Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Too Dumb

All I wanted to do was see a stupid movie. Why did the creators behind Movie 43 have to ruin that?

A series of sketch shorts from the minds of Peter Farrelly and Charles Wessler (who ruled Hollywood in the nineties with hits like There's Something about Mary and Dumb and Dumber) and filmed over the course of many years, Movie 42 uses a dozen directors and an insane number of A-list stars in fulfilling the most base of art forms; they try to out-gross one another with scenes that include a young couple with a poop fetish, superhero speed dating, teen menstruation, a truth or dare game gone out of control, violent leprechauns, and a man with testicles dangling from his chin. No connection other than existing within the same 90 minutes is made apparent, and if any of that appealed to you, I guarantee that Movie 42 will still find a way to disappoint you.

Yup, Emma Stone will officially do ANYTHING.
What fools you at first into thinking that there's something here is the multitude of top-notch talent involved in the process. There are two Academy Award winners (Kate Winslet and Halle Berry) in this cast, countless former nominees (as well as current noms Hugh Jackman and Naomi Watts) and even more respected character actors, all of whom apparently didn't realize what they were getting into when they signed on for the ride. Gross-out humor is one thing when it comes from people you expect (the Scary Movie and associated spin-off franchises use most of the same low-budget talent) but with the exception of Anna Faris (in a scene with real-life husband Chris Pratt), you wouldn't expect the same from this particular class of actor. Watching these celebrities do things they wouldn't normally on film was much of the appeal of seeing Movie 43, and likely the only thing to draw audiences this past weekend.

Anna, I thought you had gotten past this!
The problem is that for all the gross-out, completely obscene humor Farrelly and company put forth, they often forgot to make sure what we were seeing was FUNNY. You can get through entire scenes without even cracking a smile, and that happens far too often. It would be one thing if there were just spots of weakness, misogyny and the over-reliance of sex jokes that interrupted the gut-busting laughter, but that is tragically THE WHOLE THING. Even if the scene in question had a promising concept, it was quickly lost to easy sight gags and rampant stupidity. For instance, watching Richard Gere, Jack McBrayer and Kate Bosworth argue over why teenage boys are having sex with their company's new music player, the iBabe (which represents a full-sized, naked woman) gets old quickly. And Liev Schreiber and Watts playing homeschooling parents who don't want their son to miss out on all the bullying, awkward situations and humiliations of high school plays like a scene out of time. Berry, Winslet, Jackman, and Greg Kinnear are all wasted as they do little or nothing that could possibly get a rise out of the audience. The only moments I found remotely funny were the skits "Veronica", in which Kieran Culkin and Emma Stone murmur dirty things they want to do to one another over the PA system of a supermarket late at night, and "Victory's Glory", in which Terrence Howard plays a coach giving an inspiring speech to a black basketball team who believe they are inferior to the opposing, all-white team. In fact, Howard's emphatic screams of "You're black! They're white! This ain't hockey!" were the only times the entire film that anybody in the theater laughed out loud.

Yup, that's the whole game plan.
It's sadly obvious that Peter Farrelly has no freaking clue what funny is anymore. While he was able to get away with gross-out gags back in the nineties, those at least were both outrageous and hilarious when they needed to be. Here his antics (and those of directors like Brett Ratner, James Gunn, Steve Carr and Steven Brill) fall completely flat, easily maintaining the targeted level of obscenity but almost never getting off the ground with anything representing actual humor. As a result, it's easily the worst movie of 2013. Sure, it's still early, but you have to WORK to be this bad, and I can't imagine anyone else falling this low in the near future. My old movie-watching sidekick Anne used to speak of the "Stupid Factor", a phenomena in which something could be so stupid that it was actually pretty funny and clever. That used to be Farrelly's M.O. not all that long ago. Now he gives stupid movies a bad rap, possibly putting out not just the worst movie of 2013, but of the whole decade.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Open Letters Monthly: Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters

If you ever had any doubt that January is where studios dump the stuff of failure, look no further than Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, the alternate fantasy from the mind of Dead Snow's Tommy Wirkola. In it, we follow adult incarnations of Hansel and Gretel as they journey throughout the land, killing witches and saving children from what was almost their fate twenty years ago.

When a small town suffers some of the worst and most brazen witch attacks of all, Hansel and Gretel are brought in as bounty hunters to kill the witches and rescue the children alive. But something is terribly wrong, as the witches seem to be hatching a plan unlike anything seen before.Soon it seems apparent that Hansel and Gretel are not hunting... they are the hunted.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is directed by Tommy Wirkola and stars Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Thomas Mann, Pihla Viitala and Peter Stormare.

