This Is the End
“This Is the End” exposes the narrow limits of the self-referential humor favored by Generation Z comics James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, and Craig Robinson. As funny as they are, these are probably not the guys you want to squander your last few hours of earthly existence hanging out with. The movie starts out hot with laughs but steadily loses steam toward a truncated climax that strains the film’s already overlong running time. The end doesn’t come soon enough.
As foreshadowed by its apocalyptic title, the goofball narrative involves a bible-thumping Rapture complete with gigantic fire-and-brimstone demon beasts destroying everything on the planet, or at least in Los Angeles. If that happens to include a dangling demon dong of terror that must be castrated by a heaven-transporting beam of blue light, then so much the weirder.
Fresh off a plane from Canada, Jay Baruchel (“Tropic Thunder”) happily reunites with his welcoming actor pal Seth Rogen. Seth is only too pleased to supply a candy-store’s worth of weed, booze and video games in order to make Jay feel welcomed at Seth’s newly purchased L.A. pad. In spite of Jay’s lack of enthusiasm at the prospect of spending time with Jonah Hill — an actor Jay “hates” — Seth convinces his needy buddy to come along to a swinging party at James Franco’s bunker-styled mansion in the Hollywood Hills.
Packed with celebrities — witness Paul Rudd, Aziz Ansari, and Rihanna — Franco’s house party has a surreal quality even before the ground outside opens up to engulf many souls. All of Los Angeles goes up in flames. Michael Cera steals the movie as a sex crazed cocaine-version of himself. When Jay catches Cera in flagrante delicto with two girls in a bathroom servicing him from both sides, the scene sets off the movie’s biggest guffaw. Still, there are other toilet-humor sharks to be jumped involving things like a sticky porno magazine.
While L.A. and ostensibly the rest of the world succumbs to the Rapture, Franco and his handful of buddies take shelter inside. Craig Robinson wears a t-shirt that commands, “Take yo panties off.” The non-sequitur joke resounds from the panicked group of man-boys faced with conserving a limited amount of food and water that Danny McBride flagrantly squanders at every opportunity. Jonah Hill becomes possessed by a demon, leading the filmmakers to create a kind of movie-within-a-movie entitled “The Exorcism of Johan Hill.” The effect is closer to a Saturday Night Live skit than something worthy of a feature film.
“This Is the End” is a stunt-comedy filled with trashy throwaway comic bits created by unsophisticated minds. It’s a shotgun approach that works well enough to induce more laughs than you’d get from a typical Hollywood comedy. Still, the humor never approaches the Judd Apatow wheelhouse of comedy that many of this film’s actors have shared in — see “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” or “Pineapple Express.” Our desperately troubled world could probably use more stoner movies like “This Is the End” even if it does wear out its welcome long before it’s over.
Rated R. 119 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Kings of Summer
Coming on the heels of Jeff Nichols’s superior Huckleberry Finn-styled boys’ coming-of-age movie “Mud,” “The Kings of Summer” reaches farther into the realm of fantasy, but comes up short. Hipster director Jordan Vogt-Roberts makes the leap from TV (“Single Dads”) with a snarky script about three implausible teens who run away from home to build a house in the woods where they pretend to live off the fat of the land — actually, they trek across a local roadway to buy chicken and cornbread from a restaurant. Where their money comes from, we don’t know. The hard-and-fast rule about being weary of debut directors applies here. Think Wes Anderson with a lower IQ.
“WHY LIVE WHEN YOU CAN RULE” is the film’s oddly dictatorially aspirational tag line that endorses a return to a childhood reality that existed before overpopulation and technology soaked up all creative thought and outdoor activity for budding young adults. Joe Toy (Nick Robinson), his friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso), and the self-proclaimed gay Biaggio (Moises Arias) up and run away from their respective cloistered suburban families to build a live-in fort where they will share a “manly” existence.
Joe probably has the most pressing reasons for leaving home because his douchebag dad Frank (Nick Offerman — television’s “Parks and Recreation”) actively interferes with his son’s pressing sensual needs concerning his classmate Kelly (Erin Moriarty). No teen boy needs a dad that blocks such sensitive transmissions. Joe later makes the mistake of breaking his gang’s cardinal rule of keeping the dwelling secret when he invites Kelly over for dinner after running into on a nearby golf course. To make matters worse, Kelly unexpectedly brings along some friends just to be certain the trio’s hiding place is thoroughly exposed. Still, it’s Kelly’s fickle nature — and not the search party of local authorities — that blows the boys’ utopic vision when she throws Joe over for Patrick.
The movie suffers from a number of structural and tonal obstacles. For an all-out existential fantasy, the picture plays it so safe you might as well be watching a television episode of “International House Hunters.” As for its muddy tone, once the parents are out of the picture there isn’t much of a story left over. Upstart screenwriter Chris Galletta is challenged to create a story arc with any suspense — much less one with any lasting meaning.
“The Kings of Summer” is a poor man’s “Moonrise Kingdom” — with none of that film’s editorial sense of kitsch, dry wit, or style. Think of it as a crumby knock-off of “Moonrise Kingdom” and you won’t be disappointed. The movie has a few cute moments and even a couple of laughs, but this is not an example of good filmmaking, or even competent storytelling.
