Archive for the ‘comedy’ category

The Grand Budapest Hotel

April 6, 2014

20140406-211249.jpgIn The Grand Budapest Hotel, director Wes Anderson makes no pretense whatsoever to reality. Anderson’s films, of course, have all been fanciful and fantastic, but this one ensconces itself in a fictional European country whose characters all speak in different accents, the natural accents of the actors playing them. When Edward Norton turns up as a fascist military inspector named Henckels, he doesn’t bother sounding like a fascist military inspector named Henckels; he just sounds American, and Ralph Fiennes, as a hotel concierge known as M. Gustave H., uses his native English tones. This prepares us to view The Grand Budapest Hotel as a fable told via actors playing dress-up. It’s consciously artificial in a way that Anderson’s films haven’t been before, and that’s really saying something.

The key to the movie, for me, is its elaborate matryoshka structure. The story is told to us by The Author (Tom Wilkinson as an older man, Jude Law as his younger self), who talks about the time he was told a story by the elderly Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) about the time he, as a young man (Tony Revolori), worked as a lobby boy in the Grand Budapest Hotel for Gustave. The Author tells this story in a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel, read in the present day by a girl standing before a monument of The Author. We are seeing all this in a movie called The Grand Budapest Hotel, making us the audience to a reader to an author listening to a storyteller. What’s more, Anderson evokes each era by using a different aspect ratio — in 1968 the frame is enormously wide, in 1932 it’s a demure square.

The events surrounding the story — Nazism encroaching like a bloodstain on a map — suggest that Anderson is boxing off the historical nightmare the way his compartmentalized, symmetrical compositions box off everything else. Just outside the colorful wackiness in the frame, shadows lie. The plot itself, sectioned off by all the narrative scaffolding, is almost inconsequential: a rich matron of the hotel (Tilda Swinton) has been murdered, leaving a priceless painting to Gustave in her will, and the police nab Gustave for the crime. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, the movie isn’t about this plot; it’s about how we use stories to keep thorny emotions in manageable spaces. People die, and the deaths aren’t felt, at least not in the story as it is told. A major character’s great love dies offscreen, her fate covered by a couple of lines of narration. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not a callous work, but it’s about packing painful experience in storage.

On the most basic level, the movie is visually sumptuous, with Anderson’s fizzy deadpan comedy ladled over the immaculate design. The elegance of the look and sound is broken every so often by salty language, glimpses of surreptitious sex, even some bloodshed, all of which are relatively scarce in Andersonworld. When the jailed Gustave takes a sip of water and sets the glass down, we see a little cloud of red swirling in it. That’s about all the reality of prison brutality that Anderson wants to, or needs to, show us. Yet severed body parts and a breathless chase between a skier and a sled are also on the menu. There may be several floors of story here, but the overstory is a movie — the movie is the hotel itself, a story for each room. So Anderson gives us movie-ish thrills and a mystery of the sort we’ve seen umpteen times.

Of all the divertissements, I think what I enjoyed most was the implication that every great hotel back in the glory days of hotels was distinct only in design. A passage titled “The Society of the Crossed Keys” gives us a montage of concierges responding identically to a crisis, saying “Take over” to their right-hand men no matter what they’re doing. For all the moneyed prestige and pride of their architecture, functionally they might as well all be in the same motel franchise. This, of course, is never true of Wes Anderson’s films, which always manage to be utterly unlike anything else surrounding them in adjoining theaters. As for this one, it’s almost as if Anderson is addressing the detractors of his hermetic-dollhouse style and saying that wildness and weirdness are possible inside the dollhouse, and darkness outside.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

March 16, 2014


A Western reader might want to think of Journey to the West, Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century novel, as the Chinese equivalent of The Odyssey — a seminal epic that has informed hundreds of stories in all media over the years. The tale of a Buddhist monk, Tang Sanzang (or Xuanzang), on a pilgrimage to find sacred texts, its most recent iteration was 2008′s Jackie Chan-Jet Li vehicle The Forbidden Kingdom. Now we have Stephen Chow’s version, whose subtitle, Conquering the Demons, suggests that this is only the first of a series; indeed, it functions largely as a prequel, examining the humbler days of Xuanzang (Wen Zhang) as a fledgling demon-hunter and how he first encounters the three demons who will later, at the movie’s end, accompany him on his quest.

