Saturday, September 29, 2012

Day 158: Hotel Transylvania

"Wooden stake through the heart?" "Yeah, but who wouldn't that kill?"

In my review of ParaNorman, I pointed out how the top notch work from Pixar, Studio Ghibli, Dreamworks (in the last four years) & Laika studios has us in a bit of an animation renaissance. Sadly, Sony Pictures Animation has just two homegrown feature films under its belt, and hasn't done much to contribute to this overall golden age. Their first effort was 2009's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which was charming enough, but not terribly substantive. Sadly, that film looks like a masterpiece next to their most recent effort, Hotel Transylvania.

Hotel Transylvania tells the tale of Dracula (Adam Sandler) as an overprotective dad to his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez). After the tragic death of his wife, Dracula promises to keep Mavis from the outside world which would shun and harm her, so he builds a retreat for monsters deep in a Transylvanian forest. It is the only place on earth where monsters can let their hair down and be who they are, without fear of intervention from the outside world. And all the heavy hitters from Frankenstein (Kevin James) to The Wolfman (Steve Buscemi) have gathered at the hotel for Mavis' 118th birthday.

The unthinkable happens, however, when an unsuspecting human named Jonny (Andy Samberg) finds the castle on a hiking trip. Dracula first tries to get rid of the human, then tries to disguise him as a fellow monster, but all hell really breaks loose when Jonny & Mavis fall for one another. Will Dracula ever let down his guard enough to trust a human? Will the divide between the monster world and the human world be too much for their love to survive? Can you keep from rolling your eyes and the non-stop cheap and easy humor that portends to substitute itself for actual entertainment?

Despite its advertising campaign, I actually held out some hope that this film might actually be a worthwhile diversion, considering it was the feature directing debut of Samurai Jack & Dexter's Laboratory creator Genndy Tartakovsky. What I only found out after seeing the film is that Tartakovsky is the sixth director that this film went through in its development, meaning that it was in pretty dire straits before he came on board. The script also has no fewer than six credited writers, so it appears as if this was a film made by committee rather than actual filmmakers.

Sandler and his stable of Happy Madison cohorts (James, Buscemi, David Spade, Jon Lovitz) voice virtually every character, so if you're not a fan of their brand of sophomoric humor, chances are this film will do little to win you over to their cause. Just when you thought Sandler couldn't get any lazier, he stumbles into the domain of lazy acting: voice-over work. It's a shame too, because he was someone that I admired for a long time, but it's been over a decade since he's produced a comedy worth laughing at. Oh, and just in case you're wondering, it takes all of eight minutes to get to the first fart joke. Eight minutes. Must be a new record.

I think the overall problem with the film is that it just doesn't bring anything new to the table. The "monsters are really afraid of humans" angle has been covered several times before, most notably in Monsters, Inc. Good rule of thumb for animated films, if Pixar's done it already, it's not worth trying to do it again. Oh, but it's also the story of an over-protective father learning how to let go and let his child figure out the world on their own terms. Hmmmm... Which Pixar movie was it that covered that territory already? And Sandler's not content to just rip off other people's films. Wait until you get to the climactic scene, set on board an airplane, that's almost a little too in debt to The Wedding Singer.

I guess the real reason I dislike this film so much is how inherently lazy everything about it truly is. There was probably some original ground to cover here, but everyone seems to have avoided it like the plague, sticking to ground paved by everyone before them. There are lots of family films in the marketplace in this day and age, it's worth having something new and or original to say if you're hoping that parents are going to shell out their hard earned money to drag the whole family to the theater, and if this is as new and original as it's going to get, I'd rather stay home.

Look, I'm being awfully harsh on the film, but  I spent my money on it, so I get to have my say. Characters mugging to the camera and Jokes about bodily functions have their place in films. Hell, even The Master had a fart joke in it. But when that's all you've got, it's not enough. Period. End of sentence. There's got to be more to it than that, and this film brought nothing imaginative to the equation beyond what must have been a series of "insert joke that will make an eight year old laugh here."

It's a well-animated film that's nice to look at, and thank goodness, otherwise I would've left (although my daughters would have been upset). It's just not enough to continuously stop the flow of the action to insert a horrendously auto-tuned musical number because you've run out of ideas and/or plot. There's got to be a reason to get the people into the theater, and I know that 90% of it is just getting them in there in the first place. However, I will approach anything and everything from this studio and these filmmakers with kid gloves from here on out, because they did everything in their power to earn that. To paraphrase Dean Wormer from Animal House, "cheap, lazy and stupid is no way to go through life, son."

GO Rating: 0.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, September 28, 2012

Day 157: Looper

"We both know what has to go down. So why don't you do what old men do, and die."

One of the most assured directorial debuts of the last decade was Rian Johnson's 2005 modern film noir Brick, a film that I admire on many levels, but don't necessarily like. The film is also notable as one of two films from the same year, along with the masterful Mysterious Skin, to re-introduce former child television star Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a big screen actor with serious chops. Their latest re-teaming is Looper, a science fiction/action film that isn't short on science fiction, action or ambition...

In the year 2044, Joe (Gordon-Levitt) works as a Looper, a hitman that executes people sent back from the future. Essentially time travel is only used by a corrupt entity that utilizes it to send people back 30 years into the past to be eliminated. It pays well, keeping most of the Loopers on the upper end of the societal echelon, as the future is even further racked with financial decay, but the job is not without its inherent risks. The biggest risk of all is that eventually, one of their hits will be their own future selves, effectively "closing the loop" and erasing all traces of the relationship.

When the story opens, the Loopers are being flooded with loop closings, left and right. Joe begins to become leery of this proposition, and naturally, when his own time comes, he's overpowered by his future self (Bruce Willis) which sets off a series of cataclysmic events that threaten not just the future, but the present as well. I won't go into any further details of the plot, as the film is just now being released nationwide, but rest assured that the film has some twists up its sleeve that are radically unpredictable, and the film will keep you guessing right up until its final moments.

First of all, it must be stated that the premise for this film is ingenious. It creates a fully realized science fiction world that you'll have no problem buying into and going along with. It's captivating, and although it does rely heavily on voice-over narration by Joe to explain the rules of the world, it's never done in a distracting way, giving you information precisely when you need it. There are numerous parallels you can draw between this film and other time travel films, most notably 12 Monkeys, but it is most certainly its own animal, indebted to the past but not beholden to it.

This theme comes through in the costume choices as well, having fun with the premise that past fashion has become in vogue again, as nothing is ever new, it merely recycles itself. The organization that Joe works for is headed by Abe (Jeff Daniels) who is from the future, and conveys the aforementioned theme through a pretty brilliantly written exchange with Joe near the beginning of the film. It's sly without ever calling attention to it, and for that it has to be admired.

For as much as there is to admire about the film, however, I'm left feeling hollow by it. The film is so smart, and plays so fast and loose with the very concept of time travel and its implications, that the major driving plot device behind the film's final hour almost made me angry. It's seriously difficult for me to explain without going into major spoiler territory, but you'll know it when it happens, and while it may work great for some, it totally took me out of the movie. For me, it was akin to the moment in Superman Returns when the kid shoves the piano at the henchman, and that's almost more than I want to say about it.

