The Three Stooges
“The Three Stooges” is notable for its spot-on interpretation of the stylized slapstick comedy practiced for decades by vaudeville comedians Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Howard. Actors Sean Hayes, Will Sasso, and Chris Diamantopoulos match every goofy facial expression, outrageous gesture, and eye-poke with precise comic timing. Their giddy humor is infections. The story is presented in three episodes to roughly match the Three Stooges’ two-reel comic short films of the ‘30s and ‘40s. The opening act — “More Orphan Than Not” — introduces our three cut-ups as improbable siblings abandoned on the doorstep of a Catholic orphanage overseen by a very masculine Sister Mary-Mengele aka “Attila the Nun” (ferociously played by Larry David). Jonathan Richman’s song “Roadrunner” sets an irreverent but sunny tone to the action. Even the child actors cast as young versions of Larry, Moe, and Curly nail their impersonations to a tee. The boys are comically described as “pure of heart and dim of wit.”
The second episode — “The Banana Split” — allows for some canny use of CGI to convince the audience of the trio’s harm-defying abilities, as when they fall from a chapel roof in one especially funny episode. Giggles happen. Sadly, the narrative goes astray. A financial crisis at the orphanage inspires the boys to attempt to raise $830,000 to save the only home they have ever known. Enter Sophia Vergara as Lydia, a black-widow bombshell who hires the three misfits to murder her husband. Without missing a beat, Lydia’s could-be husband suffers what would be a horrible demise were it not for the cartoon nature of the humor. The murder sub-plot hits a wrong note.
Co-writers/co-directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly are better suited for directing than screenwriting. The movie hits a wall during the third act — “No Moe Mr. Nice Guy — when Moe gets hired to participate in a reality television show with the cast of “The Jersey Shore.” Talk about “jumping the shark.” The filmmakers could have at least waiting until the sequel to unleash such a dubious plot twist.
For all of the tremendous effort put into transposing The Three Stooges’ brand of physical comedy into a feature film, an unpolished script hampers the result. First-act laughs succumb to third-act disappointment.
Rated. 92 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
This (hopefully) final nail in the coffin of the “American Pie” teen-sex franchise —inspired by “Portnoy’s Complaint” — manages to be just as uncomfortable and boring as a real-life high school reunion. Gone is the good-natured sense of bubbling teen lust and irreverent curiosity that sent 1999 original over the top. Post economic collapse has taken a toll on characters that once seemed like they’d be horny and happy forever. The filmmakers take so long in getting around to the actual reunion of the film’s title that when the third-act event finally rolls around, all of the comic energy is already spent. Although it might be a guilty pleasure to compare how actors like Jason Biggs, Alyson Hannigan, Chris Klein, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Eddie Kaye Thomas, and Seann William Scott have aged over the years, there just isn’t any enough funny business to keep the film afloat. Jim (Biggs) and wifey Michelle (Hannigan) aren’t getting busy since the birth of their baby. Kevin (Nicholas) carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. Finch (Thomas) has turned into a compulsive liar. Only Stifler (Scott) has retained any semblance of honest rebelliousness. Even Stifler’s hot-to-trot mom (Jennifer Coolidge) has slowed her roll to a snail’s pace. takeThe “Harold-and-Kumar” writing/directing team of Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg just haven’t got what it takes to make “American Reunion” a party to remember.
Rated R. 110 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
The Trouble With Bliss
Less than the comic sum of its sardonic parts “The Trouble With Bliss” is a triviality. Michael C. Hall is watchable but never funny as Morris Bliss, a thirtysomething man-boy slacker still living at his childhood home with his ex-hippie dad (Peter Fonda) in the East Village. Unemployed Morris dreams of visiting foreign locations. He keeps a global map on his bedroom wall with a plethora of pushpins marking cities he will probably never visit. An unlikely sex-based relationship with a teenybopper named Stephanie (Brie Larson) seems to put Morris on a collision course with her dad Jetski (Brad William Henke). Jetski happens to be Morris’s long-lost best friend from high school. A tryst with his oversexed neighbor Andrea (Lucy Liu) adds yet another wrinkle of artifice to the narrative—based on Douglas Light’s novel “East Fifth Bliss.” Nothing is authentic in director Michael Knowles clunky adaptation. There’s no artistic or comic viewpoint to be had. It seems as if the filmmakers aimed for mediocrity and came up short.
Rated PG-13. 97 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
21 Jump Street
A scattershot hodgepodge of scatological and penile humor, “21 Jump Street” owes less to Johnny Depp’s 1987 television launch pad series than it does to a mentality of lowest common denominator. Here is a pathetic comedy that rarely evinces even a chuckle.
