Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Never Netflix This: Chronicle

     Leading up to the devastating Super Bowl that took place this past February, when Rob Gronkowski's knee was as reliable as Triple A showing up at your broken-down car in less than 10 minutes, most of the American public saw plenty of movie previews for a soon-to-be-released film that didn't look like a film at all: in fact, it seemed like a high budget commercial starring douchey teenagers who discover that they have super powers. These characters were so douchey that if you poked them with a needle you would smell vinegar. Unfortunately, these teenage actors star in an actual film, entitled Chronicle, instead of a high concept Progressive Auto Insurance advertisement showing the dangers and damage of using telekinesis on vehicles.
     Chronicle is one of those found-footage feature films that the viewer wishes could be un-found out of their minds. Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHann) takes to videotaping everything in his life ever since his alcoholic father starting throwing more than just words at him. His dad is not what you would consider a "happy" drunk. Andrew's abuse doesn't stop at home: boys (and girls) at school bully him and laugh in his face. He's the type of kid who chose to carry a video camera to shoot film instead of an Uzi to shoot fellow students in the face. Somehow, Andrew makes it to a high-school party, and when his friends, Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), discover a circular, mysterious hole in the middle of a grassy field on the property, they convince Andrew to bring his camera down to take a look. What they discover is a glowing UFO-ish type object that causes them to stare and gawk like Kate Upton just untied her bikini and dropped it to the floor.
     The annoying characters find out that this staring has led them to develop special powers: no, not overcoming their boring personalities, but moving objects with their mind. At first, when using these powers, the boys play pranks on unsuspecting citizens--for instance, they make a teddy bear come alive in front of a shrieking girl, build a large Lego tower by concentrating, and--in one incredibly irritating scene--move a car to another parking spot. The amount of strain on the character's face and the camera work is lame and unconvincing: it's akin to pretending to open an automatic door with "The Force" (which is also a helleva lot cooler). There's a scene, once the boys learn how to levitate (and then fly), in the film where the friends play football among the clouds, high above the Earth. It was one time when I wasn't concerned about concussions and football. As in I wish they suffered brain damage and began to show signs of dementia.
     The film turns more dark and disturbing once the friends, specifically Andrew, begin to use the new-found power in a more violent fashion. He's the super anti-hero, causing tailgaters to drive off bridges and bullies to explode blood from their noses. Like the any abused child, Andrew may have a reason to act the way he does. But this is also a woe-is-me tale, with Andrew's friends clearly trying to help Andrew out of his shell, with little to no effect. It's an origin story for the bullied generation, a revenge tale that is derivative of dozens of different and better films (X-Men, Carrie, etc.). There's a scene in the film, not long after the viewer's realize that Andrew has the mental makings of a sociopath, where the angry teen destroys a spider in slow motion with his willpower. This had a similar parallel to my viewing of Chronicle, as I slowly disintegrated and eradicated most of the film from my mind.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

