Monday, April 30, 2012

Love and Marriage: THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT


Lacking the focus and bite that gave Nicholas Stoller’s bad-break-up island-getaway comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall it’s notable power, his newest film, The Five-Year Engagement, starts strong, but gets softer and lousier the longer it goes on. It follows Tom (Jason Segel, also the co-writer) and Violet (Emily Blunt), who keep pushing back their wedding date whenever they encounter new obstacles. He’s a chef in San Francisco, but she gets a job offer at the University of Michigan. Why not take the job, move across the country and delay the wedding? The timing just doesn’t work out, but they love each other. They’re devoted and supportive. But why rush? They’ll be spending their whole lives together, after all. What’s another year? Or two? Or three?

As the story slips through events that take place over the course of what is eventually the five years of the title, it becomes a relatively lengthy, shapeless movie that meanders from scene to scene. At first it’s a rush of parties and preparations, but then time stretches out and seasons turn. Tom’s parents (great character actors Mimi Kennedy and David Paymer) and Violet’s parents (Jim Piddock and Jacki Weaver, so frightening in her Oscar-nominated role as the crime family matriarch in Animal Kingdom) would like to see them married sooner rather than later. The wedding is always on the horizon, but the distance to it never seems to shrink. Tom sees his goofy friend (Chris Pratt) receive the promotion he would have gotten had he remained in San Francisco. Violet sees her sister (Alison Brie) get married and have a baby.

But those happenings are more than half a country away from Ann Arbor, Michigan, a great city in its own right. It’s a charming college town that nonetheless provides wintry challenges to these Californians. And the people they meet are certainly friendly and challenging in ways related to their individual eccentricities. Violet’s boss (Rhys Ifans) and colleagues (Mindy Kaling, Kevin Hart, and Randall Park) and Tom’s newfound friends (including pothead sandwich maker Brian Posehn and stay-at-home dad Chris Parnell) are supportive, if eccentric. They know their way around local bars and hunting weekends respectively. The couple tries again and again to get wedding plans off the ground, but for one reason or another the date is pushed back again and again.

A wobbly mix of shapelessness and sharpness gives the movie its lackadaisical approach. The main problem here is the way it becomes clear that Tom and Violet have a pretty good relationship. I’m glad that the filmmakers at first steer clear of stupid movie-plot conflicts as ways to push back the wedding. It seems perfectly reasonable to avoid rushing into marriage, especially when Tom’s struggling to restart his chef ambitions in their new environs and Violet is trying to navigate the start of a promising career in academia. They love each other and, even if professional goals frustrate them at times, it doesn’t seem to effect their essential compatibility or their enjoyment of each other’s company, even when they argue. In the film’s most quietly funny and painfully accurate scene, Tom lashes out, complaining about his seemingly stagnant path in life, and finally says that he’d like some alone time. Violet gets up to go into the next room, but he calls after her. “Where are you going? I want to be alone here with you.”

What’s so unexpectedly sharp and recognizably humane about this film is the way it soberly approaches romance from a practical standpoint. This isn’t a swoony love-conquers-all Hollywood concoction. This is a movie that acknowledges in a serious, albeit in a mostly comedic context, the difficulties of blending two lives into one, especially when the people involved are struggling to get their lives as individuals started. It’s a movie about the futile pursuit of future perfection when the present is pretty good already.

By the movie’s back half, though, the sweetness and laid-back observation of this couple living their lives becomes just another romantic comedy. Contrived conflicts arise that divide the two, causing them to rethink their entire relationship. The plotting devolves into a distended version of the standard strained crisis before eventual reconciliation that can be found in so many romantic comedies, even some of the good ones. What’s particularly disappointing about this change is that the movie starts as a nicely unconventional look at romance, questioning a pressing need for matrimony when things seem to be so unsettled. The easy charm of the cast and the likable rapport of Segel and Blunt remain, but the supporting cast has been underdeveloped and the jokes have been a bit undercooked and so they just can’t carry the slow switch into formula. The whole thing starts to take on a feeling of an affable but lumbering episodic mess. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Pirate's Life for Them: THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS

There’s something so charmingly handmade about the stop-motion animation of Aardman, the British studio of Peter Lord and Nick Park, who have made the Wallace and Gromit films and Chicken Run. Knowing that every moment, down to the smallest detail, involved a painstaking process of moving the characters and props incrementally a frame at a time means that not a single sight gag or bit of background tomfoolery went without careful planning. These are dense movies with visual jokes layered and lovingly presented and yet their stories are so breezily charming in the telling it hardly feels like work. Repeat viewings reveal an even greater appreciation for the high level of consistent craftsmanship. It’s mighty hard work to feel this slight and effortless.

Perhaps that’s why Aardman’s forays into CGI have been a mixed bag. In Flushed Away (fine) and Arthur Christmas (a wee bit less than fine), some of the comedic appeal is still present in the writing. But for some reason seeing the same designs – round eyes, doughy faces, toothy grins – and detail in a shinier computerized package takes the viewing experience a step away from the handmade qualities that is clearly an integral part of the Aardman experience. It’s hard work to make a CGI movie, to be sure, but I never stop marveling at the level of dedication and planning it takes to pull off even the littlest touch with stop-motion.

And so I was predisposed to like the company’s return to that form of animation in a feature length way. Luckily, The Pirates! Band of Misfits rewarded my hopeful predisposition with a film that’s so silly it’d be hard not to get caught up in it all. It’s been adapted by Gideon Defoe from his book The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, a much better title. (In fact, it’s been released under that title in the UK.) The story follows a group of pirates in the late 1800s desperate to win the Pirate of the Year award for their captain Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) and prove themselves worthy scoundrels.