Stephen Chow has been down this road before; in 1995 he starred in the two-part A Chinese Odyssey, wherein he played one of Xuanzang’s servants. In recent years Chow has come into his own as an actor-director whose films Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle won him an enthusiastic cult in the west. This is his first film in eight years (since the rather lukewarmly received CJ7), and the first he’s directed but does not appear in. Chow is 51 now, and possibly getting a bit long in the tooth for such roles as Xuanzang or even the Monkey King, the role he played in A Chinese Odyssey, here filled by the grimacing Huang Bo. Chow settles instead for infusing the film with his obvious love for over-the-top action, melodrama, slapstick, and movie references. As an instance of the latter, the opening sequence dealing with a water demon terrorizing a village is Chow’s opportunity to rewrite Jaws, if Jaws ended with the shark reverting to human form and Roy Scheider reciting nursery rhymes to it.

Yes, that’s Xuanzang’s M.O. Instead of destroying demons, Xuanzang, following the beliefs of his master, prefers to reform them through moral mnemonics. This puts him in conflict with fellow demon-hunter Miss Duan (Shu Qi), who takes a decidedly more Buffy-esque approach. Miss Duan disdains Xuanzang’s ineffectual methods but finds herself falling in love with the asexual monk-in-training, going so far as to stage an ambush with several colleagues to get him to have sex with her. (Which would seem unfathomably gross if the genders were reversed, but never mind; Chow never passes up a chance for a laugh, even when the jokes verge on homophobic.) Xuanzang would probably get killed without Miss Duan, but his destiny as an enlightened monk depends on his adherence to nonviolence — Chow subtly sets up a dialectic between force and persuasion.

For fans of the freewheeling Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, Chow breaks out one elaborate set-piece after another, employing not-always-convincing special effects to pit humans or gods against beasts. The water demon is an appetizer; most of the movie deals with the pursuit of (and retreat from) a fearsome pig demon, leading up to Xuanzang’s climactic encounter with the Monkey King, the most powerful of all. Chow pulls out the stops, introducing Buddha himself as a deus ex machina who hovers above earth like the Star Child in 2001. The action, as with Chow’s previous films, is flat-out cartoonish — a live-action anime — but always with grave stakes underneath. Even when the computer-generated beasties falter in verisimilitude, the movie is still ecstatic eye candy.

But again, this is only the prologue of a much larger story, which may frustrate the uninitiated. Journey to the West has already shattered box-office records in its native Hong Kong and elsewhere, so sequels are all but guaranteed; let’s hope Chow gets the next one in the can in fewer than eight years. I enjoyed the tension, so prevalent in Asian cinema, between brutal physicality and peaceful philosophy; in the martial arts these are two sides of the same coin, something Jet Li, for example, explored in his Fearless. In order to be worthy of the Buddhist scriptures he seeks, Xuanzang must believe that the monsters who try to kill him are worthy, and capable, of redemption. It’s an oddly pleasing theme, and ending, for a shoot-the-works action-comedy.

Vampire Academy

February 9, 2014


The team of brothers Mark and Daniel Waters on a teen vampire movie sounded more than fine to me. Mark directed 2004′s Mean Girls, still Lindsay Lohan’s brightest day in the sun, while Daniel dipped his quill pen in acid and wrote 1989′s cult favorite Heathers. So the idea of these two working on a project set in a vampire boarding school — with the attendant bitchery and snark among vampire girls — writes a big check Vampire Academy can’t cash. It’s amusing enough, and will pass the time for you painlessly on Netflix in a few months, but the damn thing — following Richelle Mead’s YA series of novels — is just too plot-heavy.

We’ve barely sat down before the film heaves a massive infodump into our laps — the relationships of royal vampires (the Moroi) to the human guardians (the Dhampir) who protect the Moroi from evil vampires (the Strigoi). With all this mythology and terminology, the Waterses scarcely have room to breathe their own sarcastic life into the proceedings. Vampire Academy comes across as a comedy some of the time, with the witty Dhampir Rose (Ellen Page lookalike Zoey Deutch) maintaining a running commentary and amusing her Moroi BFF Lissa (Lucy Fry). The short, dark-haired, sardonic girl tossing fond verbal darts at her tall blonde friend who comes from a richer bloodline — this is almost a supernatural 2 Broke Girls. (They even have a heavily-accented, heavily-lipsticked foil in the person of headmistress Olga Kurylenko, whose character will inspire a few drag queens, Halloween costumes, and fetishistic attention among viewers not in the movie’s target demographic.)

I really couldn’t succinctly outline the story for you if you held a silver stake to my heart. The gist of it is that someone is plotting against Lissa, and the vicious Strigoi are involved (never mind the politics of pitting shabby-looking, 99-percenter vampires against gilded vamp royalty and expecting us to root for the latter), and also the Moroi have magical powers over the elements and Lissa is able to bring mortally injured beings back from the brink of death. The only hitch in our presumed identification with Lissa and her ilk is that they must drink human blood. But don’t worry: they get it from human volunteers who’ve read the Twilight books too many times. (In the movie’s reality, Twilight exists and is goofed on.) There’s some satirical flavor in the idea of vamp-smitten fangirls/fanboys willingly submitting to periodic nibbling.

