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Moriarty Reviews HAROLD & KUMAR and MARIA FULL OF GRACE And Discusses The Two Sides Of New Line!!

Published at: July 29, 2004, 1:46 a.m. CST by staff

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

I find myself fascinated by the way New Line has evolved over the years. The first time I was actively aware of them as a company was around the age of 14, when A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was released. They were an exploitation company at first, releasing independent films aimed squarely at a niche market, and they managed their brand as well as anyone in town. When I realized they were also the ones responsible for unleashing John Waters on the world, I decided that these were people worth paying attention to, and over the years, they have been.

There’s no doubt that LORD OF THE RINGS has changed New Line forever. They are finally thought of on par with the other studios in town, able to produce event films as big as anyone anywhere, and even more importantly, able to sell them the right way. Gordon Paddison, guru of marketing for the company and all-around big brain, has been one of the reasons they’ve been so beautifully managed these last three years. The ways he and his incredible team of people have come up with to reach out to the fan communities and to educate the public about their product has been nothing short of awe-inspiring. Filmmakers dream about having people like this selling their films. Fine Line has also helped shift the perception of what precisely is a New Line film, thanks to releases like the amazing HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH and THE ANNIVERSARY PARTY.

But now, as LORD OF THE RINGS winds down (all we really have left is one last DVD release), how is New Line going to define itself again? Are they a major studio? Are they still a genre-oriented exploitation house? Or are they going to step up the arthouse side of things? Their entire schedule was built around these particular event films for the last four years now, and there’s nothing on the horizon that has the same iconic immediacy. As a result, all of that marketing muscle has to be used somewhere, and that means we get an amazing, beautifully orchestrated campaign for... HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE?

Really?

I have to say, I’m not just underwhelmed by Danny Lenier’s third film... I think it stinks. The fact that so many people are giving it a pass just proves that comedy is perhaps the most subjective of film genres. Either you laugh or you don’t, and no amount of intellectualizing is going to convince you otherwise. In the case of H&K, I didn’t laugh. There are maybe 15 minutes in this movie where I was mildly amused, and the rest of it actively annoyed me. There’s something great and subversive about the way it starts, when we’re introduced to two stereotypical jock white guys who prepare for a weekend of pot smoking and drinking and womanizing. When one of them brings up some work they have to do, they decide to just dump it on the Korean kid sitting in the corner. Normally, that would be the last time we saw that Korean kid, but in this case, that’s Harold, played by John Cho, and it’s his story that we follow. I admire that set-up, but I wish it led into something more than just the 8 zillionth variation on the “straightlaced friend and wacky friend have an adventure where the straighlaced friend learns to lighten up” formula. One of the main reasons this film falls flat for me is that I never believed that Harold and Kumar (Kal Penn) would be friends in the real world. They’re just too obviously drawn as opposites. Just saying that they both smoke pot is hardly enough reason for them to hang out with one another, let alone be best friends. When you get a chance to see SHAUN OF THE DEAD, there’s a friendship in that film which is central to everything, and even though they’re very different people, you can see why they would be friends with one another. That friendship is the reality that everything else works off of in that film, and it just doesn’t exist here.

I also think the script by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg is just plain lazy. They set up comic situations, but rarely follow them through to any sort of conclusion. I’m baffled when I read Quint or Harry refer to the “Battleshits” sequence as any sort of comic highlight. I think it’s base and stupid, and doesn’t even make sense within the context of the joke. Listening to people shit is not a punchline in and of itself. So much of the humor in this film feels like an idea that was never fully formed, like those sketches on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE that run between 12:30 and 1:00 when they figure everyone’s already tuned out of the show and it doesn’t really matter what they put on.

There are a few funny things in the film. Neil Patrick Harris, for one. He sends up his own image with an abandon that the rest of the film is sorely lacking, and the result is that you walk away wishing you’d seen a whole movie about him. Strong supporting characters are key to making a film like this work, but they should never overpower the movie completely. I don’t think either Cho or Penn give performances that sufficiently ground the movie, so they’re almost always bested by the weird characters that pop up. I mean, I can’t believe I’m writing this, but Anthony Anderson is actually one of the funnier things in the movie in his brief appearance. Too many of the incidents along the way try for wacky but just fall flat, and the result is a sort of impatience that set in for me. Maybe if Lenier had a more confident or aggressive way of handling the material, it might have worked just based on the energy of it, but he shoots everything in a flat TV style that does the script and the actors no favors at all. Which is strange, since some of his TV work (like his hilarious FREAKS & GEEKS episode “We’ve Got Spirit”) is better than his feature film work.