Pirate Captain has lost the award twenty years in a row, so he figures he is overdue. His crew, with the voices of Martin Freeman, Lenny Henry, Anton Yelchin, Ashley Jensen, Brendan Gleeson, and Al Roker (?), is a motley collection of peg legs, patches, a suspiciously curvaceous pirate, and one really fat parrot. They may not accomplish much in the way of looting and plundering, but they care about each other, so that’s nice. Besides, they seem much more interested in having fun waterskiing, putting on disguises and eating ham, though not all at the same time.

On their way to find “lots of sparkling booty,” they end up running into Charles Darwin (David Tennant), hence the original scientist-referencing title. Darwin and his trained monkey butler (a “man-panzee”) end up getting the pirates into a mess of trouble involving a maniacal Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) and the Royal Academy of Science, with special cameos from Jane Austen and the Elephant Man. From that alone, you can tell this is a movie refreshingly out of step with contemporary family film trends. It’s not a hipper than thou kids’ flick with contemporary pop culture references and grating lowest-common-denominator gags a la the Chipmunks or Smurfs updates or the worst of Dreamworks (or, even worse, sub-Dreamworks) Animation. It’s a movie that is content to reference late 1800s culture in all kinds of ways both subtle and obvious.

It’s a film of sophistication and class in that way, that rewards intelligence and curiosity, which makes it all the more giggly to descend into droll, good-natured silliness right along with these sweet, lovable rapscallions. These goofy pirates make this an animated period piece that’s an unabashed cartoon willing to rustle up historical context in which to spin out crazy slapstick, unexpected non sequiters, a handful of tossed off anachronisms and occasional meta winks in a beautifully straight-faced style. The whole story is a funny mix between a small (very small) amount of real history and hysterical silly fictions. Director Peter Lord and the whole Aardman crew go wild with the hilarious detail. I liked how Darwin’s taxidermy creatures all have terrified expressions on their dead faces and Queen Victoria’s secret-throne room floor is covered with trapdoors. The walls of all the little sets are plastered with small visual jokes that zing by so fast I know I didn’t catch them all.

Narratively speaking, the film is a tad bumpy. It takes quite a while for the plot proper to kick in and, because the characters are purposefully thin archetypes, it’s hard to get all that invested in their emotional arcs, such as they are. But it’s all so winningly detailed in dialogue that zigs and zags and visually, especially in action sequences with oodles of moving parts. And it’s such a well-played goof that’s it’s hard to mind so much that it’s ever so slightly uneven and ultimately a bit less satisfying than the best that Aardman has been. It’s the kind of movie where an island is known as Blood Island because “it’s the exact shape of some blood,” a pirate wonders if pigs are fruit, and Pirate Captain won’t sail a certain route because it would take them right through the spot where the map’s decorative sea monster resides. It’s the kind of movie where London’s scientists pick the Discovery of the Year with an applause meter, one of the attendees of a secret gathering of heads-of-state is Uncle Sam, and a monkey butler communicates through a seemingly endless number of flash cards. The whole film has a likable feeling of sharp, exaggerated silliness of a most lovingly handcrafted kind.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Just His Luck: THE LUCKY ONE

By now, after the likes of The Notebook, Dear John, The Last Song, and more, the ingredients needed for making a Nicolas Sparks adaptation are awfully predictable. You need sun-dappled Southern beaches prone to thematically relevant rainstorms. You need an earnest, but troubled young man and a beautiful, suffering young woman. You need a wise, loving, but imperfect parental figure and a precocious little kid. All of the above must have somewhat tragic backstories and be prone to misunderstandings. The plot needs miscommunications and romantic obstacles and a conclusion that’s deeply romantic with moldy notes of melancholy. Death of a major minor character is optional but encouraged. The ingredients are then tossed in a pot (along with corn and cheese) and cooked until they’re a good, thick mush.

The newest iteration is The Lucky One. The earnest, troubled young man is Zac Efron. He plays a Marine who finds a picture in the Iraqi desert and, while he walks over to pick it up, narrowly escapes a deadly explosion The picture shows a good-looking blonde (Taylor Schilling) smiling in front of a lighthouse. He decides it’s a good luck charm. When his tours of duty are over, he heads back to the States, determined to find the woman in the picture and thank her in person. If it weren’t for that photo, he’d surely be dead.

He finds her rather quickly upon his arrival in a small, rural Louisiana town. She owns, works and lives at a dog shelter with her loving and supportive grandmother (Blythe Danner, underused here) and talented, but self-conscious young son (Riley Thomas Stewart).  But, for reasons of drawing this thing out to feature length, Efron can’t bring himself to tell them why he’s arrived. Instead, the ex-Marine gets hired to help out, which leads to several scenes of Efron moping about while starting a rusty tractor, hammering a broken gutter back into place, and dragging away fallen branches. You see, he’s going to fix their lives. It’s a metaphor. Get it?

The adaption by Will Fetters doesn’t think you will. In fact, the script is so simple-minded that it thinks incident will pass for plot and arbitrary events will pass for characterization. It’s a movie that relies on characters not telling each other important information and, when presented with new revelations, they will assume the worst about each other. And then, when things are finally straightened out, when characters actually open up to each other, the very important conflicts just fizzle out as if they never were a problem at all. But we just spent an hour or whatever watching characters dance around these problems, fretting over what amounts to nothing. From the first shot they share, it’s achingly obvious that Efron and Schilling will fall in love and live happily ever after. The only convincing reason to delay the obvious with unbelievable obstacles is to make sure the story takes 100 minutes to tell.

Take the character of the woman’s ex-husband (Jay R. Ferguson), for example. He’s comically threatening with a bunch of traits that make it seem like he was created from a checklist of nasty clichés. He’s an abusive, alcoholic, jealous, condescending cop with high-level connections within the local government. He’s not much of a character beyond a collection of traits targeted to provide maximum disruption in what would otherwise be a plot almost entirely without conflict. He’s a distraction; the only purpose he serves is, like Efron’s decision not to reveal his lucky charm, simply a way to keep the movie going. When the ex-husband has finally outlived his purpose in the plot, he’s written out in a comically overwrought and underwritten way that’s supposed to be a Big Moment, but is in fact just an atonal cop out.

