Friday, March 30, 2012

Life at Home

Well, it's now that awkward time between blockbuster releases. Last week Todd and I saw The Hunger Games, and now this coming weekend will bring the monster-mashing Wrath of the Titans and fairy tale family comedy Mirror Mirror to the big screen. In between, however, there's just not a whole lot of stuff out there to see. I've been pretty good at seeing most of the big releases so far this year, and there's nothing I feel I have to rent right at this second. I only ever use Netflix to catch up on old TV shows, and so pretty mush all of the films I watch these days are in the theater. for that reason. it's a good thing there's always something that slips between the cracks, and in this case that meant a showdown between Best Foreign Language Academy Award winner A Separation and new indie comedy Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Since I'm sure you can all see the poster to the left, you can probably guess which of those films won the coin-toss. This is nothing personal, Iran; I had a small window to catch a film, and Jeff simply had the better available showtime. This was a film that had caught my attention from the first trailer, thanks especially to its all-too-human family who seem to both despise and love one another at the same time. It was one of my more anticipated films for March, so I was happy that I was able to finally fit this particular title into my busy schedule.

"No, thank you, I'm very happy with my long distance provider..."
In this comedy by brother directors Jay and Mark Duplass, Jason Segel plays the titular Jeff, a pot-smoking thirty year-old slacker living in his mother's basement. Forced out of the house on an errand by mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon), Jeff becomes obsessed with the name Kevin, sure it will lead him to something of great importance. Meanwhile, his brother Pat (Ed Helms) is having issues with his marriage, and begins to suspect that his wife Linda (Judy Greer) is having an affair with another man. Finally, Sharon is trying to consolidate her frustration with her children when she gets an unusual surprise, the discovery of a secret admirer who apparently works in the same office that she does.

The look on his face says it all; this won't end well.
When the film first starts, we can learn a lot about how things are going to go. Jeff loves the movie Signs by M. Night Shyamalan, mostly for its idea that everything and everyone is connected in some way, and despite the 2002 film's apparent unevenness and issues, he appreciates how it threaded multiple narratives on course to the "perfect moment" at its climax. Well, what do you know? I just summarized Jeff, Who Lives at Home pretty much perfectly. Jeff takes a long time to find its feet, struggling through some early scenes with Segel that are barely watchable thank to Jeff himself, whose "unique" take on life takes a lot of getting used to. By this time you might feel as though seeing Jeff was a monumental mistake, but I promise you this: it does eventually get better. The show finally gets going when Jeff and Pat collide, as the main plot of the film finally gets around to being told. Pat's relationship issues are so realistic that you would swear they were written by your ex-boyfriend/girlfriend, and thankfully it is this aspect that drives the film for much of its narrative, taking a break from the existential mumbo-jumbo that began the whole thing. Unlike the plight of her sons, the story revolving around mother Sharon is never dull or feels astray, and its truly original tale is easily the best part of the whole film experience.

Why, hello creepy man.
The acting is at least good enough to keep things interesting, even when the story doesn't. You would think Segel to be perfectly at home as an oversized manchild, but unlike his usual over-animated roles in How I Met Your Mother and The Muppets, Segel plays Jeff's eternal optimism with a level of sincerity I've never witnessed from the actor. Segel is a big kid, but it's nice to see him stop and ACT instead of merely playing. The result is a nice fit for him, and a side I'd love to see more of in the future. Helms is also great, though he occasionally gets into the screaming mode that has already gotten a bit old after two Hangover films. Still, he gets to perform as a great character and run with it, and every scene with him feels completely honest. Sarandon does a wonderful job as the stressed, depressed mother of two disappointing boys, not a surprise to anyone who has seen her in action. While it might seem like a while since Susan Sarandon has made an impact on the big screen, it sure felt like she still had "it" when given the chance. Judy Greer and Rae Dawn Chong also do great work as Pat's estranged wife and Sharon's office friend, respectively.

She doesn't look a day older than Bull Durham
Unfortunately, the film takes a few too many cues from master Shyamalan in telling the tales of these three relatives. I already mentioned the slow opening, but too many scenes from the middle on feel contrived or simply pointless when compared to the big picture. Jeff especially feels out of place as the story takes off without him, hilarious since he's supposedly the film's titular character. That changes at the end, but even the film's supposed "perfect moment" feels forced, though I do have to admit that I never saw it coming. The film really gives too much credence to Jeff's mystical insight, and wraps up the family feud way too quickly to be truly believable. Still, the interaction between the main characters was great, propelling the material above the farce it could have been. The script could have used some cuts or revisions in some places, but on the whole the story felt sincere in its intentions, at least.

Jason Segel is a BIG man...
It's that sincerity that makes Jeff, Who Lives at Home watchable, if not necessarily good. This was probably a film better suited for DVD than the big screen, as the mindset for enjoying this might be so narrow as to encourage pausing midway through and coming back to it later. You might want to see this if you're really itching for an indie comedy, as long as you don't mind that Jeff is really far more dramatic than your average comedy. Otherwise, I'd avoid it, waiting instead for the new blockbusters coming out this weekend.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Esta Peculio es Tonto

Every once in a while, Will Ferrell gets a new idea of what being funny actually is, and he just runs with it. Some of the time, the result is wonderfully awesome, in the vein of the incredulous Anchorman or the sweet and sincere Stranger than Fiction. Sometimes he doesn't quite hit where he was intending, resulting in head-scratchers like Bewitched and Land of the Lost. More often than not though, he can and will make you laugh, a trait he has proven well since the moment he debuted on Saturday Night Live back in 1995. Lately, though, the funny hasn't been as frequent. Megamind was a hit, and The Other Guys was funny (although I don't get how that film cost more to make than The Hunger Games). And any time Ferrell makes an appearance it causes a stir that people will talk about for days. But what was with Everything Must Go, the okay-but-not-great drama that nobody paid attention to last year? I'm not sure what was more confusing there; that Ferrell performed a serious role, or that nobody seemed to care. This was the kind of job that garnered Bill Murray a Best Actor nomination in 2003, but barely registered a blip in 2011. Now Ferrell is trying to get back into comedy, aiming for a parody of popular Telenovelas with his new film Casa de mi Padre. Spoken almost entirely in Spanish and very much harboring a singularly retro style, the only question is whether Ferrell could transition back to comedy with the same energy that made Anchorman one of my all-time favorite comedies.

