Monday, July 30, 2012

Day 138: The Watch

"Did anyone else here cry themselves to sleep last night?"

If The Watch suffers from too much of any one thing, it's laziness. What could have been a truly inspired comedy ends up becoming an exercise in famous people falling back into their comfort zone and doing the same thing that they've been doing for years. That's not to say that there aren't some genuinely funny things in the film, it's just that the laughs run out about seventy minutes into a one hundred minute film, leaving the audience to wonder why the film switches genres in the home stretch.

Let me back up for a minute. For those of you that don't know, The Watch is a comedy co-written by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, the team behind Superbad, and directed by Akiva Schaffer, one-third of the comedy trio Lonely Island, and director of 2007's supremely underrated Hot Rod. In other words, it's got pretty decent comedic pedigree, depending upon how your sensibilities skew. Ben Stiller plays Evan, a suburban everyman who spends more time starting up clubs than he does with his sex-starved wife (Rosemarie DeWitt). He manages the local Costco, and when his night watchman turns up dead one night, Evan vows to find the killer by forming a neighborhood watch. His call for recruits falls on mostly deaf ears, and only three other dudes show up for reasons that vary wildly, but nevertheless, the quartet rally together to take back their neighborhood from a criminal element.

The other members of the crew are Bob (Vince Vaughn, playing a variation on his character from Old School) a dad who's major motivation seems to be to have a good time; Franklin (Jonah Hill, at his thinnest) a psychopath who failed to become a cop, so now seeks to be a vigilante; and Jamarcus (Richard Ayaode from The IT Crowd) a British divorcee looking for kinky adventures with Asian housewives.

If you've seen the commercials or trailers, you know that they quickly stumble upon an imminent alien invasion seemingly born out of sheer laziness. Honestly, there were so many directions they could have gone, and the alien thing is just about the least interesting variation on the "social outcasts become saviors" film that this ends up becoming. Making the threat an outside force like aliens is a total copout. I know that this film was in the can long before the incident in Florida that forced the title change, but imagine how much more incendiary and incisive the film could have been if the killer(s) had been someone that couldn't handle the mundanity of suburban life that these men had embraced. The issue, ultimately, falls on the writers for not being imaginative enough to tackle anything other than rote science fiction/comedy summer crowd-pleaser, and the film ends up as none of those things.

As for the cast, it was nice to see Vaughn back in the mode that made him famous in the first place, but even he looks bored with the material that he was given, particularly in the film's third act. Ayoade also acquits himself nicely, playing an outsider just trying to fit in. Among the bit players, Will Forte is hilarious as a small-town bumpkin cop & Billy Crudup is fantastic in a miniscule role as Evan's creepy neighbor.

The major issue with the casting falls squarely on Stiller's shoulders. Stiller is a good enough comedian to understand the role of the straight man, yet he never plays one effectively. The last time he decently played the straight man was in There's Something About Mary, and even then he had his moments where he couldn't help himself. Stiller's problem is that he's never the funniest one in any given scene, yet he doesn't trust himself enough to let other people get the laugh, and he constantly has to overplay moments and go for the laugh. If a comedian is being reigned in and directed well, they can be the best of the best to play the straight man.

One of the best examples of a comedian brilliantly playing the straight man is Robin Williams in The Birdcage. He sets everyone else up amazingly and underplays all of his scenes (except the "eclectic celebration of dance" scene). Stiller just doesn't understand what the function of the straight man is (although he doesn't really get it in the other direction either. For a prime example of this, see his endless mugging in Dodgeball, which featured a brilliant straight man in his co-star from this film, Vince Vaughn).

By sheer virtue, Jonah Hill ends up being odd man out here. He's not given enough to do to really stand out, and the handful of big moments he does have fail to land effectively. Bottom line, his role wasn't very well written, and he flounders as a result.

If you've seen both the red band and green band trailers for the film, you've seen virtually every funny scene in it. The handful of funny moments that aren't in those, all of which involve Vaughn, Forte or Crudup, aren't worth your ten bucks just to see. If you're a diehard, go for it, but lower your expectations. A lot. And for god's sake, can we put an end to the "white guys strutting in slow motion to hip-hop" trend once and for all? Schaffer likes that bit so much he includes it at least three times here. It's pretty played out at this point, and just goes towards proving my point about the laziness on display in this film. There's no greater sin for a film than having wasted potential, and this film has got that in spades.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Day 137: Magic Mike

"You're not just stripping. You're fulfilling every woman's wildest fantasies."

