Saturday, June 6, 2009

In Theaters: "The Hangover"

Todd Phillips’ The Hangover sets up a premise rife with comic possibilities, and damned if they don’t exploit just about every single one of them. It’s a ridiculously funny movie, yes—laughs from end to end, with so many good lines that even the day players get some. But it’s also a skillful picture, blessed with an ingeniously constructed narrative that keeps the viewer involved while taking full advantage of its gifted cast and their specific comedic mojo.

Doug (Justin Bartha from those horrible National Treasure movies) is about to be married, so he zips off for a Vegas bachelor party with his best buddies Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Stu (Ed Helms). He also brings along his fiancé’s brother, the odd (and frequently pantsless) Alan (Zach Galifianakis), for the ride. The quartet checks into Caesar’s Palace (after a funny bit where Alan inquires if it was “the real” Ceasar’s Palace—“Did Caesar live here?”) and go up to the roof for toasts and Jaeger shots. Twelve hours later, they wake up in their trashed suite, in various states of nausea and undress; there’s a chicken on the bar, a baby in the closet, a tiger in the bathroom, and Stu is missing a tooth. Oh, and Doug is gone.

The remaining three men spend the next day and a half trying to piece together exactly what the hell happened during their long blackout, and this is where Jon Lucas and Scott Moore’s beautifully constructed screenplay really shines; instead of a blow-by-blow orgy of decadence, a la Very Bad Things, it’s laid out like a murder mystery. They empty out their pockets to try to piece together exactly what happened when, and as they follow those “clues,” it seems like the more they find out, the less they know. That central mystery, and their genuine concern for the well-being of their friend, gives the film a kind of frantic momentum that is missing from most comedies these days, even the good ones (like the charmingly shambling movies from the Apatow factory).

The casting is particularly good here; the three primary actors have terrific chemistry and play well off each other in unique ways. Cooper appears to be having a great time turning his earnest, nice-guy image on its head (to far greater effect than in his over-the-top villainous turn in Wedding Crashers). He’s playing the most conventional character of the three, but it’s not a simple “straight man” turn; he’s reactively funny, in much the way Vince Vaughn was in Phillips’ Old School. Helms charms in a performance that burrows deeper than the character’s preppy, henpecked surface—he lets you see the party guy that lurks below, so you believe that he really would be friends with these guys (one problem with movies about old friends is that they frequently deal with such one-dimensional types, you can’t understand what these people ever had in common). His manic takes and elaborate lies to his emasculating girlfriend are funny, and his impromptu piano tune is a highlight.

But Galifianakis is the break-out star, which is as it should be; he’s been given the kind of role that you can’t help but steal the movie with. As a diehard fan of his gonzo stand-up work, I’ve been saying for years that Galifianakis is the closest thing to Andy Kaufman we’re gonna see in this decade; he’s now got one up on his most clear influence, because Kaufman never made a movie worth a damn. Alan’s odd demeanor and occasional non-sequiturs are reminiscent of his stand-up persona, but this is a unique and successful comic creation. Alan is just a little slow, and has an innocence about him, but he’s also clearly up for anything—it’s the kind of wide-eyed, mischievous man-child role that Belushi used to do so well. He’s never off his game in The Hangover; even when he’s not the focus of the scene, you’re watching him react to whatever else is happening.

The rest of the cast is filled out with some solid, sturdy utility players. Jeffrey Tambor’s presence is always welcome, it’s nice to see Heather Graham (albeit briefly) in a movie that’s premiering in theaters instead of on DVD, and Rob Riggle (from The Daily Show) and Cleo King (“Marcie” from Magnolia) have a very funny bit as the cops whose car has somehow ended up in the boys’ possession. Hell, even the detestable Mike Epps gets a couple of laughs and appears briefly enough to keep from doing any real damage.

Phillips continues to immodestly begin his films with the title card “A Todd Phillips Movie” (as opposed to “film”), but his directing has become more confident (even after the misstep of School for Scoundrels). He does a terrific fake-out in the opening credits, starting with a snappy cover of “It’s Now or Never” and credits rendered in a flowy, faux-wedding invite font, then switching to foreboding shots of the Vegas skyline and the grim music of Danzig. He doesn’t let fancy camerawork get in the way of the jokes, but the film is inventively shot (I especially liked the overnight transition that covers the activity we don’t see).

This is not to say that he doesn’t occasionally stumble. There is one sequence that doesn’t work at all, in which the guys question a doctor who treated Cooper during a hospital visit during their lost evening; the doctor inexplicably chats with the three guys (and the baby) as he performs a full (and I mean full) physical on a dumpy old man. We buy a lot of stretched premises in this movie, but I’m sorry, there’s no reason in the world for this guy to let three strangers sit in on his physical, except so Phillips can get a cheap, mean laugh by showing us this poor old dude’s bloated, wrinkly ass. This movie is better than that scene.

There are other bits here and there that don’t quite work, but even taking those into account, there’s an astonishing batting average of successful jokes in The Hangover—and I haven’t even mentioned Mike Tyson, or the Rain Man parody, or the tiny naked Asian gangster. Just go see it, is the point. It’s tight and fast and clicks along like a good watch—and it’s funny as hell.