That's My Boy: An Average Tasting Berger

     Donny Berger, the loudmouth, obnoxious character that Adam Sandler portrays in That's My Boy, is all Boston accent and beer-drinking: a man on a mission to see how many Budweiser's he can drink down his throat and how many breasts he can fondle at the strip club before noon. Donny is also a slightly different character for Sandler lately, who rarely oversteps the PG-13 boundary, probably because of box office earnings--and it shows: the R-rated newest comedy from Happy Madison productions totally tanked in monetary terms this weekend. Does anyone remember how great Adam Sandler was in some of his earlier work? Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore were funny and weird, showcasing a man-child humor with surprising laughs. Although That's My Boy is a step in the correct direction for Sandler (there is nowhere to go but up after Jack and Jill), and you have to admire his persistence in creating and portraying a character with such incredible crass conviction, the film is ultimately just a two hour diversion that would be best enjoyed with a high blood-alcohol content.
      Donny is a guy who is stuck in the past: with a shaggy haircut, shouting the '90's staple "Wassssssssssssssuuupppp!!!" to anyone within fifty feet, he's like an aging rocker whose mind never left the glory days. You always see Mark Wahlberg force his Boston accent in every film he's in. There's no telling if Sandler is forcing his version, as it's usually slurred or screamed due to his incredibly drunken state. "20's my limit", he states, in one of the best lines of the film. You can say that Sandler surely is committed to this role: he never falters, never gives into normalcy, always in a state of semen and beer-filled bliss, masturbating as often as cracking a new beer. Anybody who lived his childhood might end up like this: when Donny was 12, the time in his life when seeing a vagina in Playboy was more important than eating or breathing, his 22-year-old luscious-breasted teacher, Ms. McGarricle (Eva Amurri) seduced him into an affair, causing a pregnancy and eventually a jail sentence (for her). It also causes Donny to become a quasi-celebrity, a Kardashian with a cock who reaches a level of relevance on par with Vanilla Ice (who plays a small, useless role later in the film).
     This sexy teacher eventually gave birth to their son, who Donny named Han Solo (Andy Samberg). Once Han Solo reached a certain age, though, he left home due to Donny's parenting skills (having to drive Donny's drunken body around at a young age, among other reasons). He also picked up a new name, Todd, to not attract unwanted attention about being the fetus of a statutory rape case. Todd falls in love and becomes a hedge(hog)fund manager, and when Donny realizes that he owes over $40,000 dollars to the IRS, he decides to crash his long-lost son's wedding weekend.
     So Donny reenters Todd (Han Solo)'s life, and occasional (not often enough) hilarity ensues at the Cape Cod mansion where the wedding festivities take place. The film follows a typical path and never particularly surprises or excites. Han Solo, who is skeptical of his dad's new-found love, seems to be the only person who can see through Donny's shtick: everyone else loves him, handing him beers and pats on the back at every turn. The film's best sequence is about in the middle of its run time, when Todd brings Donny along to a spa bachelor party filled with massages and cucumber-infused water. Donny doesn't put up with that metro-sexual shit: as sexual jokes and obnoxiousness reach a fever pitch, he brings the group to a strip club for an actual good time. Samberg plays Todd as an uptight people-pleaser, but eventually he starts to succumb to Donny' wild and crazy ways. Maybe Donny, deep inside his thick barrier of beer and self assurance, really has changed his ways and wants to be the father he never was, instead of just looking for a way to pay off the IRS.
     That's My Boy was directed by Sean Anders, the writer of 2010's great comedy, Hot Tub Time Machine. One could conceivably pose a question: what is it about Hot Tub that makes it superior to Adam Sandler's latest effort? For one, Hot Tub is more real. That might seem like a funny statement, since the film is about a group of friends travelling back in time by sitting in a bubbling hot tub and getting wasted. But the characters, with their real life problems, their real life loves and losses, and their real life nostalgia present an entirely plausible group of friends who try and recapture a part of their lives that they wish they could have lived differently--Something anyone can relate to. The humor was less forced, the actors far superior.
     By the end of That's My Boy, before the obvious resolution occurs, the film overstays its welcome. The outcome becomes predictable, and the humor becomes phoned in. I half expected Rob Schneider to pop up and scream, "You can do it!" Waiting for the movie to be over will be a common reaction (especially since it's nearly 2 hours long). At this point in time, Adam Sandler films (at least the films where he doesn't act outside of his comfort zone) have become their own genre, a bumbling, gibberish-speaking, fart-joke filled foray into the nether regions of cinema. That's My Boy doesn't come close to being as horrible as his more recent efforts, as critics and haters would lead you to believe. However, for every joke there's an eye roll, and for every plot twist there's a yawn.     (C+)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Summer's Biggest Sci-Fi Film, Prometheus, Lands with Style and a Shoddy Script

