Friday, April 27, 2012

THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT is an Appointment Worth Keeping


- In weaker hands, The Five-Year Engagement could have been a very standard, very sappy sort of rom-com. But in the hands of director Nicholas Stoller, and a troupe of some of the funniest actors in showbiz, the movie proves to be an enjoyable and very funny romp. Rest assured, this isn't your parents' sweet and sappy love story - this is very much in the Judd Apatow-style of sweet-yet-raunchy comedy, with plenty of gross-out gags, dick jokes, and randomness in between the more serious scenes of romance. Indeed, Apatow is a producer on the film, and this is one that could sit pretty comfortably on the DVD shelf alongside the likes of Apatow's Knocked Up or Stoller's previous hit, Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

The story here is simple, but also pretty nuanced. There aren't a ton of crazy, out-of-left-field things that happen to the two leads - this is more of a movie about life happening. Early on in the film, we see flashbacks to the night when Jason Segel's Tom and Emily Blunt's Violet first met. It was a New Year's Eve costume party. She was Princess Diana, he was "Super-Bunny," and was wearing a ridiculously goofy bunny costume. It was just about love at first awkward dialogue exchange. Tom and Violet get engaged after a year of dating, and it seems like everything is going well for the young couple. Tom's a chef at a Bay Area restaurant, where he seems to be on the fast track towards a head-chef gig. Violet is applying for faculty positions in the Psych department of various universities. But just as the wedding approaches, life gets in the way. Violet gets a position at the University of Michigan, and Tom, eager to support her, semi-reluctantly decides to put his career on hold and move with her to Michigan. As the months and years go by, career and other life obstacles keep getting in the way of a wedding, and eventually, in the way of Tom and Violet's relationship. The question becomes: can these two work through all the challenges and stay together, or is the universe trying to tell them that it wasn't meant to be?

The first thing you should know about this film is that it's got a very loose, freewheeling structure. Stoller very liberally peppers the movie with comic asides, to the point where it's got a very sketch-comedy-esque feel and flow. This works well though, given the ensemble of comedy pros assembled for the film. Segel is at his best here, for one. He channels his nervous energy and gentle-giant charm so as to create one of his funniest big screen performances yet. Tom is one of the more average / normal guys that Segel has played, but it's all the little quirks that Segel adds that make him so entertaining. For example, the movie takes a semi-absurdist turn when Tom gets into a prolonged funk in Michigan. He falls in with some new friends and - overcompensating for not feeling manly enough - he transforms himself into a bearded mountain man with an affinity for hunting, beekeeping, and mead. Seeing Tom go down all these weird paths can get pretty hilarious, and again, it's the movie's willingness to go to some weird places that gets it so many laughs.

Blunt is super game here as well, and is a great match for Segel. They have a very real, natural chemistry, and Blunt gets in some very funny moments of her own. One of my favorite bits in the movie is an argument that Blunt has with Community's Alison Brie - who plays her sister - done all in Sesame Street voices for the amusement of Brie's young daughter. These are some funny women. Brie is a huge scene stealer throughout the movie, too - this won't be a surprise to fans of hers from Community, but her performance here convinced me that Brie is on her way towards being a huge breakout movie star in the near future. How many other actresses could pull off a pitch-perfect Elmo imitation and be this funny doing it? Brie is amazing.

And Brie isn't the only NBC sitcom star in the film. Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation plays Tom's buddy Alex - a character not super dissimilar than his part on Parks, but hilarious nonetheless. Pratt is also a huge scene-stealer, and his eventual romantic pairing with Brie feels like a match made in comedy heaven. Actually, the whirlwind romance between the two sitcom stars is one of the best / funniest parts of the movie.

The rest of the cast is a who's-who of comedy. Mindy Kaling pops up as a fellow Psych professor. Chris Parnell is Tom's friend who introduces him to hunting. Brian Posehn is Tom's boss once he moves to Michigan, and Rhys Ifans is the sketchy Psych department head who proves to be a rival for Tom. Tom's father is played by the great David Paymer, while Violet's Dad is Jim Piddock from Best In Show. Kevin Hart is another one of Violet's Psych department colleagues, as is Randall Park, who is hilarious as the passive-aggressive Ming.

The movie wisely takes advantage of its wide-open structure to just let all these funny people play off of one another. Whether it's Segel riffing with Pratt or Paymer, Blunt and Brie having sisterly arguments, or the internal drama of the Psych department - there is A LOT going on in this movie, but in turn, there are a lot of sources of comedy. The converse of that is that the movie can feel a bit rambling and all-over-the-place at times - and a bit overstuffed. The movie has so many asides and tangents that sometimes it seems to have gone off the rails a bit. For that same reason, the laughs can certainly be hit-or-miss as well. There are some big belly-laughs and some standout supporting characters, but some of the side characters and subplots just feel extraneous.

My other complaint with the film is one that's typical of many Apatow-produced movies. The tone can be so all over the place that it's hard sometimes to get a read on what kind of movie, exactly, this wants to be. The movie goes to some pretty dark, edgy, and boundary-pushing places with its humor - which makes the super-happy/sappy ending just a bit jarring. By now, I'm used to that sort of Apatowian styles-clash, and again - the actors are so good that they manage to pull it off. Still, there's a throw-everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-at-the-viewer approach here that, I think, prevents the movie from reaching true greatness.

But hey, all those romantic comedy-isms, to me, go down much easier with a spoonful of absurdist humor, random riffing, and raunchiness. So on that level, I appreciate that Stoller and his co-writer Segel (also the writing team behind The Muppets) wanted to create a rom-com where the jokes are actually, you know, funny. And on that level, they succeed - it's a sweet movie that still has plenty of moments that will have just about anyone laughing - even those who gag at the name Norah Effron.

Overall, I really enjoyed this one - it's a terrific showcase for an all-star cast of comedy up-and-comers, and it proves to be an entertaining mix of funny and heartfelt - even though it isn't afraid to be raunchy, dark and/or messed-up when it needs to be.

