Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dead Zone

Lately, all I've seen as far as movies go has been in the theater. The big screen has been home to most of what I've watched in 2011. Partly, that is due to my expanded writing schedule and constant search for new films to review. Another reason for that is the sheer volume of titles made available in my area, as I regularly visit both an indie theater and a multiplex that devotes at least a couple of screens to "lesser" releases, if even for a short time. This means that there are a dozen or so movies a year that are made available for my viewing that simply don't appear in some cities before getting the standard DVD release. Occasionally even that doesn't happen however, and when that is the case I have no choice but to wait until I can try it out when it does release for home viewing. That's was the happenstance with Dylan Dog: Dead of Night. Based on Tiziano Sclavi's comic series Dylan Dog, the movie seemed set for a wide release this past Spring, but what seemed like a last minute decision (albeit a wise one) saw the theater count of this title severely curtailed. Maybe I have an inflated sense of pride in the city in which I live, but you have to believe that a studio doesn't have faith in a film when it avoids the Boston area altogether, especially when it fails to arrive at either of the major theaters in town (at least one of which had actually been advertising the film). So when I made the a random run to Redbox this past week, I decided to give the cinematic failure a shot to see whether of not it deserved the dismissal that it received in it's very short life.

Expect a lot of blank expressions; it's THAT kind of film...
Brandon Routh plays the eponymous Dylan Dog, a private investigator who used to police the supernatural vampires, werewolves and zombies of New Orleans before it lost him the love of his life. Trying to make a living out of spying on cheating spouses and other "normal" human trespasses, Dylan finds himself sucked back in to the underground scene when he's asked to investigate a murder involving a werewolf, and his sidekick Marcus (Sam Huntington) is killed and turned into one of the walking dead. Now Dylan finds himself on a mission to recover an ancient Lycan artifact that's very existence could portend all-out war between the creatures of the night.

Doesn't he know he'll put an eye out??
From moment one Dylan Dog is obviously a throwback to pulp style mystery films, with a dour Routh narrating his thoughts as the story presses forward. Despite the occasional undead popping into the plot, the film is on the outside everything that you used to see in old organized crime films, with cruel mob bosses, chop shops, sinister plots, and lots and lots of illegal firearms. The New Orleans set also adds to the title's flavor, with its blend of modern and historic architecture giving the best of both world and providing a ton of atmosphere on which Dylan Dog can find some solid footing. The seamless addition of the otherworldly might be derivative of other, more iconic fare, but humorous tack-ons (such as a Zombie support group and the werewolf hideout being a meatpacking plant) provide a lot of the difference.

Somehow I doubt they tell ghost stories to pass the time
Unfortunately, that is all that really works with Dylan Dog, as the rest is a mishmash of repetitive and predictable plot with mediocre dialogue and acting. The story is the true culprit, as while the allusion to pulp fiction was a nice gesture, it comes out a little too plainly and doesn't do a great job of showing rather than telling. Everything must be explained to the audience, or at least that's what director Kevin Munroe apparently believed. Munroe, whose only other feature director role was for the animated TNMT film, doesn't seem to know what to do with live actors, grasping at the slim chances the title provides to turn into a pure action flick. Highly predictable, the audience can at least guess the major plot points before Dylan has the opportunity to prematurely reveal them to us. The whole mess makes sitting through the movie almost a chore, something I certainly hadn't expected when vampires and zombies are involved.

Operation was never this much fun!
If the story was so bad, it has to be redeemed at least slightly by the quality of the acting, right? Uhm, no. Routh is a big reason this film never reaches its potential, as his humorless deadpan (even while making jokes) is a steady pain, not made any better by the lackluster material he's actually given to work with. He does have a few decent moments, but I had hoped for so much more after his surprisingly graceful performance in last year's Scott Pilgrim vs the World. At least he out-performs his leading lady, as Anita Briem is dull and lifeless while (ironically) playing a flesh and blood  human finding herself amid a supernatural world she never knew existed. Taye Diggs and Peter Stormare are talented actors sadly asked to do little more than play to their strengths, with Diggs as a charismatic vampire leader and Stormare as a wise, ruthless werewolf. Neither is bad skill-wise, but neither propels themselves into the limited freedoms they are afforded. If there's anyone who actually looks like they're having a good time here, it's Sam Huntington as Dylan's sidekick who is having a tough time adapting to life as a zombie. Huntington, who also co-starred with Routh in Superman Returns, might be simply comedic fodder, but he's so earnest in his effort that it's easy to overlook the pure ridiculousness of his character. If there's ever a moment where you honestly laugh WITH Dylan Dog (instead of at it), it's because of Huntington.

Yes, this really happens. Too bad it's not Doomsday
Still, one man is not enough to create a thoroughly entertaining film. Mediocre special effects being the final straw, this title could have been a Syfy original movie and nobody would have noticed. Failing to meet even low expectations, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night falls much farther than even I could have expected, and might end up being one of the year's worst releases. What coukd have been a fun excursion into supernatural tomfoolery instead is a dull trod through inexperienced and unattractive filmmaking. As far as first dates go, the equivalent finish for this movie would be a quick, polite hug and a mad dash for the exit.There's just no redemption to be found here; skip it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Hugo", not Weaving

There might not be a more celebrated director in Hollywood today than Martin Scorcese. The artist, who has been making groundbreaking films since the seventies, is renowned not only for his ability to create great cinema, but for also building a fundamentally different experience every time out, a skill not many of his peers can claim. For all that however, Scorcese has never made a film like Hugo until now. It must have surprised some when he announced he was going to make a PG-rated film in 3D (two firsts for the director) based on the not-exceptionally-well-known children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick. I mean, this is the guy who made serious adult fare like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull; Goodfellas and Casino; Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed. Compared to these awe-inducing titles, at first glance Hugo feels grossly out of place; a rogue family film hanging with the big boys.

We needn't have worried, however. After seeing Hugo, I'm quite happy naming it one of 2011's best films, and possibly one of Scorcese's best works in recent years. The story follows young orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who lives within the walls of a Parisian rail station, maintaining the building's clocks without anyone knowing. While trying to stay out of the way of the station's security inspector Gustav (Sasha Baron Cohen), Hugo attempts to fix an old automaton, or wind-up machine, that he used to work on with his father, a deceased clockmaker (Jude Law). This eventually gets him into trouble, but a chance encounter and budding friendship with the curious Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) helps him put together the final pieces of the puzzle and try to find his purpose in the world.