"The Hangover" is currently in theaters.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Cassavetes: "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie"

Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie had an odd journey to the screen (and beyond). It was originally released in 1976 at a length (135 minutes) that even star Ben Gazarra thought was bloated; it tanked, as did his follow-up the following year, Opening Night. But Cassavetes got reflective in 1978 and went back to the well, re-cutting Chinese Bookie to a leaner 108 minutes. It was reportedly the kind of full-on re-working (he re-edited entire sequences, changed the order of scenes, and even added in some material that wasn’t in the first cut) that became commonplace in the years to follow (starting with Spielberg’s Close Encounters). But, as usual, Cassavetes did it first.

As the 1978 version was reportedly his preferred one, I chose to watch it instead of the earlier cut (both are included in Criterion’s Five Films set). It is, in many ways, a tighter and more audience-friendly film than usual for Cassavetes (making its failure all the more confusing). It is, in its broad strokes, a gangster movie, but it’s got the same rough-edged, down-and-dirty aesthetic as Mean Streets (Scorsese was involved in Bookie’s development). Both films are disconnected from the halls of power that dominated The Godfather; these pictures deal with the grinders, the small-timers, the guys who are humping it out on a daily basis.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is one of his most richly atmospheric films; the scenes in the burlesque club that Gazarra manages are depressing but alive, particularly at the picture’s conclusion. The scene in which the title hit is brought up has an incredible naturalism, as does the sequence where it is carried out; there’s something intrinsically odd about a Cassavetes “action sequence,” but the staging is certainly appropriate to his approach.

Gazarra’s performance is fiery and alive; he’s always an efficient actor, but this may be his best work. Cassavetes doesn’t change his style much for the material, but our inherent interest in crime stories sustains those lulls that he likes to indulge in. It’s certainly his most even film; it holds together in a way that some of his other films don’t, for better or worse.

In Theaters: "Up"

Well, Pixar, you’ve done it again. Every year (well, almost every year) the folks at Pixar make an extraordinary film, a movie so smart and sweet and entertaining and challenging that it puts other so-called “family entertainment” to shame. But they don’t just make great kid’s movies—they make great movies, period. Ratatouille was in my top 10 for 2007; Wall-E was my favorite film of 2008. And I haven’t yet seen a better film this year than Up.

Ed Asner, in a perfect marriage of voice actor and role that rivals Peter O’Toole’s turn in Ratatouille, stars as Carl Frederickson, a widower who is watching high-rises and chain restaurants encroach on the charming home he shared with his late wife, Ellie. When it looks as though he’s run out of options, he attaches thousands of balloons to the house and lifts it right off the ground, planning to fulfill he and Ellie’s lifelong dream to live at Paradise Falls in South America. As children, they bonded over their dreams of becoming adventurers, like their hero Charles Muntz (well-voiced by Christopher Plummer); he sees it as the chance to finally have the adventure they always put off.

He picks up a stowaway along the way—Russell (voice of Jordan Nagai), a “wilderness explorer” (why doesn’t the Boy Scouts just let people use the name of the organization in movies, instead of this steady stream of obvious substitutions?) trying to earn a merit badge for assisting the elderly. There’s also a talking dog named Dug, and the marvelous scene where the house takes flight, and a photographic motif that may mark the first time an animated film has paid homage to Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. But the ads have taken (admirably) great pains to keep the story turns a secret, so I’ll leave the plot there and discuss some of the wonderful specifics.

To begin with, it’s funny. There are sequences here with the mechanical inventiveness of a Buster Keaton comedy, not to mention an abundance of laugh lines (Carl lets Russell tag along, but with the understanding that there is to be “no rapping or flash dancing”) with nary a cutesy pop-culture reference in sight. And the business with the talking dogs is brilliant; without giving too much away, I’ll say that the way that they say the things that we’re sure dogs think is sheer perfection (and comedy gold).

And of course—and we must not start taking this for granted in Pixar’s work—the look of the film is breathtaking. The vivid candy colors of that beautiful mound of balloons are a knockout, and the character design is remarkable (particularly for Carl, who is literally square-jawed). The detail work is impeccable as well—look for the slots and tabs on the “cone of shame” that Dug the dog is made to wear. And there are compositions here that are amazing for any film, animated or live-action; witness the astonishing shot in which Carl and the house are seen in silhouette, against a red sunrise… it’s like something out of a John Ford picture.

And I can’t think of a live-action film that has done the kind of brilliantly efficient storytelling found in the film’s opening sequences. The character of Muntz is set-up with the best Movietone news parody since Citizen Kane, and the childhood meeting of Carl and Ellie is charm personified. But the episode that follows—a montage of their entire life together, seen briefly, all in images, and without a word of dialogue—has an elegance and grace seldom seen in film; it’s one of the most beautiful sequences I’ve seen in any picture in recent memory, and I can’t recall ever being so moved by a film so early in its running time.

But that’s what Pixar does; they get away with narrative craftsmanship and thematic maturity that most “grown-up” movies can barely conceive of. At one point, late in the film, I reflected on how I was watching a story about how a little boy (and another old man) has somehow made an old man into a boy again, and what a remarkable accomplishment that kind of character-driven storytelling is. Don’t get me wrong, Up is a good time—its natural progression to a good old-fashioned adventure picture is beautifully executed—but its quiet moments are the ones that will stay with me. What a charming, lovely, wonderful movie.

