Reel Opinions

Saturday, June 29, 2013

White House Down

I tried to resist, reader, I really did.  Watching White House Down, I knew that I was watching one of the silliest and downright dumbest action movies to come along in a long time.  And you know what?  I loved every brain-numbing minute.  Yes, the movie is implausible, ridiculous, completely mindless, and needlessly violent.  It also knows this, and is more than willing to poke fun at itself with a sly sense of humor.  By the time the President of the United States picked up a rocket launcher and started firing at terrorists, I stopped even trying to critique this movie, and just started laughing and enjoying myself.

picSo, here we are with our second "White House gets taken over by terrorists" movie of 2013.  The first, Olympus Has Fallen, was certainly no masterpiece, but it was kind of tense, had some good action, and the best work from Gerard Butler in a long time.  White House Down is no masterpiece either.  In fact, it's even less of one.  But the beauty is, it knows it's not, and doesn't even try to be taken seriously.  This is a big, loud, goofy movie that's not afraid to admit that it's big, loud, and goofy.  I think a lot of this credit has to go to director Roland Emmerich, who is no stranger to silly spectacle movies.  Heck, he's not even a stranger to blowing up the White House, having directed Independence Day back in 1996.  He fills the movie with enough explosions, action, and narrow escapes to keep things exciting.  He also adds a little something else that helps - a sense of humor to let the audience know he's in on the joke.

picIn describing the plot, I'm sure a lot of critics will be snarky, and describe it as "a remake of the original Die Hard, only set in the White House, instead of a high rise".  I'll go one step further, and say it's a wonderfully silly and gloriously stupid remake of the original Die Hard.  Channing Tatum has the "John McClane" role as the regular guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He's Cale, a guy who just happens to be at the White House for a job interview as a Secret Service agent.  The woman giving the interview is an ex of his named Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), so naturally, he does not get the job.  Cale is also at the White House to take the tour with his 11-year-old daughter, Emily (Joey King), who is obsessed with the current President, Sawyer (Jamie Foxx).  Despite the name change, President Sawyer is essentially Obama, complete with the beautiful wife and teenage daughter.  He even chomps on nicotine gum when he gets nervous.

picIt seems to be an ordinary day at the White House, until a team of extremist terrorists break in, and pretty much take control of the White House in a matter of seconds.  Who knew it was that easy?  President Sawyer is quickly captured by the bad guys, when it turns out the head of the President's security is working with the terrorists, and is actually the mastermind behind the whole scheme.  This doesn't come as much of a shock to us, because the head of security is played by none other than James Woods.  Who else is he going to play in a movie like this other than a backstabbing creep with his own motives?  Amongst the chaos, Cale manages to escape from the terrorists taking hostages, find the President, and begins guiding him to safety.  All the while, his plucky young daughter starts sneaking around the White House, secretly getting video footage of what's going on inside, and putting it on her Youtube channel, where it goes viral.  Naturally, she's eventually found out and captured, because a movie like this needs a child in peril.

picShould you walk into White House Down with a shred of logic, you will be fighting a losing battle.  The only way you can enjoy this movie is by just laughing at the absurdity up on the screen.  Good thing the movie is laughing with us.  With a bit more effort, this could almost be a Naked Gun-style spoof of action movies.  In its present form, however, I still view it as a comedy.  Cale and the President swap one-liners and comedic jabs back and forth to each other like a couple of old pros.  The villains are cartoonishly incompetent.  And the movie features such hilariously over the top action sequences, like when Cale is driving the President's armored limo around in circles on the White House lawn, while the President fires a rocket launcher at the terrorists chasing after them in their own armored vehicles.  If you read that last sentence and pictured in your head a deadly serious action thriller, you have problems I don't want to know about.

picThis is a fine example of cinematic cheese.  It really has no right to work, but it somehow does.  Look, I love a good movie as much as the next person, but sometimes, I find myself hungry for cheese.  I guess this was one of those times.  I found myself embracing the implausible scenarios, the half-baked characters with transparent motives that can be seen from space, and the big dumb explosions.  I even found myself embracing the particularly stupid moment when Cale's daughter winds up saving the day with her flag-twirling skills she used in a school talent show.  I have a hunch that when screenwriter James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man) was dreaming this stuff up, he was laughing himself silly.  Something tells me so were the actors.  This must have been a fun movie to make.

