Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Lucky One Leaves Viewers Not So Lucky, Unless Viewers Happen To Be Young Females

In The Lucky One, Zac Efron plays a Marine who decides to
find the woman pictured in a photograph he found in Iraq.
A movie based on a Nicholas Sparks book starring Zac Efron.

That’s all you need to know about The Lucky One. The plot, other cast members, the script, and the director are all superfluous. The Sparks factor promises a weepy melodrama with moody photography of a picturesque southern locale, a saccharine score, cheesy dialogue, and some sensual kissing under falling water (usually rain, but here a shower head). 

Meanwhile, the casting of Efron ensures females will show up to this thing, because if there’s one constant in these Sparks adaptations, it’s that the ones that skew younger are more profitable, especially if there’s a rising heart throb at the center of the action.*
* First weekend box office results strengthen this dictum. The movie opened to $22.5 million last weekend, making it the second-best start for a Sparks movie. Oh, and the audience was 76 percent female.
Having said all of that, it’s my goal to write reviews of everything I see from now on, and so I’m going to assess The Lucky One even if it is pointless to do so.

Efron (I’m not even bothering with character names here) stars as a Marine who finds a picture of a woman (Taylor Schilling) that becomes his good luck charm. Right out of the gate, the picture saves his life (immediately after he walks over to pick it up, the spot where he was standing gets bombed), and we’re told it continues to do so throughout the remainder of his third and final tour.

Upon returning to America, Efron briefly stays in Colorado with his sister’s family but has trouble fitting in due to post-traumatic stress (which never really rears its head again). He does stay long enough to pick up his well-trained dog and to inexplicably discover the picture was taken in North Carolina simply by Googling pictures of lighthouses (there’s a lighthouse in the picture, you see).

Deciding he needs to express his thanks to his mystery woman, Efron and his dog walk to North Carolina. From Colorado. Yes, you read that right. He walks 1,500 miles, because, as we’re told later, he likes to walk. The implication: this is one deep and reflective Marine.

When he finally tracks Schilling down, Efron doesn’t tell her why he’s there, because it’s just too hard. Plus, she already thinks he’s there simply to apply for a job at the kennel she runs, so why not just apply and see what comes of it, you know?
Efron Googles lighthouses.

Schilling proves wary of Efron at first. He’s a marine, and she has weird feelings about soldiers because her brother died in combat. But eventually, he wins her over, because he’s just so good with her son, not to mention the fact that he looks like Efron and her sassy grandma (Blythe Danner) thinks he’s a nice young man. Eventually, Efron wears Schilling down, and they get to kissing underneath that shower head I mentioned before, which, to be clear, is in a barn where they ultimately have PG-13 barn sex.

But there’s also a jealous ex-husband (Jay R. Ferguson) who happens to be a cop and the mayor’s son, which means he can really raise some shit if he wants to. And of course, there’s the secret Efron has hanging over his head, which is sort of reminiscent of the secret Ben Affleck had hanging over his head in Bounce. Except in that movie the stakes were actually high, because Affleck was sort of to blame for the death of Gwyneth Paltrow’s husband, as opposed to just being a guy who found a picture that a girl’s brother dropped before dying.**
** I’m not sure if the movie intends to suggest if he hadn’t dropped the picture, the brother might not have died. But Schilling does tell Efron it was meant to be her bro’s good luck charm not his, and so there is that sense, which I found amusing, particularly because it implies she believes a picture of her truly does ward off death.

I know that’s a long synopsis for such a mediocre movie, but I wanted to convey how generic and stupid the whole thing is. Having gotten that out of the way, I should say that the film (outside of the crazy ex-husband stuff, most of which I’ve left unexplained because those developments add a level of WTF enjoyment to the film) is pleasant enough, because Efron*** and Schilling have a nice tender chemistry that the film thankfully takes time to let breathe and develop.
*** Efron gets a lot of shit, but I’ve found him to be an amiable presence in Hairspray and 17 Again, and here he does a nice job of downplaying his characteristic enthusiasm to solid effect. I doubt he will rise from his Teen Beat beginnings to become the next Depp or DiCaprio, but he’s not a bad actor, and I am liking his choices of late. Sparks movies have proven successful stepping stones for Ryan Gosling and Channing Tatum (two actors who have a ton of heat right now), and he has a lead role in Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy, which looks promising.
However, the whole thing is mired by the same smaltz that always plagues these Sparks movies. Crackling chemistry and a poignant old people ending elevated The Notebook a bit, but all of the Sparks film adaptations have a factory-produced feeling to them. And the crazy thing is, that’s not even a knock on Sparks. It’s simply truth as indicated to me by Sparks himself. Let me explain:

I met Sparks while on a 2008 Habitat for Humanity trip to his hometown of New Bern, North Carolina. A few of us volunteers were brought to speak at The Epiphany School, a very cool and advanced college-preparatory school the Sparks developed and built for the children of New Bern (including his own).