There are two gaping plot holes that I can't get past, only one of which I can discuss in a spoiler-free review. Why do the Loopers have to kill their own future selves? It seems as though this one action would be easy to solve, namely, give the hit to a different Looper. But I guess there wouldn't be a film if that were the case, so it seems almost ridiculous to discuss. I'd be happy to discuss the other one in a future post, once more people have seen the film, but it was a pretty big deal breaker for me.

The performances are very good across the board. Gordon-Levitt is great as always, and his makeup is much more convincing in the context of the film than I think it comes across in the advertising. It's not distracting at all. Willis is also great, as is Daniels who arguably got the best written character in the film. Emily Blunt, whom I haven't mentioned at all, is also very good, and plays one of the better written females in a science fiction film.

Overall, I have to admire a film that's this bold and innovative, even if I don't like the ultimate plot of the film. Ultimately, I was disappointed by the route they decided to take the premise, and was left with the distinct feeling that the film could have ended in a million different ways, but they ended up choosing the most violent and mindless ending possible.

For a film that had so much thought and care put into every aspect of it, I question why they felt the need to turn it into a bloodbath by the end, seemingly deflating any of the subtlety that they had spent so much time cultivating. I recommend the film for sci-fi geeks and film lovers, because it is so original and admirable, but don't be surprised if you find yourself leaving the theater wishing that there had been more to it than a great premise.

GO Rating: 3/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Day 156: Gentlemen Broncos

"It's a friendship stone. Let's blow on it."

2004's Napoleon Dynamite unleashed an epidemic on the world. It made it cool to be uncool. While the film itself is a gem of quirks & truly bizarre characters and behavior, it also paved the way for a wave of copycats and imitators with an ever increasing deluge of diminishing returns. It can't be duplicated, but that hasn't stopped people from trying. Even that film's director, Jared Hess, has been trying to rebottle the lightning that led to his own initial success. His 2006 film Nacho Libre had an enormously entertaining trailer that spoiled all of the film's laughs, namely because the jokes were only funny out of the context of the film itself. In fact, that seems to be the problem with his brand of humor, the context of the film actually serves to squash whatever humor there is in the situations and characters.

His most recent, and to date last, film was 2009's Gentlemen Broncos, a film with an equally promising set-up. A home-schooled teenager writes a science fiction story that ends up being pilfered by his favorite author and turned into a wildly successful, albeit bastardized, novel. It's a brilliant premise that goes south so quickly, it makes you wonder why it was even made in the first place.

There's a strange dichotomy at work in the film, namely that it's obviously funny that the group of misfits we're introduced to early on are home-schooled and therefore socially inept, but the filmmakers make their behavior and quirks so outlandish that they would never be taken seriously as real people. It's like he's inviting us to laugh at the very notion of how awkward home-schooled children are by creating a group of characters that's more in line with a bus full of psychopaths. The joke is seemingly in the setup, but the punchline is a gut-punch that shames you into feeling bad for laughing at the mere premise of them being bizarre.

But anyway, Benajmin (Michael Angarano) has written a science fiction novel called "Yeast Lords" that he hopes to enter into competition for a chance at publication. One of the judges on the panel is Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement), who's in some hot water of his own over his recent spate of unpublished rubbish. He's lost his mojo, so he decides to steal Benjamin's story, repurpose some of the character names and details, and pass it off as his own work, now titled "Brutus and Balzaak." These are the jokes people!

Anytime someone reads from the book, the film audience is treated to an on-screen interpretation starring Sam Rockwell as Bronco or Brutus, depending upon whose adaptation is shown. Rockwell is probably my favorite actor working in film today, and his performance was the highlight of the film, but he's so underused that even his appearances became trying late in the film. It's also made more confusing when two other students from the home-school trip Tabitha (Halley Feiffer) and Lonnie (Hector Jimenez) work on producing their own, officially licensed, film of "Yeast Lords."

The film is a jumbled mess, piling on subplot after subplot until you're not even sure what the main through line of the film is anymore. Benjamin's mother (Jennifer Coolidge) creates her own line of nightgowns & popcorn balls, and because he has no friends, hires Benjamin a "Guardian Angel" by the name of Dusty (Mike White) who ends up playing the lead in Lonnie's film of "Yeast Lords." The script is a nightmare of confusing plot diversions, made all the more difficult to enjoy because of the bizarre characterizations the actors chose in bringing them to life.

Coolidge is an actress that I normally like, but she makes so many woefully misguided decisions here, playing her character like nothing that resembles an actual living, breathing human being. Jimenez is a terrifying presence, playing his character not like an outsider, but like a deranged man who has been suddenly deprived of his medication. And absolutely no care or concern was given to creating a likable protagonist, so Angarano has no choice but to amble through the film doing nothing more than looking mopey or pouting.

Clement is pretty much the only saving grace of the film, outside of Rockwell. That he chose to model his character's voice on actor Michael York gives him the perfect air of pomposity, and the class he teaches on adding mythical suffixes to boring character names is probably the funniest part of the entire film. He goes a long way towards helping you to root for Benjamin by making Chevalier a particularly odious character, but a great villain does not a great hero make, and I never felt compelled to actually like Benjamin.

A lot of directors end up falling into self-parody at some point in their career, it's just not usually on their third film in five years. Jared Hess may yet snap out of his creative funk, but it's not likely. Unless he can attract major talent to elevate his bargain basement material, it's only going to go downhill from here. He may yet recapture the magic of Napoleon Dynamite, but he has to try harder than this. I refuse to believe this was the best possible version of this idea that was had. It's far too promising an idea to be wasted on such a dreadful movie.

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Friday, September 21, 2012

Day 155: The Master

"You are the bravest boy I've ever met."

In the first seven years of his career, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson made four films. However, in the decade since then, he's only made two, the most recent of which was 2007's There Will Be Blood, a film universally and correctly regarded as a masterpiece. Needless to say, the anticipation for his latest film, The Master, has gone through the roof, particularly following a strong showing at the Venice Film Festival, where it took the lion's share of awards, including a shared Best Actor award. So does it live up to the hype?

In all honesty and fairness to the film, it could never live up to the hype that's been built up around it. No film could, particularly one that flies so brashly in the face of any expectations you may have. It's almost as if Anderson is defying you to dislike the film, it's that bold an experiment. Ultimately for me, it paid huge dividends, but I could completely and totally see someone who's equally devoted to the director walking away with the opposite reaction.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a naval officer returning to the States following WWII. He's shown to be an aimless wanderer with an anger problem. He's unable to hold down a job, and seems to only take pleasure in creating moonshine out of whatever chemicals he has at his disposal. His talent for improvising drinks gets him in trouble when he is accused of poisoning a fellow worker on a cabbage farm. He makes his escape, stowing away on another sea faring vessel, albeit one carrying significantly different cargo than he's used to hauling.

Commandeering the ship is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a "hopelessly inquisitive" doctor who has invented a new quasi-religion dubbed "The Cause." Seeing a kindred spirit in Freddie, Dodd takes him in as a new inspiration and protege. Dodd has plans to take The Cause to another level, making it into a fully formed spiritual movement, and he wants Freddie at his side when he attempts to change the world. But Freddie's volatility threatens to unravel the already tenuous base upon which Dodd has built his empire.

I suppose what is so maddening about The Master is that it is as formless and spontaneous as Freddie is. It doesn't have a direct through line apart from the passage of time, and anyone hoping for a sense of closure and finality will not find it here. Anderson's past work has always been built around resolution for his characters, and there's always a strong sense of an ending to his films, but this film seriously diverts from that path.