Look, I'm almost certain I'll get some flak for this review, but I don't care.  White House Down entertained me in its own stupid little way.  It's a guilty pleasure in the truest sense of the word.  If you're looking for a movie where Channing Tatum as a John McClane wannabe guns down a lot of bad guys with an Obama impersonator, look no further.  Just shut your brain off and enjoy.

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Friday, June 28, 2013

The Heat

I am recommending The Heat solely on the presence of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy.  They are the only reason the movie works in its present form.  Without them, I have a feeling that this would be a pretty standard, and pretty forgettable, entry in the buddy cop action comedy genre.

picI sense that director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) realized this.  That's why he spends so much of the film focusing on his stars, and not on the generic drug dealing plot that carries the action.  Bullock and McCarthy play off of each other so well, and get off some very funny one liners, it almost makes you forget that the movie surrounding them is pretty empty.  Does he rely on his stars perhaps a bit too much?  Maybe.  The movie almost hits the two hour mark in length, and the charm of the stars isn't enough to keep the last 15 or 20 minutes from dragging.  That's when the movie starts to turn needlessly violent and graphic.  The two leads remain likable through all of this, but I liked it better when they were tossing out one-liners, instead of blowing away faceless and uninteresting villains.

picSandra Bullock plays straight-laced FBI agent, Sarah Ashburn, a woman who is successful on the job, but so lonely in her personal life, she has to steal her neighbor's cat just for companionship.  Her latest assignment, which could lead to a long-overdue promotion, takes her to Boston to hunt down a drug kingpin.  Although Sarah is great at what she does, she does not work well with her fellow agents.  That's why her boss has assigned her to work with police detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) on her latest assignment.  Shannon seems to have been created to irritate Sarah to no end.  She's sloppy, she doesn't follow the rules, she's violent and vulgar, with pretty much every other word of her dialogue being a word I can't print in a family-friendly review (she's pretty much the reason the film earns its hard-R rating), and she seems to have a total disregard for authority above her at her job.

picWill Sarah and Shannon be able to put aside their differences, shut down the drug dealers, and wind up becoming unlikely best friends in the process?  The answers are as easy to predict as predicting that the sun will rise in the East, and set in the West tomorrow.  Regardless, it can't be denied that Bullock and McCarthy not only play their individual characters well, but have wonderful chemistry together.  Watching The Heat, I began to realize that I would like to see them do more films together, they're that good.  They not only work well together, they also get some very funny lines off of each other.  Whenever the movie is just focused on them and their partnership, I was able to look past the storytelling flaws.  The script by Katie Dippold has a number of lines that may be a little too clever, but are funny nonetheless.  My favorite line is when a character tells McCarthy's Shannon that she looks like "one of the Campbell Soup kids who grew up to be an alcoholic".

picI also enjoyed the scenes dealing with Shannon's dysfunctional family.  Why they weren't used more often, I have no idea, as they deliver the biggest laughs outside of the two lead characters.  Everything else about the movie falls a little flat.  The drug dealing plot seems to have been ripped right out of "generic cop thriller screenwriting 101", complete with a twist that someone within the force is a mole for the villains.  There's also a surprising amount of insult humor targeted at a put-upon albino cop that is unnecessarily mean-spirited, and seems completely out of place with the rest of the film.  The uneven tone of the script wasn't enough to dampen my enjoyment of what was working, but it still made me wish for another rewrite or two before the cameras started rolling.

As a summer comedy for adults, The Heat does just fine, although I personally prefer This Is the End.  Even if it missteps from time to time, it still has some good laughs, and is pretty much guaranteed to be a huge hit with audiences.  Should these two actresses team up together again, I'd gladly welcome it, but only if the movie surrounding them is up to their talents.

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Saturday, June 22, 2013

World War Z

Given its well publicized production problems, including an out of control budget and an entire third act reshoot, I expected a lot worse from World War Z.  Yes, the storytelling can be sloppy at times, and the movie is never quite as thrilling as it could have been.  But there are still some very nice individual moments throughout.  When all is said and done, though, the movie simply cannot escape its central flaw - It's a rather basic zombie movie with bigger production values than the norm.

