Saturday, August 15, 2009

On DVD: "17 Again"

On the face of it, there’s little to suggest that 17 Again would prove to be anything more than it is—i.e., a tween-pitched riff on the “body-switching” construct that popped up in so many mid-level comedies during the late 1980s. But one name leapt off the poster: Burr Steers. This is the writer/director who helmed the excellent indie Igby Goes Down in 2002 and pretty much disappeared afterwards (aside from sharing a screenwriting credit on How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days, which I’d like to pretend didn’t happen, and I’m sure Steers shares the sentiment). Alas, this appears to be a paycheck job for the inventive writer/director; 17 Again is a vanilla concoction that never transcends its formulaic roots.

We begin in 1989, as Mike O’Donnell (Zac Efrron) is enjoying the spoils of high-school popularity—he’s got a pretty girlfriend, he’s the star of the basketball team, and he can apparently join the cheerleaders in the middle of a choreographed dance routine right in the middle of a game. (I wish I were making that last one up.) But his girlfriend shows up in the middle of a big game in front of a college recruiter to tell him she’s pregnant (nice timing, hon) and he walks off the court, ready to do the right thing.

Fast forward to twenty years later, as Mike (played as an adult by Matthew Perry) is a miserable wreck—his job stinks, his kids hate him, and his marriage is ending. His wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann) has the expected laundry list of complaints (he resents her, he’s never happy, he never finishes anything, etc), while his kids say that they never see him. He’s been kicked out of the house and is living with his high school buddy Ned (Thomas Lennon), who went from school dork to Internet millionaire.

Then Mike makes a visit to his high school, where a crusty janitor (is there any other kind?) gets him to admit he wishes he could go back and do it all again. Then, faster than you can say “Clarence,” Mike jumps off a bridge to save the janitor from drowning, and wakes up in his 17 year old body. He decides it’s some kind of a mission to help save his kids, so Ned masquerades as his father and gets him enrolled in high school. Hijinks ensue, shenanigans occur, he becomes a better father by getting to know his kids as their peer, and so on and so forth.

Some interesting permutations occur, and I’ll give them this much—at least the film is derivative of multiple sources (the set-up is reverse-Big, the high school scenes are out of Like Father, Like Son, and when his daughter develops a crush on him, all you can think of is Back to the Future). But the screenplay, by Jason Filardi (of Bringing Down the House, unfortunately) doesn’t have any comedic follow-through; he knows construction but not execution. The events onscreen follow a logical progression, but they never build in any way—there’s no momentum, so even the occasional funny line just sort of lays there lifelessly.

The performances aren’t bad. Efron is an actor I’ve heard of (because I live in America and have the Internet) but haven’t seen much of (because I’ve managed to avoid the High School Musical juggernaut); his comic timing could use some sharpening, but he’s pretty decent (particularly, and surprisingly, when he’s required to do some heavy dramatic lifting towards the end of the picture). Lennon (familiar from Reno 911! and I Love You, Man) has been given a total cliché to play, but he brings it off with some gusto; same goes for Nicole Sullivan and Melora Hardin. I’ve got nothing but love for Matthew Perry, but he’s pretty much phoning it in here—it’s a listless, dull-edged performance, though he doesn’t get many funny lines to chew on. However, as she did in Drillbit Taylor, Leslie Mann manages to rise above the mediocrity of the script and deliver a spunky performance, full of spark and life.

The way that Steers and Filardi shifts their weight to Mann and Efron/Perry in the third act helps the overall punch of the film; they finally manage to create some stakes and pull off some of the pathos of the third act, in spite of the diluted nature of what’s come before. But by then, it’s too little, too late.

17 Again is not a terrible movie; indeed, it’s full of likable performances and offers occasional chuckles. But there are no surprises in it. Every beat, every theme, every situation has been done before, many times before, and better. It’s the umpteenth take on material that wasn’t much to start with, so if you’re not a teenage girl (or boy) with an incurable case of Efron fever, there’s not much in the way of diversion for you here.

"17 Again" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Friday, August 14, 2009

On DVD: "My Cousin Vinny"

I would be surprised to learn that the executives at Fox had terribly high hopes for My Cousin Vinny; the mid-range, high concept, fish-out-of-water comedy was probably intended to open soft, make a few bucks, and leave it at that. It was directed by a British director with only two previous credits. Its leading man, Joe Pesci, was on the rise after supporting roles in Lethal Weapon 2 and GoodFellas, but was certainly not a “star” by any conventional wisdom. The only other marquee name in the cast was Ralph Macchio, three years past the third (flop) Karate Kid film.