"Up" is, of course, now playing in theaters all over the damn place.

Today's New In Theaters: 6/5/09

The Hangover: I officially predict huge box office for the latest from Todd Phillips (Old School, Road Trip); Movieline thinks Land of the Lost will beat it out, but I'll bet Hangover pulls through. I'm seeing it Saturday and can't wait; nothing would make me happier than to see Zach Galifianakis become the next Belushi, as Ebert predicts in his glowing review.

Land of the Lost: There's plenty of talent on-board, but this summer "family" movie feels thrown together out of spare parts and duct tape.

Away We Go: Looking forward to Sam Mendes' quick (and seemingly polar opposite) follow-up to Revolutionary Road; Dave Eggars' name on the screenplay--and a cast of solid character actors--is a further push. AV Club gives it a solid B+.

My Life in Ruins: Oh, goody, it's a big comeback for Nia Whatever-her-name-is-- the woman who made that Greek wedding movie that I never saw. The trailers for this one, though, make me want to stab myself in the eye. Orndorf has a good pan up at DVD Talk.

Pressure Cooker: It reportedly hits L.A. this weekend, and seriously, don't fucking miss it.

In Theaters: "Land of the Lost"

There’s an rushed, thrown-together quality about Brad Silberling’s Land of the Lost; it feels, particularly in its opening sequences, incomplete and hurried, as if scenes were re-written on the spot and tossed out by the handful in post. This is based purely on instinct, which could be way off, but the point is, it has that feeling about it: that they took a known quantity (in this case, the cult 70s TV series), threw in a big-star (Will Ferrell), set a summer release date, and pushed to make that date. In those sorts of situations, the script is the least of anyone’s concerns, and as a result, Land of the Lost feels like what it is: a filmed deal.

Which is not to say there aren’t some laughs in it. Most of them come courtesy of Danny McBride, who pretty much steals the picture. I was no big fan of his breakthrough film, The Foot Fist Way (director Jody Hill hadn’t yet figured out how to nail down his particular tone—a problem fixed by the time he made Observe and Report), but McBride was in fine form in Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express, and he’s funny as hell here, even when he has to do most of the heavy lifting. Ferrell, on the other hand, gives a markedly half-assed performance—he’s proven he can create a character, both in over-the-top comedies like Anchorman and Stepbrothers and more serious stuff like Stranger than Fiction, but he doesn’t bother to craft one here. His Dr. Rick Marshall is little more than an amalgamation of his other dumb blowhard characters, a variation on what is becoming a tiresomely familiar schtick. He gets laughs too, yes, but he sure doesn’t seem to be trying all that hard to entertain us a new or interesting way.

Oh yeah, the plot. Dr. Marshall is a once-respected scientist who has become a laughingstock, both for his far-fetched theories and a Today show appearance in which he’s ridiculed for them (by a surprisingly game Matt Lauer). In his misery, he is approached by Holly Cantrell (the lovely Anna Friel of Pushing Daisies), who has studied and idolized his work, and brings him possible proof of his validity. To investigate, they go on a “routine expedition” in a chintzy faux-attraction run by Will (McBride), a good-ol’-boy fireworks salesman. While they’re there, they’re sucked into some kind of a vortex that throws them into a land of dinosaurs, lizard people, and other strange creatures, so they must find their way back, and so on.

The screenplay, by TV writers Chris Henchy and Dennis McNicholas, isn’t terribly nimble; the laugh lines are almost exclusively the throwaways and toss-offs, most of which feel like Ferrell and McBride improvisations. The constructed comic sequences (like Marshall’s dance through the dinosaur eggs) and running jokes (like a tiresome bit about his love for A Chorus Line) fall hopelessly flat. When it’s light and off-the-cuff, when its comic stars are having fun (as when McBride, and latter Ferrell, are riffing on their discovery of a giant glass object), it has a quality akin to the Hope and Crosby pictures, but you can’t always count on the inspiration of improvisation—the exclamation “William Shatner’s nipples,” for example, is no way to end a scene, scripted or not.

More distressing are Brad Silberling’s odd stylistic choices. Silberling is a talented director, on canvasses small (Moonlight Mile) and big (the underrated Lemony Snicket movie, which I found more entertaining and tighter-paced than all of the Harry Potter films, save Alfonso Cuarón’s), but the look of the film is all over the place. There’s a strangely chintzy, back-lot quality to the sets (the 1.85:1 framing feels cluttered and claustrophobic, like the seams of the sets would show if they moved the camera back enough to really block the scenes) and especially the costumes—the lizard people and monkey people look like they stepped out of a shabby Corman picture. I had finally decided that they must have been doing a deliberate homage to the low-budget look of the original series, but then the dinosaurs show up, and they’re all as sleek and CG-enhanced as a Jurassic sequel, so what the hell? Which is it? The incongruity is, frankly, a little maddening.