My Grade: B+

Monday, April 23, 2012

LOCKOUT: Guy Pierce Escapes From Earth

 LOCKOUT Review:

- Look, I love a great B sci-fi movie as much as the next fanboy. You don't get a lot of 'em anymore either - the sort of high-concept, low-to-medium budget action flicks that the likes of John Carpenter specialized in throughout the 80's. Not every sci-fi film has to be an Inception, you know? Sometimes you just want a badass, pulpy story where, oh, I don't know, a wise-crackin' antihero has to break into a space-prison to free the future-President's daughter from a bunch of nefarious cons. So yes, early trailers for Lockout had me pretty jazzed, and this was a movie I was predisposed to like. The oft-underrated Guy Pierce as a Snake Plissken-esque badass? Check. Produced by Euro-action master Luc Besson? Check. An outlandish premise that was blissfully unironic about its retro-cool space-prison setting? Check and check. Damn - I wanted this one to be awesome. But alas, it's only okay, and at times, a bit less-than-okay. There are glimmers of cool. But mostly, Lockout is pretty generic, and far more forgettable than it should have been. Stick with the likes of Doomsday or Daybreakers to get your retro-sci-fi/action fix.

Like I said, there's a lot of fun to be had in the premise of this one, with a concept that might well have been the plot of the long-rumored-but-never-materialized third ESCAPE FROM NY film. Basically, it's the future. And in the future - a classically dark, foreboding, and neon-colored future of the Blade Runner variety (with a bit of Besson-style Euro-grime thrown in for good measure) - some of earth's worst criminals are transported to an off-planet prison and put into stasis: alive, but asleep. Some humanitarians are skeptical of this practice, thinking that the induced stasis causes permanent damage to the prisoners' bodies and minds. One such humanitarian is the President's daughter - Emilie - who decides to visit the prison on a fact-finding mission. Of course, while she's there, all hell breaks loose. An unfrozen prisoner that she's interviewing breaks loose and frees his cellmates. Soon, the inmates are running the asylum, and the facility's staff - and Emilie - are their hostages. Enter the man known only as Snow - your classic dude with a 'tude, played with sardonic wit by Guy Pierce. Snow - a former government operative - had recently been arrested for murder (he claims he was framed). But in classic Escape From NY fashion, the government decides to cut him a deal: successfully complete a one-man-mission to break into the space-prison and free the President's daughter, and he's a free man (if he survives).

As Snow, Guy Pierce is pretty good, and it's a part that makes you wish he got to be in more action films, as he's clearly got a knack for playing the badass. That said, Snow as a character is fairly bland. In Escape From NY, Kurt Russell was able to take a fairly simple character in Snake Plissken and make him into an iconic, larger-than-life hero. But Snow has few defining features except for his perpetual smartassness - and even that can get sort of eye-rollingly lame at times. Sometimes, a European movie's odd lack of self-awareness can be charming. But the fact that Snow actually - unironically - wears a T-shirt that reads: "Warning: Offensive" is just a bit silly. This is the sort of character that might be cool as part of a team or something, but as a lone hero, he just doesn't give us enough personality to really root for him.

The movie's got a couple of other great genre actors who are unfortunately stuck with pretty flimsy and uninteresting characters. It was great to see Peter Stormare show up, for example, as a government official overseeing Snow's mission. But again, he just doesn't get to do or say much that's all that noteworthy. Same goes for Lennie James, as Snow's buddy who sets him up on the mission, but may or may not be working his own angles. James brings some acting chops that help elevate the role, but there just isn't that much to get excited about with his character. Maggie Grace of LOST and TAKEN fame at least gets to have some occasionally-amusing and semi-decent back-and-forth repartee with Pierce. But her character is a bit shrill - and it almost feels like the script has a slight disdain for her character even as it wants us to root for Snow to get the girl. Finally, Vincent Regan lends the movie some gravitas as the cold, calculating criminal who leads the prison revolt, and Joseph Gilgun is fun as his lunatic brother who just wants to incite total anarchy.

So yes, the movie has a pretty darn good cast - and that's probably, ultimately, what makes the film as watchable as it is. Even if Snow isn't going to set the world on fire and become the next cult action hero, Pierce is still quite good and makes the most of what he has to work with - and same goes for the rest of the film's actors and actresses. But from a story perspective, the film just never really pops. The premise is established quickly, and once Snow's inside the prison, there's a lot of repetition. A lot of crawling through grey corridors and taking out random badguys, a lot of Regan brooding and Gilgun frothing at the mouth, and a lot - a lot - of verbal sparring between Snow and Emilie (don't you get it Emilie, he doesn't care about anything or anyone!). Few of the supporting characters get a chance to shine, and the space prison - in theory an awesome setting for an action movie - quickly starts to feel like an endless series of same-y seeming corridors - it's like we've been transported into a 90's-era first-person-shooter game. Part of the problem is the pacing - long stretches go by where nothing much happens, and given the movie's simple story, it's way too long.

 At the least, you'd hope that things would be broken up by some kickass action scenes, but most of Lockout's action is pretty tame. One or two sequences stand out - there's one videogame-esque scene where Snow has to hover above a powerful fan in order to float over a giant chasm - while being attacked by a prisoner - that's pretty sweet. But mostly, the film doesn't have any particularly great or exciting action payoffs. The film throws in some Star Wars-style space battles to mix things up, but those feel so out-of-left-field that they're enjoyable mostly just as random visual coolness, but less so from a narrative perspective. The movie's direction is a mixed bag. I enjoyed some of the more ambitious sequences (a motorcycle chase scene is messy-looking but fun and fast-paced), but overall the movie lacked much in the way of style - with a cold, synthetic digital look that does, at times, make it feel like a series of videogame cut-scenes.