It’s the forgettable nature of this film that frustrates me most, and that’s a reaction, I think, to how hard New Line’s been jamming it down our throats as an audience. Overselling a movie can be the kiss of death, because it sets up expectations that have to be met. In this case, HAROLD & KUMAR will be forgotten by the audience almost as soon as they walk out of the theater, and not just because they’re high. Actually, I wish the pot humor was smarter here. I adore the first three Cheech and Chong films. UP IN SMOKE is great, NEXT MOVIE is fun, and NICE DREAMS is flat out hilarious, and it’s because the films don’t rely on the pot humor to carry the day. They are really well-constructed comedies first, pot comedies second. HAROLD & KUMAR isn’t even as funny as HALF BAKED or HOW HIGH, if we’re just discussing this one narrow genre, and that’s pretty sad.

On the other hand, I think New Line’s been surprisingly quiet about MARIA FULL OF GRACE, their other film that is currently platforming around the country, and that baffles me. It’s a confident debut picture that, while imperfect, paints a persuasive human portrait of a character who we are primed to dislike based on the propaganda spread by those who still think the War On Drugs can be won with weapons other than education and compassion.

The greatest compliment I can pay to writer/director Joshua Marston came from my wife as we walked out of the New Line screening room. She wholeheartedly believed that the movie had been made in South America by a South American filmmaker. When I told her that Marston’s an American filmmaker, she refused to believe me at first. She said he got everything right, from the social details to the particulars of regional language, and she was enormously impressed. Marston does a great job of painting an authentic portrait of life in Colombia. Maria is just trying to get by like everyone else, working in a flower factory where she spends her days de-thorning roses for export. Her paycheck goes to help her mother, her grandmother, her sister, and her sister’s baby, leaving next to nothing left over for herself. Catalina Sandino Moreno is a hell of a find, and Marston should count himself lucky to have been able to cast her as Maria. She gives the character a real world-weariness, despite her youth, but she also conveys a sort of unflagging optimism and a quiet courage. She’s determined to figure out her place in the world, and when she learns she’s pregnant by her idiotic occasional boyfriend, it wakes her up, shocks her out of her routine. She quits her job, not sure what she’s going to do next. All she knows is that she wants out of her life, her town, her future.

That makes her a perfect target for Franklin (John Alex Toro), a slick local hustler who recognizes that yearning in Maria. He knows what it means when he sees that look in her eyes, and he preys on it, uses it against her, convincing her that a better life is just a few easy jobs away. All she needs to do is make a couple of trips to and from the United States. Cushy plane rides with a free vacation in the middle. Couldn’t be easier, and the pay couldn’t be any better.

Oh... sure... there is that whole swallowing-sixty-cocaine-filled-condoms thing, too, but let’s not get hung up on the details, right?

What makes Maria such a compelling but frustrating protagonist is the fact that she makes questionable choices, one after another. She has this picture in her head of how life should be, but she just doesn’t have the tools to make it real. She’s impetuous, rash, and she frequently does things that are ill-considered. Through it all, Moreno makes us understand the heart of this girl. Even when you want to shake her and yell at her to wise up, you can’t help but understand her, and that’s the real power of Marston’s film. It’s an empathy exercise more than anything else. It’s easy to forget when you’re raised in America that our standard of living is totally different than what much of the world experiences, and a film like this allows us to look through fresh eyes at the enormous privileges that we seem to take for granted. One of the reasons I married my wife is because I am endlessly impressed by the strength she drew upon to move to this country, and how she rebuilt her life from scratch when she got here. When I moved from Florida to LA in 1990, I remember thinking it was a big deal, but I had a support system I could fall back on, and I had a writing partner who moved out at the same time. No matter how hard I struggled, I always managed to make ends meet, and for many people, that’s not possible, no matter what. Do I agree with Maria’s choices to bring drugs into this country? Absolutely not. But I understand exactly what pressures lead her to make a choice that terrible, and by the end of the film, I forgave her for her mistakes. Marston puts a human face on the term “drug mule,” and he makes it impossible to think of them as skin suitcases, chess pieces in the drug war. These are people, and in some cases, they’re not evil. They’re just looking for a way to get a foothold that may provide them a chance at a life that they’re told they can never have.