A scene late in the film has Dodd riding on his motorcycle as fast as he can toward a definite point in the distance. It's almost as if Anderson is reminding us that the film is doing anything but, a bold but effective choice. I don't know how successful The Master is as a film, but as art, it's defiantly brash and daring. Does that make it a good film? I'd leave that up to the individual to decide, but I would say yes.

The story that's been getting a lot of traction prior to the film's release is that is based on the founding of Scientology. While the parallels certainly exist between The Cause and Scientology, the film is no more about Scientology than Boogie Nights was about pornography or There Will Be Blood was about oil. It's the world the characters live in, but it only serves to illustrate the differences and startling similarities between Freddie and Dodd.

The other thing that the film's supporters and detractors seem to agree on is that the two lead performances are remarkable. It's hard to argue otherwise, as both of these actors are executing at the top of their craft. This is the strongest male tete a tete I've seen since F. Murray Abraham & Tom Hulce went at each other in Amadeus. Phoenix is good in a very showy, explosive, actor-y way, but it's Hoffman who stole the show for me.

Hoffman burns with intensity, barely able to keep his true nature in check, having moments where he can't control his animal instincts. Phoenix gets the majority of the flashy scenes, and he's outstanding, but Hoffman underplays his scenes to fantastic effect. About forty-five minutes into the film, these two have a scene, where Dodd "processes" Freddie, that is possibly the best scene that Anderson has ever put on film. It's a remarkable exercise in flawless writing, directing and acting.

Amy Adams is quite good in her role as Dodd's wife, but the rest of the supporting cast is largely forgettable. That's not to say that there's any bad performances in the film, it's just such a two-man show that everyone fades into the background by the third act. Adams does make the most of her scenes however, providing a sound voice of reason for her husband, proving again that she is one of the best actresses working in film today.

The parallels between Freddie & Dodd drive the film all the way, and I would wager to say that your enjoyment of the film is largely contingent upon how you feel about them as characters. Dodd sees in Freddie a man who is much like himself, a dreamer, an improviser, and a powder keg just waiting to explode. Dodd needs Freddie to succeed, because otherwise, they both fail. It's a love story in the most unconventional sense of the word, but no less romantic as a result.

The Master is most assuredly not a film for everyone. I can already see Anderson's fans drawing battle lines and standing firmly on either side of the film. Those who go along for the ride will defend it until their dying breath, and those who don't will seek to tear it apart. It is an epic in every sense of the word, mainly because it's an epic risk for a filmmaker who could easily be playing it safe at this point in his career. It's a comfort to know that films like The Master exist, whether you love it or hate it, it's existence proves that PT Anderson is one of the boldest filmmakers alive.

GO Rating: 4.5/5

[Photos via Rotten Tomatoes]

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Day 154: The Birdcage

"Albert, these people are right wing conservatives, they don't care if you're a pig, they care if you're a fag."

As a comedy team in the late 50s and early 60s, Mike Nichols & Elaine May took New York City by storm. It ended up leading to a lucrative career as a director for Nichols, winning several Tonys for directing and an Oscar for just his second feature film, 1967's The Graduate. Elaine May achieved a modicum of success directing several comedies in the 70s, most notably the 1971 feature A New Leaf with Walter Matthau, but she is now best remembered as the director of the criminally and unfairly maligned Ishtar.

It took until 1996 for these two to team up again, this time with Nichols directing and May writing, for The Birdcage, one of the most successful comedies of the 90s. Loosely adapted from the French film La Cage Aux Folles & the Broadway musical of the same name, the film tells the story of a colossal culture clash when two young people Val & Barbara (Dan Futterman & Calista Flockheart) decide to get married. Her parents are Kevin & Louise Keeley (Gene Hackman & Dianne Wiest) an ultra-conservative Senator and his wife. His parents are Armand & Albert Goldman (Robin Williams & Nathan Lane) a nightclub owner & the star of a drag revue in South Beach, FL.

The kids hatch a plan to get the parents together for a formal introduction, and of course, all hell breaks loose. The main source of the comedy comes from the circumstances which force Armand & Albert to pretend to be people that they're not for the sake of duping Barbara's parents. I understand how ridiculous it is to psychoanalyze the motives of characters in a comedy, but I truly wondered what the end game was in getting Armand & Albert to be straight for a couple of hours. How long were they expecting them to keep up the charade?

But never mind all that, it's a wacky comedy of errors that you shouldn't be reading much into, right? Well, yes and no. First of all, it's a groundbreaking film in several regards. Even though Albert & their housekeeper Agador (Hank Azaria) are raging stereotypes, they're also phenomenally well drawn characters, full of tons of pathos. Albert in particular is extremely well-fleshed out as a character, and even though the comedy comes from putting him in various comedic situations, he is never the butt of the joke, which in and of itself was a groundbreaking notion for the mid-90s. Just a year later, In & Out would mine similar territory to a much more offensive effect, but that's a story for another review.

The Birdcage is more than just a comedy. It was the first time your parents went to the movies and saw a pretty genuine love story about two homosexuals. Granted it was wrapped in another film altogether that your parents could thoroughly enjoy, but it doesn't pull any punches with its characters. It doesn't give you time to ease into their relationship, it just drops you in the middle of a long-time homosexual relationship and expects you to be okay with it. That's a pretty revolutionary thing when you think about it in the context of when this film came out. Shit, 16 years after this film came out, we still live in some pretty intolerant times.

Enough about that, though. Why does The Birdcage stand the test of time? Because it's an hysterically funny character driven comedy. Yes, the situations are funny, but all of the laughs come from the characters. Robin Williams is revelatory as the relative straight man (no pun intended). He is an actor that can truly shine when he cedes the spotlight and volleys. He's an unbelievably effective actor when he doesn't try so god-damned hard and it just makes most of his other work so maddening as a result. Hackman is wonderful as well in the true straight man role & Wiest makes the most of a sadly underwritten part.

The stars of the show however are Lane & Azaria. Lane is fantastic, effusing his character with enough empathy to sink a ship, but making it so worthwhile. You genuinely feel for him when Val is trying to push him away & hide him, and it makes his efforts to help even more sad & funny at the same time. Azaria is also great in a small but memorable role. He just about steals every scene he's in, often without even trying. He's used perfectly in small doses, just the right amount.

Overall, The Birdcage works because it's lots of great people coming together and bringing their A game. It's full of talent in front of and behind the camera (it was shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, who has shot Terrence Malick's last three films). So often I get consumed with talented people coming together to produce a thorough mediocrity, so it's only fair that I sing the praises of talented people coming together to make something great. And The Birdcage is nothing short of a great film.

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Monday, September 17, 2012

Day 153: Men in Black 3

"A miracle is something that seems impossible, but it happens anyway."

Confession time. I am a fan of the first two Men in Black films. Yes, even the second one. I know that most people hate the second one, and it's rightly derided for being unimaginative, but there's something about the casting of Tommy Lee Jones that makes Will Smith's tired schtick bearable for me.  In all honesty though, I wasn't all that jazzed about a third film, particularly ten years after the second one. I think there needs to be a moratorium put on sequels after a certain number of years. Five years (the amount of time between the first two films) is pushing it, but ten years is a real stretch.