Lockout is a film that could have been really fun and really cool, but that just never quite comes together. Nothing in it is offensively bad, but the script is fairly unimaginative, and the characters are just not all that fun or memorable. Worse, what should have been a nonstop action-fest is oddly slow and boring at times. Fans of pulpy sci-fi may find enough bits and pieces of coolness to make this worth checking out, but I also doubt that this one is headed for cult classic status anytime soon.

My Grade: B-

Friday, April 20, 2012

THE THREE STOOGES Gets the Last Slap


- The Three Stooges is not exactly a great movie, but it's also not even close to the abomination that some predicted. Debate if you want the merits of having three modern-day actors assume the personas of the original Stooges, but certainly, there's no doubting that the cast and crew behind this new film - in particular the three lead actors and directors The Farrelly Bros. - approached it with a degree of affection and reverence for the source material. The new Stooges flick is a loving homage to the classic comedic trio - it's silly and stupid and full of broad slapstick. In other words, it's exactly what you'd expect from a Three Stooges movie. Still, the film is also a testament to the fact that what works well on television - in short bursts - doesn't always translate well to the big screen. As a narrative, this movie is admittedly pretty lame. It works best when it's not trying to tell a story, but just giving us cartoonish, absurdist slapstick in the classic Stooges style.

First of all, you've got to give it up for the three main actors in the film. On one level, these are pitch-perfect imitations of the original Stooges. Chris Diamantopoulos as Moe, Will Sasso as Curly, and Sean Hayes as Larry each look, act, and fight just like the original Stooges, to the extent that it's almost uncanny. But more so than that, these guys go all out to bring these legendary personalities to life. You've got to admire their dedication to the characters. Not only that, but all three guys nail not just the cadences and mannerisms, but the chemistry. The verbal battles - and physical battles - between the Stooges are the highlight of the film, and the actors deliver vintage Stooges put-downs, puns, and non-sequiters with vim and vigor. And the same goes for the eye-pokes, noggin-knockers, and crotch-shots.

The movie is also packed with all sorts of interesting comedic actors in supporting roles. Unfortunately, no one gets to do much of note that isn't one of the Stooges. So the likes of Jane Lynch, Sofia Vergara, and Craig Bierko all feel wasted and/or underutilized. Only Larry David makes an impression, as a temperamental nun - but that's more out of the sheer novelty of seeing Larry David play a nun. The lack of good supporting roles also sort of speaks to the fact that the story here is ultra-flimsy. It's not that I needed an amazing plotline in a Three Stooges flick, but I at least wanted a funny plotline that allows for maximum zaniness. What we get is pretty blah - the Stooges, having grown up to adulthood in an orphanage, never having been adopted - now hear that the orphanage they've called home is out of funds and will soon shut down for good. Only a vast sum of money can save the orphanage, and so the Stooges decide to venture out into the world and scrape up the dough they need to save it.

The joke thus becomes that Larry, Curly, and Moe have never been into the outside world. This explains (sort of) their outdated clothes and speech, and also affords ample opportunity for the script to cram in lame jokes about iPods and reality TV. In fact, the cast of The Jersey Shore plays a large part in the story. There are some scattered moments where the fish-out-of-water humor leads to some nice bits of satire (seeing Moe as a cast member on Jersey Shore is admittedly pretty hilarious), but mostly, you wonder why the script needed this aspect to it. Eventually, the Stooges' quest for moolah leads them to a conniving adultress (Vergara), who sets the Stooges up as patsies in her plot to off her millionaire husband. On paper, the Stooges stumbling their way into a Dumb & Dumber-esque caper is appealing, but unfortunately, The Farrelly Bros. fail to make this sort of plot work as well as it did in their 90's-era classic. As the script piles on the twists and turns, it can all get a little tiresome. Really, we just want to see The Stooges get hit in the nards.

And get hit they do. The film's most inspired bits are its long set-piece gags that place the Stooges in extended scenes of silly slapstick. There's a comedic purity in watching three guys poke, slap, and clobber each other in scenes of cartoonish violence that have an almost ballet-like artistry. I only wish the movie had more of these scenes, and that the elaborately-choreographed slapstick went even bigger and crazier.

I will say though - a good chunk of the early part of the movie features young, kid versions of the Stooges - and it works surprisingly well. The kid actors are just as game as their adult counterparts, and they're all really funny and on-point. 

Still, I'll admit, I occasionally got bored and/or frustrated with The Three Stooges during its more eye-rolling moments. And yet, the movie is so well-meaning and good-natured that it's hard not to have a certain appreciation and affection for it. Kids, in particular, will probably love it - and indeed, when I saw it in the theater, it was the younger audience members who laughed the hardest. And the movie does mostly work as a film that's fun for kids and families (though between Sofia Vergara, and Kate Upton as a curvaceous nun, there's enough cleavage in this film to give more than a few young 'uns some funny feelings) - and it essentially plays out like a live action Saturday morning cartoon - it's even divided into three distinct "episodes." Overall, this is a nice tribute to some true comedy pioneers, with some inspired zaniness here and there - and the Stooges faithful should be won over by the film's respect for the original material. At the same time, the movie is fun, but not necessarily a must-see if you're not a slapstick or Stooges afficionado.

My Grade: B

Monday, April 16, 2012

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS Takes a Bloody Axe To The Horror Genre!


- I've always had mixed feelings about horror movies. I love monsters. I love eerie, creepy, scary, shadowy stories. I love supernatural stories. I love Halloween. But I've also never been one of those Fangoria-reading horror fanboys who loves horror for the sake of gore and violence. In particular, the modern wave of torture-porn style horror flicks is not something that really appeals to me. Give me stuff with imagination, wit, and genuine style. Less Saw, more Evil Dead. Luckily, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard seem to feel similarly. With Cabin in the Woods, they've taken horror back to its basics, but through a postmodern prism that deconstructs the entire genre. They've gone back and made a horror movie about why we love horror movies - at at the same time, about how we as an audience have a love/hate relationship with these films. We demand something more than the same old cliches, and yet we expect them and get disappointed when films don't contain the classic genre tropes we've come to know through years of pop-culture brainwashing. If all that makes Cabin in the Woods sound like a much headier, more cerebral film than the usual horror flick, well, that's because it is. But please, don't get me wrong - while CABIN is a gleefully-imaginative mind-bender, it's also one of the most purely fun horror/sci-fi films I've seen in years. It's got multiple moments that reach right into the fanboy center of your brain and make you simply smile with delight.

