Friday, March 30, 2012

THE HUNGER GAMES: Are The Odds In Its Favor?


- After seeing THE HUNGER GAMES, it's not hard to see why it's a cultural phenomenon. The character of Katniss Everdeen is exactly the antidote to an overload of young adult fiction female characters who - like Twilight's Bella - are too passive, to whiny, and decidedly *not* kickass. With Katniss, the pendulum has swung in the other direction, and here we have a teen female protagonist who's smart, in-control, brave, independent, proactive, and most definitely badass. And if the Hunger Games movie succeeds in one area, it's in translating all that is great about Katniss to the big-screen. As embodied by the great Jennifer Lawrence, Katniss is a great new character - instantly iconic, and instantly the kind of girl that legions of fangirls the world over can look up to and root for, in a way that goes beyond merely hoping that she hooks up with one potential love interest over another.

At the same time - and partly because it doesn't wholly center around a love triangle (though there is one) - The Hunger Games is interesting because it's got very female-friendly sensibilities, but a premise that has typically been the domain of male-centric sci-fi and fantasy. It's high-concept stuff: a dystopian future where country is divided into districts, ruled over by a totalitarian regime based in the Capitol. Once a year, the districts must pay tribute to the Capitol by sending one teen representative to fight in The Hunger Games - a survival-of-the-fittest, kill-or-be-killed battle to the death - that's nationally televised watched by all. Suffice it to say, this may be female-centric YA fiction, but on paper, at least, there's plenty of potential coolness to get anyone interested.

And so ... I went into The Hunger Games, not having read the books, actually sort of excited. I thought it was cool that there was this next big thing that everyone was anticipating, and that unlike so many next big things ... this one might actually be good. And, after seeing the film, I do see why the books got so popular, but I also don't feel that the movie stands on its own as a great or even very good film. Like I said, Jennifer Lawrence is great - she's the highlight of the whole movie, and I think she's very quickly become one of the best actresses of her generation. But other than the intensity and nuance that Lawrence brings to the film, there isn't a lot that really pops. For a movie with such a big, dramatic, high-concept sci-fi premise ... the film feels strangely small-scale, and strangely bland.

The biggest issue is similar to the problem I've had with a number of the Harry Potter flicks - it's rushed-adaptation syndrome. Even as someone who hasn't read the books, it's easy to tell while watching The Hunger Games that a lot of the key characters, relationships, and events of the novel are glossed over or given short shrift in the movie. And I wasn't noticing that as a fan of the books who wanted to see all the best parts crammed into the film. I was noticing it as someone who wanted deep and emotionally-resonant characters and character arcs. Most of The Hunger Games' supporting characters seem to flit in and out of the film, and few if any make much of an impression. The best is probably Elizabeth Banks' Effie - the whimsical personality in kabuki-like makeup who oversees the games and grooms the competitors for action. But others - from Woody Harrelson's Haymitch (a former games-winner turned trainer who's become a bit of a drunk) to the spritely young contestant named Rue - have a good scene or two and that's it. They feel underdeveloped as characters, even as you can sense that we're supposed to really care about them. Rue in particular - the movie wants you to love her, and we might have had she been fleshed out more and introduced earlier. But as is, the key plot points revolving around her friendship with Katniss make only a fraction of the impression they should.

The movie features an eclectic cast, to say the least - a strange mix of up-and-comers and veterans. And the casting is, I think, a mixed bag. Lawrence owns the part of Katniss, as I've talked about. But her male costars don't quite have the same presence. It's weird - it's like the studio overcompensated for going out-of-the-box with Lawrence and decided to cast the male leads with super-generic actors straight out of teen central casting. I don't want to be overly harsh - these guys are decent. But they just don't feel like they're in the same league as Lawrence. That goes for Josh Hutcherson, who is something of a charisma vacuum as (the unfortunately named) Peeta. Peeta is supposed to be unnaturally strong, which is weird since Hutcherson isn't a particularly big guy. And he's supposed to have chemistry with Lawrence, so much so that Katniss is supposed to fall for Peeta even though, originally, she's only feigning affection for the sake of the cameras. But there's barely a spark between them, and their pseudo-romance feels about as manufactured as anything in Twilight. Even worse is the other part of the triangle, involving Liam Hemsworth as Gale. Gale is all longing looks and generic flirtation that wouldn't be out of place on most CW shows. And it's the lame romance stuff between Katniss, Gale, and Peeta that squarely keeps The Hunger Games in the same ecosystem as the Twilights of the world. The gritty, serious nature of the story is undermined by the cheesiness of the love triangle.

Meanwhile, some very good actors seem a bit miscast. Donald Sutherland is always great, but he just seems to genial and non-threatening to play the sinister President Snow. It's too bad that Snow doesn't 100% work, because the movie is desperately in need of a great villain. Other than Snow and his machinations, the main antagonist is the utterly-generic Cato, the douchey tributary from District 1 who's the odds-on-favorite to win the games. But Cato, with his spiky blond hair and perpetual sneer, seems like he'd be better suited as an upper-east-sider on Gossip Girl than as the major-league threat in a sci-fi blockbuster. Woody Harrelson also feels a bit out of place as Haymitch. His character seemed like it was meant to be a gruff badass type with a penchant for booze - the kind of role that someone like a Liam Neeson could play in his sleep. It seemed like a role desperate for some gravitas, and that's not really what Woody does. With a long blonde wig, he comes off as sort of goofy.

There are some standouts though. I mentioned Elizabeth Banks as Effie - a great little side character who's visually-striking. Stanley Tucci is also at his over-the-top best as Ceaser Flickerman, a preening talk-show host who serves as the flamboyant MC of the Games. I also liked Amandla Stenberg as Rue - I just wish she had more screentime. All sorts of other interesting actors pop up - from Lenny Kravitz as stylist Cinna, to Deadwood's Paula Malcomson as Katniss' mother. But a lot of these side characters are underserved by the jumpy script.