With a sequel already planned, “21 Jump Street” is one more in a long list of open-handed insults from Hollywood presumably aimed at puerile audiences too dumb to know better. Product placement is predictably de rigeur. Giving a character a permanent prop of snack chips is just plain dumb. It doesn’t help that Ice Cube delivers a characteristically amateurish performance as Captain Dickson, the anger-prone police chief in charge of an undercover team of “Justin Bieber—Miley Cyrus-looking-mutts” working out of the “Aroma of Jesus Christ” church. A “Korean” Jesus Christ oversees the pews from his life-size crucifix. I suppose the subtext here is, if the comedy stinks, you know who to blame.
Jonah Hill slums it, following his Oscar-nominated turn in “Moneyball,” as Schmidt, a smartenheimer police academy embarrassment assigned with his cop pal Jenko (Channing Tatum) to infiltrate a high school pretending to be students. As the story goes, the two guys used to be rivals at opposite ends of the social spectrum when they actually went to high school together a decade or more ago. But now they have discovered an ideal atmosphere to capitalize on one another’s strengths. Never mind that Hill and Tatum are closer to 35 than 17. Jenko’s academic weaknesses are exposed in his inability to recite the Miranda warning that anyone with a television in the last 50 years knows better than the Lord’s Prayer.
Jenko states, “You have the right to remain an attorney.” Officer Schmidt sheepishly supports his partner’s claim. He tells his chief, “You do have the right to be an attorney if you want to.” If this kind of asymmetrical humor sounds funny, know that it represents one of the film’s few funny moments.
There’s a new – potentially lethal — synthetic drug going around the school that Schmidt and Jenko are assigned to track back to its source. James Franco’s younger brother Dave has the misfortune of being cast as the school’s drug-dealing kingpin. From the looks of it, he won’t be giving his older sibling any competition for many years to come.
The closest the comedy gets to topical occurs during Freudian-slip overtures by Jenko’s female high school teacher Ms. Griggs (Ellie Kemper). She wants to examine Jenko’s “chest” more than his “test.”
The film’s primary conceit resides in turning high school student stereotypes upside-down. Eco-friendly, folk music-loving, tolerance-loving nerds are now the “cool” kids, while bullying jocks are pathetic creeps to be humiliated into submission. This turnabout comes more as a shock to Jenko, whose reliance on his once successful old-school ways hit with a resounding thud whenever he tries to rely on old habits. Schmidt, on the other hand, finds that his shy and awkward approach to school life has its rewards. He develops a crush on a girl named Molly (Brie Larson) who is more than responsive to his understated charms.
Hailing from the animation universe, dual-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”) don’t so much direct as bear witness to a series of pedestrian chase sequences filled with one-dimensional characters. The awful thing about movies like “21 Jump Street” is that it has a built-in audience. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill have each made respectable comedies and dramas that lead unsophisticated audiences to follow them wherever they go, even if it’s into a miasmic mess such as “21 Jump Street.”
Still, a Johnny Depp cameo comes late in the film to remind audiences just how inferior this rendition of “21 Jump Street” is to the television show that gave Depp the room to develop as an actor. It goes to show how far Hollywood has regressed. Depp’s brief appearance also reminds you of how much better an actor he is, than much of “21 Jump Street’s” other onscreen talent. Schmidt and Jenko may as well have been sent to investigate drug dealing at an elementary school. Comedies don’t get much more remedial than this. I’m already dreading “21 Jump Street 2.” Hopefully, they’ll change writers, directors, and switch out Ice Cube for someone who can at least act.
Rated R. 109 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World - Classic Film Pick
Stanley Kramer's 1963 screwball comedy sent the genre into an orbit of epic proportions. Using a treasure-hunt plot that allowed his gigantic cast of character actor comedians to run with the ball, Kramer didn't just capture lightening in a bottle; he caught a volcano's worth of comic fireworks.
Written by the husband-and-wife writing team of William and Tania Rose, the movie kicks into gear on a two-lane highway in the Mojave Desert where aging criminal "Smiler" Grogan (Jimmy Durante) goes off a cliff trying to outrun a couple of plainclothes detectives. Smiler has been on the run for 15 years since stealing $350,000 from a tuna factory heist. Four vehicles' worth of witnesses stop to check on Smiler's dubious condition at the bottom of the cliff he ejected from. Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, and Milton Berle leave the women (Edia Adams, Ethal Merman and Dororty Provine) with the cars to climb down the embankment where Smiler miraculously has enough life left in him to describe his stash of loot buried beneath "a big W" in Santa Rosita State Park near the Mexican border before he kicks the bucket--quite literally.
Naturally, the men rush back to their respective automobiles to head for the border like bats out of hell. A brief roadside attempt at concocting a civilized method for splitting up the cash, should it be found, is broken up by Ethel Merman's unforgettable domineering shrew Mrs. Marcus, the mother-in-law to Milton Berle's character and his wife Emeline (Provine). It's each man, or woman, for him or herself.
Little does the group of treasure-hunters know that a police captain named Culpepper (wonderfully played by Spencer Tracy) is surveying their progress with bated breath. Captain Culpepper has been waiting 15 years to be led to Smiler's fortune so he can drop the cop act and go on a permanent vacation with his wife.