Of course, the big thing with this movie is that, if you haven't seen it, it's best to go in knowing as little as possible. It's not that the movie's main themes and twists aren't apparent pretty early on, it's just that seeing how, exactly, things begin to diverge from the standard horror movie is a big part of the fun. Because Cabin starts in a way that feels very much like any cheesy slasher flick. In a brightly-lit suburb, 5 college friends make plans to go on a weekend excursion to - you guessed it - a cabin in the woods, recently purchased by one of the main character's relatives. At first glance, the group consists of all the usual horror flick stereotypes - the jock and his hot blonde girlfriend, his shy and brainy friend, a stoner/slacker type, and the cute, virginal girl. And soon enough, the movie begins to go through the motions that so many of these sorts of movies go through. We learn about the characters' relationships. Some potential for romance is hinted at. And the group drives off, away from the sunny suburbs and into the dark, foreboding woods - where, clearly, some sinister forces are just waiting for them to arrive.

All you really need to know, beyond that, is that this purposefully generic setup is merely the prelude for things to come. Things get crazy, weird, funny, and just plain insane - as we begin to realize that nothing is quite what it seems. Suffice it to say, knowing Whedon's history on properties like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, and Goddard's role as a writer for LOST ... well, some of the big ideas explored in each of those series resurface here in fun and unexpected ways.

And what I will say is that the writing of this film has all of the snappy dialogue, irony-laced humor, and geeky pop-culture references that you'd expect from the men behind this movie. The movie can be scary, but what you'll remember most is just how funny and witty it is. And how many total nerd-out moments it contains. It's funny, because even though I suspected some of the twists, I still imagined that the film would be relatively small scale. But things get BIG. They get CRAZY. And certain things are hinted at where you think: "cool, but they're not actually going to *show* us that, are they?" But they do show us, and they do so in glorious fashion. Again, don't want to spoil anything, except to say: the last 30 minutes or so of CABIN IN THE WOODS are pure, unadulterated fanboy bliss that will make you melt into your 10-year-old self for a while.

It helps that there are some actors here who do a great job delivering Whedon and Goddard's funny and snappy dialogue. Of the main kids, the standouts to me were Kristen Connolly as the relatively naive and innocent Dana, and Fran Kranz as stoner and unlikely hero Marty. Both have some of the big, applause-worthy moments and both really do a nice job of walking that line between serious horror/drama and self-aware, self-mocking humor. Chris Hemsworth, aka Thor, is also quite good. That said, the two stars that end up sort of stealing the show are cagey vets Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. The two play parts that I can't really talk about without spoiling things, but I will say they do a fantastic job - confronting all manner of weirdness with a wonderfully droll, been-there, done-that demeanor. By the way, they're also joined by Whedon-fave Amy Acker, who is similarly good as one of the pair's colleagues.

I will also just add that the creature and f/x work in this film is fantastic. I don't know what the budget here was, but you get the sense that - even if they didn't have blockbuster money to spend - the filmmakers put a lot of love into every costume, every makeup job, and every bit of CGI. The character design is just fantastic, and there were a lot of scenes that will stick with you if only because the f/x and character work is so iconic and memorable. There's also some rip-roaring action choreography, especially near the end of the film.

If I have one complaint about the film, it's that the "meta" parts of the film end up being much more interesting than the "real" parts of the film. While the first act is peppered with hints that things are not what they seem, we do actually spend a lot of time watching what is, essentially, a pretty cliched cabin-in-the-woods movie. Point being: it takes a while to get to the good stuff. Yes, the payoffs are totally worth it, but you also get the sense that there is a lot more to explore around the "mythology" of the movie, that we don't have time for because, for a long time, the movie is playing it straight and trying to convince us that it's "just" a standard-issue slasher flick.

By the time the movie is finished though, I was on such a high from the last half-hour that it was hard to dwell much on the more slow and sedate first half of the movie. Ultimately, I just felt a huge appreciation for the fact that I had just seen something so original, so imaginative, and so fun. This movie clearly came from a place of geeky passion, and it 100% shows - and that passion is most definitely contagious. True, you may not get quite as much out of some of CABIN's key twists, reveals, references, and jokes if you're not well-versed in horror and pop-culture. But if you've seen your share of scary movies, then this one hits a sweet spot and flat-0ut delivers. This is a smart deconstruction of the horror genre, but more so than that - it's just a great time at the movies.

My Grade: A-

Thursday, April 12, 2012

AMERICAN REUNION: One More Slice of "Pie"


- Was the first American Pie ever all that great? Certainly, it was a pop-cultural touchstone of the late 90's, and it had its moments, comedy-wise. But a classic? A movie with a legacy so lofty that it's worth getting excited about a nostalgia-laden sequel almost fifteen years later? Not really ... not necessarily. So if you go into the vulgar, silly American Reunion looking for some sort of game-changing comedy, a pseudo-serious meditation on growing up and ditching the old ways of adolescence for the more mature perspective of adulthood ... look elsewhere. Instead, American Reunion is a funny film that pays homage to the original while adopting the more slapsticky, gross-out gags of the sequels. In other words, it's a pretty dumb movie, but also a pretty darn funny one.

Maybe at some point in time, the American Pie franchise was considered an of-the-moment slice of teen pop. But as the years went on - as the cast's Q-ratings cooled and as various theatrical and direct-to-DVD sequels were churned out, AP became more and more about shock value, about seeing just how many crude sex jokes could be crammed into one film. And for better or worse, American Reunion is sort of the pinnacle of that evolution (or devolution?) - it's the raunchiest, silliest, grossest American Pie movie yet.