Like much of Hollywood’s processed film product — witness such throwaway excursions as “Epic” or “Oblivion” — “The Kings of Summer” [previously entitled “Toy’s House”] is a vacuous rendition of childhood liberation. The movie can’t spit out its truth because the filmmakers never bothered to articulate it in the first place. For as much as it pretends to be inspired by works from Mark Twain, “The Kings of Summer” remains hamstrung to put an iota of such original thought on the screen.
Rated R. 93 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
It’s a Disaster
A recurring couples’ Sunday brunch-party of would-be hipsters is the setting for Todd Berger’s amusing end-of-the-world satire. Whether you’re the kind of survivor who would cannibalize your best friend or merely roast marshmallow’s on his or her burning flesh, “It’s a Disaster” shows you’re a hypocrite either way.
Four couples congregate at the color-coordinated home of Emma (Erinn Hayes) and Pete (Blaise Miller). Their marriage is on the rocks. Tracy (Julia Stiles) hopes to impress her latest romantic interest Glen (David Cross). Pete is more concerned with taking Glen’s intellectual inventory with hypothetical questions about things like ripping off Band-Aids or passing along good or bad news. Indeed, the news that surrounds their get-together is bad. Meanwhile, downtown a series of dirty bombs goes off. Sealed inside the house together, the group reveals personal foibles that include an affinity for swinging, sing-alongs, and the proper pronunciation of “duct” tape. “It’s a Disaster” wouldn’t be a bad choice for the last movie you see before life on Earth comes to a crashing halt.
Rated R. 88 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Artfully satirizing the in-your-face state of modern magic — as practiced by the likes of David Blaine and Criss Angel — while celebrating the cheesy aspects of old school slight-of-hand tricks, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is an effective comedy that covers a lot of ground.
At stake is a lifelong friendship between Las Vegas prestidigitation standard bearers Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). Burt, the better-looking member of the duo, has let his outsized ego and cynicism take over. All passion for his craft is gone. Steve Carrel loses himself so completely in the role that you have to keep reminding yourself who you’re looking at. A key ingredient to the comedy’s success is Carrel’s keen ability at transitioning from an unlikeable protagonist into a character you can’t help but root for. Olivia Wilde’s presence as Jane, Burt’s admiring assistant in the stage act, adds just the right amount of sex appeal. At a time when global culture is engaged in a race to the bottom, the values expressed in the comedy reflect a return to tasteful sensibilities. There’s a refreshing quality to the laugh-out-loud fun on-screen.
Jim Carrey delivers a comic coup de grace as extreme-illusionist Steve Grey, whose violent brand of street magic involves things such as cutting a folded playing card out of his swollen cheek with a pocketknife. The kooky “magician” also makes a splash by holding his urine for several days. Carrey’s trademark make-you-flinch comic dynamics arrive via a logic-defying physique without an ounce of body fat on it. Jim Carrey just might be the fittest 50-year-old in Hollywood. The rogue aspects of Carrey’s unpredictable character allow of some of the film’s most shocking moments.
With audience numbers dropping at their Vegas casino home stand, Burt and Anton get pressured by casino’s owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) to shape up or ship out. A break-up ensues that sends the bickering duo off in separate directions of self-discovery.
The once filthy rich Burt is relegated to performing magic in department stores and in a retirement home for an audience that more likely to fall asleep than fall for a card trick, no matter how mind-boggling. A chance meeting between Burt and aging magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) — Burt’s inspiration since childhood — adds a nostalgic layer. The ever-impressive Alan Arkin is the film’s secret weapon.
Anton takes up a humanitarian cause; he delivers magic sets to starving children in third world countries before realizing that perhaps magic sets aren’t exactly the right thing to share with kids in dire need of food and water. Steve Buscemi handles his seemingly thankless supporting role with just the right amount of humility.
Screenwriter John Francis Daley anchors the movie in various approaches to magic. Magic tricks do indeed take center stage in the narrative. Steve Grey’s climatic showstopper — involving a power drill applied to his cranium — takes the movie beyond any realm of expectation. Carrey’s skill with facial contortions hit the nail, or drill bit, on the head. Even better is the grand illusion that a reunited Burt and Anton pull off. The film’s explanatory coda —showing how the trick was done — adds a backstage angle of humor that leaves no stone unturned.
You can’t have a comedy about magic without gimmicks, and “Burt Wonderstone” has plenty. It also has panache.
Rated PG-13. 100 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III
Roman Coppola’s '70s-era scattershot comic apologia for Charlie Sheen’s sins of womanizing and drug abuse has a train-wreck appeal that makes it moderately interesting to look at —i.e., a snapshot of our times as seen through a retro view. Our eye is drawn to the excess of pop-art style that Coppola flashes to distract us from the film’s utter lack of narrative momentum. Still, “experimental” would be too polite an adjective to describe Coppola’s deconstructionist misfire in the name of maturity avoided. Charlie Sheen’s man/boy persona is doubtlessly more interesting to himself and his close friends than it is to moviegoers at large.
Sheen plays a slightly altered version of himself as Charles Swan III, a beauty-obsessed romantic with the attention span of mouse. Swan is in the midst of yet another break-up with a gorgeous woman half his age. He feigns heartbreak but is really more frustrated by his own inability to completely possess and abuse a woman as he does his vintage car. By day Charles Swan runs a Los Angeles graphic design studio responsible for projects like designing his best friend Kirby Star’s (Jason Schwartzman) upcoming album cover. Schwartzman’s character gives incidental credence to Liam Hayes’s hippie-groove musical score.