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Dear Mama

If there's anybody in Hollywood whose career has taken a sharp upturn recently, it's Jessica Chastain. The actress has starred (not merely appeared in) eleven films in the past two years, and for each one the response to her performance in particular has been unanimously positive. She was nominated for her first Oscar in 2011 (for The Help) and will be the likely WINNER this year for her role in the excellent Zero Dark Thirty. But it's not by acting talent alone that she has managed to attract so many followers and supporters, but her willingness to transcend genres and adapt herself fully into any character. No matter what movie Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie find themselves in, you never quite get over the fact that they are themselves playing parts. Chastain's talents are much closer to those of Meryl Streep or even Daniel Day Lewis; she so completely folds herself into a role that you lose her in the transformation and are left only with the person she has become. Her first film of 2013 is the horror flick Mama, based on a Spanish-language short of the same name by Argentinian director Andres Muschietti, who also helmed the full-length edition. Apparently the short for Mama was so scary that it convinced filmmaker Guillermo del Toro to produce a big screen version for the rest of us.

Be honest, you didn't realize it was her at first.
Five years ago, amid the chaos of the financial crisis, one man breaks down, murders two of his business partners and his estranged wife, and kidnaps his two daughters, then disappears. In the time since then, his brother Luke (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has been searching, hiring teams to canvass the area in which they disappeared. Just as the money funding the mission is running out, one team makes a discovery: young Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), Luke's nieces, have been found, feral but alive in a remote cabin in the woods. Though their father is nowhere to be found, Victoria and Lilly are brought back home for psychiatric treatment and a loving home with Luke and his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain), a rock-and-roll musician who doesn't think she's ready to take on a motherhood role. But something else has followed the girls to their new abode: something that spent the last five years caring for Victoria and Lilly, and isn't nearly ready to give up that role to a pair of young upstarts. The girls refer to her by one haunting word: "Mama."

There's something WRONG with that girl...
When it comes to a man like del Toro, you know Mama is going to be at least one thing: CREEPY. I don't know how much of the dark imagery in this film can be attributed to Muschietti (it's his first feature film and I've never seen his shorts), but while he might crib more than a few visuals from del Toro, Muschietti succeeds in establishing a style very much his own. While his creature effects are certainly good enough, where he astounds is in his ability to fool the audience. As a director, he succeeds in hiding things in plain sight, or just off screen, where a simple tilt of our perspective opens up floodgates of tension and terror. On more than one occasion, the audience will witness what they think is a perfectly normal instance, only for the next moment to reveal that everything they thought they knew was a lie, often putting them in a state of panic as they struggle to discover the truth. That is Muschietti's greatest strength, and it's thankfully brought to the forefront often.

Big twist: she's his sister! (Obligatory Games of Thrones reference)
The acting is also top notch, most notably because of the peerless Chastain. I know I seem to say this every review, but she is one of the new greats; not only does she wow us by sinking completely into this role of newly-minted mother figure, but Mama goes all out in focusing on her trials and tribulations as a parental figure to the two children. While Abigail is gleefully rough around the edges (and unafraid to cuss out loud in front of her charges), it's both fun and funny watching her grow as a character and an unexpected mother. She brings a life to the role that most actresses can only dream of, and is solely responsible for keeping this film from becoming boring or one-noted. The rest of the cast is talented but not "Chastain-like". This is the first film I've seen Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in outside of his starring role on HBO's Game of Thrones, and when he was actually given something to do I was impressed. Unfortunately, his character was greatly scaled back (likely to showcase Chastain) and I can't help but feel that there was a whole other storyline for him cut from the final product. Daniel Kash has a nice, small role, but similarly doesn't get as much exploration. The closest in quality to Chastain must be the two children, played by Charpentier and Nelisse. While Charpentier competently leads more than a few scenes and is the more vocal of the two young actresses, I was most impressed by Nelisse's ability to create an almost animalistic, emotionally-stunted child through her body movement and limited vocabulary. She doesn't just look like a child acting out motions, but one wholly natural in her actions. Together, the pair add a layer of authenticity crucial to making Mama work on the most basic levels.

They just wanted to go on a hike!
Sadly, while the unique premise and great acting carry so far, it's Mama's script that ultimately lets it down. Illogical character motivations, plot holes, contrived plot devices and more overflow from the screenplay, especially in the film's final act. While very little of it is on the wrong side of cheese, what does manages to subvert all the good that Muschietti and company achieve. The ending, while certainly not pat or typical for this style of horror, still carries a veneer of schlock, reflecting the director's inexperience. You can't help but wonder what would have been if the more experienced del Toro had been behind the camera instead of the amateur Argentinian.

Creepy kids, decent flick.
Fortunately, what errors there are do little to detract from the overall atmosphere of Mama, which is by far the best movie of early 2013, easily coming in at #1. Muschietti succeeds in his first major outing, and I can't wait to see what he adds to his resume in the coming years. Of course, it helps to have such an artistic savant as Jessica Chastain atop your cast, but even without her this would have been a great old-school creep fest. If you're not into supernatural, clever psychological thrillers, then nothing I can say will convince you to see Mama. But even if you aren't the biggest fan of the genre, this scary movie is well worth a look. Scouting at the coming film release schedule, this might just be the best movie you see until Summer rolls around.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

He's Back!