Yes, Ben Kingsley is in this film. No, that doesn't automatically mean it's bad
Because this film is based on a book that's not mainstream enough to be common knowledge, most viewers probably won't and can't automatically assume what is going to happen as the story is presented to them. Unlike the Twilight or Harry Potter set, Hugo won't be seen almost entirely by fans of the intellectual property, and that's good because Hugo is one of the more original titles to arrive in theaters in 2011. With an unusual setting (post-Great War Paris), interesting characters, and a multitude of plot twists, turning points, and unique messages, prediction of what comes next is an exercise in futility. You simply don't know what's happening until it passed, and the fact that you can't predict the future means that each moment is a treasure, unwrapped and beloved for every moment you remain in the theater.

Personally, I want to remain on THIS side of the clock, thank you
Another Scorcese strength is in the characters he brings to the screen, and on that front, he brings in some of the best cast members for any title this year. Staying away from his usual casts of De Niro's and DiCaprio's, he surrounds young Asa Butterfield with a shockingly deep core of actors that do everything asked of them and more. Butterfield, best known for his role in 2008's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,  is himself compelling and exceedingly talented, more than a match for the many paths the script takes young Hugo Cabret. Despite not having to carry the film on his shoulders, Butterfield carries what he can, and often his performance is the best on screen. Still, if he were all that the title offered, it wouldn't have been enough, and thankfully for that he's not alone. Ben Kingsley surprises in a comeback role of sorts, when you consider just how many horrid movies he's appeared in over the years. Playing a toy merchant at the train station, Kingsley doesn't disappoint and for the first time in years shows the versatility for which he was once cheered. Chloe Grace Moretz also impresses; the former Kick-Ass and Let Me In actress is even good in relatively "normal" roles, in this case as an adventure-craving, book-loving young woman. While Butterfield is good, Moretz makes a perfect pairing, as the two play well with their character's differences and make each other more interesting. Jude Law appears only briefly in flashbacks but actually comes off well in the only role in which I've really liked him that wasn't Sherlock Holmes. And Sasha Baron Cohen is humorous and impressive as the station's crippled Inspector, thankfully not as evil as we're at first led to believe. In fact, many of the film's supporting characters are made more interesting when we look over Hugo's shoulder in seeing their daily lives sort out, especially the budding romances in the most romantic city on Earth.

He's very... European...
The three-dimensional character development is somewhat better than the actual three-dimensional effects, of course. This doesn't really come as a surprise since Scorcese has no real experience in the medium. Of course, his first try is better than most people's, and if you can get past the visual distractions it really isn't much of a problem. There are some establishing shots that try to take advantage of the 3D early on, but to be frank they're impressive enough without the added technology brought to bear. Still, it is an impressive first take for Scorcese, who doesn't usually get kudos for his special effects use.

Yes, Jude Law is there too. No, I really DID love this movie!
Martin Scorcese has made a large number of treasured films. I don't think I've ever seen a release from him that I DIDN'T like, and Hugo is no different; at least not in that regard. While on the surface different from anything the director has achieved before, Hugo is always as good as his previous efforts, and at time even better. It's for that reason and more that it knocks just about everything else down a notch, coming in as the #4 film of 2011. You might have no idea what this film is about going in, but that's no reason not to go. If you haven't caught this unexpected gem, take a moment to check it out with your younger family members, as children and adults of all ages should get more than enough entertainment out of this strong presentation..

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Professional Puppet Productions

Well, what's a decade between friends?

It's 2011, a dozen years since the Jim Henson-created puppet characters known as "Muppets" appeared on the big screen, in 1999's Muppets from Space. The franchise, which began as a variety show and had been most popular in the seventies and eighties, was hitting popularity canyon around that time, as Muppets from Space was a financial failure and a signal to the entertainment industry that the franchise as a whole was no longer popular enough for mass entertainment. What followed was less than thrilling, as the puppet troupe pulled out a couple more made-for-television movies, and the Muppets themselves slowly faded into obsolescence. Well, that wasn't enough for How I Met Your Mother and Forgetting Sarah Marshall star Jason Segel, who along with running buddy Nicholas Stoller pitched a new entry to the series, a tall order considering the aforementioned lack of presence in today's pop culture. Still, that persistence (and a fiercely loyal fan base) paid off, and this Thanksgiving weekend became host to The Muppets, the first appearance of our favorite cast of misfits and divas on the big screen in twelve years.

Kudos for fitting them all into one station wagon
Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter (a new Muppet) are brothers, living in the small town of Smalltown, USA. Always feeling like an outcast, Walter has survived mainly thanks to the love and care of Gary and his fascination with the old Muppets television show, the characters of which are his idols and heroes. When Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) bring Walter along on a trip to Los Angeles with the intent of seeing the renowned Muppet Studios, they unwittingly set off a chain of events that sees them get a group that hasn't performed together in over a decade back into show business. The Muppets are constantly told that they are no longer popular, but they hope to shock the world in their big comeback that will include wisecracking bears, pig and frog duets, a barbershop quartet, and perhaps even Walter as the troupe's newest performer.

Animal! We LOVE Animal!
I was surprised to discover that The Muppets was in fact a full-blown musical, a fact that could have been suspected had I actually paid attention to the trailers but still somehow caught me unawares. Naturally I expected there to be a few songs from the Muppets themselves, and the film doesn't disappoint, especially when you have Kermit the Frog singing the original song "Pictures in My Head" and later on playing a duet with Miss Piggy of the classic Muppets' tune "The Rainbow Connection". And of course the original Muppet Show theme is still around, as delightfully cheer-inducing as ever. Only a couple of songs fail to entertain, though that isn't entirely the music director's fault (okay, some of it is, but we'll get to that later). Even though these specific song-and-dance numbers don't quite work out as planned, they still contain a ton of charm, and don't detract much from the film.