Then, while shooting My Cousin Vinny, Pesci won an Oscar for GoodFellas—and suddenly Fox had an Academy Award winning actor fronting their little comedy. And then they got a look at his co-star, the little-known TV actress who was playing his fiancée, and they saw something very interesting. A year later, Academy voters would as well, when they awarded Marisa Tomei the Oscar for that year’s Best Supporting Actress (well, at least, you believe that’s what happened if you don’t spend too much time on the Internet).

With a few years of distance, the flaws of Jonathan Lynn’s comedy are a bit more apparent, but what worked then holds up—it’s a genuinely funny courtroom comedy, given some honest-to-God substance by striking just the right note in the relationship between Pesci and Tomei. Its opening scenes are somewhat labored; we meet Billy Gambini (Macchio) and his friend Stan Rothstein (Mitchell Whitfield) as they drive through Alabama and accidently confess to a murder, believing they’ve been stopped for shoplifting. Screenwriter Dale Launer (Ruthless People, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) was usually skilled at creating comedy from the language used in mix-ups, but he misfires here, and Lynn and his cast can’t pull it up from the sitcom level it’s pitched at.

But once Pesci and Tomei appear, all is forgiven. Pesci is Billy’s cousin, Vincent Laguardia Gambini, a law school grad who, come to find out, took six tries to pass the bar and has taken this on as his first trial case. Tomei is Mona Lisa Vito, his longtime fiancée, who accompanies him for moral and, ultimately, investigative support. The pair comes on like gangbusters, snapping at each other with crackerjack comic timing. They’re both playing broad characters (made even broader by the costume and hair design), yet somehow, in spite of her mile-high crispy bangs and his leather jackets and their over-the-top Brooklyn accents, they make these stereotypes into wonderfully original comic creations—primarily by imbuing them with a genuine humanity and sweetness. Around the midway mark, there is a scene where he confesses to her that he’s scared that he’s going to lose; earlier, there is an argument over a dripping faucet that turns into both foreplay and an examination of exactly how their relationship ticks. These are the kind of scenes that most lightweight comedies would leave out (and consequently run much shorter than My Cousin Vinny’s admittedly indulgent 119 minutes), but they lend a believability to their relationship that ups the stakes and heightens our emotional investment. We’re rooting for these two, and that’s a smart dynamic to take into the courtroom scenes; when Vinny finally finds his footing and announces, after finishing a successful cross-examination, “I got no more use for this guy,” we’re right there with him.

Those courtroom scenes are well-handled by director Lynn (Clue, The Whole Nine Yards), who wisely fills the cast with outstanding character actors like Lane Smith, James Rebhorn, Bruce McGill, and the late Fred Gwynne (in his final film performance). Launer’s script and Lynn’s direction allow them to play these characters as real people instead of Southern-fried jackasses; there is a decency to these men that keeps the picture from degenerating into a stacked deck of Dixie caricaturing.

Launer’s script juggles an assortment of running jokes (Vinny’s sleep deprivation; his inappropriate courtroom attire; the payback of a hustle debt) with aplomb, and the film’s justifiably celebrated climax is a real treat—the writing is sharp, the direction is solid, and Pesci and Tomei couldn’t be better. The sequence is charming and smart and laugh-out-loud funny, and, at its best, so is the film.

My Cousin Vinny isn’t a perfect comedy—it takes too long to get going, it relies too heavily in its first act on goofy “misunderstanding” comedy, and its bulky running time is a little slack. (Oh, and don’t even get me started on the terrible country songs that open and close the picture.) The Blu-ray disc’s extras are nothing to write home about, and the video quality is a little underwhelming. But the film itself holds up quite well, and the performances of stars Pesci and Tomei are just as fresh and enjoyable as when the picture first unspooled.

"My Cousin Vinny" made its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, August 4th.

On DVD: "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh"

Sorry for disappearing for a couple of days... getting ready for a big move, so my "post every day" thing may get a little shaky for the next month or so. Try to make it through. Now, on to this:

There are all kinds of fine arguments for why The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is an unsuccessful film, and I’ll grant most (perhaps all) of them. And yet, for whatever reason, for me the film worked; it’s a messy, uneven picture with a milquetoast lead and a climax that’s all wrong, but it’s full of memorable performances and small scenes that are brought off beautifully.