As the Chair of the Board of Trustees, Sparks gave my group a tour of the school, and made it clear his philanthropic efforts were his true passion, while writing was just a job.

Nevertheless, I asked Sparks about his writing process, and what he described basically sounded liked a formulaic plot aggregator. It went something like this (please understand this not actually a quote, but rather the general impression Sparks projected):
"Well, when I write I think of what I wrote last. If I wrote about a 40 year-old guy trying to move on from a failed relationship, I don’t want to do that again, it wouldn’t be fresh. Instead, I focus on a young woman who’s experiencing love for the first time. And so, that’s how I do it. I move the pieces around.”
As someone who takes literature and film pretty seriously, this type of process disheartens me, and makes assessing works like The Lucky Ones difficult. Essentially, The Lucky One is similar to Dear John in that it focuses on a young soldier in love; but wait, here’s the difference – this time war doesn’t separate our hero from his beloved, it brings him to her. And the guy in the middle – he’s not a nice guy, but a bad guy. And the old person eccentric – it’s not an Asperger’s-afflicted dad, it’s a wise-cracking grandma. Just take the general formula and move the pieces around.
It's almost "Gumpian" how much this guy walks.

Anyway, the truth is that plenty of people like their entertainment as formulaic as possible. It’s why TV shows like the Hawaii Five-O remake and Mike and Molly succeed, while those like The Wire and Community struggle to find an audience. Sparks is selling comfort food, and truth be told, I don’t begrudge him his success. He’s found a formula that works, and it makes him a lot of money that allows him to do the types of things he’s passionate about. That’s a pretty cool story about a pretty awesome guy.

None of that makes me like his stories any more – if anything it probably makes me more critical of them. But in the end, The Lucky One delivers the same relative quality of most of Sparks’ better adaptations (a step below The Notebook, but right on par with the likes of Dear John and Message in a Bottle). That means it is sure to make his core demographic very happy, and it’s hard to deny there’s something of value in that.

Friday, April 20, 2012

American Reunion Serves A Welcome Helping of Nostalgia

Almost every character of note from the first movie
makes a return appearance in American Reunion.
While watching American Reunion, I was reminded of Rocky Balboa, the sixth and (fingers crossed) final entry in Sylvester Stallone’s successful boxing franchise.

Like that film, American Reunion overcomes passages of clunky mediocrity and the pointlessness of its existence by offering up loving nostalgia and a well-meaning examination of the passage of time. Prior experience with each series is not necessarily required for these films, but one expects that both play better with goodwill in tow.
It’s worth noting that I bring that goodwill to the table for this review. I was only 13 when American Pie came out, far younger than the core group attempting to lose their virginities in the film, and yet, the whole thing played like gangbusters when I saw it in theaters. That was back in a time when theaters were getting stricter about R-rated movies, but my cousins and I still got in unsupervised on the strength of a waiver form from my aunt.  Glad we did – it was probably one of the best times I’ve ever had in a theater.

Rose-colored glasses aside, I actually do objectively hold the first Pie in pretty high regard. It’s easy to pooh-pooh the film now (especially in light of its two inferior sequels and four generic direct to DVD spinoffs), but it is actually pretty damn perfect for what it is. Unlike many of the R-rated teen comedies that followed in the wake of its success, American Pie was not just good for laughs – it also brought it on the story end, offering a pretty poignant take on the high school experience (albeit through the guise of low-brow humor). And while most members in the cast have not blown up in the way that many in Hollywood hoped/predicted in 1999, they were all perfectly cast in their various roles.
The sequels had nothing to say, and the stories were flat at best. They were basically concerned with being funny, and so beefing up the role of Stifler and diminishing or phasing out the more earnest/vanilla characters helped make them passable entries.