When the movie does stop to linger and heighten the drama of a particular scene ... well, that's when it's most effective. I loved the scene towards the beginning of the film, for example, where the entirety of District 11 assembles to see who among them will be chosen for The Hunger Games. After an ominous video message from the President, two children - one girl, one boy -between ages 12 and 16 is chosen. As conveyed in the movie, it's an eerie and pulse-pounding scene. If only the entirety of the movie had its sense of scale and drama. The film takes a long time to get to the actual Hunger Games, and so the games don't quite have the epic tone that they should. A lot of the details of the contest are left unexplored, and even key alliances and rivalries among the contestants get glossed over. More importantly, the full gravity and awfulness of the games - the fact that you're literally forced to kill innocents to survive, the fact that you're on your own in the wilderness and forced to fend for yourself ... never quite comes to the forefront. I also felt like the true moral ramifications of having to kill merely for others' entertainment was never explored with as much depth as I wanted. I don't know if it's different in the book, but the film sort of skirts the issue by having almost every one of Katniss' major confrontations end in some sort of contrived manner where she doesn't end up directly killing her rivals. The film does begin the Games with a terrifyingly brutal scene, in which several contestants are struck down while vying for stockpiled supplies and weapons. So early on, a violent and gritty tone is set ... but that level of intensity and brutality isn't quite maintained as events progress. And certainly, Katniss is never truly put in a position where she's forced to confront, head-on, the true, morality-compromising nature of the games. Essentially, after that opening scene of violence, the rest of the Games feel more like paintball and less like competitive assassination.

That said, where the film does do a nice job is in making the Games out to be a hyper-realized version of today's Reality TV culture of vaguely sadistic voyeurism. I mentioned that Stanley Tucci does a great job as the always-grinning, always-peppy talk show host who helps broadcast the games - and it's this aspect of the movie that is most thrilling and smartly satirical. I'll also mention Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane, the "gamesmaster" who essentially produces the Games - a television producer engineering the challenges, manipulating the artificially-generated landscape, and playing god in so much as he holds the fate of the contestants in his hands. Bentley does a nice job here, and the film wisely gives Seneca a good amount of screentime - playing up the film's function as social-commentary.

Visually, the movie is a mixed bag. I liked a lot of the imagination that clearly went into the futuristic Capitol and its garishly-clad residents. I liked the bleak, dreary scenes in District 11. But when the scene shifts to the Games, things begin to look fairly plain and generic, with the fields and forests looking like they could have been shot in someone's backyard. The movie does a poor job overall of conveying scale and scope, and we never get a clear idea of the size of the Hunger Games competition area and exactly what sort of landscape comprises it. And you have to wonder - if the battle arena is only an illusion and is in fact computer-generated, then why would its designers go for such a plain-looking forest-scape? Director Gary Ross seems most skilled at capturing the film's more intimate, character-based moments. But he only occasionally gives the movie the sort of grandiose, epic feel it needs. And too much of the cinematography - during action scenes and other key moments - feels too static, too straightforward, and not stylized or dazzling enough.

There were and are a lot of things that really intrigue me and appeal to me about The Hunger Games. The movie hints at all sorts of interesting backstories, histories, and characters - but to that end, it felt like sort of a tease. I know, there are still two more novels to be adapted. But when you look at this movie, there's a lot in the setup that's interesting and compelling, but as the story progressed, I kept waiting and waiting for the big moments that would get my blood pumping and give me goosebumps. But I don't know that those moments ever really came, and only Lawrence as Katniss gives the film any real sense of badassery. The film struggled over which of its many subplots and supporting characters to give time to, and you can sense while watching that the plot and tone of the film is being pulled in many different directions. The movie is such a dutiful adaptation in that it covers all the bases of the books, hitting all the beats - but it feels like the uber-cliff's notes version of the story - a hyper-condensed-feeling retellling that touches on all the key plot points, but that has only a fraction of the heart, the emotion, or the drama that you look for in a movie like this.

My Grade: B

Going Down to Jump Street. 21 JUMP STREET.

21 JUMP STREET Review:

- On paper, a 21 Jump Street movie seems like a pretty terrible idea. But in practice, the new film succeeds by having essentially nothing to do with the TV show on which it's based. What this movie does is take the basic premise of the old FOX show - young police officers sent back to high school as undercover students - and mines that premise for all of its inherent comic potential. Instead of a trying-to-be-cool-and-edgy teen drama, we now have a completely over-the-top and ridiculous comedy. And somehow, it works. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum make for a great comedic duo, and they're surrounded by very funny people like Nick Offerman, Ellie Kemper, Rob Riggle, and a funniest-he's-ever-been Ice Cube. There's fast-paced action mixed in with the comedy. There are sly nods to the old TV show. And the script is sharp and funny. The result is that 21 Jump Street is one of the funniest movies of the year so far.

The setup here is that Jonah Hill plays Schmidt, who was the awkward chubby kid in high school, and is now an only slightly less awkward and still chubby rookie cop. Channing Tatum plays Jenko, who was the cool, dumb jock in high school and is now, also, a rookie cop. Freed from the shackles of high school cliques, Schmidt and Jenko become buddies - both are eager to rise through the ranks and become badass cops, but both have limitations. Schmidt is out of shape and timid, Jenko is, well, intellectually challenged. And so, they are a perfect match in many ways. But just as the unlikely pair is beginning to show some promise in the field, they are picked - for their youthful looks (or as Ice Cube says, because they are some Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber-looking mother%$#&'ers) to be sent down to Jump Street. 21 Jump Street. And it's there that they're secretly assigned to pose as students in a local high school, where a new designer drug is spreading rapidly through the student body. Schmidt and Jenko are charged with weeding out the dealers and the suppliers and busting up the ring.