Apprehension is the only way that one can approach this film and have even a remote chance of liking it. It's not a great film, by any stretch of the imagination, but if you like the first one, you'll like this one. The climax is hasty (I read that they began filming without a completed script), but overall, it works really well. I think that the major thing that the filmmakers did well with this one was narrowing the focus to just the relationship between J & K having that be the driving force of the film. When the stakes are simply for them to save the world, it doesn't land with any real emotional impact, but when the stakes are no higher than J having to save his partner, the film ends up having much more resonance.

The film opens with a jailbreak by an alien mass-murderer by the name of Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement, fantastic as usual). Boris intends to travel back in time to 1969, when Agent K originally shot off his arm and imprisoned him, and kill K before he has a chance to do so. There's also the matter of K obtaining a device that prevents Boris' home planet from invading Earth, but this was honestly just a secondary plot development, designed to raise the stakes of the mission. At heart, it's about J traveling back in time to stop his partner from being killed.

When he arrives in 1969, J teams up with the younger K (Josh Brolin) in hopes of finding out what made him into the grump that he is in the present day. I will say, free of any substantial spoilers, that the reason that they do end up giving didn't have the emotional wallop that I wanted it to, but it may work really well for some audience members.

Now, about that device (in both senses of the word) they're trying to prevent Boris from getting his hands on. Well, it is given to K by probably my favorite character created in the Men in Black universe up until now. The character's name is Griffin and he is played by Michael Stuhlbarg, whom you may remember from Hugo & A Serious Man, and he is part of an alien race that exists in multiple planes of existence simultaneously. In other words, he can see multiple variations on every scenario that they're presented with. I'm explaining it poorly, but it works extraordinarily well, and it feels like the first thing in this series that doesn't feel trite or derivative of another work of science fiction. He steals the whole movie.

As I said earlier, the pairing of Jones & Smith works really well again here, but Brolin also gets a gold star for his performance as a young Tommy Lee Jones. He's really great and nails the character's surliness, while also giving him a softer edge. Alice Eve is much less successful, playing the younger version of Emma Thompson's character, who has taken over leadership of the MIB program since the (off-screen) death of Rip Torn's Zed. You know, it's funny, I really looked forward to seeing Rip Torn again, but was sad that his character was cut.

Clement is great as the series' best villain, by far, making him both dangerous and funny, something that the previous villains have failed to capture. There are also, at least, two funny cameos, my favorite of which was J's partner in the alternate reality without K. Barry Sonnenfeld is a comedy genius (yeah, I said it) and knows how to mine great comedy from outlandish scenarios. He sometimes doesn't succeed (see RV or Wild, Wild West for examples of this. Or better yet, don't), but he sometimes nails it, and while this film doesn't always nail it, it comes close often enough for me to call it a success.

I don't think this series needs to continue. I didn't really think it needed to before, and that hasn't stopped them, so who knows. If it does continue, I hope that they keep the story focus small, as it seems to have served them well here. As I said, if you like the first two, you'll like this one, but I also think if you're not a fan of part 2, you'll find a lot to like here. It's got a damn good cast, and hits more than it misses, but don't run right out and see it if you missed it. I'm sure it'll be in endless replay on cable soon enough. And that's right where this series belongs. And I don't mean that as an insult.

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Day 152: Finding Nemo (in 3D)

"Kill the motor, dude. Let us see what Squirt does flying solo."

Nine years ago, Pixar's fourth film took the world by storm, quickly becoming one of the highest grossing films of all time, second only to The Lion King among animated films. Finding Nemo has taken on an almost mythical status as one of the ultimate family films, a gold standard against which almost all others are judged. It's fitting, then, that Disney selected it as one of the films to get a theatrical re-release, something which they used to do all the time before the advent of home video, albeit in a post-converted 3D version. So is it worth your time and, more importantly, your money to revisit?

In the interest of full disclosure, it's worth me saying that the first time I saw Finding Nemo in the summer of 2003, I was underwhelmed by it. As a matter of fact, until Cars came along, I felt it was Pixar's weakest effort. But I was a different person back then. I wasn't a father, which isn't necessarily a prerequisite for enjoying the film, but it certainly helps to connect the film to certain audience members on a much more visceral level.

Many of the flaws that I found the film to be plagued with back then, still get on my nerves. First of all, the film is one hundred minutes long, and it seems that almost all of that running time is devoted to characters in peril. It's a seemingly endless series of pitfalls and obstacles which are placed in the way of all three of the main characters. In other words, it's more like an action movie than an animated family film. There are no fewer than three climaxes in the film, which continues to be a big hindrance to my enjoyment of it, but maybe that's just me.

My other major gripe is the character of Marlin, in general, isn't all that sympathetic. He's overbearing and controlling, and while he certainly learns a lesson in how dangerous that can be for a parent, we still spend the bulk of the film's running time with him before he learns this lesson. I know, I know, how else can a character grow unless he overcomes obstacles to succeed in the end, but it doesn't make him any easier to like.

In the long run, though, these are not deal breaking complaints to completely ruin my enjoyment of the film. First and foremost, it's breathtakingly gorgeous. Pixar had been at the forefront of pioneering computer animation techniques, but this film put them in a class by themselves. If anything, the 3D conversion actually hinders a bit of the film's beauty. It's a common complaint that the picture quality of a 3D film is noticeably darker than 2D, and this is a perfect example of that phenomenon. The dimension and depth of field for the effects is cool, and works well, but I'm actually looking forward more to seeing this on blu-ray when it's released in December, as I think the picture quality will be even better.

There's not much I can add to the conversation that hasn't already been said, at least in the realm of criticism. The voice acting is fantastic, particularly from Ellen DeGeneres as Dory. My oldest daughter ate up her every line reading, and was in hysterics at most everything she said. She has a wonderful naivete in her voice that serves the character well and makes her endlessly sympathetic. Albert Brooks is also great, as always, as Nemo's over protective dad Marlin, and the supporting cast is full of great voice actors like Geoffrey Rush, Willem Dafoe, Brad Garrett & Stephen Root.

As a father, I can tell you that I now appreciate Finding Nemo in the way that director Andrew Stanton likely wanted it to be appreciated. I can connect with it in a way that I couldn't before I had children, and since I was in my mid-20s when it was first released, I wasn't young enough to enjoy the film from a child's perspective.

I talk about this a lot when I review family films, but it helps tremendously to have children and see the films with them. It allows you to live vicariously through them, and while it sometimes leads to an artificial inflation and appreciation of some films that may not deserve it, it also gives you a sense of how the films play to their intended audience. If you have children and want them to see this on a big screen (as I did), then by all means, run, don't walk to see this before it's gone. But if you love the film, and want to see it as the filmmakers intended, wait for the blu-ray, as it will likely be an amazing disc.

GO Rating: 3/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]

Friday, September 14, 2012

Day 151: Popeye

The year was 1980. Coming out of the 70’s (a decade which saw the emergence of no less directors than Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, and countless others) everyone was riding high, and the sky seemed to be the limit.
A director (Robert Altman) & producer (Robert Evans) whose careers skyrocketed in the 70’s decided to team up to bring a beloved cartoon character to life in a big screen musical, and they cast the hottest TV star of the day (Robin Williams) in his film debut.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, depending upon whom you ask, it’s either very little, or everything that went wrong. I’m firmly in the camp that thinks there’s very little not to like about the film. It’s an honest and true adaptation of E.C. Segar’s original Popeye comic strip. Most people were likely expecting it to be closer to the Fleischer Studios cartoon from the 40s & 50s that, while incredibly beloved, bore little resemblance to its origins. Altman & screenwriter Jules Feiffer decided to return Popeye and the denizens of Sweethaven to their roots, and it makes for a thoroughly sublime film.

