June 28, 2009

Year One (06/28/09)

Lettergrade: F

Year One features a number of actors and comedians I really like, as well as some very pretty women of whom I had never heard. It was co-written / directed by Harold Ramis, who has been involved with some of the best comedies of the 80s and 90s including Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation and Groundhog Day. And in spite of all this, it is easily the worst movie I've seen of this year and many another.

What happened? How, I ask, can a high-concept comedy with so much talent and a sizable budget behind it play for 95 minutes and fail to get even a single laugh? In high school, I had a history teacher who promised to award an A to any student who managed to get every single answer on his multiple choice tests wrong -- the idea being that you need to know the right answers in order to be confident that you're selecting the wrong ones. More than once, I wondered if Ramis was trying for the comedy equivalent of that.

Jack Black and Arrested Development's Michael Cera are expelled from their primitive tribe, and go off on an adventure through various stories from the book of Genesis: Cain and Abel, Abraham who was ordered by God to kill his son Isaac, and then (very loosely) the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which dominates the second half of the movie. Conceptually, it's a little like they took the plot from Mel Gibson's Apocalypto and mixed it with the approach of Mel Brooks' History Of The World Part I, but without the big laughs of either.

Almost everything is mishandled. The sets feel cheap and unconvincing. The smirking dialogue constantly winks at the camera in a very self-aware we're-famous-actors-pretending-to-be-ancient-people kind of way. The whole movie feels sort of like one of those sketches from the old Carson Tonight Show where Johnny would dress up like Tarzan or something and rattle off a series of hammy, pun-based jokes. When Johnny did it, it was endearing more than outright funny, but it was amusing nevertheless, mainly because he limited himself to 4 or 5 minutes.

Besides Ramis, two screenwriters from The Office are listed in the credits. Most of the dialogue exists without wit or punchline, leading me to believe that actors were given free reign to come up with it as they went. If, in fact, there was a script which includes anything that even remotely resembles what the actors say on screen, the writers ought to be barred from working in comedy ever again and the executives at Columbia Pictures who okayed their work need to be brought up on criminal negligence charges. These same guys are working on the script to the next Ghostbusters movie. Unless there are a few more names after theirs on the final poster (meaning that others were brought in to rewrite what they did) consider yourself warned.

One scene -- one goddamn scene! -- before the big climax attempts to persuade us that movie actually has a thematic point about how people throughout history have charted their own destiny: That you are the person you have the guts to present yourself as. It feels wafer-thin, half-assed, and almost insulting. Better to be open about the fact that you have no purpose, than to have no purpose and pretend otherwise.

In the car on the way home, Laura and I debated if this movie is worse than Watchmen and / or Observe & Report, the other contenders for biggest piece of junk that we've seen in 2009. Although I'm aware that the wounds are still fresh, I have to go with this. With Year One I knew there was great talent involved in pretty much every aspect of the production, which makes the movie that much worse when you think about how much better everyone could have done.

June 21, 2009

Whatever Works (06/21/09)

Lettergrade: C-

I enjoyed Whatever Works, but will attach the comments that I have about most Woody Allen movies... First among them that it's a little unfocused, and rambly, and I somewhat suspect that Woody decided to film his first draft of the script rather than do another pass and make everything a bit tighter.

The big draw for me with this one is that Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David fills the lead role, which, in Allen movies, is typically seen as the surrogate for the director himself. This part was originally written with the late Zero Mostel in mind, apparently, and David's performance comes off as something of a mix between that actor and Allen.

David plays a brilliant former academic who lives in Brooklyn, hating and complaining about the rest of the world. His life is slowly changed when he takes in a naive southern runaway played by Evan Rachel Wood. Naturally, they clash wildly at first in a way that would make Oscar and Felix proud, but then a kind of messed up, dysfunctional love ensues that could only happen when Woody Allen is involved. Eventually, Wood's parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr.) arrive in New York looking for her and all sorts of relationship drama and sexual craziness erupts.

This movie is pure, pure farce. I'm not the world's biggest Woody Allen fan, and as such I'd describe the movie as pleasant, but nothing terribly special or memorable. Allen's movies seem to be trending toward more broad and crowd-pleasin' lately (not counting Match Point and Cassandra's Dream), and as has been standard for Allen movies for while now, very few of the characters in Whatever Works feel like they come from a real place: They're mostly derived from caricatures and stereotypes and templates set up by other movies. By that standard, if you like his recent work, you probably won't have much of a problem with this either.