"Esta es mi 'Boom-Stick!'"
Mild-mannered Armando Alvarez (Ferrell) works on his father's cattle ranch, and he carries a deep love for the land and the work he does, despite being thought of as stupid by his father (Pedro Armendariz, Jr). When his younger, favored Raul brother (Diego Luna) returns from working in the city, he brings home more than just fiance Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez). He also delivers the wrath of a drug cartel run by the nefarious Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal) onto their heads, and in the end it is up to the hitherto unreliable Armando Alvarez to protect his family and the whole of Mexico from the drug problems that ravage it.

"No, no he inicio llama Ron Burgundy."
As I stated before, the film takes a lot of inspiration from Mexican Telenovelas, short television series that have a definite beginning and end. Unlike a large number of American TV shows, a Telenovela is rarely more than one year, and is never re-upped if ratings are high enough. Playing out like many modern soap operas, they aim to draw in their audiences with strong characters, relationships and out-of-nowhere plot twists. Casa de mi Padre parodies this by presenting itself as a low-budget variation of this show, mixed perhaps with a dash of Spaghetti Westerns. The cheap-feeling nature in which it was created actually sets up some of the film's funniest moments, as obvious cuts due to these "budget issues" are among the best the movie has to offer, from Genesis Rodriguez' inability to mount a horse to Ferrell picking up a live calf before showing it to be a stuffed animal when he turns around.

Su mente está en su dinero y su dinero está en su mente.
As usual for a Will Ferrell movie, the main reason to see Casa de mi Padre is... Will Ferrell. As he does in just about every film he makes, Ferrell completely throws himself into the character of Armando Alvarez, learning Spanish to fully immerse himself in the role. Though there will no doubt be criticism as to his pronunciation, I thought he did a fine job, and perfectly captured the internal drama while externalizing it, playing up the melodrama of the script and never breaking character or the fourth wall. There are other good performances as well, though most of them are expected and not as surprising as Ferrell. Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal are little known to most American audiences but are entertaining as Armando's beloved brother and a notorious drug lord, respectively.. Even better is Genesis Rodriguez, who already impressed me with her Hollywood debut in this year's Man on a Ledge. Though she does little more than play Ferrell's love interest, Rodriguez draws upon her experience with Telenovelas to overact in every scene, which in this type of environment is actually to great effect. I'm personally looking forward to what she brings to her next big role, that of an FBI agent in Arnold Schwarzenegger's return to action Last Stand, due out next year. And Nick Offerman makes another hilarious appearance, as the Parks and Recreations star soaks up some sunlight playing a crooked DEA agent.

No tengo nada divertido que decir aquí. Ella es muy bonita.
Unfortunately, the comedy train doesn't last. Or arrive very often. While the intentionally low-budget look of Casa de mi Padre does generate some laughs, they aren't Ferrell's usual gut-busting kind. The laughter the film generates is more the "clever chuckle" variety, and not all that much, as it turns out. Too often there are moments where the filmmakers REALLY wanted something to be funny, but fail to come through and actually MAKE us laugh. As to the lack of funny material, this is almost certainly the fault of director Matt Piedmont, for whom Casa represents his feature film debut. Ferrell recommended him highly from his days as a writer on SNL and with Ferrell on the Funny or Die website, but his brand of skit humor doesn't quite translate to the big screen, or at least it doesn't here. It's obvious he just wasn't in command of the film, and he might need some more work on TV before I'd trust a another title under his tutelage. Unfortunately it's too late for Casa, which fizzles out without a strong hand to guide it to success, or at least decency.

Porque cada película basada en México deben tener un número musical.
That ultimately leads Casa de mi Padre to become among the worst films I've seen this year. It's difficult to criticize a film like this too harshly, as its obviously begging to not be taken all that seriously. However, when the funny (or lack thereof) feels like it's being squeezed from a stone, it's hard to care enough about what little actually works when so much does not. When the only film worse than you so far this year is the Ghost Rider sequel, it's obvious that mistakes were made. However, unlike Nicolas Cage, I'm at least reasonably convinced that Will Ferrell's next effort will make up for this transgression. He's a talented comedian, and I'll be happy to check out his next work as soon as it becomes available.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Don't Tell Me the Odds

Yup, that time has finally arrived. Only two things kept me from going to the midnight release of The Hunger Games and writing my review it this past Friday. One, midnight releases, in my eyes, are a group thing. I've gone to midnight release showings by myself in the past, but there's simply no replacing the experience of that frantic conversation you have at 2 a.m. with the people who witnessed it all alongside you. That's what makes going to a midnight release so much fun, often even more than the film itself. Second, Todd had become interested in the highly-anticipated film, but as she was unable to attend a midnight release show (the downside of any typical office job) we instead saw it on Saturday. We still didn't avoid the crowds, though. In fact, I ran late getting to the theater, and so we were lucky to get good seats at all. I don't think I have to go into just how popular the teen novel trilogy, written by Suzanne Collins, has become the past few years. My day job is at a bookstore, and I estimate that every third customer the past month has been buying The Hunger games or one of its sequels, on average. There was no doubt that the film adaptation would be just as successful, and with an opening weekend of $155 million, it's the owner of the largest opening weekend for a non-sequel film, besting former leader Alice in Wonderland by a healthy margin.