     One could argue (correctly) that Ridley Scott hasn't directed a good film in nearly ten years: Kingdom of Heaven was sluggish, long and slow, the Russell Crowe-starring Robin Hood lacked excitement and inspiration, and A Good Year was a waste of time and a waste of talent. When news broke that Scott--seemingly, in his old age, trying to become inspired by some of his directing back catalogue--was creating a science fiction film that "takes place in the same universe" as his 1979 horror classic, Alien, plenty of people were carefully skeptical and some were downright perturbed. This quasi-prequel, Prometheus, would be Scott's first foray into sci-fi since his other seminal directorial effort, Blade Runner (in 1982). The hype reached a fever pitch once some incredible trailers were beamed onto television sets, the great cast was announced, and viral videos dealing with the Alien mythology caused nerdgasms across the World Wide Web. Could Scott finally produce a film that could compare to some of his early, more brilliant work? In short, the answer is "No". However, even though Prometheus deals with a simplified script (by Damon Lindelof, of ABC's Lost fame), an inkling to try and connect to the Alien films a little too hard, and some uneven pacing, it is still an absolute beauty to behold, a film that wonderfully uses setting, CGI, and 3-D to create a spectacle that your eyes have to see to believe.
     The plot of Prometheus is similar enough to Alien to be compared: the year is 2093, and a crew of workers is awaken from a two-year-long sleep to a distant planet. Some of these characters are important, and some are completely disposable--it doesn't take long to determine which is which. We first see David (Michael Fassbender), an android who acts as the butler of the spacecraft. From the start, Fassbender becomes one of the best parts of Prometheus: his perfectly accurate robot mannerisms and his fascination with humans and their approval provides an interesting perspective on the events of the film. He may or may not have ulterior motives, but one thing is clear: he eventually begins to develop human-like emotions and qualities that become extremely important. Others on the ship: Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, of the Swedish version of Dragon Tattoo fame) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), two fellow archaeologists and lovers who have discovered a star map in prehistoric paintings that may lead to the answer of the meaning of life. Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) is their boss, a representative of the company the financed the mission to find the meaning of the star maps. Like in last week's Snow White and the Huntsmen, Theron is icy and unforgiving, reminding everyone to do exactly what she says--or else. Idris Elba (of HBO's The Wire fame) rounds out the (important) cast as the ship's captain, a man with less pretensions and more common sense than most of the crew.
     The ship lands on a huge dome-ish structure on the distant planet. Inside, the crew finds information that could settle the debate of science vs. faith. Human-like aliens have been preserved in this structure, and their DNA matches our own. Bigger Questions arise as Alien-like horror enters the picture. Are these humanoids the creators of the universe? Shaw, with her cross necklace that too-obviously symbolizes her faith, believes that all of the answers of humankind lie in the plight of these found creatures. But before answers are revealed, there are other things that go bump in the night. Though Prometheus has about two scenes that are horrific and totally intense, this is more of a mainstream action movie than Scott's Alien. Guns, flamethrowers, hi-tech gadgets, vehicles, and CGI play a much greater role than the psychological horror that made that 1979 film awesome. There are some grotesque surprises that will turn the heads of more squeamish viewers.
     The faults of Prometheus, unfortunately, lie in the script. It's hard not to take a gander at the faults of the television phenomenon Lost in comparison. For numerous seasons, Damon Lindelof helped form a series that was exciting and unexpected, with every answer given to the viewer becoming a bigger question by the next season. He is obsessed with opposing forces: yin and yang, white and black, faith and reason. By the end of its 6th and final season, the show left this viewer with a bitterness and an eye roll--important questions, questions that I had invested hours watching and thinking about, were never resolved. The same can be said about Prometheus (which, as I stated before, was co-written by Lindelof): when a film that is basically a prequel to Alien leaves you with more questions than answers (and essentially leaves room for more sequels [or prequels, however you look at it]), it hasn't completely done its job. Did God create humans? Did these dead humanoid humans create humans? When alien creatures are bursting from bellies in blood-spurting glory, does it really make a difference? Apparently, it doesn't to the writers of this hugely anticipated film.
     If you go into Prometheus with huge expectations (which I did), you are bound to be a little disappointed. It doesn't change the fact that it's still high above most unoriginal diarrhea that gets shat into cinemas week after week. The visuals alone are worth the price of admission. But it never reaches the height of Scott's directorial efforts that have been immortalized in the history of cinema. Ultimately, that's alright: when Noomi Rapace suits up to kick some alien ass a la Ripley, Michael Fassbender becomes the Fassbot, and ancient creature arise to wreak some acid-spewing havoc, unanswered questions and an average script fade to the back of the mind.     (B)