Shot on the island of Malta, the film opens with Popeye (Williams) arriving in Sweethaven, a town isolated from the rest of the world, with its own set of rules that doesn’t cotton to outsiders. Popeye is able to board with the Oyl family, whose oldest daughter Olive (Altman regular Shelley Duvall) is engaged to be married to Bluto (Paul L. Smith). Bluto works for a mysterious man named The Commodore, and he enforces the taxation laws of the town. Olive decides to run away, rather than marry Bluto, and she and Popeye form a bond when they come into custody of a small child, Swee’Pea, who was abandoned by his mother.

The plot is set into motion when Wimpy (Paul Dooley) takes Swee’Pea to the racetrack, and Bluto forces Wimpy to hand over the child in an attempt to get even with Popeye & Olive Oyl. He brings the child to the Commodore, who turns out to be Popeye’s father Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston). It all leads to a high seas showdown involving an octopus, an undersea fight, and Popeye being forced to confront his fear of Spinach.

It doesn’t sound great when you break it down and explain it, but the film works brilliantly as a living comic strip. It’s populated with some wonderful character actors like Richard Libertini, Donald Moffat, MacIntyre Dixon, Roberta Maxwell, Donovan Scott, Linda Hunt, Dennis Franz & Bill Irwin. The film is also a pretty great musical to boot. The music was written by Harry Nilsson (Everybody’s Talkin’, Coconut) and features some genuinely great tunes like “I Yam What I Yam,” “Blow Me Down,” “Sweethaven,” and “Sailin’.”

Robert Altman has said of the film, “watch it with a kid sometime. Kids really get that film,” and that couldn’t be more true. I was probably four or five the first time I saw it, and that may have a lot to do with why I’m so fond of the film. I watched it just the other night with my daughters and they ate it up. It works incredibly well as a family film even though, on the surface, it seems like the kind of film today’s kids would want nothing to do with. It’s a two hour musical based on characters almost a hundred years old, but there’s something truly magical about the whole endeavor.

Altman’s signature style of overlapping dialogue & eccentric characters is on full display here as well. One of the things that I’ve always loved about Altman is his ability to make everything seem fresh, no matter how archaic the subject matter is. He took Phillip Marlowe and updated him for a new generation in The Long Goodbye, he took a stuffy genre like British Upstairs/Downstairs class warfare and gave it a refreshing spin in Gosford Park, and he even made Garrison Keillor seem hip in A Prairie Home Companion. This is no less evident here and it gives the film an edge that allows adults to enjoy it as much as kids.

The film’s influence is alive and well in today’s films as well. Paul Thomas Anderson, a noted Altman admirer, used the song “He Needs Me” in his 2002 film Punch Drunk Love. The exacting and loving recreation of the original strip can be felt in films as varied as Annie & Sin City. Even Robin Williams’ manic schtick being toned down has its roots here. It’s not the first film people will admit to being hugely influential, but it was one of the first to do a lot of the things that we now take for granted, namely that literary characters will appear on film the way they do in their source material.

The film was not a smash hit (though it was also not the financial disaster that some have made it out to be, grossing sixty million dollars worldwide on a budget of thirty). If you didn’t see the film as a child, and you’re just seeing it now for the first time, I encourage you to view it with an open mind. One of the coolest things about kids is that they don’t prejudge everything. They’re willing to watch anything with an open mind, so be open to its charms. If you have children of your own, you should watch this with them immediately, and I promise you will enjoy it, even if it’s vicariously through your children. It’s a strange but lovely film that will work its magic on even the most hard-hearted cynic.

[Photos via Matt Trailer]

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Day 150: Boogie Nights

"I got a feeling that behind those jeans is something wonderful just waiting to get out."

The best director currently making motion pictures is Paul Thomas Anderson. This is an indisputable fact in my book. There is quite simply no one better, and while he lacks the prolificness of many of his contemporaries, when he does put out a film, you can bet it's going to be twice as ambitious as anything they've done in the interim. Now, ambition alone does not a great film make, but Anderson's preternatural gift for momentum propels every one of his films into masterpiece territory.

Boogie Nights is as balanced a film as has ever been made. Divided neatly into two halves, it tells the tale of the adult film industry in the glory days of the 1970s and the devastating lows of the early 1980s. The film opens with the creakiest organ music this side of the circus, and perfectly sets the tone for the entire film. The porn industry was the biggest circus of all in its heyday, and the opening three and a half minute tracking shot that follows beautifully introduces virtually every main character. Anderson lets you know immediately that you are in good hands.

The film tells of the meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of a kid named Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) who is discovered as a dishwasher in a nightclub by adult filmmaker Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, in the best performance of his career). There's no way to put this politely, so I'll just say it. Eddie is blessed with a gigantic cock, and Jack offers to bring him into his kingdom and make him a star. He renames himself Dirk Diggler and sets off for the top of the mountain.

The film is populated with an amazing supporting cast of fellow porn stars from Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Rollergirl (Heather Graham), Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), & Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), as well as various crew members & hangers-on like Little Bill (William H. Macy), Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Maurice (Luis Guzman) and countless others.

Anderson very definitely works in the mold of filmmakers before him, owing a visual debt to Scorsese, Kubrick & Truffuat, but his biggest influence on this film in particular is Robert Altman's Nashville exposing the seamy underbelly of an industry. Now porn never had the squeaky clean reputation that country music did, but the film firmly establishes Jack Horner as a good filmmaker, interested in the art and creation of film. Therefore as drugs, violence & the rise of video begin to pose threats to his kingdom, it can hold the early parts of the film up in stark contrast as the good old days.

Being only Anderson's second feature as a director, he does a lot of showing off as a director, and I don't mean that in a bad way. His technique is sound, but he's not above letting you know how good he is behind the camera. For example, the way he apes the tracking shot that follows the girl into the pool from I Am Cuba let's you know that he's both flashy & literate. He works here with his longtime cinematographer Robert Elswit to create a film akin to the kind that Jack Horner himself is professing to want to make, full of the shadows of life. In other words, it's gorgeously filmed as well as masterfully edited by his longtime editor Dylan Tichenor.

The transition from the 70s to the 80s is as good a transition as any other ever put on film. It lets you know exactly where things are headed, and it's both bold and ominous. He was also laying the groundwork for his next film (and his true masterpiece) Magnolia, with the sequence where Dirk is beat up by the hoods, intercut with Jack & Rollergirl beating up the kid from her school, and how that all intercuts with Buck going to the donut shop. It's a nice moment of overlap here, but as I said, he would perfect this overlap two years later.

The performances are great all across the board. Reynolds & Moore were both robbed of Oscar recognition for the their work, and I would almost say Reynolds more so. He is phenomenal here, never verging into creep territory, always remaining the loving, concerned and doting father figure that all these kids need. Wahlberg hadn't truly found his footing yet as an actor, and he's better in the early parts of the film when he can coast on his charisma, but you can see the seeds being planted here for the actor he'd become. John C. Reilly is a firecracker on screen, stealing every scene he's in, along with Hoffman & Cheadle who are great as always, and Alfred Molina gets a brilliant seven minute scene late in the film that gets burned into your memory the moment it ends.