A teen in the film derisively refers to Jim as Adam
Sandler, which made me laugh.
I expected the same thing from this movie. However, I was surprised to discover a little bit of thematic heft lining the peripheries of the various plot lines. As Steve said in his review, the film’s creators do a nice job instilling a reunion vibe into the proceedings. This results in almost every character from the first film making an appearance (even minor ones like Nadia, the Shermanator and the MILF guys), as well as plethora of callbacks to previous jokes – so many, in fact, that whole thing begins to feel like a band camp story (remember… that one time… in the first movie). It also results in an examination of where people tend to find themselves at 13-year reunions (We’re told it’s 13, not 10, because the east Great Falls High couldn’t get it’s act together for three years).
In all, each main male character gets some semblance of a story (as has always been the case in this franchise, women get the short shrift). That includes the four original virgins (Jason Biggs’ Jim, Chris Klein’s Oz, Thomas Ian Nicholas’ Kevin and Eddie Kaye Thomas’ Finch), as well as the series’ two breakout characters – Stifler (Seann William Scott) and Jim’s Dad (Eugene Levy).

Each story is generic and telegraphed, but, in general, that works out okay. Yes, Jim’s dad gets a lame outfit changing montage, but Levy hits some nice emotional beats concerning the death of his wife and pairing him with Stifler’s mom (Jennifer Coolidge) is just a good use of comic resources. Meanwhile, the Finch and Stifler stuff is perfectly calibrated. Given how diametrically opposed these characters have been throughout the series, it was a nice touch to have their conflicts mirror one another – Stifler worries his friends have passed him by, while Finch is ashamed he’s only just kept up. And although it’s shoehorned in, it was an inspired idea to have Stifler bed Finch’s mom (Rebecca De Mornay).

The other three threads find Oz, Jim and Kevin trying to navigate romantic relationships. Now a famous sportscaster who has also featured on a Dancing with the Stars-type show, Oz has a wild model girlfriend (Katrina Bowden) but still pines for Heather (Mena Suvari). Jim and Kevin are both facing marital difficulties – Jim and the formerly voracious Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) haven’t been connecting in the bedroom since the birth of their son, while Kevin is somewhat henpecked by his wife. Other women complicate these issues, as Jim contends with Kara (Ali Cobrin), an 18-year-old he used to baby-sit that wants him to be her first, and Kevin reconnects with Vicky (Tara Reid).

Pairing Stifler's mom and Jim's dad marks one of the
film's better ideas.

None of these plotlines go much beyond the surface. Of course the current mates of Oz and Heather have to be total d-bags – it would all be too complicated otherwise. And, it’s no spoiler to say Jim and Kevin remain faithful to their wives and that their stories are either wrapped up easily (the solution to Jim and Michelle’s issue is… wait for it… to make time for each other) or altogether swept under the rug (guess those henpecked hints were just easy jokes not setup for anything). I’m not advocating that infidelity would’ve made these stories better, but there was an opportunity to do something interesting here by showing struggles of some kind, but the filmmakers don’t bite.

That being said, this is an American Pie movie, not some indie drama. Although the first was somewhat cutting edge upon release, the series is actually rather subdued and conservative for its genre. There's a formula to this series – opening Jim humiliation scene, mid-movie Jim humiliation scene, mid-movie nudity scene featuring hot chick(s), syrupy ending where the guys make each other feel better and then go party – and this movie doesn't attempt a shake up. And that's actually OK. The bottom line is that the movie offers a relatively consistent amount of jokes (although I do wish all comedy involving Oz had been cut – brutal stuff), and, despite the generic nature of it all, the drama has a certain effectiveness.
These guys seemed believable as friends 13 years ago, and with real-life history shading the onscreen camaraderie, they’ve somehow managed to improve on that aspect at least. Combined with the laughs, that’s enough to make this a worthwhile farewell to the East Great Falls High Class of ’99.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Final Piece of Pie...Reminiscent of the Good Old Days

American Reunion isn't a perfect movie, although I doubt anybody is expecting it to be. However, while I was watching it, I couldn't help but think that the writers and others behind the movie's creation do two things extremely well: they stay relatively loyal to what a viewer of the original American Pie movies would come to expect from a sequel and treat the movie like a (somewhat) legitimate reunion.

For all intents and purposes, this movie is a giant wink-and-you're-welcome to the first two films. In fact, in some ways, it skips right over some of the character developments featured in the third movie, American Wedding (which lacked about a third of the original cast), so that we can get back to the characters we originally cared about (if that's what you can call it). But I'll discuss the American Wedding dynamic in a little bit.

Basically, when it came down to it, I cared (still, if that's what you can call it). Honestly, I got into it and appreciated it for what it was. It was pretty interesting to see what was going to happen and how everybody was going to interact with each other. In other words, while I was watching, I completely bought into the whole reunion thing. How could you not? They, at one time or another, brought back just about every character of any relevance from the first two movies, with the notable exception of Jim's mom, who is now deceased in the American Pie world and wasn't necessarily a character whose happenings you followed anyway. And with that, you can basically say that every relevant character we followed throughout the first two movies was back.