The whole endeavor is directed by Scott Hicks, a filmmaker who has, in the past, helmed glossy prestige projects, adaptations of true stories (Shine and The Boys Are Back) and novels (Snow Falling on Cedars and Hearts in Atlantis). He doesn’t (and probably couldn’t) do much with the material besides keeping things moving and looking competent on a technical level. The cast hardly elevates things either. Efron has little experience in carrying a drama and it shows. He’s never convincing as an ex-Marine and his way of projecting inner turmoil is by keeping his face as still and expressionless as possible. Still, he’s far better here than in Charlie St. Cloud, that drippy movie from a few years ago about a kid who plays catch with the ghost of his dead little brother. Schilling, for her part, has a scene where she laughs and cries at the same time, which, if nothing else, proves that her scary, emotionless lead performance in the worst movie of last year, Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, was in all likelihood a purposeful decision to help reveal the lunacy of that project from within it.

But maybe the filmmakers didn’t want me sitting there thinking about even worse movies that Efron and Schilling have made. They probably weren’t expecting me to sit there thinking about much at all beyond caring about the characters and their situations. But I just wasn’t invested in anything that was happening on screen. Even when Efron and Schilling break their long, dull flirtation with a heavy-duty, fully-clothed make-out scene under an outdoor shower, it plays less like an expression of romantic tension, and more like another box to be checked. The movie’s so thin, programmatic and uneventful that I had difficulty remembering what happened in it even minutes after it was over.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Chimpan-A to CHIMPANZEE

Disney’s newest nature documentary, Chimpanzee, tells a good story. It shows the development of a baby chimp as he grows and learns about the world of the jungle all around him. His mother begins to teach him how to find food, how to groom, how to survive. But then something terrible happens. His mother goes missing, probably killed by a predator like a leopard, and the poor little chimp is orphaned, alone and barely more than helpless. His attempts to find a fully-grown chimp to help him are difficult, but then help arrives from an unexpected member of the group and an unlikely bond is formed.

The above reads like a very Disney description. It could just as well describe a vibrant, musical animated version of the same events. (In fact, in its broad strokes, isn’t it kind of Bambi with a light splash of The Jungle Book?) The remarkable thing here, though, is that this story is true. A team of British wildlife documentarians was out getting remarkably intimate footage of chimpanzees in the wild and happened to be in the right place at the right time to catch the story of this young chimp. Though clearly culled from hundreds of hours of footage and then heavily edited to make this short documentary flow with a narrative arc, the basic observation of these animals is what really makes this movie special.

There’s something so strangely human in the eyes of a chimp. When the cameras catch them staring in their general direction, there’s a chance to watch the way the light darts around the eyes, the way the eyes shift and dance with something more than mere primal primate instincts. They look like they’re thinking; they look like they’re feeling. Science tells us that chimpanzees have DNA that is 99% identical to human DNA. That has to explain how, as the movie shows us chimps using tools, making plans, showing affection, fear and anger, it feels all so eerie and adorable and fascinating. They’re so close to humans and yet that extra 1% makes them so far away as well.

That’s what directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield (who created the BBC’s essential Planet Earth miniseries) have made excellent use of in creating Chimpanzee. They trust that their remarkable footage is just that. It’s a rare chance to see chimps in the wild behaving as chimps do. They use sticks and rocks to crack open a harvest of nuts. They bend branches into nests for sleeping through the night. Little chimps roughhouse. Adults fight over territory with a rival group of chimps. And through it all the little chimp that is our focus – the film names him Oscar and I suppose there’s no way to ask the chimps what his real name is – provides an adorable, intensely sympathetic throughline.

Where Fothergill and Linfield hedge their bets, where the documentary feels most Disney for the worse, is the wall-to-wall narration from Tim Allen. His voice is warm and inviting, with great energy and likability. (Come to think of it, if you were, for some reason, making a list of Top Five Tim Allen movies, three would have to be his voice acting in the Toy Story movies). He’s not really the problem here. What bothered me was the way the narration goes inside the minds of the chimps, projecting and anthropomorphizing in ways that the footage and the story itself doesn’t. When it sticks to the facts about the chimps and their rituals, social behaviors and routines, it’s just fine. I didn’t even mind some of the more strictly subjective judgments, like calling the rival chimps fighting over the territory “enemies,” although at times reducing the complexity of a wild ecosystem into good-guy bad-guy seems a bit too easy. What really bothered me were moments like when the branch Oscar’s using as a tool breaks before cracking a nut and Allen says, speaking presumably for Oscar, “Hey! This is defective!” Later, he’ll even be asked to do his Home Improvement grunt. (Or maybe he volunteered it.)

The footage of the chimps is so often incredible that I wish they’d scaled back the narration. It’s the aspect of the film that seems most calculated to children in the audience, but it’s misjudged and at some points comes across as talking down to the entire audience. But the story that the documentarians were lucky enough to capture is so strong, so interesting, that it’s almost enough to overpower my objections. I’m not suggesting that the story occurred exactly as presented. There’s definitely editing involved in helping in the shaping of the footage into this narrative, clarifying and eliding in equal measure, but I don’t think that there’s anything as nefarious as Disney’s infamous True-Life Adventures shorts of the 50s and 60s, which occasionally mixed fiction into their documenting to make the narrative better (including forcing lemmings off of a cliff to get some good shots).