Monday, June 4, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman, a Grim Retelling

     During my viewing of Snow White and the Huntsman, the second film in as many months that turns the fairy tale into a modernized visual feast (the first being Mirror Mirror), a simple question arose: do two men have to fawn over Kristen Stewart in every film that she stars in? Now, some of the original versions of the Snow White tale do have the same story, with the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, with his Thorish brawn) and the prince (Sam Claflin) both vying for her affection. But this new version, with its incredible and ravishing beauty, seems to be vying for some Twihard dollars. The other problem is the source material: we all now how this story ends, and no matter how much incredible sets, imagery and locations first-time director Rupert Sanders skillfully shows the audience, Snow White and the Huntsman is a beautiful film that lacks surprise and simply has a paucity of important things to say.
     Snow White (Kristen Stewart, who is perfectly fine in the title role) has been locked in the cell of a castle by her murdered father's second wife, the Queen (Charlize Theron). This Queen is consumed by thoughts--every second of every day--about aging and losing her beauty. So she does the only thing that makes sense: essentially sucking the blood out of fair maidens plucked from the local population. This process is is gruesome and frightening, but like Neutrogena it does wonders for her skin. She often asks the mirror on the wall who the hottest chick in Mordor is (the film seems like it takes place in the same universe as The Lord of the Rings saga), kind of equivalent to a wife asking her husband, "Do I look fat?" The mirror usually satiates her ego, but one day, when Snow White has come of age, we realize that White, in all her in-tact-hymen glory, actually is the most beautiful. The Queen must have her beating heart to become forever immortal and young. Theron's performance is definitely one of the highlights of the film, sneering and screaming as much as Queen Cersei on HBO's Game of Thrones.
     It's on this day that Snow White escapes from this tower cell and sets off on a journey to become a woman and defeat the queen. She makes it to the Dark Forest, a sinister and hallucinogenic place that is as dangerous as it is gorgeous. It's here that the Huntsman finds Snow, and--of course at first she does not trust him--they escape further from the castle so Snow can reach her allies. The Dark Forest and a future place they reach, a fairy-land that would make Sookie Stackhouse squirt, are the two showcases for the incredible visual effects in the film. This CGI is top notch: the creatures are amazingly detailed, the flora is colorful and enchanting, and a breathtaking combination of danger or beauty awaits behind every fallen log or flowing stream.
     Soon, our Huntsman and Heroine come across eight dwarfs deep in the forest (yes, eight, so it's clear what has to happen), and they provide the spark the propels the film into it's final and obvious conclusion. These dwarfs are portrayed by some great and funny British actors, but it's sort of offensive if you really think about it: none of them are actual little people, they are just CGI-ed (wonderfully) versions of themselves. Though--I have to admit--it was a bit fun to try and recognize all eight of the actors. There are fight scenes and medieval battles, but none that rival anything that could be considered great (a PG-13 rating sure doesn't help, but it's not like there was going to be a rated R Snow White film). The final siege on the castle is noticeably ho-hum, with the typical swarm of flying arrows and quickly-edited sword fighting with a minuscule amount of blood. The dwarfs play a key role in this overtaking of the queen's forces, providing a little comic relief and little originality.
     It's tough to say how good Snow White and the Huntsman could have actually been. The source material is severely limited, and this film does enough to to at least look pretty incredible. But there's no judging a film based solely on looks: I walked into the film expecting a pretty movie with some cool battles and well-drawn characters. What I got was a mediocre and mild love story that looked incredible but lacked any originality or complexity. If you go into Snow White and the Huntsman expecting it to totally suck, then you will be pleasantly surprised. But if you're like me, and you didn't really want to watch Kristen Stewart bite her lip and decide whether to kiss the Huntsman or cuddle with the prince or watch her try to be a warrior (which is a joke), then watching the film is similar to taking a bite of a rotting apple: bitter and unappetizing.     (C)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Netflix This: Punch-Drunk Love