These are all great actors working at the top of their craft, but this is ultimately Anderson's show. This is his film top to bottom and he deserves all the credit in the world for making it work as well as it does. This is easily one of the best films of the nineties, a decade with no shortage of masterpieces, and it's worth your time to revisit again and again.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Day 149: The Kid Stays in the Picture

"Any man who thinks he can read the mind of a woman is a man who knows nothing."

I recently began reading Robert Evans' memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture, and couldn't help but think that it had been a while since I'd seen the brilliant 2003 documentary of the same name. In spite of the fact that I've seen it dozens of times, I was enraptured all over again from about thirty seconds in all the way until the end. If you haven't seen it, you're doing yourself a disservice, as it is one of the truly great documentaries that's ever been made.

The film utilizes voice-over narration from Evans himself, intercut with archival footage and a ton of stills and newspaper headlines from the mid-50s through the mid-90s. It's a casting coup because truly no one could have done justice to his story other than the man himself. I've only recently begun reading the book, so the portion of his life story that I'm currently on isn't even covered in the film, not that it needed to be. The film starts with Evans recounting how, on a business trip to Hollywood, he was discovered by Norma Shearer to play her late husband Irivng Thalberg in the film Man of a Thousand Faces.

His acting career peaked with his next film The Sun Also Rises, in which the author Ernest Hemingway and the film's three stars demanded that he be fired. But after proving himself on the first day of filming, producer Daryl Zanuck utters the famous line Evans lifted for the title of his book (and this film), silencing the naysayers, and dictating the course of Evans' life and career. He then goes through his charmed existence as the Vice President of motion pictures at Paramount, how he branched out on his own and became a producer, and then fell victim to the excesses and decadent lows of the 80s.

It's a riveting portrait, if for no other reason than Evans isn't above besmirching his own reputation. Evans is simultaneously his biggest advocate and detractor, a balancing act that has no business working as well as it does. Basically, he's never willing to let anyone else call him out on his own shortcomings, but he's also not above taking credit for anything and everything he possibly can. He shouldn't be as endearing a character as he is, but god damnit if you don't just love the guy through it all.

The film was directed by Brett Morgen & Nanette Burstein, the former of whom has stayed in the documentary business, while the latter has moved on to fiction and television. I'm not sure exactly which of them is responsible for what in the film, so I will praise them on equal footing. Their style is brilliant, a collage of still pictures brought to vibrant life, intercut with footage from Evans' films as an actor & producer, along with a healthy dose of vintage interviews. They have given an endlessly readable book an equally watchable vibrancy that works for all the right reasons.

And as much as they dress up the proceedings with a ton of visual flair, the film ultimately belongs to Evans, the consummate showman. The guy knows how to tell a story, and while he brags of being blessed with tremendous recall, he portrays everyone as talking in quips and quotes and soundbytes, and it shouldn't work, but it does. The man has a gift for the English language and it's on full display here. There are people of whom you could say that you could listen to them read the phone book, and if Robert Evans is not on that list, then you've never heard him speak.

This is a phenomenal film, worthy of your time any time you visit with it. It's as vital a documentary as it is a book, and that is really saying something. It's the perfect ninety minute trailer for the book, which is probably exactly how Evans envisioned it in the first place. If you've never seen it, you need to stop reading immediately and go watch it, and if it's been a while since you've seen it, it's time to go listen to your old Uncle Bob. He's just as crazy as ever, but damned if it isn't the most enjoyable brand of crazy imaginable.

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Monday, September 10, 2012

Day 148: 21 Jump Street

"The people behind this lack creativity and they've run out of ideas, so what we do now is just recycle shit from the past and hope nobody notices."

Clever, right? The biggest problem with 21 Jump Street is that it's too clever, or at least thinks it is, and calls attention to it every couple of minutes. It's actually a very funny movie, but by constantly calling attention to how meta and in-on-the-joke everyone is, it deflates its purpose. It's better than it has any right to be, but it's almost sad that it could have been better. It could have been one of the best movies of the year, but it ultimately tries too hard to be a good movie instead of just allowing it to happen, which it almost certainly would have.

Jonah Hill & Channing Tatum play Schmidt & Jenko, a respectively nerdy & meatheaded cop who are given an assignment to help revive an old undercover program that sends youthful looking cops to high school to bust up drug rings. They mix up their assignments, however, and the dumb Jenko ends up having to masquerade as a science geek & nerdy Schmidt is stuck pretending he's a jock. It also helps that in the years since these two were actually in high school, the social constructs have changed so that the dumb jock is no longer at the top of the food chain. This sends Jenko scrambling to find an identity, but helps Schmidt to actually enjoy high school in a way he didn't when he was a student.

Like I said, it's clever enough as a concept, it doesn't need to make you aware of how clever it is by constantly having characters mention these facts. Schmidt falls in with the popular crowd, which includes the school's main drug dealer Eric (Dave Franco, younger brother of James) and drama chick Molly (Brie Larson) whom he ends up falling for. Schmidt becomes so enamored with his newfound popularity, that he begins to get in too deep and lose sight of what their actual mission is in the first place.

While Hill is the focus of most of the drama, its Tatum who actually shines in the film. I mean this as a sincere compliment, but Channing Tatum actually has the ability to be the next Mark Wahlberg. He's at home in comedy & drama, and he's a much better actor than he appears to be, giving him the ability to constantly surprise you and catch you off guard. I hadn't been impressed with him at all until Magic Mike earlier this summer, and catching up with this film now, I think he's got a bright future ahead of him. I never, in a million years, thought I would utter anything of the sort.

The supporting cast is strong, with Franco & Larson both playing their roles extremely well, and it helps that the teachers are all played by actors with serious comedy chops like Chris Parnell, Ellie Kemper & Rob Riggle (who steals the two or three scenes he's in). Nick Offerman is also hilarious in a cameo as their first Chief, and it wouldn't be 21 Jump Street without cameos from Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise, in a hilariously touching scene late in the film.

Under the direction of Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, it's a solid comedy top to bottom. The two are veterans of tv comedy from How I Met Your Mother, and their earlier directorial effort was another one that was better than it had any right to be, 2009's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The screenplay was by Michael Bacall who previously wrote Scott Pilgrim vs The World, one of my favorite films in recent years, based on a story by Bacall & Hill. It could have been a truly great screenplay had it not been so concerned with making sure that the audience was in on the joke. It's almost as if they didn't trust the audience, and while I get that, considering the film was aimed squarely at teenagers, but it ends up undermining its brilliance with constant asides.

21 Jump Street is hardly a classic, but it's much better than it could have or even should have been. Even if you like the film a lot, you'll likely find yourself with the same complaints that I have, or maybe not. Maybe the film works 100% for some people, and I get that. I guess I just wish the writers hadn't been so concerned with leaving the audience behind and just going for broke. But at the end of the day, at least they tried, and that's more than I can say for 95% of tv to film adaptations.

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Saturday, September 8, 2012

Day 147: Bad News Bears (2005)

"Baseball's hard you guys, I mean it. You can love it, but it don't always love you back. It's kind of like dating a German chick, you know?"