picThe movie certainly wastes no time in getting going, however.  Not five minutes after we meet our lead, an ex-military investigator named Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), his devoted wife (Mireille Erios), and two cute daughters, chaos erupts on the streets of Philadelphia as a zombie invasion caused by an airborne virus breaks out around the world.  There are some nice tense moments as Gerry and his family are forced to flee the city, loot a store for food and medical supplies, and then find shelter in a friendly family's apartment as they wait for a military friend of Gerry to send a helicopter to pick them up and take them to an aircraft carrier where they'll be safe.  When they arrive on the carrier, Gerry is forced back into duty to search for "Patient Zero", who is believed to be the source of the disease.  He leaves his family behind on the carrier, and heads off on a search that will take him across South Korea, Israel, and Wales.

picThe movie follows a rather fragmented structure, as Gerry and his team of military support and random survivors explore these far off places, looking for answers.  There are some great moments where director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace) uses his exotic locales to interesting effect, such as when the zombies pile on top of each other, creating a makeshift tower so they can climb up the side of the wall of a city is Israel.  Unfortunately, these moments are much too far between.  Doubly unfortunate that the Israel sequence I mentioned has largely been given away in the film's ad campaign.  A majority of the film feels cobbled together from any number of zombie apocalypse films, which largely gives the movie a sense that we have seen it all before for the most part.  And when your summer blockbuster reportedly cost around $200 million to make, the last thing you want your audience saying is that they've seen it all before.

picThat's not to say World War Z doesn't work at all.  In fact, the entire third act, which features the characters sneaking about a zombie-infested medical wing, is probably one of the tensest moments of any movie so far this summer.  If the entire film had been able to match this level of suspense, it'd be a sure-fire winner.  But, it unfortunately comes at the tail end of a roughly two hour film.  To get to that moment, we have to sit through far too many scenes where the zombies simply chase the heroes endlessly, or perform tired jump scares.  I think the problem lies with the zombies themselves.  As movie monsters and villains, they're probably the least interesting.  And let's face it, pretty much everything you can do with a zombie has been done.  When you're stuck with zombies as your primary villain, your options are unfortunately limited, unless you go for a more comedic approach like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland.  Unfortunately, this movie is deadly serious.

picThere's another big reason why the film runs into trouble, and that's the rating.  Due to the massive budget, the studio insisted on a PG-13 rating, so more people could see it.  That means that a film that was clearly designed for adults and to be rated-R has been hacked and edited of any edge it might have had.  All the violence is kept mostly off camera, or with clever editing and quick cutaways.  I'm not saying that if it were more violent it would suddenly become a better movie, as it certainly wouldn't.  It's just distracting to see the jarring cuts and shaky camera work used to cover up the gore.  I find it irritating when movies obviously intended for adults have been sanitized just for a slightly bigger box office turn out.  Why go through all the trouble of editing and blurring out the violence, just so you can make some extra bucks off the DVD sales by offering an "unrated" version?

World War Z is well-made in a technical sense, but the performances, the characters, and the plot left me cold.  I was never involved, and never found any reason to root for Gerry or any of his supporters, since we know so little about them.  This has all the earmarks of a star vehicle project that went over budget and out of control.  And while it's not the total disaster it could have been, it's a long way from being salvaged.

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Monsters University

Thanks to Hollywood, we've had the origin story of Superman, Batman, Iron Man, the X-Men, and even Darth Vader, just to name a few.  Now, with Monsters University, we get the origin of how the stars of 2001's Monsters Inc., Mike (voice by Billy Crystal) and Sullivan (John Goodman), became best friends and professional "scarers".  I highly doubt that was a burning question on anyone's mind after seeing the original movie, but hey, at least the answer's entertaining and more heartwarming than you would expect.

picAs you would expect from the title, Monsters University is essentially Pixar's take on the college campus comedy.  It even throws in a couple tributes to some classics of the genre, such as Revenge of the Nerds, or Animal House.  Granted, this movie is much more G-rated than those films were.  It still manages to get in all the usual cliches, however.  There's the stern Dean of the College, this time represented by a creature who looks like a cross between a dragon and a centipede who is voiced with icy perfection by Helen Mirren.  There's the band of misfit students that everybody has counted out.  There's the more popular jocks who make life miserable for the misfits.  And, there's the big campus competition where the misfits will get their chance to work as a team and prove their worth.  While the plot is familiar territory, what carries the film is what carried the last one, and that is the odd couple relationship between Mike and Sullivan.