Apart from a plethora of perfectly pitched comic cameos by the likes of Jerry Lewis, Jim Backus, Norman Fell, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, and even the Three Stooges, the movie is remarkable for its comic action set pieces that go gleefully over the top. Jonathan Winters’s truck driver Lennie Pike single-handedly razes an entire gas station with sidesplitting fury to the ground. Watching Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett crash land a twin-engine airplane into an airport cafeteria is a classic image that informed Arthur Hiller’s great 1976 comedy “Silver Streak.”
When the unpredictable slapstick hits its uncontrolled fire-truck-ladder climax of body-tossing insanity the film achieves a deeply satisfying kind of comic catharsis you just won’t find in any other film.
Cracks show in Jason Reitman's first reunion with screenwriter Diablo Cody since their out-of-the-ballpark comedy "Juno" back in 2007. Reitman's signature bland approach to pseudo-comedy (see "Up in the Air") struggles to get traction with a story of stunted maturity that teeters on the brink of despicability. Cody's signature penchant for snarky dialogue (hear lines like "psychotic prom queen bitch") don't roll off the tongue nearly as spritely as they did from Ellen Page's character in "Juno." The story's overburdened theme that you can never go back to your hometown doesn't provide the wealth of comic possibilities the filmmakers imagine.
Former high school beauty queen Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) works as a ghostwriter for a Young Adult book series that's on the way out. She lives a lonely life holed up in her messy Minneapolis high-rise apartment where she picks at the bones of her faded youth while blowing deadlines. The 40-year-old basket case divorcee has a bald spot from compulsively pulling hairs from her scalp. She's still got her looks, but nor for much longer. An emailed baby photo of the newborn child of her ex-boyfriend of 20 years Buddy (Patrick Wilson) incites Mavis to pack up her little dog and go on a road trip to her crummy hometown of Mercury, Minnesota. Mavis is on a mission to steal Buddy away from his wife—forget about the baby. Theron turns herself into a reverse Stepford wife mechanically repeating romantic moves her character made decades ago. She's an anti-heroine for manic depressive women the world over. It's impossible to feel empathetic for Mavis because her nostalgic fetishism is so insanely shallow.
Steady rounds of booze accompany our unreliable protagonist’s descent into delusional psychosis. A chance bar meet-up with high school locker-neighbor Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) provides some much needed lift to the movie. Oswalt gives a stand-out performance that redeems the film whenever he’s onscreen. Matt wisely advises Mavis against perusing her doomed plan of romantic recognizance. Therapy seems a better course of action. Matt’s crutch-walking status as the survivor of a gay-bashing attack that nearly killed him in high school marks him as an object of pity. He nonetheless manages to live a moderately satisfied life home brewing whisky and working as a restaurant accountant.
After a climax of public humiliation where Mavis gets significantly less justice than she deserves, she has a chat with Matt’s sister. The woman goes to great lengths to support Mavis’s condescending opinion of the locals. She pumps up Mavis as a feminist icon she frequently dreams about. The uncomfortable scene essentially reneges on the film’s promised catharsis. Perhaps Matt’s sister is just as stupid as Mavis believes everyone in the town of Mercury is.
“Young Adult” never finds its pitch of sardonic satire. You can feel the filmmakers and actors searching for it, but the narrative never gels. There are a few chuckles but a condescending through-line tilts toward vapid meanness for its own sake. Still, see the film for Patton Oswalt’s great performance. It’s the only thing the movie has going for it, but it's worth it.
Rated R. 94 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Rid of Me
"Rid of Me" is a dud. It’s further evidence that the Mumblecore movement is like dog shit stuck to the feet of navel-gazing filmmakers who follow in its steps. Writer/director James Westby shows little promise as a director, much less as a scriptwriter. Filmed on what seems like a toy camera, and with the lighting design of dog house, the movie lacks a single likeable character. Manic depressive Meris (Katie O'Grady) has the personality of an old stinky running shoe. Her Oregon husband Mitch (John Keyser) is a terminal frat boy with the charm and intellect of a flea. Mitch has recently lost his job (shocker), and so the couple road-trip back to his rinky-dink home town where he looks forward to reuniting with his cultureless--read racist idiot--group of best friends. Meris doesn't pretend to try to engage with Mitch's judgmental asshole buddies and their air-headed wives. Still, she wins no audience empathy because she’s such a pill. She takes the group’s advice to avoid a Muslim family she makes friends with on her first day in town. It isn’t until Mitch divorces her that Meris starts to find her voice as a punk rocker inspired by a bi-sexual chic she works with at a local candy store. She could have at least explored her obvious lesbian tendencies, but that would be too much work for such a lazy movie. “Rid of Me” is a great movie to bet a friend that they’ll walk out of in the first 10 minutes. They’ll have the cash to pay up because they’ll demand it from the box office.