Demystifying sexual fantasy has been done before on film in everything from Boogie Nights to Flashdance. It's no coincidence that Steven Soderbergh's latest film, Magic Mike, owes a huge debt to both of those films, as it continues the same tradition of rectifying the bright light fantasy with the harsh light of reality. I can also state, without even a hint of irony, that it is also the best film of the summer (thus far).

Loosely based on his days spent as a male stripper in the late 90s, Channing Tatum plays the eponymous bringer of female fantasy, a man who longs to not be defined by his chosen career. "Magic" Mike Lane spends his days toiling as a construction worker and his nights at a Tampa strip club called XQuisite, but he dreams of owning his own custom furniture business. He has convinced himself that the fast cash jobs he finds himself in are a means to an end, but it's clear that the older he gets, the harder it's becoming for him to break out of the rut he finds himself in.

Mike becomes fast friends with aimless wanderer Adam (Alex Pettyfer), and fast tracks him to a career at his club. The club is run by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), who gives "The Kid" a shot. The film seems to be veering towards an All About Eve retread, but thankfully skirts that by focusing on the fact that Mike doesn't care about being usurped. The film also becomes something of a love story when Mike falls for Adam's older sister Paige (Cody Horn) who sees right through Mike's facade, understanding him better than he does himself.

The film gets off to a slow start, but once we enter the world of Dallas' club, the film comes to life. The other strippers at the club include Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Ken (Matt Bomer) & the over-the-hill, but unqualified to do anything else, Tarzan (Kevin Nash, yes, that Kevin Nash). Mike spends his time away from the club seemingly spinning his wheels, as he's unable to secure a bank loan to open his custom furniture business. A scene in which he dresses up and goes to the bank owes a bit too much to Buck's disastrous attempt to do the same in Boogie Nights, but it never feels derivative.

The Kid has his own problems as well. He falls victim to the allure of the fantasy of it all, and it's not long before he finds himself falling down the rabbit hole. It's not long before we can see him ending up in debt drug dealers, a plot development that felt forced into the film, and would likely have made the film better had it been jettisoned.

The most interesting thing that Soderbergh and his writer Reid Carolin do is how they create Mike as a character that has convinced himself that he's above the work that he does, yet is so immersed in the world, he doesn't see that he's as trapped as everyone else is by it. It's the thing that makes the film so successful, and makes Tatum's performance pretty damn good. You can never tell if he's aware that he's a startling hypocrite because he seems to believe that he isn't. I never thought I'd say this about Tatum as an actor, but he manages to do quite a lot without saying very much of anything.

The rest of the cast is good to great. Pettyfer is solid as The Kid, and doesn't give in to the instinct to make his character likable. He's okay with being a scumbag, and it makes his performance that much more effective as a result. Horn is good as well, though she overplays a key scene near the end to almost comedic effect, ruining any possible emotional impact it may have had. Nash is fantastic as Tarzan, a man with nothing else in the world other than a profession he's about twenty years too old for.

The absolute pinnacle of the cast, however, is McConaughey. This is the kind of performance he was born for. Not since his screen debut in Dazed & Confused has a director been able to wring the marrow from his bones like this. You know exactly who Dallas is just by looking at him, and the actor is savvy enough to play into every single one of your expectations while simultaneously defying them. I think he needs to be exploited by directors in this way more often, because he's such a charismatic actor and when he's on top of his game, there's no one on screen more watchable.

Magic Mike is destined to be remembered as "the male stripper movie" for the rest of time, but it's not more fitting a description than calling Traffic "the drug movie." I use that comparison because this is Soderbergh's best film since Traffic, as it is smarter than it appears to be. It never allows the audience to have too much fun without being brought back down to earth moments later. It also deals with some lofty concepts like being true to yourself and not letting your profession define who you are as a person, while simultaneously reminding us that dreams aren't enough to define you either.