One of you must die... who shall it be?
But that's not the whole story. Despite being all the rage with teens and young adults these past few years, more than a few experienced readers/movie lovers (myself included) will tell you that The Hunger Games is little more than a poorly-transcribed copy of Battle Royale, written by Japanese author Koushun Takami, which spawned a film and manga series in its own right. Certainly, there are a number of easy comparisons between the two, most notably corrupt governments enforcing their hold on the huddled masses by pitting the children of their citizens against one another in a fight to the death. To appeal to teens exclusively, however, Collins did make some changes, including a strong female lead and a love triangle for the teens to focus on, almost Twilight-like in its execution. In fact, the supernatural series has been mentioned often in comparison to the Hunger Games franchise, almost exclusively because of that romance story. That doesn't mean you can only like one if you enjoy the other (or dislike for the same reason). While Twilight held no interest for me, my reading of The Hunger Games was quick and enjoyable, and I'll certainly read the sequels before too much time has passed. I can definitely understand why teens get so excited about the series, but it makes one wonder what the result will be when what worked so well on paper gets transferred to the big screen?

"Wait... you mean we're not here for a disco dance-off?"
Seventy-four years ago, the Civil War against the Capitol of Panem ended with the government forces utterly defeating those of the twelve rebelling provinces. As retribution and a constant reminder not to rise against their leaders, the capital holds an event called the Hunger Games. In it, a male and female child between the ages of 12 and 18 is picked at random as "Tributes" from every district and brought to the city, where they are trained in combat and wilderness survival. After that, they are dropped into an arena filled with weapons and other dangers and forced to fight to the death, with the whole event televised in every district. Of twenty-four teenagers, there can only be one victor. This year, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself the female contestant for District 12, and while she is a talented hunter with a strong will, the measure of any Tribute can only be measured by what they are willing to do and sacrifice in order to survive.

Yuck it up, kids; you're all dead soon enough.
It's obvious from the start why The Hunger Games wasn't slated for a mid-summer release. Usually films released in June and July sport the kind of special effects that draw most of the attention from the director, rather than a script or acting. Just look at last year's Transformers: Dark of the Moon for a perfect example of a film that made a ton of money just for looking pretty, what I call the "Victoria's Secret" method of filmmaking. However, Lionsgate Films is an upstart film production company, without the financial resources of the big studios. They scored a coup by securing the rights to The Hunger Games (trending on a focus towards teen films), but they only spent $78 million to make this film, and to be brutally honest, it looks it. The actual visual effects are sparse, usually looking every bit the green screen or CGI abominations they are. To obscure the violence, director Gary Ross employs the evil tactic of "shaky-cam" to make sure you can't tell what the hell is happening at any given time. Note to directors: this only confuses and frustrates your audience. STOP IT. The sets feel small-scale as well, with scenes like the early ones of District 12 feeling too compact to be whole communities. However, the effects department shines when it comes to its use of makeup, which helps perfectly convey the attitudes and nature of the people who live in this universe. From the dirty coal miners of District 12 to the insane amount of opulence of the citizens of the Capitol, you really get a feel for the personalities of these areas thanks just to even the merest glance.

"Of course, I care about you, Jacob... I mean Gale."
However, it's a shame that the makeup is the best thing I have to say about this film. The overall acting is fine (and in some cases even better), but marred far too much by the trite dialogue the main actors are forced to recite. Let's face it: this was never going to be Hamlet, but I expected much more with this cast. Some of the actors are simply perfect in their roles. Liam Hemsworth doesn't get to do much but exist in the beginning, but you can easily see why he was chosen to play the strong Gale, one of Katniss's two potential love interests. Elizabeth Banks also stands out as Effie Trinket, Katniss's insufferable escort in preparation for the Games. Banks has been pretty consistent lately, and hopefully casting directors will give her more challenging roles in the future as a reward. Other solid and enjoyable performances come from Donald Sutherland as the Capitol President, Lenny Kravitz as the stylist Cinna, Stanley Tucci as a famous television personality, and Amandla Stenberg as a fellow Tribute named Rue.

Woody Harrelson; perfectly cast, imperfectly directed
But other roles were not done nearly as well, mostly due to how poorly they were written. When Woody Harrelson was cast as alcoholic former Hunger Games winner Haymitch Abernathy, it was widely accepted that this was a good call. However, the role never really fleshes out despite Harrelson's best efforts, and the result is a character that we just don't care about, or wouldn't if we hadn't read the book. Journey 2's Josh Hutcherson is fine as District 12 Tribute and love interest Peeta Mellark but doesn't really look the "strong baker's boy" part he's supposed to portray. But the most disappointing might be Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, when all is said and done. The problem with Lawrence is not her ability but indeed what she's given for material. There's very little that makes Katniss a character worth rooting for, despite care made to make her a strong, solitary young woman. A natural hunter and used to being on her own, Katniss makes for a better contestant than she does a regular human being, and that's the character's problem; while Peeta is not as strong a combatant or survivalist, he does have the easygoing charm that people gravitate towards, making him imminently sympathetic to audiences. Not so with Katniss, who lacks anything akin to a personality despite the best efforts of Lawrence as an actress. I was honestly worried that Lawrence wouldn't live up to her Academy Award-nominated breakout in Winter's Bone after she stunk up X-Men: First Class, but it seems my fears were unfounded. Now if only Katniss Everdeen could be as well-written as she should be, and Lawrence (and the franchise) would be all set.

The new Crocodile Hunter, anyone?
Finally, there are a few more serious issues with this film. Some have to do with the film itself, the others having to do with the tale-telling of The Hunger Games in general. The ending. which wraps up much too quickly and with far too many holes in the tale left unclosed, is a disaster, and can be laid directly at the feet of Ross, who was obviously unprepared for this type of film after directing more family-friendly fare such as Seabiscuit and Pleasantville in his career. That he's already slated to direct the upcoming sequel is a head-scratcher, as he doesn't do this franchise any favors in this first installment. His attempts to escape Collins's Katniss-only narrative (arguably the book's weakest aspect) are poorly conceived and executed, the only tangible benefit being more Sutherland than I had at first expected. Finally, I had a criticism that Todd herself brought up: the whole method of using the Games to keep the Districts down simply makes no sense. If the Capitol had demanded that adults be tributes, then it makes sense, because at least that could be argued to be fair and just, even if it was morally wrong. But putting children in danger would present a whole host of side effects, from the rising risk of rebellion (what parents would do to protect their children), to drastically reducing populations (who would want to have kids to risk losing them in the games?) in areas that provide necessary resources for the Capitol. It's almost as if they make the teens compete to artificially create a story appealing to young readers/viewers, and to Hell with the cultural likelihood. Huh.