Not Rated. 89 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas
There are two major obstacles to overcome for the makers of "A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas." The first is that it's a Christmas movie--never a good thing. The second is that our "stoner duo" barely gets lit up during the whole movie. You can't very well be called the "stoner duo" and not take full advantage of the gigantic 3D splif that shows up on your doorstep during the moment when Harold and Kumar are alone together for the first time in a long time. But that's just what happens before a burned-down Christmas tree sends our reunited multi-culti friends on an adventure to obtain a new one. Now for the good news; "NPH," as he's known to his fans, saves the day--or at least snaps the movie to its drugs-sex-and-munchies good time. Talk about meta: Neil Patrick Harris works it as a straighter-than-straight Broadway star who hides behind his phony gayness to get into the pants of unsuspecting girls, fag hags, and fellow performers. Although it doesn't get as ribald as it should, "A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas" takes its penis and exposed breasts scenes with a proper sense of irreverence. Newbie director/co-writer Todd Strauss-Schulson hasn't yet mastered the necessary skill to go over-the-top-backwards yet still manages to soldier through the comedy with some not-so-subtle surprises. Harold and Kumar have come a long way since they hunted down White Castle and were detained at Guantánamo. Now that they've got Christmas behind them, it's time for cinema's favorite stoners to follow their logical trajectory and become President and Vice President of the United States of America. There's still time for them to run in the 2012 election.
Rated R. 89 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Blues Brothers - Classic Film Pick
Made in 1980--two years after director John Landis’s enormously successful "Animal House"--"The Blues Brothers" brought Landis together once again with John Belushi. What resulted is an epic musically charged comedy, the likes of which has never been seen before or since.
If you wanted to introduce the uninitiated to the comic genius of John Belushi, there is no better movie of his to summon up than "The Blues Brothers." So much of Belushi's infectious sense of humor derived from his unbridled passion for music. Here Belushi lives out a carefully scripted fantasy for his alter ego "Joliet" Jake, a Chicago bluesman who gets released from prison only to receive a message from God--via the Godfather of Soul himself James Brown--to reunite the R&B band he previously shared with his brother Ellwood (Dan Aykroyd). However, it's not just any band. It's an all-star group made up of Booker T & the M.G.s guitarist Steve "The Colonel" Cropper and bassist Donnald "Duck" Dunn. Bar-Kays drummer Willie "Too Big" Hall plays opposite guitar legend Matt "Guitar" Murphy. And the list goes on. Suffice it to say that the ancillary Blues Brothers album recorded to support the film is as good as it gets.
Charged with raising $5000 to save the Roman Catholic orphanage where they were raised, Jake and Elwood drive their disused police car (the "Bluesmobile") like a couple of bats out of hell. Eye-popping car stunts come at regular intervals. While tracking down former bandmates, our similarly black-suited duo attracts the attention of the Illinois State Police, along with a group of white supremacists called the "Illinois Nazis," and Jake's gun-toting ex-girlfriend (Carrie Fisher). An impromptu gig at a country-and-western roadhouse incurs the wrath of yet another group of bloodthirsty pursuers.
High-speed car chases lead to mind-bending car crashes that come between exciting music set pieces which feature the likes of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Cab Calloway, and of course the Blues Brothers Band. There’s an unmistakable love of Chicago’s blue-collar culture at play throughout the film. Belushi and Aykroyd are clearly having the time of their lives performing on stage with musical legends. “The Blues Brothers” is a joyful celebration of R&B music that came at a crucial time when American cinema had the impetus to do so in an energetic way. John Belushi was an amazing dynamo for the cause.
The Rum Diary
Robinson Directs Depp
By Cole Smithey
"The Rum Diary" is clearly a labor of love. Johnny Depp came across an unpublished early novel by Hunter S. Thompson while visiting his friend at his Colorado home. The discovery incited an instant agreement with Thompson to finally publish the novel and adapt it into a film. Keeping true to Thompson's iconic speech patterns and take-no-prisoners approach to life, Depp once again throws himself a character that he must have spent more time researching than any other.
Apart from generating lots of gut-busting laughs, "The Rum Diary" maps out events Thompson experienced while living in Puerto Rico in 1960—a period during which he found his voice as the ultimate gonzo writer. Writer/director Bruce Robinson ("How to Get Ahead in Advertising") adapts the material with an ear for piercing dialogue, an eye for crucial atmospheric details, and a sensitivity to the romanticism of the piece. Amber Heard delivers the sex appeal of six women as Chenault, a vivacious blonde with an appetite for danger.
Functional alcoholic Paul Kemp (Depp) arrives on the Caribbean Island with his sense of style intact. A snazzy pair of Ray Bans and a good suit disguise Kemp's nasty hangover when he goes for a job interview with Lotterman, the contentious editor (Richard Jenkins) of a local American rag, the San Juan Star. Lotterman recognizes Kemp's resume is total bullshit, but gives him the job anyway. He needs to replace another writer who was "raped to death" in a public restroom. That’s right, “raped to death.”