Of course, even as they try to crack the case, Schmidt and Jenko are forced to relive high school. The twist is that their manufactured identities get mixed up, so the geeky Schmidt is forced to take drama classes and do track and field, and dim-bulb Jenko is enrolled in AP chemistry classes, where he's surrounded by the school's brightest (and nerdiest) brainiacs. Meanwhile, the two discover that high school is a lot different than back when they were actual teens. And that is where some of the movie's funniest - and most on-point - humor comes from. It's hilarious to see these twenty-something guys try to wrap their brains around the new order of things - where the popular clique looks a lot different than it did back in the day. I know I had to laugh at Schmidt's observations of how his nerdiness actually makes him sort of cool in today's high school ecosystem - I've often felt the same ... I wasn't a geek, just ahead of my time! But there's some really funny observational humor to be found in looking at how high school has changed in recent years.

And like I said, Hill and Tatum are in top form here. Hill's comic timing is as good as ever, if not better, and Tatum shows that he's no slouch either - delivering some side-splittingly funny lines, and overall just having a great buddy-cop/odd couple chemistry with Hill. And again, the supporting cast is just loaded with top-notch comedy talent, although it's also worth mentioning that there are some nice breakout performances here as well. Dave Franco (brother of James), for one, is quite good as the somewhat sinister popular kid who strikes up a friendship with Schmidt. There are also some great cameos - semi-expected, perhaps, but no less cool.

Ultimately though, the movie's script is just plain funny. The interplay between the leads is consistently great, and a good portion of the jokes hit their mark. I was reminded of a lot of the sweet-yet-salty tone of many a Judd Apatow-produced movie, as, tonally, this is very similar to Superbad and the like. The movie goes to some wonderfully random and absurdist places. Ice Cube has some amazing angry rants. Nick Offerman gets to do some brilliant meta-jokes. And, without spoiling anything, I'll just say that the movie uses the comedy "rule of three's" to great effect.

Now, I do think there are some noticeable lulls in the laughter. And at times, the movie seems to get a little too contrived - with some of the tension between Schmidt and Jenko feeling a bit overdone, and the romantic subplot with Schmidt and a high school girl feels a little bit off (and slightly creepy).

By the time the film ended though - with strong hints at a sequel - I had more than enough goodwill towards it that the continued adventures hinted at did indeed pique my interest. This is ultimately just a really well-done comedy with a funny premise and a great cast. Not perfect, but still - damn good.

My Grade: B+

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Su Casa Es Mi Casa? A CASA DE MI PADRE Review!


- It's fitting that I sit down to write this review having just watched Will Ferrell appear on Conan, in character, as Anchorman's Ron Bergundy. As the mustachioed news anchor announced the impending arrival of Anchorman 2, he was greeted with rapturous applause from the studio audience. Very quickly, the Conan clip went viral, and became the talk of the interwebs. The fact is, Ferrell has been in some movies of questionable quality over the years, but we forgive him because when he's at his best, we get movies like Anchorman - stone cold comedy classics. Nobody does deadpan absurdism like Ferrell, and that, I think, is what makes Case de mi Padre so instantly likable. It's classic Will Ferrell, on acid. Somehow, Ferrell and co. took a comedy sketch premise that would have been on past the 12:30 am mark on SNL, and made a whole movie out of it. The premise is the joke of CASA, and it's a joke that's milked for all it's worth. This makes for a movie that is periodically hilarious, though it also means that, eventually, the law of diminishing returns kicks in.

So what is this movie? Basically, it's this: it's Will Ferrell as a Mexican rancher and unlikely hero in a Spanish-language B-movie satire. It's essentially the SNL sketch version of Machete, only less badassery and more silliness. In the film, Ferrell is Armando Alvarez, one of two brothers who must go to war with a drug lord to save his father's ranch - and seduce his brother's curvaceous ladyfriend in the process.

The film uses the same sorts of mock-B-movie techniques we've seen in films like Machete and Grindhouse - missing reels, intentionally grainy film quality, and gleefully over-the-top characters and dialogue. But CASA takes things a step further by piling on the absurdity. For one thing, the whole movie is in Spanish, and the central joke is the mere presence of Ferrell's blissfully oblivious Spanish-speaking character, who obviously stands out from the rest of the hispanic cast. Ferrell's Spanish is actually pretty good, but part of the joke is simply his total commitment to the character. No matter how weird or silly things get, Ferrell plays things pretty straight. The comedy can get broad (like in a crazy-ass sex scene that shifts from human actors to mannequins when things get hot n' heavy), but Ferrell himself never does. And that - the fact that the movie only seldom gives a blatant wink to the audience, makes the more subtle humor all the funnier. The interesting thing is that Ferrell is surrounded by a supporting cast chock full of legit latino actors - names like Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal. He's also joined by Genesis Rodriguez, who plays his love interest. Genesis makes a huge impression here - she seems totally game for all of the wacky stuff the script throws at her, but also appears to have some dramatic chops as well.

I guess my issue with the movie was that, in between some of the standout moments of hilarity, it can get a bit boring. The movie plays it so straight sometimes that you can sometimes forget you're watching a comedy and begin to feel like you're watching some actual assembly-line Mexican B-movie. It's become a bit of a cliche to say that certain comedies feel like an SNL sketch stretched out to 90 minutes, but that really is how CASA sometimes feels. There just seems to have been the bare minimum of material needed to make a movie out of this premise. To that end, I think the movie suffers a bit in comparison to something like Machete. Whereas Robert Rodriguez infused that film with a true passion for the B-movie genre, CASA has only a very vague link to the sorts of films that it ostensibly parodies. The movie could have benefited from having some fun action to go along with the comedy, for example. But there really isn't much to the film other than the central premise/joke. You don't get the sense that there was much passion at the root of this one - it's more that, quite simply, Ferrell and co. wanted to see if they could get away with making this movie.

And ultimately, the mere fact that this film exists is sort of what makes it uniquely and inherently funny and amusing. There is, certainly, pleasure to be had just watching CASA and laughing in disbelief that a movie this self-consciously random exists. Essentially, this becomes like the ultimate version of one of those Family Guy gags that just keeps going and going, all the while fluctuating between being funny, hilarious, repetitive, awkward, and back to being funny again. For that reason, I think CASA is sort of a must-see for comedy fans. I mean, in a world where big-screen comedies tend to be uber-formulaic and by the numbers, here is something that probably shouldn't even exist from any sort of commercial perspective, and yet does. Even when the film flounders to stay interesting, and even when the joke wears thin, that fact alone makes it worth watching and paying attention to.

