Friday, January 30, 2015

It May Not Live Up to the Hype, But "The Interview" is Still Hilarious

The chemistry of James Franco and Seth Rogen carries The Interview.
With all the buildup from the Guardians of Peace brouhaha, The Interview was never going to live up to the hype. Even though it has some worthwhile points to make about the descent of journalism, it's mostly just a juvenile, bro-comedy -- the type of movie that shouldn't have to carry a torch for free speech.

Still, there's no denying The Interview is an enjoyable film. It's not quite as good as what Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg gave us with This is The End and Pineapple Express, but it's in the ballpark. It definitely has the same anarchic sense of humor, and, like those films, it goes over-the-top in some gut-busting ways.

Generally speaking, I'd say the film is decent enough during its first 20 minutes, gets really hilarious for about an hour, and then ends with a so-so action-infused blowout that's made significantly funnier by the fact that it plays out exactly as idiot talk show host Dave Skylark (James Franco) dreamed it would when he and his producer (Rogen) were first approached by a CIA operative (Lizzy Caplan) to assassinate Kim Jong-un (Randall Park).

There is a lot to enjoy here, as the film nicely employs what I guess you'd call smartly juvenile humor. One of the funniest running themes in the movie involves "honeypotting" or "honeydicking," a concept that critiques the methods a monster like Jong-un uses to keep control over his citizens (urban dictionary explains).

Acting wise, Diana Bang steals scenes as North Korea's sexy communication director, while Caplan, despite being the straight woman in some of the funniest scenes, is pretty much wasted. Meanwhile, Park (best known for his humorous work on Veep) has an inspired take on Jong-un, playing him as a sheepishly chill dude who just happens to be a megalomaniac with daddy issues. Although this interpretation of the notorious dictator wouldn't be out of place on SNL, Park's Jong-un is a well-calibrated bad guy that's actually better developed than about eight out of ten action movie villains.

But, unsurprisingly, The Interview's success rests on the comedic chemistry between its likable leads. Rogen freaking out is never not funny, and, as with their previous collaborations, the writer-director generously gifts Franco all the funniest lines. Franco is a talented performer, but can, at times, come across as stiff or distracted (which is unsurprising given all the balls he has up in the air at any one time). However, when he's working with Rogen, the actor taps into a surreal, overly-committed wave length that's just a blast to behold.

While I'd say The Interview definitely wasn't worth all the fuss, it provides a decent amount of fun, while still working in a nice under-riding theme that, oddly enough, seems even more compellingly relevant given the unscrupulous way the media handled the reporting of the Sony hack. It's weird, silly and fun with a little something to say too -- sounds pretty good to me. B

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Reitman Delivers a Misfire With "Men, Women & Children"

Roy from The Office shows up for this one scene. Don't even think
he speaks. Very weird.
After the increasing success of his first three films (Thank You For Smoking, Juno and Up in the Air), Jason Reitman has gotten himself on to a bit of a cold streak. Young Adult scored with critics but bombed with audiences and Oscar voters, and then Labor Day mustered little support of any kind. The writer-director has tumbled even further from grace with Men, Women & Children, the biggest critical and commercial flop of his career.

The film, which employs an interconnected ensemble in an attempt to explore the alienating forces of technology, found its way onto its share of 2014 worst of lists, but it's not that bad. There are some good characters here, and the film circles a topic worthy of continued exploration, even in the wake of Spike Jonze's brilliant Her. However, the film's positives are outweighed by an overbearing, self-important approach that really has very little to add to the conversation of how technology is changing modern life.

The film focuses on five family units in a small Texas community. Here's the rundown:
  1. Chris (Travis Tope), a football player who has become so desensitized by internet porn that he can't get excited for real sex (this concept was handled with much more nuance and humor in Don Jon) and his unsatisfied parents (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt doing the best they can) who seek extramarital affairs via the internet.
  2. Cheerleader Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), an aspiring starlet who posts inappropriate photos to a web site with the help of her misguided mom Joan (Judy Greer) in the hopes of jump starting an acting career. 
  3. Tim (Ansel Elgort), a football star who quits the team after his mom abandons him and his father Kent (Dean Norris, so damn good) for life with a new man across the country. Tim spends most of his time playing an online role playing game and openly discusses the insignificance of life in the context of our massive universe. 
  4. Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), an emo sort whose overprotective mother Patricia (Jennifer Garner) obsessively monitors her every move via regular social media reviews, GPS tracking and a whole slew of other intrusions. 
  5. Allison (Elena Kampouris), a cheerleader with an eating disorder who hooks up with the callous jock who teased her before she lost weight. 
Clearly, there's a lot going on, and that's before we talk about the story overlaps -- Tim and Brandy, Chris and Hannah, and Kent and Patricia are all paired off romantically. The only odd fit is Allison's story, which is bluntly drawn and entirely unconnected to the rest of the narrative. There's very little technological hook to this one (beyond a chat room of other users giving tips on how to avoid eating food), and it plays like a tacked on thread considering she's the only kid who doesn't have a prominently featured parent (J.K. Simmons is wasted as her father).