But again, it’s too much info too fast. It’s too bad Vampire Academy bombed and won’t get a sequel, because the sequel — with all the world-building and glossary out of the way — would give the brothers Waters enough space to sit with Rose and Lissa and their classmates and get some comic rhythms going. (As it is, if you want the full spectrum of vamp pathos and snark, you’ll have to tune in to The Vampire Diaries, which has usually found the right balance between character moments and overarching narrative.) There’s a fine moment at an Equinox Dance when Rose, Lissa, and their dorky vamp friend Natalie (Sarah Hyland) stride into the hall in their fabulous new dresses, past a gaggle of teen-girl vamps who bare their fangs and hiss. There’s also a Heatherish vamp, the pixie-haircut Mia (Sami Gayle), who might be in on the plot against Lissa; but Mia sort of gets lost in the shuffle.

It’s always fairly sad when a movie that hopes to kick-start a franchise, but whose pallid box-office receipts guarantee zero sequels, ends on a semi-cliffhanger note that screams “Come back for the next film to see how this develops!” I assume there are going to be — or would have been, anyway — more challenges to the royal privilege of Princess Lissa, and her scrappy human friend would have had to help. Truly, other than the regal presence of Joely Richardson as the queen of the vamps, I would’ve been happy enough to drop the whole royalty aspect. It’s too transparently a ploy to hook teenage girls by combining vampires, Hogwarts, and princesses, three things that teenage girls presumably adore. The actors are game for wittier, sharper stuff, as are the filmmakers, but they’re all hamstrung by the demands of YA fiction — or at least this YA fiction.

American Hustle

December 22, 2013

american-hustle-amy-adams-1“People believe what they want to believe,” says con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) in American Hustle. I wanted to believe in the movie, but I couldn’t, starting with its hard sell that any of its characters are worth much. American Hustle is a loose, borderline-farcical treatment of the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late ’70s. The sting took down a number of politicians convicted of taking bribes, including the mayor of Camden, N.J., fictionalized here as Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a good Italian boy with an epic pompadour. The styles and attitudes of almost all the characters are ludicrous; this is another 21st-century movie that invites us to chortle fondly at the sartorial excesses of the ’70s while trying to crank us up with classic-rock needle-drops and aping the cinematic style from the era, particularly its American master, Martin Scorsese.

Oh, David O. Russell must have had a ball for himself directing the film. He gets to engage in any number of patented Scorsese tracking shots; he reunites with no fewer than four favorite actors from two of his previous movies (Bale and Amy Adams from The Fighter, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from Silver Linings Playbook). But American Hustle left me feeling much the same way Boogie Nights did. In both, dynamic camerawork and epic breadth (American Hustle runs two hours and nine minutes) seem to mock and belittle the bottom-dog subjects of the movies. The problem with biting from Scorsese’s style is that if you lack Scorsese’s passion and obsession — which animate his style and make it feel like the way he sees the world — you’re left with empty technique, and that’s what happens with a lot of American Hustle.

It’s a comedy, but it seems to want to be more, starting with its self-important title (the script, by Eric Warren Singer, was originally called American Bullshit). People in the movie keep justifying themselves by claiming they’re not in it for themselves. Which is a useful satirical element, except that the movie kind of buys into the justifications. Irving Rosenfeld, for instance, balances a home life with flaky young wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) and her son with his relationship/partnership with another con artist, Sydney (Adams). The FBI agent who busts Irving and Sydney, Richie DiMaso (Cooper), is almost insane with ambition to make bigger busts and a name for himself, which he passes off as duty. Carmine Polito makes well-meaning noises about doing everything for his community. Russell half makes fun of these people and half feels sorry for them. They’re just doing what they have to do. Of course, they almost all have stupid hair and funny accents (Amy Adams is the only one who escapes — the camera loves her).

Richie compels Irving and Sydney (who poses as a Brit with banking connections) to help him catch politicians on the take. They produce a Hispanic FBI agent and pass him off as a sheik looking to invest in casinos on the East Coast. Blinded by money, and believing what they want to believe, a lot of powerful men are caught on tape taking the briefcase. (In real life, one man was approached but didn’t bite — Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. Given the film’s ’70s fetish, it’s surprising Guccione, or a version of him, didn’t make it into the movie.) But the scamming scenes go by so fast we don’t get much sense of their logistics or the emotions involved. It seems that David O. Russell isn’t all that interested in the story; all he wants to do is play with the camera and indulge his actors. Sometimes this works and entertains, sometimes not: one of the worst and most pointless scenes of the year has to be Jennifer Lawrence lip-syncing the living shit out of “Live and Let Die.” Other actors’ bits, such as when a desperate Irving and a wary Carmine find common ground, and Bale and Renner perform it flawlessly, are top-shelf.