There are other moments of sloppy filmmaking—some of the edits are simply ghastly. In one scene, Marshall and Will must rescue Holly from a cage protected by eight or so lizard men; they dispatch (by my count) three of them, and then they’re all gone. Do they think we’re not paying attention? In an earlier scene, Mashall is nearly drained dry by a blood-sucking insect, but Will and Holly’s non-reactive cutaways don’t make any sense. And speaking of nonsense, what’s with all the boob-grabbing and tacky drug jokes? Isn’t this ostensibly a kids movie?

Land of the Lost has its pleasures—McBride’s energetic performance, the always-charming Friel in small outfits—but it’s ultimately a mess. It’s too schlocky and too adult-minded in its humor for the family audience, but too dumb in its broad strokes for grown-ups. I’m not sure exactly who it’s for, in fact, but whoever they are, they can surely wait for DVD to see it.

"Land of the Lost" is in theaters today.

Oh, and by the way, 100th post. Yay, me.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Trailer: "It Might Get Loud"

My music geekdom is dwarfed by my film geekdown, but imagine my glee at a movie like this one, which appears to merge them into a glorious geek-out. U2 is my favorite working band, Jack White is one of my favorite working musicians, and the Yardbirds and Led Zep are among my favorite bands of the past, so a documentary of White, Jimmy Page, and the Edge hanging out, talking and making music, sounds like a pretty good goddamn time to me.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Backfilling: "Cars"

Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.

I'm planning to see Up in the next day or two, and realized that I still hadn't gotten around to watching Pixar's 2006 effort, Cars. This one just kind of slid by me at the time (it was a busy summer, as we were getting ready to uproot from the Midwest and move to NYC); shortly after buying my Blu-ray player, I'd heard that this was a demo-quality disc, so I grabbed it and put it on the shelf. This afternoon, I pulled it off that shelf and gave it a spin.

In all frankness, it's a bit of a disappointment, certainly in comparison with the Pixar pictures that preceded and followed it. It sounds great and looks amazing, but it’s a little short on charm (again, comparatively speaking). Pixar is apparently not so good at the redemption tales; for the first and (so far) only time, we have a main character who is genuinely unlikable, but the movie doesn’t really find its soul until he does, around the 80-minute mark.

There’s good stuff along the way—like the gentle, evocative Route 66 sequence and the wonderful voice work by Paul Newman and George Carlin, both making their final film appearances. On the other hand, Cars has more Larry the Cable Guy than any movie has any right to, and he even trots out his tiresome catchphrases, surely to break up all the NASCAR dads in the crowd. Cars is a harmless enough movie, but it’s Pixar’s only picture so far that doesn’t transcend its roots; it’s no better than your average family movie.  

Cassavetes: "A Woman Under the Influence"

Is there a more frustrating filmmaker than John Cassavetes? A Woman Under the Influence is his third film that I've seen in as many weeks, and sitting through them is often a grueling experience-- my mind wanders, I'm checking email, etc. Scenes drag and people babble and I'm not engaged, and then BLAM! Something extraordinary happens, a scene explodes, a performance pulls into sharp focus, a line of dialogue pierces the film, and I'm back with it. Was this by design, or do I just have too short of an attention span?

It happens several times in A Woman Under the Influence, which is arguably his best-known and best-regarded film. It's overlong (two and a half hours) and self-indulgent, even by Cassavetes' standards; it was literally a home movie, shot in the house he shared with co-star Gena Rowlands, with their kids playing Rowlands and Peter Falk's offspring. And it slogs through many endless scenes, but then, just when you're about to give up--they get you.

There's the famous "spaghetti scene," in which Falk brings his construction crew home for an early morning spaghetti dinner, and as they sit around the table and joke and jeer and sing, it turns into a variation on that endless "bar song" sequence in Husbands, but then she gets just a little too pushy, and Falk loses it, and you can't take your eyes off the screen. It's a terrific moment, and their fight that follows feels so real and unforced that you almost can't watch.

So what's happening here? During A Woman, I finally figured it out. Cassavetes doesn't take anything out. Other movies abbreviate or remove the long climb that leads to those kind of emotional moments; they just give us the high points. Cassavetes leaves it all in. Does that make him a better or a worse filmmaker? That, I'm not sure of. It certainly makes him distinctive, and there's no question that these films are involving.

Plus, the performances are dynamite. Rowlands' work here is noted as one of the great movie turns of the 1970s, and she is just magnificent, but Falk is pretty remarkable too. It's also got more happening visually than some of Cassavetes' other pictures; there's that amazing image of him, falling apart in the back of that truck, sharing a beer with his kids, and the quick, hard scene where he pulls her away from her homecoming party and they speak sharply in silhouette (“Just be yourself! To hell with them!”) is just right. The movie has been leading up to everything that follows, and Cassavetes (and Rowlands and Falk) don’t drop the ball; their dialogue and interaction at the very end of the film couldn’t be more perfect. A Woman Under the Influence is not an easy film to get through, but it’s got its rewards.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

On DVD: "Stealing Lincoln's Body"

The History Channel documentary Stealing Lincoln’s Body is a fascinating and detailed examination of the strange journey taken by the remains of our 16th president. It revels in minutiae, not just of the odd body-snatching scheme in the title, but the peculiar methods by which Lincoln’s body was stashed after that misadventure.