My Grade: B

Friday, March 23, 2012

JEFF WHO LIVES AT HOME: Return of the Slacker


- Jeff Who Lives at Home is a refreshingly low-key comedy with a great cast - but it's also a comedy that suffers for being a bit pretentious. Now, I came away from this film with my appreciation for the writing/directing team of the Duplass brothers intact. Although I've yet to love one of their films, I appreciate the unique voice and quirky comedic sensibilities they bring to the table. However, I also wonder if JEFF is something of a step back for them, because with their last film, Cyrus, they seemed to be just on the verge of greatness. JEFF has great moments, but it also struggles with tone and theme, and comes off as a semi-rambling meditation on life, the universe, and the movie Signs.

Yes, the M. Night Shyamalan movie, Signs. Because that's how JEFF opens, with its title character - played by Jason Segel, with his usual hangdog-stoner likability, ruminating on the movie, which he is, oddly, obsessed with. Jeff is a thirty-ish slacker who lives in his mom's basement and does, well, not much. He seems to have no real job, prospects, or interests other than getting high and hanging on the couch. But Jeff does have a belief that the universe has some sort of special destiny for him. And he believes that, all around him, just-hidden signs are waiting to be discovered, so as to point him in the right direction. As the film begins, Jeff believes he may have stumbled onto a key sign. A man keeps calling his house asking to speak to someone named Kevin. Presumably it's a wrong number, but Jeff is convinced that it means something - that he is meant to find this Kevin and that in doing so his life will attain meaning. But Jeff's weird little quest gets sidetracked when he's recruited by his older brother, Pat. Played by Ed Helms, Pat is, on the surface, the kind of man that Jeff should aspire to be - he's married, holds a job, and, basically, is a grown up. But Pat's life is actually in shambles. His job is a boring sales job. He spends more money than he has to keep up with the Joneses. And worst of all, his wife, as it turns out, is cheating on him. So in between searching for any signs of the mysterious Kevin, Jeff accompanies Pat as the two play detective, snooping around to uncover the identity of the man who Pat's wife is boinking. The third piece of the puzzle is Jeff's mom, Sharon (Susan Sarandon). Sharon works in a bland, featureless office - a lifetime cubicle dweller. She seems bored by her job and by her life in general, and frustrated at how useless her son Jeff is (all she wants from Jeff is for him to fix a broken shelf, but he can barely even muster the willpower or attention span to do that). But Sharon's work-life gets a little jolt of excitement when an anonymous co-worker begins instant-messaging her, professing that he's got a crush on her. Even as her sons are out playing detective, so too is Sharon - slightly embarrassed, slightly giddy - trying to figure out which of her office mates has the hots for her.

On paper, one of the main selling points of JEFF WHO LIVES AT HOME is the fantastic cast - and they do not disappoint. Segel is very good as Jeff - he makes Jeff likable, funny, and easy to root for despite Jeff being, basically, a delusional loser. In many ways, Jeff feels like an older version of head-in-the-clouds Nick from Freaks & Geeks (played by Segel) - a guy who in some respects is annoying, but whose sheer obliviousness is ultimately endearing. Helms is also really good, and he has a nice, love/hate chemistry with Segel. I will say though, the film's two leading women are perhaps also its surprise stars. For one, Susan Sarandon steals the movie as the put-upon mom of the Helms and Segel. Her excitement over her digital office flirtation is palpable, and she, of all the cast, best portrays her character's existential crisis. The Duplass brothers try to craft a script rife with depth and pathos, but only Sarandon 100% conveys all of those intended layers of meaning. And it's her story that best combines the quirky with the mundane. That said, Judy Greer is also - again - a scene-stealer, as Pat's frustrated wife. Greer, so good recently in The Descendents, plays a similar character here, but gets more screen time in which to develop her character. She's a standout, with some great back-and-forths with Helms and her usual spot-on comic timing.

When JEFF sticks to being a quirky slice-of-life comedy, it's a lot of fun. I thought the film worked well as a portrayal of a family in which each member - though different on the surface - is trying to fill some sort of void in their going-nowhere lives. There are a lot of great little comedic moments when Jeff and Pat are tailing Pat's wife, and also when we check in on Sharon and her charmingly low-key office drama. However, the movie struggles to figure out what it is, exactly, that ties these characters and their stories together. Rather than just stick to slice-of-life stuff, the film eventually shifts gears and takes on a metaphysical tone that strives to be profound - going for a transcendental "everything is connected" vibe. And I just don't know that the film pulls it off. Whereas a movie like Little Miss Sunshine combined comedy and pathos with elegance and real human emotion, JEFF's big finale feels contrived and very much out-of-left-field.

Too many elements of JEFF feel random for random's sake, and, ultimately, the movie strays too far from its original premise about a slacker looking for meaning. The movie starts out being about Jeff, and ends on Jeff, but little of the in-between feels like real progression, and so the ending doesn't feel earned. At the same time, Jeff is a pleasant watch, and the Duplass' gift for naturalistic dialogue and well-observed humor is evident even when the movie, overall, begins to feel a little aimless. Though the movie is flawed, there is still that unique voice at its core, and I'm curious to see what these guys can do when they really bring their A-game.

My Grade: B

Saturday, March 10, 2012

JOHN CARTER: Can Disney's Long-Gestating Adaptation Live Up to Its Source Material's Epic Legacy?


- JOHN CARTER has a lot to live up to. It's an adaptation of a classic, influential sci-fi story that has literally been in some form of development for decades. It's an attempt to kickstart a new live-action franchise for Disney - a huge, mega-budget movie that is going to have to make serious bank to turn a profit and justify sequels. It's a film that comes from quite the pedigree of talent: it's directed by Andrew Stanton, the man behind Wall-E, and it's co-written by the great novelist and purveyor of pulp fiction, Michael Chabon. So yes, even though the film's underwhelming marketing campaign likely turned off many, for me, John Carter was something to get really excited about. I had high hopes that this would be an under-the-radar dose of pre-summer awesomesauce - a geek-out worthy pulp sci-fi epic of the highest order. Sadly, on the Disney mega-blockbuster sliding scale, the film is perhaps a bit closer to Prince of Persia than Pirates of the Carribean.