Chimpanzee, even when it steps wrong, is filled with reverence for these animals. It’s a film that cares deeply about their plight and their struggles, but isn’t a film that foregrounds such ecological considerations. Instead, it’s a film that tells a good story while giving audiences an up-close (albeit G-rated) look at the way chimps behave, a chance to be Jane Goodall from the comfort of a multiplex. When the end credits reveal how the worldwide population of chimps has dwindled in the last 50 years, there’s clearly more facts to be told, but, emotionally speaking, there’s not much more to be said in that moment. Over the course of 80 minutes, we’ve spent time with them, we’ve come to love them (or had a love reinforced), and now we’re hopefully left wanting to save them.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Think For Yourself: THINK LIKE A MAN


It’s strange to suddenly realize we live in a world where based-on-a-self-help-book is a real subgenre of the romantic comedy. Sure, we had He’s Just Not That Into You back in 2009, but that felt like more of a fluke offshoot of the Love Actually school of ensemble rom-coms. (And, of course, there was Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask all the way back in 1972, but that’s really more of a collection of shorts and hardly a romantic comedy, so we may as well leave it out of this particular conversation). But with What to Expect When You’re Expecting coming out next month and Think Like a Man (based on Steve Harvey’s bestselling Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man) being the film in question here today, it’s become almost natural that a self help book be converted into a framework for an ensemble to fall in and out of love.

Harvey’s book is a relationship guide for women that claims to unlock the mysteries of the modern man’s mind. These so-called mysteries can then be used to find and win the heart of the types of men these women would prefer to be dating. In practice, the book’s worldview is one of rigid gender roles and insulting stereotypes for both men and women. And maybe it’s just me, but somehow the introduction of psychological warfare by way of hack standup routines seems to be at or near the opposite of romance and the foundation of a happy, healthy, adult relationship. The problem of Think Like a Man isn’t that it’s based off of a lame book, or even that it uses the book’s premises as cheap frames for its plotlines (introductory titles like “The Player” and “Mama’s Boy vs. Single Mom” spell out each couple’s “types” and central conflicts for us). The problem of this film is that it’s so often in the business of selling us the book.

Who should appear not once, not twice, but several times on TVs in the background or, even worse, talking right to the camera or in smug voice over? Steve Harvey as himself. Copies of the book are prominently displayed, bought, read, highlighted, and discussed in many a scene. An important plot twist develops around who knows who has been reading the book. At one point, during an otherwise reasonably entertaining conversation between two characters, one holds up a copy of the book, positioning the cover towards the camera almost as if she was plugging it on a talk show or revealing it as the next item on The Price is Right. Every time the book is hauled, literally or thematically, into the movie, it wrenches away interest from the characters by foregrounding the artificiality of it all.

Like any ensemble romantic comedy you’ve ever seen, this script by Keith Merryman and David A. Newman introduces a set of male characters and a set of female characters and proceeds to see them comically thrown together in separate but intertwining plots that click right along from the Meet Cutes to the false crisises, to the romantic revaluations and the eventual forgiving embraces. Director Tim Story jumps between plots and scenes with a bit of clumsiness that inhibits momentum, but sometimes it’s all pleasant enough, even, at times, vaguely amusing.  What makes this particular movie so pleasant is the cast. They’re so much better than the script requires that, when the formula fades away to some extent, it’s entirely their talent that causes it to do so.

As the men, we have dreamer Michael Ealy, man-child Jerry Ferrara, divorced Kevin Hart, mama’s boy Terrence Jenkins, and player Romany Malco. Hart and Malco are especially good here as the more explicitly comedic characters. They’ve been putting in good work, usually on the margins, in films and TV shows for years, so it’s nice to see them grab more of the spotlight. Where the cast really lights up is with the women. It’ll be tough for any other film this year to match it in the number underappreciated and underutilized actresses in the cast. Playing career women are Meagan Good, Taraji P. Henson, and Gabrielle Union, with Regina Hall as the single mom. They are so very good here that they serve to upend the film’s assumptions about the female mind. They’re lovely; they can be tough and vulnerable and are perfectly capable of being funny without becoming clowns. In the end, the film’s on their side.

Ideally, having a looser structure based around life lessons (of a sort) would allow the self-help rom-com to slip out of the boy-meets-girl, loses-girl, gets-girl grind, but here it just serves to multiply the predictability. Think Like a Man’s biggest problem is its hard sell approach to its hack ideas and stale gender role commentary. The movie lines up a pretty good cast and, when it can gain some real momentum away from Harvey’s book, it can be a fairly decent, if still underwhelming, picture. But that doesn’t happen often enough and by the end I was more disappointed than I thought I’d be. Flashes of promise make ultimate mediocrity hurt just a little bit more than usual.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Kick Kick Bang Bang: THE RAID: REDEMPTION

There are more action beats per minute in The Raid: Redemption than any other movie released so far this year. I’d say it’s a safe bet that it ends the year with that status intact. This Indonesian martial arts movie written and directed by Gareth Evans has the gas pedal all the way down after only a minute or two of set-up and barrels through its remaining 100 minutes with a pace that never goes slack. It’s an exercise in just how much you can strip away from an action movie and still have a movie. The result of this experiment is a movie with good action that never turns into a good action movie. Its devotion to constant thrills leads it to monotony fairly quickly.

The plot is simplicity itself. A terrifying drug lord (Ray Sahetapy) has an entrenched base of operations on the top floor of a ramshackle apartment building where he gives free or low-income housing to his small army of thugs, flunkies, and other assorted enforcers. The police are determined to take him out so an elite team armed to the teeth storms into the building, determined to take it over one floor at a time. Easier said than done, obviously. The film then follows mostly undifferentiated police fighting almost exclusively unidentified criminals in a knockdown drag-out fight up and down the stairwells and in and out of windows and up and down fire escapes, the police making upward progress and the criminals knocking them back down.

The opening minutes of the film gives us our stock reasons to care about our entry point character, Rama (Iko Uwais). He’s a policeman who wakes up, does some crunches, says his prayers, and kisses his pregnant wife goodbye. Then he heads off to join his co-workers in the back of the police van loading their guns, strapping on their bulletproof vests, and solidifying their strategy. It’s the slightest of rooting interests with this ostensible protagonist. He’s a good guy, apparently, since he takes care of himself, is religious, is an expectant father, is prepared for his job, and gets along well with his colleagues.