The film presumes that anyone interested enough to give it a look doesn’t need to know much about who Lincoln was and what he did, so the narrative leaps right in; we begin on April 14, 1865, the night of his assassination, and go from there. But from that point on, no detail is too small to warrant a mention. We follow Lincoln to the Peterson house across the street, where he died nine hours later; we then accompany his remains to an odd autopsy, through an early embalming process, to several funeral processions, and, after a long debate between federal and state officials and the widow Lincoln over the location of his final resting place, to the grave. In many ways, this first section is just as interesting as the intrigue that follows; the intricacies of exactly how an assassinated President’s remains were handled that time are peculiar and compelling. It is also bolstered by some amazing photographs; the filmmakers use digital technology to push in, clear up, and isolate details, all to good effect.

“He rested peacefully for only about two years,” the narration informs us, and then the plot thickened—Chicago counterfeiters and “other lower elements” worked up a scheme to steal Lincoln’s remains and hold them ransom until a fellow counterfeiter was released from prison. The plot is laid out with the attentiveness to detail of a heist picture, even though the scheme was ultimately silly; in the words of one of the interviewed historians, “This was not one of the best-laid plans.” But the entire section is well-written, a fine step-by-step reconstruction of exactly how it worked and what happened when, complete with the fine reveal of an honest-to-goodness “plot twist.”

The story is told mostly by historians, with the help of the Lincoln Tomb’s current site manager and the curator of the Lincoln Presidential Library. The primary contributor is Thomas J. Craughwell, who wrote a book that shares the documentary’s title; he’s interesting and captivating, as most of the interview subjects are. Unfortunately, many of the interviews are marred by obtrusive and tiresome push-ins that appear to be someone’s attempt to shoot talking heads stylishly.

Since the bulk of the action takes place in the latter part of the 19th century, there obviously is not a lot of archival footage to draw from; as History is wont to do, they instead use reenactments. These are a tricky business, and the low budget of those clips sometimes shows. But most are pretty skillfully done, and helped along considerably by the tense, effective score by Joel Goodman. The only other serious problem with the film is a necessary evil of a television production—because it’s built for commercial breaks, and the viewers that might be joining after one, there is frequent “catch-up” narration that repeats information we just heard. The film also utilizes some peculiar CGI effects to “animate” recreated footage of the late president from still photos; the opening text boasts that for the first time, “Lincoln walks and moves according to the historic record” (whatever the hell that means), but the resulting footage is unconvincing, reminiscent of that Sopranos episode they tried to CG Nancy Marchand into after she died.

Stealing Lincoln’s Body gets the tone just right; it respects this strange story, but also has a sense of humor about its peculiarity (“The plan had one thing going for it,” the narrator intones. “Body-snatching was not really all that illegal”). The mood is ultimately a somber one, however; the desecration and slipshod handling of Lincoln’s body were a shameful final chapter in the life of a man who died too soon.

Stealing Lincoln’s Body is a thorough, well-researched, and involving examination of an odd but interesting footnote. It is somewhat hampered by the structural and stylistic requirements of its cable TV production, but it’s still well worth picking up for a unique look at a seldom-told story.

"Stealing Lincoln's Body" is currently available on DVD.

Today's New DVDs- 6/2/09

Here's some of the notable titles hitting DVD and Blu today:

He's Just Not That Into You: So here's an awesome rental... if you hate yourself.

Defiance: Edward Zwick's WWII action epic has some good sequences but a hollow center; it's worth a rent, but that's about it.

Revolutionary Road: I've read everything from best-of-the-year praise to fierce pans of Sam Mendes' portrait of a marriage on the edge; I was kind of in the middle on it. Like Mendes' previous picture, Jarhead, I was impressed with the technique but failed to be emotionally engaged the way I was by his American Beauty or Road to Perdition.

Spring Breakdown: Sometimes a good movie will slip through the cracks and go straight to DVD, and you'll wonder why. More often than not, though, it's easy to see why a movie went straight into the home market, and unfortunately, this goofy girl comedy (with a talented cast that includes Amy Poehler, Parker Posey, and Jane Lynch) doesn't bring the funny.

Eddie Murphy: Delirious- 25th Anniversary Edition: This was Eddie's finest hour as a stand-up comic, and it's worth revisiting on the eve of (shudder) Imagine That, as yet one more reminder of how the mighty have fallen.

Out of Time: Carl Franklin's 2003 suspense thriller didn't scare up much business (in spite of the presence of Denzel Washington in the leading role), and most critics missed the boat entirely (though a couple latched on). It's out on Blu-ray this week and due for a fresh look; it's a sleek, crackerjack thriller that's full of kicks.

Anaconda: Also new on Blu this week: one of the great bad movies of all time.

Fletch: And the greatest movie Chevy Chase ever made hits high-def as well. I already bought this twice, so I probably won't be springing again, but let me tell you one thing: there are few things in this world I would rather do than watch Fletch. Period.

On DVD: "Friday the 13th" (2009)

Marcus Nispel’s new Friday the 13th isn’t so much a remake, or even a (buzzword warning) “reboot”; it’s more like a remix, grabbing and sampling and recycling bits and pieces from the first four Friday movies (1980-1984), smoothing out the rough edges, populating it with pretty people and slicking it up into a 2009 “product.” It does its job, efficiently and effectively, but it doesn’t do much to convince the viewer of its own need to exist.