Forget that this is a character that could no more sit down at a drawing board for four straight hours than he could keep his eyes off a woman’s breasts for more than five seconds. Bill Murray adds a twinge of comic interest as Swan’s neurotic business manager Saul, but like everything and everyone else in the movie, his is just one more throwaway performance in the service of presenting Charlie Sheen as a moderately likeable human being. I’m not sold and you probably won't be either. Roman Coppola goes so far as to throw in a literal “kitchen sink” as part of his ploy to entertain, but like reality TV and Sheen himself, “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III” can’t even manage to titillate.
Rated R. 86 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
“Movie 43” is an irreverent comic oddity that throws any sense of political correctness to the wind. That the overtly raunchy movie arouses more pained curiosity than actual laughs is an unintended symptom of the tone-deaf contributions of nine screenwriters seemingly attempting to outdo one another in the area of shock value.
Conceived as a transgressive anthology of humorous vignettes directed by a slew of filmmakers that include Griffin Dunne, Peter Farrelly, Brett Ratner, and even Elizabeth Banks, the movie adds up to considerably less than the sum of its outrageous parts. Gross-out set-ups and sexual sight gags escalate with the piecemeal aid of A and B-list actors that include Greg Kinnear, Halle Berry, Seth MacFarlane, Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Emma Stone, Liev Schreiber, and Naomi Watts.
The skeletal narrative framework finds frantic screenwriter Charlie Wessler (Dennis Quaid) pitching his swan song script idea to Greg Kinnear’s mid-level Hollywood studio boss Griffin Schraeder after illegally gaining access past studio security. The filthy comic sketches that erupt are sequences from Wessler’s “edgy” screenplay.
One such storyline puts Kate Winslet’s unsuspecting character Beth on a blind date with Hugh Jackman’s Davis, a man with the misfortune of having a pair of testicles positioned beneath his chin. No one except Beth seems to notice the pair of balls that dangle in front of Davis’s Adam’s apple. A pubic hair in his soup, and an uncomfortable photo opportunity make Beth and the audience squirm. Still, no explanation is forthcoming about why it is exactly that only Beth can see, or is bothered by Davis’s very public nutsack.
The film’s most outré sequence involves a romantically involved couple played by the real-life married duo of Anna Faris and Chris Pratt. After 16 months of dating Vanessa (Faris) is ready to reveal the scatological nature of her sexual desires. She makes a bold request for her boyfriend Jason (Pratt) to poop — not sh*t — on her. The distinction makes for an unsatisfying end to the ill-conceived skit.
The filmmakers seemed to think that if they threw enough gross ideas at the wall, some of them would stick, and some of those would be funny. They were wrong on all counts. Nonetheless, “Movie 43” will earn a cult niche in cinema history if only for the film’s bizarre coupling of high-octane talent with some of the worst comic ideas ever imagined.
Rated R. 94 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
The Guilt Trip
All of the complimenting chemistry between Barbara Streisand and Seth Rogen — playing mother and son — can’t compensate for an lethargic comedy by screenwriter Dan Fogelman (“Crazy, Stupid, Love”). Barely a blip of an audience chuckles ever erupt.
Nagging mom Joyce (Streisand) wants nothing but the best for her son Andrew (Rogen). A wife and success with his one-man business as the inventor of “Scioclean,” a green cleaning product would satisfy mom. Andrew might be a great organic chemist, but he isn’t much of a pitchman. He’s running low on funds to make his dream come true. Time is running out. To distract from his own problems, Andrew hatches a covert plan to connect mom with her long-lost first love after some breakfast table talk reveals the crush she still holds. Andres’s shorthand detective work reveals that Joyce’s beau from her youth lives at the opposite end of the country in San Francisco.
Andrew invites Joyce on a cross-country road trip from her home in New Jersey to tag along while he meets with prospective wholesalers that might develop, produce, and distribute Scioclean. A cramped rental car fails to squeeze out any laughs as the familial pair make their way through shared motel rooms, predictably humorless pitch meetings with business reps, and an ill-conceived eating contest wherein Joyce consumes an inhuman amount of beef. “The Guilt Trip” is one more example of everything wrong with the Hollywood movie machine. The film is nothing but movie “product.” It doesn’t matter that it’s no good because it will make a certain amount of profit regardless of its quality. Even watching crap like this as a captive audience on an airplane is a mistake.
Rated PG-13. 96 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Stand Up Guys
“Stand Up Guys” is a respectable compact crime drama comedy about camaraderie among a passing generation of retired wiseguys. There’s still some honor among thieves. Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, and Alan Arkin play the film’s three mildly flamboyant leading characters with a tacit admission that the tongue-in-cheek movie at hand reflects the disappearance of their own group of iconic actors. Each player riffs on his own well-worn acting tics as if taking one last gulping spree from the fountain of youth. It’s easy to wax poetic about the pure cinematic joy of watching Arkin (78), Pacino (72), and Walken (69) poking fun at themselves on the big screen. These guys are national treasures. Seriousness also plays a part, but director Fisher Stevens keeps the tone light even if a bittersweet sense of melancholy moors the stream-of-consciousness action.