Kemp instantly falls with the company of staff photographer Sala (wonderfully played by Michael Rispoli), who also enjoys imbibing, chasing women, and taking mysterious drugs whose unpredictable effects he is happy to catalog firsthand. Giovanni Ribisi is Moburg, an even more unreliable sort. He’s an eccentric writer who only shows up around the newspaper office on Fridays in order to collect his check. His literary specialty is more in the realm of exploring underground local scenes than actually writing about them. The fact that Moburg never bathes and likes to listen to LP records of Hitler's speeches only slightly disrupts Kemp's take-it-as-comes lifestyle when our hero moves into the squalid apartment Moburg and Sala share.
The crux of the story rattles around Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a shady real estate tycoon who sinks his hooks into Kemp to have him write pro-development stories that will expedite his plans to push through the construction of beachfront hotel complexes. The loan of a candy-apple red ’56 Corvette, a wad of cash, and the chance to get near Sanderson’s sexpot girlfriend Chenault is all Kemp needs to go along for the ride. Whether or not he ever sign’s Sanderson’s confidentiality agreement remains an open question.
As with Bruce Robinson’s enormously popular cult film “Withnail and I,” “The Rum Diary” is an alcohol-soaked story of a search for self that comes from crawling through the belly of the beast. In this case, said stomach is Puerto Rico’s native inhabitants, whose extreme poverty Kemp eventually comes to recognize. His revelation about the abuses of capitalism inflames him. Forevermore, he will mix rage into his ink.
“The Rum Diary” is a damn funny movie with a lot on its mind. It’s great fun to watch and listen to Johnny Depp play Hunter S. Thompson. If you miss Hunter as much as I do, you don’t want to miss this movie.
Rated R. 120 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Big Year
Evidently someone forgot to inform David Frankel he was directing a comedy. The memo seems to have also slipped past screenwriter Howard Franklin, who found a way to leave out any laugh inducing scenes or dialogue from a script that would probably take as long to read as it did to write.
"Inspired" by Mark Obmascik's book about a year he spent indulging in a bird-watching competition, "The Big Year" starts out at a huge deficit considering that 99.9% of the movie-going public know nothing about the hobby of "birding" and could care even less. But that's what the story's about, so here we go. Stu (Steve Martin), Brad (Jack Black) and Kenny "Bostick" (Owen Wilson) share a common love of traveling the globe to catch a glimpse of every species of bird they can possibly lay eyes on. What separates the one-track-minded Bostick from the other two birders is that he holds the world record for tracking down 732 bird species in the course of a single year. Bostick is the champ. He’s an asshole, but he’s the guy to beat. Based on the honor system, the British-invented bird-watching competition calls upon its participants to keep count of the species each witnesses or hears—that’s right, even just hearing the call of a particular bird does the job.
Even though our three bird-lovers keep meeting up with each other, and the 25 or so other bird-nerds engaged in running off to remote regions whenever a particular sighting is announced through their back-channels of information, they pretend not be working on a "Big Year." Such is the intrigue of the drama. Snooze. Oh there's plenty of boring subplot stuff about Bostick's get-pregnant-crazy wife Jessica (Rosamund Pike), and Brad's romantic pursuit of fellow birder Ellie (Rashida Jones), but there's nothing here to hang your hat on.
What’s most surprising is what short-shrift the filmmakers give to the birds, which is ostensibly the one thing the film’s potential 120 person target-audience would go see the movie for in the first place.
“The Big Year” won’t make you laugh. It won’t make you care anymore about birds than you already do, or don’t. The only thing the movie does is raise a question about the sanity of everyone involved with making the picture in the first place. It might not be in the running for the worst Hollywood movie of 2011, but then again it might.
Rated PG. 100 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Johnny English Reborn
While it doesn't live up to the quirky physical comedy the incomparable Rowan Atkinson is capable of, this follow-up to his 2003 spy spoof functions well enough as a worthy PG-rated comedy for kids. Atkinson's James Bond knock-off finds himself pulled back into the service of MI7 after spending five soul-searching years in a Tibetan monastery where he has perfected such arcane skills as dragging a large rock by a string tied to his nether region. Upon his return to London, English is shocked to find that Toshiba has taken over corporate control of the top-secret spy agency. A nod to the Pink Panther films occurs whenever Mozambique comes up in conversation, sending Atkinson's rubbery face into a fit of eye-twitching spasms. Gillian Anderson takes over as MI7's leader, code-named Pegasus. A window ledge incident involving a pussy cat gives rise to one of the film's sillier moments when Jonny English mimes holding a feline that may have met with a tragic end. The movie delivers earnest "Rush Hour" references when English is sent to Hong Kong with an African British junior agent assistant named Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya). A chemical weapon called Vortex serves as the story’s driving plot MacGuffin. Vortex can only be enabled with the use of three keys, each held by a different person whom English must track down before the keys fall into the hands of a MI7 mole. Screenwriter Hamish McColl mixes up a random mish-mash of spy movie influences for a sporadically funny comedy that children will appreciate more than adults.