The structure of the screenplay, by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift (whose script for Freddy Vs. Jason helped drive a six-year stake into the series), is just plain odd. It begins with an opening credit sequence on June 13, 1980, which is basically a recreation of the ending of the original Friday the 13th—Mrs. Vorhees, who has murdered several camp counselors (off-screen and before this film begins), is decapitated by the last living counselor, though in this version, young Jason looks on from the bushes. We then jump ahead to “the present,” as five young potheads go camping in the woods nearby, looking for a stash of weed; after Jason goes to work on them, we then see the title—at the 24-minute mark, so if any of us did notice it was missing from the opening credits, we’ve long since forgotten.

Anyway. We jump ahead a month, where we find Clay Miller (Jared Padelecki, from Gilmore Girls and Supernatural) looking for his sister Whitney (Amanda Righetti), one of those five campers from the post-credit, pre-title (is that right?) sequence. He crosses path with a group of (mostly) jackass teenagers, led by douchey Trent (Travis Van Winkle), who is bringing his horny, pot-hungry friends up to his parents’ cabin off Crystal Lake. The remainder of the story concerns Clay’s search for his sister, with the help of likable Jenna (Danielle Panabaker), intercut with Jason (Derek Mears) picking off her friends one by one.

I’m not sure exactly why Shannon and Swift abandoned the camp counselor construct that served the original Friday films so well; not to slam too much logic into an unwelcome home, but Jason (and his mother) killing horny counselors at least made sense (sort of), as a pair of copulating teens were to blame for his drowning. Here, Jason appears to just kill anybody who wanders into his field of vision, which begs the question: if Trent’s cabin is close enough to Jason’s turf for him to kill whoever shows up there, why weren’t Trent and his parents killed a long time ago? Seems like that’s a bad piece of real estate, especially in today’s market. “Toxic asset,” indeed.

The picture also includes much of the defiance of logic that we’ve come to expect in a slasher film—people who call out to reveal their location (“Ritchie? Ritchie, stop fuckin’ around!”), a guy who goes out alone to find his missing friend, and yeah, go ahead and reach into that hole in the wall, that’s a good idea. However, they wisely dispense with the notion of the lumbering killer; this Jason is fast, efficient, and crafty. Some of the other changes don’t work; the weed subplot is dopey (pardon the pun), and the film is harshed (haw haw) by a tiresome strain (too much?) of pot humor. Look kids, I know the Apatow movies made some bank, but everyone can’t pull off the pot jokes (they even bring in a JV Seth Rogen for the first sequence); one scene, in which a hillbilly victim smokes some weed and licks a Hustler magazine, is so repulsive, you want to take it out yourself. Shannon and Swift also frequently pull out the lazy screenwriter’s ploy of having characters constantly talking to themselves (I counted three: the aforementioned loathsome hillbilly, pothead “Chewie,” and the punchable Trent, whose external monologue includes the immortal line, “Where are you, gun?”).

I’ll give director Nispel this much, however: he can certainly put a set piece together. I was one of the few people who didn’t loathe his Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake a few years back (it’s not match for the original, of course, but on its own terms, it’s an blunt, atmospheric, serviceable picture), and while his slick, commercially-savvy style negates the grubby, snuff-y, low-budget aesthetic that made the original film so creepy (same goes for the Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left remakes), it has its own advantages. Nispel is skilled at building an atmosphere of dread, even if the payoffs are fairly pedestrian; the kills themselves are frequently more gory than genuinely scary, which was a frequent (and often valid) criticism of the original series.

The dialogue and performances are fairly natural, at least for this kind of movie; Padalecki and Panabaker have a nice chemistry, Van Winkle makes for a thoroughly hateable auxiliary antagonist, and it’s always nice to see Ryan Hansen (from Veronica Mars) getting some work. There is also—and this no small achievement in this age of PG-13 horror—a nice throwback quality to the bad behavior on-screen; it earns its R rating for “strong bloody violence, some graphic sexual content, nudity, language and drug material.” But it’s ultimately a forgettable exercise; much of it is cheeseball (particularly the big line during the last kill, which is a real groaner) and it never transcends or reinvents the clichés of the Dead Teenage Movie. Ultimately, it’s just kind of crassly commercial, an apparently successful attempt to wring some more green out of a long-beaten dead horse.

Friday the 13th is a marginally satisfying slasher film, with enough nods to the original series to satisfy fans and enough atmosphere and shock editing for younger, Hostel-trained audiences. But it never really manages to re-invigorate the material the way that the filmmakers clearly hoped to, and it fails in its attempts to interject humor or humanity. It has its moments, but manages to deliver precious few genuine scares.

"Friday the 13th" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, June 16th.

Monday, June 1, 2009

On DVD: "He's Just Not That Into You"

He’s Just Not That Into You is kind of like an American Love Actually, minus that film’s minimal charms; Love Actually is irritating but tolerable, while He’s Just… is insufferable and revolting. But both buy into the idea that somehow, if you jam every romantic comedy cliché into one overlong movie, the volume somehow outweighs the monotony. It didn’t work before, but Richard Curtis’ clever dialogue and a couple of his character touches made Love Actually, at the very least, watchable. No such luck here.