It’s based on the 1988 novel by Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys, The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay), though it has been much streamlined and reconfigured, according to everything I’ve read (except the book, which I unfortunately haven’t). The story is told by the Art Bechstein (Jon Foster, bland), the son of a powerful Pittsburgh gangster (Nick Nolte), as he remembers the summer after he finished college. “So Art,” his father asks, “what are you gonna do this summer?” He doesn’t really know, except hopefully nothing much—he begins his summer intentionally aimless, schlepping books around a discount bookstore, having sex with his boss (Mena Suvari), avoiding the obligations that await him at summer’s end.

Then he meets Jane (Sienna Miller), and is instantly smitten, though there is the small matter of her boyfriend, the rough-and-tumble, enigmatic Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard). Both of them take a shine to Art, for different reasons, and he finds himself filling a strange third wheel role that transforms into a bit of an emotional (and then, perhaps, physical) love triangle.

As Bechstein, Jon Foster doesn’t have much to do or much to play; like Colin Hanks in The Great Buck Howard or Joseph Cross in Running With Scissors, he’s the blank straight man/audience surrogate, reactive to the action around him. Like those actors, Foster doesn’t make much of an impression, and either he overplays a key moment with Sarsgaard, or they leave the camera on him too long. Miller is just fine, and is unreasonably good-looking, but it’s rather a thin role—she does her best, but the role feels as though there is more depth under the surface that we never quite get to take a look at.

But from his first entrance to his over-the-top exit, Peter Sarsgaard owns the picture. It’s a fabulous role; he gets to play tough, wounded, cocky, sensitive, jealous, warm, and sexually ambiguous, all with a crooked smile and flashing eyes. Sarsgaard is a terrific actor too often wasted in small roles, and it’s nice to see him grab a character like this and go all the way with it. And Nolte is just plain outstanding—as in some of his more notable recent work (like The Good Thief or Hotel Rwanda), he conveys the weight and power of his character effortlessly, without lapsing into easy caricature.

One of the more memorable aspects of Curtis Hanson’s outstanding 2000 film adaptation of Chabon’s Wonder Boys was the matter-of-fact way it regarded characters’ fluid sexuality, an element that is present here as well; though I’ve read that the homosexual themes were more explicit in the book, I was impressed that the film didn’t shy away from the more controversial side of the sexual triangle (even if it comes at an inopportune moment, in terms of our sympathy for—and understanding of—our protagonist). Director Rawson Marshall Thurber (who, strangely, also helmed Dodgeball), penned the script, which works mostly in tight, punchy scenes and keeps the story moving briskly and effectively, even if he leans too heavily on the voice-over narrations. I like Chabon’s prose as much as the next guy, but the narration is used as a convenience—either commit to it or don’t, but don’t just drop it in when you need to get out of a narrative corner.

Thurber’s script goes a little lumpy around the hour mark, with too many montages to music, too many easy confrontations, and a strange turn in the last 20 minutes that reminded me of the kind of 1980s filmmaking where everything was tied up with a car chase, no matter how inappropriate and unexpected. But there are still some great little moments—he does a sly lift from Roeg (or perhaps Roeg by way of Soderbergh) for a love scene (in which the undressing is infinitely more erotic than the choreographed, perfectly lit sex), while Art’s first night out with the couple has a wonderful, edgy, uncertain energy to it. In those small moments, if not in the big picture, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh plays best.

As plenty of other critics have noted, Rawson doesn’t land The Mysteries of Pittsburgh in a conventional sense; it’s a problematic picture, and requires a specific kind of patience and indulgence from the viewer. So no, it’s not an altogether successful film. But it is an interesting one, and frankly, that’s almost as rare these days.

"The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Today's New DVDs- 8/11/09

I Love You, Man: It's not quite as solid as the Apatow pictures it emulates, but John Hamburg's "bromantic comedy" still brings large doses of the funny.

Gigantic: There are interesting scenes, and good performances, and generous doses of Zooey Deschanel. But this comedy/drama is all over the place, tone-deaf and all too intoxicated by its own cutesiness.

17 Again: Believe it or not, I actually grabbed this one out of the screener pool and will be reviewing it in the next few days. Why, you might ask? Well, it's directed by Burr Steers, who did Igby Goes Down a few years back. I've got a feeling that his reverse-Big with the star of High School Musical might not have quite the same edge. But we will see!

About Last Night... (Blu-ray): Take a look at this one if you'd like to see how to spectacularly fuck up a great David Mamet play. Or if you'd like to see a young Demi Moore naked a lot. Either one.