Val (Pacino) gets released from the big house after serving a 28-year sentence for a murder that occurred during a shootout. He steps lightly into the loving arms of his old buddy Doc (Walken). Val never ratted out any of his cohorts, but the local kingpin doesn’t want him around — it was his son that died in the shootout. Doc’s pressing assignment is to kill his pal. Val senses what’s coming. However, Val and Doc have much business to tend to first. They’re not about to let a little thing like the looming sword of Damocles prevent them from celebrating the time they have together. Besides, Doc has to figure out exactly how and when to take out Val. The clock ticks. Strains of Elaine May’s “Mikey and Nicky” (which starred Peter Falk and John Cassavetes) play across the narrative. There’s a refreshing earthiness to the urban drama that resonates with the ‘70s era movie environment where Arkin, Walken, and Pacino ruled the Hollywood roost. Remember “Freebie and the Bean” or “The Deer Hunter”? Classics.
The episodic story transpires over a 24-hour-period. A visit to the old local cathouse is a top priority. Lucy Punch gets in a few comic digs as Wendy, the madam of the house. Drinks and pills are on the menu. Slapstick humor pops when Val suffers the symptoms of a Viagra overdose that sends him to the hospital where the daughter of his old getaway driver pal Hirsh (Arkin) works. Al Pacino’s knack for comic timing pushes through — so to speak.
Newbie scriptwriter Noah Haidle struggles at times with tempo. He also doesn’t dig deeply enough into the dramatic potential of some scenes. Still, there’s an upside to the bare-bones script that gives its talented ensemble room to groove. A car chase sequence with Hirsh behind the wheel, surges with a euphoric sense of youthful joy among old guys who are still just boys at heart. Fisher Stevens’s direction is solid, even if it doesn’t arrive with most inspired execution considering the quality of talent in front of the camera.
An emotional-hook subplot involving a waitress at the diner Val and Doc keep coming back to, gives Walken and Pacino a chance to spill a few drops of passion without resorting to sappiness.
Rated R. 94 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Martin McDonagh’s energetic follow up to his wildly humorous and thoughtful 2008 film “In Bruges” is a self-reflexive study in post-post-modern cinema. “Seven Psychopaths” has a more throwaway quality than “In Bruges,” and as such doesn’t stick in the memory nearly as long. But that doesn’t prevent McDonagh’s rollicking dichotomy of violence and wit from delivering palpable smacks to your funny bone and stomach.
The film’s cherry-picked cast works wonders. More than a little Tarantino-informed humor sets up the movie. A couple of young hit-men (played by Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg) stand on a Los Angeles discussing the possibility of being shot in the eyeball. “Did Dillinger get shot in his eyeball?” The guys are waiting for the arrival of the woman they are assigned to kill. What they don’t know is that there is a serial killer going around killing, well, serial killers. Killer X always leave behind a trademark playing card to mark his territory after the deed is done.
Cut to Sam Rockwell’s Billy sitting on a sunny patio with his screenwriter pal Marty talking over Marty’s budding script. Billy worries about Marty’s alcohol intake; he is Irish after all. He also wants to insinuate himself as Marty’s writing partner. He gives Marty an idea about a father who haunts his young daughter’s killer after the killer is released from prison after becoming a genuine man of God — if such a thing exists. The constant presence of said father drives the man to slit his own throat, after which the father commits the same act of suicide on himself. Gory stuff. Inspired, Marty takes out a classified ad calling on all former psychos to come tell him their sick and twisted stories. Tom Waits eats up the screen as Zachariah, a white-rabbit-carrying nut job who was once himself a killer of serial killers. Zachariah had help from an African American female accomplice.
Such is the baroque storytelling that McDonough employs as obvious bits of dialogue foreshadowing come to fruition. If anything, Seven Psychopaths is too clever for its own good because it can’t possibly live up to the narrative soil it so carefully tills. Some scenes — as one involving the cancer-ridden wife to Christopher Walken’s character with Woody Harrelson’s mob boss — don’t unfold with the complexity the filmmaker foretells. Still, the ensemble performances are delightful. Rockwell is a blast, and Walken is fully in command.
“Seven Psychopaths” is a different kind of popcorn movie. It’s gritty and bathed in irony. Martin McDonagh has made a movie-metaphor about his condition as a tormented screenwriter and director attempting to give the market something that will sell and still satisfy his artistic integrity. It’s a stepping-stone film for McDonagh to get out of his system. Now, maybe he can go on to make a different kind of film every bit as his first one.
Rated R. 109 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Lo-fidelity political satire arrives with a burlesque rim shot and some kooky butter sculptures in Jim Field Smith’s bawdy feature debut. Iowa family woman Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner) suffers from the same kind of blind political ambition that attracted Barak Obama to the White House. Like Obama, Laura Pickler is all surface and no substance; she’s a political dilettante who simply wants to bask in the political spotlight. Like Sarah Palin, Mrs. Pickler wears her Americana values like Girl Scout badges guaranteed to promote her to the lofty position of Iowa Governor, and beyond. She doesn’t have a plan or a story, just plenty of self-serving motivation.
Laura’s butter-carving master hobbyist husband Bob (Ty Burrell) has lorded over the town’s annual contest as the “Elvis of Butter.” Locals still rave about Bob’s sculpted yellow depictions of The Last Supper and a scene from “Schindler’s List.” Tasty if not tasteful. Laura sees red after Bob agrees to step down from participating in the contest rather than continue to hog the local glory with his laudable butter-sculpting skills. Besides, Bob has other things to keep him busy, such as lap dances with Olivia Wilde’s home-wrecking harlot Brooke.