Luckily, I am a fan of a good sex joke and enjoy gross-out humor when it's done well. And so, even when things got pretty over-the-top, I laughed. In fact, I laughed pretty consistently throughout the film. Because while the character stuff can be a bit messy and hamfisted, the gags are quite frankly as good as ever.

The American Pie franchise is lucky to have a couple of comedy MVP's at its core. And it's funny to see how good some of these actors still are, and, by the same token, how much some of the core cast's weaknesses feel exposed and magnified over time. But let me start with the good. Jason Biggs is back, and he's still a really funny guy. His unflinching earnestness and neurotic nerdiness remains intact, and his comic delivery is still top-notch. Same goes for Seann William Scott. Yes, the guy gets a bad rap sometimes, but he's totally in his element as the series' breakout character, Stiffler. Scott pours everything he has into the Stiffmeister, and just sells every gag. every reaction shot, and every melodramatic pump-up speech like a champ. Allyson Hannigan is, as always, another MVP. She doesn't have a ton of screentime in this one, but she makes the most of every scene she's in. And her natural geeky good nature makes her character's proclivity for bedroom deviance that much more hilarious.

But can I talk for a minute about the great Eugene Levy? The man is clearly a trooper, having appeared in every Pie film to date - even the straight-to-video ones. And yet, he's a friggin' comic genius. Seriously - go watch A Mighty Wind if you need proof. But honestly, by far the biggest belly laughs in American Reunion come from Levy as "Jim's Dad." His outrageously earnest pep talks to his son are as hilarious as ever, and Levy's utterly deadpan delivery is what sells it. Reunion even cleverly reverses the usual roles, and has Jim very amusingly give some romantic advice to his Dad - creating an online dating profile for him, in a sequence that had me cracking up. But Levy - and his fellow improv genius Jennifer Coolidge, as Stiffler's Mom - almost single-handedly elevate American Reunion with their natural hilarity.

On the other end of the spectrum, you've got the actors who were once hot teen stars, and whose careers have (perhaps justifiably) faded over time. Chris Klein, Mena Suvari, and Tara Reid are all pretty limited, and bring things down with a bevvy of blank expressions, ill-timed dialogue, and just a general lack of comic timing. All three look a good deal older than their characters are supposed to be, and Suvari and Reid both look worse for wear. Thomas Ian Nicholas and Eddie Kaye Thomas are both decent, but not scene-stealers.

I talk about the individual actors because, while the scripting for each character's arc is a mixed bag, it's the actors who really make or break these storylines. We get behind Jim's Dad's quest to get back in the dating game because Levy is so good. And we root for Stiffler to tell off his obnoxious boss (well played by CHUCK's Vic Sahay), because Scott is really good. But do we care much about Klein's Oz and Suvari's Heather ditching their respective ill-fitting significant others and reuniting? Not so much.

To that end, some of the writing and acting around the film's more soap-opera-ish aspects can be a bit painful. And some just seems like filler (a tease that Kevin might cheat on his wife with Reid's Vicky is blah). But where the movie works best is when it's putting its characters in outrageous situations. Like Jim having to fend off the drunken advances of the horny teen girl he used to babysit for. Or Jim's Dad getting wasted at Stiffler's unusually sedate house party. Or the random reunion of the original film's fondly-remembered "MILF" guys. That said, the movie crams a ton of characters and subplots into its long-ish running time, and at times feels a bit overstuffed, and very hit-or-miss.

So yeah, this is not a great film per se, but it surprised me with just how funny and fun it could be when things got rolling. Even though parts made me roll my eyes, I will admit that American Reunion honestly gave me some of the single biggest laughs I've had at a movie all year (thank you Eugene Levy for your mind-blowing explanation of why Jewish parents are so eager to send their kids to Hebrew School). It felt like a fitting finale for this long-running series.

My Grade: B

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Embracing the NEW in Comics: SAGA and The New Wave of Next-Great-Comics

The New Wave of Comics For the Digital Era

- A couple of weeks ago, I had a great time at my first ever Wonder-Con event. The pop-culture convention, slightly smaller cousin to the San Diego Comic-Con, is typically held in San Francisco, but this year came to Anaheim since the SF convention center was undergoing renovations. My friends and I braved some heavy So-Cal rain and a hugely-congested parking situation, and ended up packing in a lot of coolness into a single day of geek-nirvana. With a more manageable size than SDCC, it was relatively easy to jump from one panel to another without a lot of hassle, as well as to roam the convention floor in search of sweet merch.

We attended some great panels on that rainy Saturday: we saw the FOX movie panel, featuring the first-look at the new PROMETHEUS trailer, as well as live (!) appearances from writer Damon Lindeloff, stars Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender, and legendary director (and one of my personal film heroes) Ridley Scott. The trailer looked awesome, and it was great seeing all of those big names live and in person and having some great dialogue about the film. The second half of the panel covered ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, which looked like a lot of fun. We also saw this really intriguing panel for SOUND OF MY VOICE, the new indie sci-fi/thriller film from Brit Marling, who did Another Earth. The movie looked packed with potential, with a mind-bending story about a cult centered around a woman who claims to be a time-traveller from the future. We saw the first fifteen minutes of the film, which really drew you in and posed some fascinating questions. The icing on the cake was having some of the actors come out in character, as members of the cult - trying to get us to join them. Nice little marketing stunt there. We also went to an awesome panel / event called THE TOURNAMENT OF NERDS. It was hilarious - essentially a comedy showcase where very funny people debated the merits of various geek icons in a single-elimination tournament. So one round might see two comedians arguing over who would win in a fight: Freddy Kreuger of The Undertaker, another might be who's the better supporting cast member: J. Jonah Jameson or Alfred Pennyworth, and another might pose the mind-bending question of: which is better, The Twilight Zone, or Ferris Bueller's Day Off (lesson learned: NEVER underestimate The Twilight Zone). Good times.