But he never becomes more than our assumed hero, is never more than his physical prowess and competent charisma, just as none of the other characters become anything more than fighters. These are figures defined entirely by how well they can execute bone-crunching fight choreography. Unlike the best action films, even ones as spare and simple as this one, the people in The Raid: Redemption are never expanded or deepened through what we see of their physicality. Here, their actions are not revealing anything deeper about themselves or their situations. When a character kills an opponent in some new way, there’s no real impact on our understanding other than knowing that he possesses some heretofore-unseen killing skills.

The film is undeniably well choreographed. The cast is energetic, athletic, and with the peak physical capabilities to pull off sustained martial arts combat. But there’s a reason why Fred Astaire movies aren’t 100 minutes of tap-dancing. It’s the same reason why action movies, when they’re good, tend to rely on more than nonstop action. As the thin wisps of characterization and plot float away while the action grinds forward, the whole thing grows monotonous and the angry criminal hordes aren’t the only people to feel bludgeoned by the experience. The best moments are when Evans modulates the action with silence and tension. I loved a scene in which two policemen hide in the walls of an apartment and an enemy combatant searching for them stabs randomly through cheap drywall. I also liked characters’ clever retreat downwards by axing through floorboards. But those moments are both found in the first half of the movie.

There’s only so many times that you can watch people get sniped, sliced, macheted, hammered, shot, sliced, smacked, kicked, punched, chopped, garroted, exploded, flipped, stabbed and flung before it starts to wear you down. At first it’s all great bloody action, but it lost my interest fairly quickly. Once the film opens its bag of tricks and runs through each and every one, it can only repeat and escalate. As a whole the film has none of the impact of even one action sequence in Haywire or Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, just to name the two best action movies of the last year or so. It holds nothing back, and it’s all so amped up and hyper-violent with so little reason to care that, after a point, it’s all too easy to get left behind. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Prisoners in Space: LOCKOUT

If you want to see a modern B-movie that feels half-heartedly assembled out of a jumble of influences (that sounds kinder than rip-offs without going so far as to say homage), you could do worse than Lockout. Of course, you could do better, too. It’s been cobbled together by the directors Stephen St. Leger and James Mather and their co-writer, French genre auteur Luc Besson, into something that could be called Escape from Con Air…in Space! (Or how about Die Hard on a Penal Space Station?) Anyways, it’s a futuristic hostage situation aboard an orbital prison. Even the main character, a sardonic, loose cannon special agent named Snow, seems derivative, a mashup of John McClane and Snake Plisken with a sizable helping of just about every Harrison Ford character.

Guy Pearce plays him as a wiseacre who barely seems to care that he’s framed for the murder of a fellow agent and, when the movie starts, is being interrogated by a puffy, goateed Peter Stormare. Turns out Snow might have a way out of this trouble coming right up. As he’s being beaten in an undisclosed location, the president’s daughter (Maggie Grace) is on a humanitarian mission to see if this whole space jail thing is on the up and up. A member of her security detail hides his gun rather than check it at the door, so it’s no surprise when a particularly creepy prisoner (Joseph Gilgun) manages to grab it and go. Somehow he can then single-handedly blow apart the security of the supposed maximum-security institution and release all his fellow nasty convicts to run amuck and hold the guards (and their presidential-adjacent guest) hostage.

So there goes Snow, rocketing up to the orbiting space prison where the plan is that he’ll sneak in, find the president’s daughter, and launch out with her in an escape pod. There are a few complications along the way to execute said plan, but it’s as straightforward as it sounds. Hostages are menaced, the law enforcement control room is filled with fretting and communication difficulties, and Pearce and Grace run up and down clanging gunmetal-grey corridors. Guns are waved, buttons are pressed, one-liners are wisecracked, and my interest slipped away. Sure it’s derivative and simple-minded, but the premise is good enough that Leger and Mather’s dull-but-frantic direction and the bungled script are still disappointing.

The idea of a prison in space is kind of irresistible though. I wanted to know more. At one point, a breathless tech explains that, since the man with the job to somehow keep the whole thing afloat has been killed by the escapees, the place is falling out of orbit. We’re treated to a scene in which the space station collides with the falling prison and rips open a wall, flash-freezing a prisoner caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. But why would you need someone to keep the thing in orbit? Surely by 2070, this is something that could be automated.

The prison is also equipped with seemingly automatic machine gun turrets that interfere with rescue attempts by an orbital police station. A portion of the finale is devoted to quick scenes of police spaceships zipping around the exterior of the space prison dodging bullets and returning fire, even barreling down metallic trenches to fire off missiles into the construction’s weak spot like it’s some kind of Death Star. Now why would the space station have this weaponized security system? We only see governmental spaceships in this movie, so there’s no reason to believe there’d be anyone attacking this thing from the outside.

But who cares, really? This is a movie that promises a certain modest level of dumb spectacle and serves it up. (Don’t even get me started on the climactic heavy-duty parachute scene, which is so stupid I kind of love it.) It’s mostly flavorless and sometimes confusing, but served up nonetheless. Characters don’t really come into focus. Beyond Pearce and Grace, it’s barely possible to tell the prisoners apart or to pick up on their strategy, let alone their goals or desires. How, exactly, do they plan on escaping? Who knows what they’re planning to do? Meanwhile, the agents feeding Snow directions just sit around wringing their hands and gathering their space fleet. It’s just tepid chaos on both sides battling around a space prison I could barely understand. The movie never sinks all the way to terrible, but can’t get up near good either. After a while I wasn’t watching it so much as simply waiting it out.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Cabin Fever: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

Note: I did my best to discuss this movie without major spoilers, but if you’re avoiding even hints of twists, you best go see the movie first. It’s pretty good.