After watching the movie, I kind of mentally divided it into two parts: everything involving the reunion and everything else. Basically, I liked the reunion stuff, and the non-reunion stuff was just meh.

For the reunion part, we get to see Jim, Kevin, Oz and Finch together for the first time in about a decade (probably slightly after whenever American Pie 2 happened in the timeline). And before they join up at a bar a few days before the actual reunion, we get to see what all of their lives (with the exception of Finch) are like now.

Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) are stuck in sexual inactivity, due partially to the amount of time they devote to their 2-year-old son. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is a work-at-home architect and husband to his breadwinner wife. Oz (Chris Klein), whom we haven't seen since the original sequel, is a host on an ESPN knockoff station and dating a beautiful (read: shallow) supermodel (Katrina Bowden). When we first see Finch, he races in on a motorcycle, spinning stories to his friends of world travel. The common theme among them is the facade they each try to construct that they are exactly where they want to be in their lives.

At this point, we are reintroduced to the friendship we knew from the beginning of the first movie, the group of friends who made a pact to get laid before graduation. Serving as a parallel to the first two movies, it only makes sense that this parade is intruded upon by none other than their douchebag-cum-friend Stifler (Seann William Scott), whom they mention wanting to avoid when they meet up at the bar. Similar to the other four, Stifler's life isn't everything he wants it to be. Despite an introductory scene of him traipsing through an office like he owns the place, we learn that Stifler is merely a temp at an investment firm. When he eventually shows up - depressed - at the same bar as the other four, he is initially pissed but then settles in to his Stifler-ness and begins seeking ways to integrate himself into their weekend activities.

From here, each of the characters we follow run into their own conflicts.

The most realistic of these conflicts, to me at least, is Kevin's. In a way, Kevin is the character throughout the series whose situation has always seemed the most grounded in reality. In the first two movies, he wants to have sex with his girlfriend, Vicky (Tara Reid); after they break up, they spend the sequel working through awkward sexual tension after not seeing each other for a year. In this movie, Kevin and Vicky see each other for the first time in a decade and feelings come rushing (ehhh....trickling) back. After a brief awkward situation - Kevin wakes up naked next to Vicky after a night of drinking, finding out later it had downpoured and she just took care of him - they agree it was nice seeing each other again, he goes back to his wife and she goes back to her life in New York. As I said, I feel like, with the exception of the waking up naked thing, Kevin's storylines always end up being the most realistic. However, that could also be because his storylines have always been the most devoid of humor (not necessarily a bad thing). As a result, these two characters get the least (and least interesting) screen time.

Oz runs into former girlfriend, Heather (Mena Suvari). Basically, he shows up with his hot (read: shallow) model girlfriend, and she shows up with her hot (read: shallow) boyfriend (played by that Better Off Ted guy). Since, as fellow blog writer Frank puts it, Oz was in many ways the traditional romantic hero of the first movie because he ultimately won the girl, we want to see these two characters together again. And this movie serves that up...like pie...like a big slice of telegraphed pie. Of course, it's kind of OK because, in essence, that is what the viewer wants. Where this movie steers in the wrong direction (a point I know Frank agrees with) is trying to make him one of the "funny" characters. None of that really happens in real time, of course; instead, we see it with him acting weird on his TV show or overdoing it on a DVD of the Dancing with the Stars knockoff he was on. However, we, as viewers know that Oz has come a long way from the "Suck me, beautiful" guy he tried to be at the beginning of the first movie, and trying too hard to make him funny makes the situation seem a bit disingenuous.

Finch has always been a character of more subtle, yet existent, screen humor. He's not as in-your-face as Stifler and not constantly put in awkward hijinx like Jim, but he's always been more interesting than Oz and Kevin, at least as character traits go. However, the character always kind of ends up as a joke, eventually having adult relations with Stifler's mom at the end of each film. I liked that this movie seemed to humanize him a bit and give the character just enough time for his situation to seem partially realistic. This movie wisely drops the Stifler's mom punchline and lets him start a real relationship with Selena, a formerly unattractive friend of Michelle's from band with whom they went to school; of course, we never saw her in previous films, but she was apparently in that world the whole time (like Scott Bakula in the third Major League movie). Eventually, Finch admits to his friends that he hasn't been a world traveler and eclectic idol, but merely a store assistant manager who has been overlooked for a promotion. Of course, this is an American Pie movie, so the characters don't communicate the easy way. He only spills the beans once he is arrested for stealing his boss' motorcycle (the realism fades a little, though, when there's no evidence of him being fired for doing that). To me, Finch has always reminded me of the Paul Reiser in Diner - obviously one of the guys but doesn't really get his own story or discernible character traits - but the movie did a better job this time around of normalizing him, for better or worse.