The film is based on the popular self-help book, which was inspired by a line in an episode of Sex in the City, and that one line may contain everything that you need to know about the movie—if that sounds like something you would enjoy, well, you probably will, and God be with you. And I’ll grant that they’re at least up-front with their intentions; the opening montage immediately sets up the tiresome stereotypes and worn-out concepts that the book trafficked in and the film perpetuates.

The screenplay, by Never Been Kissed scribes Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, illustrates the book’s “insights” with a host of interrelated characters traipsing through familiar paces. There’s no spontaneity to these people; they’re all cardboard types (Desperate Single Girl, Cheating Husband, Girl Who Cheats With Husband, Impatient Girlfriend, Wise Ladies’ Man, etc.) and are written with barely one dimension, while the script shuffles around their subplots to create the illusion of a story moving forward. Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a neurotic single gal who over-analyzes her dates, gets too attached too quickly, and waits by the phone; when the film begins, she’s out on a date with Conor (Kevin Connolly), a real-estate agent who blows her off because he continues to pine for his friend-with-benefits Anna (Scarlett Johansson). Anna’s got the hots for Ben (Bradley Cooper), who certainly reciprocates, but he’s married to Janine (Jennifer Connelly) and is hanging on in spite of the fact that their relationship has grown stale. Janine works with Beth (Jennifer Anison), who has been with her boyfriend Neil (Ben Affleck) for seven years; she goes along with his bohemian notion that they don’t have to be married to love each other, but her resolve begins to crack. Oh, and then there’s Anna’s friend Mary (Drew Barrymore), a magazine ad agent who is trying to keep up with dating technology, and Conor’s buddy Alex (Justin Long), who takes pity on Gigi and offers her blunt but truthful advice to help her get over Conor.

So the cast is full of people we like, and even the smaller, throwaway roles are filled by capable character actors like Luis Guzman and Kris Kristoferson and Busy Phillips. But it is tough, tough work to watch good actors like these struggle with this kind of trite dialogue. Goodwin probably comes off best (and gets the most screen time); she’s ridiculously appealing, and it’s fun to see her and Justin Long (who co-starred on the TV show Ed for several seasons) working together again. In fact, their relationship—the guy who knows the score decoding the jargon and offering up advice to the naïve girl—is the one fresh thing in the picture, though it eventually denigrates into Long’s character spouting the book’s bullshit philosophies.

And here is where we get into trouble. For a film presumably geared towards the female demographic, He’s Just Not That Into You doesn’t seem to like women very much, or at the very least, to respect them. It operates under the narrow-minded notion that all women do is obsess over men and why men aren’t calling them; the women in the film don’t think or talk about anything else. They have no exterior lives, no careers, no hobbies, no ideas—and what’s more, none of them are happy, since they presumably require the unconditional love of a perfect man in order to be happy. But nearly all of the men in the film are presented as perfectly content, at least until the women in their lives start muckety-mucking things up with all their demands. The not-so-subtle underlying message is clear: It takes a man to be happy, and to land one, you have to know all of their tricks—which you can learn, because they’re all exactly the same. This is progress?

What’s more, there’s a depressing homogeny to the entire enterprise; all of the people it focuses on are upper-class, straight, and oh so very white. I counted three black people with speaking roles: two chunky black ladies, telling an “mmm-hmm”-heavy story during one of the film’s ill-advised, When Harry Met Sally rip-off, straight into camera faux-interviews, and “Tyrone,” a mouthy black guy who works for Long and won’t wear the required clothing (he gets about three lines). Oh, and then there are some African tribeswomen in that cutesy opening. Hispanics fare even worse: there’s only the talented Guzman, who gets no funny lines (and this guy can make any line funny) as, no kidding, a construction contractor (there’s a tossed-off line about all of his undocumented workers). The gay characters are all flitty queens whose only function is to give wise and sassy advice to the straight characters (can this convention die already?)—God forbid one of the film’s 47 relationships were a homosexual one. I’m not trying to impose some kind of affirmative action on the picture or anything; merely to add some flavor to a bland, dull movie. Who cares about these rich white people obsessing over minutiae? How’s about they get some real problems?

The stupefying shallowness of the material is disappointing, because there’s not a bad performance in it, although Kevin Connolly gets nothing much to play and Affleck and Barrymore both disappear for long stretches at a time. Jennifer Connolly get the rare opportunity to exhibit her comic timing; she appears to be having fun breaking away for her usual noble/suffering characters (at least until the second hour, when they turn this into another one of them).

Director Ken Kwapis, who has directed some very good television (The Office, Freaks and Geeks) and some very bad films (License To Wed, The Beautician and the Beast), does his best to shoot the film like it’s not the TV sitcom that it is; his camera moves well and his compositions have a nice depth of field (thanks, no doubt, to the participation of expert cinematographer John Bailey), even if he’s somewhat crippled by the odd decision to shoot in 2.35:1 (it’s too big a canvas for this kind of material). But his sense of pacing is lethal, and there’s just no excuse for a romantic comedy to run this long, particularly when the ending is as excruciating as this one—everything works out exactly as expected, with the “bad” people getting what they deserve (being—shudder—alone!) and the good people paired off and happy. It’s about as subtle and nuanced a conclusion as a Garry Marshall picture, and nearly as predictable—you can sit there clicking off the plot points as they’re tidied up, with the help of Cliff Eidelman’s pushy, twinkly, white-bread score. It’s the perfect ending for a perfectly horrible film.