On DVD: "Just For Laughs: Over the Edge"

Since 1983, comedians from around the globe have gathered in Montreal, Quebec every July for the “Just For Laughs” comedy festival, which has become arguably the biggest event in the world of stand-up. Image Entertainment’s Just for Laughs: Over the Edge compiles bits and pieces from well-known comics over recent festivals, as seen on the CBC “Just For Laughs” TV show. This special features some big laughs and first-rate performers, though often in performances that one wishes had a little more bulk to them.

Each comic does five to seven minutes, clearly edited together from a longer set (and with occasional backstage footage). First up is hyperactive Boston comic Bill Burr, who does some very funny material on relationships, communication, and the subject of his greatest ire: Sunday brunch (“Why would we wanna sleep in on Sunday when we could go spend $18 on eggs?”). Next up is the great Lewis Black, one of my favorite working comedians—though his material about the “recent” re-election of George W. Bush is somewhat dated. However, he does work in a great bit about how we can win the war on terror by electing a dead president, and his reflections on a trip to Ireland are priceless (“It’s a good idea to go to Ireland when you think you’re drinking too much, because you find out you’re not even close.”)

Greg Fitzsimmons does some sharp material on marriage and parenthood, while the pre-HBO Flight of the Conchords (who describe themselves as “probably about the fourth most popular folk/parody group” in New Zealand) do two songs, including an outstanding send-up of a deep-talking sex groove. Other highlights include Greg Giraldo, who offers up some tart cultural commentary (on the “sanctity of marriage” argument offered by gay marriage foes, he asks “Anybody here married? Does it feel like a gift from God to you?”); Jim Gaffigan, with some laugh-out-loud observations on sleep, laziness, movie food, and bottled water (“Oh, this is good—this is more watery than water”); Bonnie McFarlane, whose dry delivery is a wonder to behold; and Jeffrey Ross, whose extended riff on a very old aunt could be dismissed as Catskills-style hackery if it weren’t so damned funny.

The special also features an appearance by the late Mitch Hedberg, whose oddball stoner non-sequiturs are as funny as ever; he says that someone showed him a picture and said, “Here’s a picture of me when I was younger,” to which he replied, “Every picture of you is when you were younger.” And while Norm McDonald does some goofy, rather soft material (including an extended bit about Star Search), he sells it with his oddball timing and peculiar presence.

An Irish comic (previously unknown to me) named Tommy Tiernan closes the show; he’s not exactly gut-busting, his material is smart and nuanced with an Eddie Izzard sort of vibe. Arj Barker gets some laughs in his discussion of dating, travelling, working out, and early jobs (“The worst thing about working in a hospital: you can’t call in sick”), though his considerable charm is occasionally at the service of some fairly weak punch lines. However, the only real misfire in the show is Jeremy Hotz, whose strangulated delivery is, frankly, pretty monotonous.

The special’s other problem is its sloppy construction; each comic is introduced with the same ugly montage set to the same irritating music, with their name appearing as on-screen text. But nowhere (including in the end credits) is there any indication of when these performances date from; we’re left to put it together from context clues (like Black’s Bush comments). A little more information would have been appreciated, especially for fans who might like to know how late in his life Hedberg appeared, or why McDonald looks so damn young.

Just for Laughs: Over the Edge has its flaws—the brief chunks of each comic’s act often gives the feeling of a set ending just as it’s getting started, the quality of the comedians is somewhat uneven, and some of the comics (particularly Black) sound somewhat neutered by the no-profanity requests of the original TV show (though there is a bit of adult language, most of it from Ross). Though stand-up aficionados will still find plenty here to enjoy, this disc is probably more of a rental than one for the permanent library.

"Just for Laughs: Over the Edge" arrives on DVD Tuesday, August 18th.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Loose Ends: "Wild Things", John Hughes, Ebert, and more

They are killing me with these amazing Where The Wild Things Are trailers. Can it just be October 16th, already?

Best line from Roger Ebert's post-opening day review of GI Joe: "There is never any clear sense in the action of where anything is in relation to anything else. You get more of a binary action strategy. You see something, it fires. You see something else, it gets hit. Using the power of logic, you deduce that the first thing was aiming at the second thing."

AV Club has started a new feature called "Scenic Routes" where they examine and break down just one scene from a seminal picture. The inaugural entry, on the Molina scene from Boogie Nights, was quite good; this week, they tackle everyone's favorite scene from Double Indemnity, a film you really should make time to see if you haven't.