Rated PG. 111 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Descendants - NYFF 2011
Death and dying play a big part in cinema's current zeitgeist. From apocalyptic films like "Melancholia" to cancer-themed comedies like "50/50" there is a pressing dialogue of facing up to the reality of certain death with some amount of courage and dignity. So it is that Alexander Payne struggles to make funny the pending death of a comatose adulterous wife. Her husband Matt King (George Clooney) must facilitate a socially responsible passage for the mother of his two daughters. Hawaii’s sun-kissed shores and verdant foliage supply the setting.
Perhaps the best thing "The Descendants" has to offer is its depiction of Hawaii as a place like any other that only appears as a tropical paradise on the surface. Payne has mastered a certain style of deadpan humor exemplified in a scene where Clooney's suddenly informed cuckold runs down a suburban Hawaiian street in sandals. Matt is anxious to question his friends about their knowledge of the man his wife was cheating on him with before she was critically injured in a waterskiing accident that introduced the movie. There’s a slapstick air to Clooney’s gawky physicality and the sound of flip-flops hitting asphalt. Still, it’s a scene you feel like you’ve already seen a hundred times before. There’s numbness to the humor. Clearly the filmmaker believes his juxtaposition of plot revelation and character motivation have an inertia of latent comic import, but the sequence calls attention to the filmmaker’s intention and away from the story at hand.
Matt King is a native Hawaiian whose family ancestry traces back for several generations. A major aspect of the plot involves Matt’s powerful position as the primary holder of a land trust of 25,000 acres of protected land on Kauai. The family is pressing Matt to endorse a sell-off of the lush terra firma to developers who will permanently alter the landscape with whatever concrete-and-steel structures they deem most profitable. The sudden demand for Matt to act as a communicative dad to his 11-and-17-year-old daughters coincides with his desire to act responsibly in relation to the precious land he controls. His ability to make peace with his wife’s indiscretions and come to grips with her fate as it relates to their family and friends brings an added amount of character development. From a dramatic standpoint Matt’s transition to maturity doesn’t have much to push against. When he makes a controversial decision about the land trust in the presence of the other share holders the filmmaker doesn’t deem it necessary to show how the character handles the fall out in the moment. Since Matt’s wife is in a coma, there isn’t much for the grieving husband to do other than forgive her her trespasses. The entire narrative exists in a corner-painted bubble of predetermined logic.
Alexander Payne is certainly a competent director. He knows just where to put the camera. But as a writer he remains stuck in a navel-gazing rut. “About Schmidt” (2002) fell prey to Payne’s sluggish sense of ponderous melancholy humor. “Sideways” was his best film because he stepped outside his need to gaze upon ugliness for its own sake. In “The Descendants,” Payne presents melodrama as comedy. Nothing is as sad or as funny as it pretends. You might want to laugh or just die trying.
Rated R. 115 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
"Nobody likes a dirty girl." This preachy sentiment overshadows a coming-of-age comedy that doesn't know its ass from a hole in the ground. Juno Temple is Danielle, a white-trash, slutty high school student living in an anachronistic '80s-era Oklahoma town. At home Danielle suffers all forms of indignation at the hand of her mom's Mormon boyfriend Ray (William H. Macy). During her detention period class at school Danielle gets saddled with lugging around a five-pound bag of flour that represents the baby she is doomed to create if she keeps putting out like there's no tomorrow. The assignment for flour-baby's teen dad goes to a very gay and chubby misfit classmate named Clarke (Jeremy Dozier). Clarke’s hillbilly dad (Dwight Yoakam) wants to curb his son’s gayness at any cost. Clarke's overwrought mom Peggy (Mary Steenburgen) is equally traumatized by her son's sexual proclivity, but at least she's protective. The movie feints at a storyline when Clarke and Danielle take off in Clarke's dad's car in search of Danielle's biological father. A hunky hitchhiker (played by Nicholas D'Agosto) provides Clarke with a fleeting moment of erotic fulfillment. The filmmakers lose track of the flour-baby subplot; oh, that. It rolls around the back seat of the car, even though it supposedly has something to do with Danielle’s predictable revelation that she shouldn’t go around with every boy in school. “Dirty Girl” is such an inept attempt at abstinence propaganda that it ought to have the opposite effect on teen girls chomping at the bit. If nobody likes a dirty girl, why do they get so much action?