Ladies, go see it, if you haven't already. I know you weren't waiting for the go-ahead from me, but you'll enjoy it more than you think that you will. Guys, I promise, I know that you've managed to convince yourself that there's nothing in this film that's appealing to you, but if you can put your hyper-masculine guard down for two hours and go see this film, you won't be disappointed. There's a lot to love about Magic Mike, and you're only making yourself look like an idiot for not wanting to get caught up in it.

PopGO Rating: 4/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Day 136: Ice Age: Continental Drift

"Who says an old lady can't drive?"

You just kind of have to roll your eyes and keep going when anachronistic lines like that show up in animated movies in this day and age. The Ice Age film series certainly has never been known for its cutting edge humor, animation, storytelling, character development, or plot innovations, yet here we are, a full decade since the release of the first film in the series, and the thing just keeps on ticking.

So is this latest entry in the series worth your time or your money? Read on to find out, although I think we both already know the answer to that question...

To bring you up to speed, the Ice Age series is the continuing adventures of a Wooly Mammoth named Manny (Ray Romano), a sabretooth tiger named Diego (Denis Leary) & a sloth named Sid (John Leguizamo). They were first brought together to protect a human baby, then to relocate their herd, then to fight dinosaurs, I think, and now to get back to their home after a continental shift causes them to be separated from their family.

The characters were never all that memorable, save for some of Sid's antics, and could barely sustain one film, let alone the four they've now been in. The filmmakers have wisely added peripheral characters with each installment (a love interest for Manny (Queen Latifah) & two possums (Stifler & Josh Peck) in Part 2 & a crazed dinosaur hunter (Simon Pegg) in Part 3) though they've now piled on so many characters in this fourth installment, it's hard to tell any of them apart anymore.

When Manny, Sid & Diego get separated from Manny's family, which has now grown to include daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer), they are set adrift in the ocean on an iceberg, along with Sid's crazy grandmother (Wanda Sykes). They run afoul of a band of pirates, led by the primate Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), and they go on all manner of adventures after this, including a high seas escape, commandeering a ship, gathering a band of small animals to aid in their fight, and avoiding the wily call of a group of deadly sirens.

The film is chock full of great character actors in supporting roles, including Nick Frost, Alan Tudyk, Rebel Wilson, Aziz Ansari, Josh Gad, Alain Chabat, & a hilarious cameo from Patrick Stewart, but all of the major voice work is given to fairly indistinguishable "celebrities." Jennifer Lopez is nothing but bland as a female sabretooth. Drake is equally unmemorable as the object of Peaches' affection, and Nicki Minaj has the most grating & out of place voice as another wooly mammoth.

There's undeniably a ton of diversity in that cast, particularly when held side by side with other animated films from other major studios, but I don't honestly know how much that matters in an animated film. It's not like the voice of the performer gives away keys to ethnicity (unless they sound like Minaj, who must have thought she was voicing a character on The PJs or something). I don't want to get into a lengthy dissertation about this, but I think it's valid to question whether a voice actor's race or ethnicity have any factor on the story, beyond their potential to bring in a more diverse audience?

There's plenty of good voice work happening here, just nothing beyond the level of commitment you'd expect from professional actors being paid to do their job. Dinklage is probably the ace in the cast, and I'm surprised no one's thought to tap into his potential as a voice actor before now. He's appropriately menacing and brings a new dimension to this series as its first true villain. Leguizamo is also pretty good, as is Frost & much of the remaining cast I had mentioned previously, but there's nothing here to write home about.

My biggest issue with this series is that it's very much like an animated cartoon series from the late 80s or early 90s. The problems the characters had to deal with in the last installment are a distant memory by the time the new installment begins. For example, in 3, Diego was dealing with getting old and soft, but because that was conveniently wrapped up by the end of that film, it's a non-issue in this one. None of these characters do any sort of developing from film to film. All the development is done by the end of the film you're watching.

I know I'm nitpicking here, but when you're expecting parents to shell out premium ticket prices, you've got to bring more to the table. Dreamworks is only just now coming to this realization, and hopefully Blue Sky will follow suit, but I doubt it. When you take all that I've mentioned into consideration, and add in the fact that this film has the most ridiculous, deus ex machina conclusion imaginable, there's no other conclusion to draw other than the fact that this franchise just needs to be put to bed.

