a personality. In a broad, topical comedy like *Baby Mama*, smart is good, but smart *and* funny would have been even better.


The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

For decades, two of the most popular movie stars in the world have existed in tandem, operating within the same movie genre, in geographical proximity, but never actually appearing together. Until now. Jet Li and Jackie Chan together in the same movie is like two parallel universes (or maybe just two really massive stars) colliding. I am happy to report that the world did not end, the very fabric of space-time was not rent (so far as I know), and the movie, *The Forbidden Kingdom*, ain't half bad.

The task for *Forbidden Kingdom* director Rob Minkoff (*Stuart Little*) and screenwriter John Fusco was to make a movie to satisfy the martial arts movie aficionado -- the type with shelves groaning with DVD titles written in Chinese, someone who knows the various alternate English titles under which movies were released (not that I'm copping to that, mind you) --  while also providing entree to the newbies. On both counts, they succeed pretty well. With undisputed master Yuen Wo-Ping (aka Woo-Ping Yuen) choreographing the kung fu, and the formidable talents of Li and Chan together at last, *The Forbidden Kingdom* provides an entertaining and lively mix of kung fu styles and techniques.

The story starts in latter day South Boston, where Jason (Michael Angarano) is a kid obsessed with martial arts movies, and picked on by a gang of hooligans. He gets his DVD kicks from a dusty old Chinatown pawn shop owned by Old Hop (Jackie Chan). Old Hop is in possession of a magical golden staff which, via means poorly understood by contemporary physicists, transports Jason through time and space to the Middle Kingdom, a place that resembles ancient China. There, Jason is the Seeker, who must return the staff to its rightful owner, who happens to be the Monkey King (Jet Li, who amuses with a weird monkey-man impersonation), a popular, mischievous, god-like figure from Chinese mythology. The Monkey King has been imprisoned for centuries by the evil Jade Warrior (Collin Chou). But what matters is this: everybody was kung fu fighting.

Jason meets three warriors who help him with his task. Lu Yan (Jackie Chan) is a wine-swigging drunk who specializes in (what else?) the drunken kung fu style. Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei) is a musician bent on avenging her parents, who were killed by Jade Warrior. The Silent Monk (Jet Li) isn't really silent once he warms up. He has devoted his life to finding the staff. The important thing is that Lu Yan and Silent Monk, owing to a natural misunderstanding regarding the staff, fight each other. Anyone who has ever speculated as to the winner of a Jet Li-Jackie Chan battle (you know who you are) will find the results not entirely surprising.

The Jet Li-Jackie Chan movie matchup could have been unimaginably awesome, really awful, or somewhere in between. *The Forbidden Kingdom* is somewhere in between, and if it is not exactly mind-bendingly awesome, it is not at all awful. The very different styles of the two stars -- Chan is Mr. Chopsocky slapstick, Li has generally been more somber and serious -- blend well here, with the contrasts providing character and humor. In recent years, martial arts movies have been touched by the arthouse angels, with movies like *Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon* and *House of Flying Daggers* taking the genre seriously and injecting them with a measure of artistic integrity and aesthetic gravitas. That's not *The Forbidden Kingdom*, which aims above all else to be popular entertainment, although it also takes the genre seriously enough, and maintains a high level of technical achievement, with good special effects, lavish set design (the movie was filmed in China) and peerless kung fu fighting.

The Monk, the Drunk, the Sparrow, and the Southie head for the mountain lair of the Jade Warrior, whose abuse of blue eye shadow is out of control. Much fighting ensues. Many Shaolin monks are involved, as is a witch (Li Bing Bing) who uses her long white hair as a weapon. But first, Jason must be trained in kung fu using the age-old pedagogic techniques of seemingly non-kung fu-related forced labor, and physical torture. This is, as we all know, how all the great kung fu masters were trained, and *The Forbidden Kingdom* does not depart from the tradition, although since Jason has dueling masters, he gets twice the torture. Embracing tradition is one of the strengths of *The Forbidden Kingdom*, which drops martial arts movie references like breadcrumbs, and combines folklore, mysticism, mumbo-jumbo, and lots of imaginative kicking, punching, leaping, flying, acrobatics, and wire fu in the service of an excessively complicated plot. That's how it's always been done, and there's really no reason to change it.


Shine A Light (2008)

In the great Stones vs. Beatles debate, I'd vote "neither." But give Mick and company credit for endurance. And stamina. And stick-to-it-iveness. In Martin Scorsese's vibrant, lively documentary *Shine A Light*, the sixty-something geezers prove that they can rock on... and on, and on. They put the sex and drugs and rock n' roll in sexagenarian, and serve as poster boys for the Anti-AARP.

Not that the Stones look like spring chickens anymore. Sex and drugs and rock n' roll do take their toll, and so does time, but if they all look more than a bit weathered, they also look pretty fit for a bunch of guys who, if the legends about them are true, probably shouldn't still be alive. Mick Jagger still dances like a spring lamb trying out its new legs; Keith Richards and Ron Wood look stringy, gristly, and relaxed; Charlie Watts, well, he looks a little winded, but he's unflappably calm.

Two of the dominant thematic threads of Scorsese's film work come together in *Shine A Light*. His narrative films frequently focus on men,  often behaving badly, while his docs tend to be epic love poems to his twin passions for music and movies. *Shine A Light* is his fourth rockumentary, (after *The Last Waltz*, *The Band: Feel Like Going Home*, and *No Direction Home*). *Shine A Light* is jittery and jumpy, taking its cue from Jagger, who prances all over the stage, and from Richards' rhythmic, catchy, instantly recognizable chords. With cameras that swoop and soar, and hop from one musician to another, *Shine A Light* is energetic and hyperactive, like Scorsese and Jagger, but also calm and focused and in the zone at its center, like Richards, Wood, and Watts. If there's a secret to their endurance -- the filmmaker's and the rock stars' -- it's in their love of their work, which is in evidence all over *Shine A Light*.