From the get-go, JOHN CARTER has serious pacing problems. The movie starts by hurtling us into the midst of a battle on Mars, with so much going on that it's hard to process. Just as we're beginning to take it all in, we switch to 1880's New York, where a young Edgar Rice Burroughs (the real-life author of the John Carter stories, as well as Tarzan) finds that his uncle - John Carter - is dead. Among the items bequeathed to Edgar as part of John's will is a journal. And that journal serves as the movie's framing device, as we see the world-spanning story play out as Edgar reads it. The journal first places us years earlier, where we meet a young, brash John Carter (Friday Night Lights' Taylor Kitsch) - a civil war vet who's now out in Arizona, prospecting for gold. Carter soon funds himself in the midst of a scuffle between the local cavalry and a tribe of Apaches. But even as tensions begin to escalate, Carter's situation takes a sudden turn for the weird. In the middle of a fire fight, Carter takes refuge in a cave, one thing leads to another, and - thanks to a strange alien device - Carter is transported to Mars. As was hinted at in the film's opening, things on Mars are a bit tense. There's two warring factions of human-like, red-skinned Martians, and another race of tall green aliens called Tharks that are caught in the middle. Now, Carter - who finds himself with superhuman strength and agility thanks to Mars' gravitational differences - must decide whether to use his powers to become the red planet's unlikely savior.

The various factions and politics of Mars, as well as the races, cultures, creatures, and jargon - it's all A LOT to take in. And the fact that the first act of the film is so dizzyingly paced doesn't help. There are a ton of things thrown at you, and it's easy to get lost or overwhelmed. But even if you manage to follow everything (good luck), the first half of John Carter still feels heavy on info-dumping and short on soul. Few if any of the characters register on an emotional level. A lot of this has to do not so much with the story itself but with *how* it's presented to us. For example, we get hints that Carter is a scarred man. He had to bury his wife and child at some point, and he's still not over that pain - that loss made him into a bit of a nihilist. And that right there is the germ of what could have been a really compelling character arc. The problem is, it's hinted at but barely addressed. We get these quick-cut flashes of John's wife and daughter, but there's no real emotion behind them. We are left to fill in a lot of the blanks about Carter. That's fine in theory, but unlike with, say, Liam Neeson in The Grey, Kitsch doesn't do a ton to sell us on our hero's supposedly tortured soul. We're supposed to believe, for example, that he has to overcome this great trauma before he can give in to his attraction to the lusty princess of Mars, Dejah. But you never buy it - Kitsch's 'tude-laden Carter seems ready to get with her from the first moment they meet. Part of the problem may be Kitsch. His Carter feels too much like some dude from 2012 and not enough like a classic, timeless hero out of the pages of a pulp novel. It's a shame that so few actors these days can capture that sort of epic hero tone. And yet, Lynn Collins does just that as Dejah. As the curvaceous princess of Mars, Collins kicks ass, looks good doing it, and does so with the perfect tone of Shakespearian gravitas mixed with pleasingly campy melodrama. Collins is easily the standout of the film. The only downside is that her badassery helps draw attention to Kitsch's relatively limp performance. You think back to the great epic hero actors of cinema - and you long for the likes of a Charlton Heston, Russell Crowe, or hell - Arnold Schwarzenegger - anyone with that sort of iconic man's-man charisma, to have been in this role.

To that point, the film has a lot of silliness that contributes to it feeling very all-over-the-place, tonally. I can see how the film's sensibility is in many ways a sort of Pixar-ish sensibility - there's a lot of cartoonish slapstick - and a lot of the film's scenes have a very animated-style, almost Looney Tunes-like quality in how they are composed. On one level, I can appreciate the goofy fun of a character like Woola - Carter's loyal, dog-like alien companion. But at the same time, there's so much slapstick silliness around Woola that it begins to take away from the dramatic weight of the movie. In an animated movie, you can get away with a lot more of that sort of thing. But this is a huge, live-action, would-be epic. And Stanton and co. already have to work hard to get us to buy into this crazy sci-fi world. Why make it even harder to swallow with such an overload of comic relief? Point being, the movie veers wildly from trying to be gritty and serious to being completely cartoonish. At one point towards the end of the film, for example, right as the tension builds to a crescendo, the movie completely kills all dramatic momentum by throwing in a totally unnecessary and super-lame comedic moment. Even the action is inconsistent tonally. Sometimes, Stanton gives us a brutal, God of War-esque arena battle, in which Carter gores a giant alien beast through the chest in violent fashion. Other times, we get cartoonish fight scenes that just seem to be missing 60's Batman-style "bang!" and "pow!" sound balloons. Ultimately, it felt to me like JOHN CARTER never truly settled on what sort of tone it wants to have. As is, it attempts to throw in Pirates-style slapstick and wit, Conan-style grittiness and violence, and Pixar-style whimsy. Combine that with the pacing issues, and the movie can start to feel like a bit of a mess.

That said, there really are a lot of great little nuggets of coolness in the film. I give credit to guys like Dominic West, Bryan Cranston, Mark Strong, and Willem Dafoe for really doing all they can to make their characters pop. These guys are all fantastic actors - they just don't get great characters to play. Dominic West in particular as the lead villain ... even though the performance was excellent, the character just felt pretty lacking and unmemorable. West's performance was nicely sinister ... it's just ... who is this guy, why is he so evil, what's his deal? It's not that we even need that much information - it's more that, man, for a villain who has so much dialogue, little of it is of much substance. I mean, I'd have been cool with a Thulsa Doom-esque badguy who, like James Earl Jones in Conan, just shows up, looks super badass, and barely speaks. But West, he doesn't even get a particularly cool or iconic look. West makes all the monologuing better than it has a right to be, but still - no kids are going to rush out to buy the action figure, you know? Meanwhile, Mark Strong plays a mysterious, shapeshifting alien who is sort of the master manipulator - kind of a cross between Emperor Palpatine, Galactus, and the Observers from Fringe. Strong, in general, is so great at being the badguy (please let there be one more Green Lantern movie so he can reprise his role as Sinestro). But, again, it takes so long to find out even basic info about his character and motivations ... that the reveals feel anticlimactic.

