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They get together, eventually: (l-r) Kunis and Segal in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Au Natural

By John Brodeur

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Directed by Nicholas Stoller

Jason Segel is well-endowed. As a comedic writer and actor, that is. You can make up your mind about the other thing five minutes into Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the latest film from Judd Apatow’s busy production stable, and an above-average romantic comedy that hits on all levels, with a surprisingly low number of those hits landing below the belt.

Peter Bretter (Segel) is a struggling Los Angeles musician who, by day, scores (read: plays dramatic synthesizer swells under) a CSI-style procedural—titled, brilliantly, Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime—though his dream is to stage a musical based on Dracula. (It’s a love story.) His girlfriend of five-plus years, the titular Sarah (Kristen Bell of TV’s Gossip Girl and Heroes), is the show’s lead actress, an ambitious attention-hound who leaps at every photo op, leaving Peter holding her gold-lame handbag. Five minutes into the film, Sarah breaks off the relationship seemingly out of nowhere, devastating an in-the-buff Segel. After a series of one-night stands doesn’t ease Peter’s pain, his stepbrother Brian (Saturday Night Live cast member and Superbad cop Bill Hader) advises him to take a vacation, so Peter heads off to a swanky Hawaiian resort—one that Sarah used to talk about. Naturally, she’s there too, and on the arm of new (or perhaps not-so-new) boyfriend Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), the oversexed lead singer of British rock band Infant Sorrow. Let the games begin.

This is a very stock-sounding setup, but it works, and for the right reasons. We aren’t instructed to hate Sarah Marshall, for one; the breakup scene is staged so early in the film that we haven’t yet formed alliances. Both lead characters are drawn broadly at first, through her television clips, his schlubbery, and that first brief, uncomfortable encounter between the two (the film’s frequent, unexpected nudity is either the worst-disguised metaphor ever filmed, or the most intentionally obvious).

The four main characters are paid equal attention, and they’re given enough shading that it’s easy to end up rooting for all of them. Segel backs off of the lovelorn-loser routine a few notches short of pathetic; Bell has less to work with, but is sympathetic when she’s given screen time; That ’70s Show alum Mila Kunis does a fine job of playing guarded-but-vulnerable as desk clerk/love interest Rachel. The bit players are also up to the task, especially Apatow regular Paul Rudd as an airhead surf instructor, and 30 Rock pageboy Jack McBrayer as a Southern newlywed struggling to please both his new wife and Jesus simultaneously; Jonah Hill’s waiter-with-a-man-crush is perfunctory but serviceable.

But it’s Brand’s enlightened rocker who proves most indispensable. Late in the film, Peter gets upset because he just can’t bring himself to hate the guy who’s been sleeping with his ex—despite how ridiculous he appears early on, Brand brings a strong magnetism to what could have been a cartoonish role. If he (Brand) isn’t an international superstar within 18 months (he’s already awfully popular in the U.K.), I’ll eat my pen.

As debut screenplays go, Segel’s has a palpable heart and plenty of laughs; as first-time directors go, Nicholas Stoller holds up his end of the bargain just fine. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a trifle in the grand scheme of cinema, but it’s a surprisingly likeable trifle.

Get Your Kicks

The Forbidden Kingdom

Directed by Rob Minkoff

The makers of The Forbidden Kingdom leave no doubt in our minds as to their veneration for martial-arts movies. The opening credits themselves are a beautiful yet humorous paeon to all those poorly dubbed films that your big brothers watched on Saturday mornings. The plot itself, about a new kid, Jason (Michael Angarano), who is mercilessly menaced by South Boston gangsters, is merely the hook on which an elaborate, hopelessly detailed story unfolds. The main purpose of the film is to present Jackie Chan and Jet Li matching wits—and fists, and anything else handy.

Jason escapes the brutal city life by endlessly watching martial-arts videotapes, and elderly shop owner Hop (Jackie Chan, in one of two roles) supplies him with plenty—along with hints about a gloried past buried within the junk of his store. Of particular interest is a golden staff, which has been waiting for three generations to be picked up by its rightful owner.