Woody, at 73, still writes and directs one flick a year. Sometimes they're good, sometimes they're not, but there's no mistaking that he made them. The movies are inexpensive enough that they almost always turn a profit, meaning that he can pretty much go on making them as long as he wants to. Some of his pictures, like last year's Vicky Christina Barcelona, just kind of go on and on, and then suddenly end without much notice or fanfare. Whatever Works does that too, and it is in that spirit that I'll do the same with this review.

June 14, 2009

The Hangover (6/14/09)

Lettergrade: B+

Some of my least favorite scenes that typically appear in movies these days are when a bunch of characters sit around getting drunk or high. It's not that I don't mind throwing back a few drinks myself every now and again, but when big sections of a major motion picture are spent in endless, unfocused scenes like that... well, it's just the most uninteresting, low-brow kind of junk in the world to me, seemingly existing only for cheap-laugh value and shameless youth appeal.

Fortunately The Hangover, a really funny movie, skips right over these scenes entirely, and jumps instead to the devastation of the following morning. The characters remember precious little of what happened during the previous night's bachelor party, but one is now missing an incisor, their 4200 dollar a night villa at Caesar's Palace is completely trashed, and somehow live chickens, an adult tiger, and a baby of unknown origin all wound up taking residence there. Quickly, the survivors discover that the groom-to-be is missing too, and so our trio of heroes have no choice but to use whatever clues they can in order to piece together just what the hell happened and how the wreckage got as bad as it did.

I don't think I would like frat-boy centric director Todd Phillips much if I knew him in real life, but between Old School, Road Trip and this, I must admit that he's made some really funny movies. In Hangover, much like Old School, he's putting grown men who have refused to grow up in situations with respectable adults who desperately want to recapture the recklessness of their youth. You can criticize the guy for not going after the most intellectually lofty material, but at least his body of work has a running theme. Suck on that, Ron Howard.

Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper, and Justin Bartha are all really entertaining as the leads, but it is cult comic Zach Galifianakis who walks away with pretty much every scene. As he does in his standup, he makes every moment you spend with him extra sweaty and uncomfortable. I really admired a lot of the songs they selected for the movie too, particularly a scene near the end where "Iko Iko" is played and an always welcome appearance by "The Dan Band," who have popped up in most of Phillips' movies.

Not all of the movie works, however. In particular, I did not care for the Japanese mobster guy who somewhat drives the middle part of the screenplay (although his entrance is pretty priceless). The last third of the picture similarly falls into somewhat predictable territory, but then I suppose that this is a big studio comedy after all, and escaping a formulaic climax isn't always possible. Nevertheless, enough of it does work that I really enjoyed myself: It is one of those flicks that's filled with so many bizarre, random moments that it's hard not to laugh. I suspect it may not hold up if I watch it in my living room several months down the line, but in a packed theater full of people who are really amped up to see the flick, it is almost therapeutic.

The film was reportedly shot in about 15 days, further evidence that a film need not a ridiculous shooting schedule or an insane amount of resources in order to wind up any good.

June 7, 2009

Land Of The Lost (6/7/09)

Lettergrade: F

If I live to be a thousand, I will never understand what audience Land Of The Lost was made for. The film is marketed as a family adventure comedy. That description loosely fits, I guess, but the "adventure" is pretty intense in a Jurassic Park kind of way, and the "comedy" is geared toward Will Ferrell and Danny McBride's usual cliental, meaning that it includes a surprising number of drug and sex jokes. The "family" part kinda gets cancelled out by the other two, although neither the filmmakers nor the people at Universal who marketed this sucker seem to be aware of that.

I usually like those kinds of movies individually, but mixing them all together like this? The end result certainly isn't awful, but it's fair to say that it doesn't really work either. There are some pleasant laughs mixed in with the nifty sets and pretty photography, but most of it is just kind of "there," and then it's over. A budget of 150 million should really leave more of an impression.

Since it's Ferrell, I'm inclined to think of it as a comedy above all else. By that standard, the big problem is the jokes only work sporadically. Comedies are best when they feel a little cheap. The big exception I can think of is the first Ghostbusters, which might not have worked as well had Bill Murray not been around to roll his eyes and inject a smart-assed comment between expensive visual effects. Otherwise, they really lose a lot of the spontaneous levity that makes a comedy funny. When writing about Observe & Report a few weeks back, I wondered if Seth Rogen had already gotten into Adam Sandler territory, in terms of me not liking anything he makes anymore. I traced my Sandler shift back to 2000's Little Nicky, the first time Columbia gave him a big budget to work with after he had raked in a lot of bucks with cheapies like Happy Gilmore and The Wedding Singer. I would argue that no movie he's made since even remotely matched the quality of the earlier ones. There's a lesson there, I think.