Seriously, who's that big blue guy in the back? Why is he there??
What does detract unfortunately is the human element that has almost ungraciously inserted itself into the narrative. Oh, I'm not talking about Amy Adams. Adams, for whom the part was specifically written, is the perfect actress to take on this kind of light parody of a real human being. As an elementary school teacher who fixes cars and speaks in a consistently high-pitched accent, there's no actress I can imagine besides Adams in the role. And of course when it comes time to actually sing, Adams' pipes come in handy for fending off critics of the relative simpleness of the songs themselves. I am also not dissing Chris Cooper, who but for an ill-advised albeit short hip-hop scene is perfectly at home as sleazy businessman Tex Richman, the film's main antagonist. And I'm not speaking of the hosts of guest cameos that make their way into the Muppet's latest film endeavor. The never-ending list includes Jack Black, Alan Arkin, James Carville, Whoopi Goldberg, Neil Patrick Harris, John Krasinski, Sarah Silverman, Mickey Rooney, Emily Blunt, Donald Glover, Dave Grohl and Zach Galifianakis, and those are just the interesting ones.Well used, the constant stream of cameos makes for at the very least an interesting ride and at best shows how influential the Muppets are among the current Hollywood stars. No, when I say that the film's human element is underwhelming I'm really talking about Jason Segel, which is a shame for several reasons. I hate to discredit his work because I love his role on How I Met Your Mother (no, I haven't seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall yet, sorry) and because of the obvious love he has shown in pushing this film forward, both in its creation and in its marketing. While he nails the huggable teddy-bear type for much of the film (that's pretty much HIS role...), this can't block the fact when the music numbers roll around he's not that good a singer and obviously suffers from having two left feet. When he's just called on to act he's fine, but the film would have been better with another, more musically-oriented actor in the lead role.

Uhm, yeah, you don't want to see that
Of course, the best (and perhaps only) reason to see The Muppets is... well... The Muppets! It was fun to see the film poke fun at how out of touch the characters are with the times; they constantly rock out to "We Built This City" and reference Dirty Dancing, and Kermit tries to get President Jimmy Carter to be their show's celebrity guest host. If you have a favorite character from the old show, new show or any of the movies, you likely won't be disappointed by their absence. Most of the "classics", as well as a few newer personas, make at least sporadic appearances, though you might have to hunt visually for them. The focus of the story is very top heavy, and most of the light is shone on stars Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie and Walter. Some effort is made with a few others, most notably Animal, but some fan favorites such as Gonzo and Rowlf the Dog are almost completely cast aside. This wouldn't be too bad in itself, but Walter's story of finding himself isn't always fun to watch. That some characters were pushed to the sides to make room for such a short-sighted character seems wasteful.

There's nothing like taking in The Muppets live on stage!
But perhaps I'm being a bit too critical. The fact is that if you can stand sitting in a theater surrounded by small children with short attention spans, The Muppets is a fun way to spend less than two hours of your weekend. As Jim Henson always intended, and Jason Segel dutifully followed, the film is silly enough for kids while still being entertaining for the adults who brought them there. That makes sense, as it would hardly be appropriate to alienate that nostalgic audience who made this title a reality to begin with. While not perfect, lacking perhaps the ability behind the camera to match the wit and bravado of titles earlier in the franchise's history, it's a nice opportunity to try and take this oft-neglected property as far as it can go. If people come out and support this film, good things will happen. I don't see any reason that shouldn't be, as the real crime would be to take something with this much promise and tuck it into a dark corner to stagnate and dull.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Drive Me Crazy

With really nothing else in theaters to really capture my interest at the moment (at least until The Muppets comes out this week), I decided to take the time to see a small critically-acclaimed title that had been on many "must-see" lists earlier this Fall. However, there were a couple of reasons I wasn't entirely convinced that Like Crazy would be worth my time or money. For one, star Anton Yelchin hadn't proved to me that he could carry a major motion picture. Sure, he was fine in his limited role on the Star Trek reboot, but he was very weak compared to his co-stars in Terminator: Salvation and a leading role in this year's remake of Fright Night was almost enough to discredit his whole career to that point (I believe my damning words called him "a poor man's Shia Lebeouf"). The other reason I wasn't wholly into seeing this title was, well, I really didn't know if I wanted to see a depressing film about love and relationships. If this had been some blockbuster Hollywood release, you know that the two lovebirds would have had only minimal conflict between one another on the way to a guaranteed happy ending. Like Crazy however is an indie romance, almost certainly portending that the relationship between them will be the most excruciating hour and a half spent in the movies this year. It wasn't a situation I relished throwing myself into, and only a complete lack of alternatives (not to mention strong word of mouth) led me to begrudgingly enter the theater and take this release in before future films could shove it to the wayside.

Please, let there not be a crappy "sand" love speech coming on...
Like Crazy tells the story of the romantic relationship between Jacob (Yelchin), a design student, and Anna (Felicity Jones), a British exchange student, as they meet and fall in love in college in Jacob's home town of Los Angeles. Unable to be apart after graduating school, Anna decides to ignore the expiration of her student visa to spend the summer with Jacob, which eventually leads to her being deported to her native United Kingdom. Finding themselves in a difficult long distance relationship, the two can only see one another occasionally and when they do, their increasingly separate lives (which includes trying to see other people) make them feel as if the hundreds of miles of distance is between them even when they stand mere inches apart.

She won't be happy much longer
Not content to tell a simple story, Like Crazy tells the entirety of Jacob and Anna's relationship from beginning to end, and then beginning to end ad infinatum. This is no monochromatic love tale, as several levels of emotion are delved into, with love itself being just the most common. Jealousy, regret, fear and frustration all rear their ugly heads, and rarely is there a happy moment once the two are initially torn apart. It's in the conveyance of these feelings where Like Crazy really does shine, as the highs and lows between these lovers are intricately felt by the audience thanks to the fact that they are rendered in so realistic a manner. We really feel for Jacob and Anna as they move from conflict to conflict, whether it be with each other or the ban keeping them apart.

Wearing the guy's shirt... does that really happen? Ever?
If the film suffers from any real problems, it's the narrative flow of the story, which often makes great leaps between scenes, as obviously a great amount of time has passed without any explanation given as to what has transpired in the meantime. For instance, when Jacob is shown to having developed a new relationship with his co-worker Samantha (Jennifer Lawrence), it isn't readily apparent that Anna even knows that this is happening. This storytelling method creates a few conflicting scenarios where we feel angry at a character's apparent actions, only to discover that we had read the situation incorrectly in the first place. This could have been corrected by young director Drake Doremus, but since the young filmmaker was apparently too busy creating a realistic romantic setting, he can be forgiven for not immediately telling us every single detail. In fact, a lot of what is so charming about this film is what is left out, many scenes hiding what is said between Jacob and Anna like so many whispers from Bob Harris to be heard only by Charlotte. By not making us absorb every little detail, we can focus on the major themes set forth.