picThrough this film, we learn that the two friends were initially academic rivals who could barely tolerate each other.  Sullivan, the blue furry lug of a monster, comes from a famous family as he enters Monsters University, and expects to coast by while mainly focusing on partying with his fellow frat brothers.  Mike, the tiny green cyclops, is a studious fellow who is book smart, but knows nothing about actually scaring people, since he's not that intimidating.  A personal battle between the two about getting ahead in the "Scarer" class ensues, and it escalates to the point where both of them find themselves expelled from the class when one of their rivalries goes too far.  At first, the two feel their respective futures are over (each of them blaming the other for their misfortune), but an opportunity arrives with the annual Scare Games, where they can not only win back respect amongst their peers, but also teach a team of misfits from the only fraternity that will host them how to believe in themselves.

picUnlike most Pixar films, Monsters University seems to be aimed mainly at children.  That doesn't mean adults won't find anything to like, it's just there's not as much for them to enjoy as there has been in the past.  The movie is gentle, brightly colored, and G-rated, which is very rare these days. (Most animated films today are PG.) What this basically means is that while the film is inoffensive, it's also very safe and kind of predictable.  Not that kids will mind.  What lifts the film up is the expert voice acting, especially from Crystal and Goodman, who effortlessly slip back into the roles they made famous 12 years ago.  The rivalry for the first half of the film is an interesting approach, and allows the actors to try something different with the characters.  And, when they do start to become friends, we can get behind it, thanks to the great chemistry between the two.  They are the heart of this franchise, and at least the filmmakers know it.

picAnd fortunately, it's not just the performances that make these characters endearing to us.  There's a surprising amount of heart and emotion in this film, especially during the last half, when the newly-minted friendship of Mike and Sullivan is tested.  The climax alone is very effective, and ends with a lesson that we don't usually get in children's films.  I won't spoil it, but I will just say it's a refreshing change of pace.  And even if the movie does seem to skew young, I don't want to give the impression that it's juvenile or overly cute.  I simply don't see this one joining the list of any adult's favorite Pixar movies.  At the very least, this is a successful follow up to the first movie.  If you found something to like last time, you're pretty much guaranteed to enjoy this.

In recent years, many have started to wonder if the once seemingly-unstoppable Pixar Animation Studio was starting to weaken in quality, thanks to underwhelming efforts like Cars 2, and the enjoyable yet flawed BraveMonsters University isn't a return to greatness, but it's a fun little movie, and is sure to become a favorite of just about every kid this summer.  At least it's kind of heartwarming, which is more than I can say for a lot of blockbusters so far this year.

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Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel

I never want to see a Superman movie like Man of Steel ever again.  Superman is not a special effect.  He is not personality-deprived.  He is not a depressing bore.  He is not a mindless action hero.  He is not humorless.  And he is most certainly not a dreary and tortured soul.  Superman has never been any of these things, until this movie.  The filmmakers must realize what a great disservice they have done to an American icon.

picSo, the last film, 2006's Superman Returns, was a great big love letter to the original 1978 movie by Richard Donner.  Unfortunately, even though the film made money, it wasn't enough for Warner Bros.  A new direction and a reboot for the franchise was called for.  I have no problem with that notion.  My problem is the direction that Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch) has taken things.  This is a drab, joyless, and mostly humorless film.  The small bits of humor that do sneak through seem awkward and out of place in this unnecessarily grim and gray-looking movie.  The actors don't seem to be having any fun.  Neither is the audience.  How can we be when the movie is constantly assaulting our senses with endless explosions, implosions, gunfire, military vehicles rumbling, spaceships roaring, mass destruction, people fleeing in panic, and enough grand destruction to fill three Michael Bay blockbusters?  On the subject of Bay, if Man of Steel is inspired by anything, it's not the Superman comics or movies, it's the endless and soulless special effects of Bay's Transformers series.

picWhere to start with a movie that goes so wrong?  How about the beginning, where we get a bloated and extended prologue sequence on the planet Krypton, where Superman's father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) does battle with the evil General Zod (Michael Shannon), and sends his infant son rocketing off into space in order to give him new life when their planet starts to die?  This sequence gives us a sinking feeling right off the bat, as it not only feels like it goes on too long, but it is essentially one, big uninspired special effects sequence.  They're not even original effects, as a lot of Krypton's technology seems to have been borrowed from The Matrix.  So, the infant Kal-El lands on Earth.  But, rather than focus on his youth, we immediately flash forward some 20 years, to when he is a toned, muscular drifter (now played by Henry Cavill) living under the name of Clark Kent, and moving about, working odd jobs, like being a waiter at a bar, or working on an oil rig.