Hugh Jackman makes a hilarious appearance as one of Laura’s former boyfriends, whom she turns to for an illicit favor after taking over hubby’s butter-carving duties. It seems a young adopted African-American girl has some mean sculpting skills of her own to go along with a considerably more editorial eye than Laura Pickler. To read too much into the film’s lighthearted pokes at the nature of American political greed is a mug’s game. Everyone knows capitalism is a racist construct to begin with. It’s funny watching an African-American girl turn “the white man’s burden” on its head.
Rated R. 91 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Based on the British television sitcom of the same name, “The Inbetweeners” is a hit or miss coming-of-age sex comedy along the lines of the “American Pie” movies. Filled with obligatory nudity that skews toward the exposure of male genitalia, this slapstick comedy works best when dodging clichés. Fresh out of high school, best friends Will (Simon Bird), Jay (James Buckley), Simon (Joe Thomas), and Neil (Blake Harrison) are anxious to address their daily horniness while on vacation thousands of miles from their home in the UK. Their grand plans of “going mental” in Malia, on the Greek island of Crete, are more closely laid by mice than by men. Simon’s obsession with nursing his freshly broken heart is exacerbated by the coincidental presence—of course0--of his ex-girlfriend Carli (Emily Head) on the island. Simon is the intellectual leader of the group even if he’s as clueless as his goofball buddies about how to talk to girls. Joe Thomas’s British accent provides a wealth of comic appeal. Neil’s impressive robotic dance moves are made less so by the orange fake tan he wears on his face. Neil’s fascination with women too old to be called “cougars” nevertheless puts him in the throes of sensual release while his pals follow paths of stronger resistance.
The introduction of four equally awkward girls gives the boys a fallback position for the comedy to take appropriate shape though the story meanders. Also, “The Inbetweeners” doesn’t go far enough into its insinuated territory of sticky gross-out humor. Half the fun of coming-of-age comedies is watching offended little old ladies storm out of the cinema. “The Inbetweeners” keeps too much in the middle of the road for any such off-screen drama.
Rated R. 85 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
For a Good Time, Call…
As satisfying as a vibrator without batteries, “For a Good Time, Call…” is a superficially ribald sex comedy that lacks “sex” and “comedy.” Incompetent pacing combines with tone-deaf dialogue for a movie that is a chore to endure. Co-screenwriter/actress Lauren Anne Miller plays Lauren, a brunette twentysomething New York City misfit who moves in with blonde Katie (Ari Graynor), a slutty piece-of-work with whom Lauren had a falling out a decade ago. Both girls need more money to make ends meet. Katie’s part time stay-at-home job as a phone sex operator gushes a brainstorm when the girls decide to go into the naughty biz together. The film’s only funny scene arrives with little more than a chuckle when Katie tutors Lauren in the phone technique of saying she wants to “lick” whatever it is that comes up during client calls. Katie’s big secret is that, for all of her verbal abilities, she’s still — wait for it — a virgin. Yawn. Justin Long gives an annoyingly inconsistent performance as Katie’s gay best friend Jesse. All premise and no execution, “For a Good Time, Call…” confirms Woody Allen’s principle that you’re not doing it right if the sex isn’t dirty. The phone-sex sequences in this movie would put a 15-year-boy to sleep.
Rated R. 88 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Sleepwalk With Me
Mike Birbiglia is no Louis C.K. He might not even have a future as a comedian. He’s a loser pure and simple. These are the assessments you come away with from after watching the movie version surrounding a well-worn story Birbiglia has told repeatedly told on National Public Radio about his sleepwalking condition that led to him jump through an unopened second-story hotel window.
Birbiglia plays himself during the salad days of his career as stand-up comic when he first landed an agent while living with his supportive girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose). Plenty of fourth-wall-breaking narration invites the audience along for the ride through Birbiglia’s wounded psyche as he drives to out-of-the-way small towns to tell well-worn jokes to uncrowded rooms. While Birbiglia manages to muster enough audience empathy to keep us mostly on his side, his inexplicable decision to cancel his upcoming wedding to Abby raises questions about the comic’s unreliable character as a human being. “Sleepwalk With Me” is lightweight to a fault. Yeah it’s strange that this marginal comedian has a kooky sleep disorder, but that doesn’t mean it makes for a very entertaining comedy.
Not Rated. 90 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
“Goats” is an amateurish coming-of-age movie made up scattershot ideas that are never developed. If you’re looking for some kind of narrative link to the film’s simplistic title — don’t. The half-hearted movie is based on screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier’s novel. 15-year-old Ellis (innocuously played by newcomer Graham Phillips) must leave the eccentric company of his selfish New Age mom Wendy (Vera Farmiga) and her “wise” pot-growing landscaper Goat Man — aka Javier (David Duchovny). Goat Man does indeed keep a couple of goats on the dysfunctional family’s Tucson farm. The time has come for Ellis to go off to college prep school at Gates Academy in D.C., leaving behind his surrogate father figure Goat Man. Ellis has studied at the feet of Goat Man during pot-fueled treks around Arizona’s barren topography, and is now ready to venture out into the academic world where his wealthy biological dad Frank (Ty Burrell) prepared for college.