Jim, for all intents and purposes, is the main character of the American Pie movies. But he hasn't always been the emotional character he becomes by the end of the second movie. When the series begins, Jim is an awkward guy so overwhelmed by a bad case of naivety that he copulates with a pie, accidentally broadcasts himself double-pre-ejaculating in front of the hot exchange student and gets used for sex by a band geek. Eventually, he develops feelings for that band geek and vice versa, they get married and have a kid. Now Jim, as well as Michelle (who went from side character to one of the leads), is a character in whom we are emotionally invested. Therefore, we now just want to see the terrible situations in which he is placed blow away. As with most of the storylines, the couple's wilting sex life is a situation that could easily be alleviated with some good old-fashioned communication. But that doesn't happen because this is an American Pie movie. So we need to get through some hijinx before everything turns out OK.

Now as realistic as it is for their marriage to have their speed bumps, the hijinx filler ends up being a little formulaic and by-the-numbers for my liking. As any viewer of this franchise knows, each movie has at least one scene of nudity and one scene of anxiety-filled chaos. We get this via another thrown-in character, Kara, the girl next door whom Jim used to babysit. Basically, she gets drunk at a beach party Jim accidently shows up at and tries to take advantage of him on the ride home. She eventually passes out, and Jim recruits Finch, Oz and Stifler (they really hate giving Kevin screen time in this movie) to help him get the now topless Kara back inside her house. There are parts that are funny (Stifler's snarky asides) and those that aren't (Kara's mom dancing on Oz), but now you just feel bad for Jim. This isn't the naive kid who stuck his penis in a pie. This is a fairly mature husband and father who is trying to work on his marriage and, instead, gets thrust into a terrible situation. Everything obviously ends up OK but it kind of ruined my reunion buzz for a little bit.

And then we have Stifler, a character that I would argue has grown leaps and bounds less because of his character and more because the actor playing him can deliver comedic lines like nobody's business. Back in the first movie, he was a side character a la Fonzie in the first Happy Days season; by the third movie, he became one of the main characters.

And this is where I'm torn. In the third movie, the character has an emotional arc. He becomes a (slightly) better guy, wins over Michelle's sister and is in the wedding (just take a look at the
movie poster). Now, the guys seem to want to avoid him, which I found a little weird at first. Of course, the points have been made to me that a) the Stifler character seems to be stuck in a constant state of immaturity that keeps him from moving ahead as a person/employee/character, b) the four friends probably rarely get the opportunity to just hang out with a group and don't want him to drive the experience to the extreme and c) it sets all of them up for the end when they realize they like and even need him in a way ("You're our dick.").

One way or another, though, Seann William Scott knows how to chew scenery and chew it well, but in a way that is enjoyable and appropriate for the movie. And, if nothing else, the Stifler character inherently brings with him the proclivity for unecessary (read: necessary) high-stakes situations, such as destroying the speedboats of Kara's boyfriend and his friends (and pooping in their beer cooler) simply because "They splashed us!" With the other characters seemingly more mature, it's good to have Stifler to balance it out.

I've already spent a great deal of type (probably too much for an American Pie movie), so I'll just zip through the other characters. It was kind of cool seeing the Sherminator, Nadia and the MILF guys (half of whom is John Cho, who undoubtedly is friends with the directors, who also made the Harold and Kumar movies) again. But I really respected that they only brought in Natasha Lyonne's character, Jessica, at the reunion. Although she was always around, she really only ever served as a tool to push along the stories of Finch or Kevin and only ever seemed to be close with Vicky, who has been in New York for a decade. There would have been no reason to have her traipsing around, especially since the movie didn't really follow any of the female characters (you can only make a thin argument that we follow Michelle).