At such moments, the film’s believe-what-they-want-to-believe motif comes alive. But American Hustle, like Boogie Nights before it, vaults heedlessly between bedraggled comedy and serious-stakes scenes in which the director shuts off the fun. This sort of tonal shift only works when it feels organic, and nothing in American Hustle feels organic; everything has been exaggerated and, in the end, Hollywoodized. Everyone gets what the audience wants them to get. The cast has boisterous personality to spare, but we’re locked outside of it because the film itself has none. Are we supposed to laugh at these people or with them? Russell is part of a generation of smarty-pants filmmakers whose eyes are bleared over — they have no clear vision of what they want to do other than to make cool movies with cool actors. American Hustle is geared towards grown-ups, and that might explain some of its grateful reception among critics tired of superhero movies. But grown-ups deserve and should hold out for better.

Inside Llewyn Davis

December 8, 2013

Inside-Llewyn-Davis“Talented” is death, a waffle-word to describe the never-was, the artist distinguished enough to get on stage and not stink up the joint, but not exceptional enough to soar and to take the audience with him. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), the folk singer at the center of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, is talented. Llewyn used to be someone, part of a folk duo called Timlin and Davis, until Timlin jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Now Llewyn drifts from gig to gig and couch to couch. The movie definitely takes the romance out of living in Greenwich Village in the old days; it’s set in 1961, not even a decade after the events of Paul Mazursky’s wistful memoir Next Stop, Greenwich Village, but the winter air is thick with the desperation of the “talented” to break out. Llewyn is decidedly not Larry Lapinsky, munching on an apple strudel at the end of Next Stop and thinking about where he’s been and where he’s going.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a plotless, week-in-the-life character study, following Llewyn from New York to Chicago and back, often in the company of a cat who seems as restless as he is. The musical backdrop works here the way it worked in the Coens’ 2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the songs of Americana born of strife and poverty yet transcending despair by the purity of their sound. “If you’re singing,” the songs seem to say, “you’re alive.” The saturnine Llewyn doesn’t transcend anything; he’s down, and he seems to want to take the audience down with him. He’s a bummer, and Oscar Isaac plays him that way, but with an angry edge; Isaac is uningratiating but compelling. Llewyn is a dick who knows life is passing him by, and knowing it makes him more of a dick. He doesn’t even have the redeeming musical grace that Sean Penn’s even more loathsome guitarist had in Sweet and Lowdown.

As always, the Coens get the external details precisely right. I don’t know how much it cost to reproduce the Greenwich Village of 1961, complete with period cars that are only seen glancingly enough to identify them as period cars (maybe those were done with CGI), but it was worth it. And as always, the filmmaking is gorgeously controlled, no mess, nothing extraneous. The lead character is heavy but the movie isn’t; it’s full of lively, immediately readable people, except for Llewyn himself. The title (also the name of Llewyn’s solo album) is ironic: we never really do get inside Llewyn Davis.

We know so little about him; he doesn’t say much about himself, and we don’t know whether he mourns Mike Timlin or just mourns the fact that his own career hit the water along with Timlin. The only people who seem to like Llewyn are a sociologist (Ethan Phillips) and his wife (Robin Bartlett), and Llewyn repays them by losing their cat and then insulting them. Yet Inside Llewyn Davis wouldn’t work if it were about a kind-hearted go-getter who doesn’t make it. It would be too depressing. It plays as a deadpan comedy in which a has-been or perhaps never-was tries to be as objectionable and as annoyingly unyielding as, say, Bob Dylan (seen briefly here at the end, as if showing Llewyn how it’s done) without having Dylan’s genius. Yet when he tries to sell out, as when he gigs as a session musician on an inane novelty ditty called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” he can’t even sell out right — he opts to take a fast paycheck instead of waiting for his agent to approve it, thus cheating himself out of the song’s royalties.

So the Coens surround their central blank with more enjoyable company, like John Goodman as a heroin-addicted jazz player, or F. Murray Abraham as a Chicago club owner, or Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan as a husband-and-wife folk duo, half of whom Llewyn may have impregnated. I also appreciated Stark Sands as a soldier/folk singer who speaks fluent Coen-ese. They all have enough life to sustain their own films, but we stay stubbornly with Llewyn as he mopes and schleps the cat around and tries to scrounge money or couch space. Why make a movie about Llewyn (or Barton Fink, or Larry Gopnik, the mathematician non-hero of A Serious Man)? Why not, especially since American cinema tends to want to dismiss or forget any protagonist who isn’t dynamic and aggressive and, well, American, particularly now in the era of the superhero blockbuster? In a world of iron men and supermen and Norse gods, Llewyn is actually an exciting novelty.