For the record, Mr. Anderson likes the ponytail look.
Despite what must seem like a scathing review (Already I can hear a crowd of fangirls outside my window, baying for blood), I actually enjoyed The Hunger Games as a decent sort of action film, despite its glaring issues. Obviously, this is no masterpiece, and I'm not sure anyone was expecting otherwise. I can at least appreciate The Hunger Games for its fantasy, as I liked The Woman in Black for its scares and Safe House for its acting, ignoring their other flaws. The only thing I can hope is that Ross and Lionsgate recognize what the problems were, and rectify them in the upcoming sequels. This was a film I really wanted to like, but sadly turns out to be just another okay 2012 release, debuting at #9 for the year. This film had a lot of potential, but lapsed thanks to an overly-chopped narrative, mediocre effects and a rabid fandom that overly-hyped it into oblivion. I expect and demand better from them in the future. If you're a fan of these books, you should too.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Something Fishy This Way Comes

Today is Friday, March 23'rd, and I feel as though I'm officially reviewing the first Academy Award contender of 2012. There are a couple of reasons Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was my most anticipated film for March, over the likes of the exciting John Carter, indie Jeff Who Lives at Home, and the juggernaut atop everybody else's lists, The Hunger Games. The first was the casting; between Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Kristin Scott Thomas, there wasn't a single weakness anywhere in the actors presented. I'm a huge fan of Blunt, and McGregor and Thomas have been known for their outstanding work in the past. The second was the story, a unique tale that quickly distanced itself from the usual band of retreads that Hollywood pumps out with regularity. There wasn't any time in the past few months in which I didn't expect this film to be a great addition to the ranks of my Top 10 for the year, not just at the time of its release but far down the line as well.

Based on the book of the same name by Paul Torday, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen tells the story of fisheries scientist Alfred Jones (McGregor), who finds himself involved in an insane pipe dream, as he is hired by Yemeni Sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked) in an effort to introduce the sport of salmon fishing to the dry Middle Eastern country. He is practically forced into the project by the British government, as Public Relations chief Bridget Maxwell (Thomas) desperately needs a feel-good news story from the Middle East as the ongoing war has hardly helped matters. While Alfred at first believes that the entire notion of introducing cold-climate fish to the arid desert is unfeasible, he gradually is persuaded by the charisma and brilliance of the Sheikh and his financial strategist Harriet Chatwode-Talbot (the lovely and talented Blunt), especially as it forces him away from his mundane everyday life and into something new and unknown. Eventually, he finds himself completely behind the project, but the daunting task of succeeding at what is barely theoretically possible is yet another matter.

Two actors I'll always watch
The acting, as expected, is as wonderful as I imagined. McGregor is, to the surprise of nobody, a natural at playing the insecure, know-it-all with a heart of gold. As the story's hero however, McGregor needed to be more than a stereotype in order to properly capture the distinct personality of Alfred Jones, and he gives us a show as close to perfection as any actor possibly can. It's actually amazing that in almost eighteen years of performing, McGregor has never been nominated for an Academy Award, as even his star turn in the popular-if-polarizing Moulin Rouge was close, but no cigar. His chances have to improve eventually, and hopefully he won't have to wait as long as Beginners co-star Christopher Plummer did to get one of those golden men. In the meantime, I'll simply enjoy every single one of McGregor's performances going forward. Blunt is still trying to make a name for herself in Hollywood, and I certainly hope Salmon Fishing in the Yemen helps her to that goal. It's hard to believe that it's been six years since The Devil Wears Prada, but stardom seems strangely elusive for the exceptionally talented Blum, who always seems to be in good movies that most people just don't bother to see. Here she commands the screen with her mere appearance, adding greatly just by opening her mouth and speaking. If that seems like limited praise, it's because I honestly don't know how to describe her importance to the film, other than that her mere appearance raises the standards of everything around her a million percent.

Waked's work is the stuff Academy Award nominations are made of.
The real star of this film however might be Waked, whose role seems tailor-made for generating awards buzz. As the charismatic, intelligent Sheikh Muhammad, Waked manages to imbue the role with everything needed and more, succeeding in becoming the heart and soul of the film in the process. I knew going in that he would likely be the best thing about the film, and his performance did not disappoint. The only disappointment is Thomas, whose part would fit in well with a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Whether she is running around shouting on the phone, mugging for photo opportunities or staring down the Prime Minister, her character is strong but without grounding in reality. This is no fault of Thomas, of course, but of a role so comically written that it throws off the film's entire dynamic without even trying.

Yes, he gets "It's So Big" a lot...
And unfortunately, this is a film that gets off the rails more than once on its quest to get from start to finish. While the central idea of transplanting Salmon into Yemen is a unique idea itself, just about everything around it is tepid, predictable and forced to the point where you can see the whole plot coming a mile away. Director Lasse Hallstrom has been revered in the past for his adaptations of The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, and The Shipping News, but his work on Salmon Fishing in the Yemen feels surprisingly amateur, most notably with sudden musical score changes when something dastardly is about to happen. The conflicts in the film feel contrived to the point of exhaustion, as though Hallstrom attempted to express his views on culturalism in the Middle East without actually knowing anything about the subject. Additionally, some scenes that should have definite significance (such as McGregor walking against a tide of people to compare him to the upstream-swimming salmon) are wasted, as they are presented without any specific context. The inevitable romance between McGregor and Blunt is also predictable, though at least the story complicates things by starting these two off with preexisting romantic relationships.While the scenes featuring Kristin Scott Thomas are in fact humorous, they detract from the film by being TOO funny, contrasting sharply with the seriousness of the rest of the tale.