Rated R. 90 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Carnage - NYFF 2011
Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play Penelope and Michael Longstreet, a bourgeois couple whose son lost a couple of teeth to the swing of a schoolyard bully's stick. Rather than take the usual American kneejerk legal action route, the mostly well-intentioned couple attempts to resolve matters via an afternoon discussion with the parents of the offending bully. Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz play the bully’s parents, Nancy and Alan Cowan. Alan is a corporate attorney with a mind like a steel trap and a constantly ringing cell phone that takes precedence to all other concerns. Nance is an investment broker with a queasy stomach. The Cowans and the Longstreets are equally matched in the area of self-righteousness, but not so much in the realm of what used to be called political correctness. Hiding behind a veneer of politeness, each character digs deeper into their personal bag of tricks to articulate a holier-than-thou brand of intellectual independence. Tempers flare, insults are tossed, vomit flies, and a bottle of scotch is consumed on the way to exposing a myriad of hypocrisies that lurk inside these high-minded members of cultured, educated, and civilized society. The laughs come hard and fast.
There's considerable gratification in watching this quartet of great actors working in Polanski’s deliciously theatrical setting. The film was shot in real time. The director himself makes a cameo appearance as a curious neighbor. Brief, explosively funny, and sardonic as hell, “Carnage” is what you might get if you condensed three of Woody Allen’s early films into a 75-minute one-act. This movie is a kick.
Rated R. 80 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
A cinematic cocktail blended from the contents of a suburban medicine cabinet, "Tanner Hall" is a girls-boarding-school movie that could bring up the bile in more than a few throats. Amateur screenwriters Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg would have had a better shot at scriptwriting careers if this misguided effort had gone straight into the circular file. A New England boarding school is the senior year headquarters for a bunch of personality-lacking girls that include Fern (Rooney Mara) and her disenfranchised former childhood friend Victoria (Georginia King). Victoria is intent on making a copy of the key to the mansion school's front door so she and her pals can slip out at night. Fern falls for the charms of Tom Everett Scott's married man Gio. Gio's pregnant wife is friends with Fern's mother. A few much-needed comic moments come from the school's husband-and-wife headmasters Mr. and Mrs. Middlewood (played by Chris Kattan and Amy Sedaris). Mr. Middlewood only has eyes for Lolita-wanna-be-student Kate (Brie Larson). Mrs. Middlewood is intent on making hubby perform his bedroom duties using tools learned in couple's therapy. “Tanner Hall” wants to be a “Catcher in the Rye” for girls but doesn’t know where to begin or end, much less what tone to adopt. Jordan Scott’s 2009 boarding-school drama “Cracks” makes “Tanner Hall” look like a weekend summer camp by comparison.
Rated R. 95 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Our Idiot Brother
Paul Rudd's hippie character Ned could shame Willie Nelson fans into disowning their musical hero. Ned's dog shares the famed country singer's name. This factoid becomes a crucial element in sewing up a comedy that inspires no more than three chuckle-inducing gags. Upstate New York farmer Ned makes the mistake of selling week to a uniformed cop at a farmer's market. Ned is trusting of others to a fault. Whether he's autistic, retarded, or just willfully naive isn't directly addressed, but something is definitely wrong. Ned's early release from prison on good-behavior sends him into the unwelcoming arms of his three urban-dwelling sisters after Ned discovers his former farm life has been co-opted by another guy. A couch-surfing stint with sibling Liz (Emily Mortimer) and her husband Dylan (Steve Coogan) gives Ned the opportunity to infect their son's behavior and expedite the couple's marriage troubles. Ned goes on to trample through sister Miranda's (Elizabeth Banks) debut writing assignment for Vanity Fair. Last on the list is bi-sexual Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) whose future prospects with her live-in lesbian lover (Rashida Jones) takes a left turn at Ned's unintentional influence. Ned's dysfunctional family is all a bunch of idiots. To view the story from Ned's perspective as the film's would-be protagonist is to accept defeat. There isn't much that's funny about that.
Rated PG-13. 90 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
A Good Old-Fashioned Orgy
It seems reasonable during the world's current climate of economic, political and ecological apocalypse that a farce about a group of friends indulging in an all-out orgy might provide for some gut-wrenching laughs. Sadly that is not the case in this watered-down comedy. Perhaps if comic geniuses Trey Parker and Matt Stone took up the subject, audiences could wallow in the bladder-busting hilarity to which newbie co-writer/directors Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck pretend to aspire. Jason Sudeikis (“Horrible Bosses”) comes up short as Eric, a thirtysomething brat exploiting his wealthy dad's mansion in the Hamptons. But when daddy (Don Johnson) decides to sell the swimming-pool-equipped pad Eric uses as his summer frat house, sonny gets the bright idea to stage a blow-out orgy with seven of his closest friends before the place is sold. Eric's burly best friend Mike (Tyler Labine) has his own reasons for being excited about the idea. Will Forte and Lucy Punch play newlyweds who resent being excluded from the group sex party. Given the comic sparks Forte and Punch provide during their brief scenes together, you have to wonder why the filmmakers didn't extend the invitation. More squandered comic opportunities ensue with Kelly (Leslie Bibb), a local realtor Eric dates but regards too highly to invite to his group sex fiesta. Although the movie does finally get around to the promised event, it doesn’t know how to cash in on its intrinsic potential for laughs. “A Good Old-Fashioned Orgy” is tame to the point of boredom. If you’re curious about how a sex farce can be neither sexy nor funny, this movie will answer any such questions.