The World’s End

August 31, 2013

130823154838-worlds-end-movie-still-story-topOnce again, Edgar Wright has directed the brightest bit of fun in a lugubrious summer. The World’s End starts out as a rueful where-have-the-years-gone comedy in the mold of Grosse Pointe Blank (complete with killer soundtrack) and somehow morphs into a mid-period John Carpenter sci-fi film (complete with stock-still antagonists whose eyes and mouths glow like Christine’s headlights, bisecting the wide frame with blue lens flares). Both movies within this movie are fresh and convivial, though the structure borrows from Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, in which the distracted protagonists were oblivious to the scope of the problem for a comically long time. Here, the problem is people in the town of Newton Haven being replaced by robots who shed blue blood (aristocrats?) and lose their limbs a tad too readily to be the terminators they seem to want to be.

Gary King (Simon Pegg), an alcoholic ne’er-do-well approaching forty, yearns for the golden year of 1990 — the year he and his four best mates from school tried and, alas, failed to drink their way through twelve pubs in a night. Gary contrives to convene the old lads again — Andy (Nick Frost), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), and Peter (Eddie Marsan) — though they’ve all moved on and become respectable. Gary’s epic idea is to re-enact the pub crawl, and finish it this time. Eventually the lads give in, knowing that arguing with Gary is futile. At the fourth pub in the crawl, it becomes fairly evident that all is not what it seems.

It’s entirely possible that, like Grosse Pointe Blank, The World’s End will resonate most directly and viscerally for those who were Gary’s age or thereabouts at the dawn of the ’90s. The bold strut, early on, of Primal Scream’s “Loaded” (with its bite from Peter Fonda: “We wanna be free to do what we wanna do! And we wanna get loaded!”) took me right back to college and assured me I was in good nostalgic hands. But the songs aren’t just Super Sounds of the ’90s; many of the tunes, like the one noted, express the film’s theme of pursuing freedom in the face of authority and conformity. Wright and Pegg, who again cowrote the script, tweak the other four fellows for putting their party days aside, but Gary emerges as the film’s saddest character, a freedom fighter in his own mind who in truth wears the thickest chains.

The movie casts Pegg and Frost against type: in their previous two efforts with Wright, Pegg was the uptight striver and Frost the dissolute screw-up, and here it’s the reverse. The scenes of Gary trying to reconnect with his resentful former best mate Andy play like a scrawnier Falstaff appealing in vain to the fond memories of Prince Hal. Gary is also the right age to have seen, memorized, and worn out the video of Withnail & I, though the film is sensibly never addressed here — we look at Gary and we know he sees himself as Withnail 2.0, sneering in the rain “And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?,” though missing the tragic point of that famous scene. Pegg gives us a delusional anti-hero who develops into a deeply flawed hero and eventually, by movie’s end, a bona fide John Carpenter hero.

By turns, The World’s End is better-choreographed than most of what’s been passed off as action this summer; funnier than most comedies this season; and, at times, scarier than most horror films in the last few months — the scene involving Gary’s old flame Sam (Rosamund Pike) and a pair of twins is pretty creepy. It’s a full package of entertainment, genuflecting to the sci-fi of John Wyndham as well as to the cinema of John Carpenter (who adapted Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos). As in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright and Pegg love to mix their British and American pulp influences into one spiky drink. I wasn’t a huge fan of Hot Fuzz, feeling that Wright and Pegg were too smart to go on riffing on other creators’ work, but what they’ve done here feels personal, not so much derivative. There’s a sincere melancholy to it. You literally can’t go home again, nor, apparently, can you drink there the way you once did.

This Is the End

June 29, 2013

this-is-the-end-trailer-12202012-193922In the opening half hour of This Is the End, Hollywood loses about 90% of its thirtysomething comedic talent. James Franco, playing himself, is throwing a big party at his L.A. home, and anyone who’s anyone is invited. Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel, also playing themselves, decide to head on over. The party, though, is interrupted by gaping hellmouths and rampaging demons. The end, indeed, seems to be nigh — in downtown L.A., various people are raptured away in beams of blue light. Among the survivors are Franco, Rogen, Baruchel, Jonah Hill, and Craig Robinson, all holed up in Franco’s not terribly well-fortified fortress, waiting for rescuers who never come.