Well, maybe she can be a LITTLE happy...
The acting is of a higher caliber than I originally imagined, as well. Playing completely normal people, Yelchin and Jones are both endearing and admirable, with Jones especially mastering that inner turmoil that comes with her particularly darker moments. She plays happy too, and there doesn't seem to be anything that she can't do well. This comes as somewhat of a shock after I was sure she had bombed out from appearing in Julie Taymor's miserable 2010 version of The Tempest. Apparently she's learned to emote after all, and the result is one of the strongest performances by a woman I've seen in 2011. Yelchin is still a little dry, but he also puts his best foot forward, playing well opposite both Jones and Lawrence. I'm sure working with such talent helped him immensely, and I was happy to see him churn out a good performance for a change. Lawrence actually excels in a small role, no small feat after putting up what I thought was a substandard act in one of this year's better titles, X-Men First Class. Playing the "other woman", seeing Samantha caught in the middle of Jacob and Anna's unrequited affections is quite painful, made stronger by Lawrence's disarmingly subtle performance.

No, I said cue sadness, dammit!
I wasn't expecting it, but in one fell (and relatively short) swoop, I became witness to one of the great romances of 2011. Granted, it WAS depressing as all hell, and by the end we're not sure where the relationship between Jacob and Anna will go. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to NOT be a twitching pile of neuroses when the whole thing was well and done, and I can easily recommend this to any who would love to take in a modern romance that isn't ineptly put together by cliches anonymous. It may not be in the year's Top 10, but it's still a great film that young couples can hold as their own and older audiences can nostalgically admire from afar.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Four Name Free for All

Every week, there are brand new movies released. Whether they can be found in every major movie theater in the country or just a few, a new film gets that chance to break in an audience, or to capture a whole generation's imagination in one fell swoop. Often there is so much out there that even when I really want to see something on the more limited/indie scale, it is wedged out of my schedule by other, more widely-released titles. More than a few times this year I have earnestly meant to see a film in the theater, only to have it fall by the wayside as bigger fare bulldozes it's way through. That's why when Another Earth came out, I was watching Captain America and Friends with Benefits. When Hobo with a Shotgun came around, it was Thor and (hurk!) Something Borrowed. Gnomeo and Juliet was put aside for The Eagle, while Oscar-bait A Better Life was passed up for Bad Teacher, possibly the worst movie of 2011. When Fox Searchlight drama Martha Marcy May Marlene came to theaters the same weekend as Paranormal Activity 3 and The Three Musketeers, it tempted the same fate as those those other limited release films. Thankfully, it stuck at local theaters a bit longer than those previous misses had, and once all the mainstream films I really wanted to see in the theater dried up, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this mysterious film festival favorite was still ready and waiting to be seen. While I suspect most people who wanted to see this film on the big screen already have (I was in fact the only person to sit throughout the entire showing), I was glad to finally get some quality indie film viewing into a schedule packed with so many mediocre blockbusters.

No twin Olsens here!
Two years after her younger sister Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) disappeared off the face of the planet, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) is shocked when that same girl calls her out of the blue and asks to be picked up from a remote suburban town. Without talking about what happened to her with Lucy or her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), it is obvious that Martha has picked up some odd and out-of-the-ordinary habits from her time away. At the same time, Martha becomes increasingly panicked as she believes she has been followed by the cult she had just escaped. The farm from which she escaped is only a few hours away; there she was "cleansed" (drugged), "loved" (raped), and brainwashed into thinking she was cleansed and loved by the men in the community and their enigmatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes), and then told to turn around to induct other women in the same manner. Becoming more steadily paranoid and delusional, Martha drives a wedge between herself and her sister, creating a gulf that might never be again crossed.

Yup, he plays the guitar, too
The story is told in a smooth blend of current day, memory and dream, each moment giving us just a little more insight into what has happened to Martha over the past two years. As she tries with much difficulty to adapt to everyday life, normal activities so natural that her family doesn't even notice brings back horrific memories of the things Martha experienced and the things that she has done. Haunting in its execution, the story never gives you too much at once, allowing each morsel of news to wash over you so that you can take in the horrific things that happen in these cults. Not bad for a first effort at feature film-making by director and screenwriter Sean Durkin, who eerily knows what strings to pull at appropriate moments.

Cut-off shorts and guns; sexy in the sixties, sexy now
It helps when the cast does such a good job of building the story, especially The OIsen Twins' baby sister Elizabeth. In her feature film debut, Olsen is a blank slate as the movie opens, only to gradually reveal more of her character as her story is presented to us. How she made such a splash out of nowhere would be worthy of a paragraph all by itself, but suffice it to say that we are so entranced by Martha's paranoia mainly because Olsen convinces us that it must be true. Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy sadly can't match Olsen's natural talent, but both do a good job playing "normal" types who can't wrap their heads around Martha's strange behavior. Paulson especially does her best in scenes opposite Olsen, as both sides struggle to find any common ground in their conversations, trying desperately to be sisters again but not understanding how. While most of the cultists are a dry bunch (with small exceptions for young actresses Louisa Krause and Julia Garner), John Hawkes once again bursts forth with a performance that hearkens back to his Academy Award-nominated role in 2010's Winter's Bone. While never raising his voice above a barely hushed tone, Patrick's potential for violence and inflicting harm is never doubted and obvious from scene one. Manipulative, cruel, and determined are never good character traits in a man, let alone one in charge of his own private commune, which is why Hawkes does well by never letting us forget how evil he really is, even in scenes of relative good times, such as when he plays a song on guitar for the others in the cult. While this role might not be as remembered (or as well-loved) as Winter's Bone's Teardrop, but Hawkes definitely deserves credit for what he brings in a relatively quiet role.