We also get a large dose of Jim's dad (Eugene Levy) in this film. Like Seann William Scott, Levy knows how to deliver, whether with a line or with a well-cocked eyebrow. And like Stifler, Jim's dad has now become a character we follow. Sad about the loss of his wife, Jim's dad just wants to spend some quality time with his son. Now throughout the series, a common trope involves Jim's dad giving Jim advice for an awkward situation in as awkward a manner as possible. In this movie, we get one of those, as well as an opportunity for Jim to give him advice. After that, we get treated to one of the more inspired pairings of this series: Jim's dad and Stifler's mom. It's kind of a throwaway gag, but it's pretty funny and always cool to see people act together whom you assume are already friends (through Christopher Guest movies).

One thing I kind of dug about this movie is that it kind of makes you forget there were so many straight-to-video sequels for this franchise. Of course to discuss this movie in terms of comparisons, it is best to first strike the straight-to-videos from your mental filmography. Then you have to dance slightly around the continuity of American Wedding. It is relevant in the timeline because, obviously, Jim and Michelle get married. But other things about AW are glossed over or ignored in this movie, such as the change in the perception of Stifler I mentioned earlier, the fact that Oz wasn't in it (that's more of a casting thing, really) and Michelle's sister. But in glossing/ignoring, the writers, directors and actors are committing to the reunion atmosphere, which I appreciate.

Some quick gripes:
  • This happens with a lot of movies and TV shows because it helps extend conflict needed to make stories seem interesting. But most of the story arcs could have been easily solved with conversation: if Kevin talks to Vicky when he first wakes up next to her, if Finch just trusts his friends, if Jim talks to his dad about his marital problems, if Jim just says to Michelle and Selena "I don't have any pants on" when he wakes up half-naked on the kitchen floor and they walk in (but then there wouldn't have been any screen time for co-star Jason Biggs' Penis). So on and so forth.
  • This is only a half-gripe because it didn't bother me too much, but just about everything in this film is telegraphed. We know that Jim isn't going to cheat on Michelle with Kara. We know that Stifler is going to somehow get revenge on Finch (he has sex with his mom). We know Oz and Heather are going to get back together and that Kevin and Vicky won't. We know that Stifler is going to take Heather's boyfriend out to live up to his "our dick" status. But who cares? We're only watching this movie because we care at this point. We want to see what we feel is best for these characters. And, for the most part, all of the characters are at peace by the end.
Finally, there were a few extra parts in the movie that I either appreciated or that made me laugh (some were meant to be humorous; some were just things I noticed):
  • I liked that the basic thread that kept all of their stories relevant was that none of them were exactly where they wanted to be in life, a feeling reunions can bring out in people (or at least that's what TV and movies tell me, as I have yet to go to any myself).
  • When a movie juggles so many characters like American Reunion does, there are going to be crutches. One of the funniest ones to me is that Vicky has been in New York for 10 years. It's pretty funny that we don't know anything else about what she is doing, like her job or whether she is in a relationship. Instead, by saying she's in New York, we just assume she has a fulfilled, successful life.
  • The only guy who wasn't in the American Wedding movie was Oz (here's a pretty cool interview with Chris Klein about that, by the way). And they try to slide past that fact with a quick line from him saying, "I missed your wedding, but I'd never miss this." It's a tacky, thrown-in line that didn't bother me at first. Then I looked at it again and it made me laugh at the fact that it looks like Oz cares less about his friend's wedding and more about his 13-year reunion.
  • And, oh yeah, it's their 13-year reunion.
In all, though, I liked it. I mean, if you spend 3,000 words writing about something, you have to like it, right?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Video Review: Horrible Bosses, 30 Minutes or Less & Paul

In general, it’s my hope to write a full-on review of each movie I see, but I know that’s going to be impossible – not only is it far too time consuming, but some movies just won’t warrant that kind of analysis. Recently, I’ve seen three comedies – Horrible Bosses, 30 Seconds or Less and Paul  – that I have the same general opinion on so I thought one piece would work just fine.

All three come from filmmakers who have created some of my favorite movies of the past few years, and so I had pretty high expectations going into each one. Sadly, none reached the heights I had hoped for.

Horrible Bosses delivers enough laughs to overcome a soft ending.
Horrible Bosses fares best. The script, which features three friends (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day) who attempt to off their bosses (Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, and Jennifer Aniston), was mentioned on the Black List a few years back, and that’s really no surprise. Although it’s predictable and doesn’t go much beyond basic caricatures, it does offer up entertaining situations and slew of roles that were always destined to attract some big names looking to cut loose. While I wish the film had really embraced the dark concept instead of going soft at that end, the movie works well enough to slide on that account.

Everyone in the cast nails the tone, but it’s Day (the least well known member) who steals the show. The manic personality he has spent years developing on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia transfers wonderfully to the big screen, and he dials it back enough to make the character realistic without losing anything on the comedy end.