The Cabin in the Woods starts like any horror movie of its ilk. A group of frisky young people head off to a remote location for a raucous vacation. This time around, as so many other times around, the group consists of people who can be broken down into all the usual types: a good girl (Kristen Connolly), a bad girl (Anna Hutchison), a jock (Chris Hemsworth), an egghead (Jesse Williams), and a stoner (Fran Kranz). On their way to the jock’s cousin’s summer cabin, they stop at a dilapidated gas station where the grizzled creep owner (Tim De Zarn) spits out chunks of tobacco and warns them away. Getting to the cabin is easy, he says. “Getting back will be your business,” he growls.

Of course they go anyway, because that’s the kind of movie this is. But before you can say, “Stop. I’ve heard this before,” screenwriters Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly) and Drew Goddard (of Cloverfield) have something cleverer up their sleeves. In a pre-title scene we’ve met two middle-age white guys (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford), each in shirt and tie, chatting all the way down a long, white and grey corridor, waving I.D. badges and getting in a couple of jibes at the expense of a coworker (Amy Acker). This seemingly unconnected scene is ultimately integral to what we’re about to see. This is no young-people-stalked-in the-woods movie like The Evil Dead or Friday the 13th or, or, or. There are definitely elements of that here, but Whedon and Goddard pull back and show us the strings. These guys have the cabin under close watch with a sharp eye for the expected.

You think you know where this is going. The characters are certainly familiar and won’t be explored for depth of characterization. You may even think I’ve spoiled things by revealing that the seemingly average bureaucrats have something to do with what’s about to go down in the cabin in the woods. But this movie’s better than that. It’s a work of supremely slippery genre craftsmanship with more twists than you’d think, that plays on what you think you know in order to double down on the unsettling dread that begins to sink in. When you go to a horror movie, you know things are going to go badly for the characters. When these young, vibrant people head down into the cabin’s mysterious basement and examine the creepy artifacts, yellowed photographs, and ominous incantations, you just know that soon it’ll be more than leaves rustling out there in the dark.

Because we know that there are others watching, we know that the characters are headed into a trap. This takes away some (but not all) of the scares from things going bump in the night, but it also proposes provocative questions of genre introspection. Why are horror movies capable of scares even when characters are driving headfirst (even knowingly) into predictable formula? And why is puncturing the illusion of these characters’ free will so destabilizing? You know going into a slasher movie that a masked killer’s going to hunt down some victims and the results will be bloody. Why, then, are these films still capable of great effectiveness and suspense? It’s all about the execution. When one of the bureaucrats says, “We’re not the only ones watching,” it’s clear that the movie is implicating us, questioning why we want to see what we’re about to see.

Goddard directs the script with confident genre expertise, staging jump scares with great playfulness. As the movie goes on, he and Whedon find ever more rugs to pull, ratcheting up the tension and dread. It’s all that I can do to restrain myself from writing in extensive, spoiler-filled detail about just how ingenious a genre deconstruction this film becomes. At one point, the chaos in the cabin – the running, the screaming, the hiding, the splitting up, the disappearing, the bloody implements of death – appears to be winding down to a grimly satisfying genre endpoint, the exact point that a lesser, even a slightly lesser, horror film would conclude with the feeling of a job well done. Indeed, I was prepared for the final freak out and the smash into the end credits. If they had arrived just then, I would have still found The Cabin in the Woods to be a reasonably clever genre exercise. But just as it’s coasting to a close, Whedon and Goddard tighten the screws and ratchet up the intensity one more time. The movie grows stranger, funnier, and bloodier, dissecting an impressive number of horror styles in a descent into the fiery pits of unsettling territory. The final twenty minutes or so are some kind of inspired genius.

However hugely entertaining, the movie is only about the essential nature of horror movies. The characters remain thin and, despite the cascade of topsy-turvy, surprising yet inevitable plot adjustments and a couple of killer cameos, it’s not exactly a movie of any deep humanity. (If it was, and just a little icier or more confrontational too, I’d call it popcorn Michael Haneke.) What Whedon and Goddard stage is an intense, oftentimes hilarious, slashing of expectations, a veritable thesis on the nature of point of view and audience identification in horror cinema. The final moments of the film have us asking anew whom to root for and questioning which outcome is actually the best outcome. It sets up the clichés so skillfully that, as the world of the film is so thoroughly ripped apart, subversion itself is ultimately the biggest source of both knowing winks and destabilizing fright.

Nyuck to the Future: THE THREE STOOGES

Writer-directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly, from their early efforts Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary to more recent works like Stuck on You and last year’s giggling sex farce Hall Pass, have a commitment to broad slapstick and gross-out gags. So it makes a certain amount of sense that their long-in-development passion project is The Three Stooges, a lowest-common-denominator exhumation of silly, second-rate mid-20th century vaudevillian nonsense. You’d think that seeing Larry, Moe and Curly impersonators stumble around modern-day settings doing their same old eye-poking, pun-spitting, kicking, stomping, and whoop-whoop-whooping routine would be at best misguided, at worst unbearable. That’s almost the case here and yet there’s something so gleefully goofy and ecstatically, old-fashioned juvenile about the film that it ends up being something closer to warmhearted fan fiction, a tribute to childhood idols of a dubious kind.

The plot, such as it is, rests on a Catholic orphanage where the three little stooges were dropped off and subsequently raised. The patient nuns are the very funny Jane Lynch, Oscar-winning American Idol alum Jennifer Hudson, who gets a short musical number, Sports Illustrated’s latest swimsuit issue cover girl Kate Upton, and Larry David. Yes, that Larry David. They’re exasperated with the guys’ antics, but somehow, twenty-five years later, the guys are still hanging around. The Farrellys don’t really care to explain exactly why the guys are such weird anachronisms right out of the womb, leading to a sometimes off-putting mix of contemporary references and moments when the Stooges are utterly dumbfounded by modernity. What’s going on here? They have no clue what an iPhone is, but they know who C-3PO is? You just have to throw up your hands and go with it.