"It's okay; I'll win the Oscar next year"
Of course, Martha Marcy May Marlene wouldn't be a true limited release title without some sort of perceived flaws to mar what could have been a truly great experience. In this case it's the film's often slower than necessary pacing that does its best to dull some of the quieter moments present. While those issues fix themselves somewhat the closer we get to the story's conclusion, they do a lot of damage early on. Speaking of the ending, the final act also suffers a bit from an apparent lack of conviction, falling short of fantastic and instead residing securely in "Huh?" territory. Still, there is a good film in here for those willing to wait it out, and the great performances more than make this a good option for when you're desperately trying to avoid the mainstream's worst offenders (yes, I'm looking at you, Breaking Dawn). You might want to wait until it comes out on DVD (wait much longer and you won't likely have a choice), and there are a few difficult-to-watch moments, but whatever way you choose to see this title, it's very much worth the time and effort.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Brawl of the Gods

They just don't make sword and sorcery epics like this.

Well, to be fair, they've never really made sword and sorcery films like this in the past, period. 3D epics are a relatively new thing in this day and age, beginning with 2010's remake of Clash of the Titans, and continuing this year with the Conan the Barbarian and now Immortals. It was this newest title that drew me to the theater quite recently, the latest release amid a season in which very few films have done much to stand out from a sea of mediocrity. Trying to solve that problem with gore, sex, and the face of the upcoming Superman reboot, Immortals had the potential to fall somewhere between the huge strides that the similarly-violent 300 made in 2006 and the crater left from the Conan sequel. In other words, it really could have gone anywhere. I personally was interested in seeing how this title would translate to 3D, and whether British lead Henry Cavill would prove able to lead a major motion picture two years before Man of Steel hits the big screen. I hadn't heard any good things heading in, but that's hardly a new concept, and I wanted to judge for myself whether this title would deserve remembrance years from now.

Robin Hood and her merry men, no doubt.
In the ancient past, a war amongst immortal beings was waged, with the two sides discovering that they could indeed kill their formerly invincible foes. When all was said and done, the victors christened themselves Gods and reigned high on Mt. Olympus. The vanquished were resigned to imprisonment in Mt. Tartatus, called Titans. Now the evil King of Crete, Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), seeks the fabled Epirus Bow, a weapon designed to release the Titans from their imprisonment and set them loose upon the world. The only people standing in his way are Theseus (Cavill), a bastard low-born guided by the gods, the virgin oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto), and their mishmash of followers, all of whom would follow Theseus to the ends of the Earth.

That's not a face you ever want to look up to
Any student of ancient mythology of course will see that the plot of the film is loosely based on the Titanomachy, or the war between the Olympians and the Titans, and the myths of Theseus and the Minotaur. As in last year's Clash, however, that only means that the names were kept intact while the story was made more suitable for mass consumption. Actually, I thought that director Tarsem Singh did a good job with interpreting the myths presented in this storyline. Many people, Theseus and Hyperion included, have no faith in the gods due to them having not answered their prayers even in their darkest moments. This is a theme that is relevant even today, and is the reason so many people call themselves Atheist or Agnostic. The Gods don't interfere because Zeus (Luke Evans) wants to have faith in the humans as many of them do in the Gods. Beyond that, the Minotaur is not a mythological creature, but a giant warrior wearing a mask in the shape of a bull's head. While there are still several almost mystical elements involved in the story (the Gods and Titans themselves, Phaedra's premonitions, and the Epirus Bow's magic arrows chief among them), it's impressive that Singh binds them with a certain amount of realistic interpretation of mythology at the same time.

Real bad-asses don't wear helmets
Probably where Immortals excels the most is in the visual and action departments. Even without 3D (and this is another film that doesn't really benefit from 3D implementation) the distant visuals are as beautiful and meticulously designed as any big-budget film I've seen in the past decade. It would be easy to write it all off as computer generated, but it's extremely difficult to tell the difference, and there is no doubting the effectiveness it has in setting the tone of the story. Singh's previous efforts (The Cell, The Fall) have been largely visual-based, and he knows how to set a film so that you are ensnared by the what you see while following the tale. The action is also surprisingly compelling, as Singh rarely falls in the trap of filming so close as to obscure what is happening in front of you. Often the camera is set on a rail and follows Theseus as he fights dozens of enemies in a realistic, awe-inspiring sequences. It's refreshing to see action done in this manner, and while special effects can mask a number of things (body doubles, gore, etc), that it is so different from what other films offer is really what makes all the difference.

She may not be the best actress, but mama mia!
The acting would have probably been better, but the script as it is didn't leave a lot of room for silly things like "exposition" or "character development" when creating so much eye candy. Henry Cavill is at least interesting as the film's lead, finding himself perhaps on the same page Sam Worthington found himself last year. Theseus is a warrior first, orator second, and as such Cavill will be better remembered after Immortals for his rippling six pack rather than the flexibility of his tongue (get your minds out of the gutter). Still, it took Worthington a full year and The Debt to prove he could really act, and maybe Cavill just needs that time to build a resume before he can be relegated to action roles. Freida Pinto once again is better than some, worse than others, and it's really her looks that secure the multitude of roles that she has landed of late. But as any veteran actress will tell you, beauty fades (and plastic surgery isn't always for the better), so unless she ups her game the big roles WILL dry up. She does show potential, so hopefully experience will get her to the level where she should be. Mickey Rourke is certainly effective in the role of evil overlord, but in all honesty he doesn't stretch very far from his comfort zone. It's obvious that the part was written with him in mind, as he never gets a moment like the one in last year's The Expendables in which he reminds us that he really is a good actor. Stephen Dorff could have stood out, but in the end we all realize that he's the witty sidekick who will doubtlessly die heroically in the end. And he's not even that good at the witty part.

One of these things is not like the others...
Possibly most disappointing is that the Gods, arguably the most central figures in this film, are barely covered as characters throughout the course of the film. Luke Evans tells the others what to do a lot, so that makes him Zeus, and we know that Isabel Lucas is Athena because someone calls her that once, but the others are never actually named and we can only guess as to their identities. Kellan Lutz MIGHT be Posiedon, since he carries around a trident, but we're not really sure. And who knows who any of the other immortals really are. It's a shame since the finale sees a raging battle between Gods and Titans that  is amazing but in which it would have been great to be able to keep score. But since they mostly look alike, the effort to introduce them as actual characters is completely lost.