     Adam Sandler's career path began at a very high water mark--being one of the best parts of SNL (at the time), releasing gut-bustingly hilarious comedy albums (at the time), and putting out a couple of simple films (Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore) that caused thousands of kids to yell at swans, admit it's cool to pee your pants, and want to beat the Hell out of Bob Barker--then it quickly plummeted to the depths of a feces-clogged drain pipe, filling up with more and more excrement year after year after year, and finally culminating in last year's massive cinematic defecation titled Jack and Jill. Yes, there were also a couple of anomalies, a few tasty morsels of corn that broke free from the thick plug: one was Reign Over Me, a film sort-of based around a man's experience with September 11th, a film that showcased Sandler's sad and powerful dramatic performance. The other is Punch-Drunk Love, the (easily) best film that Sandler stars in and one of my favorite films of the 21st century.
     Punch-Drunk Love is not the Sandler film that you grew up with. If you just love his playful banter with Kevin James in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, his super crazy hair and attitude in You Don't Mess with the Zohan, or his child-like friendships in Grown Ups, one, you like really shitty movies, and two, it's safe to say you will hate Punch-Drunk Love. Here are the reasons: for one, Love is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of American classics Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. His style and directing prowess is impeccable, causing every scene--even scenes depicting (usually) boring acts of everyday life or two characters chatting about (seemingly) nothing important--to fill up to a breaking point of tension. Every film he directs is literally a work of moving art.
     The plot probably won't interest any fans of Sandler's tepid romantic comedies (like Just Go With It): Barry Egan (Sandler) owns a company that markets and sells different variations of plungers. He takes plungers very seriously (unlike Sandler's real-life agent in regards to his film career). He has seven sisters that are always invading his life and personal space, constantly harassing him about his job and love life. The frustration that this causes occasionally makes Barry rage-filled: he often takes out his anger on inanimate objects like sliding glass doors or public bathroom stalls. He eventually meets Lena (Emily Watson), a woman who somehow finds Barry funny and charming. Before their budding relationship comes into fruition, Barry calls a phone sex line because he lives alone and is lonely. What follows is a quirky drama involving stolen credit card information, henchmen looking to distort money, a showdown with a pimp/mattress store owner played wonderfully by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and a master plan to try and acquire a million frequent flier miles involving a loophole in a Healthy Choice pudding promotion (based upon a true story). If it sounds weird, that's because it is. It's also complex and the work of a film making genius.
     Upon watching Punch-Drunk Love, an easy thing to notice is the film's brilliant color scheme. It can  be seen even in the films theatrical trailer:

Most of the color of the film is shot in the different shades of red, white and blue. Clearly, one can make assumptions and draw conclusions based on this fact: almost all of Barry's life before Lena is shot with blue hues. His apartment, his workplace, and in particular his suit are all shades of blue. Barry is sad: Barry is Blue. Red shows up more sparingly, but it is even more important: Lena (the one happy part of Barry's life once she enters it), is generally wearing the color red. Other objects of red often catch Barry's eye: an arrow pointing in a specific direction, people dressed in red showing Barry the way. It's very cool, and worth looking into if you've seen Punch-Drunk Love and are a fan. Click this sentence to read a good essay on the matter.
     Back in 2002, when this film was released, it was easy to imagine that Punch-Drunk Love might have been the spark needed to light an exciting fire under Sandler, causing him to venture outside of his comfort zone as a real actor who could surprise movie viewers with his aptitude and skill. There were even rumors that he was to star in Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, but--unfortunately--it clearly didn't happen. He has been stuck on the same path ever since, rarely being actually funny and never being surprising. On the other hand, when one gets paid 20 million dollars to dress up as a woman and speak in gibberish,  one doesn't break free from the money-making formula. Maybe that will change in a few weeks when Sandler's new film, That's My Boy, gets released into cinemas. Maybe I wouldn't hold your breath.

(Punch-Drunk Love is available on Netflix Instant Streaming. Also, see a transfixing new teaser from Paul Thomas Anderson's mysterious new film, The Master, Here)