Every plot element comes across as incidental if not entirely irrelevant. Ellis gets a crush on a girl (Dakota Johnson) who interlopes on campus as a small-time prostitute. The subplot’s unsatisfying resolution arrives with a similar effect as every other disjointed even that transpires in this instantly forgettable movie. “Goats” is a would-be stoner movie with no contact-high.
Rated R. 92 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
VIDEO ESSAYS: HOPE SPRINGS, NITRO CIRCUS, THE CAMPAIGN, AND CLASSIC FILM PICK - WEST SIDE STORY
Here’s a new twist. Picture a Republican politician with humanitarian ethics. Now imagine said unicorn in the corporeal being of Zach Galifianakis, making the most of every effeminate gesture he can muster as small town family man Marty Huggins. Marty likes to wear turtleneck shirts and patterned sweaters as he conducts guided bus-tours around town to an audience of one — a kooky old lady with a crush on Marty. When long-term North Carolina Congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) shoots his forth re-election bid in the foot by leaving a dirty phone message for his latest slut-conquest on the family phone machine, Marty Huggins gets the call-up to run against the dead-duck candidate. Marty’s dad Wade (Brian Cox) is an old-money Southern patriarch who doesn’t care for Marty’s less than manly qualities. Nevertheless, Wade sends his approval-hungry son into the fray of mud-slinging politics.
The parody extends to the endless platitudes Americans are about to be inundated with during the 2012 election. Cam Brady is a photo-op addict espousing a fill-in-the-blank policy where everyone everything represents “this nation’s backbone.”
You couldn’t really call the slapstick shenanigans that transpire between political rivals Cam and Marty high comedy, but plenty of contagious laughs follow just the same. Ferrell’s and Galifianakis’s physical differences alone are enough to make you grin. Their awkward chemistry is a powder keg, one that only comic fireworks can resolve. It doesn’t hurt that both characters are as simple-minded as Scarlett O’Hara — it is the South after all.
A quote from Ross Perot sets the tone. “War has rules, mud-wrestling has rules — politics has no rules.”
“The Campaign” makes fun of ethical missteps that American politicians from both sides of the isle seem unable to stop themselves from making. Drunk driving, tweeting nude photos, and public- speaking gaffs make for easy comic pickings here. In the case of Cam’s DUI arrest, how he got inebriated in Marty’s company is germane to the hilarity of the situation.
Although the filmmakers mask the greedy conservative targets of their satire, they let a few cards show. Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow play the Motch brothers, a pair of billionaire string-pullers clearly patterned after the notoriously malevolent Koch brothers whose behind-the-scene tactics of political manipulation are examined in Robert Greenwald’s well-received documentary “Koch Brothers Exposed.” The Motch brothers bring in their secret-campaign-weapon Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) to make over, prep, and supervise Marty’s run for congressman. The top-to-bottom transformation necessarily means that Marty’s beloved pair of Pugs must be switched out for different — more “domestic” — dogs. No Chinese canines are allowed in this white-bread part of the country, at least not as the pets of a right-wing candidate. McDermott’s shadowy character represents an undercover black-ops methodology of cutthroat politics that Americans take for granted.
Character-actor Karen Maruyama steals scenes in a delightfully effective sub-plot supporting role as big daddy Wade’s housekeeper Mrs. Yao. Under Wade’s openly racist insistence, Mrs. Yao speaks in a slang-riddled old Southern accent when she replies to her “masser.” Mrs. Yao knowingly skewers her put-on accent with knee-thick sarcasm that drips like molasses in 110-degree heat. It’s a sub-plot device that would fail in most comedies, but inexplicably works like a charm here. Folks “did used to talk real stupid” — some still do — in that part of the country where the Confederate flag still files.
Director Jay Roach (“Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”) dovetails escalating zingers, as when Cam Brady habitually misses punching Marty in public, only to connect with things better left unspoken. The situational humor goes gloriously blue before settling on a calming theme of social responsibility, the likes of which America hasn’t seen in years. There’s more to “The Campaign” than just a big old bag of funky, witty satire — but it is that too.
Rated R. 97 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Could it be that Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and Ben Stiller have lost their respective knacks for making audiences laugh? You’d certainly think so from their lackluster appearances in this sullen sci-fi alien comedy that goes nowhere fast. Based on the sputtering successes of its security-guard-themed comedies, Hollywood would do well to learn a lesson about the subgenre’s comic potential.
You already know the set-up. An alien attack in suburban nowhere sends Ben Stiller’s Costco-manager Evan on the warpath to track down the person or thing that skinned one of his employees. Evan finds uncomfortable camaraderie with Franklin (Hill) — a police-officer-reject, Bob (Vaughn’s signature eternal man-child), and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade) — a British newcomer to the neighborhood. To his credit Ayoade steals more than his share of scenes with tepid comic materials provided by screenwriters Jared Stern, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg.
Where last year’s “Attack the Block” had a desperate sense of dynamic urgency, “The Watch” lurches in fits and starts. Jokey sequences set inside Evan’s SUV, or on a park bench — where Evan confides to Bob about his male infertility. Even the film’s most promising comic set piece — involving an unconscious alien creature in Bob’s man-cave — goes off-key due to prickly allusions to American soldiers mistreatment of corpses in Iraq.