picWe witness some flashbacks of random moments of Clark's childhood on Earth, where he was raised by his loving human parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, both very good here), and told to keep his strange powers and abilities under control and a secret.  These flashbacks are supposed to fill us in on Clark's past, and how he ended up being a wandering drifter, looking for purpose in his life.  However, these glimpses into the past are far too fragmented and random to provide the emotional resonance they're supposed to.  During his travels, Clark encounters a reporter by the name of Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who has gone from plucky reporter who will go to any lengths to get her story, to constant damsel who seems to walk blindly into danger at any opportunity.  Lois quickly suspects that Clark is not from around here the very first time he saves her life, and starts to dig up information on the guy.  As they spend time together, we're supposed to witness the beginning of one of the great relationships in the history of comics.  Instead, we're witnessing just how cold and artificial this movie is.

picWe don't believe their relationship for a second.  Cavill and Adams have no chemistry, and seem to be at a loss on what to say to each other.  Remember the witty banter that Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder shared in the earlier movies?  There's no sign of it here.  There's no sense that these iconic characters are growing closer together, even though that's what the movie is going for.  I don't necessarily blame the actors, as they do what they can with the little they're given.  I prefer to lay the blame at the feet of screenwriter, David S. Goyer, who is much more interested in blowing stuff up and having Superman destroy public and private property, than in exploring these characters.  Once General Zod and his army of survivors from Krypton arrive to make Earth their new home, all character development and dialogue is pretty much thrown to the wayside.  Instead, we get a series of battles that look like they were designed to look good in small snippets in the trailers, but when they make up over an hour of an actual movie's running time, they get tiresome quickly.

picThis is when Man of Steel stops even attempting to tell an origin story for Superman, and instead becomes an endurance test of noise and bloated spectacle.  We get scene after scene of Superman battling Zod and his followers as they punch, throw, and blast each other through every building imaginable.  And while the technical craft behind these battle scenes is impressive, that's all it is - technical craft with nothing behind it.  There's no tension.  How could there be?  We know that Superman can brush off being knocked through a building no sweat.  Yet, the villains keep on trying it, thinking it will somehow net a different result each time they try, I guess.  What I found amusing is how the film works in its product placement.  Just before someone is thrown through a building, we get to see the store's logo, such as Sears, I-HOP, or 7-Eleven.  And then, when Superman exits the ruins of the building, we get to see the store logo again behind him.  I'm not sure how it's an incentive to make people shop at your business when you're portrayed as a flaming rubble, but I guess any publicity is good publicity.

picSpeaking of the battles, why doesn't Superman just lead Zod and his followers away from the innocent people, instead of intentionally causing hundreds of millions of dollars of property damage to the people of Metropolis?  We don't get to see any innocent civilians get killed, but judging by the endless amount of destruction on display, you know that there has to be a large number of casualties caused by the actions of Superman during the course of this film.  It's not just the characters getting pummeled in these fights, it's the sound system in the theater.  I'm not usually sensitive to loud noises, but the endless chaos and destruction, and the barrage of explosions and crashes took its toll on me.  If theater owners were smart, they would hand out free samples of Tylenol to the dazed and weary patrons staggering out of the cinemas showing this film.

picMan of Steel exhausted me to no end.  It is an abuse of style over substance to the point that we feel like we are being physically assaulted.  It mistakes Superman for being a walking special effect who does nothing but fly around and punch things.  Even worse, it turns his world into a gray and dreary place by shooting mostly in dull or washed out colors.  There is one moment that the movie gets right, and captures the innocence and joy that this character is supposed to have.  That is the scene where Superman flies for the first time.  There is a sense of exhilaration here that the rest of the film lacks.  Once it's over, we're back to the gloom and doom.  What a pity, and what a tease for the filmmakers to give us a brief rush of joy, only to send us crashing back into the doldrums of this movie.

I don't know what happened here.  All I know is that I never want to see Superman treated like this again.