As important as acting can be, the pacing on something like this is everything, and director Seth Gordon does a fine job in that regard. Gordon made one of my favorite films of the past several years – the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and rent it) – so it’s nice to see him back on good footing after the dreadful Four Christmases.

30 Minutes or Less has all the ingredients to deliver
something awesome. It doesn't.
 Based on another Black List script, 30 Minutes or Less should’ve been right up my alley. It’s from the director/star duo of Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer and Jesse Eisenberg), and features an awesome supporting cast of funny people, including Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, and Nick Swarsdon.

The story is intriguing too* – in order to get the money to pay a hitman to off his rich dad, Dwayne (McBride) and his buddy Travis (Swarsdon) strap a bomb to the chest of slacker pizza delivery guy Nick (Eisenberg) and make him rob a bank. For help, Nick calls upon best friend Chet (Ansari) with whom Nick’s currently feuding due to having slept with his twin sister (Dilshad Vadsaria).
*The movie is actually inspired by a pretty bleak real-life robbery. If you have time, I fully recommend the story Wired posted on the whole incident a few years back. It's sad, fascinating, and could've made a great Coen Brothers film.
While there are some nice moments (McBride and Swarsdon do nice work, there's a cute nod to Eisenberg's role in the Social Network, and the bank robbery features a hilarious bit concerning a dye pack), the film never really settles in. There’s a sense that we are supposed to care for these characters, but the script doesn’t earn it, and the movie is not helped by the stilted energy between Eisenberg and Ansari. Their friendship should be the heart of the movie, but it just doesn’t play.

When compared to something like Pineapple Express, a zany, action-oriented buddy comedy that actually nails its landing, the flaws of 30 Minutes or Less become even more evident. That film had two leads with wonderful chemistry and escalated the weirdness to some ridiculous (and wonderful) levels. This one just sort of sits there, and, in the end, feels like the rough draft of a far better (and funnier) film.

This screenshot from Paul concerns an anal probe joke.
Unlike, Horrible Bosses and 30 Minutes or Less, Paul actually achieves a some level of emotion. Most of that is due to the well-established chemistry of long-time collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), who co-wrote and star as two British comic geeks who travel to the States to attend Comic Con only to come across an alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) on the run from government agents (led by Bateman). Along with a religious nut (Kristen Wiig), the duo attempts to help Paul rendezvous with his fellow aliens and make his getaway.

Paul is a nice enough diversion, but it’s mostly a generic, family-friendly, sci-fi lark that has been dirtied up by some lewd language. I liked the idea that Paul has been the driving force behind how pop culture views aliens, and there is a low-key charm to the proceedings, but the film isn’t really that funny. That normally wouldn’t be a big problem for me – director Greg Mottola’s Adventureland wasn’t that funny either, and it’s still a personal favorite of mine. But unlike that film, and Mottola’s Superbad for that matter, the characters are pretty one-note and uncomplicated, and so funny becomes more of a necessity. Making matters worse, the bond between Paul and his human friends (the crux of the story), isn’t believably developed, and that really handicaps a movie like this.

Overall, I’d give all three films passing grades, with diminishing returns going from to Horrible Bosses to Paul to 30 Seconds or Less. Horrible Bosses should have some solid replay value on cable down the line, but it’s hard to believe I’d stop channel surfing for a second viewing of either of the other two.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Casa de Mi Padre Proves To Be Will Ferrell's Most Absurd Vehicle Yet

It’s been nearly a month since I saw Casa de Mi Padre, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. More on that in a bit, but first I want to offer a preamble.

Will Ferrell, like many comedians, runs hot and cold with audiences. Like Jack Black, Vince Vaughn, Adam Sandler, and so many others, he achieved a high level of stardom by riding a particular shtick. In my estimation, problems usually arise for these comedians due to the same reasons:

  • Audiences begin growing tired of the shtick, complaining, “(insert name here) always plays the same role, and it’s getting old.”
  • Attempts to broaden range with more interesting projects fail – the performer is not accepted in a change-of-pace role, the film does poorly, the film alienates the core audience, or a combination of all three.
  • This often results in the comedian limping back to their comedy safe haven, reputation diminished. They become complacent, their edge gets neutered, and they begin making lazy comedies even their staunchest defenders revile.
This scenario is a little generalized, but it’s a pretty succinct explanation for why the reputations of film comedians often go south, especially with more discerning audiences. For some of these guys, I think it’s a pretty fair assessment – for instance, Adam Sandler has sort of gone off the deep end with his latest output and is the text book case of this problem. I don’t know his thought process and don’t mean to be presumptuous, but it seems like he’s gotten to the point of “who gives a shit?” and is now content just to have a good time making mediocre movies with his buddies. As a fan of his talent, I don’t like it, but it’s hard to blame him if this is the case. After all, who wouldn’t take multiple millions to goof off with their pals?