A proliferation of penis-jokes comes with the territory in a male-centric comedy where you can hear the writers laughing at their own jokes. It might be great for the writers, but it doesn’t leave much for the audience to laugh at.
Rated R. 100 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Madea’s Witness Protection
“Madea’s Witless Protection” would be a better title for Tyler Perry’s interminable, tin-eared comedy. Barely ever nudging even a half-chuckle during its overlong proceedings, the movie shows Tyler Perry’s powers as a writer-director-performer failing miserably at every level. Never much of an actor to begin with, Perry comes up woefully short in multiple roles — the most noticeable of which is as straight-man Joe, a Federal Prosecutor brought in to investigate a Wall Street investment banker. Joe is a nephew to Perry’s serial character Madea — a cartoonish embodiment of Southern Baptist African American matriarchy with a long criminal history.
Eugene Levy gets hung out to dry as George Needleman, one of the bankers in question. Needleman’s company set him up as its deer-in-the-headlights CFO before the proverbial shit hit the fan regarding its mob-backed Ponzi scheme. Only 12 of the company’s 88 charities are bona fide aid organizations. Joe imposes on aunt Madea to open up her Atlanta home to Needleman and his privileged family, who have been soaking up all the luxuries money can buy on their estate in the Hamptons. The mob wants to keep Needleman from testifying against the company, hence the need for “witness protection.”
Tyler Perry’s Southern regional sense of inside humor is written to play to his audience, and nobody else. A forced subplot identifying George Needleman as part Negro might seem funny to some, but will leave many audience members yawning in their seats. Similar to the way Adam Sandler has created a cottage industry of franchise films built on his low-brow sense of humor, Tyler Perry continues to make movies for his audience. Everyone else be damned.
Rated PG-13. 114 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Easily the most ribald and politically incorrect comedy to come out of the 21st century’s second decade, Mikkel Norgaard’s “Klown” smacks funny bones you didn’t know you had. Certain to provoke prudish audience members to walk out before the movie hits its stride, “Klown” goes artfully over-the-top while pressing its cascade of outrageous situations into a volcano of comic explosions. Based on a Danish television show of the same name, the story follows the exploits of Frank (Frank Hvam) and Casper (Casper Christensen). Casper and Frank go on a canoe trip that Casper has privately dubbed the “Tour de Pussy.” Horny Casper places pussy above fatherhood in his hierarchy of life’s priorities. Frank, however, has just found out about his girlfriend Mia’s (Mia Hjortshoj) pregnancy — which she hesitated to disclose because she doubted Frank’s potential to be an adequate father. Mia considers an abortion. Capitulating to his anxiousness to prove Mia wrong about his nurturing abilities, Frank kidnaps her 11-year-old nephew Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen) and takes the unsuspecting boy on the canoe trip. What follows is a series of embarrassing and humiliating events that mark Casper and Frank as two of the biggest idiots you could imagine. Relationships and classic psychology are tested in this diabolically funny movie, which Hollywood already has plans of mucking up with a remake.
Rated R. 99 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Sacha Baron Cohen Takes Out America’s Trash
By Cole Smithey
Sacha Baron Cohen may just be the most gifted satirist of our time. His take-no-prisoners wit and equally uncompromising approach to raking American hypocrisies over the coals is unparalleled. In “The Dictator” Cohen matches Charlie Chaplin’s teachable monologue from Chaplin’s 1940 masterpiece “The Great Dictator” with a third-act soliloquy that will ruffle more than a few feathers. His character’s comparison of modern American capitalism to a dictatorship is so right-on it’s scary. George Carlin would be proud. For his latest comic incursion, Cohen and his reliable director Larry Charles abandon the ambush methods the team used for “Borat” (2006) and “Brüno” (2009), in favor of a more traditionally scripted narrative comedy. The result is a non-stop laugh riot from start to finish.
Cohen’s newest creation is Admiral General Aladeen, the merciless dictator of the Republic of Wadiya — a fictitious oil-rich country in North Africa. The evil dictator is developing nuclear weapons. The UN wants an explanation—in person, or they will send in forces to attack Wadiya. Blithe Aladeen is famous for his racist and misogynist beliefs. “You now have herpes,” he tells a prostitute after bedding her. He’s not much of a diplomat. He still wants to snuggle with her before she goes. The Admiral General is also known for having members of his staff decapitated at whim for disagreeing with him in any way. With an impossibly bushy black beard, Aladeen is a goofy amalgamation of dictators like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Kim Jong-Il—to whose memory the film is dedicated.
Structurally, the movie sticks to a loosely connected string of fast and dirty vignettes that come at you from all angles. Nobody since John Waters has pushed shock value comedy so far. If you think 9/11 jokes are off-limits, think again. You’ll squirm and squirm again as you laugh your guts out.
Sir Ben Kingsley plays against type as Aladeen’s unappreciated right-hand man Tamir, the rightful heir to Wadiya’s throne. Kingsley’s earnest attitude adds to the comedic effect his straight-man character has on the comedy. Gandhi has come a long way.
Body-doubles provide useful fodder for frequent attempts against Aladeen’s life, including one orchestrated by Tamir who hatches a plot to have an Aladeen double appear at the United Nations to announce Wadiya’s transfer into a democratic nation. Tamir wants to sell off the country’s oil rights. After all, democracy means big profits for the elite.