Overall, the film suffers as a message movie (all the technology connections are pretty much just window dressing) and works best as a community melodrama, but even then, it's extremely flawed (it's like a vastly less successful Little Children or The Ice Storm).

The problem is that the bulk of these characters are basically just representing different ideas, so they end up with almost no dimension. The exceptions to that rule are Tim, Brandy, Kent and Joan. There's a good movie here about a father and a son dealing with abandonment with the help of two romantic interests dealing with their own shit, but it's muted by all the other fluff filling up the bulk of the run time.

When Elgort, Dever, Greer, and Norris are onscreen, especially in combination, the film really shines. Otherwise, Men, Women & Children offers a bunch of junk-time for unengaged audience members to scroll through their phones. C

Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" Improves Upon Very Good Predecessor

Caesar brandishes a gun in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
I posted a tentative list of my top 10 films of 2014 on New Year’s Eve knowing that as I continued to see more and more 2014 releases, it would drastically change.

We’re barely two weeks into 2015, and the list is already out of date, and it's not because I saw one of the many acclaimed films (Selma, Foxcatcher, Nightcrawler, Birdman, Boyhood, and The Imitation Game to name a few). Instead, the change comes courtesy of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a film I was highly anticipating but did not realize would be nearly this damn good.

Dawn deepens and expands upon the highly enjoyable and affecting Rise of the Planet of the Apes, taking the narrative further down the bleak path that’s all but necessary if these prequels are seriously meant to align with the iconic Charlton Heston film.

The film picks up roughly a decade after the first film, with most of humanity having been killed off by the simian flu (all the major ape characters from the previous film return, while all the major human characters are long dead). The surviving humans are seemingly immune to the virus, and have etched out an existence in a rundown San Francisco under the leadership of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcom (Jason Clarke). In dire need of a power, these survivors aim to restore a nearby dam, but in so doing, they encroach on the developing ape community that Caesar founded in the Muir Woods at the end of the first film. In an effort to avoid war, Malcom and Caesar attempt to forge diplomatic relations, but pressures from untrusting extremists in each group make that very difficult.

That’s all I’ll say for the plot. As was the case with Rise, the humans comprise the weaker part of the story, but the script takes time to give almost every character of consequence, be they ape or human, some level of dimensionality. Like most science fiction, the Planet of the Apes series has always been bluntly allegoric, and that hasn’t changed here. The inevitability of war, the folly of racial hatred, and anti-gun sentiment are just a few of the ideas jostling around in this thing.

Thematics aside, this is one hell of an action film. The pace is pretty relentless, and the special effects and action set pieces are downright dynamite. A sequence in which the apes make an assault on the human fortress is one of the most jawdropping action scenes I've ever seen – even better than the great bridge battle that ended the last film. Not only does it look great, but it’s just so damn innovative in its choreography.

But, on top of all that, this is also a rock solid character piece. Combined with Rise, this is basically a clinic on how to do a prequel origin story. One need only look at how successful Caesar has been fleshed out here to realize just how awful a ball drop those Star Wars prequels were. Prior to this series, Caesar was probably one of the most iconic antagonist in film history – but now, courtesy of Serkis and some great work from the effects team, he’s also one of the most well-developed, empathetic and relatable heroes your likely to come across. And, Star Wars isn’t the only touchstone the film brings to mind – the narrative is extremely Shakespearean, and Julius Caesar is an obvious point of reference in the central relationship between the magnanimous Caesar and the vengeance-seeking Koba (Toby Kebbell).

Frankly, It's a shame this film didn't receive more end-of-year love. I know it’s a science fiction film, but so is Snowpiercer and that’s showing up on all sorts of top 10s. As far as the Oscars go, the film got a well-deserved special effects nomination today, but it would've been deserving in a few more places. I understand it's a reach to assume at this point that Serkis could've cracked the very crowded best actor field, but would this not be the perfect year to give the guy an honorary Oscar? He's given his best ever motion capture performance here, and the technology is being increasingly embraced in the industry, with big name actors like Vin Diesel now embracing the form as a way to move outside the box their actual screen persona puts them in.

 Regardless of the year-in-review recognition it's getting, I’ll bang the drum for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Although there's a great chance Dawn will ultimately fall out of my top ten, it's in there right now. This is a total must-see, and one of the best films of 2014. A-

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Former SNL Players Deliver the Goods in "Skeleton Twins" and "Obvious Child"

Skeleton Twins utilizes the time-honed chemistry of its leads.
From Bill Murray to Will Forte, there’s a long tradition of SNL performers who have made a successful transition to dramatically-tinged films. The other night, I took in two of the latest movies to give former not-ready-for-prime-time players such a spotlight – Skeleton Twins and Obvious Child – and I came away very impressed with the results.

In Skeleton Twins, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader star as Maggie and Milo, two mid-thirties twins who have been estranged for a decade. After Milo botches a suicide attempt, the siblings become reacquainted, with Maggie offering Milo the chance to move from California back to New York where he can stay with her in their hometown while he recovers.