It’s been a long time since we’ve really been able to enjoy an “Ahnold” performance. After his last starring role in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, longtime Hollywood action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped away from the spotlight. For the time being, he was performing in a whole new capacity after the 2003 recall election named him the Governor of California in what was just the second instance of a sitting Governor being removed from power. During his two terms in office, Schwarzenegger rarely appeared on the big screen but for cameos, including the crowd-pleasing turns as antihero Trench in the fun and entertaining The Expendables and its sequel The Expendables 2. But for those who still get the giggles watching his classic titles, his return to stardom came this past weekend in the form of The Last Stand, the American debut of South Korean director Kim Ji-woon.

The action begins in Las Vegas, where dangerous criminal kingpin Gabriel Cortez (played to type by Eduardo Noriega) escapes the armored custody of the FBI and chief agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker), takes another agent hostage, and escapes recapture in one of the fastest sports cars in the world. Easily evading law enforcement and blowing right through roadblocks, his escape across the border is all but guaranteed. The only thing standing in his way? Sheriff Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger), whose small town of Summerton Junction lies directly in the path of the fleeing showcase Chevrolet. Despite being counted out by both sides of the law, Owens won’t stand aside and let this crime lord pass through the place he was sworn to protect.

Man, Thor really let himself go...

Like the aging action star comeback Expendables series, The Last Stand relies heavily on three aspects that make it work. Two of them, violence and humor, go almost hand in hand. The best action movies you will ever see, whether they earned their fierce R ratings or are the more family-friendly PG-13 type, will always mix quips and kills with exquisite precision. Too often action becomes the sole focus of the product, and while that might make for some pretty visuals, it doesn’t entertain as much as it should. Whether the humor is merely bad (Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise, anyone?) or conspicuously absent (anything by Len Wiseman), many modern action films seem to forget that their job is to entertain an audience fully. The Last Stand delivers on both counts, the first served by gratuitous blood splatter via bullets, explosives and other weapons that probably shouldn’t be held by human hands in most circumstances. In the vein of classic Schwarzenegger films like Conan The Barbarian, Total Recall and Commando, Ji-woon doesn’t let up on the action, each scene a microcosm of condensed violence that elicits cheers from a suitably impressed audience.

Remember when this guy won an Oscar?

The second, that of humor, comes easy in Andrew Knauer’s screenplay. It’s far from a polished script, and most of the dialogue was written with the most cliched of individuals in mind. Then you have the acting, which involves the deliverance of lines by either hammy caricatures (Luis Guzman and Johnny Knoxville), legitimately talented actors who are given less than their worth (Whitaker, Genesis Rodriguez, Rodrigo Santoro, Jaimie Alexander), or Arnold, who appears to have more trouble with the English language than he did twenty years ago. And yet what they have to say actually works on a comedic level; clever quips (though not the best we’ve seen) feel relatively fresh without the glut of stupid action pics that swarmed the theaters in Schwarzenegger’s prime. When the violence is so over the top as to be cartoonish, it reminds you of the good old days. Overall, the humor in the movie simply works a lot better than it had any right achieving.

You don't get much more wooden than these guys.

The final aspect that The Last Stand needed to succeed is nostalgia. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been an industry icon almost since his debut in 1969. He’s played soldiers, barbarians, synthetic constructs, cops, and even a DC comics super-villain (badly). We’ve all secretly (or even overtly) loved hearing his often broken language skills stretched to their absolute limits, and that’s part of the appeal of seeing something like this. The actor plays a pastiche of his grittiest roles and something out of a spaghetti western, and while this isn’t nearly a stretch in terms of characterization, it’s still ultimately appealing to the audience to see this 65 year-old man kick ass and take names after so long an absence. That familiarity is the biggest factor to Stand’s success as a film, and is likely the biggest reason you should bother to go and see it.

The Sheriff shot you; not the Deputy.

Sure, you can find better fare just about anywhere. But this early in 2013 it’s the stupid, fun films that can serve as a counterbalance to the bigger, Oscar-nominated projects that are filling up theaters. If the choice is between The Last Stand or Zero Dark Thirty, the question you need to ask yourself is “how much do I want to use my brain?” While the latter is a pulse-pounding, high-thought masterpiece well worth its ticket price, The Last Stand is a rollicking popcorn film, an exposition of pure escapism that won’t disappoint your inner 16 year-old  boy. It also currently sits at #2 for 2013, not far behind the fun Gangster Squad. While there might be better stuff out there, that’s no reason to pass on this unlikely good time.