The concert, filmed at New York's Beacon Theatre in 2006, was a benefit for the Clinton Foundation. The ex-POTUS chuckles that "people in their sixties" were begging him for tickets -- forgetting, it seems, that he's in that crowd himself. Multigenerational guest performers turn up: Jack White looks like an utterly starstruck stripling crooning "Loving Cup" with Mick; Christina Aguilera, for all her gyrating and vocal theatrics, is no match for Mick's booty-shaking (and her singing style is a mismatch). But it's septuagenarian bluesman Buddy Guy who burns down the house with "Champagne and Reefer" -- now it's the Stones' turn to look like the luckiest kids in New York. In the end, the band had more stamina than I did in a concert full of greatest hits and favorite songs that went on just a few licks too long.

*Shine A Light* starts as a funny, crisis-packed, mini making-of movie, with Scorsese and the Stones discussing and negotiating. Mick is worried that the swooping cameras will annoy the audience; Scorsese asks, and asks, and asks, for a set list, which he finally gets minutes before the show starts. The director is informed that the lights on stage will burn Mick Jagger... literally. Watts drily observes "I love movies. Lookin' at 'em." From the carefully chosen archival interviews interspersed throughout the film, it's clear that Watts was always the Harpo Marx of the bunch. The Stones have been around long enough that it's easy, now, to forget how young they once were, and the archival footage provides perspective and a dash of history, as the rock tyros with time on their side (who knew then how true that was?) morph into well-seasoned, timeworn, hard-travelin' rock legends.

  Scorsese's in his sixties too, and *Shine A Light* is, among other things, a meditation on age and aging, and doing it -- and it sounds a little weird to say it about old rock geezers -- gracefully. Sure, Watts is the only Stone with white hair, but none of them look botoxed, or show the telltale signs of desperate cosmetic surgical alteration. They look like real people, and that is worth noting in a time when our pop culture icons show us mostly a fun-house mirror reflection of stretched and impassive faces, tucked tummies, snow-white teeth, and bowling ball implants. Ya gotta love the British for knowing how to let themselves go. If this is what the sixties look like, I hope I don't die before I get old.


Leatherheads (2008)

*Leatherheads* has a few things in common with the other two movies (*Confessions of a Dangerous Mind* and *Good Night and Good Luck*) George Clooney has directed: Clooney is in it, the story is a retro affair set in the early to mid-20th century, and it is concerned, at least in part, with matters of journalistic ethics. It's notably different from the other two movies in this: it isn't very good.

*Leatherheads*, set in 1925, is about the early days of professional football, when the sport was a rough-and-tumble, no-holds-barred game that, if the movie is to be believed, was a whole lot more fun when there were no rules and players were free to cheat to win. Shockingly, the game didn't draw big crowds. The fans all went for college football, where the likes of war hero-turned-Princeton QB Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) played the game and won all the Burma Shave endorsements.

Dodge Connelly (Clooney) plays for the Duluth Bulldogs, until the team goes bankrupt and all the players are sent back to their day jobs in the mines. When the down on his luck Dodge hears that Carter and his Princeton jocks draw crowds in the tens of thousands to their games, he recruits Carter for the Bulldogs. Carter comes with accessories in the form of C.C. Frazier (Jonathan Pryce), his sleazy sports agent, and a dame. There has to be a fast-talking dame -- and it's better if she's a ruthless reporter in a cloche hat -- in any movie that strives to be a thirties-style screwball comedy, as *Leatherheads* does. Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) fills that slot here. Lexie's been dispatched by the *Chicago Tribune* to write an expose of Carter. The boy's apparently not a genuine war hero, although he did fight in the Great War, and did get a medal for it.

It doesn't take long before Carter and Dodge have both fallen for the charmless Lexie, and wind up punching each other in the face repeatedly. Being mere football players, they don't do much damage to said faces, which is fortunate because it would be a shame to mess up the handsome mugs of Clooney and Krasinski in a movie that has little else going for it.

Randy Newman has composed a distracting retro score for *Leatherheads*. Undoubtedly, he was commissioned to write distracting music because the movie needs something distracting to draw attention away from the fact that what passes for snappy, hard-boiled banter in the script by Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly (former *Sports Illustrated* scribes) ain't all that snappy or hard-boiled. It ain't much fun either. Clooney does an awful lot of eyebrow lifting and mugging for the camera, and a brawl seems to break out every 20 minutes or so, in between raids on speak-easies. *Leatherheads* is the kind of movie where all the right ingredients seem to be there, but the whole thing gets overcooked. The screwball comedies of the thirties made it all look effortless -- people talked fast and said clever things, crazy situations just happened, and in the battle of the sexes, everybody won. In the hands of the likes of Howard Hawks or Frank Capra, the screwball comedy had rhythm and bounce, it sizzled, it sang, it danced. *Leatherheads* makes it all look hard, and the results are not commensurate with the effort. No bounce, no sizzle, no dance, no fun.

Even the final gridiron showdown -- the moment of transcendent, against-the-odds triumph is the *de rigueur* capper to any sports movie -- is too little, and far too late. It *has* to come at the end of the movie, of course, and it does, but this movie pulled over with a flat tire about 20 minutes earlier, and no old timey football game can get it rolling again.