John Krasinski, you lucky bastard...
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen overcomes these problems thanks mainly to an acting corps that consistently raises the bar on talent, and a believable romance that works much in the same way as fellow 2012 release Friends With Kids, albeit with a bit more class. There are definitely issues with the story and how it's told, but those two major factors push this title above most of the recently released mediocre movies, turning it into the #2 Film of 2012. While I think you could push this film aside and focus on the other good titles that were released this March, it also makes the perfect counter for if and when you're not interesting in seeing the big, showy special effects-laden films that have dominated the box office these past couple of months. Waked's performance especially makes this film a must-see, and even if you don't see it in the theater, it would definitely be worth a rental this summer. I for one am glad I saw it on the big screen, but Salmon Fishing in the Yemen wasn't the game-changer I was certain it would be.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Jump Around

"It's all about recycling shit from the past and expecting everyone not to notice."

No, that's not a copy/paste effort from one of my previous posts.
It's true, I've never been completely behind the idea that remakes or the recycling of ideas in Hollywood are a good idea. It's one thing when they take an idea that is still kicking around the entertainment industry (like Transformers, for example) in this day and age, but far too often the creative minds in Los Angeles are eager to dredge up the once-hit television wonders of yesteryear, itching to capitalize on our collective nostalgia for a big payday. Sadly, we as audiences perpetuate this problem when we allow our memories of old TV shows like Josie and the Pussycats, and Scooby Doo to dictate what we see in the theaters. Even if such films are ultimately unsuccessful, usually they earn just enough money at the box office to justify their expense. What are we telling this industry when more of us spent money to see Bewitched than did to see A Better Life?

What are they less believable as: teenagers or cops?
Of course, it's wrong to condemn an entire genre based on whatever inherent source material might have been used. There have actually been some good remakes on both film and television in the past decade, from the recent Star Trek reboot to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy to the excellent Battlestar Galactica TV show from a few years back. Now you can add 21 Jump Street to that list. Originally airing in 1987, the television show on which this film is based was a serious drama focusing on young-looking cops going undercover at schools to investigate cases involving drugs, abuse, and other crimes. Running for four years, it provided a launching pad for star Johnny Depp, who would of course go on to star in Edward Scissorhands and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, among other popular films. The remake of this show is naturally an action comedy starring a cliched pairing of Hollywood heartthrob Channing Tatum and pudgy Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill. Looks like it would be all downhill from here, right?

Our heroes report to the Captain...
Well, not so fast. Sure, the story is a familiar one; inept police officers Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) find themselves assigned to a restructured police operation on 21 Jump Street, an undercover unit that sends young-looking officers into schools to conduct their investigations. Tasked with infiltrating a drug ring at a local high school, the pair encounter difficulties when they realize that social circles do not revolve the same way they did when Schmidt and Jenko were in school. Jenko, a former jock and popular dude, finds himself an outcast, while Schmidt, who had gone through high school an unpopular geek, finds himself atop the school's "cool" list. The pair must overcome their weaknesses and work together to break open this illicit drug ring. If they play their cards right, the final outcome might be something they both missed in their first high school go-around: Senior Prom.

Somebody show Hill how to hold a gun!
Yes, it's obvious from my description and the film's trailer that a lot of stereotypes concerning police and high school are crammed in here, laying the groundwork for a "been there, done that" experience if placed the wrong hands. However, in the care of directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (whose previous effort was the 3D animated Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), 21 Jump Street is gleefully self-aware of its limitations, embracing them as the film's main basis for its story. For the most part, this method surprisingly works, successful not only in paying homage to the original TV show but also establishing this new film as great entertainment in its own right. The statement I quoted to begin this review is from the film itself, spoken by Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) in reference to the rebooting of the Jump Street program itself. Naturally, it's also a sly wink and nod to the audience about many of their expectations concerning remakes in general. This level of honesty is refreshing, and immediately places 21 Jump Street on a level appreciable to any audience member simply looking to have a good time.

He's gonna put his chrome to your dome... what does THAT mean?
Of course, all that audience appreciation doesn't mean a damned thing if you're not the least bit entertaining. Fortunately, what we have here is one of the funniest films in recent memory, with the humor ranging from hilariously physical to ingeniously clever. Even after he built his career on comedies such as Superbad and Get Him to the Greek, it's odd to admit that Jonah Hill has excellent comedic timing, turning any scene on its ear with a well-positioned quip. Meanwhile, Channing Tatum uses his good looks as a perfect setup for the excellently-delivered dumb jock jokes. Together they might seem like a cheaply-manufactured buddy cop comedy, but the script and the actors follow a lesson imparted by Captain Dickson: "Embrace your stereotypes." What at first appears to be an obvious trotting out of police procedural and buddy film formulas instead makes fun of those same cliches, to great effect. Of special note are scenes in which the heroes are under the effects of the drug they're supposed to be policing and an amazingly clever freeway car chase, both sequences as hilarious as they are unpredictable. And when the supporting cast features such talents as Rob Riggle as a school gym teacher and Brie Larson as a popular teen, it only adds to the quality of the script and humor.