What’s especially surprising, and makes it easier to just go along with the movie’s silliness, is how skillfully the main cast inhabits the roles of the Stooges. At first, they seem to be ever so slightly not quite right, but as the movie went on I grew accustomed to them. They’re doing admirable work in a tough spot. Sean Hayes plays Larry with a scrunched up face and drawn out delivery while Chris Diamantopoulos squints and schemes from beneath a flat, black mop of hair as Moe. Meanwhile, Will Sasso delivers a pitch-perfect Curly, wiggling his bulk around with squirmy grace and fluidity while manipulating his voice with a squeaky falsetto. In other words, they’re the Stooges. They smack each other around with exaggerated sound effects and bumble through life spreading (somewhat unintentional) destruction, much to the consternation of those around them.

When the events of the plot finally kick into motion, it’s revealed that the orphanage is over $800,000 dollars in debt. The trio decides to set off to raise the money and save the orphans. (That one cute little orphan is also sick with a mysterious disease may be a bit too nakedly manipulative and heavy for such an otherwise bouncy lark.) It’s a fairly dusty premise, which only adds to the sense that the movie has been sucked through a hole in the space-time continuum and arrived at just the right speed and location to smack me upside the head. I sat dumbfounded as often as I was amused. It’s all just so straight-ahead slapstick and brightly lit episodic tomfoolery. The Farrellys can’t indulge in their usual R-rated sight gags, but that’s no loss here, since that’s not their intent. Besides, there are plenty of icky moments, like a scene in a nursery with urinating infants, or a scene in which a lion is hit in the boing-loings by a peanut shot out of a dolphin’s blowhole. There’s definitely a creeping sense of the surreal here. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t.

As the movie goes this way and that, sorting itself into three loose episodes differentiated by titles in the style of the old Stooges’ shorts, the Farrellys find plenty more hoary old story elements to utilize. There’s a cartoonish femme fatale (Sophia Vergara) involved in a murder plot that ropes in the Stooges and runs throughout the remainder of the film, though, given how much punishment these characters take without consequence, it’s an oddly low-stakes murder plot. There’s also a smarmy lawyer (Stephen Collins) and his slightly dimwitted son (Kirby Heyborne), not to mention a goofy thug (Craig Bierko), bumbling cops, a stern nurse, and a party full of snooty rich people and other eccentric types including a thickly accented French baker.

It’s a movie in which most jokes, simply by the nature of the story and the caricatures, can be seen coming from a mile away. Sometimes, these jokes just aren’t very funny and yet when they land, they land hard. When they did, I found myself laughing despite myself. A fairly early sequence that builds with exceptional escalation starts with the Stooges trying to fix a church steeple and culminates in a church bell sliding down and smacking a nun in head. Moe wonders who their victim was. Curly squeaks, “I dunno, but her face rings a bell!”

There’s something sort of sweet about the way the Farrellys pay tribute to the Stooges, in its own way like what Jason Segel and company did with The Muppets. For me, a little Three Stooges goes a long way whether they be new or old, but the enthusiasm of this movie is borderline contagious. The Farrelly brothers lovingly recreate the kind of slapdash, repetitive, hit-and-miss silliness of the Three Stooges while trying to say that the world today could use some good, uncomplicated pratfalls and broad wordplay now and then. An extended goofy plot point in the middle of the movie finds Moe accidentally becoming the newest cast member of Jersey Shore. It’s an odd moment – one that feels miscalculated and stale already – but it also serves as the film’s statement of purpose of sorts. As Moe smacks around these tanned, shallow, callow reality show stars, I could almost hear the Farrellys arguing that the popular shallow of old beats the popular shallow of today any day. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Let Your Geek Flag Fly: COMIC-CON EPISODE IV: A FAN'S HOPE

“I want to die and go to Comic-Con,” says a grey-haired comics dealer towards the end of Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, a new documentary with a terrible title. We’ve been following him through the course of the movie as he and his staff lament that what started in 1970 as a dedicated comic book convention has become something akin to a geek pilgrimage for all types of media, leaving the lowly comics under-acknowledged. This year, they’re worried that lugging their wares to San Diego may not turn out to be financially successful. And still, he expresses his heavenly analogy for this, the biggest pop culture fan convention of the year.

He’s not the only one for whom Comic-Con is so important, either. Not by a long shot. This documentary tells some of their stories. It follows two men – one a bartender, the other a soldier – who place the final touches on their sample drawings, pack up their portfolios and head off to try and get discovered at the convention. There’s also a guy who plans on proposing to his girlfriend at a panel with director Kevin Smith and a group of garage-based amateur costumers who plan to blow everyone away with their elaborately detailed costumes inspired by the video game Mass Effect. (They even have a full-sized costume of a creature, complete with a fully functional animatronic head. Most impressive.)

Director Morgan Spurlock’s films are generally confrontational, though when he’s at his best it’s an entertaining form of confrontational. His documentaries like Super Size Me (not bad) and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (irritating) are gimmicky constructs devoted to telling us some fairly obvious truths. Super Size Me wanted to tell us that fast food isn’t something to eat for every meal of every day. That’s not too hard to believe. But he went ahead and did it, underlining his obvious point with obvious showmanship. It’s the same thing with product placement in Greatest Movie Ever Sold, except the point is even more obvious, and the execution a grating gimmick. Not so with Comic-Con, a documentary in which he never appears. He doesn’t even snark from the sidelines; his voice is never heard and his graphics are strictly stylistic and informative.