This brings me back to Ferrell. He’s another comedian who doesn’t seem to give a shit, but with him, it’s a “don’t give a shit” I can get behind. Although some have grown sick of him, Ferrell has lost none of his edge. If anything, the guy has gotten bolder as his career has progressed. In his films, plot is often secondary, if not tertiary; instead the focus is on comedy and an unwavering commitment to absurdism.

This commitment to the absurd has never been more evident than with Casa de Mi Padre, a bizarre and loving recreation of Grindhouse Mexican imports. The film, which costars famed Spanish collaborators and pals Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna (a nice touch), is almost entirely in Spanish. It focuses on Armando Alvarez, an upright Mexican who has worked on his fathers ranch his entire life. When his brother Raul (Luna), the prodigal son despite his involvement in drug running, returns to the ranch with a new fiancee named Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez), a feud breaks out wth a drug lord known as Onza (Bernal). Meanwhile, Alvarez deals with a dark past, pressure from the authorities (allowing for some deadpan work from Nick Offerman), and his growing feelings for Sonia.

As in most Ferrell films, the plot is silly, clichéd and beside the point. But, unlike many of his entries, jokes are infrequent, almost by design. The comedy largely comes from the film’s commitment to playing with the Grindhouse experience – the melodrama is totally ham-fisted and exposition loaded, and yet infused with self aware sincerity (if that’s possible); the desert locale features cheap props and a fearsome white cat that is merely a puppet; the scenery whizzing by in driving sequences is clearly on a rear screen projector; there are skips at the end of scenes that hint at a bad film splicing and in one scene that cuts in close to a character’s sunglasses, you can see film crew members in the reflection; a climatic action scene is not shown, and in it’s place we get an explanation from a camera operator in the form of a letter; and crowd scenes are filled in with mannequins (which also feature as body doubles in a sex scene). At the outset, we are even told the film was filmed in Mexico Scope and the copyright is 1970.

Throughout the film, I found myself appreciating the approach, but rarely laughing. I decided that maybe I wasn’t the right audience for this – that it would play better with people who were fans of the old imports it evokes. The audience around me seemede even less amused – a decent amount actually walked out after 15-20 minutes. The consensus currently on Rottentomatoes seems a fair opinion of the film, so I thought I’d share it here: “Thinly written and not as funny as it needs to be, Casa de mi Padre would have worked better as a fake trailer or short film; stretched to feature length, it wears out its welcome far too quickly.”

Yet, in the weeks since, I find myself appreciating the memory of the film more and more. When I describe it to people, I find myself laughing aloud. A lot.

And damn it all, if this isn’t the way the Ferrell movie experience usually seems to go. Generally, comedies play well on first viewing in a big theater, but as time goes on, they grow stale. Most of Ferrell’s films are the exact opposite. Many people I know didn’t enjoy Anchorman, Talladega Nights, or Step Brothers, the first time they saw them, but on repeated viewings they have grown to forgive the obvious plot mechanics and love the weirdness. I enjoyed them all the first go around, but love them even more now.

I’m not sure Casa de Mi Padre will follow a similar path with the general populous. I think there are many people who would never like this film, no matter how many times they saw it. In addition to the subtitle hurdle, it’s just too weird, too particular in its orientation to gain widespread adoration. For that reason, I don’t foresee it reaching the same pedestal of an Anchorman or a Step Brothers, and yet, I still respect it, and even more, I respect Ferrell for making it. He had to know the audience for this was small and that there could be some fallout for putting it other there, but ultimately he decided he didn’t give a shit.

I think that’s pretty cool.

A note on the film’s theatrical release: I love that Lionsgate and Ferrell had the balls to release this in theaters, but I think it was probably the wrong move. A theatrical release brings certain expectations, and I think it stacked the deck against the movie. I still expect it will become a cult favorite at some point, but I think that type of love would’ve been expedited if they had released the film online through Funny Or Die as a four-part web series (following the approach of a Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog). In that way, the film would’ve come across as a hip experiment without alienating Ferrell’s more mainstream fans or exposing him to the scrutiny of a theatrical flop.