In any case, what I'm leading up to is this: my first-ever Wonder-Con was a great time: I saw some great panels, bought some cool artwork, met some interesting and creative folks, and got to hang out with a number of friends. But what I didn't have a lot of excitement for - what I didn't see a ton of excitement for in general at the show - was comics.

Over the last several months, my geekiest hobby has quite simply burned me out. Like many, I've gone mostly digital. I now read a majority of new comics on my iPad, and while I still don't 100% love the experience, I've gotten much more used to it, and appreciate the benefits in terms of space-saving. Going digital though has forced me to reevaluate my comics-buying preferences a bit. In physical form, comics can be more of a comfort food. There's something nostalgic and relaxing about sitting down with a new Flash or Superman comic book. But in digital, some of that nostalgia-factor is taken out of the equation. Without that, and without the collectibility aspect, you become much more laser-focused on story and art. You begin scrutinizing the content in a way that is on the same level with TV or movies. Point being: there's no reason to buy a digital comic EXCEPT for the quality of the storytelling, and so I've found myself becoming more discerning with what I'm reading as I've gone digital.

The other reason I've been reevaluating is DC's New 52. Now that the initial storyarcs in all of the rebooted DC titles are wrapping up, I have to admit that only a handful of the new books have 100% grabbed me. Now, in the past, I might have hung on to books I didn't love only because I'd followed some of their storylines and characters for years and years. I had a fondness and attachment for them that drove me to stick with the DCU through good times and bad. But now that there is a relatively clean slate - again, I am much more laser-focused on quality. Books that kick ass on a monthly basis - the standouts like Swamp Thing, Animal Man, and Batman - I'm in like Flynn. But a vast majority of the rest of the books - that have run the gamut from mediocre to just okay - I find myself eager to drop. Certainly, my wallet will thank me for not spending money on books that I only sort-of enjoy.

That said, the generally sorry state of mainstream superhero comics had me sort of down on the whole medium for a while. I used to get excited for the big new storylines and shake-ups, for the new creator changes and new spin-off titles. But now, I was feeling a double-whammy of comics doldrums. One, I wasn't liking a lot of the mainstream stuff I was reading, and two, I didn't have much of an attachment to the books as a whole. Where once I would have been outraged that these books weren't up to par, now ... I just felt kind of "meh" about the whole thing - at least they were screwing up "new" versions of the characters, and not the versions that I grew up with (back in the days before all superheroes were required to wear multi-jointed metallic armor with popped V-collars).

And yet ... in just the last couple of weeks, I have felt pretty re-invigorated as a comics fan. A huge upside to shopping digitally via the Comixology store is that even small indie titles are but one click away. And you never have to worry about books being under-ordered or selling out. And if you get on board a little late, or miss an issue or two - no problem, and no need to hunt down hard-to-find back issues. Combine the convenience of digital with an influx of new, slightly-out-of-the-mainstream books that have come out of the gate firing on all cylinders, and hey, all of a sudden, comics are back. And most of that has nothing to do with superheroes.

And think about it: you've just got a new iPad or Kindle Fire - what better to get you hooked on the wonderful world of comics than a brand-spankin' new series with no baggage or prior knowledge required. So ... what new books should you be reading? Here are five books that are for adults, that are new and different, and that seem off to a cracklin' start:

1.) SAGA

- Several years ago, writer Brian K. Vaughan changed comics forever with his seminal series Y: THE LAST MAN. A funny, moving, thought-provoking story for the ages, Y instantly established BKV as the new king-of-the-hill in terms of comics scribes. Vaughan followed up Y with the similarly-great political thriller Ex Machina, as well as a couple of one-off projects like the amazing graphic novel Pride of Baghdad. But then, BKV left to write for LOST, and years went by without any new comics from the man who helped give new life to the industry. But now, the best is back - with a new ongoing comic called Saga that looks to be vintage Vaughan. Issue #1 came out last month, with #2 set to be released this week. It's hard to know what to make of Saga so far, except that it has all kinds of potential to be awesome. It's Star Wars meets Romeo & Juliet meets Y: The Last Man. It's a sprawling sci-fi outer space epic filled with weird alien races, and political struggles to rival Game of Thrones. But most of all, it's jam-packed with BKV's knack for humanistic, relatable characters (even in crazy settings), and his trademark ear for great dialogue. SAGA is just getting started, but it's already clear that this book is destined for greatness.


- I really dug the just-released first issue of this Vertigo-published horror-mystery. It takes place in an alternate history where Edwardian London has been ravaged by a zombie apocalypse. To help quell the death and destruction, once-secretive vampires have come out into the open, offering to change people into the undead so as to be resistant to the zombies. The result - a crazy alt-history where zombies and vampires are at war! And, in the center of all this, a vampire detective investigates something that this undead era hasn't seen in years - a bonafide murder. Great writing, cool world-building, sleek art - this is one that has some promise.


- From crime-writer extraordinaire Ed Brubaker, and his frequent partner-in-crime, moody artist Sean Phillips, comes a brand new noir series that, so far, is pretty badass. The twisting plot is still unfolding, but after four issues, I'm really intrigued. Basically, a hard-boiled 1930's-era detective is wrapped up in an occult mystery, involving evil supernatural mob-bosses, Lovecraftian monsters, and a beautiful / immortal femme fatale named Josephine. To say more would be spoiling, but I will say that this book oozes atmosphere.


- The first issue of this series just came out a few weeks back, but I'm already dyin' to know where the story can possibly go. Basically, this is another alt-history book, that ponders what would have happened if The Manhattan Project *wasn't* just a place where the atomic bomb was developed, but a crazy mad-science factory where all sorts of insane stuff was going on? What if Albert Einstein and Oppenheimer were working on dozens if not hundreds of crazy projects back in the day, few if any of which were ever actually revealed to the public. It's a great premise, and the first issue of the series - penned by Jonathan Hickman - has a particularly killer twist to boot.