The comedy of that first half hour rests largely on watching various sitcom players and/or one-time Judd Apatow cast members falling into the abyss. The remainder of This Is the End pits the increasingly unhinged survivors against each other as they fight over water rationing or territorial rights to a porn magazine. It’s funny in a lazy let’s-get-a-group-of-dudes-together-and-have-fun way that reminded me strongly of the ’80s comedy-movie aesthetic, particularly some of the Cheech & Chong films. Like those films, This Is the End was made for stoners by stoners; as in most everything Seth Rogen has appeared in, vast quantities of weed are toked, as well as copious intake of cocaine and ecstasy. At one point, Franco and Rogen sit around and brainstorm a sequel to their cannabis hit Pineapple Express; later, they and the other bored survivors actually film it on Franco’s camcorder left over from 127 Hours.

Bits of everyone’s filmographies come in for ruthless mockery, except maybe for the serenely sarcastic Craig Robinson, who has one note — he always seems to be raising a bemused eyebrow to the camera even when he isn’t — but plays it well. When party-crasher Danny McBride enters the scenario, and, earlier, when an axe-wielding Emma Watson joins in, the movie has an entertaining randomness. It sags a bit, though, when we’re just watching everyone squabble over the rapidly depleted supplies, and that takes up a good chunk of the film. Still, these guys are amiably stupid company, and Jay Baruchel, who lacks the name recognition of his co-stars, emerges as the movie’s unlikely hero and moral center.

As a potentially cameo-heavy Hollywood satire, This Is the End is disappointingly front-loaded, though a couple of surprise appearances near the end earn the big laughs they get. The movie cost around $32 million but mainly stays indoors; most of the money, I gather, went into the destruction effects and the shadowy hell-beasts who pop up here and there, chasing the guys around or visiting Jonah Hill in his bed. I would’ve liked more outdoor movement; there’s only so much boredom and annoyance one can watch before one becomes bored and annoyed. Past a certain point, the novelty of hanging out with comedians goofing around shades into irritation at watching rich people goofing around, and This Is the End crosses the line a couple of times.

Essentially, the movie is too self-amused to be truly inspired or gonzo, considering this premise and this cast — especially the cast it wastes in cough-and-a-spit roles, like Aziz Ansari, Kevin Hart, and Mindy Kaling. Also, self-parody may come a little too easily to a meta-actor like James Franco, who was probably funnier on General Hospital as a psycho artist named Franco. (Half the fun of a comedy like this is actors playing against expectation, but aside from Emma Watson we don’t really get that. Seth Rogen is pretty much the Seth Rogen you’d figure he’d be, and so on.) But the movie’s very self-amusement makes it go down easy, and it’ll make a decent Netflix streaming choice in a few months. It’ll sit comfortably on the shelf next to Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams or Next Movie (though C&C’s masterpiece, Things Are Tough All Over, occupies a higher shelf alongside The Man With Two Brains and Top Secret). Don’t file it with the apocalyptic flicks, though: The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 and World War Z are (inadvertently) funnier.

Warm Bodies

February 2, 2013

Warm-BodiesA young man in a hoodie shambles aimlessly through an airport. He can’t remember his name, but he thinks it begins with an R. The R may as well stand for Romeo, because he soon finds his Juliet, though he has to eat her boyfriend’s brains first. Warm Bodies is a “zomromcom,” a term inaugurated by 2004’s witty modern classic Shaun of the Dead, and while this film isn’t as funny, it’s more romantic and has some intriguing twists on the zombie theme. R (Nicholas Hoult) is a relatively thoughtful and sensitive zombie — he provides self-deprecating narration, and he collects things that remind him of when he was alive. He stumbles across Julie (Teresa Palmer) when she’s on a run for medicine in the city. He seems taken with her even before he consumes her boyfriend Perry’s gray matter and experiences Perry’s memories of — and feelings for — Julie.

In 1985’s Return of the Living Dead, we were told that zombies eat brains because it alleviates “the pain of being dead.” Warm Bodies pushes that notion further towards an emotional anodyne: eating brains takes a zombie out of his listless existence for a while, like a drug. R and a few other zombies of his acquaintance (including Rob Corddry) may be zombies, and they may kill and eat humans because they have to, but they’re not as far gone yet as another kind of zombie. “Bonies,” these others are called — skeletal ghouls who “gave up” and have become true anti-life monsters. Compared to them, R looks pretty decent, and Julie (who doesn’t know R ate her sweetie’s skull meat) allows R to look after her after he rescues her. Eventually she develops feelings for him, which is unfortunate, because her father (John Malkovich) is the gung-ho leader of a militaristic band of zombie-killing survivalists.