Why yes, he DOES have a shot at a girl like her.
When I first saw the trailer for 21 Jump Street, I was sure that like many before it the film would be an awful jumble of stereotypes, cliches and bad humor on the way to being among the year's worst. The fifth time I saw the trailer, I found myself chuckling at the humor and thinking perhaps it wouldn't be too bad. After seeing it about ten times and in the face of positive reviews, I halfway considered this spending money for me and Todd to see it in the theater would not be a waste of a weekend. I certainly did not expect to laugh nonstop throughout, nor did I figure that 21 Jump Street would turn into my #1 film for 2012. It's still early, and no doubt some film will come along to knock this one off its precarious perch. But this was by far the best, most complete experience I've had at the movie theater this year. Whether or not you were a fan of the original television series, there's more here than mere homage. This is just pure entertainment, plain and simple.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Mr. Anderson Double Feature: Silent House & Friends With Kids

I took this past week off from work, tired and worn down from the stresses of a job that sucks forty hours of life from you on a good week. I'm sure you all know the feelings that can sometimes accompany that, even if it's a job you absolutely love. Sometimes you just need to take time off, even if you don't plan to go anywhere or see anyone. Since this is me we're talking about, that meant watching movies. Some TV and video games, certainly, but mostly movies. Because I DID see so much, and because I don't need (or want) a two week buffer for potential reviews, I thought I'd take this opportunity to look at two of the titles I saw last week: the supernatural horror film Silent House and the romantic comedy Friends With Kids.

Silent House is a remake of the Uruguayan horror film La Casa Muda, originally released in 2010. Olsen Twins reject Elizabeth Olsen plays Sarah, a young woman who is helping her father repair their worn down old lakeside summer home in hopes of selling it. While exploring the house, Sarah hears something making noise upstairs, and her father disappears while investigating. What follows is Sarah doing being hunted by something in the house, and her trying to escape whatever it might be. But the closer she gets to freedom, the closer the house's secrets get to revealing themselves to the world.

One of the main draws for seeing Silent House is of course Olsen, who impressed many with her debut in last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene to the tune of several industry awards and nominations. While Silent House does have multiple characters, they do little but provide a backdrop for Olsen, who really proves that her success last year was no fluke. While there's little at first for Sarah to do besides creep from room to room, it is that steady deliberation that makes you fully appreciate Olsen's performance as a modern-day scream queen. And as her character slowly develops over the course of the film, you garner respect for just how deep her role really is.

That tank top is otherworldly.
Unfortunately, directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (who were the creators of the popular 2003 film Open Water) can't seem to make this great short story idea run properly over the length of a full feature film. The film's main gimmick (and it IS a gimmick) is that it is meant to look like the entire tale is shot in one continuous take, with no breaks or sudden shot changes. The fact that much of the film actually looks like it easily follows this formula is impressive, though in the mostly-dark house there are several times when the directors could have stopped the cameras without anyone noticing. More impressive is during the film's many slow moments, when it is far more difficult to get away with cutting off your shots. I don't know how much the directors had to get JUST RIGHT, but their technical prowess is all but unquestioned when you consider the impressive look of the final product.

Okay, NOW she looks a bit more like her sisters...
The story however... Kentis and Lau do an amazing job building tension as Sarah moves from room to room, but all that work is worthless if you don't let some of that out from time to time. True to the film's slow pacing, the tale doesn't feel as though it's going anywhere, and when it does, we've seen it coming a mile away. With the exception of a few small scares, there's also not much frightening going on, with the film in the end taking on a more psychological thriller aspect that changes the whole makeup of what I thought I was watching. Silent House is utterly a disappointment; an excellent performance by Olsen utterly sabotaged by a predictable script and a distinct lack of scares.

On the flip side of that equation is Friends with Kids, my new #1 film for 2012. I feel kind of bad cramming this film into a double feature review, and I hope this doesn't go unnoticed down here as the film likely will be in the outside world. Written and directed by Jennifer Westfeldt (who also co-wrote and acted in 2001's Kissing Jessica Stein, but is probably best known for her relationship with John Hamm), the film tells the story of best friends Julie and Jason (played by Westfeldt and Piranha 3D and Parks and Recreations star Adam Scott) who, in their thirties and wanting children, don't want to fall into the traps that have befallen their married friends. After stating that having children would not change things, their friends seem eternally miserable with their lives and marriages after having their kids. As neither Julie nor Jason have found "The One", they decide they will have a baby themselves, sharing equal responsibilities for raising their child while dating other people, thus avoiding the relationship drain from which their friends suffer.

"So, there are no cameras, right?" "Sure."
A lot of the marketing buzz surrounding this release focused on a reunion of sorts, with much of the cast of last year's sensation Bridesmaids returning together to the big screen once again. Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Hamm and Chris O'Dowd all do excellent work together as couples who go from happy-go-lucky to miserable with the difficulties of child rearing introduced to their lives, but any going to see this film with the expressed intention of seeing these actors in action will be disappointed: this is Westfeldt and Scott's show all the way. Jason and Julie are those friends you know (or maybe have been part of): they live in the same apartment building, they've been friends with one another since just about forever, know everything there is to know about one another, have secret games they play constantly, and mesh on just about every level you can imagine with perfect ease. They're also the friends who aren't attracted to one another in the slightest and you CAN'T UNDERSTAND WHY, since it's obvious that together they'd make the perfect couple. For their part, Westfeldt and Scott put forth two of the best performances I've seen so far in 2012, their motivations and characteristics feeling more like those of living, breathing, and thinking human beings than you ever see in typical Hollywood fare. Westfeldt is incredibly sweet and brilliant as Julie, and Scott is roguish and charming as Jason, the actors succeeding in making both characters impeccably likable and easy for the audience to relate to.

They're just angry that I ended a sentence with a preposition.
The secondary cast does get some opportunities to hog screen time, but anyone hoping for the hilarity of Bridesmaids should be reminded that Melissa McCarthy was one of the main reasons that film's humor margin was set so highly, and she's nowhere to be found in Friends With Kids. Also missing from this film is the low-brow level of smart humor that made Bridesmaids a widely-revered modern classic. Instead Friends with Kids prides itself on being merely incredibly smart, with only a few poop jokes present (there are diapers, after all) while the main focus of the film is the dialogue concerning adult relationships and how children affect that dynamic. Both couples (consisting of Wiig with Hamm and Rudolph with O'Dowd) have their issues, but Wiig and Hamm seem eternally miserable being around one another, while Rudolph and O'Dowd still seem affectionate even while they're shouting at each other. The few times the film actually focuses on these pairs are wonderful moments; it's a shame the filmmakers couldn't fit them in a bit more to diversify the story a tad. Other notable performances come from Edward Burns as a divorcee and Megan Fox (!) as a modern dancer, both of whom are considered "The Ones" by Julie and Jason respectively. Burns does some of his best work in years, and while Fox really only manages to play herself, she is still tons better than anything else in which I've actually seen her.