"Man of Steel" is of course a euphemism
Still, when what you're expecting is an action-packed pseudo-myth with mood, violence and gore-a-plenty, it's hard to argue with what the film doesn't additionally give you. While it may not be the best movie of 2011 (or even close), Immortals is at its best an exciting, go-anywhere story that feels as epic as it seeks to be. If you're into the genre, don't wait until DVD; the visuals alone make it worth seeing on the big screen, even if you (wisely) forgo the entire 3D routine.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Life in a Vacuum

Well, I wasn't expecting that. With hordes of folks out this weekend to see one of the two new blockbusters released - the mythological warfare epic Immortals and the Adam Sandler comedy Jack and Jill - I was sure that lost in the struggle would be the Clint Eastwood directed, Leonardo DiCaprio starring J. Edgar, the biopic on the life of the man who was the face of law and order in the United States for almost forty years. These days, most people know little about J. Edgar Hoover, other than that he, according to rumor, preferred the feeling of wearing women's clothing. Those historians that do know him often neglect to give credit for many of his modern innovations in the world of criminal justice still used today (forensics, fingerprinting) and instead focus exclusively on the controversies surrounding his methods of investigation. Maybe they should, maybe they shouldn't, but the vast majority of people still don't know much about this major figure in American History. Between that and the questionable abilities of Clint Eastwood as director, I was frankly expecting to see J. Edgar in a half-full theater. I was soon proven wrong as I found myself in the presence of a packed house, and was lucky to find a good seat with which to see this surprisingly sought-after release.

J. Edgar did not have sex with that woman... or anyone else, apparently
It is the closing days of the career of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio). For thirty-seven years, he has fought to protect his country from Communists, anarchists, saboteurs, and anyone he thinks is being disloyal to the United States. Drafting an agent to chronicle his memoirs of his career in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hoover is determined to set the story straight: that he is a hero to be celebrated, a devoted civil servant who protected all of us from the radicals who would undo all the greatness we have attained. Following the story through flashbacks, we witness the entirety of his career, between pursuing legitimate criminals to spying on government officials, and the relationships between he and his mother (Judi Dench) and his only real friend and confidante, Associate Director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).

It's like Rear Window meets Goodfellas
The production values are at a high standard, not surprising for a Clint Eastwood picture. Every detail from the post-WWI scenery of the film's opening scenes to the costumes and props of the times represented are meticulously detailed and perfectly placed to make each era of Hoover's career feel unique and properly aged. The gray film quality also lends an old-timey look to the visuals, making it appear a true period piece not unlike this year's Jane Eyre. Clint obviously pulls off the stops, making sure that there are no visual errors that would detract from the splendor of the picture. If nothing else, J Edgar does its best to at least look the part of an Academy Award shoe-in.

He's 6'5", 220, but there's only one of him this time
There is also some decent acting, though sadly the dialogue is often times presented in such a ludicrous manner that you can't help but laugh. DiCaprio deserves a lot of credit for his performance however, his Hoover standing above the rest of a very talented cast. He has the distinct difficulty of taking a singularly unlikable character and making him charismatic enough to carry a film. That he fails does nothing to discredit his effort, and people will certainly be discussing his work come award season. Armie Hammer runs a close second in the chops department; the man who made us take notice as twins in 2010's The Social Network goes solo this time out, and he portrays Tolson as an idealistic foil to the film's lead. Sure, there's no explanation as to why Tolson (in this telling) would be drawn to an unlikable goat like Hoover, but that's obviously where artistic license is brought into play. Surprisingly underused is Naomi Watts as longtime Hoover receptionist Helen Gandy. I actually thought Watts would play a large part when she got some early screen-time, but instead she is a constant presence, one that inspires neither interest nor contempt in the irrelevance of her appearance. Beyond that, there are an assorted collection of recognizable actors who make sporadic appearances. To a point, their limited appearances are consistent with the historical figures they represent, but soon you are distracted by the recognition of some noticeable actor over what is actually happening, causing overall disinterest in the actual story in progress.

"Land Shark, calling on line one"
And in the end, that is just one small thing wrong with J. Edgar, part of a sea of small, wrong things. Clint Eastwood as a director hasn't been a major factor since 2004'a Million Dollar Baby took it all. Hereafter was one of 2010's worst. Gran Torino and Invictus were popular but quickly forgotten. Changeling had a great Angelina Jolie performance but not much else. Don't even get me started on the overrated heaps that were Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Eastwood has a very obvious style of directing, sadly lacking in innovation and tending to stick to "tried and true" methods. That worked fine when the material he worked with was at the top of the game. Now that he's delving into less heralded territory, his flaws as a storyteller become more readily apparent, as far too often did the story he was trying to tell get away from him, and the cliched film-making methods he used only exacerbated the problems. To be fair, I can't think of any director who could have pulled this tale off; it's only because Eastwood is such a known commodity that his failures here are so remarkable.

Five makeup companies had to be hired to slather that on
So what else is wrong with the film? Well, the sexual tension between Hoover and Tolson gets more than a little ridiculous at times. Yes, I know there is speculation as to the nature of their friendship, but these two seriously have more passing glance moments than Sam and Frodo had during the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I had enough more than halfway through. Judi Dench is absolutely horrid (I never thought I would say that in my lifetime), completely wrong for her role as Hoover's demanding mother. I also hated Hoover depicted as an emotionally-stunted mama's boy with serious development issues. Sure, he might have actually been that, but when I watch a biopic of someone, I expect that he or she will present me with at least ONE good quality. Hoover's ability to do the wrong thing for potentially right reasons is an interesting idea, but one lost early on when getting into his growing levels of corruption. Yes, absolute power, blah blah; I'm bored now. The film's makeup is one of the lone visual aspects that looks absolutely fake on screen. Older actors should have been hired to portray the elder Hoover and Tolson, as neither lead actor looks believable in the aging process. If it wasn't for the fact that Cylde Tolson really did have a stroke, I'd have thought it was an excuse for the complete lifelessness in Hammer's face in the film's latter act. And DiCaprio manages to just look like a twenty-something wearing heavy prosthetics. And finally, the story's focus on the Lindbergh Baby tragedy turned the film into complete shambles, though it did provide one of the film's unintentionally funniest lines of dialogue.