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

This Is the End

Just last week, I reviewed a little movie called The Internship.  In my review, I lambasted that film's star and head writer, Vince Vaughn, for creating such a safe, generic, and uninspired star vehicle for himself.  I went on to ask why he didn't simply go for broke, instead of taking the bland and predictable route?  If he should ever need an example of what he should be striving for, Vaughn should look no further than This Is the End, a hilarious and devilish comedy that truly goes for broke in every sense of the word.  For his star vehicle, Seth Rogen (who not only stars, but co-wrote and co-directed the film) has not only made the funniest film of the year so far, but quite possibly the riskiest.

picAnyone who has been reading my reviews knows that I am not always the biggest fan of Rogen.  While I have enjoyed him in some films (his performance in 50/50 remains my favorite of his), I more often than not find him irritating and unappealing as a lead actor.  I've always found him more suited to supporting roles, as a little of him usually goes a long way with me.  Here, he pulls off a neat little trick, as he is essentially playing himself.  Or rather, a caricature of himself.  The central gimmick behind This Is the End is that all of its stars (and this is a big cast, comprised mostly of Rogen's friends, or fellow co-stars who have appeared in his past films) are playing exaggerated variations of themselves, or their screen personas.  The stars in this movie are not just kidding themselves, but also their careers.  At one point, Rogen gets to poke fun at his own performance in his failed reboot of The Green Hornet.  With all these big name actors poking fun at themselves and their past misfires here, you get the sense that there was a lot of spiritual cleansing on the set.

picAs the film opens, Seth Rogen is reunited with his long-time friend and fellow actor, Jay Baruchel.  The plan is for a leisurely weekend of catching up, smoking weed, watching movies, and playing video games.  But then, Rogen recommends that they head over to James Franco's new house, as he's holding a big housewarming party with many of his celebrity friends.  Amongst the guests are Michael Cera (depicted here as a womanizing coke-fiend), Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Emma Watson (of Harry Potter fame), Rihanna, and Danny McBride.  The party is in full swing, and everybody there is doing drugs, taking shots of alcohol, having sex, and basically doing all the horrible things we imagine celebrities do or get away with when they're not on camera.  Heck, these celebrities are so full into themselves, they don't even realize when the Rapture itself starts to happen right outside.

picWell, Jay Baruchel notices, but that's only because he's the lead, and the "hero" of the picture.  He sees the people who have been chosen by God to ascend into Heaven getting pulled up into the skies in bright blue beams of light, while those who are left below prepare to face an eternity of suffering.  Nobody at the party even believes Baruchel when he tells them what he saw while he was making a beer run.  But then, the Earth itself opens up, revealing a fiery pit-like vortex, which pulls in almost all of the revelers at James Franco's house.  As the world around them literally explodes, and nearly every Hollywood celebrity is killed off in a comically violent way, the small band of six survivors hunker down in Franco's mansion, and plan to wait the apocalypse out.

picSaid survivors are Rogen, Baruchel, Hill, Robinson, Franco, and McBride.  Emma Watson survives too, just so there can be a hilarious scene where she breaks into their bunker with an ax, and steals all their provisions, having turned to looting in order to survive.  The six main survivors, meanwhile, have to find ways to keep themselves alive and their sanity in tact.  They ration up what remains of the food, and they find ways to entertain themselves, such as when Rogen and Franco film an unofficial sequel to their 2008 film, Pineapple Express, right there in the house.  There are complications, naturally.  Food and water eventually runs short, McBride starts to irritate everybody else in the house, and Jonah Hill becomes possessed by a servant of Satan at one point, which leads to the guys having to do a makeshift exorcism.  How he becomes possessed by the demon, I'll leave you to discover.  But, the lead in contains one of my favorite lines. "Are you there, God?  It's me, Jonah Hill.  From Moneyball".

picWith so many comedies playing it safe these days, This Is the End breaks tradition with a vengeance.  This is easily the hardest-R comedy I have seen in a while.  You can tell that this movie probably started as a huge in-joke between writers and directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.  Even as it grew into something much bigger, it never lost its original inspiration of allowing these actors to shamelessly parody themselves.  Right now, I find myself thinking back on Pain & Gain, another comedy featuring Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson, which allowed them to play against type as dim-witted, violent sociopaths.  That film was successful, because it was brave enough to show these actors at their worst.  This movie succeeds in much the same way.  It pushes its cast, makes them uncomfortable, and is all the better for it.  Comedy is always at its best when there is some form of risk involved.  And when we see James Franco poking fun at his own self-important image, or Channing Tatum making a cameo I'll leave you to discover for yourselves, we're grateful that these actors are brave enough to take the chance.

But what I most want to emphasize is that This Is the End is just a plain hilarious movie.  I laughed out loud a lot, more than any other movie so far this year.  With Man of Steel hitting on Friday, this could easily be drowned out amongst the hype.  I hope this doesn't happen.  While Zack Snyder's take on Superman has all the potential to be a lot of fun, I have the feeling that I'll be thinking back on this movie and chuckling to myself long after many of this summer's blockbusters have faded from my mind.