Technically, the film is polished and confident. It’s got an effective score by Leonardo Heiblum and Jacobo Lieberman, and the cinematography by Jim Denault strikes a lovely naturalistic tone that’s handsomely complimented by Lee Percy’s editing. It all comes back to Marston, though. I’m dying to see what this guy does for a second film. This isn’t the sort of splashy debut designed to launch someone right into the heart of the Hollywood machine, churning out anonymous Bruckheimer action movies or crappy mainstream romantic comedies. This is heartfelt, complex, character-driven work, and it’s a great example of what Fine Line does so well.

... which brings us back to the central question of the day: what is New Line right now? Thankfully, it’s not a question they have to answer right this second, but it is a question they have to start strongly considering. What has traditionally made New Line unique is their strong sense of identity, which has shifted many times over the years. This is one of those moments. A seismic shift is upon them, and how they respond will either show that survivor’s spirit that has always made them so much fun to root for, or prove that they have finally become “just” another studio.

Either way, it’s going to be a hell of a show.

"Moriarty" out.





Readers Talkback

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  • July 29, 2004, 1:55 a.m. CST

    what other films

    by Krigan

    what other films did this guy make other than dude wheres my car?

  • July 29, 2004, 2:11 a.m. CST

    Wait a minute...

    by Logo Lou

    You really don't get why New Line is really pushing Harold and Kumar hard and just quietly platforming Maria? That can't be right... you're smarter than that. I missed something.

  • July 29, 2004, 2:58 a.m. CST

    Harold and Kumar?

    by seniormoogle

    Whoever even thought this might be funny should probably immediatly be euthanized, along with Martha Stewart, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Michael bay (before they have a threesome and create the anti-christ). The ad campaign was not clever unless your a stoner. In which case you might as well watch the Tellatubbies instead. BTW, I'm all for drugs, infact drugs are a keen way to promote mental darwinism, please, everyone who wants to do meth and cocaine now, preferably at the same time, because you will help preserve the gene pool. BTW vote Kerry.

  • they made Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, Se7en, About Schmidt, Blade, and thats all I can list off the top of my head.

  • July 29, 2004, 3:30 a.m. CST

    new line did not make punchdrunk love

    by blackstormy

    I believe it was that one where the lady holds up that torch with all the clouds in the background, it definitly wasn't the filmstrips flying at the square, such as is the case for pta's magnolia y boogie nights

  • July 29, 2004, 8:51 a.m. CST

    I wouldn't think so...

    by RonBurgundy

    ...but I think Harold & Kumar looks pretty funny, in a wholly different way Anchorman was. (And yes...I thought Anchorman was brilliant and hilarious--especially the first half. In fact, friends of mine who weren't thrilled with it the first time loved it the second time they saw it.) Check out rottentomatoes.com for the reviews of Harold & Kumar--film critics usually don't go for comedies like these...and the fact it's been reviewed so well bodes VERY well for the movie. I'll definitely see it...but it will be tough to squeeze it in with The Village, The Manchurian Candidate (I'm surprised it's being reviewed so well)...and Napoleon Dynamite just came to my city too. Lots of good movies to see!

  • July 29, 2004, 10:02 a.m. CST

    h & k rules!!

    by arjjun07@aintitc

    this movie looks great!!

  • July 29, 2004, 10:05 a.m. CST

    h & k rules!!

    by arjjun07@aintitc

    harold and kumar rules! anchorman was just crap comedy 4 the white folks!!!

  • July 29, 2004, 10:28 a.m. CST

    Mori, I've got the answer:

    by Hud

    Harold and Kumar 2: Goin' to Colombia, directed by Marston! See, that way everybody'll be gratified, specially you! I think you may not have appreciated something in Harold and Kumar that other critics did: the modern Asian American experience. Your review came off as particularly obtuse. Maybe if you'd married somebody from India or China, you'd have had the same eyes for authenticity for H&K that you abundantly reference for MFoG. Or not, but I politely disagree with your "stink" tag, Jack.

  • July 29, 2004, 11:27 a.m. CST

    So basically Mori would rather see more of the white guys in the

    by devil0509

    Why, oh why am I not surprised to see this kind of review by one of the founders of AICN (Aryan Interest Cinema News)?