Two reasons I actually would recommend seeing it, however, are The Simpsons' short that precedes the film "The Longest Daycare." It's everything you love about The Simpsons (spot-on satire & Ayn Rand jokes) in a quick and awesome short about Maggie. Also, the epilogue to the actual film itself, where the squirrel Scrat discovers the lost island of Scratlantis, feels like the logical conclusion to that character's arc. Let's all just pray that enough is enough.

GO Rating: 2/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Day 135: Lisztomania

"Wagner, no! Stay in hell where you belong!"

Although he started out directing pretty straight forward films like Billion Dollar Brain & The Music Lovers, Ken Russell's career took a turn for the surreal with 1971's criminally under seen & underrated The Devils. In 1975, he released two films featuring Roger Daltrey, the lead singer of The Who. The first was a film adaptation of that band's 1969 masterwork rock opera Tommy. The other is another under seen film, yet one that I would hesitate to call underrated: Lisztomania.

To say that Lisztomania plays fast and loose with historical events might be the biggest understatement I've ever made. The film takes a devilish delight in being historically inaccurate. It posits Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (Daltrey) as the first "rock star" in music history, giving him legions of ravenous fans & an insatiable libido that rivals that of Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger & virtually any other rock star you could name.

The film is not really a musical, if for no other reason than it brashly defies categorization of any kind. In the film, Liszt becomes fast friends with fellow composer Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas), and after falling victim to her feminine wiles, he intends to wed the Russian Princess Caroline (Sara Kestelman). After eloping, Liszt is summoned to the Vatican, where the Pope (Ringo Starr) condemns his marriage, and forces him to work exclusively composing music for the Catholic Church.

The Pope calls Liszt into action, however, when a plan is uncovered in Germany wherein they are using Wagner's music to conquer the world. Wagner, reincarnated as a Frankenstein/Hitler hybrid, is unleashed & begins using an electrical guitar/sub-machine gun to kill thousands of innocent people. This sets up the ultimate showdown of good versus evil, Catholicism versus fascism, love versus hate.

To say I'm oversimplifying this film is the second biggest understatement of this review thus far. His seduction at the hands of the Russian Princess involves a dream sequence of sorts where he is sucked up into her nether-region & tormented. The film opens with one of the more bizarre swordfights ever committed to film, and only gets weirder from there. By the time Liszt rides a twelve foot long phallus through a cabaret number, you'll have to have made the decision whether or not you're willing to go along for the ride (no pun intended).

Is there a method to the madness? Yes and no. Russell tends to be the sort of director who tries to cram every possible bit of symbolism into his films until it's almost all rendered meaningless. He condemns fascism with his right hand while also equating it with religion with his other, until it all becomes a jumbled mess. Lord knows who he was targeting with this film, but at the same time, it gives one pause to ask, who wasn't he targeting?

At the same time, however, the film cannot be dismissed outright. Visually it's an accomplishment like very few others. It's interesting to juxtapose this film with last week's Baron Munchausen, as Terry Gilliam is very clearly a visual disciple of Ken Russell. It's influence can also be felt in the surrealist films of Guy Maddin, The Brothers Quay, Ralph Bakshi & Jan Svankmajer. Even a film as prestigious as Amadeus can said to have been influenced by this film's free-wheeling, rock star lead composer.

The performances are about as good as can be expected from two musicians like Daltrey & Starr. Never the most gifted actors, they make up for it with their boundless charisma. Keep an eye peeled for some great cameos from Russell regular Oliver Reed, and Nell Campell, or Little Nell, from Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The most unfortunate thing for those of us residing in the US is that this film is extremely hard to come by. I have a VHS copy of it, but it's never seen a Region 1 dvd release. There are several foreign dvds available & it's even on blu-ray, but you may have a hard time tracking down a copy of the film.

If you do, I entreaty you to open your mind and give yourself over to the absurd imagery on display. If you think for a moment that you're expected to take any of this seriously, you're missing the point of the film entirely. Just bask in its weirdness and allow yourself to be transported to a time when major studios were giving directors like Russell millions of dollars to realize their singularly strange vision. I wouldn't hesitate for a moment to say that such a time will never come again.