And finally, I haven't said much about the death of John Hughes, because my feelings about him are fairly complex; I don't think all of his films have held up (as iconic and of-the-moment as it was, The Breakfast Club is pretty painful to watch today with an honest eye) and his degeneration into a writer of poor, repititious kids' films (seriously, how many movies did he write with the wacky-criminals-slapstick third act?) was shameful. But he did give us Planes, Trains, and Automobies and Uncle Buck and Ferris Bueller and the Vacation movies and Sixteen Candles, and that is certainly worth celebrating.

At any rate, I've watched this expertly-crafted montage of moments from his films a couple of times and like it quite a bit.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

On DVD: "Lymelife"

The parallels between Derick Martini’s Lymelife and Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm are pretty easy ones to draw—both are tales of domestic ennui and awkward coming of age, both take place in Manhattan suburbs in the recent past (Lymelife in early 1980s Long Island, Ice Storm in mid 1970s Connecticut). But Lymelife is no carbon copy; Martini (who wrote the screenplay with his brother Steven) has a distinctive, cock-eyed voice of his own. It’s a film of tremendous humor and wit, but also a potent portrait of adolescent longing and a painfully heartfelt depiction of deteriorating families.

Those families are the Bartletts and the Braggs, neighbors on Long Island, one family on their way into good fortune and the other on their way out of it. Mickey Bartlett (Alec Baldwin) is a real estate developer with a history of stepping out on his wife (Jill Hennessy), though his indiscretions have always been a secret to his teenage son Scott, masterfully played by Rory Culkin. These younger Culkins are continuing to develop into truly interesting and skillful young actors—Rory was outstanding in the little-seen The Night Listener, while his brother Kieran (flat-out excellent in Igby Goes Down and MIA from the screen since) pops up here as Scott’s older brother Jimmy, and their real-life chemistry and history lends more weight to the already well-written relationship.

Scott harbors a desperate crush on girl-next-door Adrianna Bragg; she’s played by Emma Roberts, whose nepotistic screen career and spotty filmography to date had me all ready to hate her. Joke’s on me; hers is a spunky, good-humored performance that effortlessly personifies the beautiful girl who is simultaneously attainable and inaccessible. Her family is in turmoil: her father Charlie (Timothy Hutton, in a livewire of a performance) is on edge, unemployed, and suffering from Lyme Disease. Her mother Melissa (Cynthia Nixon) has about run out of patience and is tired of being the sole breadwinner—she works in Mickey’s real estate office, where he is soon offering more than a shoulder to cry on.

Lymelife is a film that works on you subtly; its opening passages ably introduce the characters and the settings, while seeming to meander without much of a narrative thrust. But once the Martinis establish their pair of dysfunctional families and start to bounce them off of each other (and themselves), it unfolds with the precision and inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Watch carefully how he lights a fire under the Scott-Adrianna relationship with one, perfect line at a church Christmas party (“Steal a bottle of the red and meet me in the confessional”), and then builds the sequence into a double-play of bad behavior.

The film is, primarily, an actor’s showcase, and there’s not a weak link in this first-rate ensemble—Hennessy is outstanding (in a role that could easily be played as a whiny shrew or a hapless victim), Baldwin continues his metamorphosis into one of our finest character actors, and Nixon plays some very difficult beats in the third act with grace and skill.

Derick Martini’s direction is tasteful and mature; he doesn’t show off, but his compositions and pacing aren’t dull either (I particularly liked the scene where shows a front-yard fistfight only as a reflection in a car window). Martin Scorsese is credited as executive producer, though Martini’s style isn’t obviously derivative of Scorsese’s (the influence is only apparent in his ingenious use of pop music, particularly on a slow push-in to Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” that looks like a lost scene from GoodFellas). His mechanics are occasionally flawed (there are frequent continuity errors), and the film gets a little bogged down towards the hour mark with too much tell and not enough show. But as he slowly builds an undercurrent of dread on the way to the picture’s masterfully constructed closing sequence, there is no doubt that this is the work of a real filmmaker.

In its broad strokes, Lymelife sounds derivative and obvious, the kind of story we’ve seen countless times before in films of (to be kind) varying quality. But this seriocomic drama gets under your skin, if you’ll pardon the poor pun; this is a film of real complexity and intelligence, with unexpected richness and depth.

"Lymelife" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, September 22nd.