Scarier than any part of Silent House.
The only detraction I can come up with for Friends With Kids is that the romantic comedy storyline is still too normal and predictable to fully get behind. If it wasn't for the excellent performance of the cast, especially Westfeldt and Scott, this could easily have flopped into forgettable territory, even in a year when great films seem to be a true rarity. Instead, this is a success for first time director Westfeldt, who creates a nice twist for a classic story, much like the one by the late Adrienne Shelly in 2007's Waitress. It might not be as raunchy as Bridesmaids before it, but Kids With Friends would be well worth hunting down even if there were viable alternatives in the world of cinema right now.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Party Time

Ever wanted to host THAT party? That epic, insane event that buries itself in into the memories of you and your guests and never lets go? A party where the liquor flows freely, everybody's inhibitions drop to next to nothing and people will speak of the events that transpire that night for years to come? Of course! There's not a person alive for whom that level of infamy would not appeal on some level, let alone the teens to whom Project X's marketing department is targeting. No, this isn't a remake of the 1987 sci-fi thriller starring Matthew Broderick and a chimpanzee. Thank God for that. Instead, producer Todd Phillips (best known for directing the Hangover franchise) brings us the ultimate party film, so that those of us who never experienced that kind of craziness could instead witness it first-hand on the big screen.

It's unpopular high school student Thomas' (Thomas Mann) seventeenth birthday, and his friends are attempting to put together the biggest party of all time to celebrate. With Thomas' parents out of town for the weekend to celebrate their anniversary, Thomas and his fellow unknowns Costa (Oliver Cooper) and J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown), along with Thomas' childhood friend Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton), have the house to themselves, with Oliver inviting everybody to what he assures them will be the celebration to end all. They also recruit AV club student Dax (Dax Flame) to record the entire series of events on his video camera. What happens that night defies all conventional odds, and irreversibly change the way these three are looked upon by their fellow classmates, neighbors and families.

Yup, these are your three heroes. Shake your heads in unison.
The film takes a long time to get going, as early scenes in which we are introduced to the three protagonists gets old fast. Of the boys, only Costa really gets to be too much, voicing the bad-boy tendencies that cause the events of the film to take place. Frankly, Costa is an annoying prick, wearing his welcome out quickly with a vulgar tongue, abusive attitude towards his supposed friends, and generally negative view of everything around him. Yes, he sets everything in motion that takes place that night, but until that happens all we see is an unapologetic asshole with a terribly skewed view of how the world actually works.

Beer Pong... there's no good party without it.
It's when the party really gets going that the story does as well, perhaps thanks to the fact that there are dozens of things happening at any given time, from skinny dipping in the pool to the discovery of ecstasy to endless booze-oriented hijinks. As you've probably guessed, the what was supposed to be a fifty-person event turns into much more, with over a thousand guests, midgets, insane stunts, police and assaults, not to mention an insane amount of sex. With Phillips and director Nima Nourizadeh in charge, this was never going to be a PG-rated title, and everyone involved is completely unapologetic when it comes to the adult content. Even as absurd as it all is, give the characters credit for reacting realistically to the madness around them. When a well-placed sign actually works at getting young women to strip out of their tops, the boys' reaction completely sells the scene, as they wonder at the fact that the stunt actually worked.

Oh, that poor animal...
Phillips and the rest of the filmmakers hired no-names to fill out the cast and party-goers present in Project X, and as you can probably guess, that means acting was not a major factor in either the film's creation or your enjoyment. Obviously, I've already discussed the annoyance that is Costa, but the other two boys aren't much better, with Thomas' nervousness and second-guessing causing you to grit your teeth in frustration, and J.B.'s complete lack of personality eliciting the requisite eye-rolling. Only a few actors, including the lovely Kirby Bliss Blanton and young vet Miles Teller (who is quickly rising in well-deserved popularity with roles in Rabbit Hole and the remake of Footloose) doing a ton with their limited contributions. Dax Flame was good when given a chance to contribute, but as the film's most interesting human character it was a shame that he was silently stuck behind the camera almost completely. In the end, the only real character of note is the party itself, like the film as a whole a seething mass of humanity and ethanol that is capable of just about anything and everything.

This is about when shit got unbelievable.
Project X also manages to inject a bit of life into the genre known as "Found Footage." Once and still a haven of cheap horror films, Found Footage has expanded horizons to include science fiction and superhero sub-genres. Now you can add "party films" to that list, as telling the party from such a limited perspective does wonders for making the audience feel as if they are part of the action on the screen. Unlike the forced and unbelievable sources of camera footage in Apollo 18 or last month's Chronicle, the idea that the entire thing is being recorded never feels out of place or unbelievable. 95% of what we see is from one supposed source, and the few limited deviations are both believable and effective without being distracting in the slightest. While it's unlikely we'll ever see another party film like this again, it was nice to see the Found Footage genre being used for good instead of more of the same.