To most onlookers, Milo would be the clear black sheep of the family. He’s a suicidal, failed actor – “another tragic gay cliché” as he says – while she seemingly has everything – steady job, nice house, and an affable and eager husband (Luke Wilson in his best performance outside a Wes Anderson film) with whom she’s trying to conceive a child.

But things aren’t really that rosy for Maggie, which is something that’s hinted at when we first meet her (she’s contemplating swallowing a handful of pills when she gets interrupted by a phone call about Milo’s attempted suicide), and that becomes increasingly clear as we learn more and more about her self-sabotaging behaviors.  Both Maggie and Milo are living lives filled with crippling isolation and regret, and they need to come back together if they have any chance of healing.

That all reads pretty heavy on its own, and it doesn’t even account for Maggie and Milo’s screwed up upbringing, which is highlighted by their father’s suicide, a sex scandal involving a pedophiliac teacher, and abandonment by a new age mother.

Although the laundry list of family issues may seem like one or two too many skeletons in the closet, the film handles it all well enough, and, mercifully, this isn’t one of those direly dark films comedic actors sometimes make to prove dramatic bonafides. While Wiig and Hader carry the dramatic material with aplomb, Skeleton Twins is also a very funny film, chiefly due to the time-honed chemistry between the two costars. There’s an intuitive connection there, and I’d be shocked if several of their scenes – particularly one set in a dentist office – weren’t at least partially improvised. 

In a lot of ways, the film plays like an adaptation of a book (I could easily imagine Skeleton Twins as one of those every-other-chapter-narrator novels that jostles back and forth between two points of view). This is a layered film with a lot of depth, but I won’t lie: things do fall off a bit as the film reaches its conclusion.  Although momentum builds tremendously toward a wrenching and raw blowout between the leads, everything is then quickly tied up in an unbelievable climax.

Still, there’s a something great about watching Wiig and Hader inhabit these characters together, and both deliver in ways they haven’t before. Wiig, for all her greatness, has never seemed this real on film, while Hader does revelatory work as the sardonic misanthrope who is simultaneously goofy, vulnerable and relatable. He’s long been a scene-stealer, but Skeleton Twins doesn’t just mark his first dramatic role – it marks his first role of real substance period. With this role, Hader proves that as great as he is at hitting one note jokes, he’s more than capable of handling three-dimensionality.

Jenny Slate is both hilarious and touching in Obvious Child.
Jenny Slate accomplishes that same feat in Obvious Child, the debut film from writer/director Gillian Robespierre. Unlike Wiig and Hader, Slate isn’t an SNL icon. Her stint lasted only one season, and she’s probably best remembered for accidentally saying the F-word during her first on-air appearance.

Nevertheless, Slate has made numerous recurring appearances on the likes of Parks and Recreation and Bob’s Burgers (my two favorites!) since leaving SNL, killing it in the type of comically broad roles that wouldn’t be out of place on the late-night sketch show. But with Obvious Child, she’s been given the chance to play something far more nuanced.

Slate plays Donna, a late 20s book store employee who moonlights as a stand-up comic. After her boyfriend dumps her and she loses her job, Donna has a one-night stand with an earnest nice guy (Jake Lacey, who people might recognize as Jim 2.0 from the later seasons of The Office). The experience causes Donna to get pregnant and she decides to get an abortion, all the while the guy keeps trying to hang out with her.

The film has become known as the abortion comedy, and that is and isn’t an apt description. Yes it contains an abortion, but few people would call Fast Times at Ridgemont High a movie about abortion, and it's the same here.

Obvious Child takes no stance – political, moral or otherwise – on topic; it just so happens to be about a woman who, finding herself unfit to be a parent, decides to have an abortion, grows a little from the experience, and then begins a relationship with the man who inseminated her. It's like a Woody Allenesque take on the romantic beats of Juno... except with adults... and an abortion.

Slate is a revelation as Donna, carrying the film on her small shoulders while embodying a whole series of contradictions (adorable and crude, aloof and neurotic, vulnerable and strong). Like any good comedian, Donna is daring on stage, with barely any filter, sharing everything up there, including intimate details of her personal life (and the lives of those closest to her). This movie is about how she learns to share and open up when she's not on stage.

Obvious Child is a really funny, almost feel-good film, which is odd to say given the narrative, but there it is. It's a top film of 2015 for me, even though I do have some reservations about the overly rosy finale -- everything resolves so unbelievably perfectly for the lead that it began reminding me a bit of Pretty Woman.

That said, the movie earns a lot of good will, and the final scene is a perfect way to close out the particular story their telling here. This isn't really about abortion, just like Pretty Woman wasn't really about prostitution. A proper tonal and thematic comparison would be something like Frances Ha or Girls, since Obvious Child is actually exploring the process of a young woman trying to find her footing in the world.

Skeleton Twins B, Obvious Child B+