There have been a ton of unnecessary remakes in the history of cinema. The distinguishing feature of the unnecessary remake is that there's virtually no reason for it to exist, i.e. no interesting casting choices, nothing new to bring to the table, no new examination of the original material, etc. Some recent examples would be the remakes of Straw Dogs, Psycho, Rollerball, City of AngelsAlfie, and The Pink Panther. There is literally nothing about any of these remakes that made it worthy of anyone's time or money to do, and what's more, they all bombed (or at least weren't overwhelmingly successful).

At first glance, Richard Linklater's 2005 remake of the 1976 baseball classic Bad News Bears seems like a pretty horrible idea. One of the things that makes the original so endearing is that it was made in the era before people were falling all over themselves to remain politically correct. How could that same sensibility translate forward two decades when anything that is meant to seem remotely edgy is typically just dressed up insensitivity, particularly within the confines of a PG-13 rating? The simple answer is that it can't, which makes the whole endeavor pretty unnecessary.

The casting of Billy Bob Thornton is where any inspiration that this remake had begins and ends. In the wake of 2003's Bad Santa, there's been a desire to recapture that film's magic in a new way, but it's honestly folly. This remake even brought that film's writers, Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, on board in an ill-fated attempt to make the film seem more dangerous than it actually is, or even wants to be, to be honest. They keep almost all of the characters' names the same (Morris Buttermaker, Amanda Wurlitzer, Kelly Leak), and add in some odd ethic characters in a pathetic attempt to simultaneously add diversity while increasing the number of targets for Buttermaker's tirades.

So how much of the film isn't a total waste? Well, that depends upon two factors: how much do you like Billy Bob Thornton, and how much do you like the original story in the first place? The original story is so good that even a ham-fisted remake like this can't dampen it. It's an enjoyable enough film, although your time would be better spent watching the original if the story is all you care about. So mainly, it comes down to Thornton, which is an awful lot of responsibility for one man to bear.

For the most part, he pulls it off, playing on any goodwill you have towards him as a lovably unlikable human being. I am a huge fan of Bad Santa, and while this film is a pale imitator, it probably helped me to not hate it outright. I guess it's strange that the only reason I enjoyed this film at all is because it made me think of two other films I like so much better. Probably not reason enough for me to say that it's worth yours or anyone else's time, but also not enough for me to write it off wholesale.

Audiences greeted this film with a similar apathy upon its release, and the seven year interim since then has done nothing to increase its status as a cult classic in the vein of either the original or Bad Santa, but there are a lot worse ways to spend two hours. See the first paragraph for at least six examples of this. However, if you have the original at your disposal, there's absolutely no reason to watch this, and that, ultimately, makes this as unnecessary as those other films.

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Friday, September 7, 2012

Day 146: Hudson Hawk

"Is looking like a constipated warthog a prerequisite for getting a job in the art world?"

There's a very strange phenomenon surrounding Bruce Willis, and it's very hard for me to figure out. Somehow the man churns out a major bomb every couple of years, yet never loses his A-list status. He's starred in such unmitigated disasters as Bonfire of the Vanities, North, Breakfast of Champions, Perfect Stranger & Color of Night, but without a doubt, his most memorable failure has got to be 1991's Hudson Hawk. How is it that Willis remains bankable, even, dare I say it, likable, in spite of his track record? Well, he has starred in a lot more hits than he has bombs, but it's almost as if people just forget about the bombs and focus on the hits.

Hudson Hawk is a doozy of a film. It's not the catastrophic failure that people have made it out to be, but it's also not very good either. I have fond memories of the film, it's always been a guilty pleasure of mine, but revisiting it after more than a decade, I'm here to tell you, it hasn't aged well. At all. It's a ballsy movie, and it's not hard to see why it failed. It's a wacky, almost post-modern riff on the jet-setting James Bond knock-offs that were so ubiquitous in the 60s. I say almost because it's actually a lot stupider than I think the filmmakers realized. It is, by no means, a smart or savvy satire, but it does a lot of things well, which helps to cement its status as a cult classic.

Willis plays the eponymous safe-cracker, just let out of prison, but finding himself getting dragged back in for the proverbial "one last job," that involves the CIA, the mafia, the Vatican & two deranged billionaires (Richard E. Grant & Sandra Bernhard). They're trying to track down relics from Leonardo DaVinci's work that hold the key to some sort of doomsday device. To say that the plot is secondary to the action & set-pieces is an understatement. The plot is so convoluted, it doesn't even seem to have been a concern to anyone involved.

Either way, Hawk's old partner Tommy (Danny Aiello) comes along for the ride, as does an art historian (Andie MacDowell) working for the Vatican. The CIA agents are all code-named for candy bars (Kit Kat, Butterfinger, etc), the mafia representatives are Cesar & Anthony Mario, or the Mario Brothers. In other words, the film has allusions to being clever, but doesn't actually do anything with these set-ups to pay off the presumed cleverness. It's just being clever for its own sake. Which is fine, but it's also an example of why the film, as a whole, just doesn't work.

It seems like an issue of too many creative forces coming together, all bringing their own ideas, and none of them willing to compromise. Therefore, the film ends up being a pastiche of random assorted nonsense, of the kind that would appeal endlessly to my twelve year old self, but as an adult, it's a less than satisfying endeavor. My adult self did delight in the odd casting choices however, like Frank Stallone & James Coburn, both of whom seem to know how bad the movie is, but neither of whom seem to give a shit.

There's plenty of things to like here, such as the crooks timing their jobs to old standards rather than using a watch, or the scene transitions that keep things moving to the point where the film feels as if it's never going to slow down enough to even end. But more than anything else, it's just a convoluted mess of jokes that don't work, pop culture references that fall flat, and Willis smirking his way through the film as if he's sharing a joke with the audience that they don't seem to be in on.

And I guess that's the reason Willis has managed to maintain his likability, no matter how bad the project around him seems to be. He knowingly places himself above the material, even if it's material he conceived, as is the case here. In other words, if you love Hudson Hawk, you love it because Bruce Willis knows how bad it is, and is in on the joke with you, and if you hate it, you're able to recognize that even the film's star knew how bad it was. He gets to have it both ways, and how many other people in Hollywood have that luxury? Not many. In fact, he might be the only one.

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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Day 145: Bernie

"Everybody's describing Bernie Tiede like he's an angel. Well he's an angel alright... an angel of death."

Richard Linklater is a baffling director to me. Like a lot of directors, he goes through phases. Early in his career, he seemed interested in directing movies about aimless small town teenagers (Slacker, Dazed & Confused, SubUrbia). Then he went through a phase where he was obsessed with rotoscope animation (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly). There was also his man-child becomes unlikely mentor to children phase (School of Rock, Bad News Bears). Then he has some films which defy categorization like Fast Food Nation & his latest film Bernie. 