Okay, okay ... so that's a lot of ragging on the film. The thing is, despite my complaints, I did find it overall to be entertaining. There's a pretty solid sense of anything-can-happen fun here. Certain scenes in the movie also succeed at capturing the sort of old-school pulp-epic feel that you just don't see a lot in movies anymore. And really, it's the slower, quieter scenes - the ones that wouldn't have felt out of place in 70's or 80's sci-fi movies - that worked best. Certain parts of the movie are visually gorgeous, and sometimes, when the look of the film does evoke the old painted covers of a sci-fi pulp paperback, you can't help but geek out. Those epic moments are helped by the actors who convey the right tone to go along with the film's premise. Collins is a big part of that with her bravura performance. And I also give a lot of credit to Stanton and the film's designers. I didn't love a lot of the alien / creature design in the film, but I did absolutely love all of the world-building. The sets, the alien cityscapes, the costumes, the clothing, the technology - all of it looked awesome. Like I said, certain moments in the film had a very pleasing, almost painterly style to them that was evocative and cool.

On the flipside though - the aliens, the Tharks in particular, just looked super cartoony to me and rarely felt real or tangible - it was like an army of Jar Jars. Again, guys like Willem Dafoe gave their all to help bring their Thark characters to life, but I just never fully warmed to the character design. It's funny because this week alone, we've seen the passing of some of the great conceptual movie artists of all time in Ralph McQuarrie and Moebius. Guys who imbued movies like Star Wars and Tron with character design that ignited the imagination of generations. I didn't see a lot in John Carter that had that same spark. I give the movie credit for never feeling generic - if nothing else, this is some far-out stuff that will make kids used to crap like Transformers realize that there's far more under the sun. But again, it's less about originality and more about tone. The Tharks and others are all too silly and cartoony - they're never really eerie or scary. It's all dreams and no nightmares. It's way too much Pixar, not nearly enough Frank Frazetta.

John Carter does take a while to get going. And there's a bit too much of the "look Ma I can fly (or jump really high)" sort of scenes that fill every superhero movie (and that were recently knocked out of the park by Chronicle). But I will also say ... that the movie picks up bigtime in its third act. After a somewhat confusing, exposition-packed first hour-and-a-half or so, the final leg of the film sprints from one big action set piece to another, and Stanton seems to find his groove. The big final battles feel like a great wrap-up to some slightly better, more fleshed-out movie. But taken out of context, there is indeed some rip-roaring action to be found - nicely orchestrated by Stanton (if only the ending wasn't killed by the return of the lifeless Edgar Burroughs framing device).

One other point though - you can almost feel the push-and-pull of studio interference all over this movie, and I can't help but wonder to what extent the film got chopped up, rearranged, re-scripted, etc. by the studio. Even on a point as minor as the film's title, it feels like we're seeing the debate over what the movie should be called play out while watching. The fact that the movie closes by dramatically displaying the title "John Carter OF MARS" and *then* the plainer, official title, "John Carter," - it feels like a very deliberate middle finger to Disney and all of their focus group testing. Testing that left the movie with such a laughably generic title. It's funny, parts of the movie have that slightly awkward feeling of watching creative choices being debated before your eyes.

At the same time, you do sort of have to admire Andrew Stanton for making a movie that is so clearly out-there and complex to the point of being incomprehensible. There's no shortage of crazy sci-fi jargon here. The film doesn't compromise on sci-fi/fantasy nerdiness, with made-up languages, English dialogue laced with Martian (er, Barsoom) lingo, and ten Star Wars cantina scenes' worth of oddball creatures and other assorted weirdness. Again, that alone makes the movie feel refreshing in the age of the dumbed-down sci-fi blockbuster. And for that reason, I can see how some fanboys will latch onto the movie, if only because it never skimps on including every bit of Martian history, dialect, and apocrypha from the Burroughs books.

And because of that, John Carter is a movie that geeks are going to want to love and mainstream critics are going to love to hate. Personally, I fell somewhere in the middle - appreciating certain aspects of the film - visuals, action, a handful of the performances - but also feeling frustrated by the lack of heart, soul, or any true feeling of epicness, grittiness, gravitas, or danger. Other than Dejah's sexy outfits and one or two moments of videogame-like violence, this is a Disney-fied pulp adventure desperately in need of a Jack Sparrow or Han Solo character to give it a little bit of edge. It could also have used a sense of awe and wonder and intensity. The original John Carter stories helped to inspire everything from Flash Gordon to Star Wars and everything in between. But this John Carter is ultimately not at the same level as cinema's best sci-fi/fantasy adventures.

My Grade: B

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Will WANDERLUST Make You Wet Hot?


- Comedy is in a very weird place right now. On one hand, you've got all of these critics and pop-culture commentators screaming for comedy to be recognized at awards shows like The Oscars, where the genre has almost always gone unappreciated. In theory, I agree. Great comedy should be rewarded. And yet, when I read the justifications for *why* certain comedies should be rewarded, I can't help but roll my eyes. There's now this idea that comedy is only great when it possesses some deep social commentary - when it's essentially drama, only with punchlines. And that kind of comedy can be great, yes. But what I dislike is that that argument disqualifies one of my favorite brands of comedy - the kind that's random, absurd, and crazy. And sadly, WANDERLUST may be a victim of the current mindset that the only good comedy is the kind that tells a dramatic story with a few laughs thrown in. Because Wanderlust comes to us from the brilliant mind of David Wain - a master of absurdist comedy. Wain got his start as a standout member of the influential comedy troupe The State. He went on to form splinter group Stella, direct and co-write the cult comedy classic Wet Hot American Summer, direct surprise hit Role Models, and create the hilarious web series Wainy Days. Now, Wanderlust is another brilliantly, hilariously off-the-wall comedy from Wain - but like Wet Hot and Role Models, it's got the trappings of a more conventional comedy. And so the movie's marketing sort of pretended that this was indeed a typical fish-out-of-water, City Slickers-esque comedy with Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston. In some ways - sure, it is. But in most ways, it's anything but conventional. The premise is simply an excuse for Wain and his old The State cohorts to stage what amounts to, essentially, a series of gloriously silly, interconnected comedy sketches. It's too bad that the movie's marketing tried to cover that up. Because ultimately, WANDERLUST - while never reaching the heights of Wet Hot - is still one of the most laugh-out-loud funny movies to hit theaters in a long, long time.