Spurlock is not out to explore Comic-Con’s history or its pop culture position and he’s certainly not in gonzo muckraking mode. He’s here to show us the convention floor, what seems like miles of memorabilia, panels with the artists and celebrities discussing their works (and their own fandom), and the thousands of fans in various levels of costumes and geeky T-shirts. Between the handful of fan stories he tells and the footage of this particular Con (I think it’s 2010, but there’s some 2011 mixed in with what appears to be second-unit material), he cuts to talking-head interviews with other fans and, more often, prominent geek icons like writer-directors Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith, Ain’t it Cool News creator Harry Knowles, and legendary comic-book writer Stan Lee. I particularly liked seeing Lee out on the convention floor. A fan shouts, “You’re my favorite!” He replies, “I admire your taste.”

Now, I’ve never been to Comic-Con. I have no particular burning desire to go, but I’ve nothing against it. I certainly hear enough about it in the entertainment press as that time of the summer rolls around. So as someone with no first-hand experience with the convention, I would have liked a documentary that was a little less of a pat on the back for those who already hold it dear. It’s way more of a celebration than an exploration of this event, but I’m okay with that. The press coverage focuses on the big studio events, the reveals of footage and news about upcoming movies and TV shows. It’s nice to see the ground-level fans that swarm in and make it what it is. The documentary may be light, slight, and indulgent, but it nonetheless makes for a pleasant surface look at the fans who make Comic-Con tick, people Spurlock clearly loves. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Lukewarm Leftover Pie: AMERICAN REUNION

Isn’t it funny how the march of time turns even a slight teen sex comedy into a little cultural time capsule? In 1999, Paul and Chris Weitz’s American Pie was just a small movie that became an R-rated box office success, a movie of raunchiness tempered with just enough sweetness to make its gross-out gags go down. But now it’s 2012, and that late-90s debauchery has begun to feel just the slightest bit quaint. It’s no less vulgar, but somehow the period-specificity of it all – it’s definitely a dated movie – gives it the hazy distancing effect of the recent past. That’s why the simple fact of American Reunion gathering the entire original cast gains poignancy from its strong hit of 90s nostalgia and the inescapable aging of all involved, the audience included.

The conceit of Reunion is that the class of ’99 has yet to throw a class reunion and decides to rectify the oversight with a big bash. So, it’s the 13th-year reunion and the whole gang is back in town. The years since the first film, since the first two theatrical sequels and a number of barely-connected direct-to-DVD sequels, have left the characters older, but in many cases no wiser. The seemingly endless opening moments of the film painstakingly reintroduce them all and, though it’s nice to see some of these guys again, they aren’t exactly the Muppets in The Muppets. There’s so much stage setting as they’re getting ready to party like it’s 1999, the movie seems to be spinning its wheels.

We see Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) are having a bit of a dry spell in the intimacy department after the birth of their son. Oz (Chris Klein) is now a sportscaster who was recently voted off of a Dancing with the Stars knockoff. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) seems to be happily married, Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) has been globetrotting, and Stifler (Seann William Scott) is just as crude, stupid, and aimless as ever. That’s not all. Vicky (Tara Reid), Heather (Mena Suvari), and Jessica (Natasha Lyonne) are all back as well. And, wouldn’t you know it, Jim’s dad (Eugene Levy, the long-suffering consistent cast member for the series) is a widower looking to date again. And Stifler’s mom (Jennifer Coolidge) sits in her upstairs hideaway, just as ever the embodiment of the first movie’s signature contribution to early-2000’s slang.

Now, if those names mean nothing, or next to nothing, to you, I doubt there’s a chance the movie will work in any way shape or form. If, on the other hand, you have any kind of affection for the series (mine only extends to parts of the first, but the others’ have their proponents as well, I suppose), it’ll in all likelihood be a predictable, but not entirely unpleasant, nostalgia trip. It’s just a shame the movie couldn’t be any better. It ends up in a satisfying place. The reunion itself is just the right touch of vulgarity and syrupiness and the characters end their feature-length encore with a pleasant enough curtain call. But there’s so much left unexplored and the way there is so juvenile, that in many ways the whole thing just seems tired.

There are all kinds of humiliations and misunderstandings leading up to the reunion that would be less of a stretch in a teen comedy. Here, in a movie about adults, this rampant immaturity is less excusable. Actually, there’s no excuse a movie about grown people should be this squeamish about sex, using the very idea of adult relationships as a gag in many scenes. In American Pie, this made sense. The characters were inexperienced, virginal teens obsessing about something that, for the most part, they could only imagine. But now, these characters are married or otherwise attached. They’re not teenagers. They’re in their thirties. To have them sneak into upstairs bedrooms, pull scatological pranks, and react to perfectly reasonable adult desires and urges with something approaching unfathomable panic and squirminess mixed with unseemly leering, is simply pushing past the realm of believability and likability.

To make this sequel all the more uneven, American Reunion flirts with the idea of becoming interested in exploring aging in a more meaningful way. There could be a good movie to make out of these characters – this generation – struggling to find their way in the world as adults, while trying to reconcile who they were as younger party people. The movie’s written and directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who last wrote a much better raunchy R-rated comedy about this very subject matter, the surprising A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, better than you’d think. But the Pie kids aren’t as lucky as Harold and Kumar. This movie nods towards a generation gap with the character of a hot 18-year-old girl-next-door (Ali Cobrin) only to literally turn her into a prop for a painfully belabored and largely unfunny sequence involving underage drinking and trespassing.

Hurwitz and Schlossberg shove in just-like-old-times embarrassment and raunch without aging the thematic concerns or even the gags to fit its older characters. This is a sloppily-executed franchise comedy with a few big laughs, a couple of fun cameos and a handful of nice callbacks to previous entries scattered amongst the dry patches of strained gags and sometimes-ugly undertones. I just wish it could have found an approach to its now-adult characters that respected the fact that they might now know just a little bit more about relationships (and anatomy) than when they were in high school. It’s a movie that trades off of its recognizability to a fault, weirdly unconcerned about making itself relevant or necessary.
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