He's... to sexy for his derby hat...
From the perspective of those who want Award season to begin, I guess I can understand why people flocked to see J. Edgar this weekend. It's unfortunate though that the object of their affection is in fact quite broken, none of the better concepts working out as they should. While the film boasts some good acting and is at least told competently, if not WELL, there are far too many moments where you have to remind yourself why you chose this film over anything else currently in theaters. Though not among the worst films this year, J. Edgar is by no means recommendable, and will likely be long forgotten when it comes time to nominate the year's best. Despite his apparent efforts at notoriety, it seems Hoover is destined to become forgotten as his many contributions to law enforcement will forever be overshadowed by bad decisions, character flaws and extremely casual dress codes. This film, and its director, do him no favors in getting any better.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Return of Eddie Murphy

Okay, I'm officially sick of class warfare as a film story theme in 2011. Between the battles of rich teams vs. small teams (Moneyball) and the far more simple upper class vs. poverty (In Time, The Rum Diary), it seems like all Hollywood wants to tell us is that the rich are all out to take every cent the rest of us have hidden in our mattresses. Well, I'm calling bullshit on this. Just because we're going through a rough economic time and legitimate criminals like Bernie Madoff are making off with the hard-earned finances of the lower classes doesn't mean I want to see this in my escapist film-going trips. That said, I was actually kind of looking forward to Tower Heist when it came out this past weekend, a statement that seems to go against my usual dislike of anything involving Ben Stiller or director Brett Ratner. While I at first dismissed Tower Heist as a silly action comedy in the same vein as Ratner's usual unwatchable fare, multiple trailer viewings (I see a LOT of movies, if you haven't gathered by now) steadily wore down my resolve, as I managed to find some details that I liked. Besides Stiller, the cast actually boasted a group of strong character actors, with Tea Leoni, Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck, Michael Pena, Alan Alda and Gabourey Sidibe surely doing most of the film's heavy lifting. But the biggest thing to finally draw me in was the appearance of Eddie Murphy in a lead role. Long decried as a Hollywood has-been following a very brutal succession of failures since his peak in the 80's and early '90's, one often forgets that despite his insanely high contract demands, he can actually be a charming and effective performer when called upon. The trailers made a good point of this, and so while other films demanded my attention first, I knew that eventually I would go to the theaters to see whether the performers could pull what was sure to be a brainless caper out of the mire in which most Ratner films reside.

The biggest star in this scene? Steve McQueen's car.
Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) is the building manager of New York City's most decadent condominium tower. Home to the most rich and famous, the building gets an unwelcome bit of news when their richest resident, investment banker Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) is arrested on financial fraud. Worse, Shaw had been made responsible for the pensions of the working class crew of the building, meaning that all of the clerks, doormen, maids and maintenance staff have lost most of their life savings. Feeling betrayed, Josh and a small group of disgruntled fellow employees hire on his childhood associate and petty criminal Slide (Eddie Murphy) to help rob Shaw for all he's worth. Together, they must infiltrate a building with state-of-the-art security, confound the FBI agents in charge of keeping Shaw on house arrest, and escape with enough to help their beleaguered cohorts while avoiding being caught themselves.

The first and likely only time you'll see Alan Alda in handcuffs
From a story standpoint, Tower Heist is certainly guilty of being incredibly stupid. The simple truth is that this band of misfits and malcontents having any real shot at success in their endeavor should have been treated as pure folly. Ratner's complete inability to treat the story with anything akin to logic is a staple of his work, and a big reason why I haven't enjoyed any of his films besides Red Dragon in 2002. And yet another of Ratner's usual strategies - wall-to-wall action - is conspicuously absent, as the first half hour of the film is a dull limp through character introductions and plot exposition. Tower Heist does pick up in the middle act, thanks especially to the introduction of Murphy, but we'll get to his involvement later on. Even then there is much kept from the audience for sake of suspense, but when the focus on the main characters couldn't have reasonably hidden these elements, the whole thing takes on an even more unbelievable tone. The film's finale succeeds in failure only; the end is wrapped up a little too tightly and leaves far too much to our own conjecture. It makes absolutely no sense, and that's what ultimately drowns Tower Heist's decent ideas.

Murphy pulls out his Cheshire Cat impression
Like the story, Tower Heist's cast and acting is uneven and under-powered. As a departure from much of his career, Ben Stiller plays the straight man, and the overly-serious tone he carries doesn't suit his usual comedic persona. Using his usual stress and aggression to some effect, he looks to be either over-matched or more likely uninspired in the material given him. I would say that he deserves better, but to be honest I can't remember the last time I actually liked him in any movie. Murphy meanwhile is a revelation. Charming and charismatic, Eddie Murphy manages to reach back to his early career days and pull out one of his better performances, which is sadly relegated to second tier status as even when he is finally introduced to us he is underutilized. This is especially poor because he ends up being the most entertaining element of Tower Heist; when he is on the screen, it is the center of the universe. When he isn't, Tower Heist is just a silly caper film  fronted by an unfunny Stiller. The support cast offers some help, though not enough to make a real difference. Alda is as always the consummate professional, and every scene with him is raised just a bit by his mere presence, no matter his actual contribution. Gabourey Sidibe impresses again, the Precious star appearing as a Jamaican maid with an attitude and a talent for safecracking. Sidibe is also underused, and her scenes are second only to Murphy in quality. Tea Leoni proves to be as sultry and talented as she ever was in the past, appearing as a sensual FBI agent with a thing for Josh. It's after that however that the talent takes a downturn. Michael Pena is once again misused as an honest but less than cerebral maintenance technician, and Matthew Broderick stretches not one whit creatively as a bumbling, wishy-washy former tenant of the Tower. Worst of the bunch is Casey Affleck as Josh's brother-in-law, a desk clerk who is bad at his job but desperate for the money because of his pregnant wife. Completely flat and uninteresting, Affleck needed a foil to play off of (such as Oceans 11's Scott Caan) to become more interesting. Lacking that, Affleck merely moves from scene to scene, showing none of the talent or charisma that we've seen in his bigger roles the past decade.