[Photos via]

Day 134: Savages

Film Review: Savages

“I’d take the deal instead of decapitation.”
I could name you at least ten directors with fewer Oscars than Oliver Stone that I think are better. The thing about Oliver Stone though, is that when he is at the top of his game (The Doors, JFK, Platoon, Natural Born Killers) there are very few directors that are better.

The dichotomy that is Oliver Stone’s career is that when he’s not at the top of his game (Alexander, World Trade Center, Heaven & Earth, W) he is everything that his detractors hate about him. And every now and again, he makes a film that falls smack dab in the middle of those two extremes. One such film was released this weekend…

From the trailers & everything I’d read about Savages, I thought this was going to be a full-on return to form for the grizzled, violent, cynical director Stone was at his mid-90’s peak. It took me only about ninety seconds into the film itself for me to realize that this wasn’t going to be that return to form, but there was still an awful lot to like about the film.

Savages tells the story of Ben (Aaron Johnson), Chon (Taylor Kitsch) & Ophelia, or O for short (Blake Lively), who run a lucrative marijuana business in California. Ben’s peace-loving, free-wheeling ways have brought them a drug business with “99% of the violence” removed. The trio are also, in addition to being business partners, romantically entangled with one another. This isn’t presented as anything odd or unusual, which was actually refreshing for a film made in this day and age where anything outside the norm needs to be justified a million ways from Sunday to even be included in the film, but I digress.

While they’re the picture of paradise at the onset of the film, trouble starts when the Mexican Baja Cartel wants to fold the trio’s business into theirs, and they politely refuse. The Baja Cartel is run by Elena (a better than usual Salma Hayek), and she does not take the rejection lightly, having her henchman Lado (Benicio DelToro) kidnap O in an attempted “hostile takeover” of their business.

What neither Elena nor anyone else expected, however, is that Ben & Chon wouldn’t just roll over, and they take it upon themselves to get O back by any means necessary. They hesitantly partner with Dennis (John Travolta), a crooked DEA agent, to get O back, and then the fun starts. Double & triple crosses, betrayals, violence, rape, drugs, reversals, crooked cops, did I mention rape? Things spin out of control fast for everyone, including the audience.

Here’s the thing, Savages isn’t bad, but it isn’t good either. It’s a staggeringly mediocre film that almost completely and totally ruins any credibility it’s built up with an unbelievably stupid ending. Short of The Fonz coming up out of the Pacific Ocean on water skis to jump over a shark, this film could not have failed any more to stick the landing. I don’t want to go into details or spoilers, but if you go and see this, when the film feels like it should end, get up and leave, because it doesn’t. It goes on about 120 seconds too long, and ends up virtually ruining itself in the process.

I’m not sure if this was a ruined ending by committee or if the blame for this falls squarely on Stone’s shoulders, but it is thoroughly asinine the way the film wraps up. Especially when you consider all the foreshadowing and projecting that the film does that it’s going to end a certain way. The motives of at least three characters throughout the entire film are made null and void by the tacked on ending to this film.

As far as the performances go, Travolta is revelatory. He’s an actor that, when he’s at his best, is unhinged, manic & eminently watchable, and he’s all of those things here. I don’t think he’s had as much fun on screen since Face/Off & it shows. Hayek is also pretty fantastic, projecting power & menace very comfortably. DelToro is good too, but he’s been better elsewhere. For as crazy as his character is, I would have liked to see him go off more, but he’s decent.

The same cannot be said for the core trio. Of the three, Johnson manages to walk away more or less unscathed. He’s far and away the most convincing, and manages to give the closest thing to a performance of the three. Kitsch needs to just go away. This is the third time he’s been given a major role in the last four months, and he is never anything but a total bore to watch. As for Lively, she’s anything but. Whenever she speaks (and it’s a lot, considering she also narrates the film), I could hear Willy Wonka’s voice in the back of my head saying “You should open your mouth a little wider when you speak.” She’s a mumbler, and it’s annoying. She’s devoid of charisma & generally looks like she’d rather be anywhere else when she’s onscreen. Someone, please oblige her.