The party only ends when the neighborhood is on fire...
The finale is unfortunately not really any good, as a contrived, dramatic finish was apparently the only way the screenwriters could force the party's conclusion in a timely manner. Combine that with the slow start and what is left is 45 minutes of awesome encapsulated by another 40 of suck. Phillips and Nourizadeh combine to create the ultimate wet dream, and to be honest this film is similar to the Hangover films in that they're obviously geared towards young teens and men. Still, if you can get past the mysogeny, gay-bashing and unbelievablilty of the whole ordeal and simply enjoy the mindless fun and excellent soundtrack of Project X, it can be an entertaining ride that can either help recapture your youth or give you a glimpse of what you missed out on when you were younger. It's the #8 film of 2012.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Way Over the Rainbow

It's not often that a film gets blasted before a single soul ever sees it. Normally, a well-known piece of American literature (in this case Edgar Rice Burroughs' "A Princess of Mars") would be at least respected by potential audiences and reviewers months in advance. And yet, thanks to what has been called a "lackluster" marketing drive by Disney and a $250 million budget routinely criticized by movie "experts", there is a good chance that you will not see John Carter on the big screen in the coming days. That would be a mistake, as no matter how much Disney might not know how to advertise a movie geared towards boys (after all, their entire business used to be solely appealing to girls) it doesn't change the fact that I had a ton of fun watching it this past weekend. Todd and I had a choice between this and Silent House (which I'll be reviewing next week), and we decided that we were more in the mood for a light-hearted adventure tale than a spooky horror flick. Sure, 3D hasn't always been kind to me. Sure, it's being released in March, and there's not much released during this particular month that is usually any good. But dammit, we wanted a mindless sci-fi action film, and we didn't care from where we got it.

Soon, he'll be adding Best Picture nominee Battleship to his resume.
When Confederate Civil War hero John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) finds himself mystically transported to Mars (known to the locals as Barsoom), he finds himself squarely in the middle of an inter-species conflict, as war rages between the cities of Zodanga, a warrior nation intent on destruction, and the peaceful, scientifically superior city of Helium. Somehow Zodanga's leader Sab Than (Dominic West) has gotten his hands on a weapon superior to anything Helium has been able to produce. Dominating his enemies, Sab Than is intent on conquering Helium, and taking the genius Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) as his bride. Asked to help, John Carter is searching for meaning in his life but nevertheless intent on returning to his little bit of nowhere in the American West and a substantial deposit of gold that awaits his return. In his way is the war, a tribe of green skinned aliens known as Tharks, and a mysterious sect known as the Holy Therns, who have their own plans for cities and people of Barsoom.

Yeah, yeah, she's hot... but can she ACT?
John Carter might not seem it at first, but sitting through it makes you appreciate the work of Burroughs, essentially one of the great-grandfathers of modern science fiction. First published in 1912, Carter's adventures have always enjoyed a pulpy feel to their telling, a method that translates to the big screen easily, even if this is the first time the tale has been told in such a visually spectacular way. Director Andrew Stanton, whose resume has mostly consisted of animated films Finding Nemo and Wall-E, does an excellent job in his live action debut, though perhaps not as well as his Pixar compatriot Brad Bird did with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. He's helped by the fact that most of the film is animated to begin with, with almost all the backgrounds, effects and most of the leading roles created in post-production. The design of the alien Tharks is especially realistic, helping John Carter sport the best visual effects since Avatar. Stanton also perfectly captures the intended fictional vision of Mars, a wasteland that despite looking completely barren manages to support life on a grand scale. Top it off with excellent 3D and a musical score by Michael Giacchino, and you've got a perfectly realized Barsoom, easily the most realistic-looking setting for a sci-fi film I've witnessed in a long time.

It's an early twentieth-century sci-fi story... of COURSE there's a dog!
Sadly, the story doesn't quite live up to the standards set by the special effects. Though I haven't read any of the original novels, I'm willing to bet that the quality of the story can partly be attributed to the fact that the tale itself turns one hundred this year, and certainly not everything could be included for fear of simply not getting better with age. Thankfully, this is all but solved with liberal doses of humor that are scattered evenly throughout the film. Unlike last week's Ghost Rider, the humor here is 100% intentional, so there's never that moment where you're laughing at what a farce the show has become. Sure, sometimes the humor goes a little over the top or takes the obvious route to a laugh for the expressed purpose of ending a scene, but no matter what the reason for use, John Carter never fails to be funny when called upon to do so.

"Okay, yeah... I can take them!"
Really, the only disappointing aspect of John Carter is in the acting. It's not the supporting cast that fails us, however. Drawing upon substantial talent like Dominic West, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds (who seems to appear in everything these days), James Purefoy and Bryan Cranston in live action roles, the people on the screen would appear to be as mighty as any seen in the past few years. Add in the vocal talents of Academy Award nominees Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Samantha Morton, and you really do have a cast to be reckoned with. Sadly, it doesn't matter how many excellent supporting actors you've collected when your leads are a pair of noodles just taken out of the water. Taylor Kitsch is at least decent, though I don't see anything beyond his rugged good looks that certify him as a star in the making. Sure, he COULD be the next Hugh Jackman, but Jackman was a theatrically-trained actor who can also sing and dance, regularly showcasing abilities surpassing his presence among the top action stars in Hollywood today. If Kitsch wants to make a name for himself, he'll have to take on a role (and soon) which requires more from him than a guttural regurgitation of simplistic dialogue. The worst however is Lynn Collins, who can at least state that her performance is better than the one she put forth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. No, that's really not saying much. Perhaps it's partially the character's fault, as Dejah Thoris pretends to be a strong female role while being simultaneously disallowed the opportunity to explore that idea. I felt that the dog had better character development, not a good sign for this pretty but not talent-endowed actress.

Awww, he just wants a hug... of DEATH!
As I've said, the film has flaws. I would have loved to look more into the background of the Therns, a mystical race much like Star Trek's Q species, omnipotent space-faring people that manipulate world event not for evil, but because they can. Perhaps that can be explored in the future, as John Carter was always meant to be the beginning of a film franchise. Whether that happens or not will be decided by how much business it builds in the next few weeks, but in the meantime I seriously enjoyed this film, to the tune of #4 for 2012. Rarely last year did I witness an action film that was the match of what John Carter put before me (the only one surpassing it would have been Hanna, and that title wasn't blessed with the same level of amazing effects), and between this, Underworld: Awakening, The Hunger Games and The Avengers in the year's first half, it's turning into a good year for genre films. I for one was more than pleased to discover that catching this particular title on the big screen was indeed no mistake.