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Saturday, June 08, 2013

The Purge

In The Purge, we get a vision of the future so improbable and downright goofy, I found myself with a big silly grin on my face as it was revealed.  Get a load of this setup - The year is 2022, and America has risen from near-financial ruin to become a Utopia.  Crime hasn't been lower, and unemployment is at 1%.  The reason behind this miraculous turn for our nation?  An annual event known solely as "The Purge", a 12 hour period in which people can act upon their most basic human instincts for violence, and kill without consequence.

picYes, because the government has sanctioned a 12 hour event in which people can violently vent out their pent-up anger toward their friends and neighbors ("unleashing the beast", as it's known in this movie), America has somehow become a better place.  Surely, you ask, there must be other reasons that our nation has improved other than just allowing us to murder each other one night a year.  You would think so, but no.  It's all about The Purge, and how it gives us freedom.  The movie tries to rationalize and explain this theory in exposition dialogue, and through talking heads that we see on TV in the background of certain scenes, informing us on how important this event is to our nation and our people.  The fact that the movie tries to explain itself makes it all the more funnier.  My favorite part is how the movie tells us that there are no police or emergency services during the 12 hours that The Purge lasts.  I guess if someone has a heart attack or slips and falls in the bathtub, they're out of luck.

picMy mind raced at the ludicrous possibilities of just what this world was going to be like.  Alas, we get to see very little of America under The Purge.  Instead, we follow a wealthy suburban family as they lock themselves in their home with their hi-tech security system.  The head of the household (Ethan Hawke) has gotten rich out of selling these security systems to his neighbors, who wish to hunker down and be safe during the annual Purge.  His family is made up of his understanding wife (Lena Headey), his sensitive teenage son (Max Burkholder), and his rebellious teenage daughter (Adelaide Kane) who is dating an older boy. (A fact the movie makes a big deal out of early on, but ultimately has little consequence.) We're trapped with this family inside their house the entire run of the movie.  I think writer-director James DeMonaco stumbles with this approach.  Instead of taking us to the streets and letting us see this event first hand, we're trapped in a closed surrounding, and stuck in what becomes a routine home invasion thriller.

picYou see, at one point during the night, the son sees a homeless man (Edwin Hodge) on the run from some attackers and screaming for help.  Taking pity, the kid briefly turns off the home security system, and invites the man inside, offering him shelter during The Purge.  Not long after that, the men who were chasing after the stranger come to the door of the family, and demand they bring him outside.  If not, they will break into the house, and kill everyone inside.  The leader of the home invaders is a rich college kid who wears a private school jacket, and a Halloween mask over his face to conceal his identity.  But if crime is legal during the 12 hours of The Purge, then why do they hide their identities in the first place?  Aren't the masks just getting in the way?  We're not supposed to think of such things, of course.  If we apply logic to this movie, it all falls apart.  But then, it kind of falls apart even if we don't.

picEven if the world that The Purge creates takes extreme leaps of faith just to work, I was kind of taken in by the goofiness promised early on.  I actually found myself excited.  Once the action switches inside the home, however, it's essentially an extended sequence of the actors stumbling around in the dark, shining flashlights about, while loud jump scare noises ring out on the soundtrack.  I was disappointed to learn that even though the family has security cameras displaying what's going on outside on the streets, we don't actually get to see anything.  You would think during a 12 hour period where all crime is legal, there would at least be some rioting or looting going on outside.  Yet, aside from the night visitors, the streets outside are dead quiet.  This is a movie that promises us a goofy guilty pleasure, and instead gives us the mundane.  It's never boring, and there is some suspense to be had.  It's just always disappointing when a movie doesn't live up to its initial promise, no matter how cheesy it may be.

picI guess I don't know what I expected.  The opening moments promised such a whacked out vision of the world, I thought the movie was going to just run with it.  I suppose I wanted it to be more daring, and to show us this world.  Isn't that a big part of going to the movies, to see things you've never seen before?  The stuff that happens inside the house isn't terrible, but it is a big let down.  That being said, the performances here are fine, even though no one really gets to stand out.  It never offends, and while it is obviously very violent, it never seems exploitive.  This is a well-made movie in a technical sense.  It simply never goes any further than that.