When said Southie gang forces Jason to betray Hop, the old man ends up getting terribly hurt, and Jason himself takes a flying leap (with the staff) into . . . ancient China. Dazed and confused, he falls in with Drunken Immortal, Lu Yan (also Chan), an inebriated immortal who relays the legend of the staff, which was taken by trickery from its rightful owner, the Monkey King (Jet Li), by the duplicitous Jade King. Like Dorothy in the Land of Oz, Jason can return home only if he delivers the staff to the Monkey King. Like Dorothy’s trek to Oz, this is no easy task: The Monkey King has been frozen in stone, and the path to this peculiar statue is by way of the Jade King’s forbidden kingdom. However, Jason enlists the aid of Lu Yan, Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei) and the Silent Monk (also Li), and together, this ragtag team sets out to conquer evil and kick much butt.

Screenwriter John Fusco and director Rob Minkoff glory in the visually excessive as much as in the tried-and-true machinations of the kung-fu genre. Sure, you’ve seen the stoic, white-clad monk before, and yeah, the witch with her long deadly tresses reminds one of the use of outrageously long sleeves in Hero, but hey, that’s the point. The Forbidden Kingdom reminded me a lot of the first time I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, when it debuted at the Mahaiwe Theater in Great Barrington. This was the first time I saw old and young alike lapping up something cinematic with the same gusto. Steven Spielberg tapped into our collective love of the Saturday matinee, of the feeling of invincibility that it conveyed. The Forbidden Kingdom is no different, existing primarily to let us watch Chan and Li do their respective stuff, only together. Indeed, a highlight of the film is their first encounter, when the Drunken Immortal thinks that the Monk is an enemy. Their duel is not just exciting, it’s terribly amusing.

While some of the in-between scenes are a little slow—Jason develops a crush on Golden Sparrow, of course, and she debates the finer points of revenge with Monk—it doesn’t detract terribly from the overall sense of mindless pleasure. And while it’s a treat to see the stars’ quicksilver moves, it’s even more enjoyable to see them develop the humor and humanity of their characters. In particular, Li’s Monkey King is an entirely believable simian being, combining deadly accuracy with goofy slapstick—an organ grinder’s monkey gone bad, if you will. In a season of deadly precious and self-important movies, The Forbidden Kingdom is, like the weather we’re having, a decidedly refreshing tonic.

—Laura Leon

Waste of Time

88 Minutes

Directed by Jon Avnet

It probably shouldn’t matter that a movie titled 88 Minutes is, in reality, 107 minutes long. It’s possible, given the sluggish, repulsive way 88 Minutes begins, that exactly 88 minutes elapse from the moment the film’s gimmick kicks in. (Don’t count on this reviewer to go back and do the research, however.) The problem is that the audience should feel every one of those minutes, and this just doesn’t happen.

The gimmick is this: Famed criminal psychologist Jack Gramm (Al Pacino) gets a phone call telling him he has but 88 minutes to live. And every few minutes, Jack is reminded of this clock ticking down (“tick tock, doc,” the computer-voiced caller taunts him), either by phone or more direct, physical means such as graffiti on his vandalized sports car.

Jack thinks the whole thing is being orchestrated by a serial killer (Neal McDonough) scheduled to die by lethal injection that very evening. Well, duh: We’ve already heard the killer say “tick-tock, doc” in court. That the police doubt Jack just makes them seem stupid. (And do you have any idea what a crime it is to make a great character actor like William Forsythe, who plays the FBI guy, look stupid?)

Once the gimmick kicks in, the tension should mount—but, as hinted before, it doesn’t. Ineffectual director Jon Avnet tries to build tension by cutting between people talking really fast on cell phones. Since no one, including Pacino’s character, has anything particularly interesting to say, this falls flat.

The film can’t decide whether it wants to be serious or salacious. Pacino’s “genius” doctor is surrounded by beautiful women. Some are students (Alicia Witt, Leelee Sobieski) and some are coworkers (Amy Brenneman, Deborah Kara Unger); all of them worship Jack. The game is figuring out which witch is trying to bring the hero down.


The tone of the film varies wildly, from offensive to ridiculous. The opening scene of a woman gagged, trussed, cut and murdered is reprehensible; the ultimate revelation of the killer, and the “gotcha” ending, is silly.

Al Pacino should have used his time more wisely.

—Shawn Stone

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