  • July 29, 2004, 12:15 p.m. CST

    There's a "Wilhelm" scream in one of the Harold & Kumar TV ads

    by Osmosis Jones

    When one of them gets hit by a tree branch and goes flying through the air.

  • July 29, 2004, 12:37 p.m. CST

    Damn, Mori, that was a well written article!

    by Atticus Finch

    Hopefully, Harry was taking notes. And when is the next Jedi Council article?!

  • July 29, 2004, 1:55 p.m. CST

    Harold and Kumar Rape Humanity

    by Forestal

    This Harold and Kumar movie is an insult to humanity (although humanity right now doesn't have much going for it). ANYBODY BUT BUSH '04!

  • July 29, 2004, 3:17 p.m. CST

    H & K - the ultimate Product Placement movie

    by jim

    The product is not only the plot of the film but it is in the title and therefore in all the advertising. The clip Cho & Penn showed on Leno was them watching TV and seeing a White Castle ad. Basically, the clip was a frickin' ad for the product!What's White Castle paying for all this advertising? Holy crap, they could have financed the entire film with White Castle's advertising dollar. Hey movie producers, I have a movie for you that won't cost a cent to make; we can get all our financing from product placement. It's called "Big Jim in his Dockers, Roots shirt and Nike shoes goes to Famous Player's to see 'Harold & Kumar go to White Castle' and buys a Pepsi and New York Fries and a Ben & Jerry's cone then goes home and writes a review on his IBM laptop while watching Fox".

  • July 29, 2004, 3:22 p.m. CST

    Insightful... Thanks, M!

    by Archive

    The reviews were helpful and entertaining, and I completely agree that New Line's success has always been an issue of focus. One of the reasons why previously independent filmmakers have been entrusted with so many big franchises is that when your career is project-by-project, then you can't afford any muddled thinking when it comes to your intent with a given film, your market, or your choices in production. Clarity of purpose, well-defined goals, are universally a hallmark of any rising filmmaker, and the bigger companies are smart to harness that clarity. It means the big money is spent wisely, and there isn't any waste. New line has always been good at making their goals known, and at following them with direct, focused intent. One thing's for sure - if New Line's clarity is sacrificed in the wake of LOTR, there are surely filmmakers just waiting in the wings, the next George Lucas or Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi, eager to prove they can drink without spilling. It's an exciting time for movies!

  • usually because they sort of meander and go nowhere, but I think some of my favourite bits on SNL in the last few years has been that slot. "Give up the Ham" with Queen Latiffa and the one where Donald Trump was rocking out in the board room. ("LOOK! The battle of the bands is only 16 months away! We have to get ontop of this!")

  • July 29, 2004, 4:28 p.m. CST

    Is anyone else around here fucking tired of hearing about SHAUN

    by Spaz Medicine

  • July 29, 2004, 5:11 p.m. CST

    don't underestimate the power of weed to bring people together.

    by Homer Sexual

    Seriously. I am a white homo who hates sports, and in college my best friend was a big black guy who played center on the school's basketball team. Guess what we had in common? And I think this movie shows promise. On a couple tangents, I am also sick of hearing about Shaun of the Dead here, and don't get the appeal of that movie. Finally, Anchorman certainly didn't do as well as expected, maybe it's a Ferrell overload, but more likely Dodgeball stole it's thunder by coming out first and filling the idiotic comedy of the summer niche.

  • July 29, 2004, 5:12 p.m. CST

    How do I become a mule?

    by Cabron

    I can swaller at least a ki.

  • July 29, 2004, 7:01 p.m. CST

    The "Wilhelm" scream is the one used in all of the Star Wars and

    by Osmosis Jones

    It sounds like "Aaaa-AHHHHH-ahhh!", and usually accompanies people falling to their deaths. A good "Wilhelm" moment is in Raiders during the desert chase, when a Nazi falls out of the back of the truck carrying the Ark and smashes into the windshield of the pursuing jeep. Recent movies featuring "Wilhelm" include Kill Bill Vol. 1 (pops up twice during the House Of Blue Leaves chapter), The Two Towers (a Rohan soldier falls to his death during the Helm's Deep battle), twice in Return Of The King and once in Once Upon a Time In Mexico. There used to be a great site containing a wav file of the scream, but it got taken down for some reason. Google "Wilhelm Scream" and you'll find a few other sites devoted to it.