Warm Bodies isn’t a romantic twist on the zombie movie so much as a zombie twist on the romance movie. There’s a nicely fragile rapport between Hoult (who’s delivered on the promise he showed in About a Boy a decade ago) and Palmer (who resembles Kristen Stewart but has more verve and humor). R and Julie look good and feel good together. We’re asked to believe that their love not only slowly heals R but inspires his fellow zombies to do likewise. Mostly we do. We can take or leave the implied message that we must embrace life to avoid being dead — literally, in this case — but R and Julie are a strange enough couple to make the bromide go down easy. The movie also appealingly suggests that if you were a bit of an outcast in life, you’ll manage to resist becoming one of the Bonies — you’ll try to find ways to make death interesting, like piling up snow globes or listening to Guns ‘n Roses.

This is director Jonathan Levine’s second horror-themed film, after his debut, the slasher flick All the Boys Love Mandy Lane; some might also count 50/50, with cancer as the remorseless serial killer. Levine’s work here is amiably rumpled, relaxing into the scenes of R playing his old ’80s vinyl records for Julie or haltingly trying to converse with her. The movie doesn’t stand out much in memory — nothing in it really pops — but it’s enjoyable while it lasts. It provides a surprisingly nuanced showcase for Rob Corddry, who is often pretty funny but too often lapses into a cartoon of himself. Here he gives us an amusingly polite zombie, and his first non-conversation with R strikes the tone the movie needs. They could be just two regular guys mumbling at each other at an airport.

Warm Bodies is not anything like the Twilight of zombie movies — for one thing, it doesn’t take itself stupidly seriously enough for that — though some horror fans offended by the softening (and sparkle-fication) of vampires in that series may likewise bristle at this film’s apparent thesis that even if you’re a zombie, all you need is love. Zombies, such people may say, eat people; that’s all. (The villain of the piece, the gun-happy Malkovich character, agrees with them.) Some of us horror fans, though, get tired of the binary us-vs.-them formula and welcome some shading, especially in a subgenre as exhausted lately as the zombie film. When World War Z opens this summer, it’s possible I’ll be looking at some of the zombies slaughtered by the heroes and thinking “Wait, one of them could be R.”

This Is 40

December 2, 2012

44692000001_1602507365001_This-is-40-uni-tWho thought it was a good idea to take the two most irritating characters in Knocked Up and devote a two-hour-and-thirteen-minute movie to them? This Is 40, the new dramedy written and directed by Judd Apatow (opening on December 21), follows the squabbling and problems of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), miserably married with two daughters (played by the real-life daughters of Apatow and Mann). Pete’s small record label is tanking, and Debbie’s clothes shop isn’t doing much better. If you think the movie is going to be about the reality of financial hardship in a shaky economy, though, you’re wrong: The couple apparently can still afford iPads, iPhones, and miscellaneous other iProducts for themselves and their kids. I’m a Mac user, but there are times when the film seems like an Apple commercial.

They can also presumably afford to go out to clubs, take a vacation at a fancy hotel, plan a catered 40th birthday party for Pete, and snipe at each other in the comfort of their too-spacious home — all while they’re in the hole for $80,000. But none of this is the point of the movie, which hammers the point that this technology-addicted family can’t communicate. The older daughter spends too much time on Facebook. Pete hides in the bathroom playing Bejeweled on his iPad. The couple also have problems with their fathers: Pete keeps lending money he can ill afford to lend to his dad (Albert Brooks), while Debbie hardly knows her father (John Lithgow), who left when she was eight. Also, Debbie’s sister Alison, one of the leads in Knocked Up, is absent here and never mentioned (however, Ben, Seth Rogen’s character, is referenced); maybe they had a falling out.

Judd Apatow enjoys a reputation for smart, closely observed comedy, a rep I think he earned with The 40 Year Old Virgin and Funny People (I wasn’t as taken with Knocked Up as many). Here, though, he draws out tiresome arguments, with everyone in the house screaming — the movie is shrill. There’s no surprise in any of the conflicts, no shock of recognition, and the occasional reconciliations feel unearned because the rancor that precedes them is so bilious. At many points we feel we’re seeing the end of a marriage, but Apatow keeps shoving the couple away from divorce, perhaps because a Christmastime release with a bummer ending would get fatal word of mouth. Realistically, we don’t see much reason for these two to be together, even for the sake of the kids, who are also irritating to us and to their parents.

Apatow’s films are generally well-cast, and this is no exception; Melissa McCarthy steals the movie as the mother of one of the daughters’ classmates (stick around during the end credits for some primo McCarthy outtakes), and Megan Fox comes through with a warm and human performance as a staffer at Debbie’s shop. I did think it was weird that the only two non-white characters with speaking parts are scam artists of various natures — Apatow’s universe is as white as Woody Allen’s. And the way poor old Graham Parker is used in this movie — a past-it rocker who can barely sell 600-something downloads of his new album, and who finds himself playing to a sparse club crowd and at a birthday party — struck me as insensitive, though maybe Parker enjoyed poking fun at himself, or enjoyed the paycheck.