- From Paul Cornell, who's made some big waves the last few years at DC, this is another new Vertigo series with a great premise. In the American Southwest, Senator Arcadia Alvarado is about to launch her presidential campaign. She seems to have some momentum on her side and grassroots support. But the stress of the campaign isn't the only thing on her mind - as it turns out, Alvarado is also a multiple-time alien abductee - and she has strong suspicions that a full-scale invasion is imminent. I really dug the first issue of Saucer Country's X-Files meets West Wing vibe, and am really curious to give this one a shot and see where it goes from here.

- So there you have it. Some great new books, all with the potential to be the next big thing. Of course, there are some other amazing books out there that you should try out: Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Sweet Tooth, The Walking Dead, Invincible, and Fables are just a couple that I highly recommend. So get to buying. Or downloading. It's a brave new world out there.

Monday, April 02, 2012

WRATH OF THE TITANS: Thunderbolt of Lightning, Or Very Very Frightening?


- Clash of the Titans had potential. It had a couple of nice action scenes, a decent cast (with many of the best actors relegated to bit parts), and a fun canvass of Greek myth on which to play. So I was hopeful that the sequel, WRATH OF THE TITANS, would be able to realize the potential squandered by its predecessor. To some extent, this second film in the franchise is a clear improvement. The Greek gods - played by titans like Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, and Ralph Fiennes - are given much more screentime. The battles are bigger and better, and the F/X even more eye-popping. The result is a perfectly fun popcorn flick that, like the first one, can be pretty dumb and nonsensical, but, more so than Clash, it can also be quite the spectacle.

WRATH picks up several years after the end of Clash. Perseus (Sam Worthington) is known throughout Greece as a hero after his previous adventures (whenever people see him, they make reference to the first film's "release the Kraken!" line). But Perseus has chosen not to live the life of a hero or a demi-god, but instead the simple life of a fisherman - raising his son Helius in quiet surroundings with a normal life. Helius, of course, dreams of being a hero like his father and wishes for adventure. Soon, he gets his wish. The god of thunder, Zeus, comes to visit his son Perseus, explaining that the gods' power is vastly weakened. Now that the people no longer pray to the gods, the gods are becoming mortal. Zeus is cool with that, but there's a problem: as the gods lose their power, the various magical spells they've cast over the years also begin to evaporate. Chief among them is the prison they've fashioned for the father of the gods, Kronos. Kronos is slowly becoming free, and already his armies of demon-creatures are laying waste to various lands. If Kronos himself is loosed, then it's goodnight Irene. Zeus thinks that if the gods ban together, with the help of Perseus they can stop Kronos. But as it turns out, a bunch of the gods - like Ares, god of war - have sided with Kronos. So yeah, Perseus has some serious odds to overcome if he wants to prevent oblivion.

That's the short version of the plot. In the film, the story comes off as complicated and convoluted as hell - and it's often tough to keep track of where Perseus is going and why. The whole film plays out with a videogame-esque fetch quest logic that may have made sense on paper, but can be very tough to decipher amidst the film's soap-opera theatrics and bombastic action scenes. At some point, you just have to stop thinking too hard about the plot and let yourself get wrapped up in the visual pyrotechnics. That said, this is not exactly a great script, and a lot of the dialogue does indeed land with a thud. In particular, a good deal of the "snappy" one-liners and zingers are super groan-worthy. And there is some real cheesiness that threatens to undermine any sort of gravitas that the movie wants to convey.

And so, a lot of responsibility for selling the convoluted and at times clunky script rests on the shoulders of the cast. Certainly, some pull it off better than others. The old pros like Danny Huston (Poseidon), Neeson (Zeus), Fiennes (Hades), and Nighy (Hephaestus) do a fantastic job, each of them capturing perfectly the pulpy-yet-weighty tone that the movie is going for. Guys like Neeson and Nighy deliver some of the film's best and most kickass moments. In fact, things really kick into high gear during the film's climax when Zeus and Hades finally get to kick ass with their god powers. "Let's have some fun!" intones Neeson. And indeed, we do. I'll also say again that Nighy is a blast as Hephaestus, playing the part of crazy old loon with pitch-perfect zaniness.

On the other hand, Sam Worthington's Perseus is still a bit of a wet blanket. He's decent, but just doesn't have quite the iconic feel of his more experienced supporting cast. Perseus is stuck with a lot of the film's clunkiest dialogue, so it's not all on Worthington - but still. Tony Kebbell is also pretty cheesy as the comic-relief sidekick, Agenor. He's got a couple of funny bits, but they are far outnumbered by eye-roll inducing moments. I also thought that Edgar Ramirez was a bit of a weak link among the gods as Ares. As one of the film's primary villains, I would have liked to see a little more flash and style for the god of war. As is, he feels a bit generic. Rosamund Pike is pretty good as warrior-queen Andromeda, though she only gets a couple of real moments to shine.

I am a big fan of Clash director Louis Leterrier, but Wrath director Jonathan Liebsman benefits from having a slightly better script to work with - with more and bigger action and more of a focus on the great actors like Neeson. Liebsman's action direction can be a bit choppy at time, but I give him credit - he stages some hugely ambitious battles, many of which are sprinkled with some damn cool imagery. I mean, how can you not geek out a bit for stuff like Perseus, perched atop a winged Pegasus, hurtling through the sky into the mouth of the giant, rampaging uber-god Kronos? There are several of those kewl moments scattered throughout Wrath, though Liebsman pulls off some of the st-pieces better than others. On one hand, a battle with a gang of angry cyclops is admittedly pretty awesome. On the other hand, Perseus' confrontation with the legendary minotaur is only okay, and nowhere near as good as Tarsem Singh's version in his recent Greek-myth-flick Immortals.

I will say, this film - much like Clash and also Immortals - takes a huge page visually from the videogame series God of War. Certain visual elements of the film feel totally lifted from GoW. On one hand, I love GoW so you may as well rip from the best. On the other hand, as with many films that borrow their aesthetics and pacing from videogames, you sometimes wonder if you'd be better off playing than watching - you know? Clash has the level-to-level, location-to-location jumpiness of a Playstation game, which proves a little less effective in a narratively-driven movie than in a game where the story serves the play mechanics. To that end, Wrath can feel convoluted and hollow, even if it does have a decent number of very fun-looking action scenes and suitably epic visuals.