Hey, look! There goes our credibility!
If the story had focused more on Murphy's criminal Slide and given more attention to delivering the laughs, Tower Heist would have been a pretty good film. Instead what we get barely breaks even with usual Brett Ratner fare, as an uninspired cast fails to do much more than draw out the inevitable, and the horrible finish simply put a cap on what was barely worth seeing in the first place. If you REALLY want to see Eddie Murphy in his prime, this might be worth a DVD rental in a few months. Of course, if you're going to visit the video store ANYWAY, you'd probably be better off picking up any of his Beverly Hills Cop films instead. That's right; even Beverly Hills Cop III. Tower Heist doesn't even beat THAT.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Very Stoner Christmas

We can look back at the entire year of 2011 and never see anything like this. Only one film released this year features burning Christmas trees, multiple ethnic stereotypes, claymation dongs, drug addicted babies, a White House associate director, a pot-smoking Santa Clause, and a fictional representation of Neil Patrick Harris, played by Neil Patrick Harris. No, I'm not talking about Melancholia; this film is unlikely to garner any Oscar nominations, and is definitely for the more lowbrow set. The latest in the the series heralded as a modern day Cheech and Chong, A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas has just about everything your stoner mind needs. That being said, the lovable duo (borne from a small scene in American Pie and a breakthrough role in National Lampoon's Van Wilder) can be enjoyed entirely Cannabis-free if you so choose. I still have fond memories of seeing the original Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle with my friends back in 2004; the raucous combination of raunchy humor with surprisingly wry wit was truly inspired, and while it surely wasn't one of the blockbusters of the year, it cemented its place with an audience who craved something a little off the beaten track.

This won't end well
Taking place six years after the events of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and it's sequel Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, we learn that former stoner buddies Harold Lee (John Cho) and Kumar Patel (Kal Penn) have grown apart from one another in the years since. Harold has given up marijuana in his attempts to father a child with his wife Maria (Paula Garces), and tries to gain the favor of Maria's strict father (Danny Trejo) with a perfectly-executed Christmas. Kumar is still enjoying his leisurely style of life, though it has gotten him suspended from work and separated from his sweetheart Vanessa (Daneel Harris). When a package arrives at the duo's old apartment for Harold, it unexpectedly sets the two on a journey where the old friends reunite and rediscover why they had been so close in the first place. On that journey, they are run into underage beer pong champions, Russian gangsters, an evil snowman, Neil Patrick Harris and Santa Claus himself as they learn the true meaning of Christmas. Oh, yeah, and it's in 3D.

We don't condone punching a priest... most of the time
That last sentence would usually mean an upcoming diatribe about the mediocrity in which most films use 3D in the first place. Maybe it would be particularly volatile and obscenity-laced. But I'm not going to do that today? Why? Well, for one thing I'm tired of making the argument when most people seem to agree with me in that regard already. Secondly, the 3D in this Harold and Kumar outing is actually fairly well done. This is mainly due to two things. One: the film was made using actual 3D cameras without additional post-production material except in a few specific sequences. The second reason is that the movie parodies itself by questioning whether the technology has "jumped the shark", an obvious shot at just about every major studio that treats 3D almost as if it was the second coming of "talkies". Overall there is no real surprise in the 3D use in this film; most of the more obvious examples are featured in the trailers and therefore the use has no lasting impression on the overall body of work.

What were they doing with that squirrel in the tree? The world may never know
Whatever else you may think of the people involved in this series, there is no doubting the chemistry between the film's stars, Penn and Cho. As Kumar, Kal Penn is allowed to let loose and simply enjoy himself in a way that his more critically-hailed works have not. It's obvious that this young man has talent; his appearance on the TV show House MD and his lead role in The Namesake are proof enough of that. However he really seems to shine when he is allowed to cut loose, free of the confining restraints of Hollywood politics. John Cho has also enjoyed some commercial success, but like Penn has gained most of his attention from this series. As Harold, Cho is far more cautious, perfectly pairing with Kumar's take-no-prisoners attitude. This is why the two have gained such notoriety in recent years; their ability to convey just how their friendship has worked is the main reason these titles haven't been completely ignored. The support cast is talented but of course does not get nearly as much attention as the film's leads. Paula Garces proves underutilized as she can change on a dime between sex-craving vixen and sweet daddy's girl, showing a talent we knew she had in recent years. It's sad then that in this third outing she's barely given as much to do as she had in the first two films. Harris carries a strong performance but goes almost unmentioned between her scenes at the beginning and end of the film. Though both are supposed to be important parts of Harold and Kumar's lives, neither gets as much to do as they deserve. It's good to see Danny Trejo succeed in a comedic role, the actor usually known for his action work gets probably the most chances to shine among the secondary cast and never misses a beat. Newcomer Thomas Lennon also puts in a solid performance; as a change-up, Lennon forgoes much of his usual silliness to play an everyman, and while not perfect he still does a lot right with his work. The only disappointment in the cast is the failure of Law & Order: SVU performer Christopher Meloni to return to the series a third time. The character obviously intended for him, Russian mob boss Sergei Katsov, is reliably played by Elias Koteas. Koteas, while no Meloni, is a strong actor who doesn't mince with comedy and menaces throughout the entirety of his performance

The next step to global domination
Of course, it would be folly to ignore the effect that Neil Patrick Harris has had on the Harold and Kumar films, or the influence that the series has had on his own acting career. Playing the fictional, drug addicted womanizing version of himself in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle rejuvenated his stagnant acting career, there can be no doubt. Without White Castle, there would be no Barney Stinson. Without Barney Stinson there would be no How I Met Your Mother. And of course without Neil Patrick Harris there would likely be no Harold and Kumar sequels, as his character is probably the only one to be arguably more popular than either of the lead roles. Since his appearance in Christmas takes place chronologically after Harris came out of the closet, his sadly brief showing covers for that pop culture event while also making room for a cameo by his real life beau David Burtka. The only complaint I have is that there is far too little of Harris' craziness, packed into too short a period of time. He briefly appears, is great, and then disappears into the woodwork, never to be heard from again.

On a very special CSI: North Pole

And in the end, this is what is flawed about A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas. While it is funny at times, I can't help but feel that director Todd Strauss-Schulson, in his first feature film, didn't understand what made this dynamic pair so great in the first place. The script tries far too hard to shock you into groans rather than to actually try and make you laugh. While I really did have myself a good time seeing this picture, this lack of execution is what puts the third entry to this series a tick behind its predecessors. Between bong-wielding Santas and crack-addicted babies, there is more than enough to either enjoy or wag a finger at, and I hope the next entry to this series can get back to the level of quality we've enjoyed from Harold and Kumar in the past.