Bernie tells the true story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black, in a revelatory performance), an assistant funeral director in the small town of Carthage, TX, who is regarded by everyone in town as one of the nicest men ever to walk the face of the earth. Using a faux-documentary technique lifted from Warren Beatty's Reds, the film interweaves Tiede's tale with interviews from the real people of Carthage, as well as a few actors portraying characters from Tiede's life. At this point in time, I have to urge you to not read any further if you haven't seen the film, as knowing virtually anything about it will dampen your enjoyment of the film. And likewise, if you've seen the horrendous theatrical trailer for the film, it will make you think it's some wacky Harold & Maude clone with Jack Black up to his usual antics. In other words, spoilers for the next two paragraphs…

Bernie strikes up a friendship with a local widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) that eventually ends up consuming all of his time, as Marjorie is a bit of a control freak. As Bernie tries to hold things together, he eventually begins to show cracks in his facade, and in a moment of weakness, ends up shooting Marjorie in the back four times. He spends the next several months trying to carry on like normal, since no one in town really much liked or cared about Marjorie anyway, and no one seems to miss her. However, her body is eventually found, preserved in a freezer, and Bernie is put on trial for her murder.

The prosecutor in the case is Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey, also fantastic), and because of the town's adoration for Bernie, he seeks to have the case moved to another county, the first in a series of moves that seem to doom Bernie's defense. In fact, if I have any major grievance with the film, it's that it is firmly on Bernie's side. Buck is portrayed as an egotist and a madman, and thankfully McConaughey is able to infuse him with some pathos, but the film itself definitely sets him up as the villain when it didn't really need to. The nosy accountant was a good enough villain without having to demonize Buck. But that's neither here nor there.

The film is pretty riveting stuff, particularly when you don't know the outcome. It reminded me a bit of the documentary Brother's Keeper in that it presented this world where an entire town rallies around one man, as if to hold them up as a beacon of their way of life they're trying to protect. It would make a great double feature if anyone's up to it.

As I said earlier, Black is fantastic. I've always enjoyed him as a performer, but never thought much of him as an actor. He's at home in films like School of Rock & High Fidelity, but anytime he's taken outside of that zone and expected to give a performance, the results can be disastrous. Peter Jackson's King Kong would be the number one example I could think of where he was so woefully miscast, he actually made a bad movie even worse. His performance here, however, is measured and nuanced. His gait is different, his speaking voice and even his singing voice are transformed, and he wholly embodies this character, never letting you think of Jack Black the buffoon (except maybe The Music Man scene).

McConaughey is every bit his equal, though his role is much smaller. From his doofus haircut to his wheel of misfortune, he's a pitiable dude, and one that McConaughey doesn't seem equipped to play as well as he does. It's often distracting to see attractive actors playing losers, but he does a damn good job here and plays it for all it's worth.

Overall, it's a very satisfying movie and one that I wholeheartedly recommend to film fans everywhere. Don't let any biases you may have towards the film's star steer you away, you'd be doing yourself a disservice. Perhaps this is the start of a new phase for Richard Linklater, and all I can say is that if it is, I'm excited to see what he has in store for us down the road. This is as promising a start as he's had in a long time.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Day 144: Ted

"No matter how big a splash you make in this world, whether you're Corey Feldman, Frankie Muniz, Justin Bieber, or a talking teddy bear, eventually, nobody gives a shit."

I've gone back and forth a lot on Seth McFarlane. Love him or hate him, he's an undeniably talented individual with his finger very firmly on the pulse of populist comedy. His detractors, and I have been among them at times, will tell you that he prefers quick & cheap pop culture references and throw-away sight gags to actual situational comedy, and nowhere is that more apparent than on his first and most famous creation, the tv show Family Guy. Thankfully Ted, his first foray into feature filmmaking, has yielded mostly hilarious results.

The film opens with suitably treacly narration from Patrick Stewart (the film is populated with tons of voice actors from McFarlane's various animated series), informing us that one magical Christmas in 1985, a lonely eight year old boy named John made a wish that his only friend, a teddy bear named Ted, would come to life. His wish was granted and Ted became a quasi-celebrity before falling into obscurity. Now they're all grown up and John (Mark Walhberg) & Ted (voiced by McFarlane) are slacking their way through their 30s with no real direction in life.

John's girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) is enamored with John, but beginning to grow weary of his relationship with Ted. She gives John an ultimatum shortly after their fourth anniversary, either Ted goes or she does. John helps Ted find an apartment and a job at a grocery store, but his vow to grow up and leave his childish things behind falls apart quickly, putting his relationship in jeopardy.

There are multiple subplots involving such talented actors as Matt Walsh as John's boss, Joel McHale as Lori's creepy boss & Patrick Warburton as one of John's co-workers, all of which are frequently hilarious, but they're all secondary to the main plot which is basically a man growing up mixed with healthy doses of an addict continuously relapsing. In other words, it plays like an extended sitcom pilot, as things never stray too far from the main triangle of John, Ted & Lori. This isn't necessarily a complaint, it just accounts for why the film plays more like a sitcom than a feature film.

The film goes astray in the third act, and while it has been out for a while, I don't want to risk spoiling any of the details. Needless to say, when they do open up the world and decide to play it more cinematically, it's nowhere near as good as when it's just extended riffing between the characters. It basically turns into a thriller, and though it does feature an inspired and creepy Giovanni Ribisi, it's borderline ridiculous, which is really saying something in a movie about a talking stuffed animal. 

Most of the bits in the film, however, are hysterically funny. Ted & John's obsession with the immortal camp classic Flash Gordon pays off huge dividends with an extended cameo from that film's star Sam Jones. The film is never better than in the second act house party sequence featuring an amped up Jones. Another bit I loved was the running gag involving Tom Skerrit, though it did feel akin to something from Family Guy, as did Ted's repeated backfiring attempts to get fired from his grocery store job, but they're all funny enough to not feel out of place or totally superfluous, as is the case with many of that show's best gags.

When did Mark Wahlberg turn into not just one of the best actors working today, but one of the most solidly reliable comedic actors? I'm serious, I don't know how it happened. His inspired performance in I Heart Huckabees was one of the first times I remember thinking he was hilarious, and most of his best work since has come in comedies. He's great here as the typical comedy man-child, though I didn't buy for a minute that he was only 35 which everyone makes a point of mentioning every couple of minutes. McFarlane is also great, saving virtually all of the best lines for himself, and Kunis does the most she can with a horrendously under-written role. 

The supporting cast is sublime from Warburton to McHale, Ribisi, Walsh, and Jones. Norah Jones & Ted Danson have pretty great cameos, as do two other superstar actors that I won't spoil here. It's a remarkably well-rounded comedy cast, and it's no surprise that this film turned into as big of a hit as it did. It hits all the right notes with its characters, it's just that none of them are fleshed out enough to amount to much more than cameos at the end of the day, with the possible exceptions of McHale & Ribisi.

Normally this is the point in the review where I say that if you're not already a fan of the creator or writer or actor or director involved, that this won't make you a convert, but I think this might be an exception to that rule. I could very easily see someone who's not a fan of McFarlane's tv work being won over by this film. It's hilariously funny and plays well to a variety of audiences. Ultimately however, if you don't like your comedy crass, this film doesn't have a sweet enough core to make up for the crassness, and there were probably one too many gay panic jokes, which are never funny, for my taste.

The third act is ultimately pretty lame and manipulative, but it ends on a high note, and the first two acts are good enough for you to overlook it's inability to stick the landing. I look forward to seeing what McFarlane's future as a filmmaker holds, this is as promising a first comedy feature as we've seen since The 40 Year-Old Virgin, and he has an equally uncanny ability to attract major comedic talent to his projects. So even if you're not a fan, Ted may not make you a true believer, but it will certainly make you laugh, which is more than I can say for virtually every other comedy film that came out this summer.

GO Rating: 3.5/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]