On the surface, Wanderlust is about Rudd and Aniston as a couple of urban yuppies who are forced to abandon their fast-paced, big-city lives after running into financial trouble. Aniston is a creative type whose big plan of pitching a documentary to HBO falls through. And Rudd is an office drone who ends up getting fired after a series of mishaps. Forced to pack up and leave their too-small NYC apartment, the two set off, reluctantly, to stay with Rudd's brother in Atlanta while they figure out their next moves. On the way, an accident forces the two to stop off at a hippie commune, where they find themselves surprisingly charmed by the quirky-yet-welcoming residents and communal style of living. So when Rudd's obnoxious brother (played hilariously by Ken Marino) becomes too much to bear, the couple decides to head back to the commune and make a real go of it there.

Paul Rudd is one of the few comedic actors who can seamlessly transition from more conventional, narrative-driven comedy into absurdist randomosity, and so it's no wonder that Wain keeps casting him in his movies. Rudd is in fine form in Wanderlust. And to that earlier point, he is great in the more narratively-driven scenes as a yuppie-turned-hippie, yet he's also awesome when called upon to just be goofy and weird. One of the movie's best gags, for example, occurs as Rudd stands in front of the mirror, psyching himself up for a free-love tryst with one of his fellow residents, played by Malin Ackermann (funny here as she is on Children's Hospital). Rudd's seemingly improvised motivational speech to himself is absolutely hilarious. And its the wackier scenes - those in the State / Stella tradition - that are far and away the highlights of the film. There's even a great little mini-Stella sketch in the movie, where Wain, Michael Ian-Black, and Michael Showalter have some great repartee as antagonistic TV News anchors. And speaking of those three, the movie's cast is filled out by an amazing ensemble of comedic performers, largely drafted from Wain's past projects like The State, Wainy Days, and Children's Hospital. So you've got Michael and Michael, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Kerri Kenney, Malin Ackermann, and SNL alum Michaela Watkins - all in top form.

And then there's Justin Theroux, who is a total scene-stealer as the slightly-sinister leader of the commune. Theroux is funny as hell, and gets many of the movie's best lines. Alan Alda also is responsible for some big laughs as the loopy founder of the group. As for Jennifer Aniston - I think she is fine. She's not an actress who is typically a favorite of mine, but I think she's got good comic timing, and she does a nice job being the straightwoman for some of the oddball antics going on around her in the film. But again - and here's where the marketing was misleading - Wanderlust is NOT a Jennifer Aniston movie. And by that I mean, it's not the sort of lame rom-com that you usually associate her with. So the bottom line is - she does a nice job here and works well with Rudd and acclimates herself well to the craziness. Would it have been cool to see a Rudd reunion with his Wet Hot ladyfriend Elizabeth Banks? That would have been cool, sure. But Aniston is good.

In any case - as much as I'd like to compare Wanderlust to Wet Hot American Summer, the fact is - it's not Wet Hot American Summer. That was a no-budget indie comedy, and therefore was free to be as insanely random as possible. Wanderlust, like Role Models, is sort of stealthily insane - fitting tons of absurd, Wain-y moments into the aforementioned framework of a more conventional comedy. And sometimes, the movie's more conventional aspects do hurt it. The attempts at sentimentality feel a little forced given all the logic-lacking absurdity that characterizes the bulk of the film. And the attempts at a good vs. evil plotline - pitting Rudd against Theroux, also feel a bit rushed and haphazard. So yes, you sort of wish that this movie could have been freed of its big-studio shackles and that Wain had been given free reign to go balls-out crazy. Instead, Wanderlust does sometimes feel like half of a real State movie, and half like a somewhat lamer, less daring studio comedy. But don't worry - the State-ness does ultimately win out. Those who go in wanting Wet Hot-style craziness will be happy with what they get. And those who go in thinking that they are getting some tame Jennifer Aniston comedy, well, they are going to have their minds just a little bit blown. I know that there were certainly a couple of people like that in the theater when I saw the film - people who seemed surprised to find themselves uncontrollably laughing at the movie's arsenal of out-there jokes.

As for the most important part of a comedy - THE JOKES - I found Wanderlust to have a pleasingly high hit-rate. Sure, there were a couple of whiffs - and one or two characters (i.e. Lo Truglio's nudist winemaker) who never 100% clicked. But overall, I laughed consistently throughout the film and, many a time, I laughed hard. There are several classic dialogue bits in this one that will likely be quoted for a long time to come - and thus, the rewatchability factor here is going to be quite high. Wain and co. have a gift for witty wordplay, and there's no shortage of that here. And oh, there's also a joke revolving around The Spin Doctors' "Two Princes." Dammit all.

Seeing a movie like Wanderlust is sort of like seeing a great indie band go mainstream. You're happy to see 'em get a shot at the bigtime, but you also worry that they had to compromise a bit of what made them great in the first place in order to achieve mass-market success. Wanderlust doesn't have the pure comic brilliance of Wet Hot American Summer, but it still retains a lot of that movie's subversive wit and out-there hilarity. David Wain and his State buddies may have dressed up their comedy in a nice jacket and tie to please the studio suits, but soon enough, the jacket comes off to reveal that yes, underneath the layer of polish, these kids still know how to rock n' roll.