The action moves to Manhattan. While Tamir preps Aladeen’s dimwitted double for his moment in the political spotlight at the UN, the real Aladeen bides his time in Brooklyn with Zoey (Anna Faris), a hairy-arm-pitted political activist who Aladeen initially mistakes for a boy. Anna Faris more than fulfills the tricky demands of her poker-faced feminist character. Zoey is burdened with such dubious tasks as teaching Aladeen to pleasure himself, and instructing him on political correctness. Romance is in the air.
Admiral General Aladeen is the first Cohen-created character not recycled from his long-retired television series “Da Ali G Show.” While Aladeen doesn’t come with the catalog of quotable catch phrases Borat brought to the table, he provides a significant message about how America stacks up against its most hated rivals.
"Imagine if America was a dictatorship:
You could let one percent of the people have all the nations wealth.
You could help your rich friend get richer by cutting their taxes and bailing them out when they gamble and lose.
You could ignore the needs of the poor for healthcare and education. Your media would appear free, but would secretly be controlled by one person and his family.
You could wiretap phones,
You could torture foreign prisoners.
Your could have rigged the elections.
You could lie about why you go to war.
You could fill your prisons with one particular racial group and no one would complain.
You could use the media to scare the people into supporting policies that are against their interest."
Sacha Baron Cohen takes political satire to new heights. “The Dictator" is the most fun I've had at the movies this year. If you can’t laugh at America’s two unelectable Presidential candidates, at least you can laugh at their undiluted mirror image.
Rated PG-13. 83 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Stoner-friendly B-movies don’t come much closer to producing a contact high than this dastardly little comedy. Without an original bone in its get-the-whole-school-high plot device, “High School” follows freshly reunited best friends Henry (Matthew Bush) and Travis (Sean Marquette). Even though Matthew Bush’s glazed-over eyes predict otherwise, Travis is the hardcore stoner of the pair. Henry has a shot at valedictorian if he doesn’t stray too far from the straight and narrow path he’s been pursuing throughout his high school career. All that goes out the window when a well-disguised Michael Chiklis — as school principle Dr. Leslie Gordon — announces school-wide drug testing. Brilliant Travis hatches a scheme to steal a mighty quantity of distilled THC from his local dealer Psycho Ed (Adrien Brody), a tattooed piece of work straight out of Rikers Island prison. Travis bakes up several pans of brownies that he substitutes at the school bake sale, and voila — nearly every faculty member and student is quite properly baked. With all drug-testing results effectively nullified, the only thing left to do is pay back Psycho Ed, who comes calling for the boys after discovering his loss. The film’s guiltiest pleasure derives from watching Colin Hanks play stoned as school administrator Brandon Ellis. A dearth of stoner movies in recent years makes “High School” an automatic guilty pleasure, but only by default.
Rated R. 93 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Tim Burton’s tantalizingly delightful reduction of ABC television’s gothic daily soap opera (1966-1971) makes the most of its vampiric leading man Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp). If a couple of supporting characters —such as Barnabas’s love interest Victoria Winters/Josette DuPres— get shuffled away to back burners, there’s hardly opportunity to hold a grudge amid the compact storytelling. Bolstered by an energetic cast that includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter, and a scene-chewing Chloe Grace Moretz, “Dark Shadows” plays to its depiction of early ‘70s America without slipping into camp. A cherry-picked soundtrack of era-appropriate music ranging from Iggy Pop to The Carpenters to Alice Cooper adds ironic lilt to the pokerfaced humor on hand. Danny Elfman’s evocative score hits all the right notes in setting a darker tone for the spunky melodrama.
As the backstory goes, the Liverpool-born Barnabas Collins helped with his father’s successful fishing business from the cavernous comfort in Collinwood Mansion in the coastal Maine town of Collinsport in the mid to late 1700s. A miscalculated dalliance with a jealous Wiccan house servant named Angelique Bouchard (played with delicious poise by Eva Green) cost Barnabas the lives of his parents, and that of his true love Josette DuPres. The spurned Angelique turned Barnabas into a vampire before siccing the angry locals on him. His fate was to be buried alive.
Nearly 200 years later, construction workers dig up our displaced vampire hero across from a McDonald’s parking lot. He responds by killing them. Well, Barnabas Collins is a bloodthirsty vampire after all. Barnabas’s unwelcome resurrection corresponds with the arrival at Collinwood Mansion of Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote)—the spitting image of Josette DuPres—who responds to an ad for a nanny to the household’s youngest member David (Gulliver McGrath)—son to Jonny Lee Miller’s unfit father figure Roger Collins. Barnabas reclaims his rightful place as the household patriarch in the face of Angelique’s place as a permanent rival to the family fishing business, which hangs on by the barest of threads. The only slightly ruffled vampire quickly goes into action to restore the family fortune even as family secrets spring to the surface like so many blades of grass on a golf course.
Depp’s Barnabas Collins gets ample opportunity to put the bite on his share of necks. Since working together on seven previous films director Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have developed a sharpness of communication that translates easily to the audience. “Dark Shadows” is a lot more fun than any of the “Twilight” movies combined. The movie sustains a unique tone of gleeful gothic fun. To that end, it achieves its clever goals quite nicely.
Rated PG-13. 113 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)