Maybe The Purge would have worked better as a really gutsy dark comedy, rather than a straight-forward thriller.  This world and premise cries out to be given an appropriately weird and out there approach.  It's too bad this project wasn't handed to a different director.  I can only imagine what someone like David Lynch could have done with it.

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Friday, June 07, 2013

The Internship

It was not long into The Internship that my heart started to feel heavy.  Almost from the start, I had the sinking feeling that this was going to be a rather generic comedy.  I settled into my seat, not wanting to let early impressions sway me, and hoped that the movie would start to pick up.  It never did.  You know a movie is moving too slowly for you when it feels like over an hour has passed, and you check your watch, only to see that it's been 40 minutes.  An even worse sign that the movie isn't working is when you find yourself checking your watch again just five minutes later.

picThis is a hopelessly uninspired film that doesn't have a single laugh, creative idea, or bit of thought behind it.  It exists solely to waste the talents of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, who worked well together in Wedding Crashers, but here are saddled with characters who are total non-entities.  Funny thing is, Vaughn co-wrote the script.  He produced it, also.  Why purposely write something so bland and safe for yourself?  If you're going to make a comedy, why not go for broke?  Instead, Vaughn and writing partner Jared Stern have essentially given us an adult movie made up entirely out of high school comedy cliches.  That's right, the movie is set in the adult world, but it gives us all the usual cliches we expect in a teen comedy - The geeky outcasts who learn to stand up for themselves, the overconfident bully, the seemingly unobtainable hot girl who actually has a soft spot for one of the geeky guys, and the stern authority figure who seems to be against the outcasts, but is secretly in their corner the entire time.  The only thing missing is the food fight scene.

picDid I mention that this movie is two hours long?  Well, it is.  Does it need to be?  Heck, no!  For an awkward movie like this that never seems to be building any momentum, even 90 minutes would be pushing it.  Having it clock at a full two hours is like a cruel joke on the audience by director Shawn Levy (Real Steel).  Listen to this synopsis, and tell me if you think it sounds like the kind of premise that could fill a movie this long.  Billy (Vaughn) and Nick (Wilson) are best friends and co-workers as salesmen when they learn in the film's opening scene that the company they work for has gone under without them knowing.  With limited skills and even more limited job postings open to them (Nick has a brief stint as a mattress salesman), they eventually are picked to participate in an internship program at Google Headquarters in California.  All of the interns applying for the job are placed in separate teams, though the only two teams that matter to us are the one Billy and Nick are on, and the one led by the resident bully (Max Minghella), who constantly ridicules them.

picNaturally, our two heroes find themselves on the team filled with the misfits that no one else wanted.  They include the nerdy team leader Lyle (Josh Brener), the sarcastic and anti-social Stuart (Dylan O'Brien), the shy and home-schooled Yo-Yo (Tophit Raphael), and the lovely Neha (Tiya Sircar), who despite being absolutely beautiful and having a great personality, seemingly has never been able to find a boyfriend.  This character I found particularly hard to believe.  Here is a girl who not only has a Hollywood body many women would kill for, but she is also a Sci-Fi and comic geek, who enjoys cosplaying as Princess Leia in her slave outfit from Return of the Jedi.  Are we supposed to believe that she is an outcast, and none of the other "geeky" guys would want her?  This girl could go on any Sci-Fi-related chatroom, post a photo of herself and list her interests, and find a boyfriend in about five minutes.

picIt doesn't matter, though.  We don't learn anything about her, or any of these other characters.  They participate in a series of challenges and games to see if they are "Google material".  Too bad we don't get to see much of these challenges, as they're usually brushed aside, or handled in a montage.   The one challenge that we do get to see is the one I couldn't figure out what it had to do with getting a job at Google.  That's the one where the two teams participate in a game of Quidditch.  Yes, the sport from Harry Potter.  It's one of many film references the movie keeps on dropping in its dialogue for no particular reason.  The characters namedrop stuff like Back to the Future, The Terminator, X-Men, and even Flashdance, which becomes the basis of Vince Vaughn's inspirational speech when his team of underdogs are getting down.  None of this is funny, and it simply sounds like the writers dropping references to old movies in an attempt to speak to as wide an audience as possible.

The Internship fails in just about every way, even as an extended advertisement for Google which, let's face it, this movie essentially is.  We learn nothing about the company, what it's like working there, and I can't really picture this being successful enough to help increase their brand image.  There are a lot of comedies that fail to be funny.  But to fail at product placement?  Well, that takes a special kind of lack of effort.

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