Rated R. 95 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
There's almost a funny bromance comedy lurking somewhere in "The Change-Up" but it never emerges. The set-up is promising. Mitch (Ryan Reynolds) and Dave (Jason Bateman) are best friends at opposite ends of the relationship spectrum. Mitch is a freewheeling bachelor-actor-stud with father issues. Dave is a hotshot corporate attorney and happily married family man with three kids. Some "Freaky Friday"-styled fate intervenes when the drunk buddies make the mistake of peeing in the same fountain, overseen by a magical statue with a wicked sense of humor. Bodies and minds are switched. The pals agree to take advantage of the opportunity to graze where the grass seems greener. Gross-out humor takes center stage. Dave-in-Mitch's-body is none too pleased to find himself acting in a porn scene that requires the use of his thumb. Mitch-in-Dave's-body discovers that married life involves a level of toilet intimacy he isn't so comfortable with when Dave's wife Jamie (Leslie Mann) goes numero dos big time with the bathroom door open. Then she tries to get frisky.
The ostensible comic joy of the premise comes in the audience interaction of constantly doing the math on which character is hiding under the surface during outrageous moments of sexual interplay. Chalk one up for guys with pregnant-women fetishes. The trouble is that Reynolds and Bateman are too similar. If the screenwriters had written the story with Tracy Morgan and Jason Bateman in mind, they might have created some crazy comic synergy. "The Change-Up" validates its existence as a guilty pleasure but doesn't go any further.
Rated R. 105 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
A much more successful bromance comedy than "The Hangover 2," "Horrible Bosses" benefits from the volatile comic mixture of chemistry between its actors and a genuinely quirky script. Contentious scenes between Jason Bateman's corporate-climber Nick Hendricks and his sadistic boss Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey) are disarmingly hilarious due to the odd similarity between the two actors. Spacey and Bateman share an analogous delivery style. Even their facial features reflect a unity that gives their exchanges a rub of superfine comic sandpaper. These two men want to hurt each other. Nick, however, has considerably more reasoned motivation after being passed over for a big promotion he was groomed to fill. Sparks of comic magic fly between Spacey and Bateman like gunpowder on a hot shiny surface.
Charlie Day, the gifted young comedian with a high wispy voice, incites laughter like he's jumping landmines. His performance has all the hallmarks of a breakout effort. The screenwriters have more than just laughs on their minds. Talk about backhanded satire: Day plays dental assistant Dale Arbus. Dale suffers the misfortune of being a registered sex offender (for making the mistake of peeing in a public playground at night). At work, Jennifer Aniston's Dr. Julia Harris takes special pleasure in sexually harassing Dale while working on sedated patients. Dale's upcoming nuptials only fan the fires of Julia's inappropriate lust. When she says she likes to "fool around," she means it with a vengeance. Look for the word "dong" to enter American parlance in a big way. For her part, Anniston delivers on her dirty over-the-top dialogue like a seasoned pro. Add another feather to her cap.
In a cynical age of postmodern fatigue with an economic collapse that favors corporate pigs and warmongers, three dunderheaded pals conspire to kill their asshole bosses. Like his pal Nick, Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis) is poised to take over his much smaller company. That is until his firm's beloved head honcho Jack Pellit (Donald Sutherland) suffers a heart attack that allows Pellit's cokehead son Bobby (wonderfully played by a disguised Colin Ferrell) to usurp Kurt's promised position as company president. Funny surprises and spasms of slapstick slaps hit you upside the head. "Horrible Bosses" is a feisty and sexy little comedy that throws a lot of punches. Most of them connect in either the funny bone, the groin, or the forehead.
Rated R. 100 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
"Terri" is a unique coming-of-age comedy which dances through the unpredictably treacherous waters of genuinely problematic misfit behavior with ease. Newcomer Jacob Wysocki plays Terri, an oversized teenaged outsider whose parents have abandoned him to the care of his sickly uncle James (Creed Barton). Wysocki owns the loner role with a clear-eyed humility that transcends a myriad of personal and social issues his flawed character experiences. In response to the bullying he attracts in high school Terri wears pajamas and nothing else. He arrives late to class. A visit to vice principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) sets up weekly Monday morning meetings for Reilly's well-intentioned character to mentor Terri toward a better path in life. John C. Reilly extracts droll laughs from the scenes with laser-like precision. Reilly flips the material's subtext with an alternating sense of irony and empathy that expresses tenderness that refuses sentiment. "Terri" is a teen-centric comedy that dares to be thought-provoking and disturbing while still providing a clever filter of honest humor. It's a serious comedy that doesn't make the mistake of taking itself too seriously.
Rated R. 141 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)