You wouldn’t think that so many talented people could have gotten sucked into a film as shallow, cluttered, and banal as this one. The many familiar faces on the cover and the innocuous advertising might fool you into thinking that this is a harmless, enjoyable rom-com with some laughs and insights. Don’t be fooled. He’s Just Not That Into You is awful.

"He's Just Not That Into You" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, June 2nd.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

On DVD: "Incendiary"

Incendiary is one of those movies that begins with a portrait of parenthood that's so idealized, so bathed in gauzy filters and piano music, that you know the kid's a goner. We see the close and loving relationship of a young mother (Michelle Williams) and her son (Sidney Johnston), as they do their goodnight ritual and take a trip to a glowingly warm beach and engage in some business about his favorite stuffed animal, and if you don't think that item will be back as an improbable and clunky symbol, you haven't seen enough movies. But we're willing to go along with it, because we're savvy moviegoers and we recognize that it's part of the construct--it's like the scene where the renegade cop gets pulled from the case. We also play along because the performances are so strong; the kid is terrific, and Williams, who is finally (thankfully) getting her due as an actress, creates an affable, believable character, and her British accent isn't half bad. In addition, director Sharon Maguire creates a real sense of time and place in these opening sequences. So we go along.

And we stick with it as we find out that, lo and behold, she's stuck in a loveless marriage with a blustery boor (Nicholas Greaves). We get the required scene where she tries to welcome him home after a rough day at work, and he pulls away from her touch, and so on. We have to see how closed-off he is so that we allow her to embark on an affair, you see, because the screenplay isn't complex enough to imagine that people cheat for other reasons; one of the most refreshing things about a movie like Adrian Lyne's Unfaithful was how it gave its heroine a loving, happy marriage and had her cheat anyway. But there I go, getting distracted by thinking about a better film than this one. Anyway, a reporter (Ewan McGregor) picks her up in a pub and they hit it off; their dialogue here is creaky and more than a little forced, but their chemistry is good and their sex scene is plenty hot, so, again, we go along.

Then a bombshell--literally. While Williams and McGregor are screwing away, her husband and son are killed (along with many, many others) in a suicide bombing at a soccer match. So, at the very moment her family is killed, she was betraying them. It's a potent idea with possibilities for real drama, but the sad truth of the matter is, when the dad and the kid die, so does the movie.

Again, it's not Williams' fault. She's convincing as the shell-shocked mom (even if you catch her acting every once in a while), but the movie's second act is deathly dull, a muddled mishmash of psychological drama, mystery, and aborted romance. Incendiary begins as a contrived but nonetheless kicky, good-humored portrait of working class life. Of course the mood changes when the inciting action hits, but boy does it slow the movie down to a crawl. Poor Williams skulks around sadly for a while, and then finally asks, "Do you think it's possible to love someone and betray them at the same time?"

That's the closest the movie gets to driving at what would seem to be its primary dramatic conflict: her inner turmoil about what she did and what it says about her, as a person. Trouble is, Maguire's screenplay (from the novel by Chris Cleave) is willing to examine anything but that. It gives us a colleague of her late husband (Matthew Macfayden) who has the hots for her; Macfayden does his best with his underwritten character, but Olivier couldn't have sold a line like "I will find each piece of your heart that's been blown to smithereens and I will put it back together again." It also tries to weave some kind of a love triangle between her and Macfayden and McGregor, who has (I guess) fallen for her; it also spins, out of that, some kind of a mystery subplot with McGregor uncovering dirty secrets about Macfayden, but that stuff is so sloppily put together and poorly executed, you just kind of scratch your head and move on. Oh, and she forges some kind of weird relationship with the son of one of the suicide bombers, but the less said about that, the better.

In a script full of bad ideas, perhaps the worst are her voice-over narrations; when she's asked about the psychological advice she's received, she sneers that she's been told to write a letter about her pain to Osama bin Laden. Well, that is a ridiculous idea, so of course the movie latches on to it. "Dear Osama," she intones on the soundtrack, and all God help me, I laughed out loud (maybe I was just imagining the resulting book, "Are You There, Osama? It's Me, Margaret").

The film's closing sequence desperately wants to wring tears out of us, but it can't; we're just too passive, if not bored and confused. And the resolution is phony and obvious, featuring not just a tidy (if wince-inducing) wrap-it-all-up, love-conquers-all final voice over to Osama, but a final plot turn that you can see coming a mile off. Here's a hint: there's only two reasons why women ever throw up in the movies, and she's not a drunk.

I can't say this enough times: Don't blame Michelle Williams. She's really quite good in Incendiary, crafting an honest and naturalistic portrayal of a conflicted, distraught young mother. She does the wounded/bitter thing well, and she does some beautiful acting in a sequence late in the film where she imagines her son is still with her. But the script lets her down at every turn; she has a big emotional monologue during her second trip to the hospital, for example, where she's all the way there, and the writing just isn't. Incendiary is more proof that she can carry a movie. It's just a shame that this particular movie is such a forgettable mess.

"Incendiary" is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.