No doubt, Wrath takes a while to pick up the pace, and the first half of the film can be a chore to get through at times. But, where I think Wrath does sort of come through in the homestretch is in the fact that, not only is it's climactic battle pretty sweet, but some of the father-and-son themes that had been slowly but surely building over the course of the film actually have a nice payoff. There's a surprisingly strong thematic thread here about father and son legacy, and hey, I'll admit it - there are some pretty great little moments towards the end of the film with Perseus and Helius.

Wrath of the Titans can often feel like cinematic junkfood, but it's solid blockbuster fun that overcomes clunky dialogue and a totally convoluted plot by delivering cool creatures, big battles, and a much-needed injection of gravitas from a couple of veteran thespian badasses. Not a great film, but a perfectly serviceable Saturday matinee.

My Grade: B

THE RAID is Action Movie Awesomeness of the Highest Order!


- There are badass movies, and then there are BADASS movies. And my friends, THE RAID falls squarely into the latter category. If you are a fan of kickass action movies, run to the nearest theater playing this as soon as humanly possible, and prepare thyself for ownage of the highest order. Because The Raid is, quite simply, an instant action-classic. It will blow your mind and fill your neural pathways with awesome-overload. I mean - damn! - this is how it's done.

The genius of The Raid is how it takes a simple yet instantly-digestible premise and just milks it for all it's worth. The underlying idea is this: a ruthless crime-lord, Tama, has, for a long time, been untouchable by the law. Holed up in a high-rise tenement building that he uses as his base, the crime boss offers the highly-secured building as a shelter for any criminals looking to escape the law. In return, he asks only for loyalty. Thanks to shady dealings with the cops and a general sense that he's too powerful to take down, Tama has reigned unchallenged over the city's underworld. But now, a SWAT team has been charged with infiltrating the compound. Their mission is to storm the building and secure it floor by floor. Ultimately, they are charged with taking Tama and his top lieutenants down once and for all. At first, the mission is meant to be carried out covertly. But soon, things go wrong, and Tama is tipped off to the SWAT team's presence. He summons all of his men to take out the SWAT team. And thus ensues total #%&$'ing carnage.

The film is like a master class in action-movie plotting 101. The lead characters are plainly drawn in quick scenes that establish their role in the story. On the SWAT team, the key players are quickly set-up: there's Rama - a highly-skilled rookie cop who just wants to get home to his preganant wife, Jaka - the by-the-book captain of the squad, and Wahyu - the shady, silver-haired veteran who may or may not be in Tama's pocket. Tama's right-hand men are similarly, simply, established. Andi is his trusted adviser - though he has a surprise connection to a member of the SWAT team. And Mad Dog is his enforcer - a sadistic martial arts master who insists on only using his hands to kill his opponents. Tama himself is a classic bad-guy - he oozes venom and is just gleefully evil.

Essentially, what we've got here is a story and characters that work perfectly with what Welsh director Gareth Evans is going for: total badassery. And I can't say enough about how much each of the actors - both the leads, and the army of extras who contribute to the fight scenes -impress with their combination of charisma, martial arts and athletic skill, and sheer sense of showmanship. This is one of those films where you just sit back and watch in amazement. How were these fights choreographed? How much was improvisational from the actors, and how much was plotted out in advance? How did Evans capture the lightning-quick martial arts moves, gun battles, and acrobatics of the performers? And how did he manage to make the action so bone-crunching and yet so transcendentally cinematic - especially given the clear yet never truly limiting budgetary constraints? One thing I'll point out here: THE RAID has some of the greatest martial arts battles I've EVER seen on film. And yet, this isn't *just* a martial arts movie. It's got everything: gun battles, shoot-outs, covert attacks, and yes: absolutely insane hand-to-hand fights that go places that no movie has gone before. Just when you think the film can't top itself ... it does. And if you're a jaded action movie fan who thinks they've seen it all: think again. Suffice it to say, there's a legitimate "holy $#%&!" moment every couple of minutes in this one.

I'll give special shout-outs to two actor/performers in particular who are just plain sick. One is Iko Uwais as our young hero Rama. This guy is phenomenal - an excellent actor and an off-the-chain martial artist. Uwais seriously may have what it takes to be a legend if given the right film parts. He's that damn good. Meanwhile, Yayan Ruhian as Mad Dog ... my god. This guy is perfect as a take-no-prisoners bad guy - he's lean, mean, and just ridiculously incredible at kicking ass and doing so with style. All I can say is that one of the film's climactic battles - a three-way fight between Rama, Mad Dog, and a third participant that I won't spoil - is one of the single greatest showdowns I've ever seen in a movie, and will be etched into the cannon of awesome action-movie moments forever and for all time.

And by the way, there's also a pretty great, Carpenter-esque synth soundtrack that adds a lot to the movie. Good stuff ... sure to get yer' blood pumping.

No, there isn't much to THE RAID beyond its videogame-like structure and mind-melting action. And for that reason you have to wonder if it can truly be called "great." I will just say that this is an instant classic within its genre. If you want deep character arcs or multilayered emotional journeys ... look elsewhere.

Sony is apparently already at work on an American remake of The Raid, and I have to question why. There's simply no way a remake could even come close to topping this. The only way to do it would be to forego the martial arts and just make a badass - but more traditional - action movie with the same or similar premise. But still ... do NOT wait for a remake here. The Raid may be Indonesian, but it speaks the universal language of ABSOLUTE OWNAGE. There are things here you've never seen or dreamed of before. You will go in a boy, come out a man. Because yes, this will be a movie spoken about for years to come in hushed, reverent whispers. So see it now. That is, if you've got the cajones.

My Grade: A-