  • July 29, 2004, 8:12 p.m. CST

    Gordan P. is a manipulative ass

    by MrCere

    And THAT is why he is so good at what he does. Hollywood is a lovely place.

  • July 30, 2004, 2:37 a.m. CST

    Drew M. agrees with me on this one

    by AlwaysThere

    Well maybe I agree with him, but thats a silly semantic error. For all the ludicrous hype bestowed upon this flick you would have expected something groundbreaking (or atleast different from the norm). Instead is just becomes incredibly stupid. "NPH" role is worthless, the scene with the "accused" rapist at the drive throught window falls flat, riding a faded cheetah was idiotic, and so was the parasailing bit. If Van Helsing can get bashed for having people swinging all over the place like Spider-Man, Harold & Kumar should face a similar thrashing. Oh, and must Lets Get Retarded be played in every movie out there nowadays?

  • July 30, 2004, 2:52 a.m. CST

    my review of the review

    by happyboy

    i like white people. not so crazy about white castle

  • July 30, 2004, 4:13 a.m. CST

    Marijauna DOES equals friendship

    by PaulyFunk

    I have plenty of friends that are the complete opposite of me and the only thing that brings us together is pot. If they're old college friends starting in the business world, weed is plenty enough reason to hang out!

  • I mean across every major campus, Asians dont hang out or room w/ each other. You never see saya Korean guy hanging w/ a Chinese guy...or a Thai girl friends w/ an Indian student... How could they think a Korean and an Indian were roommates???!!??? errr...uhhh...yea

  • July 30, 2004, 10:30 a.m. CST

    "The ultimate Product Placement movie"

    by duanejones

    it's funny that you use this as a criticism, since the positive _h & k_ reviews i've read -- from the village voice and other bastions of non-reactionary racial sensibilities -- actually see, as other posters here do, the implicit symbology in the very product they're placing. without having seen it, two asian guys getting high and going to white castle, with one commenting "tonight is about the american dream," seems like a reasonable utilization of a known brand on behalf of an exploration, however crudely comedic, of immigrant culture and its (multiple) take(s) on life in america. i mean, where's your complaint about product placement in EVERY OTHER HOLLYWOOD FILM?!?!? dude, where's my commercial-free film screening? (remember when people used to boo the commercials that we now patiently sit through at the beginning of every film screened in every theater in america? i'd be happy to bring that back -- who's with me?) at least, this is a placement that has something to do with the plot! and i second logo lou's head-scratching over moriarty's critique of a slow roll-out for _maria_ while the big guns brought out for _h & k's excellent adventure_...we'd ALL love a film like _maria_ getting a 3,000 screen opening (wouldn't we?), but that ain't how it works in, possibly, the worst time ever for theatrical releases of foreign art films in the usa. can i smoke what mori's smoking?

  • July 30, 2004, 4:08 p.m. CST

    "dude, where's my commercial-free film screening?"

    by jim

    Those days are long gone my friend. My point was that this movie seems to have taken product placement to the next level by having the product in the title. That way the product is not simply seen in the movie, it IS the movie. Every ad for the movie is an ad for the product. Don't get me wrong, I'm not Grandpa Simpson here ranting away. I accept that product placement is here to stay and I applaud the clever use of it (as in this film for the reasons you stated). Other films which have made good use of it are EdTV and Josie & The Pussycats (which, in retrospect, truly is the ultimate product placement movie). I much prefer this type of product placement that fits with the story (as it does with this movie) rather than the ham-handed way it usually appears in film (you know, box of Dunkin Donuts perfectly lit and placed on a table in such an obvious way that it overpowers the scene, stuff like that). As for the commercials they run before the feature I'm with you. What irks me is people are now getting accustomed to them and time their entrance to avoid them. Showtime is 7:20, people file in around 7:40 because they think there will about 20 minutes of commercials and previews. Sometimes there are but not always. And these yahoos are walking around in the dark with arms loaded with drinks and popcorn trying to find eight seats together and debating the pros and cons of sitting in the front as opposed to the back and being just plain annoying (ok, now I'm being Grandpa Simpson). Theatres should just run the commercials between shows instead of those "guess who this is" trivia slides. But I guess we should be grateful that movie houses haven't brought back the "Intermission" just so they can sell more food and show 15 minutes more of commercials.