My Grade: B+

Breaking Down RAMPART


- Every year, a number of films get a small, limited release in November or December so as to qualify for the Oscars. Some of those films end up riding a wave of awards-season hype and fanfare. They have successful limited-run releases and get re-released early on in the new year for expanded runs. But there are also many would-be contenders that, for whatever reason, never break away from the pact. I think back to a few years ago, when Children of Men sneaked in at late December. Or more recently, the great but overlooked film The Way Back. This past year, one of those little, late-year gems was a film called RAMPART, which despite coming up empty in terms of Oscar noms, did enjoy a decent expanded release in February. And I'm glad it did. While not mind-blowing, per se, Rampart is a pitch-black LA noir about a corrupt cop who is a hero in his own mind. It features one of the career-best performances from Woody Harrelson, and a fantastic supporting cast. It's well worth a look for anyone in the mood for a gritty, slightly surreal cop drama that pulls no punches.

Set in 1999, Rampart, though a relatively small-scale story, has a slightly apocalyptic tone befitting of the year in which it's set. Harrelson plays David Brown, a tough, chauvinistic, racist, asshole, son-of-a-bitch cop who fancies himself the last real renegade, the one cop who's willing to do what it takes to get the job done. In a city that's still reeling from riots and police corruption, Brown is a liability to the force. Somehow, he's managed to keep his job - in part, it's because he can be a smooth-talker, and he's deceptively smart. So whenever his penchant for brutality gets him in trouble with his superiors, he's usually able to weasel his way out of any serious consequences. But the man is a walking time bomb. Even his nickname implies it - "date rape" - bestowed upon him in honor of his most famous victim. As the story goes, Brown once killed a man who he claimed was a serial rapist, but most believe that the guy was an innocent joe who Brown just happened to have a mad-on for.

Still, Brown keeps on doing his thing in the LAPD until one day when a car rams into him while he's on duty. Brown leaps out of his police car, chases after the assailant, and catches him. The driver - who happens to be African-American, pleads with Brown that it was an accident, but Brown won't hear it. He takes out his club and brutally beats on the man. A nearby news crew captures the whole incident on tape - and soon, Brown is LA's most hated cop. As the walls begin to close in on Brown and his barely-held-together life, he doesn't relent. Instead, he gets increasingly reckless and violent. He's convinced that there's a conspiracy to bring him down - that he was set up - that it wasn't an accident that the news crew was there to capture the beating. And so begins the downward spiral of David "Date Rape" Brown.

As Brown, Harrelson is at the top of his game. Brown is a guy who is lean, mean, animalistic, and just short of psychotic. Harrelson plays him to perfection - mixing tough-guy badassery with bouts of unpredictable rage and madness. Harrelson makes Brown a truly disturbing character - a guy who is oddly likable in his own way - for his sheer doggedness and survival-instinct - and yet who is, in so many other ways, just plain despicable. Though Harrelson didn't pick up quite enough attention here to garner a Best Actor nomination, I'd still put this right up there with the best and most memorable leading man performances I've seen in the last year.

Harrelson is also surrounded by a star-studded supporting cast. A big standout is Sigourney Weaver as Harrelson's superior in the LAPD, a ball-breaker who can go toe-to-toe with the snake-like Brown. I also thought that Ben Foster did a great job as a drug-addicted homeless man who serves as an informant to Brown - it's an unglamorous yet impressive turn for Foster. There's also a fantastic part played by Ned Beatty, as an elder ex-cop and Brown's friend / informant. All sorts of other great actors pop up, from Steve Buscemi to Anne Heche to Robin Wright. Even Jon Bernthal - Shane from The Walking Dead - has a pretty nice little cameo role as a cop.

Now, the movie's got a great cast, but where I think it gets a lot of its juice is from the script, co-written by director Oren Moverman and the great James Ellroy (LA Confidential). Ellroy is a master of LA noir, and he shows it here. Just the world he creates - a world of grey-shaded characters, crime, corruption, and darkness - makes for a movie brimming with atmosphere and a great, palpable sense of dread. That said, I also give a lot of credit to Oren Moverman. His direction is vivid and visually stunning, with a sun-baked, hot, sticky LA setting that acts as one of the movie's stars. Moverman tries some interesting things that are a bit atypical for a movie of this sort. He shoots certain scenes in a very trippy, surreal fashion - emphasizing the fact that Brown is beginning to lose his mind a bit as he increasingly descends into a drug-soaked state of paranoia. The fact that the aesthetics of the movie veer so wildly at times can be disorienting - the film shifts from gritty drama to surreal nightmare to over-the-top action, and that can be a little jarring. Mostly, it works, and it makes Rampart feel unique and different. Every so often though, scenes will feel too over-the-top or stylized as compared to the bulk of the movie.

To that end, a couple of key plot points in the film struck me as a little too cartoonish. Some of Brown's more over-the-top behavior, but also some of the more basic framework elements of the film. For example, Brown's home-life is a lot to swallow. He's the ex-husband of two sisters, and has a daughter with each - one a rebellious teen, the other a precocious tween. The sisters live in a connected duplex, between which Brown alternates his time - occasionally still sleeping with both of them. It's certainly a unique scenario, but you can't help but wonder what's taking these sisters so long to get the hell away from this guy and get their daughters away from this ridiculously awkward situation. The movie tries to explain that Brown's sense of family and love for his daughters keeps everyone living together - but still, come on.

All in all though, I really liked the movie. It was a fantastic character study and, at the same time, it worked as a larger metaphor for America at the turn of the 21st century. Brown was a monster, but at least he was an honest one who made it clear where he stood. Rampart paints a picture of an America with no more room for the Dave Brown's of the world. But by driving him out, were we just making way for an evil that's simply less obvious, but no less dangerous? At the end of the day, RAMPART is a very dark, very grim crime noir film that is an outstanding showpiece for Woody Harrelson. If you're in the mood for a smart but eminently #$%&'ed-up movie, check it out.

My Grade: B+