This Is 40 is about pretty people with pretty problems; this used to be the province of James L. Brooks, who seems to have passed the torch to Apatow. It remains to be seen, though, whether Apatow can write women as compassionately as he can write men — Debbie comes off as a shrew much of the time, and the only halfway likable female character in the movie works part-time as an escort. Pete is no prize himself, nor are any of the other men, so I guess it’s equal-opportunity misanthropy, but 133 minutes is a long time to sit with people you don’t like. In the final reel, the revelations and reconciliations arrive like clockwork, and the couple prepare for a considerable additional financial burden without, apparently, worrying about how they’ll be able to swing it; indeed, the movie ends with them going to see Ryan Adams at a club, which, unless I miss my guess, is not a free event. To quote Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises: “The rich don’t even go broke like the rest of us.”

Frankenweenie (2012)

October 6, 2012

Imagine this: You’re working for a huge family-friendly conglomerate. You direct a half-hour film to be shown before a re-release of one of the conglomerate’s classic movies. The conglomerate hates your film — too scary for kids, they say — and fires you. Twenty-eight years later, the same conglomerate hands you $39 million to remake the same film they hated, in 3D stop-motion. They even let you make it in black and white. This, of course, is the story of Tim Burton, who made a short called Frankenweenie in 1984 for Disney, which has now thrown its full marketing weight behind the new remake. The lesson here is that if you make enough money (all told, Burton’s films have earned $1.7 billion for various studios, including Disney), your failures will be forgiven eventually. (Disney did acknowledge its short-sightedness earlier, releasing the first Frankenweenie on videotape in 1994 and then putting it on the Nightmare Before Christmas DVD as an extra.)

The 1984 Frankenweenie wasn’t a failure, though; it was a charming tribute to the monster movies Burton grew up on (and this was before his career grew a little too long on charming tributes to the monster movies he grew up on). The new one — call it Frankenweenie 2.0 — pretty much tells the whole story of the earlier version, with some padding that gets a little tiresome but does produce more monsters. Young Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan) obsesses over monster movies to the point of making his own, starring his beloved dog Sparky. One day, Sparky chases the wrong ball at the wrong time, and Victor loses his movie star and best friend. But not for long: Inspired by his science teacher (Martin Landau), Victor brings Sparky back to life on a dark and stormy night.

There are a couple of sad moments for dog lovers, especially those who have dug their share of tiny graves. But overall this is a comedy; Sparky doesn’t come back as a monster — he comes back as the same Sparky, except that his tail or his ear occasionally falls off (“I can fix that” is Victor’s refrain), and he needs to be “topped up” with a jolt of electricity every so often. I have to say I prefer the original version, not only because it felt fresher at the start of Burton’s career, but because it was shorter and didn’t succumb to subplots. Here, we get complications when other kids in Victor’s class find out about Sparky, and they want to learn Victor’s secret so they can win the school’s science fair. We don’t really care if they succeed or fail; it’s just a distraction from what should be the main event, in which the townspeople, horrified, corner Sparky at a windmill, just like old times.

The windmill in the original short was a small windmill at a mini-golf course. Here it’s a real windmill, and Victor has to run up endless stairs to save his neighbor Elsa (Winona Ryder) from a hybrid cat/bat as the windmill burns down around them. It reminded me of the entirely unnecessary fight at the end of Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, which felt as if Burton had internalized all the studio notes he got on Batman. You gotta have a bang-up finish, kiddo! But the tiny windmill in the original had so much more charm; you knew Burton didn’t have the budget to build and burn down a big windmill, so he improvised. In stop motion, you can do anything (and let’s have a round of applause for Trey Thomas, the animation director here), and some of the additions are inspired — I enjoyed the re-animated turtle who becomes a sort of non-flying Gamera — but some of it nudges our ribs a little too hard. Hey, remember Gremlins? How about Jurassic Park?

I suppose we should be thankful there isn’t a dancing number (no numbers at all, actually, except for some simpy end-credits song sung by Karen O). As long as it stays with the friendship of Victor and Sparky, Frankenweenie is fine. The look and tone are — say it with me now — a Charming Tribute to the Monster Movies Tim Burton Grew Up On, same as Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride and Sleepy Hollow and many others. The thing is, Disney should’ve had more faith in this premise back in 1984, when it mattered, instead of shocking it back to a bigger life now, after we’ve seen Burton return to this cobwebbed well again and again and again. It’s been said before, but Burton is almost ready for his own amusement park — Burtonworld, home of dozens of lovable misfits, land of sportively macabre imagery. Frankenweenie passes 87 minutes nicely, but apparently the 54-year-old Burton doesn’t have much more to say with this story than the 26-year-old Burton did. That’s a little dispiriting.


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