Long story short, this isn’t the return to his glory that Oliver Stone fans were hoping for, but it’s also not the total disaster his last five films have been. It falls firmly in the middle of his long and varied career, and it’s definitely a step in the right direction. If you’re a fan, I would normally tell you to run right out and see this, but due to that ending, I’m knocking a full point off the film’s total score. When you do get around to seeing this film, I think you’ll understand why.

PopGO Rating: 2/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Day 133: Moonrise Kingdom

"The nickels are my fee."

Wes Anderson has as many admirers as he does detractors. I've been an avid admirer since Rushmore, which for many years was my favorite film. His detractors have leveled many complaints at his films, that they're overly stylized, twee, and they favor style over content. I have always been able to overlook the two former complaints because the third has been unfounded... until now.

From virtually the moment it begins, Moonrise Kingdom is so busy and stuffed with minutiae that there's virtually no room left for anything else. The film tells the story of two "lovable" outsiders, Sam & Suzy (newcomers Jared Gilman & Kara Hayward) who run away from scout camp & family respectively, to live together in the wilderness of the fictional New Penzance Island.

Sam's scout troop, led by Scout Master Randy Ward (a woefully misused Edward Norton), forms a search party, and when Suzy's parents (Bill Murray & Frances McDormand) realize that she's run away with Sam, they join in the search. The local police force in charge of the search consists solely of Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) who is having an affair with Suzy's mother for no discernible reason other than it adds a level of hypocrisy to her relationship with her husband and daughter.

The main problem that I had with the film is that all of the characters do things for seemingly no other reason than Anderson & co-writer Roman Coppola seem to think that quirks are a substitute for actual character development. Some examples of this are: Suzy's mother speaks with a megaphone at times even though she's a lawyer and not a gym teacher; Sam, in addition to having advanced survival skills, is also an accomplished painter; Suzy's father gets drunk and tries to chop down a tree; the scout troopers build an unsafe treehouse on a flagpole; one of the scout troopers has an eyepatch.

The Wes Anderson of old didn't just layer on quirks for no good reason. Max Fisher, for example, runs so many clubs at Rushmore because he's good at a lot of things and a master of nothing. Royal Tenenbaum is an asshole because he's never had a reason to rely on others for love and support. Even Steve Zissou lies, steals and threatens because he doesn't understand the virtue of a real relationship. Their actions are clearly motivated by their character traits. Here, characters just do things because they seem like a substitute for actually taking the time to be developed.

The performances from all the veteran actors aren't bad, but they're not especially memorable either. I would wager to say that Willis is probably the only stand-out here, if for no other reason than he's playing a role we're just not used to seeing him play. I really and truly hate to sound like a jerk here, but the two main child actors are terrible. Gilman mumbles all of his lines & half the time sounds like he has no idea what he's talking about. Hayward, although she looks like a young Zooey Deschanel, is completely devoid of charisma, and her line readings all fall flat. Contrast them with Dirk in Rushmore, Ari & Uzi in Royal Tenenbaums or Anthony's sister in Bottle Rocket, and they are some of the poorest child casting decisions Anderson has ever made.

Jason Schwartzman's appearance late in the film seems to serve no other purpose than to remind us of how good child actors in Anderson films can be. He's the one bright spot in an otherwise humorless and dour film. There was no joy on display here. All the adults were miserable. All of the children were either elitist little jerks or so riddled qith quirks, I couldn't cut through them to figure out what their true motives were for doing anything. I can only hope this was a diversion to an island for Wes Anderson, because he was as lost in the wilderness as his characters.

I was so thoroughly disappointed by the fact that none of these characters in this story seemed to truly want anything. All of their wants seemed to be driven by servicing a plot point rather than being born out of a genuine desire to achieve or grow as people. This film is the equivalent of low-hanging fruit for Wes Anderson haters, and while one film is not about to change my mind about him, I will most certainly approach his next project with apprehension.

While watching this film, I couldn't help but hear Royal Tenenbaum's criticism of his adopted daughter Margot's play ringing in the back of my head: "What characters? It was a bunch of little kids dressed up in animal costumes."

PopGO Rating: 1.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]